Returned

The kids and I have just returned from a trip that was supposed to be a long weekend in northern Michigan but instead morphed into several days thanks to (1.) confusion over the kind of coolant to add to my car and, honestly, confusion over whether or not my car even REQUIRED coolant (it did not, as it turned out, $200 later) and (2.) unpredictable winter weather. We had a wonderful time – my mom and I took the kids ice skating for the first time, which was treacherous but ultimately rewarding, and our whole family went sledding.  We visited partly to break up the monotony of an extended business trip Sam is currently taking, and we returned to Toledo grateful to be in our own home while a little saddened by the lack of snow. Winter has very little point, in my book, if there isn’t any snow.

While we were there, one of my parents’ friends passed away. She had been exceedingly ill and it wasn’t unexpected, but it was sad nonetheless. My father particularly doesn’t handle this kind of news well since so often the people passing away are his age or, often, younger.

“It seems like we are losing people right and left,” he said, his head in his hands. I don’t really know how to act in these circumstances because he is correct – he is losing friends right and left. I generally don’t say much and give him room to just be, eventually joining him to watch Jeopardy or a college basketball game. At seventy-three, my dad is as passionate about the things he loves as he ever was – great novels, hunting, gardening, fishing – but he is slowing down at a remarkable rate, almost to the point of concern. I spoke with my mom a little bit about it and she agreed he sleeps more and moves less than he used to, and sometimes she is worried, but I am actually equally aware of the changes in her. She tells the same stories over and over again and seems exceedingly quick to anger. Ten, or even five years ago, I would have pushed both of them about these changes -pointing out to my dad that Bernie Sanders is older than he is and look, he’s running for President! Or I would have gently guided my mom toward a neurological exam. What I’ve learned over the years, though, is that they need me to remain their daughter much more than they need me to be their doctor, and until I notice something really troubling – so dramatically out of character that I need to talk about it with my brother – I am going to let them be.

Our relocation to Toledo means I now only live half a day’s distance from them, and this has been a huge gift. I can be present in a way I haven’t been for over a decade.

On the whole, I’m feeling increasingly positive about things. My eyes have completely healed from their freak allergic reaction to my contact lenses, and while I will never be able to wear contacts for 12 + hours a day like I was so stupidly doing, by summer I should be able to wear them for outdoor activities, wrestling with Duncan and driving. I will never take my sight for granted again. I have organized my resume, updated my linked in account, and have embarked on an exciting writing project with my brother – more on that coming very soon! I *think* I’ve also found a way to tackle a book I’ve been hoping to write, and my goal this month is to submit one of my poems to a literary journal.

The move from Pittsburgh rocked me to my core, no doubt. Having two such small children made it worse, I think – their needs had to continuously come before my own. But here we are, nearly at the end of the first month of a new year, and a sense of normalcy is emerging. I can’t say it hurts that Duncan is days away from  turning two years old. The other morning he walked up to me with some request or another and I looked at him and said “You can get that yourself. Once my babies turn two, I get to start reading the paper again.” He looked up at me with those big brown eyes of his, flashed his dimples in the way that slays me every time, and went and had his sister do his bidding instead.

And so it goes.

it all began with boys we loved

A long, long time ago, back when I was entering the ninth grade, one of the things I most looked forward to about entering high school was finally being allowed to attend Friday night football games with my friends, without my parents lurking somewhere in the stadium, keeping an eye on me. In Alpena, Michigan in the 1990’s it was a big deal to be able to join your friends in the student section of the bleachers on Friday nights, and the first game carried a particular importance – it was the day you picked spot – the place you would watch games the rest of your time in high school. Very few of my friends at the time were interested in football and those that were also happened to be in the marching band, so I couldn’t sit with them. I was a little nervous,that first Friday, to arrive alone – but my parents encouraged me to go ahead – they said I’d find people to sit with, and of course they were right. Before even purchasing my ticket, I ran into my friend Jessica and together she and I braved the crowds of juniors and seniors to find our spots. We ended up almost exactly in the middle of the student section, near several friends from our French and biology classes, and for four years we watched the boys we grew up with play against other small-town northern Michigan teams. As far as I know, none of the boys that I watched play football throughout those years grew into a violent man – in fact, many of them were and remain today some of the gentlest souls I know.

Yes, I hung out with the football players in high school, and while this association conjures up all sorts of cliches thanks to movies and television, it wasn’t because I was absurdly popular or a cheerleader or anything like that – in a small town roles are more malleable than that. I fell into friendships with football players in the usual way – my best friend began dating one of them, and then Jessica began dating another, and while throughout my tenure at Alpena High School I only (and briefly) dated one football player, they became my friends, part of my gang, so to speak.

I mentioned it earlier but it bears repeating: these boys were some of the most gentle I have ever met, off the field. Most of them were raised to be good Catholic kids who took their religion and their families seriously. A number of them are still active in the church, a smaller number of them heavily so. They weren’t rule breakers and they rarely challenged authority – when I spent time at their houses there parents were always home, just like mine were when they came over.

When I attended our high school football games, I wasn’t cheering on strangers – I was rooting for my friends – for the quarterback who completed a shared read-aloud Macbeth assignment with me, for the linebacker in my church confirmation class.

For many of us, a love of football all began with the boys we loved.

Football, perhaps more than most other sports, is about so much more than the game itself. When I was in high school it was also about the hot buttery popcorn and frothy hot chocolate served at the concession stand, and the ebb and flow of hundreds of teenage bodies absorbed sometimes in the game but mostly in each other, and it was about frosted nights beneath the stars and lights and the majority of the town’s activity centered in this one particular corner for a couple of particular hours. Football games were generally parent-approved and teacher-regulated, yet a certain amount of freedom could be found in taking a walk with someone around the field or congregating in the parking lot prior to and after the game. Most of the time the high school sponsored a casual post-game dance where whatever energy we didn’t expend in the bleachers or on the field could be danced off before going home.

My interest in football has ebbed and flowed over the years depending on where I lived and what I was doing. In college I spent a number of Saturdays tailgating and attending Michigan State University football games with my friends, but I was just as likely to have play rehearsal or a test to study for – even a rare trip to the mall for dinner and a movie could lure me away from a football game. I’ve never been a huge follower of the NFL or, for that matter, any professional sports team except for the Detroit Tigers, but when I moved to Pittsburgh it was nearly impossible to avoid paying attention to the Steelers, and even if I didn’t watch every game, I had a husband and a brother who did and over the years I grew accustomed to football Sundays (and Mondays and sometimes even Thursdays). Again, football is more than the sum of its parts and it in Pittsburgh it is a regular part of our daily conversation – not just the game but what we ate who we were with the games we played the fun we had together.

There is an ocean of difference between the game I grew up with and the culture promoted by the NFL now. The concussion issues over the last few years muddied the waters for me considerably when it came to considering whether or not I want my children exposed regularly to professional football in our home, but watching the video of Ray Rice beat his fiance complicated matters even further. While I don’t hold the NFL directly responsible for Rice’s actions, I do think, as an organization, it has shown over and over again how little it values the health of its players and their families, coupled with the glorification of a violent and egocentric subculture. If I don’t allow reality television shows like “Keeping up with the Kardashians” and The Real Housewives of whatever in our home because of the self-centered, damaging values they promote, then why would I allow NFL football?

Sam and I have talked back and forth about it (for the record, he is as conflicted as I am) and for now we’ve settled on keeping our relationship with NFL football pretty casual. We aren’t adverse to turning a game and watching part of it, but football will not become the center of our Sundays.

Every year, a bunch of the guys I went to high school with meet up the Friday after Thanksgiving to play football. Even though we are all heading toward forty, they wouldn’t miss this annual rematch anymore than they would miss Thanksgiving dinner itself. For several years in my late twenties and early thirties, I would meet up with several of them and their various girlfriends and wives at a restaurant in Alpena the Saturday evening after their great rematch, where they would replay the game for us, often sporting bruised ribs, black eyes and sometimes worse. Over garlic bread pooled in butter, steaming platters of chicken nachos, chilled martinis and drafts of beer, our reunion conversations always started first with that Saturday’s game, and then circled back a decade to games of the past until eventually moving to current topics at hand – family, friends, how much has and hasn’t changed in our hometown. I almost always spend my Thanksgivings in Pittsburgh now, but when I think about football, this is what I recall: Friday nights in my hometown, taking the first steps toward the woman I’ve been lucky enough to become, huddling in the stands,cheering on the boys we loved.

Making Room for the Mountains

When we were planning our annual week-long visit to northern Michigan this summer, the most difficult part logistically was working through our return trip. This was partly because we somewhat dreaded sharing a hotel room with two kids, and partly because we had our dog with us, but mostly it was because I can never actually picture leaving northern Michigan once I am there. When headed to the part of the country I still consider home after two decades away, I am always convinced that for once and for all something will happen that will cause us to remain there against all reason. Sometimes my imaginings are truly awful – the dramatic death of a parent – and sometimes they are routine, like running into the woman in charge of public relations for the hospital, discovering she’s retiring, and nonchalantly submitting my resume. These are my fantasies, so I don’t bother with details like the reality of putting our house on the market prior to moving, or the actual move itself. No, in my daydreaming the situation is either so critical in nature or so ridiculously fortunate that I don’t have to concern myself with real-life details, and no one would expect me to.

I have this adolescent belief that the geography of my home state completes me in some fundamental, lizard-brain like way, and growing up I actually didn’t have terribly grand schemes to move away from Michigan. For the most part, I hoped to return to Northern Michigan after some unspecified but exciting time away – not to my home town but to one of the towns on the west side of the state, like Petoskey or Traverse City or Boyne. My grandma once told me I’m meant to live on a lake, just like she was, and her remark stuck with me – to this day I’m not sure a greater truth about me has been spoken. Bodies of water have an incredibly calming effect on me and there is nothing I enjoy as much as long walks near them. Those of us blessed enough to spend time in an area that experiences a full, glorious autumn on the water – the juxtaposition of flaming leaves and deep blue waters – have seen God.

And yet, I’m 37 years old and except for a few years while Sam was in law school, I haven’t returned to Michigan. Our lives have bounced us around the rust belt and parts of the south at a somewhat alarming rate, but for the last six years we’ve remained settled in Pittsburgh, and, much like with marriage, we keep choosing to live here, over and over and over again.

For a couple of years, I thought I would have to reconcile myself to feeling homesick every day of my life but recently my longing has mutated to something less dramatic. Now, while I still have days where I miss Michigan acutely, I am growing more content with the idea that Pittsburgh might always be my home base. I’m even beginning to admire the mountains that surround us, drinking them in and the way they change in the light, the way I once did with lake Huron, lake Michigan and lake Charlevoix. My first go-around with Pittsburgh, for graduate school from 2002 to 2005, the mountains often made me feel like the world was closing in on me. Pittsburgh was an unknowable, odd town made up of one-way streets and a confusing mish-mash of tunnels, bridges and rivers, all of which prevented me from ever getting where I needed to go. And it seemed so dark, and all of us wanna be writers lived in the attics of rickety old Victorian homes with no air-conditioning and radiator heat, and almost everybody smoked, so that for three years I dreamed about Michigan’s wide open roads and endless sky, and the way the smell changes as you drive from southern Michigan to northern Michigan, to something like sun-baked pine needles and rich, dark soil.

We’ve lived in Pittsburgh for six years now, and in that time we’ve purchased a house and had two children. When we first returned our enthusiasm came close to zealotry – our stay in Michigan had made us appreciate Pittsburgh’s walkability, public transportation, accessibility to ethnic, non-chain restaurants and behemoth museums. We embraced the local sports teams and breathed a sigh of relief – we were home.

For several years, I continued to long for Michigan, even as we made concerted efforts to grow roots here. We joined a church, a gym, said yes when people asked us to go out and reciprocated requests in return. I enjoyed all of it, even while not being able to shake the feeling that while Pittsburgh had my heart, Michigan wasmy heart.

Lately though, something has shifted. I guess it’s the kind of shift that comes with time, but now my feet feel firmly planted in Pennsylvania soil. I’m less homesick and more at home, and it’s this shift that has allowed me to begin appreciating not just the restaurants, libraries, bars and book stores Pittsburgh has to offer, but to really sink into the city and surrounding area in a new way. In Pittsburgh, I have found my tribe – a network of friends at once vast and close-knit – friends who I can count on to drop off gatorade on my doorstep when my entire family is stricken with the stomach flu, friends who will take my kids if an emergency arrives (and I, in turn, take theirs, no questions asked)friends who always have a drink or a cup of coffee or a cake at the ready, whatever the situation may require. Instead of hanging out in smokey attics ruminating about Derrida I spend my time in backyards with barely tamed gardens, the laughter of children always nearby.

Northern Michigan provided a rather cold place to vacation this summer, and the chaos of two little ones on such a long road trip didn’t make it necessarily easy. On the second day of our drive back to Pittsburgh, as the Ohio turnpike carried us east of Cleveland toward Pennsylvania, instead of tensing up as the rivers grew wider, the bridges higher, and the slow build of the Appalachians began, I found my shoulders lowering, and I began breathing more deeply. This had always been my physical reaction in the past to driving into Michigan so to find it happen on the reverse course was shocking – it also forced me to look at the landscape with new eyes. Steam was swirling off the rivers like tufts of fireless smoke while the mountains, shades of jade and emerald emerging from the distance, beckoned. In the matter of just a hundred miles or so I would arrive in the city so artfully hidden by these early hills, driving into the land of rivers, bridges, steel pride and my loving tribe. A small part of me budged that day, making room for the mountains that surround me, allowing room in my heart for two homes – and it has been expanding ever since.