goodbye is a bitch

As I write this post, I am sitting on my parents’ screened-in porch, listening to the sounds of the neighborhood, covered in a thin but ever-present layer of dog hair, drinking a Diet Pepsi (sorry Mary, I have no idea why there is no Coke in this house, please don’t be ashamed of me), and batting away the occasional advances of two loving and eager dogs whose attention-seeking behavior is clearly a ploy to steal my prime spot on the loveseat where I’ve been sprawled all afternoon.

It feels good to be home. Really, it does. And I know it will be hard to leave again when I load up my car this fall to drive all the way out west, but getting back here was hard. Over the course of one week, I watched my students graduate and move out, then gradually said goodbye to each of my friends and coworkers as they headed home — some for just the summer, some for only a few weeks, but all of whom I had no idea when I would see again. After the residence hall had emptied out, I began the daunting and stressful task of cleaning out and packing up my apartment — a collection of furniture, clothes, and knick knacks that have made two adjoining dorm rooms feel like home for the past three years. All I could take with me were the things that would fit in my sedan, so a giant purge was in order. However, in case you hadn’t noticed by now, I’m a pretty sentimental person. Getting rid of things was an ordeal. I didn’t want to part with the six dollar end table I’d picked up from the thrift store or the throw pillows I’d sewn that matched my bedding. I wasn’t ready to sort through my nail polish collection and decide between two shades of lavender, or throw out the half empty bottle of perfume I never use, or reduce the size of my mason jar collection to just a couple. As I sorted through donations, trash, and things to keep, I watched my life collect into piles. Stuff. Things. Objects. Things that could be considered meaningless but meant something to me.

As much as I wish I could be the kind of person who can throw her life into a few suitcases and boxes and be ready to move across the country, I’m not. I like to be at home, wherever I am. I like decorations — little random jars filled with things, pictures on the walls, fuzzy blankets draped across the couch, shelves filled with books and movies and frames. I like comfort and coziness, and I’d built that for myself at my home in Michigan. It felt safe. As I looked ahead at the next chapter — moving to a new city, a new region, going back to school, taking a bunch of new risks — I wanted all of that safety to come with me. I wanted to pick up my living room, with the shelf on the wall filled with books and records, the squishy couch where my kids curled up and told me their secrets, and the old tube TV that I bought before my freshman year of college, and bring it with me to Spokane. I didn’t want to sort through it, I just wanted it all to come with me. I wanted to walk into my new apartment, turn on my same twinkly lights, and see all of my things there, greeting me like old friends.

In the end, I emptied my two rooms into my tiny car. It wasn’t easy. I got rid of things I didn’t want to, but I kept all the basics, the things that were irreplaceable (and plenty of things that are, but I’m stubborn). I had no less than three major meltdowns. One such meltdown occurred two days before I was scheduled to drive back to Minnesota, as I sat surveying the refugee-like state I was living in, half-packed boxes and trash bags surrounding me, and sent a panicked text to my friend Mary, who promptly responded with “Where are you? I’m coming.” (She showed up no less than five minutes later with a bar of chocolate. I don’t know what I’m going to do without her next year.) And it was among those boxes and bags, as I cried to Mary about everything left to do the next day and my fears about leaving and how my mom hadn’t been home when I’d called her earlier, that I realized it wasn’t just my stuff I was attached to. It was everything. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to my friends who were still here, to say goodbye to this place. I had spent so much of my last days there tearing through my belongings, throwing things in trash bags and deciding what was worth the space, and not enough time making my peace with leaving.

That final night, with my car loaded up, my walls bare, and only some blankets and a massive bag of laundry left in my bedroom, I cried a lot. I said goodbye to some of the most important people in my life and sobbed. I brushed my teeth while crying. I tried to calculate if there would still be room in my car for my laundry and I cried about that. I hugged my teddy bear which I had purposely left unpacked and cried some more. But I let myself cry because, fuck, the whole thing sucked, and I wasn’t about to pretend that it didn’t.

I drove the whole twelve hours back to Minnesota in one shot, the first time I’ve ever done that alone without splitting it over two days. I filled up my gas tank and shelled out the $4.25 for an iced mocha because that’s what you do when you’re about to drive all damn day and you’re on the constant verge of tears. And even though I had been dreading the drive and I cried a lot during the first few hours, I survived it. I sang through countless Broadway soundtracks, I made up a bunch of weird harmonies to old John Mayer songs, I cursed my car for its lack of air conditioning and cruise control, I got stuck in countless construction zones, I refused to stop for fast food and instead subsisted on snacks, and, with four hours left, I crammed the raggedy blanket I’ve had since infancy under my ass to try and elevate my partially-numb right leg and keep going. But when I got home, my mom had bought four different flavors of Ben & Jerry’s to welcome me. My dogs jumped up and down. My dad told me we didn’t have to unload the car until tomorrow. I collapsed into the comfort and familiarity of a place that wasn’t my usual home and I knew it would do for the summer.

So now I’m here, with another chapter of my life behind me (and most of it still in boxes, because I hate unpacking). And I still feel a little bit like there’s a Michigan-shaped hole in my heart, and I know it’s going to feel that way for awhile. Until I move to my new apartment and I fill it with new old thrift store tables and mason jars and twinkly lights. Until I find the new people who will play Cards Against Humanity with me on a Monday night or sit at the coffee shop for hours on end. Until I have time to let my feet sink into the new soil around them and my eyes adjust to the streets and buildings so that they become just another familiar sight. Until it feels like my home.

I have unending thanks for the things I gained in magical northern Michigan over three years and four summers. I don’t think I would be sitting here, writing this post, dreaming about the future if I hadn’t taken a chance and gone there in the first place. So even though goodbye is one of the hardest words I’ve had to say in that place, I’m thankful that I got the chance to say it at all.

my last Lake Michigan sunset. for now, at least.

my last Lake Michigan sunset. for now, at least.

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michigan is like an ex-boyfriend I’ll never get over, or, now I have to find a new coffeeshop for the summer and that is making me angsty

I’m home for the summer now. Almost two weeks ago, half of my building walked across a stage and received their high school diplomas, and then mere hours later I frantically hugged each girl goodbye as I raced around my little residence hall, cleaning up the last dust bunnies and sorting through all the piles of donations for the local thrift store in an effort to close everything down by the holy grail hour of 6pm. Then, I spent one blissful week on a deserted campus, drinking iced coffee and laughing and staying out until 4am with this beautiful group of people I had been forced into a professional AND social environment with only nine months ago. I ignored all the packing I had to do until the last few hours before I was scheduled to leave, because I knew that when I looked back on that precious week fifteen years from now, I was going to regret the minutes I didn’t spend with my friends, rather than how much of a frenzied mess I was in those final moments, shoving all my belongings to be stored in one half of the usual space they occupy. Finally, after a week of music, goodbyes, inappropriate card games, and plenty of local beer, I hastily loaded my car with random items I thought I might need between now and August and started driving toward home with only my (apparently ridiculously inadequate, though I did not know this before I started my trip) iPhone navigation app telling me where to go, a front seat full of junk food, and a pounding headache from the whiskey I foolishly imbibed until 3am the night before.

I think it’s safe to say that, after a road trip that included being rerouted by my GPS and taken an hour out of my way, getting stuck in two hours of Chicago rush hour traffic, and an arrival at my overnight stay in Madison nearly three hours later than I expected, my first solo driving journey back home was not at all what an anxiety-ridden, control freak introvert like me would prefer. But I made it in one piece, and suddenly, my arrival back in my hometown seemed…extremely anti-climactic. Sure, my family was excited to see me, my dogs gave me plenty of kisses and smacks with their wildly wagging tails, and I finally got to see the fruits of my parents’ long-anticipated kitchen remodel that was just finished. It was an appropriate homecoming. But somewhere in between opening every cupboard in the new kitchen just to find a coffee mug and attempting to unpack all of my crap in a room that is used mainly to store random knick knacks and the occasional rocking horse (don’t ask), I said to myself, “Why is it that you wanted to spend an entire summer here, again?”

I’ve written about home before. It is not the physical place or the people that make it hard for me to be back. It is the fact that I don’t fit here anymore. The things that are “mine,” the pieces of my new home that make it familiar for me, are not here. I suddenly realized, when trying to plan out how I would be spending my endless days of nothing, that I have fully adjusted to my life in northern Michigan. I just wanted to sit at my favorite coffeeshop and write this blog post, not find some new coffeeshop with baristas who don’t know my name and could very well be annoyed by me sitting there for six hours and only ordering one beverage (doing this probably makes me a jerk no matter where I go, but look, I’m usually broke and at least the employees at my regular places in Michigan pretend they don’t care that I camp out there and nurse a mug of French roast all frickin day). I wanted to order my favorite local beer with dinner, not have to taste a bunch of new Minnesotan ones to find one I like. I wanted to sit, sweat my brains out, and breathe heavily by the gorgeous lake after my morning run kicked my ass, not indoors on the couch in my parents’ living room. I wanted to know exactly where and when the good local music would be playing, I wanted to come home at night to the comfy bed I’ve gotten used to sleeping on for a year, I even wanted to be annoyed by the leaf blowers that frequent the path outside my window each morning and put in my earplugs and go back to sleep just to spite them (…okay, that might be going overboard with the nostalgia). I wanted all of those Michigan things I was so comfortable with to be here as well.

It’s funny, because when I made the initial decision to come home for the summer, it sounded like perfection. Home sounded like this shining beacon of hope when all my previous seasonal plans didn’t line up correctly; I was convinced coming back was the best option for me. I hadn’t had a summer free of work obligations in four years, and the idea of having nothing on my agenda except my family’s upcoming vacation to Florida sounded like pure bliss. This was going to be my break, my chance to make progress on grad school plans, to get that always elusive sleep that I desire during the school year, to maybe go visit friends from college whom I haven’t seen since we graduated. I wasn’t going to be lazy, just “less busy” than usual. Never mind that I hadn’t been home for more than two weeks at a time since I graduated college, or that I had a track record for getting needlessly restless on my second day back every time. How could this go wrong?

How? Because I’ve obviously fallen in love with my new home. And that makes me happy and sad all at the same time. Happy because I had no idea when I signed my initial contract two years ago that it would bring me so much joy and discovery in such a beautiful place. Sad because I know it can’t be permanent, and all these nostalgic feelings I have for it after leaving for the summer have just been a taste of what moving for good will feel like. When you really think about it, the concept of “place” beyond just the physical descriptors is so hard to define, and it’s even harder, when you are someone who doesn’t have a family or roots in a particular location, to make a place feel like one where you belong. But I really do think I’ve made that little corner of Michigan My Place over the past two years, and that makes me even more excited and ready to return for a third year in the fall.

In the meantime, I’m trying to readjust to living in my hometown as an adult again. I’m reminding myself that if I get restless or bored or frustrated, I can jump in my car and drive somewhere (because sometimes when I’m back in my parents’ house, I default to feeling like a teenager with limited freedom all over again). I have things to do, projects to keep myself occupied. I’ve visited the public library under the pretense of studying for the GRE and getting some more writing done. I’ve started making a dent in my summer reading list (mostly chick lit and comedic non-fiction essays, but hey, it’s vacation, I’m not busting out Anna Karenina). I’ve gotten back into exercising. I’m focused on coming out of this summer alive and well, and perhaps even with a new appreciation for the place where I grew up. I don’t think I’ll ever move back here for more than a summer, but maybe this time around, I’ll end up finding some things that make it feel like My Place again.

sun setting over Lake Michigan, otherwise known as one of the reasons I will cry myself to sleep tonight.

sun setting over Lake Michigan, otherwise known as one of the reasons I will cry myself to sleep tonight.

home is where your teddy bear is

I’ve been pretty homesick lately. Homesick is really the closest word I could find to fit the way I’m feeling, but the truth is, I don’t really have a home to be “sick” for. Sure, my physical home back in Minnesota is a place that I miss often, but I miss my family more than the actual place. In the years that have occurred since I graduated high school and began a semi-nomadic life of moving from dorm to dorm and place to place each school year, I’ve struggled with the fact that I don’t really feel like I have a home anymore.

While that statement may sound more dramatic than I intended it to, it does bring up a central question that I’ve fought with for the past six years. What defines a home? For the first eighteen years of my life, my home was with my family. Growing up, even though we moved once, we lived in one northwest corner of our Minnesota town, and both houses felt unmistakably like my home. My parents, my sisters, and my pets were all there. It was comfortable. It still felt like home for the first part of my college career — I lived less than an hour and a half away, and when I came home on weekends and breaks, my room felt the same, my place at the dinner table still felt like mine. It was all still normal.

Then, as time began to remove me from the house I grew up in more and more, it became clearer that it wasn’t meant to stay my home forever. I started spending my summers at camp in northern Michigan and my school years at college, and I came home less. I still loved seeing my family, but the time I spent there wasn’t as comfortable, as normal as it had been. But still, I knew this was the natural progression for a young adult, and I enjoyed the time that I did have with my family. I talked to my mom on the phone a lot and kept up on the family events from afar. My final semester in college, I moved back home for my student teaching placement. I settled back into that house, I bonded with my youngest sister, who had been only twelve when I first moved out and was suddenly a full-blown teenager with opinions, a driver’s license, and a makeup collection. I settled into a routine: I drove to school in the morning, taught all day, came home, and hung out with my family. It was monotonous and my social life was pretty much non-existent since none of my friends lived in my hometown anymore. But it taught me a lot, and I will never regret getting the chance to spend that time with my family.

When I moved to Michigan for this job, it was a bit of a reality check. I suddenly realized I couldn’t come home for weekends, and even week-long vacations during the school year would be a struggle because the logistics of traveling home were difficult. I was worried about missing my home and my family and not having them near me as a safety net. Even though I was transitioning into a job with a built-in place to live and I was familiar with the area I was moving to, it was scary knowing I couldn’t just go to home when I missed my mom or wanted to spend a weekend snuggling my dogs. It started to hit me that this was what adulthood was like when you chose to move away from your hometown. Some people come to that realization in college; for me, it didn’t happen until I was 22, and I still struggle with it every once in awhile.

I’ve only been home three times since I moved here. Every time has been relaxing and reminded me what it is I love about being there. But I can’t spend more than a few weeks at a time there. I run out of things to do, I watch too much TV, and I get restless. It will always be my technical home, the place I was raised, the place where my parents live, but it doesn’t feel that much like mine anymore. I just keep reminding myself that it’s okay to feel that way. This quote from Garden State has been running through my head lately, because I think it describes exactly how I’ve been feeling:

You’ll see one day when you move out it just sort of happens one day and it’s gone. You feel like you can never get it back. It’s like you feel homesick for a place that doesn’t even exist. Maybe it’s like this rite of passage, you know. You won’t ever have this feeling again until you create a new idea of home for yourself, you know, for your kids, for the family you start, it’s like a cycle or something. I don’t know, but I miss the idea of it, you know. Maybe that’s all family really is. A group of people that miss the same imaginary place.

I do feel homesick for a place that doesn’t really exist anymore, but I keep trying to hang onto it…in little ways anyway. The other day I asked my mom to send me the teddy bear I’ve had since I was an infant. I didn’t bring him with me when I moved, and I haven’t ever needed him until now. Transitions are especially difficult for me emotionally, and I’ve been feel extremely uneasy about the concept of “home” because…I don’t know where my home is going to be after May. My anxiety has been at an all-time high and my emotions are all over the place. This campus is the closest thing I’ve had to a home over the past two years. I’m comfortable here, and while my family isn’t with me, I feel at ease when I drive around town and when I come home to my room at night. So my mom sent me my bear, and when I got him in the mail today, I felt this overwhelming sense of comfort. This one object, this little piece of home, of my childhood, was just what I needed. Do I feel childish for needing a teddy bear to comfort me when I’m 24 years old? Obviously. But I’m not apologizing for it. Sometimes you just need a teddy bear to get you through a rough patch, and this is mine.

pure michigan, a love story (of sorts)

I’ve lived in the midwest my entire life. I spent the first eighteen years of my life in the same town in southern Minnesota, then attended college in northern Iowa. Needless to say, when I moved to Michigan, I wasn’t shocked by the cold winters or the ridiculous amounts of snow. I grew up in it, I learned to drive in it, it didn’t scare me. I’ve always prided myself on being from the northern midwest, because we have thick skin when it comes to winter. But for a long time, I thought that was my only claim to fame when it came to hailing from the middle of the country; “I’m used to the snow.” It took me most of my life and a move to Michigan to learn to appreciate the region I call home beyond just being unafraid of tomorrow’s blizzard.

Truthfully, there are a lot of places I’d love to live in the future. I feel like I should explore other areas of the country, new regions and new cities. But I think I’ll always have immense pride for the region in which I grew up. I didn’t know it when I was younger, but people are definitely nicer here. You know that stereotype “Minnesota nice”? That’s a real thing. I didn’t see it until I traveled to other places, but there’s a certain neighborly attitude that most people adopt in my hometown and others like it. I didn’t appreciate it before, but I certainly do now.

The midwest will always be my home, and honestly, I think I could do much worse. Sure, people from either coast will tell you that it’s the center of civilization, because that’s where all the big cities with “real culture” are located, or you can find any number of places open after 2am, or because the local music scene has been praised by Pitchfork, and maybe they’re right. I don’t know. But the midwest has great metropolitan areas, too. We have culture. We have local musicians. We aren’t just cows and corn fields (though the drive to my college town would suggest otherwise). Yes, things are more spread apart, and it gets frustrating when the nearest major airport or great concert venue is two hours away, or you can’t find anything to do after 10pm on a Thursday night. Yes, I sometimes feel like I’m living in a bubble. But after living in Michigan for a year and a half, I think I’ve actually fallen in love with it.

I don’t know why I didn’t necessarily see it before I moved here. I mean, Minnesota has its own fair share of natural beauty. But this new area I’ve come to call home really opened my eyes and made me appreciate what is surrounding me. I’ve realized that I will probably never be completely happy living in a place that doesn’t have real seasons. Like I said, winters here can be rough and long, and by February, you miss the sun so much it hurts…but during the rest of the year, we get crisp fall air and rainbow leaves, spring puddles and the smell of new grass, and summers warm enough to enjoy the beach. Sometimes, cliché as it is, I have to force myself to take a moment and appreciate the natural beauty I’m surrounded by, living up here. When I’m missing my family, or so stressed out with work that I can’t think anymore, I remind myself that I am in one of the most beautiful places in the country, and it helps.

I’ve made the decision to be here for another year. Sometimes I think I should move on to “bigger and better things,” find something more exciting to do with my life, start an adventure. But I’m not really ready for that yet. I love this area, it feels like home now, and it feels right that I should stay here, even if I need to move on from this job. I’ll find a place to live, I’ll find a new job. Things will work out. And if they don’t, I’ll still be in a place I love, and that’s enough comfort for now.