Sunday Reflections: My Year of Unconventional Living
I am sleeping on my friend’s couch staring out the window at the familiar tree line that brings me a sense of overwhelming peace in its warmth and familiarity. This is one of my most favorite places on Earth and this moment is almost perfect, the only thing that is missing is my kids to share it with. But my kids are not here, they are tucked in their beds and in their father’s arms in the state that we live. This is the state that I work in. The two are not the same. It’s complicated.
Last night I spent the night asleep on an air mattress that sits on the floor of an empty apartment. I would say barren, but that would be an exaggeration. There is a card table and 3 folding chairs that sit downstairs. I look at those two empty chairs where my girls sat and ate with me this summer and I miss them in ways I didn’t know I could miss them. I might even miss the fighting, the yelling, the impressive fits where my child throws herself on the floor wailing that she can’t clean up the mess because it’s way too big and it would take forever. This apartment echoes with silence amplified by the lack of things to absorb the sound.
There are no messes here because there is no stuff. Just this empty apartment full of our broken dreams. We came here in January full of hope and optimism. We came here in January hoping to start over, again. We came here in January hoping that this one time, finally, maybe, we really got to be a family that sat around the table and had those family meals that everyone who claims to care about children say you must have in order to raise happy, healthy children.
This was our promise: I had a good job, The Mr. was interviewing for a job, and there was a chance here that we would both be fully employed in the same state. In the same state. And not just any state, but a state that we had once called home. A state where we knew people and places and felt loved and had traditions. But that job for The Mr. was not to be. And since he makes profoundly more money than I do, we couldn’t uproot and move our family in the hopes that maybe hopefully one day and one day soon he would also get a job. If we had to survive on only one income and that income was his it would be hard, but we could maybe kind of do it on his. Definitely not on mine. You can’t comfortably raise a family on four on a YA librarians salary, even when the job requires a Master’s degree. Librarianship is just one of the many, many jobs that this is true of.
I travel back and forth between two states on a fairly regular basis. I am what The Atlantic recently called a long long range commuter. Some people drive an hour to work, I travel days away and spend nights alone and watch my girls grow up via phone calls, text messages and video chats. No it’s not easy and yes it sucks. But everyone gets to eat and that has its bonuses.
This is not the first time my family has been uprooted by interstate job travel. In 2011 the girls and I lived in Ohio while The Mr. traveled back and forth to work in Texas. We eventually moved to try and be together because we love each other and like being a family, but I swear the universe is conspiring against us. Well, at least the job market and economy is. Alone in my empty apartment I shake my fist at the universe to avoid crying myself to sleep again. Saying goodnight over the telephone does not take the place of snuggles and storytimes.
My time in either place is like a parabola. The first night in Ohio I am excited, glad to be back at work doing a job I love in a community I know I am helping to be better by providing quality library services. I am thankful to have a moment where I can watch an adult movie by myself – not an adult adult movie, just a movie that doesn’t involve animation aimed at 6-year-olds that involve characters repeating the words waffles waffles waffles – and to just recharge my batteries. Parenting, it turns out, is hard work. Rewarding and amazing and I often find my heart bursting with love, but let’s not kid ourselves – it can be hard, exhausting work.
After a few days the missing creeps in. I know some of you think that missing should be there from day one, but day one always just feels like the girls are just spending the night at a friend’s house and The Mr is working his night shift job, the only difference is the stark emptiness that surrounds me. So the missing creeps in and my joy of working and not adult adult movies starts to deflate. I step into the room the girls stayed in this summer with me and, seeing the emptiness haunted by echoes of their laughter, I pull the door shut hoping to drown out the silence. I hunker down on my air mattress, pulling the blanket up around my neck as a shield to combat the lonilness, I call my girls and say I love you I love you I love you.
By the middle of the week I am a black hearted monster desperate for love and affection. I call my friends, please go out to dinner with me, please don’t make me go back to that empty apartment and be alone, please fill the silent echo chamber with laughter and joy. Please help me stop missing my girls.
By the end of the week I am done. Despondent. Anxious to return to the arms of my family, the familiarity of the place we call home even though it is much newer to me then Ohio is. It’s doesn’t feel like home the same way the scenery of Ohio does, but it is the roof in which my children sleep under and it houses the stuff that makes me feel whole and centered and sometimes I guess that’s as close to home as I’ll get right now. This may not feel like home, but it houses the people I call home so I’ll take it.
When I return to the state that I live and not work a similar parabola happens. On day one I walk through this house we call a home and just gently brush my hand across the artifacts of my life. Here is the carousel horse The Mr. gave me our first Christmas, here is the blanket my baby snuggled with every day of those toddler years, here are the baby pictures. This is the space where I watch Thing 2 do cartwheels in the living room. This is the space where I snuggle up and read with The Teen. This place is full of reflections of me; it does not echo in silence but in memories that remind me of who I am and who I hope to be.
By about day three or four I begin to miss work. I like the library I work at. I like the people I work with. I like knowing that I get to do fun and amazing stuff with teens and know that I am making a difference in their lives. I like the routine of getting up and going to a place where I feel like I am doing productive things. I like feeling like this day has purpose and I have a goal.
The Mr. has applied for well over 200 jobs in 2015. He has gotten very few calls for interviews. I bristle when the voice on the radio says the economy is improving and there are more jobs through my headphones as I wait at an airport terminal to once again leave these people I call family and love so much. There may be jobs, but there are more people needing jobs then there are jobs. And that doesn’t even touch on where those jobs are, how much – or how little – they pay, and what families have to sacrifice to work those jobs.
While waiting I read the news and read the comments. Person A says that un- or under-employed people are lazy, selfish, greedy. It stings. I am under-employed; I am not lazy, selfish, or greedy. Person B says someone should just go find a job or go find a different job. Person B says move your whole family if you have to. Person B doesn’t know that we already did that once and it didn’t work out and we’re trying to do that again and it isn’t working out. Person B doesn’t know how much you lose when you relocate for a job: support networks, stability, affordable daycare, the people who have known your children since they were just a thought in the womb.
The Mr and I, we just want to both be employed, but it turns out we should have added in the same state where we could be a family to the end of that prayer request. Maybe I need to make my prayers more specific: Dear God, please let The Mr. and I find jobs in the same state with livable wages and decent schedules so that we can be in good health and spend quality time together as a family and raise decent human beings and basically be a happy family. Amen.
That treeline, it is stunning. I soak it in as if it has the power to make me feel safe and whole and grounded. Today I will drive to work with a person I love and do a job that I love. Later this evening I will wait in line with the various other travelers in my quest to find my way back home into the arms of the other three people that I love, that I call family. I love you I love you I love you I will say. Thing 2 will want to sleep with me tonight, “I need your arm,” she says, “Daddy’s arm doesn’t feel the same when you are gone. My head doesn’t fit in it the same.”
I’m thankful that she still wants to use my arm as a pillow while we snuggle in bed and watch TV. My arm aches for her head when I try to go to sleep on my air mattress that sits on the floor of an empty apartment. It’s a phantom pain that haunts my empty arm in that empty apartment and I get so sad and anxious because I realize that this night that I am watching my not adult adult but adult movie that I am once again missing an opportunity, a moment, that I can never get back with my girls. This moment is gone, it is fleeting, and I have wasted it alone in this empty apartment. So when I get home tonight, I will soak up the non-lonely moments like the dry, greedy earth soaks up tiny sprinkles of rain and I will pray my more specific prayer hoping that this time, we get a better answer. This year of unconventional living is okay, but I would also be okay if it ended. It turns out conventional living is not under rated.
One of my favorite lines from the movie Speed involves the character played by Alan Ruck. He’s on a speeding bus, his life is in danger, and they go to the airport to try and keep the bus moving while they figure out a plan not to let the bus blow up. He looks out the window and, dismayed, says, “I’ve already been to the airport.” Today, as I go to the airport, I can’t help but wail: this can’t be right, I’ve already been to the airport.
What, everyone goes around quoting the movie Speed, right?
Filed under: Sunday Reflections
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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