Day 18 – My unfinished story

In 2008, I sat down and started writing a story. My story. Bits and pieces of my childhood, my struggle through adolescence and my college years, my adoption and reunion. It’s one those projects that nags at me. It bothers me that I haven’t finished it. But it’s also one of those projects that I can only handle in small chunks.

There’s something about delving back into some of the worst moments of your life that really drains you. And even now, this far removed, with a whole lot more perspective and distance and wisdom, I prefer to take it slowly, wading back into the memories like a tepid pool.

But the reality is, it’s been 11 years since this project started, and it just might be time to kick it into a higher gear and actually try to finish it.

Plus, I’ve apparently got some readers who are finishing their edits. Nothing like a little accountability to light a fire under you, am I right?

Day 14 – It’s here and it’s home

In all the writing I’ve done, I’m often given the most positive feedback on my ability to set a scene. I’m obsessed with settings, with painting a clear picture of my characters’ surroundings and establishing a vivid and concrete sense of place.

Dig deep into my psyche and there’s likely a link to my adoption. Adoptees often struggle establishing a firm sense of belonging. But my obsession also stems from the fact that my family moved around…a lot. From the time I was born to the time I graduated high school, my family moved to five different towns in two different states and lived in ten different houses, including a three-week stretch where my parents, sister, and I lived in my grandparents’ motorhome. My dad had a new job managing the Four Circle Co-op in Bird City, Kansas and we’d moved before he and Mom had a chance to find a house to rent, so we parked in a vacant lot across the street from the town’s only gas station.

We arrived in Bird City in the summer of 1986. I was five, and living in Grandma and Grandpa Luethje’s motorhome for a few weeks seemed sort of exciting at first, like an extended camping trip. Lindy and I fought over who got to sleep on the bunk bed that perched above the driver’s seat (an argument she won because my tendency to sleepwalk proved hazardous when the bed was more than three feet from the ground). It was a bit strange to be camping next to a grocery store on the main drag of a tiny town with one stoplight instead of some ironically-named campground out in the woods near a lake, but it didn’t much faze me at the time. It was just another pit stop on the parade of homes that dotted the landscape of my youth.

I can close my eyes and still see each house we ever lived in in detail. I can see the little  bungalow on Norris Avenue in McCook where our dog Tu-tu had her puppies. The concrete floor in the unfinished basement was always cold, but Dad built a makeshift pen with some blankets and spare pieces of plywood to keep the squirming black pups contained and comfortable. There was a little steel safe built into one of the concrete walls, and I sometimes imagined we were a family of spies locking away our collection of stolen secrets.

The kitchen was painted bright yellow, and Mom used to watch One Life to Live and General Hospital on the little black-and-white television that sat on the counter. Lindy and I shared the little bedroom at the front of the house (of course she got the top bunk), and Mom and Dad’s room was through the Jack-and-Jill bath. Sometimes when both bathroom doors were left open, Dad’s snoring would jolt me awake in the middle of the night, amplified by the bathroom tile.

I can see the first rental house in Bird City where we moved after the excitement of living in the motorhome officially wore off. The two-story house sat on the corner of Burr Avenue and West 3rd Street, just a block from where my best friend Mandy lived, which gave us license to spend just about every moment together when we weren’t in school or sleeping. There was a chainlink fence around the backyard, and in the winter the tumbleweeds would catch there and take over until Dad would eventually light a small fire to burn them, scolding us when we got too close or threw too many tumbleweeds on the crackling pile, sending orange sparks spiraling into the crisp autumn air.

There were two bedrooms and a large playroom with a 3/4 adjoining bathroom on the second floor, which meant Lindy and I finally had our own separate spaces. Our rooms were far enough away from Mom and Dad’s bedroom on the main floor that, for the first time, I could wake up and not hear Dad snoring. The entire second story floor was covered with mismatched scraps of brightly colored carpet. It gave the space a psychedelic circus vibe that started to hurt your eyes if you looked at it too long.

The kitchen had a set of ugly swinging doors, the kind you might see in an old-timey saloon–a wooden frame around a piece of orangish-brown opaque plastic. Mom nearly lost her voice hollering at us to “Stop running in the house!” as we chased each other down the stairs through the den and the kitchen and into the dining room, laughing each time we burst through those doors and heard the satisfying THWAP! as they slapped against walls and swung back into place.

Moving—to a new house or apartment, town or state—was always a nauseating mix of excitement and anxiety. I fancied myself an explorer, and I tried to imagine the fun new adventures I’d have when I arrived at each new place. But the unpleasant byproduct of the recurring upheavals was that it made it nearly impossible for me to ever feel truly grounded. I never really belonged anywhere. Thus, it became an exercise in survival for me to burn all the details into my brain so they wouldn’t get lost each time we packed up our lives and left another place behind.

When I graduated high school and decided to move to New York to attend college, everyone told me I was crazy. They couldn’t imagine a small-town midwestern girl like me fitting in in the big city. But this was the move I desperately needed. It was a chance to throw myself far outside my comfort zone and headlong into the depths of independence. It was a chance to figure out who I really was and who I was going to be.

And for more than 15 years now, Stevie and I have been doing a lot of moving of our own—from New York to Arizona to Nebraska, from apartments and rental houses to our very own homes, packing and unpacking boxes, trying like hell to find the place that fits.

Here we are now, living in a quiet neighborhood in the heart of the Heartland. We’ve got two sweet kids, one crazy hound dog, and a house filled with books and memories and mismatched furniture collected from our families and our childhood homes—a table that came across the country in a covered wagon, framed family photos whispering stories from days gone by, the faded floral couch and matching swivel chairs where Richie and Diane sat drinking coffee each morning in their living room on Long Island. Our walls are covered with movie posters, our children’s scrawling artwork, and photos of the people and the places that we love most.

We are a collection of the people we meet, the places we’ve been, and all of our lived experiences. Our genetics and our childhoods give us a starting point—where we’ve gone from there is a hodgepodge, mishmash, shaken not stirred blend of all we learned and loved and left behind along the way. It’s messy and it’s beautiful. It’s ours and it’s everything.

It’s here, and it’s home.

Day 13 – Two week check-in

Okay, so I set some goals for myself at the beginning of this year. Nothing too crazy (at least I didn’t think so at the time), but nothing ever goes according to plan now does it? After these whirlwind first two weeks of the year, I figured I better do a little check-in with myself and see how things are going.

Goal #1 – Write every day. Surprisingly, so far so good here. Now, I’m not writing the great American novel, or even a whole lot worth reading, but at least there has been time set aside and words being put to paper every single day. Gotta say, I’m proud of myself on this one.

Goal #2 – Write one letter every week. Two weeks down. Two letters written. Boom! Onto the next.

Goal #3 – Read one book a week. First up, Radical Candor by Kim Scott. To be fair, I started reading this just before Christmas, but it was slow going and got set aside with the holiday craziness. I didn’t want to try and start another book until I finished this one, so I decided to count it. (Hey! My blog. My rules.) Great read. Stepping into a new leadership role in my career and hearing about this book from some of the leaders I look up to made me want to read it. A lot of the advice and suggestions should be obvious–things like caring deeply about other people, giving the time and space needed to look at things from multiple perspectives before making big decisions, and the importance of being honest and direct without letting emotion take over. Leadership has become something of a buzzword, and I think a lot of people spend a lot of time talking about leadership without really being able to clearly define what good leadership actually looks like. The book is well-written, and it definitely prompted me to reflect on the people in my life who showed me what a leader should be.

My second book of the new year is Five Plots by Erica Trabold. I found out about this book when I was catching up on some of my writing magazines over the holiday break. Erica Trabold is originally from Nebraska, and the book is a collection of her lyrical essays that explore how her life story was shaped by the Nebraska landscape, just as the Nebraska landscape was shaped by the people who lived and settled there. The writing stunning. Trabold was the winner of the inaugural Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize, and if you take the time to read her debut collection, you’ll see why. Anyone who was born, raised, or feels a connection to Nebraska should pick up a copy immediately. I already ordered one extra copy to send to some family who have moved away and still miss “home,” and I’m sure there will be more orders coming soon. The book is way good good not to share.

Goal #4 – Exercise 30 minutes every day. Well, if I’ve fallen off the wagon anywhere, it’s here. Now, I will say, I was good right up until this weekend when Henry got sick. Some mornings I was waking up at 5:00 to do 30 minutes of rowing and 30 minutes of writing (how’s that for two birds with one stone?). Other days, I was making sure I took a break during the day to get my steps in around campus during lunch, or simply counting the amount of walking I was doing in between meetings and from my car to my office and back toward my daily amount. As busy as last week turned out to be, I’m giving myself a little grace here and saying that I earned two full days of being lazy with my sick kiddo snuggled in on the couch.

Tomorrow’s a new day. Back at it. Let’s go.

Day 10 – Like coming home

I spend a lot of time reflecting on my college days, partly because I spend my days working with college students and partly because I tend to start feeling a little sentimental every time Stevie and I have been away from New York too long and I start itching to spend time with the people I miss every moment of every single day since we left the east coast ten-and-a-half years ago.

It’s hard to explain the connection I feel to this place without sounding overly nostalgic, but I always feel the need to try. I guess that’s just the writer in me–unable to deny that urge to try and put the giant surge of emotions down on paper and arrange the words in a way that might explain the way this place calls to me and why I remain so firmly tethered to the people we met and the connections I made there.

Going to college was my first step (a giant 1,500-mile step) away from my family and out on my own, and with that heady rush of newfound freedom and adventure came an almost paralyzing sense of self-doubt and isolation. Yet the first time I ever stepped foot on Concordia’s campus, I got the distinct feeling that I was coming home.

The families we come from are our default. They teach us how to love, how to fight, how to forgive. They give us our first sense of the world–its beauty and its chaos. The families we leave when we set out on our own will always be with us. They will always be part of us. But it’s the families we create for ourselves that truly reflect who we are and give shape to who we will become. The people we connect with, the people we return to and invest our time in are the people who reflect the very best of who we are, the very best of who we hope to be.

People matter. Connections matter. Kindness matters. Honesty matters. Love matters.

Everything else is just noise.

Day 9 – Bedhead be damned

I don’t know what this kid does when he sleeps, but he could win some sort of world record for his bedhead.

And that’s just what was rockin’ in front. He wouldn’t let me get a picture of the back. He also refused to let me try to smooth anything down so, you guessed it, I sent him off to school that way. And somehow that hair was even wilder when he got home.

Listen, as a parent, you learn quickly to pick your battles, especially if you have kids as stubborn as mine. A little weird half-mohawk half-flat-pixie-bangs going on? Not gonna waste my time or energy chasing H-man around the house with a comb and a handful of mousse to try and tame it. I’ll save my efforts for the important things like getting this stubborn kid to poop on the toilet or eat a freakin’ vegetable without it turning into a hostage situation at the dinner table.

Plus, if this keeps up, I’ll eventually be able to make a nice little photo montage to display on the wall or maybe save for a special occasion like high school graduation, or those cute little videos people like to show at wedding receptions. Or, you know, just post it on a blog. 🙂

Day 8 – Sleepy thoughts

When I can’t sleep, it’s usually because there’s something my brain just doesn’t want to let go of.

Isn’t that always the reason?

It might be some issues lodged in my mind from work, a running list of random to-do items that I’m afraid I’ll forget, or some random line of worry that revolves around the health and emotional development of my kids–like whether the coughing fit that just erupted in Cadence’s room is the natural byproduct of the dry winter air or the beginnings of a bout of bronchitis.

Most nights it’s a damn miracle my brain shuts down long enough to get any real sleep at all.

There was a time when I used to keep a dream journal. Nothing fancy, just a notebook and pen placed close enough to my bed that I could reach out and grab it easily in those moments I hung in that fuzzy space between my dreams and waking, those moments when I could still remember some of the details. It’s honestly an exercise I wish I’d kept up.

I learned a lot about myself by analyzing the patterns and paying attention to the things my dreaming mind bubbled to the surface. I learned that I dream of storms and tornadoes during times of high stress and upheaval in my life. In the dreams, I’m never afraid of the storms. Instead, there’s a heightened and palpable feeling of responsibility and focus. I find myself taking charge, ushering others to safety, and then always turning around at the last moment to stand up and face the storm (or maybe to stand up in spite of it) and get one last good look before it blows over.

Funny what your dreams can teach you about yourself if you just learn to pay attention.