The Relentless Trying Again (or how to fall in love with a home)

Dear you,

We have bought our first house. I am writing this from my very own space—a whole floor!—a not-too-warm in the mornings, hardwood-floored, all-mine attic. I have grand plans for this attic. Whole walls full of large swaths of paper for brainstorming, an isolated dormer with a window overlooking the neighborhood for drafting, a bookshelf with a shelf for publications I and my friends wrote or were published in, a shelf for books of writing techniques and memoirs, and a shelf to hold those things which serve as research or inspiration for whatever I’m working on now. The floor is littered with old family photographs as I warm up for book two and it’s okay that they’re littered on the floor because nobody but me will be up here to be disturbed by it. Did I mention that I painted the walls a pale pink which gives it the impression of a womb which only makes me love it more?

I am, in a word, enchanted. By the beauty of the space, by the possibilities in it, by the whole fresh start feel of all of it. And in being so enchanted, it has been nearly impossible to actually write in it. Even now, once I got through the fun of describing the space, I spent five minutes sitting with a blank stare at the computer.

Buying a house was a dream for us, one that we weren’t sure would come true for quite some time. Wouldn’t we have to win some kind of lottery, or save for many more years, or compromise by buying in a neighborhood we didn’t love as much which honestly wouldn’t feel like as much of a compromise as it did a failing? But no—we found the perfect house, in the perfect neighborhood, with the perfect amount of space for the two of us, and the perfect amount of room to expand into the future. It has been beautifully re-modeled, sold to us by a couple that loved it dearly and did well to make sure we felt welcome and had everything we needed to start our new chapter. The house sits in a historic neighborhood surrounded by other beautiful houses full of wonderful neighbors who make it a point to throw parties and see each other often. I hear Halloween is an incredible affair with literal thousands of trick-or-treaters. If you know me at all, you know how important trick-or-treating is to my fall soul.

Really, Husband and I wake up every day with a mixture of how in the hell did we get so lucky euphoria and the oh god we bought a house panic. I walk around making a list of the things we need to buy or do in a perpetual point of nesting I’m not sure will ever end. Husband rubs his hands over each crack in the wall with a worried stare. We sit on the porch dreaming of the deck we will build. We eye the garden shed with a low-grade phobia of brown recluses. We make plans to finish out the basement, the attic, expanding into additional rooms, studios, a workshop in the back, a yard full of gardens and flowers and trees. We check our bank account for the moment our mortgage payment, the water bill, the electric, all of it go through. It’s not a problem of not having enough to pay; it just seems irresponsible not to continually check.

In short, the past two months have been an oscillation of living in a dream and living in work that will never end. And in between all of it, in living in my dream space, I have not written a word. Two months and no production.

I am being too hard on myself, I know this. Moving a life, even if just a few minutes down the road, does make everything stop. Plus, the attic needed to be painted first (a task I still haven’t totally finished and worry I may never), the house set up to be comfortable, so on and so forth. I was busy at work with program wrap-up. But the program is wrapped up and we are, for all intents and purposes, comfortable enough in the house to get through each day. And still, I sit in my beautiful room, surrounded by old family photos and all the large paper, post-its, and markers I could need to start plotting, and still—nothing.

It occurs to me that perhaps I am waiting for some kind of magic to happen. After all, it seemed like the house came to us via magic—why not the writing with it? I can hear my critique group laughing all the way from Texas.

Another thought, this one much more real and worrysome—do I dare disrupt the dream of what this writing space will be by actually writing in it and discovering it is just as much “dream” as all my other writing spaces were? Because for all the extra room, the silence, the solitude, the morning light, it still comes down to a desk, my computer, and work. For all the dreams come true, will I find that I work no better here than I did there? Green grass abounds everywhere but right in front of me.

Ultimately, the house came to us the same way the writing does—a dream, perseverance through rejection, day after day of going at it again until something falls into place, an acceptance is given. No wonder it feels like magic—it feels like the struggle will never end until it does. Writing is a forever lesson in patience, one I never learned well. But perhaps perseverance outweighs the patience. And that is one thing I have in spades.

So I will sit here, 6:00am every morning without fail, staring at the computer usually, staring at my notebooks always, sifting around in my mind and looking for that thing that will spark, waiting for the magic that only I and a relentless trying again can produce. It’ll spark eventually. It has to. But for now, I will lean back in my chair, admire the way the morning light catches on the windows, and dream.

When The Buffalo Come

 

Dear You,

I grew up on acres of open country, split three ways between the pastures of my parent’s house, the utopic gardens of my grandparent’s land, and the river bottom twenty miles west where we set the cattle to graze. When I think about my childhood, the image that comes up first is that of grass, tall and yellow, waving above my head. There was something about being on the ground enveloped by the grass that made me feel safe. I would crawl along my belly, my hands clutching at the ground, as I pretended that the grass was a roof over my head and that it held me the way it held any other animal.

I remember believing that I spoke the language of the nature around me. I was more comfortable in a tree than at the dinner table. I could approach any animal like an old friend. If I asked kindly, it almost seemed the wind would blow on my request.

My grandparents were cattle ranchers and the operation was small and family-worked. A doctor in the city owned the animals; we did the day-to-day work and shared profits. Outside of that, my grandmother operated a small pecan-selling business. We would nose our feet around the crunchy leaves and test the weight of the pecans in our hands. Heavy was good, light was bugs. We would collect as many as we could carry and scatter them over a table laid out in Granny’s garage where we would pack bags and weigh them to scale. I could eat however much I wanted if I could crack them open, which I couldn’t. Granny could crack two pecans open just by squeezing them in her palm. I remember bruising myself trying to do the same.

I mentioned the garden as being utopic; it was, at least by my memory of it. There were beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, watermelon, tall rows of corn stalks that begged to be run through with hands out, and fruit trees at the end. An herb garden lined the far fence. Every morning, I would take out scraps for the compost and crunch each egg shell half at a time under my foot.

It seemed everything could be found out in that garden. Every Wednesday, Granny made a stew out of the beef and vegetables raised, tossing the clean, thick vertebra of T bone to whatever lucky dog got to it first outside the kitchen door. It stuck with me, how anything a person needed could be got from the earth so long as they took the time and the care and only what was needed.

The grown me takes stock of herself often and the things in which she places her priorities. I would like to be a priority of mine to live as my childhood self believed all people lived — within means and with gratitude and joy. But I have spent the past two months upending my life and breaking it apart and putting it together one little piece at a time. Before we left for Tennessee, I knew so much of myself. I was exercising. I was meditating. I was staying present with my friends and family and taking steps to minimize my impact on this world. I was feeling whole, or at least approaching whole.

Moving has obviously put a flux on our lives. It has upended me in a way that I feel at times has set me back years on my work on myself.On the harder days, I try to make it a priority just to be present and fail often at that. Lately, I have to squint just to recognize the smallest slice of myself. Worst of all, in my discomfort and in an attempt to assuage the low-level anxiety throbbing just underneath the surface, I have lowered my guard on what I will and will not do for this world. Impact? What impact? I’m lonely.

Last week, I came across a video from the protests in Standing Rock. A young man was being interviewed at the front lines. He kept his eyes on the police standing in front of him and he spoke with a pleading voice that broke your heart and an exhausted tone that was recognizable in more ways than one. “They’ll never understand,” he said. He braced himself on the barbed wire fence. “This land means everything.”

I remember thinking the same thing — they’ll never understand — when our little town’s fracking ban was overturned by the state. But then his eyes lit up and the people around him began screaming in joy — just over the hill, a herd of buffalo were stampeding their way.

I have always been a magical thinker. I’m not ashamed of it. I would rather believe that the universe passes along messages like folded notes in the form of signs and symbols, or that the whole fabric of our life force is knit together firmly in love, than believe that anything one human does is irrelevant to the rest of the world. I believe in science, of course. But I also find value in that which is just beyond science’s reach.

Seeing that herd of buffalo running full force toward the protest site — it felt as if the universe reached a hand back and popped me upside the head. Remember now, it insisted. The world wants to care for us, cradle us.

I said a quick prayer for the water protectors and acknowledged my presence on the earth with gratitude. I took a few actions of support for the #NoDAPL movement. I cried for all the ways I am continually reminded that we are no more and no less than the breath in all of our lungs. That weekend, my husband and I travelled hours to be at the wedding of two dear friends. And I danced and laughed and cried with as much joy as my heart could take.

Weakness comes and goes and brings darkness with it. It likes to slither in when it knows it will not be met with much resistance and can find an easy home. It likes to tempt when it knows you’ll give in. Just lay here for a moment, it says. Just go to sleep and pay no mind.

But this week, I am just that much closer to peace. I can find it in the small moments of my day. I imagine it as a small light, tucked in between my heart and stomach, that glows when noticed. Darkness will always have a home here, but so will this light. I imagine myself sitting by its fire, warming my hands, as I wait again for the buffalo to come.

To learn more about the #NoDAPL movement and stand with Standing Rock, visit StandingRock.org. 

 

 

The Much That Comes From The Little

Dear You,

I have entered the phase when the wonder of our new city fades and is replaced by the need to get down to business. This week, I settled accounts with a new bank, re-allocated our budget, and my car informed me (thank you, Prius) that it needed an oil change. Oh, the fun of finding a new mechanic. I now have benefits at my new job which means I can put off finding a new doctor no longer. And just in time because I have come down with an illness I suspect has everything to do with the allergens being blown around that my sinuses are not used to.

Apologies to my friend, Travis — I will now probably never find out what the inside of the Nashville Parthenon looks like because I am back to business as usual. Time only for work, writing, and the books to be read and beer to be drunk when the working and writing is done. I’d like to say I’ll keep exploring, but let’s be reasonable. I am already tired.

Coincidentally, the re-write of my manuscript reached firmly past 50,000 words this weekend. It’s always exciting to get to that point because it feels as if the book is real, it really will be written and finished, it really will exist in the world. But with that 50,000 word marker comes the issue I am now facing in my city — it’s time for business. Gone is the excitement and wonder over a fresh start on a project. Now there are loose ends to tie up, second acts to muddle through, middles that sag like a belly dragging on the ground. For me, it becomes a slog after 50K.

This is not unlike how I envision the rest of this first year in Nashville to go.

Finding the mechanic and settling the bank accounts and feeling myself become more and more ill as I contemplate how it might look to have to call in sick on week three of my new job got me just a little overwhelmed this week. At one point, I realized my gas tank was on E and I had no convenient gas stop I could summon up in my head because I’ve only filled up once since being here (really, once!) and that was at the Kroger miles from our house in the other direction, which is convenient when buying groceries but not at all convenient when late for work.

All these small things — knowing where to find the cheap gas, knowing a reliable mechanic, knowing what restaurant or pub won’t be full to the ceiling on a Saturday afternoon — they add up to require a vast amount of brain power every day. Every day that we stay here, I have to figure out another thing I didn’t already know. And for someone like me who thrives on routine and stability, the unfamiliarity of every moment doubles the exhaustion.

And so it is in 50K territory. Where the beginning of the book is an adventure, the middle is a struggle. You know your players, know what you need to do, know where the story should end up, but shit if you know how to to accomplish any of it. There is a gap in nearly every decision you need to make. Each scene becomes a struggle because at this point, you are conducting business — not running around marveling at how wonderful all of this is. You can see the imperfect bits of your story so clearly, just as you come to discover the issues in your new city — what streets are safe to walk down, which roads will have gridlock when you leave work, and where the two for ones are on any given day.

They have to be discovered, usually through trial and error. You write some and you cut some. You follow the outline until you reach a dead end and you re-outline. You do the hard work of re-building your life and making yourself at home in it.

Every day, I am a little savvier about my new home. Every day, I have to think less about how to get to and from wherever I am going. Every day, I add more to the story and push myself through the sagging middle until I can find a plot point to hang on, a character I recognize, a beautiful sentence in a sea of ugly ones. And none of this works without a little trust in the process.

I imagine myself a year from now, the handful of friends I have here multiplied to a handful of groups. I imagine the shortcuts I will take to escape traffic. I imagine strolling down the various streets and running into acquaintance after acquaintance, waving at everyone, smiling in return, and basking in the joy of feeling at home. I imagine this story completed, edited, and submitted, while I rack my brains on a new, frustrating excursion.

Because if I look back two months ago on the day we moved here wide-eyed in wonder and then two years ago when I drove home from work with my heart in my throat and just the tiniest glow of the story flickering in my mind, I can easily see how much has come from so little.

It takes time to get from Point A to Point B. And taking that time requires trust that it will all be worth it. But I have always been a hopeful person. Writing, such as living, is an exercise in faith.

 

The Me Just Out of Reach

Dear you,

I have been particularly homesick lately. This should come as no surprise. I am a Texan living in Tennessee and if you know any Texans you know our particular brand of blind love for the state. The state becomes a kind of quirky family —  hip cousins in Austin, big rich aunts in Dallas, drunk uncles abound. You know the kind of cowboy you’re dealing with by the make of their boots. You can guess at a person’s history by asking where they grew up and where they live now. No matter how big the state, how varied the experiences, there’s a kind of collective nod between the people born or naturalized here — we just get each other. Strangers aren’t strangers for long, if we take the time.

Or perhaps this is just me smoothing over the rough edges again. Obviously, there’s plenty to not love about the state. I could go on at length about the politics, the stubbornness, the holy ornery temper of us, myself absolutely included. Outsized egos and under-sized compassion. Not all, but many.

But I’m not focusing on those things right now. In fact, right now I might even look on them lovingly because they are traits I can recognize. I know the extent of those rough edges, where they may come from and why they’re there. We were raised up in the same way. To be a Texan is to have a certain talent for possessing and tolerating conflicting values. Someone here recently described Denton as a place full of aggressive hippies and I felt nothing but pride.

Which is where the homesickness comes in. The hardest part about this move for me has been that I feel like I no longer know anyone at their core. (Save for the Texas expats I’ve met so far and you can guess what we spent all our time talking about.) There’s a current running under this city and state that I have yet to tap into. Slight differences in how people approach and speak to others, little variations in the pleasantries just enough to make me feel lost. I find myself among a sea of cowboy hats and think, “Yes, but where are the real cowboys?” I wonder, often, if I’m too much. Then I’ll turn around and wonder if I’m not enough.

I have this image in my head of me as an older woman. The only way to describe her is open but resilient. Someone who has seen much, done the work, and come home to rest. She is comfortable where she is and where she is matters little because in my mind, she’s the same wherever she goes. She’s made up of all the things she’s done and experienced but at the core of her is still the little girl who grew up in the cattle pasture. I yearn for this woman, contented and confident, and actively wonder how I can become her.

What’s funny is I had this same kind of image in my mind the year before we moved, but this time it was me only a few years older. Happy in Nashville, knowing this city and the people as well as I knew everything in Texas. I wrote more than I had ever written before and I treated myself well, exercised, meditated, read. I would be the same, but better.

And here we now are — I am happy in Nashville (don’t misconstrue this post; homesickness can’t be denied), I am learning this city as quickly as I can, settling into my haunts, making a map in my mind. Just the other day, I gave another lost girl some directions, no small victory. I am writing far more every day than I ever have before. I find some form of exercise almost every day, take long walks. I meditate every morning. I read every night. I am living the exact me that I pictured except that now I am picturing a different me, another level of me that I want to attain. I am always just out of reach.

I have always been wary of procrastination. If I catch myself saying “I’ll do X when Y happens,” I do X as quickly as I can just to prove I don’t need Y. But lately I’ve caught myself saying “I’ll be X when Y happens,” a far more insidious internal comment because there’s no way I can simply become something, with or without Y. And so often, what I want to become is already a version of what I essentially am — the same, but better.

To have a perfectionist nature is to always look for problems. There is an ideal that will never be attained because there is always something missing. Here, I have attained exactly what I wanted but it is still not perfect because I do not yet feel at home. So I pine for Texas, imagine an older, wiser version of me drinking beer on her front porch and sharing a private joke while I sit and drink on my front porch in Nashville and laugh. Like I said, to be a Texan is to have a special talent for being comfortable with cognitive dissonance.

I am settling in, trying to recognize that I am already the thing I wish to be, as long as I can stay that thing, as long as I can keep the path. It’s hard to remember, when you’ve left everything behind, that some things never leave you. The authentic self is there if it is not overlooked. And I’m in good company; Nashville is a city of transplants and we are all searching.

 

Waiting Out the Unknown

Dear You,

We have lived in this new city for twenty days. It’s been a sweet kind of purgatory, not unlike a long vacation except that the plane taking us home is constantly delayed and there are no rental cars available or bus lines or trains that go that way and even the cat has taken to laying under the covers of our bed to just wait this thing out. We are enjoying ourselves immensely. Less so when we remind ourselves that this is real, we are living real life here. It does wane in those moments but we ignore it and remember that we have things to do, like hike the mountains and go honky tonkin’ and drink too much at the bar down the street. Those things won’t do themselves.

That said, when I stumble out of dreaming and remember that I do in fact live here now and this is in fact my life, I realize there are a few things I have discovered. Things I have learned about myself while living in a new city for twenty days are as follows:

  1. I have never lived in a city before. Obviously, this is not something to learn, but something that I didn’t really think about as important until it totally and completely was. I have never lived in a city before. This is not a big city by any means, but a city none the less. And I have never lived in a city before.
  2. I am both good and bad at making new friends. It has nothing to do with skill and everything to do with the state of my mind and whether or not I am tired.
  3. I have a fine sense of direction. Getting lost is an opportunity; Google Maps is the enemy. And it’s easy to spend a day wandering around a neighborhood when there’s nowhere to be and no one to wait on you.
  4. There’s no one to wait on you. If you have no job, there’s nowhere to be. It’s both freeing and terrifying. Best to make yourself a schedule. Best to pretend your presence is expected.
  5. This is not my culture. Texas is Texas is Texas. I am Texas. And I am living in Tennessee.
  6. It’s easy to forget the things you were into when the things you were into are no longer present. Did I really like craft beer that much? Am I really more of a cocktail person? What about these clothes? Have I always dressed like this? Or am I wearing these boots because people wear boots here and I am a person who is here? Where is the jazz? Do I care? Am I really that easily swayed? I spoke to a friend a while back when we first were thinking of moving. He said moving is hard, not because you have to learn a new place, but because you have to learn a new you. Without the place to prop you up and the people to know you, who the hell are you anyway? The answer has yet to reveal itself.
  7. In waking up each day in this new place, we are waiting out the unknown. It’s like playing the blinking game. Which will falter first — the city or us? We have confidence in our abilities but the unknown having its unknowable nature leaves us wondering. Perhaps today someone will call for an interview or our night out will yield a new friendship. Maybe someone will ask us for directions and we will know exactly what to tell them. Maybe today is the day I hold that damn handstand or even just do the exercise I told myself I would do once I got here. Or, perhaps it will be as simple enough as driving to the post office or the grocery store with the brain on auto-pilot, the hands making the turns while the mind wonders about something insignificant, such as how the humidity affects the color of the sunset and the thickness of our hair.

Twenty days in the city has been just that — twenty days in the city. Something exciting usually happens at least once on each of the days, if we know how to look for it. And tomorrow will be more of the same. More unknowns to wait out, to stare down without blinking, with our arms crossed over our chests and our mouths shut because whoever talks first loses. After all, we are in active negotiations.