Just because things aren’t the same doesn’t mean they can’t be good.

I pulled the red and white notice off the door of my Heights house with a sigh.  We would be fined within days if the lawn continued un-mowed, if the landscaping wasn’t trimmed back.  Jeremiah and I (mostly Jeremiah) had been in a slow war with the code enforcement officer in the Heights most of the time that we lived there.  Our fence was the first infraction–built on a corner lot and requiring signatures of all the neighbors and a hearing at city hall to build–but from then on the inspector took every opportunity to cite us, and Jeremiah took every opportunity to provoke him.  We learned after the fence incident that bribes were the usual way of dealing with his red and white citations, and it seemed that forcing the issue with the city had been something of an embarrassment to him when all the council members immediately approved our “beautiful fence.”

But this time?  Honestly, I could see his point.

I was at the Heights house to meet with our carpet installer for a quote.  Getting that house on the market, so that I can stop carrying bills for two homes and re-appropriate some of my capital from the Heights into the farm, has been a long, slow, goal.  Earlier this year, I hired my contractor to put on a new roof and finish the drywall in our new addition; just a month or so ago I bought all new light fixtures and paint. But it’s not quite there yet.

Oh – and I would love to make the lawn someone else’s problem.

Since we moved across the river, the lawn at the Heights has alternately been the problem of my dad, my former brother-in-law (who I still totally consider family…actually, I’m keeping all of Jeremiah’s family), and Jeremiah (occasionally…when he’s in town).  This time?  My dad offered to help me pick up the slack, once again, and that’s how we found ourselves taming back the jungle that was my former house’s lawn just before dusk.

I drove over to meet him with a weed whacker, hedge trimmers, and a potato fork in my truck, ready to whack, trim, or dig as necessary.  When I pulled up, he was nearly finished mowing the yard.

My Heights house sits on a lot and a half in one of the nicer working class neighborhoods across the river.  It was built nearly a hundred years ago, when houses were smaller and ceilings were taller.  Nothing is perfectly square, the floors are, at best, levelish, and nearly every corner of the not quite 800 square feet (from one of our foundation walls to two staircases) made a valiant attempt to fall in on us while we lived there.

And it was completely perfect, and I couldn’t have loved it more.

It’s five minutes from anything you could possibly need.  Sidewalks make it pedestrian (and pup) friendly; the posh boutique restaurants and shops uptown are a relatively easy walk if you’re in the mood.  Our favorite pizza place was just up the block.  Starbucks was just around the corner.

It’s the sort of neighborhood where neighbors know each other’s names and say hello.  When my Amelia was a puppy, she made a habit of slipping the fence, running across the street to our favorite neighbors’ house, and waiting on the porch until Wade saw her, gave her pets, and walked her back home.  It was a ritual for both of them for a few weeks, nearly every morning, until we figured out where she was escaping.  He never complained once.

Thwarting Amelia's escap
(This, by the way, is how we had to fix the issue.)

There’s a lot that I miss about that place.

I miss the front porch with its steps that I lined with flowers. The landscaping that we scrapped together from free splits, plant sales, and the occasional splurge.

Our house last summer

I miss the sidewalks.  I miss the neighborhood cats who used to come visit while we sat on the porch and drank wine in the evening under twinkle lights.  I miss the people who would wave hello as I sat on the same porch drinking coffee and grading English papers.

I miss the utterly ingenious squirrels.

squirrel
Gotta admit this guy worked for whatever he got.

Mostly though, I miss the feeling of “knowing” what direction my life was heading.    I miss the security I felt there with my cozy little house and almost blissfully happy marriage.  I was sure of myself when I lived there in a way that I haven’t been able to reclaim since.

Nostalgia rolled over me as I pulled climbing weeds from the stems of the hydrangea plants that I worked for years to establish.  They bloomed this year without my noticing; I only rarely drive by.  The gardens that we had tended so exactly for years were overgrown and wild, a reminder that nature will reclaim whatever it feels it is due, even in town, even with a Starbucks just around the corner.

I bit back tears once or twice, not for the house exactly, but for the losses that my mind had folded into those walls, and that yard, and those pretty little hydrangeas.

When Dad and I finished up, we sat on the porch for a bit.  The evening was cool, and the front porch was still perfect.  One of the neighborhood cats, Bennie by his tag, sat with us and enjoyed pets.

“Things were good here…” I said to my dad, or maybe to myself, or maybe to no one in particular.

He nodded.

“Before the shit hit the fan,” he replied.

Yes, I thought.  Before all of the shit hit all of the fans.

Once upon a time, in what feels like another life, I used to teach English 101 to Freshman at the local four year college.  I had two additional goals for my students beyond what was specifically in the 101 instructor handbook: first, that they actually understand the rules for commas by the time they leave my class, and second, that they have a basic grasp of logic and logical fallacies.  I won’t turn this post into a lesson on commas–suffice it to say there really are only four comma rules, and they aren’t that hard–but I was reminded of my logical fallacy lessons as I sat on the steps.

There is a fallacy called “the golden age fallacy” or “romanticizing the past.” (Since I’m not a professor anymore I’m just going to link this to Wikipedia for the gist.)  Culturally, it’s prevalent as a bias for bygone times: “the good old days” when “men were men and women were women” (whatever the hell that really means) while ignoring ALL of the negative aspects of those decades or eras.  It’s easy to see in politics on a grand scale, but the truth is, we tend to do it in our own lives as well.

Memories are remarkably unreliable, mostly because they were never designed for perfect playback as much as they were designed to help us adapt and survive.  The memories that we keep for some time tend to be remembered as mostly positive or negative, while our current situations can be seen with more objectivity: the positive and negative weighed against each other.  (Also, we tend to remember our best days, and our worst, but the “mostly ok” days that make up most of our lives slip through our mental lockers like water through a sieve.)  Most of us have times in our lives that we remember with proverbial “rose-tinted glasses.”  For me, my time in that little house comes across almost glowing.

Ah, but here’s the rub: if you’re willing to really think about those times, it becomes clear fairly quickly that things weren’t perfect and idyllic.  That may make for a better story or a good memory, but it’s seldom the way our lives are actually lived.

I don’t miss the city noises, or the headlights that would shine through my bedroom window as people drove down the street in the middle of the night.  I don’t miss the code enforcement guy monitoring my lawn, or the overzealous animal control in the county. I really don’t miss the fact that most of town used the weeks from the middle of June through the end of July as an excuse to set off fireworks at all hours.

I miss some of my neighbors, but I couldn’t wait to leave a few of them behind me.

I miss the convenience of being right in town, but I wouldn’t trade my farm lane for all the tea in China (or, you know, something I would realistically have more use and desire for than all of the Chinese tea…)

I would give almost anything to move my front porch across the river and park it squarely in front of this big, old ranch house, but there are limits to what you can actually take with you when you leave a place.  So, instead of the porch, I’ll take the memories of the summer nights, and the twinkle lights, and the wine.  I’ll hope that the next owners love the little house as much as we did, that their good memories will outweigh the bad, and that love will live there for a long time to come.  Maybe I’ll even hope that their memories there show through rose-tinted glasses.

Mine do.

I’m mostly ok with it.

I walked around the little gardens and made a mental note of the clean-up yet to be done.  Hopefully, those flower boxes that Jeremiah so painstakingly built for me will belong to someone else before long, but in the meantime, I believe I can afford to give them just a little more time and attention.

Before leaving, I chose a handful of overgrown plants to split and replant in my butterfly garden in front of the ranch house.  We dug them up without much ceremony and loaded them into my truck alongside the tools I brought.

It was nearly dark by the time I made it home and began digging holes in the soft earth of my butterfly garden, the clayish soil mingling with llama manure compost, clinging to my hands and sticking underneath my fingernails.  I listened to the nighttime things wake up around me. The owls.  The crickets.  The toads.

No cars.

No headlights.

No sign of the city except for the tiny bit of light pollution that glows from the west.

Things will never be the same as they were during those years in my little house.  I may never quite reclaim those same feelings of security, but that loss made space for other good things that I couldn’t have imagined then.

I sunk the roots of my plants into the space I made them, and I watered them almost to flooded, knowing that the next day would be hot, and that they would need a lot of care to establish themselves.  They didn’t have the space they really needed in the little garden boxes, but in the butterfly garden, if they could make it past the trauma of the move to establish their roots, they would have plenty of room to grow.

 

 

 

 

The other side: More on Divorce

“No one can tell what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become.  No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell.  There are no maps of the change.  You just come out the other side.  Or you don’t.”
~ Stephen King

My divorce, so long in the making, was final at the end of March.  My cousin, Erin, came down for a long weekend and stayed to hold my hand in a mostly empty courtroom on a Monday morning while I answered questions from a bored-looking judge for five minutes so that he could declare my marriage dissolved.   My ex didn’t come; in Illinois you don’t have to have both parties present to finalize a divorce, and I had decided that the whole thing would probably be easier if I didn’t have to face him.

Divorce is strange.  It can be equal parts terrifying and debilitating and liberating.  Even world-ending.  It’s unexpected for some.  It feels inevitable for others.  The cutting of a cord. The removing of a limb.  A decision that you make, but that feels as though it had been made without you.  One that somehow feels equal parts devastating and hopeful.

It’s the end of something you never thought would end, and the beginning of something you never prepared for.

At least, that’s how it was for me.

Divorces seem to be like couples; each one of them is different

Two years ago, my ex began chasing madly after a career a thousand miles away.  It seemed to make him happy in ways that his work here did not, so I encouraged it, and I sacrificed for it.  My time, money, and all of my needs were placed on a chopping block of my own creation.  I dutifully swung the ax without even questioning, because, after all, we were a team, and I was nothing if not a team player.  Don’t get me wrong.  He never demanded, or even asked for, such sacrifices.  Honestly, he didn’t even know I was making them.  I did that all on my own while he was away.  I believed the sacrifices were temporary and in service to our relationship.  My choice.  My consequences.

At first, he left for two weeks a month…then a month at a time…then six weeks between every stop home.  His priorities changed slowly at first, then seemingly all at once.  Looking back, I can see that his heart left this place…and I suppose me…long before he did.

When my marriage began falling apart, I felt scared and alone and incapable of living my life.  I went through stages where the farm felt like way too much. The animals felt like way too much.  My job felt like way too much.  It felt like I was treading water, barely keeping my head up, all the while watching the waves get rougher all around me.

Bills.  Sick animals.  Farm emergencies.  Broken equipment.  Collapsed ceilings from my then-leaking roof.  None of them had seemed so impossible when I was part of a team, when I had the emotional support of someone equally invested in building this life with me, but they began to pile on as I dealt with one after another mostly on my own.  There was so much to do.  So much to learn.

The truth is, Jeremiah is an incredibly capable person with a laundry list of skills that he always made look easy and that I didn’t possess.  He’s a gifted builder.  He’s good with heavy equipment.  And, damn, can he mend a fence and hang a gate!  When he left, I lost the most meaningful relationship of my life, and I lost at least half of the expertise that had kept the farm running.  The loss of the second made it difficult to find the emotional space to deal with the loss of the first.  It was the proverbial double-whammy, and it made me feel like every piece of my life was coming undone at the seams.

Putting a life back together that has come apart at the seams is a slow task.  Putting a heart back together that has come apart at the seams is an even slower task.  I’m still working on both.

Here’s the thing I’m learning: if you tread water long enough–and just float when you need to–you eventually get strong enough to swim.  People always say “it gets easier,” but when you’re facing a struggle, those words do you a disservice.  I believe the truth of the matter is a little different.  It doesn’t get easier; You get stronger

I’m not saying this in the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” so “stop being a pansy” and “rub some dirt in it” kind of way.  Rather, it’s worth acknowledging that the character traits we tend to admire–grit, compassion, self-awareness–they all come from living through the days we spend in that uncharted, unexpected territory in our lives.

I’m starting to believe that life gives us the experiences required to make us who we want to become, and that becoming the person we want to be is the result of walking through those experiences with all the openness we can muster.  You walk the “blue and lonely section of hell,” and if you let it, it will teach you.

This place, these animals, all of this work, and even the dissolution of the most significant relationship of my life…they are my teachers right now, and I’m discovering that it’s usually easier to let them teach me than it is to fight them on the lessons.

I am learning.  Everyday, I am learning.

Cooking as an Act of Love

Recipes are coming down the line on Almost Farmgirl.  I thought I would let you know why…

I never thought I’d be the sort of person who cooks.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, back in college, I could microwave an INSANE cup of Ramen, but something about cooking, actually cooking, rubbed me the wrong way.  Continue reading “Cooking as an Act of Love”