Since college, I've moved 15 times. I don't mean I've moved around the corner or down the street. I haven't moved from one town to another; I've moved from one state to another and, on three occasions, to another country entirely.
Here's how it's gone down:
The last move happened recently, over the summer, and I've got my fingers crossed it will be our last as a military family.
I've learned a lot throughout these moves. One of the most poignant lessons I've learned is that each person handles life a little bit differently, has a unique perspective and will draw his or her own conclusions. So, these 'truths' I have learned are my own, as any truths ever are. These are my truths, learned from long stretches at the Residence Inn, from epic hauls across America, from seemingly endless flights to Asia and more. Throughout all of it, these are the 10 Truths I've Learned After 15 Monumental Moves:
1. Stuff is Stuff
Nearly every piece of furniture I own is dinged up, scratched, scuffed or broken in one place or another. Every single one. When I began moving, it pained me. I cried when I saw my great-aunt's antiques smashed to bits, when another lamp was crushed, when I dug through every box only to discover an item missing, forever. Now, 14 years later, I am at peace with it. It isn't the best feeling in the world to hear shards of glass inside wrapping paper and to know another dish has broken. In our last move, in fact, Great-aunt Marie's Hitchcock chair was broken to bits, the leg of it sitting in the dining room as I type this, beyond repair.
But here's the thing: when I think back to all of these moves, to all of the places I've lived, I don't think of the stuff. I think of the people. I think of the sunsets and sunrises (I'm looking at you, Arizona). I think of the restaurant owner who took me by the hand, marched me through town and bought me cough syrup at a pharmacy in Mianyang, Sichuan when I was too sick and my Chinese was too rough to do it myself. I think of the hospital at which I had my babies, the horse I rode through the Carolina countryside and the epic dinner parties that carried me through the long winter of Pennsylvania.
It's never about the stuff. Stuff is stuff. We drag it along but never carry it in our hearts.
2. Friendships Have Seasons
The best part about moves is the people. The hardest part about moves is also people. Friendships, in mid-life, are much harder won than they are when we're young, in college, traveling through Asia with the Peace Corps. Yet, in each place, I've made life-long friends. I've met people who've changed me and who will stay with me, in some capacity, forever.
And then I've made friends who won't. That made me sad for a long time, the idea I can't take every friendship with me forever. But friendships have seasons. Not every friendship is meant to be a lifelong relationship; in fact, few actually are. This doesn't diminish the friendship or the person. This doesn't mean the relationship wasn't of value or had little meaning. What it means is that the beauty of each relationship can't be recaptured on Facebook or Snapchat or Instagram or through a telephone conversation every year or two. In some ways, trying to keep up in this half-hazard way ruins the friendships for me and dilutes, in a sense, the memory of what the friendship meant in the moment. There is a season for everything, people included. It makes me appreciate, all the more, those friendships that stand the test of time....and distance.
3. The Misery or Adventure is Up To You
Moving can be miserable. There are many moments of deep sighs, closed eyes and tiny moments of prayer. But moving can also be an adventure. The choice, I've found, is mine. I can't control the fact that we must move. I have little influence over when, where or how we'll move. I can only control my response and attitude toward the move, and that choice makes all the difference.
What I've learned is that adventure beats misery every time.
Instead of death-marching across the country in a caravan of cars, kids glued to iPads, go see the giant ball of twine. Stop off at a roadside BBQ joint that takes you half-an-hour out of the way. Stop in Santa Fe for an hour to see the church with the mythical staircase. Splurge on the hotel with the pool, even if it's an extra $20 and 15-minutes off the highway. Get dessert and, after a week, buy a new pair of stretchy pants.
Adventure. Always choose adventure.
4. Home is Where You Invest
There is a house, and then there is a home. The house is what you decorate and paint and scent with candles. A home is where you invite friends for dinner, take the time to deep clean on a spring morning, nurse your kids when they're sick, serve meals and wait for Santa.
A home isn't temporary, even if you are. A home is an investment, of time, energy and spirit. I waited for many years, through many moves, for my houses to become homes, but they never did until I took the time to invest in them. Communities didn't welcome me if I gave brief smiles before shutting the garage door. I had to keep the doors open, meet the neighbors, attend parties at which I felt socially awkward and very much an outsider. But with every investment, with every conversation and floor scrubbing and planted flower (which never fail to die on my watch), I got a little closer to home.
5. You Learn You'll Be Okay
When you first move, you think it will be nothing but a big, huge, rollicking adventure.
Then, a few months into the whole thing, when the kids are at school and your husband is at work and you're staring at the walls of this new house, you begin to fall apart. It's lonely, boring and too fresh to feel comfortable yet. You haven't met that one friend who will carry you through. You haven't yet found the favorite restaurant or market or park. It's all very new, and while everyone else is off doing something, you sit with your coffee and contemplate getting back into bed.
You may still have your shoes on when you flop onto the bed, pull up the covers and shut your eyes.
After 15 moves, I know now that I'll get through that time, that while it may be inevitable, it won't last forever. I've learned that I will be okay. I will make that friend. I will find my people and places. I will settle in and plant roots, even though I know those roots will be dug up in only a few years. Still, I know I'll be okay. There is a lot of comfort in this. It comes only after you've gone through it a few times and come out the other end. Then, when the hard times hit, you see them, recognize them and know....they'll end. At some point. They'll always end.
6. You Learn How to Be Okay
Even knowing I will be okay, eventually, I also know I have to work at it. So, over the years, I’ve come up with a little recipe I use when the going gets tough. It’s been a great deal of trial and error. I’ve tried volunteering, working, befriending anyone who looks my way, befriending nobody, joining parenting groups…the list goes on. Some of that works; some of it doesn’t. A lot of it doesn’t.
What works for me is:
Gentle, daily exercise
A daily treat
Learning something new
Leaving the house at least once a day
Spending time outside
Keeping the house tidy/clean
So many of these foundational habits (healthy eating, good sleep, daily exercise) get lost in a move. I’ve found that, before I can leap into a new social circle or look for work, I must first establish my foundation in my new home. This is what happens when the dust settles, when the furniture has been arranged and the pantry has been stocked and everyone has clean sheets.
I use this little recipe during any of life’s challenging moments, of which (I’ve also learned) there are many. I used it when my husband deployed for 14 months and I had a two-year-old and four-year-old to look after. I use this recipe when winter hits and the skies turn grey and I feel blue.
It’s a comfort to have this little how-to-feel-better list. It feels like an answer, like I’m not alone wondering when things will magically get better. I have some power over it, much like the choice I have about the attitude (adventure vs. misery). And so, when I find myself listening to Rod Stewart on repeat and getting back into bed with my shoes on, I go back to my list, look at my day and adjust. Always adjust.
7. Small Gestures Save You
When a neighbor arrives with a plate of cookies and, amidst the dust and packing tape, tells me all of the best places in town: that saves me. Even if it’s just an hour, even if the next day the unpacking seems daunting again, that hour saves me a little.
When the woman at Walmart touches my shoulder and tells me, “We’ll find your chicken, baby. Don’t you worry.” That saves me. That makes me feel less alone and connected again, even if I only just met her and we’re looking for a $5 forgotten rotisserie chicken.
When a teacher sends me an email to tell me how happy she is to have my child in her class that year, that saves me. It eases the fear I have that my kids are struggling at a new school or won’t make a best friend or are feeling awkward during that first week, wondering if they’ll fit in.
I think we forget in life how much small gestures mean. I think it’s easy to go big or go home. But those tiny moments mean more than we realize. We never know someone else’s personal struggle, whether they’re flying through traffic to take a sick child to the ER or wandering through the grocery store because they just lost a spouse and can’t figure out which soup, exactly, she used to buy. We never know. The small things matter.
8. There is No Perfect Place
I wanted, for many years, to find the perfect place. I wanted to have that moment when my soul spoke to me and said: this is it. This is your place. This spot will never fail you.
Shockingly, that’s never happened. Places, like friendships, often have seasons. Some of those seasons are short (Pennsylvania, thank goodness), and some of those places we come back to (North Carolina, Texas). Those seasons seem to last. But each place has pros and cons. Each place is like a coin, two-sided, the good and the bad.
I used to want only the good. I wanted 75 degrees and sunny, every day. I wanted the fall foliage of the East coast, the bright, sunny snow of the California winter, the dry desert spring of the Southwest and the deep heart of Texas – all in one. But I’ve learned that not only are there no perfect places, but the imperfection of each place is, in its own way, part of the perfection, a juxtaposition to the beauty so that when the Arizona sun sets, one forgets the scorpions and the brutality of the summer heat and stands, mouth agape, at the beauty. It’s all the better, I’ve realized, because there are the scorpions and heat to forget at all.
9. Time Is On Our Side
All of this, the moving, the unpacking, the settling in, the making of a home and the building of a community: it all takes time. And time is on our side. We can’t rush it. We don’t make lifelong friends in a week or two. We don’t find our tribe (really…is there a better way to say that?) in the first month or two. I’ve found that rather than falling into our place, we have to ease into it, over time. Taking that time, really honoring the process and not rushing it, yields richer, deeper results. Whether it’s establishing new friendships, finding a community, finding a hairdresser, finding a restaurant that is upscale and still kid-friendly…this all takes time.
Rather than fight that, I’ve learned to appreciate it, to go slowly and to trust the process.
We can’t microwave life and expect slow-cooked results.
10. Family is the Backbone
I love the new people I’ve met, the friendships I’ve made, the landscapes I’ve explored and the cultures I’ve dug into.
But at the end of the day, or the road, my family is my backbone, the foundation of how and why anything else ever works.
In families, we don’t get to know each other. We have been absorbing each other for our whole lives. I used to downplay that, thinking I could make my friends my family, thinking I could pick and choose. I was wrong.
Family is everything.
I am grateful for these lessons. Like many lessons, they’ve been hard-learned. I’ve chosen my fair share of misery rather than adventure. I’ve tried, and failed, to keep up with too many people on social media only to feel more disconnected than ever. I’ve neglected my family, shut myself inside a new house, flopped on the sofa and hosted many a pity party.
But as I settle in to our new home and start planting roots, I am grateful I’ve had the adventures, suffered the loneliness and learned, truly learned, how to be okay in a new moment.
I also love watching other people, hearing their stories and seeing how they do it. Because we are all unique, and how we respond is night-and-day sometimes.
I hope everyone is having a lovely week. Turkey is upon in in mere days. Luckily, I’ve got mine ready.