Moments like these are everything.
Another semester is ending, so yeah, I’m probably feeling extra sentimental. Students have been dropping in to check in as the year wraps up. Some are sharing exciting news–they’re graduating this weekend, going onto grad school, starting new jobs, taking a break from the studying to go on much-needed vacations. Others are facing uncertainty–grades aren’t where they need to be, financial aid is in jeopardy, family issues are making things complicated. I love that they feel comfortable coming in to my office, sharing their news, asking for advice, just wanting to touch base one more time before they scatter for the summer.
You know, when I look back on the whole of my own college days, it was the best time of my life.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. My life is pretty great now. I’ve got an awesome husband, two fantastic kiddos, a sweet hound dog, a loving family, an incredible group of friends, and a job that I absolutely love going to every day. But not one bit of this would be possible without the time I spent in college, without the connections I made, the lessons I learned, and the foundation I built there.
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. I soared higher than I ever thought possible. And I crashed, burned, tried to get up, stumbled, fell back down, and had pick up the pieces and build something brand new there too.
And you know what? It was all worth it. Every. Beautiful. Painful. Moment.
And the best part of it is that it led me here, to this place, where I get to spend my days working with college students, helping them navigate this crazy transition, helping them begin to understand that our mistakes don’t define us–they give us perspective. I get to help them learn that failure is not a dirty word as long as you own it and learn from it and use it to make better choices tomorrow. I get to be the person I needed (the person I found) when I was young and scared and confused and looking for someone to walk with me on my journey.
So don’t be afraid of the wreckage. It’s an important part of the story too.
So, if Stevie and I were going to sit down and make a list of the things we miss the most about New York, we’d start with our friends and family and then quickly descend into a loooooooong list of food–NY-style pizza, zuppa de pesce (specifically from Mamma Lombardi’s on Long Island), steaming plates of hot wings from the Candlelight Inn on Central Park Avenue in Scarsdale, Italian Ice (the real stuff from The Ice House in West Sayville, not that overly-sugary fake bullshit they sell at chain stores like Rita’s), giant deli sandwiches, fresh egg bagels.
It’s the reason why any trip we plan to New York always starts with several lengthy and detailed discussions about where we’re going to eat and when, so we can be sure to hit all of our favorite haunts and get our fill of our favorite foods before leave.
And even though we’re still months away from our trip out East, you know we’re already plotting. And the other night I went down a rabbit hole when I started finding NY bakeries and delis that ship products overnight and guarantee a little “taste of New York” right in your own home.
Yeah, you know we had to try it.
So we ordered a dozen egg bagels from New Yorker Bagels, a shop promising fresh, hand-rolled authentic egg bagels delivered to our doorstep. Stevie was just a little excited when the FedEx guy dropped the box at our door.
The New Yorker bagels were pretty good, but they still can’t beat the fresh egg bagels from B&B Bagels in Bohemia that Richie used to go and pick up for us every morning when we would visit. I mean, we’re not complaining, but we’re still shopping around and doing some taste testing.
And at least we know we can count on Stevie’s sister Michele to send us a care package of fresh egg bagels every Christmas. If we could just find a way to make them last more than 3 days. 🙂
There was a time in my life when I avoided people, relationships of just about any kind. I’m an introvert by nature, but this was different. I didn’t trust people, and I was filled with so much self-loathing and self-doubt that I believed it was easier to just keep everyone at arm’s distance than to risk getting close and getting hurt.
During my years in therapy, one of the biggest challenges was for me to trust people, to let them in, because I had trouble matching up what other people saw in me with what I saw in myself. I had to spend a lot of time building up my own self-image, learn to love myself and let other people love me. One of the results was that I started to view relationships and human connection differently.
Letting people in. Trusting them. Connecting. Building relationships. Loving other humans. These things can be hard, but they are so worth it. They’re vital. They’re the reason we’re all bumping around on this blue-green planet in the first place. And the really beautiful thing that happens when you connect with other people is that just being in their presence, hearing their voices, spending an evening together sharing a meal sparks immeasurable joy.
Family is not bound by blood. Family is the people you choose to surround yourself with, the people you love and invest your time in. Stevie and I have loved ones spread all over the country–from New York to Arizona to Colorado and Washington state–and we do what we can to connect. We don’t do as much as we would like to, or have nearly enough time with all the people who mean the world to us. But sometimes there are moments like tonight, when we get a chance to spend an evening with some really beautiful souls. My home was full of love tonight, and my heart is too.
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.
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.