On top of the Mount

On top of the Mount
Mount Maunganui, NZ

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Sunday, July 8, 2012

What Now?


What Now?
Camp Cross, Lake Coeur d'Alene

Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one decision leads you to another, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which, aided by several detours—long hallways and unforeseen stairwells—eventually puts you in the place you are now. Every choice lays down a trail of bread crumbs, so that when you look behind you there appears to be a very clear path that points straight to the place where you now stand. ..
-Ann Patchett, from her commencement address, “What Now?”

 I recently had what hosts on National Public Radio call a “driveway moment” while listening to author Ann Patchett in my van. That quote describes poetically and completely what it means to come back and why we must do it.

But Ann didn’t mention anything about a four-month return. A last backward glance takes – how long? A weekend? Maybe a couple weeks? 

After a fortnight (two weeks) in Spokane, I was ready to declare this interlude a failed experiment.  The places and things I’d romanticized from the road don’t look or feel as I’d expected. The big, fat American house with central heating and clothes dryer requires much maintenance and money (though admittedly, during the New Zealand winter, I’d sacrifice two sheep and a pig in exchange for a heated home and a cheap-to-run clothes dryer).  My Spokane neighborhood is lovely, but keeping a green lawn in summer requires hundreds (if not thousands) of gallons of water, hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars and/or lots of work pulling weeds and digging in dirt. It’s an edifying exercise if you’re a gardener. I am not a gardener. I’d fit better in Arizona, land of rock yards and Saguaro cacti. Hello, Scottsdale. Good morning, Tucson…

People are different, too. I experienced one of the largest betrayals I’ve ever had at the hands of someone I (falsely) believed was a friend. I allowed Bitterness and her Siamese twin, Entitlement, into my home in a foolish attempt to keep something that fits me like a hair shirt. I’ve learned who my friends are and are not. My brother-in-law (I still call him that, because I can’t think of a better title, and Sean’s Sister’s Husband is too long), a pretty-smart-cookie child psychiatrist told me,
“You had a lot of people hovering around you as a local celebrity. And anytime you put someone on a pedestal, there are going to be people who want to tear them down.  You had so many people – you couldn’t possibly satisfy them all. It’s a no-win situation.”

It’s been more than two years since Sean died, and I finally get that. 

Slow learner.  Me.

John continued, “The difference between friends and acquaintances is friends know you completely enough and love you enough to give you the benefit of the doubt when you mess up – they’re still your friends.  They’ve already forgiven you before you even ask. Acquaintances are secretly and unconsciously waiting for a flaw so they can pounce on it”

Pause and think about that. Anyone ever pounce on your flaws?

Gabrielle Union, an actress who was raped at 19, wrote in April’s Oprah Magazine,
 “There were some so-called friends who came by after my attack, not to comfort me or offer support but to gawk at me, to gather a firsthand account of what I looked like or how I seemed so they could gossip to their friends…”   “We give a lot of others significance in our lives even when they don’t deserve it. It doesn’t matter if they’re family or if you’ve known them forever. If they’re not good for you, they’ve got to go… You don’t get any points when you get to heaven for putting up with bullshit.”

It’s easy, in crisis, and even long after, to put up with bullshit - you want to believe everyone’s your friend. They’re not. And those who’d drink another’s poison – who’d believe gossip - they’re not your friends, either. I know - it sucks. Don’t shoot the messenger.

I’m being intentionally vague, not naming names and situations for several reasons: 1) So you can more easily envision your own dilemma; 2) To be sensitive and not hurt feelings;  3) Because I gotta save something for the book.

Maybe, as my American friend, Tina (who’s lived in New Zealand more than a decade with her four kids) told me, “You really can’t go home again. You don’t want to believe that, but it’s true. And when you discover it, it’s a loss of innocence.”

I’ve talked with other ex-pats who revisited home countries after living a year or more in New Zealand. One Brit told me after seven years abroad, he returned to his small English village and found the same guy sitting on the same bar stool making the same small talk. The place was frozen in time. That’s England, I thought… My situation’s different. Or is it? That’s him, not me. Or is it?

Wandering impairs your capacity to embrace status quo. So does death. I marvel at those who lose someone significant and still find peace in the old place. In Spokane, I walk with a chalk outline of Sean attached to my shoulder.  I revisit fresh grief on friends and family who didn’t get the chance to mourn with me the past two years.  My decision. My burden.

I met a Kiwi last year who lives half the year in Utah and half in New Zealand. It sounded like a perfect plan (provided you are either retired, or have a job you can perform anywhere and save enough money for travel back and forth…). I tried to listen for specifics, but was distracted: R sat with one leg propped on a stool. His tiny running shorts had rutched sideways. The posture revealed a mound of wrinkled skin that was unmistakably - scrotum. It was like trying not to look at an open porn magazine sandwiched between two cereal boxes in the grocery store (like, who would do that? Alright, I was 13…)  – bizarre and oh-so-misplaced.  The moral of the story is – don’t take lifestyle tips from anyone flashing scro’. Though if I had half the balls he did…

Even if Spokane were the Disneyland I’d pictured, it doesn’t change the fact I miss Pete. The kind of long-distance relationship I tolerated for two years in my 20’s makes no sense at age 41. When you want to spend your life with someone, you want (need) to do that now. Loneliness I've felt the past few months reminds me of labor: you ride out each contraction, stilling yourself in the trough before the next pain wave. Thank God labor doesn’t last forever. Neither does loneliness.

As I write this (from Chaps café), 27 days remain until Pete arrives in Spokane.

48 days remain until the four of us (Pete and me plus kids) return to New Zealand.

As of two days ago, I have a work visa and student visas for the kids.

I’ll rent or sell the house (selling looks more unlikely with each passing day).

I’ll sell my furniture.
Cousin Sam and Finley, Olympia

Gratitude - not regret - allows us to move forward with joy.  With gratitude as deep as Lake Pend Oreille, I remember what the kids and I have accomplished during this interlude:

-Fiona and Finley flourished at school and renewed friendships.

-I’ve created and renewed friendships, including one dearest to me – with Sean’s sister, Steph.

-I’ve found satisfaction in volunteer barista-ing, child-minding, entertaining and writing.

-I’ve revisited old places: St. John’s Cathedral, favorite coffee shops, Lake Coeur d’Alene, Camp Cross, Pike Place Market, friends’ homes…

-I’ve learned trying to repay kindness is like trying to thread a needle with rope, but paying it forward is like handing that rope to the next person. 

-I’ve learned nothing is more important than the love that lives inside your own four walls.

And I still cry (forgive me) when I remember myriad kindnesses (Still! Even now!) bestowed by friends: the gift of being a third wheel at dinner; time spent with a blasted tent trailer; accommodation in a basement suite; rock shoveling; catered garage sale-ing; stories and belly laughs; camping trips… More stories. 

God, I love your stories.

Thanks for letting a gypsy back into your lives. For listening and sharing. For coffee and wine. For salmon and strawberries.

If I could offer a piece of advice, it’s this: Never perch your foot on a stool whilst wearing running shorts.

To which place did you come back?  What did you learn?

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