The Heartache of Moving and the pieces of us we leave behind

The Heartache of Moving and the pieces of us we leave behind

[Note: These thoughts were written prior to COVID-19 which makes the heartbreak of a move even worse. Many of us have been robbed of the chance to say proper goodbyes, to thank our teachers and coaches, to hug our friends and visit our favorite haunts. We are cutting the strings without having the chance to tie them in tidy bows before we depart. Moving without that kind of closure is a psychological and emotional challenge for adults and kids alike. My family is already reeling from the disappointment. Surely it will become part of our story as we reflect on 2020 and the ways COVID-19 disassembled our lives. Godspeed to all of us as we navigate this upcoming PCS season.]

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“I’ve put down a lot of little roots these two years,” Anne told the moon, “and when I’m pulled up they’re going to hurt a great deal.” – Anne of Green Gables/Avonlea

My husband and I have PCS-ed many times with the Navy. That’s military- speak for packing our Earthly belongings and moving to a new base. A Permanent Change of Station contrasts with Temporary Duty- TDY- a shorter separation from where you reside. Yet any military family can see the irony in the names. 🙂 We understand the need to differentiate the two statuses but truthfully we know we will never have a permanent station until we actually end our military service. And therein lies the challenge.

If I have learned anything in these moves, it is that we need to approach each PCS with expectation and not be afraid to pursue a new life. Our QUALITY of life depends on it, even if we know that ultimately our situation is not permanent.

When we drive into a new town, we try to jump into community as quick as possible for the sake of our kids and our family. We survey the ground, find our special spot, dig down deep and plant our roots. Military spouses like to say “Bloom where you are planted!” but the first step is CHOOSING to plant ourselves. Flowers cannot bloom without their roots attached… and people cannot thrive without community. So we take the plunge.

Like a plant finding life-giving minerals in the ground, we wrap ourselves around that which sustains us- people and places and experiences. We spread our thirsty vines across the city and create a new normal, knowing in the back of our minds that it will not last forever. Someday this tour will also end, but we need water immediately and extend our roots just a little further.

We introduce ourselves and meet new friends.

We find a church and community that feeds our soul.

We land jobs that we love.

We bond with our kids’ schools and community and sports teams. (We cheer for joy when we find cool kids with cool parents!)

We watch our children learn to walk in our “new” old house. We nurse them when they are sick and celebrate birthdays within those sturdy walls.

We learn the aisles of the grocery stores and the backroads around our neighborhood.

We spend hours strolling in the woods near our house.

If we are lucky, we have two years, maybe three years of the new normal. If we are unlucky it is less. But just when our lives seem full and settled, the government greets us with news shaped like an hourglass. What?? Already?? It’s time? Another PCS looms ahead, another impermanent change of station has been added to the calendar and in one sentence our world shifts…again.

Immediately half of our thoughts belong to another town. Do I know anyone who has lived there? Are the schools good? What about the rental market? Hand me my phone, I need to look at Zillow.

The sand begins to fall, the countdown begins and we act differently. Don’t fill the freezer with anything else! Don’t buy any candles, alcohol, Costco toilet paper or condiments! (For goodness’ sake, don’t buy any Worcestershire sauce because it takes two years to use that stuff.) We don’t subscribe to any new magazines. We ditch the summer camp flyers and school announcements for next year’s programs; none of that matters anymore. How on Earth do I transfer my kid’s school credits?? Hand me my phone again.

We clear away the superficial but eventually, the shift becomes more personal… and more difficult. We take a deep breath, stare down at the roots we so lovingly planted and nourished, and start to pull them up.

We pull ourselves out of the running for long-term projects. Maybe we could have earned a promotion at work but now we are leaving.

We pull ourselves back from new friends. We don’t have the time or emotional energy to invest in new people. It’s too late.

We pull ourselves back from our homes which we never finished decorating.

We pull ourselves away from the world, sometimes burrowing within our houses to cover our emotions and avoid the onslought of approaching goodbyes. Our hearts begin to ache.

The problem is that our hearts are now entangled in this new life and if you have ever tried to pull a plant out of the ground, you know there’s a certain ripping that occurs. We can handle the roots delicately and sweep away the surrounding, unattached dirt, but the tearing still happens when we aim to fully remove roots from their home.

We watch our kids hug their friends goodbye and shed their own tears and we think Are we ruining their lives??  We start saying goodbye to our own friends and silently think Will we ever see them again??  It hurts.

We sit in our empty house, listening to the echoes of footsteps. Is this really the end?  We close the door, hand the keys over to our landlord and start weeping in the driveway because Will we ever return to this house again??  Oh man, it hurts.

During the long walk to goodbye, we shed tears and feel broken-hearted because WE ARE. We are tearing away parts of our heart and leaving them with that person or place forever. It’s a painful process.

NOW STOP. Before we cry ourselves to sleep or eat a gallon of ice cream at the mere thought of relocating, let me tell you this: I’ve learned to see blessings in it all. Stepping back and seeing the bigger picture gives us a beautiful vantage point.

Even though the uprooting hurts, the pain is a blessing because it tells us that our heart and roots bonded with something or someone. Ripping ourselves away never feels good, but that doesn’t mean it is NOT good. We are meant for connection and the heartache is evidence of our success.

The heartache is also a blessing as it explodes into fragments our simple definition of “home”. If “home is where the heart is” then this nomadic lifestyle (and subsequent heartbreak) allows us to experience this idea in special ways.

The town that sheltered my broken soul as I recovered from a miscarriage and the death of a loved one, warranted giant tears when I departed. In a short time I had planted myself deeply. To this day, glancing over a map, my eyes will rest on that town because part of my heart never left. Although I will shall never reside there again, it will always feel like “home”.

Or the house on another continent that became our safehouse, our place of comfort and the scene of tremendous growth in our children. So much of my heart was left within those walls that I felt physically “homesick” for months after our PCS was complete. (I still do!) It will forever remain special.

Or the friends that we meet during a tour- the ones who become our confidants and kindred spirits… those goodbyes are painful, but as we share bits of our heart with those people we will be rewarded with great joy when our roads converge again. Even people can feel like “home”.

Whether we desire it or not, this nomadic lifestyle changes and moves us. We experience new things, new friendships and new cultures that cannot be unlearned. Even if we hate where we live, we are still changed! Our hearts are the parts that change the most- growing, expanding and reshaping after we leave bits of them behind. So while the molding and shaping can be painful sometimes, I’ve concluded that it is ultimately VERY GOOD.

At the end of the day I believe the pain is worth it. The friendships and experiences under my belt are priceless to me, even with the accompanying heartache. How lucky am I to feel homesick for so many people and so many places?

If you are moving soon and wondering if you have the energy to create another new normal, I say: don’t wait until you are withered and dry. Dig in and plant those roots as soon as possible, even if you must pull them up later. Give your heart to new friends, even if you know there will be a goodbye in your future. Feel free to spend a little time mourning over your last duty station, but don’t let the tears blind you to the riches of your new town. These miles of new soil will bring different opportunities and different experiences so go ahead and survey the ground until you find your special spot. Then plant yourself.

“[Anne] was leaving the home that was so dear to her, and something told her she was leaving it forever… things would never be the same again. And oh, how dear and beloved everything was… all the thousand and one spots where memories bided. Could she ever really be happy anywhere else?” – Anne of the Island

Yes… she could. And she was. And so will you and I. ❤️

Quirky Military Homes and the Reasons I Love Them

Quirky Military Homes and the Reasons I Love Them

My family has moved many times in the last twenty years, in the country and out, from base to base to base. There is an unbeatable camaraderie among military families, for a plethora of reasons, but I find the laughter (and frustration) over our homes to be a special connection. Living transitory lives in different places yields a certain attitude about houses and a funny quirkiness in our spaces that entertains me. Our homes tell an eclectic, sometimes humorous story and represent so many aspects of the military life.

Here are TEN REASONS I LOVE MILITARY HOMES:

1) Lifestyle constraints make us low-maintenance. While normal families might spend months finding the perfect house, military families must be quick to find shelter and beggars can’t be choosers. We are moving in six weeks?? Alrighty… A house on base that looks exactly like every other house on the block? Okay. A rental house across the country that we must reserve, site-unseen, because the market moves so quickly? And it has a granny bathtub and a kitchen the size of a dollhouse? That’s fine. Or moving to a small town and finding only ten houses for sale within the school boundaries, none of which were the kind of house we had in mind? Okay, I guess this one will do. And since we might only be there for two years, we focus on the small things, ignore the big things (like the bright yellow hallway tile we want to jackhammer) and accept our imperfect houses until we fly away to our next nest.

2) Military homes keep us humble. In a world of dream homes, HGTV, and the need to keep up with the Jones’, many military families grab a bag of popcorn and watch from the sidelines. Our houses are often not worth bragging about (see above) but exist for practical purposes. They do the job, they give us shelter, they provide a temporary space for our family and we make them work. If your house has a toilet 12” from the front of the washing machine (a scenario which takes multi-tasking to an ENTIRELY new level) you can’t feel too haughty #truestory. If your downstairs doesn’t have any heating vents or your kitchen has only four cabinets or two microwaves installed next to each other, you aren’t calling “House Beautiful” and asking for a magazine spread. You are calling your friends and saying “My new house has lime green walls. It’s fine, my kid will sleep there.”

3) Furniture is often eclectic and tells a story. Those who have been stationed in Europe usually have large antiques, often filled with Polish Pottery. (I miss you, Trocs.) People who have been stationed in Japan often have Tansu Chests against their wall, showcasing their souvenirs from East Asia.

Sadly, many of these pieces have battle scars from the moving process- broken table legs forced back together with superglue or large scratches across the surface from when Joe the Mover decided to place the lawn mower on top. (Way to go, man.) Normal people might replace their flawed furniture but military families think of future moves and future damage, place a tablecloth over the top and tell their friends “This is why we can’t have nice things.”

4) Furniture often doesn’t fit right. While normal families choose the perfect sofa for the perfect living room, we shoot in the dark, hoping that what we buy will be transferrable in two years. It’s all a gamble! When we downsize from a 4,000 sq ft Texas mansion to a 1600 sq ft home in Washington DC, we will curse our large sectionals that now fill every inch of space in our tiny living room. But…we paid MONEY for that big sofa and we aren’t divorcing it quite yet. It will do.

Sometimes our furniture has to go suddenly, like when my friend moved to England and couldn’t get her King size mattress in the front door! Oops. New mattress please!

5) Furniture is often repurposed. When spaces change, so do the lives of our possessions. My friends’ nightstands, which are too wide for her new bedroom, now reside next to her front door as side tables. My other friend’s kitchen buffet table now sits in her living room. The file cabinet that matches the office desk sometimes doubles as a TV stand. The rug I purchased for my front entry now lives in my master bedroom because our new house doesn’t have space by the front door. (Does it match my bedroom linens? Nope. But someday I might have a foyer again so the rug stays.)

6) Home decor often goes through a lengthy consideration process. Normal families see an item they like and buy it. Done. Shopping is not that simple for us. We see something at a store and think Do I have a place for that? Is it likely that I would have a place for it in another house? What are the chances that it will survive our next move? Is it too fragile? How would movers actually load that onto a truck? If I buy a glass coffee table, will it be destroyed within two years? Wood it is. Sometimes we buy things we love (like the couches mentioned above) and deal with the spaces as they come. Sometimes we win and sometimes… well… we live tightly.

7) Sometimes we look like hoarders. That 4,000 sq ft mansion reduced to 1600 sq ft might mean a mountain of possessions inside our walls. When we move to a house that suddenly has zero closets and no garage, the bikes might live in the dining room. Or we may live in the desert but fill our closets with bins of snowgear in case our next duty station has cold winters (because that stuff is an INVESTMENT). We might have one room with three mismatched couches or European antiques shoved in the corner of our children’s bedrooms #truestoryagain. With unclear futures and unknown spaces ahead of us, hoarding can easily happen.

8) Unexpected souvenirs abound everywhere. We hail from all corners of America and have lived in a variety of places so our decorating style can be random but special. My Georgian friend lives in Virginia but has a Washington State highway sign on her wall. My Louisiana-born friend has a collection of Japanese souvenirs on her shelf. Another friend of mine has a couch full of British pillows. My living room displays a random black elephant from Hong Kong sitting next to a photo of the Pacific Northwest. That’s how we roll- converging our home states with our places of residence and our worldly souvenirs.

9) Military houses help design future dreams. Every house teaches us a lesson and adds mental bricks to our “forever homes”, those castles in the sky which military families so often reference. We dream of a future home of our choosing, in which we finally have control over our space and the location. Our forever houses will have this… we always say in conversation. One house taught us that white tile always looks dirty. Other houses have taught us that front porches prevent soggy packages, black countertops show crumbs, fewer bathrooms mean fewer spaces to clean, and again, let’s not put a toilet next to the washing machine. Essentially, military families have the opportunity to test-drive different shapes and sizes of houses and fine-tune our future abodes. It is an unexpected gift of this nomadic life!

And what I love MOST about military homes is…

10) They represent the essence of our military journey. We are a collection of memories and battle scars. We load ourselves into trucks and transport ourselves across the country (or the ocean) to serve where we are needed. We smash ourselves into corners, cover our wounds and look out the window at the new scenery. We reinvent ourselves every time, putting forth new energy into our new purpose. We might not look pretty, we might not fit exactly into our new space but we awkwardly try. With every move we look a little more worn (and maybe a little more quirky) but don’t let the outside fool you. We are STRONG, STURDY and ABLE to get the job done. 🙂

To all the military families who are moving this year: may the force be with you, may the movers be gentle with your furniture and may your new nest have neutral paint colors and normal toilets. Godspeed.

Has your military family lived in a quirky home? I would love to hear your stories! ❤️

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A Letter To My Younger Self: A Navy Wife’s Reflection

A Letter To My Younger Self: A Navy Wife’s Reflection

Twenty years ago I sat in a stadium watching my future husband receive his commissioning in the US Navy. With a stack of blissful hopes and dreams we jumped into the military life and flew into the unknown. For that hometown 20-something girl, every single thing was an unknown. Dropped into a completely new world, she fumbled through those first few years, trying her best to understand the new military community and her place within it. I wish I could write her a letter to calm her fears and let her know that she was on the precipice of something rich and amazing.

Dear Younger Self,

Congratulations on your beautiful wedding! That epic day filled with sword arches and a Top Gun serenade seemed like the perfect launching pad for your new life.

Now here you are, two weeks later, unpacking boxes in your new apartment and thinking “What on Earth just happened?” All your family and friends now live thousands of miles away and South Texas surrounds you like a foreign country. (And why is this foreign country so freakishly hot????)

I see the way you are looking around now, disoriented, skeptical and lonely…But let me tell you something: you are going to be okay. Actually, you are going to be more than okay. You are going to have the adventure of a lifetime. LISTEN TO ME:

I know you are lonely now, but you are going to have deep and meaningful friendships. You will have friends from all fifty states, some for a period, but some for a lifetime. You will have close neighbors who invest in you and care for your children. You will meet other military spouses who will become your new family, your new world and your new tribe of military code-breakers. They will meet you in the parking lot when your car battery dies. They will laugh and cry with you during seemingly endless deployment cycles. Find these friends.

Finding your tribe takes effort but you will learn to do it well. Don’t wait around, don’t sit inside, leave the house and pursue people. At first it feels uncomfortable to join a new group or be known as “The Mrs” but I promise you the reward is there for the taking. Eventually you will become so efficient and bold in your quest for tribal membership that you will compose emails like “I like you and I think you are fun, wanna meet me for coffee?” And they do. (Actually, you will do this more than once). I guarantee you that every time you relocate to a new city you will find fantastic friends who will warrant tears when you depart. They sit around the world now, just waiting to meet you for coffee.

You will not be in control of your family’s schedule and there is nothing you can do but laugh. I’m serious here. I see you feeling annoyed, angry and beyond frustrated with the Navy but fighting is futile- you will always lose. You can stubbornly plan a vacation ten months away but sometimes your husband won’t know his schedule until a couple months before. Years of your life will be dictated by the schedule of a ship or the affairs of the world, none of which you can control. The sooner you can accept that, the happier you will be. (Don’t choose anger, choose donuts. Just kidding. Maybe not. Apple Fritters are forever.)

Remember- It’s not his fault that the ship is leaving. Don’t blame him for the schedule when it is inconvenient. When he is walking out the door with his pack and you are laying on the floor with the stomach flu, hoping your unsupervised toddler doesn’t grab any kitchen knives, he isn’t trying to purposefully run out on you. He’s trying to stay employed and not go to a sleepover at the base brig. Pull up your big girl pants and stop taking his schedule as a personal affront! If you want your marriage to succeed, you must learn to separate the two.

Deployments will seem like the end of the world but they are often forgettable. Your first deployment will be nine months long but years later you will barely recall the details. And all those times he deploys when your kids are young and you feel like their hearts will be crushed, the truth is that they won’t remember those separations either. I don’t mean to downplay the effort it will take to persevere through a deployment (because those times will push you beyond your limits), but those separations won’t define you or your kids. Your husband will miss some milestones but he will be there for a million more moments later and those relationships will thrive.

Your kids will have a different childhood than your own, but that is okay. You will wonder if moving them is traumatic, if not living on the same street will damage them. But then you will watch them learn about farming in California, walk the streets of Paris and tour the Capitol Building in DC. You will see their world views broadened through their personal experiences & friendships and you will know that their horizons are wider than you ever dreamed. Contrary to what you worry about, your children will have strong, beautiful roots that grow in many directions.

Your professional career is going to struggle but that’s okay, too. You will love some of your future jobs, but there will come a time when balancing work, family & the military life will be very difficult. “The flexible one” will need to be you and that’s the blunt truth. When your kid has a fever and can’t go to school, your husband won’t be coming home from the ship to handle it. When your kid is crying in the school bathroom after Daddy deploys, you will be the one to show up. And that’s when you will realize your most important job- to show up every time. You will be your family’s grounding force in an ever-shifting world and that stability will be worth more than any paycheck.

The military life will make your world bigger and smaller at the same time. Years from now, you will drive across the United States, from coast to coast, and know someone in almost every place. You will watch the news and think of your foreign friendships and the lessons they taught you about their home countries. Daily, you will pass souvenirs in your home- reminders from squadrons, port visits, tours abroad and all the moments when your world expanded a little further. You will realize one day that you are no longer the same person who was unpacking boxes in that first apartment.

Like every phase of adulthood…

This journey will pass in a blink. When these friends from South Texas begin to retire, your mind will replay all the emotions of the twenty years- the heartache of goodbyes, the stress of moving, the struggle of solo-parenting, the joy of Homecomings, the feelings of patriotism, the love of friends and everything in-between. You will grab your husband’s hand and think of all you have seen and experienced together and realize that the “sacrifice” of this life looks more like a beautiful gift.

SO GO. Don’t be afraid. A wonderful journey stands before you.

With love from your Older and Wiser Self,

p.s. Consider using eye cream a little earlier, then maybe you won’t have big bags under your eyes at age Forty. I’m just sayin.’

p.p.s. Never iron your husband’s white uniform without first confirming that the iron is clean. Especially not the night before a big event. TRUST ME.