This week I moved to a new house a few blocks away. Our landlords wanted to move into the little blue duplex we’ve called home for the last two years in Vancouver, so we sadly vacated. I will miss the fig tree in the back yard, the cozy main floor with its gas fireplace, the bathtub with the perfect angle for lying back to read a book.
And in the last few months, I’ve been moving through emotional spaces too ~ a reunion tour of haunts I thought I’d left behind. I believe the tour kicked off because I’m very close to finishing my memoir, Pilgrimage of Desire. It’s as though the book itself wants to reacquaint me with where I’ve been and how I moved on, so I would have that body memory and empathy when I put the book into the world.
Here are the highlights of my reunion tour.
Day Job Hell
In March and April, I took on too much client work. I blame the freelancer’s impulse to say yes to everything plus my desire to do some editing for a cool pro bono project. I was brought right back to my days at the software company. Waking up with a toxic sense of dread, knowing that I would not have one minute of down time all day. Not even taking time to eat or pee because I needed to be in client meetings onsite. The crushing fatigue muted by cups of coffee. Mustering every scrap of creative energy to crank out a draft of web copy. Breathing an atmosphere of guilt, feeling that I was letting absolutely everyone down, failing at everything.
“Good God,” I thought, “I really used to live like this? How did I ever stay afloat?”
I made the survival decision to let three retainer clients go. Those were tough emotional conversations, but necessary. I started estimating available work hours and told prospects that I was booked out when those were filled. I defined for myself the freelance conditions that work best for me: one or two clients at a time, finite projects, subject matter that excites me. I turned some projects down completely. The pressure has eased.
And going through Day Job Hell reminded me why I advocate for people to create better conditions for themselves. That lifestyle is just a petri dish for depression.
In May, I finished my rewrite of Pilgrimage of Desire and sent it out to early readers, including my family. I started the exercise very matter-of-factly, ticking off the recipients on my spreadsheet. Then I got a few calls and emails from family. The book gets personal about certain aspects of my childhood, particularly my relationship with my mother. And some family members find that shocking or painful to revisit. They have different perspectives than I do.
I’ve been talking about the book with my family from the beginning, sending them drafts, asking for their blessing. They believe I have a right to tell my story. But it’s understandable that the book would stir up those hurt, confused feelings again now that it’s about to be published.
Anne Lamott says, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” But I struggle with that sentiment ~ it feels a little vengeful to me. My family and I did the best we could ~ we made our mistakes out of love and ignorance, not malice. I tell stories that include family with great caution and compassion. I am putting them in a difficult position ~ the world will hear my version of events ahead of or instead of theirs.
I had heartfelt conversations with each of them. We confessed and cried and explained, and I will be making some changes and additions in the final draft to make the book more fair and complete in its version of the story.
But this experience really knocked me off my feet. I stopped working on Pilgrimage altogether. I felt a generalized distress. I fell into nervous compulsive procrastination, and my productivity tanked. And one day the source of the distress came to me.
“I can’t feel good if I’ve made others feel bad.”
This was how I used to operate all the time. Make sure everyone around is happy before taking care of myself. Another incubator for depression.
Once I realized I was holding that belief, that I couldn’t feel good, its power lessened. I started writing morning pages again. I scheduled a special anniversary dinner with Shawn. I talked to the other writers in my new indie author mastermind group. I had more conversations with my family, and they still loved me.
Knowing we had to move out of our duplex by the end of July, Shawn and I were diligently checking the rental listings to find a new place. I wrote a list of criteria ~ location, rent, number of bedrooms. We saw a few places but nothing was suitable. June drew to a close, and I started to feel really anxious. We missed out on on great place with an artist’s studio in the backyard because we were in Ontario visiting family. We contemplated moving out of our school catchment to give ourselves more options, but I hated the idea of uprooting the kids and starting over with a new community.
I thought of our past housing searches, when I had such faith that we would find just what we wanted. Now I was bogged down in pessimism, suspecting that our good fortune had been used up, picturing us stuck in some awful basement suite for students. I didn’t even dare pray about it ~ how could I ask for a nice house when everyone else in the world had much bigger problems?
I remember this state of mind from depression too: “I don’t deserve good things, and I hold no hope of getting them.”
At the eleventh hour, we came across a listing for a five-bedroom house on a ten-month lease at reduced rent. At first we couldn’t figure it out. How could a single-family dwelling of that size in Kitsilano be offered at that price? We contacted the owners and learned that they are planning to renovate but had to delay construction, so the house would be available as-is: exploratory holes, chipped paint, and all.
We went for a walkthrough, and honestly, I never would have rented a house like this by choice in a million years. It’s a hundred years old, with creaky floors, sticky doors, and light switches in weird places. I like a pristine space with fresh paint and refinished floors that needs no repair or maintenance. This house feels enormous: three floors, high ceilings, a big front porch, and a giant yard. The living room and dining room alone are the size of the entire main floor of the duplex we just left. Usually I go for compact living spaces where I always know where everyone is and nothing is more than a few steps away.
However, we were out of choices, and the owners were lovely and seemed to want us there. And honestly, the house met every single item on our list and then some. We signed the lease that night.
I shed many tears about moving. I did not want to go to the effort of packing everything up, unpacking it again, and finding new places to keep things. I imagined our furniture looking puny in the magnificent rooms. I thought I would be embarrassed to have people over. I could barely keep a small place clean and tidy, how would I ever manage three floors? It would take half an hour of looking every time I forgot where I put my phone down.
And the question I kept asking was, “Why? Why do we have to move? Why this house? What the hell is going on? This doesn’t fit my plan!”
Now that we’ve moved, I think I’m beginning to understand. Because I do believe that, as Jesus says in Matthew 6:8, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” This is not the house that I wanted, so it must be the house that I need.
The size has to be part of it. The last time I lived in a house this big, I was five years old and my parents bought a place to share with another family. I remember the living room feeling like a gymnasium. I think this house wants to teach me about expanding, taking up more space. I suspect this lesson is connected to publishing my book.
And the house’s beat-up, pre-renovation condition is part of it too. A few days ago, I was reading an essay called “Baler Twine” by Don McKay in his book Vis à Vis, and he writes:
To what degree do we own our houses, hammers, dogs? Beyond that line lies wilderness. We probably experience its presence most often in the negative as dry rot in the basement, a splintered handle, or shit on the carpet. But there is also the sudden angle of perception, the phenomenal surprise which constitutes the sharpened moments of haiku and imagism. The coat hanger asks a question; the armchair is suddenly crouched: in such defamiliarizations, often arranged by art, we encounter the momentary circumvention of the mind’s categories to glimpse some thing’s autonomy — its rawness, its duende, its alien being.
I’m guessing this house wants to reunite me with the wilderness. With the broken-down, the battered, the cobbled-together, the raw and alien. It’s easy to love a house that is pristine and perfect. This one keeps its treasures hidden behind leaking plaster and broken drawers. I plan to hunt for them diligently. To that end, I’ve been posting photos on Instagram tagged #100daysofhouse. Some photos will have to stay offline because I’m mindful of respecting our landlords’ privacy ~ they’ve owned this house for years and they’ll be moving back in when it’s renovated. We’ve been invited to share its last hurrah of wilderness, and suddenly that feels like a great privilege.
The kids, of course, are thrilled. It’s a child’s paradise, so many rooms and stairs and cubbies. We’re going to set up a permanent fort in the basement playroom. We’d like to put a trampoline in the yard. Lia and Nico now have their own rooms, and there’s plenty of space for sleepover guests.
I remind myself that the spiral path leading me through these experiences for short intense periods is a labyrinth. I haven’t regressed or fallen back ~ I’m just going deeper.
I’m on the reunion road, heading to the centre of all things.
Are you also on the reunion road, passing through rough territory, taking steps toward the centre of your self and the divine? I’d love to hear your story too.