Personal Project: The Year of the Work

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An epistolary memoir project begun in January 2016. Each month, I write an inspirational short essay and send it as a letter to subscribers. Each letter includes personal stories with a side of encouragement and Inspiration.


Letter Samples

July 2016

Dear Jane,

A single takeout tray, a smudgy coffee table, Sex and the City marathons, a stack of half-read poetry books. A string of outgoing texts to out-of-town friends, early bedtimes, and a full French press of coffee to myself in the morning. This is what my loneliness looks like. Cavernous, gaping, hungry. This is what my loneliness feels like.

“the year of letting go, of understanding loss. grace. of the word ‘no’ and also being able to say ‘you are not kind’. the year of humanity/humility. when the whole world couldn’t get out of bed. everyone i’ve met this year, says the same thing ‘you are so easy to be around, how do you do that?’. the year i broke open and dug out all the rot with my own hands. the year i learnt small talk. and how to smile at strangers. the year i understood that i am my best when i reach out and ask ‘do you want to be my friend?’. the year of sugar, everywhere. softness. sweetness. honey honey. the year of being alone, and learning how much i like it. the year of hugging people i don’t know, because i want to know them. the year i made peace and love, right here.”

Warsan Shire’s words begin with the idea of letting go, of loss, of the word “no.” I dove into these topics headfirst—feeling that surrender and boundaries would be monumental for me this year. However, I didn’t realize they would also inevitably lead to the reality that I haven’t yet learned to like being alone. I did not foresee the most natural parts of the quote flowing into the most difficult, yet this month I have found myself trapped in a strong current. I can see clearly now that despite our best efforts, we will inevitably funnel into the sea we’ve swam upstream to avoid. Here, in July, I’m tired of shallowly treading through my loneliness; I am learning true surrender for possibly the first time.

I texted a friend last night. He asked how I am and I said, “Lonely… sort of.” He asked me if I feel lonely often. I told him that I did and not to tell anyone—it is my secret. I’ve long believed that admitting loneliness is synonymous with admitting weakness; that my inability to feel comfortable alone is something I should be ashamed of and keep to myself. The truth is, empty rooms often feel as though they have the ability to swallow me whole, and I’ve feared acknowledging this at the risk of giving loneliness more power. I’ve always been this way.

After the politics of childhood parties where moms controlled the guest list and everyone was invited, we all began to establish memories of times we excitedly waited for a promised call that never came. I’ve gone to bed in a full face of makeup that never made it out of the house—and cried after seeing pictures from get-togethers no one invited me to. As far back as the age of eight, my diary entries express confusion about friendship and are riddled with stories of the games girls play—like the day when they all wanted to be my friend and the next when none of them would sit by me at lunch. All the awkward silences when I entered a room. The time the other girls swam to the opposite side of the pool to gossip as I watched the water reflect on the underside of the diving board. I pretended not to notice I was alone.

My first roots of insecurity erupted at a young age; many of them stemmed from issues in friendship. Thoughts of something being wrong with me inhabited my mind. I picked up the habit of second-guessing things I said as soon as conversations ended, and developed a desperate desire to be likeable. It wasn’t long before I established a need to cling to anyone who I felt seen by—anyone to hide behind. By middle school I found a loneliness shield; a pattern that I would carry with me for life, and that was the need for a single person to pour myself into, someone to make me feel safe, wanted, and necessary.

I met Danielle in eighth grade honors English class. She had a short bob, glasses with lenses so thick the size of her actual eyes was difficult to decipher, and braces on both her back and her teeth. She was the epitome of awkward and could make me belly laugh until my sides ached. Because of a move across town the year before, I found myself in the unpleasant role of “the new girl,” and her friendship made that school feel less foreign. She was the first friend I loved like a family member and we were inseparable for years. My junior year of high school I met Claudia. She drove a junker car covered in bumper stickers that felt way cooler than my pristine Jeep Liberty. We went to concerts and gushed about boys and could have survived solely on chips and salsa. We stayed up late to share stories and sometimes I would wake up early and drive to her house so I could sleep next to her. In those days, I didn’t really want to be anywhere else. My freshman year of college I met Hypatia. She lived down the hall but often slept on my futon and we were rarely seen without the other. Before long we were dressing similarly, reading the same books, listening to the same music, and so intertwined that everything felt like a mutual understanding. She was my campus-exploring partner, Urban Outfitters sales rack competitor, and the person I couldn’t wait to return back to after weekends and holidays at home. Then I met the guy who would eventually become my husband, supplying me with a shield for years, until it became clear that a barrier had developed between us rather than around us. Over time, the loneliness pervaded every room in our house—even the ones we were in together. It’s been said that the loneliness with someone else is more devastating than the loneliness when alone. I would argue that it’s a different sort of desperation.

I recently went to the beach with my best friend. His story is similar to mine. We are from the same place and have walked many of the same roads, and when we are together I can rest. When I am at odds with myself he is an advocate for the goodness in me, a constant encouragement, and a devout believer in my unique gifts. He sees a power in me I often don’t see in myself, and because of that, he is often the sole audience for my moments of greatest weakness. As we laid in a little nook on the beach in Malibu, Holly covered in sand and salt water at my feet, I told him my loneliness was becoming a monster preying on me any time I was alone—that it’s favorite pastime is to pick at all my half-healed wounds. It insists that I’m different, that I feel too much, that no one wants to be around me. It says that I don’t do well in group settings, and I’m destined to be a one-on-one friend. It explains that the reason I often feel left out is because there’s something wrong with me, and it believes the same something has been wrong with me since I was that eight-year-old writing in her diary.

This beach best friend is the same friend who has expressed difficulty chipping through my toughest layers. There is a soft, free-flowing center in me that no one sees. It is where my writing and tears and laughter originate, and it’s a place I visit when I’m alone, occasionally bringing back little souvenirs—a poem, a story, a genuine smile, a deep sadness. I’m not brave enough to let others into this place and I protect it with sass and sarcasm. But it’s also the source of what makes me feel different and distant. I once admitted that I sometimes feel tortured by my endless capacity for emotion; I feel misunderstood by others… even by myself. The boy I loved last fall said I had the temperament of Sylvia Plath, and we all know that didn’t end well for her… I fear that being alone is too vulnerable, too fragile, too dark.

But I refuse to be afraid of the unknown in me. This shadowy side is haunting only because it is still undiscovered. If I view myself as a whole, I see that I am both dark and light; I am never all of one or the other. They coexist. Mystery can either intimidate or inspire us, and I can see now that hiding behind an inner door I once thought led into a room of nothing but too-much-feeling are lessons I’ve never given myself the opportunity to learn and valuable thoughts I’ve never been willing to share. I want to know this place better. I want to spend more time here, become familiar with its vast and shrouded corners, hoping to someday feel comfortable inviting the right people to explore with me. But until then, I am recognizing new work that needs to be done—and it needs to be done alone.

I read somewhere that loneliness is not actually the feeling of being alone, but rather the feeling of being misunderstood. At the time it seemed more interesting than true, but as this year progresses I think whoever wrote this might be on to something. It might explain some of the loneliness that occurred during my connection-less marriage. Warsan Shire describes being easy to be around, learning small talk, smiling at strangers. These are all things that make for good company, things that logically should make you feel less lonely—the agonizing lonely bits of the quote appear to be contained in “the year of the being alone.” But I am beginning to wonder if some loneliness is actually contained in the small talk, the shallow interaction, the being “easy” to be around. I struggle with surface level, I am drained by casual conversation. But I also haven’t learned to like being alone, to laugh out loud at my own jokes and ask myself thought-provoking questions, to tell myself my own stories and stay interested.

I think learning to enjoy being alone lies in the ability to dive beneath the surface of yourself, finding company even when no one else is home. Maybe when you get to know yourself like you would know a best friend, you can find more joy in small talk, in being easy to be around, because the desperation for deep connection subsides a bit. And when you understand yourself, then you can recognize when you are understood by others, and discover the right people to ask, “Do you want to be my friend?”

This morning I woke up and listened to Norah Jones “Come Away With Me” on repeat while I got ready. I secured my wet hair into a low bun, put on my favorite dress, and danced in the living room. Sometimes I revert back to my childhood spent in the tri-level house on Chamonix Court where I would pretend I was a princess and pass downtime joyfully. Living room dancing was, and still is, my favorite way to do this. It reminds me of the years I felt at home in my body, the time before the lonely diary entries, when I would happily occupy myself and wait for my dad to come home, put on a record, and twirl me under his arm.

Today my nails are freshly painted, I’m well rested, and I’m moving slowly. I’m realizing that if I let go of the lonely feeling, even for a moment, all I can feel is peace. My house is organized and smells of lilac oil, the dryer is humming as it tosses damp laundry, and my mind is generating poetic lines that it can’t create when I have company. I look around and I see myself everywhere. I’m in the furniture I selected, in the stack of books with freshly folded down page corners, in the remainder of a meal I just ate because it’s what I was craving, in the record spinning on the turntable dad restored and handed down to me, even in my favorite light reflecting the shape of shifting palm branches onto the dining room wall. While the line “The year of being alone and learning how much I like it” was always going to be the most difficult for me, maybe it’s also the most important because now is the perfect time to observe, learn, and value the person I am when I am completely free to be who I am.

This period in my life is likely just a season and a unique opportunity to grow in a place that doesn’t feel ideal, to face the hollow feeling in my chest and find a way to fill it without resorting to using a human as a shield. I am choosing to believe that my life is still a light with moments of darkness, rather than a void with occasional glimmers of brightness. That even on those nights when I’m sitting on the couch trying to fill the emptiness with a glass of wine and a book, that this isn’t my forever. There will likely come a day when I will be grateful for a moment alone, and I will fondly remember the days I am currently living, the time when I was still learning that my body doesn’t become valueless when it’s the only one in the room.

All my love,
Kayley

 

October 2016

Dear Jane,

A year ago, this month, I thought my life was about to dramatically change. Throughout the last days of October 2015, I created a narrative    about my future; a tale of international travel, breathing joy into the lives of others, and sleeping soundly next to a man who made every previous heartbreak and hurt worthwhile. I believed everything that happened in my previous 28 years of life simply set me up for this—an opportunity to love more deeply and live more freely than I imagined possible. I was certain of it. I was intoxicated by it.

On a chilly night at the end of the month, I invited Fairfax over for dinner. We made our staple: a kale salad dressed in lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper, as well as steamed pot stickers with homemade ponzu sauce. Toward the end of our meal, after we sufficiently updated each other on the happenings of our lives, my phone buzzed. It was him. We had met on Instagram a week prior and made true-to-Los-Angeles plans to meet for the first time over an overpriced juice. While the date wasn’t for another couple of days, he was already crossing my mind more than anyone I knew in person. After our first few correspondences, I found myself breaking into an unexplainable smile and my stomach fluttering when his name appeared in my newsfeed. I was already smitten. “Are you busy right now?” flashed across my screen. I glanced up at Fairfax and the excitement in my eyes said what I didn’t have to. “It’s him, isn’t it? What does it say?!” “He wants to know if I’m busy right now.” “You aren’t! You aren’t!” Dutifully following the dating rule about not giving a home address to a stranger, I said he could pick me up at a restaurant down the street in fifteen minutes. We dashed into my room, tore through my wardrobe and decided on my favorite blue jeans, a simple tee, and a long, olive green cardigan because it enhanced my eyes. My hair was in a messy bun from an afternoon spent in the park with Holly, and while I imagined meeting him for the first time with my hair down, it would have to do. I touched up my minimal makeup and Fairfax told me I looked beautiful. “I’ve never been so anxious before a date. Maybe I should cancel. Should I cancel?” “No. I have a good feeling about this. I’m so excited for you.”

Fairfax and I waited in her car outside the restaurant, and just before I was sure I would explode from anticipation, he pulled up in a shiny Audi that was somehow silver, blue, and green all at once, and got out to meet me in the middle of the street. He was taller than I expected, less composed, more awkward. His smile was vibrant and wide as he walked me to the passenger side and opened the car door. His gaze was already adoring, like he was looking at an old friend. As I settled into the leather seat, my nerves relaxed, and it was like I had been here before. Like walking through the backdoor of my parent’s house. Like waking up in my childhood bedroom.

An hour later I was perched on his rooftop with a clear view of the stars—wrapped in a blanket, a pair of his wool socks warming my toes—and sharing my story. I looked away from his enraptured stare as I told the hardest parts, and beamed as I talked about my family. His story aligned with mine as if we had been dancing together for years; as if our two lives traveled parallel all this time and one of us shifted just enough so that we were now completely in sync with one another, destined to do life together. He said I felt clean; that hard work filled the past years of my life, creating space and peace inside of me; that it was breathtaking to witness. “There is a light coming out of you,” he said. I saw a shooting star. He told me it was his birthday.

These magical moments went on for weeks until suddenly confusion, mixed signals, and tears replaced them. Our late nights of conversation and laughter turned into evenings when I went to bed early and alone, looking forward to the first moments of the next day as they were often the most hopeful and not yet riddled with the disappointment that I hadn’t heard from him… again. I couldn’t think about anything else. It was a “Sex and the City” episode come to life, specifically the episode when Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte staged an intervention after Carrie’s breakup with Big because she had to stop talking about it. “But I spent time with his kids. He told his mom about me. He said he had never been so happy.” I simply couldn’t accept that the good times were a memory instead of a present reality, and that letting go was my only choice. I desperately searched for signs that he still cared. I interpreted every “like” on Instagram and feeble text message as “I love you,” even though he had never actually said those words to me.

Over the following weeks I lost sleep and weight and direction. I prayed for healing. It arrived slowly, a sun creeping over a horizon after a stormy night. It began in those early mornings; in moments spent curled up with Holly in Fairfax’s bed as she played old episodes of “Friends” for me on her iPad; in her offerings of water and tea and sometimes tequila; in the sound of my mom’s voice as she counted down the days remaining until I was home for Christmas. And then it came in tears cried at a Grand Rapids brewery; in waking up to a view of a lake outside my window; in coffee with mom every day; in game after game of pool with dad; in laughter at happy hour; in long conversations on Lily’s couch.

I blocked his phone number and let months pass. The person I was before we met returned. I dated other people. I found my footing. I was over it. I was stronger because of it—and willing to test that strength.

That night in March he admitted he couldn’t remember how to get to my house—the one he once referred to as “Eden.” It took him twice as long as expected to arrive. He sat on the left side of the couch, the one closest to the record player, which was playing my favorite songs. He remarked on how we had the exact same taste in music, and as he studied the bag full letters on the coffee table, his eyes filled with tears. He said it was as if he saw my heart and soul laid out before him, and he begged me to come closer. I resisted, and felt a wave of terror as I looked into his eyes. As his mouth moved, I sat uncomfortably with the feeling that everything he said seemed untrue, especially when the words “I love you” fell from his lips for the first time. “I love you. You’re a part of me. I still can’t offer you anything. Please let me hold you.”

It was only a matter of weeks before I blocked his phone number again. That singular test of strength was enough to learn that I don’t need to test my strength to know it is there. Sometimes strength is in understanding your weaknesses, and perhaps the real strength is in maintaining a boundary, rather than not needing one at all. Healing happens in safe spaces and I had to learn to create and maintain that safe place.

It’s been a year since the night we laid on our backs looking up at the stars, a year since he remarked that he could see a light coming from me. He was the first person to tell me he saw it, but now I see it in myself every day. Rather than remembering what it sounded like when he said, “There is a light coming out of you.” I recall what it felt like to say the two words that fell out of my mouth in response, two words that surprised us both. “I know.” They came from nowhere, or rather somewhere buried so deep I didn’t even know they were there.

Prior to our meeting, I spent years rebuilding my life, questioning what I believed, learning lessons the hard way, scrubbing my most hidden corners, and I still felt dirty inside. I had adopted a kindness and compassion I never imagined possible and I still carried around guilt and a feeling of unworthiness. It was as if that “I know” sprung out of a place inside me I hadn’t yet explored. It was a preview of what was to come. I look back on who I was a year ago, a girl who, at age 28, was divorced and in a new city she never expected to call home. Despite all she already overcame she never could have anticipated that the next few months would shape her in a way she hadn’t yet experienced, that there was still more to learn, and there always will be. She may have been naïve and had far less figured out than she chose to project, but I am so proud of her. I am proud of those two words she said before she even recognized their truth. Now, a whole rotation around the sun later, after that boy came and went and came and went again, she hasn’t let him take the light away with him. Because the light is still inside her, perhaps brighter than ever, and she knows that now. She knows.

I know.

This is what I don’t know. I don’t know the ten steps to heal heartbreak. I don’t know how to stop involuntary tears or when you’ll be able to listen to his favorite song again. I don’t know when you will be grateful to sleep in the middle of the bed or when using his toothbrush to clean the grout on the bathroom floor will feel more redemptive than disappointing. I don’t know the how-to’s or the timeline or the formula, and I don’t know if anyone does. I do know that healing takes time. I know that it is more like a TSA line of back and forths than an elevator rising. But even in your weaving in and out of good and bad days, you are still moving forward. Accept that it comes in waves. Be grateful for the good days and forgive yourself for the bad ones. Know that sometimes that is the best you can do. Know that practicing gratitude and grace and forgiveness is sometimes a lot to deal with. It’s okay to feel tired. It’s okay to feel discouraged. It’s okay to be sad. But know that someday you won’t be. Tell yourself that there is a light inside of you and practice saying, “I know.” Look forward to the day you believe yourself. It will come.

Today is Halloween. It’s a chilly day in Los Angeles, and I recall how last year on this day we were on our way to Point Dume in Malibu. I was wearing my favorite swimsuit cover up, a canvas-colored tunic with embroidery and drawstrings that hang from the neck with tassels at the end. I remember because the photos he took of me that day as I gleefully playing in the ocean are some of the few from that time in my life that I haven’t deleted from my Instagram.

Last year it was warm enough to go in the water and stay until after sunset, but today I am wearing the bootcut jeans I bought three years ago in hopes they would come back in style, a chunky secondhand sweater, and a scarf I rediscovered in the back of my closet. I’m eating alone outside at a local restaurant, and I’m happy. I’m just as happy today as I was a year ago. But the difference is that today’s happiness is far less anxious, less worrisome, than last year’s happiness. Last year’s happiness was dependent on the undependable, on the actions of another person and his sudden, disorienting presence in my life. Today’s happiness is rooted deep in me and with that comes an inexplicable feeling of peace. It is an unshakeable satisfaction that I could have only learned through the mistake of deriving my joy from somewhere other than my own self. And despite my despair when this man continually told me he couldn’t offer me anything, I have found a way for those words to stay with me in a more positive way. No one can offer me anything that will make me more happy, joyful, and grateful than I am right now. While I hope for the opportunity to someday share this new way of living with someone who has also experienced it, I know that if I begin each morning for the rest of my life waking up to only myself, I will still anticipate every new day. This light does not burn out when there’s no one but me to see it. It is a year later, and I know that now.

All my love,
Kayley

 

February 2017

Dear Jane,

My time in Bali has come and gone; a chapter of my life that fits entirely on a single calendar page. It arrived as a sudden disruption; one that I know will take time to process and is certain to surface in my writing—even as a subtle undertone—for years to come. When I answer questions about my time spent there, I find myself reliving the same details. There were afternoons dedicated to wandering and shopping, sunsets that demanded my attention and sunrises that rivaled them, enormous spiders who let themselves in and out through the crack under my door, a chorus of frogs that bellowed at the moon while I lay wide eyed in bed, ginger coffee and fresh fruit with squeezed lime each morning, cinematic views of rice fields dotted with bleach-white cranes, a new friendship with my body even when it is ripe and sweaty and makeup-less, and terrifying moments in traffic as I learned to ride a motorbike. I lounged poolside with a jungle view, hiked to waterfalls, and snorkeled waves the size of my house in an attempt to spot manta rays. But I’m not here to write about any of that today, because along with these experiences, I was also learning a thing or two (or infinity) about the concept of home.

In the past four years I have referred to six different places as home. Presently, I call two places home: the lake house lovingly designed by my mother, and the little LA cabin with floors that slant away from the front door and exactly three cracked tiles in the kitchen. It has been four years since “home” was the farmhouse with latches instead of doorknobs and a crabapple tree that burned red in the fall; the one on Heather Lane whose walls I painted white and gray with the promise of staying there forever. This was the second “forever” vow that I have made—and I broke both promises simultaneously when I said goodbye to this house and the man who lived inside it. I haven’t made another vow since. I often wonder what it might look like if I ever choose to again.

Directly following the loss of these forevers, I returned to a house that will always feel like home; the one my parents built and raised their children in; the one that burned down just three months after my family’s moving truck pulled out of its driveway, as if our departure left it dry and brittle, as if our spirits had kept it standing. In the wake of its sale I kept reminding myself that “home” goes beyond the house; that even with new owners it would still be ours. I still feel this way now that the house is gone. The night we watched video footage of flames erupting from its rooftops, burning the pine ceiling in the living room and the sponge-painted crescent moons above the window seat in my childhood bedroom, my mother said, “No one can take my memories from me.” The house is gone, but the home is not.

During my return to this home—five-and-a-half years after I moved out in order to start my new, married life—the bedroom with the sponge-painted crescent moons on the ceiling remained unoccupied: a neatly-made twin bed, an empty side table, a closet filled with bare hangers. Instead I called the guest room “home,” a decision my parents made in hopes that I wouldn’t feel as though I was regressing. Miraculously, I did not.

Then there was the apartment on Lafayette. It bordered the bustle of downtown and the charming historic district. A number eight hung on the door, and the inside smelled like Kitty, my roommate’s cat, who I never managed to make friends with (although I don’t think this reflected her temperament, but rather my lack of trying). That winter, the infamous Polar Vortex arrived, and my windows let in more cold air than sunlight. But on the rare occasion of a clear morning I huddled under an acrylic blanket made by my grandmother when I was still a toddler, reveling in the few hours that the sun shone through the dirty windows. In those days I often had company because I was still struggling to believe that I did not become less valuable when I was alone. For nine months, I ignored the stains on the carpet and the peeling, stick-on tiles in the bathroom, but as soon as I hung my artwork I realized it was time to go.

Enter: California. The white stucco duplex with a blue front door on Griffin Avenue was my soft spot to land upon arrival in Los Angeles. I had a Penske truck full of furniture and no justification for my decision to move across the country aside from my impulsive nature and a desperate need to get out of my hometown—far away from relationships I had burned to the ground. I kept this second part of my reasoning under wraps when meeting new people because I believed it cast a shadow over me that I was exhaustingly trying to leave behind. This apartment smelled like Dad, my roommate’s cat, but boasted a brand spankin’ new Ikea kitchen and refinished, dark wood floors. I always knew it would be a temporary home but I spent an entire afternoon hanging shelves on the wall anyway. It distracted me from the fact that I would be packing it all up in a year's time.

And last month, while far away from all of these past and present houses, I explored a foreign place that looked nothing like my concept of home. I spent my days half overwhelmed and half in awe that I was not dreaming; that the smell of incense in the air, the crowing of roosters, and elaborate statues of Hindu gods around each corner were not imagined; that the stories I heard about this world were not make-believe after all. The marigolds were brighter, the coconuts sweeter, the tradition richer than any Hollywood film could have portrayed, and I had no choice but to dive in headfirst.

On my first day I thought I could wade in by sticking with the familiar: a yoga class. I forgot to get an international SIM card at the airport and had yet to learn to ride a scooter, so I routed to Yoga Barn (a place I had heard was one of the most popular), took screenshots of the route on Google Maps, and headed out on foot. The heat in Bali is nothing like summers in Michigan or the dry heat in Los Angeles. It is more like lying in a tanning bed wrapped in a hot towel, moisture escaping out of pores you didn’t know you had, and remaining trapped against your flesh until it becomes red and itchy. Initially it is difficult to breathe, the air burns and feels too thick to swallow. On this first day, I wore a black tent dress with white zebras all over it—not zebra pattern, but actual zebras—and a pair of white tennis shoes I brought with the intention of trashing and leaving behind. I stood in front of the fan, dress pulled up around my chest, gathering the motivation to leave my room, push through my jetlag, and explore this world that suddenly and deeply intimidated me. Before I even closed the front gate of my homestay, I could feel drips of sweat running down my back and soaking the elastic of my underwear. As if directly responding to my qualms with the heat, that very first walk on the very first day introduced me to the way it rains in Bali—heavy and with no warning.

After I walked about a mile and a half (I still have no idea how many kilometers that is), a large building with the word “Yoga” came into view. I entered excitedly thinking I had reached my destination only to find that this was the Yoga Center, not the Yoga Barn. I approached a woman I had seen walking on the road and was foolishly surprised by her European accent. As she explained that the Yoga Barn was off of a main street I had turned off of earlier, I felt very aware of the sweat beading on my face and the look of confusion and fear underneath it.

I began to retrace my steps, appreciating the vibrant shades of green in the jungle trees on both sides of an elevated walking bridge. At the bottom of the hill, shops lined the street and the road became narrow. It was then that the clouds unzipped and went from a shower to a soaking in a matter of seconds. I dodged underneath an overhang where I saw a sign for “Free Wifi!,” thinking I might be able to go inside and call a taxi, only to find that it was closed. Rain already flooded the street... A beige river with occasional whitecaps flowed downhill but the locals didn’t seem bothered. Motorbikes allowed the water to carry them faster—the drivers ankle deep in the current—and cars and trucks fought against the flow, kicking waves up onto their windshields. I stood mesmerized for what felt like hours, waiting for the rain to let up so I could continue on my way, even though my way still included feeling very lost and very far from home.

The word “home” is defined as the place where one lives, but we often refer to home as something less tangible. The concept of home being a physical place has morphed into a feeling of familiarity, comfort, and safety. Sometimes when we say “home,” we aren’t talking about four walls, but two arms. Maybe it’s not what lies under a roof, but a feeling in the air. It isn’t the place we sleep at night, but, instead, where we go in our dreams. In this case, the feeling of being far from home wasn’t simply an indication of being away from my house but a feeling of discomfort, of being somewhere completely foreign, of not having a safe haven where I knew I could rest.

Somewhere between the raindrops and cars that had transformed into boats, a man who owned the café across the street spotted me. He stepped outside to offer an umbrella, but by the time I had waded through the rapids and arrived on his front stoop, he had gone inside to fetch his rain gear and extra bike helmet. He asked where I wanted to go and insisted he give me a lift on his motorbike. After thanking him profusely and offering him money, which he refused, I clumsily climbed behind him on the bike. Having not yet learned that there are handles on the back of the seat, I wrapped my arms around his waist (something I’m quite embarrassed about now) and we drove through the downpour to Yoga Barn.

This experience alone didn’t cause an immediate shift in whether or not Bali felt like home but it certainly eased my nerves a bit. As the time passed I began to find comfort in routine: early morning breakfasts served by my host, accompanied by journaling, a café with field views and the perfect breakfast burrito, streets with names and shops I recognized, the neighbor’s dog who sunbathed in the same spot all day, the cat with half a tail who greeted me at night, riding my motorbike to my favorite places without needing directions.

People ask me how I spent my time and I regret not writing down a daily agenda because much of the time spent has escaped my memory. It’s almost as if someone is asking me how I spend a day off in Los Angeles or the details of what I used to do on the weekends when I was in Grand Rapids. I can tell you places I went, I can tell you what the streets looked like and the way the people dressed, how friendly they were, how much things cost, where to get the best smoothie bowl, where to find the best jungle views… but the details of what I did are hazy.

In retrospect, I think some of the best times in my life are not the most vivid memories. Without photographs, I wonder if some of the specific events I remember now would be just a muddled feeling of general satisfaction, rather than a recollection of distinct moments. I remember the details of vacations with my family as a child because I have photos to remind me. The details aren’t nearly as defined, but I do remember feeling happy above anything else. My tendency to remember the way I felt before recalling the details of what I did leads me to believe the places that feel most like home are the ones where I feel welcome, cherished, and cared for. “Home” is not held in the act of simply spending time or being able to kick up my feet; it is an atmosphere of safety, familiarity, and comfort.

The places I have lived over the past four years were houses to me, but not all were homes. The apartment on Lafayette was not a home. The duplex on Griffin was not a home. The house on Heather Lane was only a home for a short while. The house I grew up in is still a home even though it is now nothing more than ash stamped in the dirt beneath a new house a different family calls “home.” My little cabin is the single thing that makes me feel at home in Los Angeles, and I already mourn the day I move on, as I inevitably will. And my tiny guesthouse in Ubud, Bali—spiders, frogs, sweat, and all—is a familiar detail I will always remember about this foreign, wild place, where I spent days that blend together into feelings of contentment and strange familiarity; this place I never could have anticipated I would call “home.”

All my love,
Kayley

 

May 2017

Dear Jane,

At age 18, while sitting in a folding metal chair, I propped my knees against an economy-sized freezer, fluorescent lights illuminating the pages of The Perks of Being a Wallflower and read the words, “So I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons. And maybe we'll never know most of them. But even if we don't have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them.” It was the summer after my senior year of high school. I’d cut my hair short and dyed it brown, wore peasant-style skirts and earth-toned tees, and donned jewelry made of hemp and string. I worked two jobs: the first at a local salon tending the desk—eventually leading to my decision to go to cosmetology school—and the second in a halfway house at Kent Country Club. The term “halfway house” doesn’t elicit an image of what this place actually was (a small snack shop located on the ninth green), but it did represent a transitional time in my life, as halfway houses do for those who stay in them. That summer was one of letting go, of watching a previous life fade as a new one loomed on the horizon.

I did not simply work at Kent Country Club; I grew up there. Not necessarily on the putting greens or in the pool or at the concession area, eating nachos like the members’ children, but in a small room in the pro shop—my dad’s office. On our visits, I often sat on a wooden chair with a leather seat, wheeling around on the flattened carpet, staring at framed images of golfers and treating golf tees like toys. Dad started working there as the Golf Professional years before I was born and held this position throughout my adolescence. While Mom cared for my older brother, Zachary, and me, Dad went to the course just after sunrise and left around sunset. We ate our family dinners late and went to bed right afterward. On Wednesdays and Fridays, Mom would help out at the club, and on the days Zach and I would visit, she dressed us in our best clothes and monitored our behavior closely until we slid into the safety of the back office to joke around with Dad’s assistants.

Many of the members took a liking to us, knew our names, and always said hello. I couldn’t tell them apart; they all blended together with their button-down golf shirts and pressed pants I could only describe as brown—though I have no doubt I understood the term “khakis” earlier than most children.

Despite the assumption I was born to be a golfer, I opted for dance lessons. My visits to the golf course were strictly to see Dad and often not by choice. He worked weekends and holidays, but on an occasional Monday, he had the day off, and we would have a small family adventure, spending time in Pentwater, a little beach town on Lake Michigan, or taking a trip to the zoo. At 11 years old, I stayed home to watch Layne and Chase when Mom went to the club. The workings of my family revolved around Kent as if it were the sun we needed to survive, and in many ways, it was.

At 17 years old, I accepted Dad’s offer of a position in the backroom. I spent three months lifting baskets of golf balls, cleaning clubs, and doing my best to keep up with the boys I worked alongside, desperate to prove that being my father’s daughter didn’t make me less qualified. But when I had a chance to take a job in the halfway house the next year, I said yes and looked forward to a more laid-back position. I spent my summer reading an enormous stack of books (The Perks of Being a Wallflower included) and resisting the tempting ice cream treats in the freezer. I endured countless stories about my childhood from people I didn’t recognize, turned down offers to set me up with their sons, and never insisted upon being called “Kayley” as opposed to “Charley’s daughter.” On my last day, I turned in my uniform and drove away, knowing I would never return to work there and wondering how my father could stand it.

The summer turned to fall, and my cell phone rang from its usual position on the windowsill in my dorm room. It was my mother; my dad had been fired. Although I could hear her astonishment and anger at the way Kent treated him after 27 years of hard work, loyalty, and sacrifice, she revealed a glimmer of hope on the other side. He never would have left on his own. Like maybe she could find the good in it already. Like maybe she knew my father and our family needed this.

A year after the phone call, I was engaged and mom was eagerly helping me plan a wedding. Dad was pursuing his lifelong passion of teaching as a successful, independent golf instructor, allowing him to spend more time with his family, far from the drama of members and private club politics. Soon-to-be husband and I were receiving premarital counseling at my childhood

church and not taking the lessons very seriously. We seldom argued, we didn’t foresee finances being an issue, and we both knew we wanted children. We assumed our life together would move along fluidly—a steady current flowing in the same direction without disruption. As with many stories, expectations of a happy ending often result in a disappointing conclusion and a lot of hard-earned lessons.

In Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion, she wrote, “I have never before understood what ‘despair’ meant, and I am not sure that I understand now, but I understood that year.” 2013 was that year for me. It’s difficult to put into words how I felt in those days. I can’t quite describe what it was like to move out of my house, to answer hard questions from family and friends, to go to counseling again, knowing that our stream diverged somewhere along the way and neither one of us knew how or why. We found ourselves in completely different places; I decided our marriage was over, and he decided he wanted to try.

I’m not proud of 2013. I don’t consider the end of my marriage as a battle won or an accomplishment. I don’t like remembering the look on his face when our counselor told him I simply didn’t want to be married anymore. I don’t like the layers of guilt that compounded, the ones I am still trying to peel off. I don’t like the way I hurt him; I don’t like the way it ended; and I don’t like the fact that any of it happened at all. But amidst the despair and heartache I had to trust that the only way forward was to keep moving and keep trying to feel okay—things that are much harder than they sound.

A few summers ago I connected with a friend who my ex-husband and I met while we were married. She lives out of town but seeks out company when she visits, and our paths crossed in Michigan for a couple of days. After the preliminary “catch-up” portion of the conversation she mentioned that she had seen ex-husband recently, that he and his girlfriend were doing well, that he seemed happy. She said he admitted he could finally see what I saw a couple of years previously, that somewhere in his desperation to hold on to our disintegrating relationship he didn’t take the space to acknowledge that maybe it was for the best.

Hindsight is 20/20. While this statement rightly earns its title of being cliché, it also proves to be true. When you are in the midst of intense turmoil, finding a solution seems impossible; grief is your constant companion; and you fear you will forever remain emotionally crippled. 2013 was my personal hell, but now I can look back four years down the road knowing that while it was the most painful year of my life thus far, it was also the most important.

I type this from my dining room table next to a vase of fresh flowers in my little house; a scene I have depicted before and never tire of. It was in this same location I recently received a text from a friend asking if I had heard ex-husband and his girlfriend eloped. I told her I hadn’t. Three dots appeared, disappeared, and reappeared in our text thread as I watched her trying to find the right words. But before she could respond I told her it was okay—that I was okay. He was the one who wanted to be married and I was the one who didn’t, and in the end, we both got what we desired.

Given enough time, patience, and hope, we do get what is best for us, even if it is vastly different from what we expected or thought we wanted. I took the time I needed and learned to be alone. I learned to let go and live with empty hands while I searched for a new house to call home, a new person to love, and a new, independent version of myself I so desperately wanted to discover. Ex-husband is married again, and I hope he is living a life that makes him happier than ours.

I look back on 2013 as a year blanketed in fog, with the ground crumbling beneath me. I needed to shed layers to build something new. Among many of the words that helped me heal are the ones I read under those fluorescent lights at a place I imagine my dad holds in similar regard: the country club he dedicated 27 years of his life to, only to find something better on the other side, something he had to be forced into because he never would have left on his own.

“So I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons. And maybe we'll never know most of them. But even if we don't have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them.”

It is hard to see where you are going when you’re in the fog. Sometimes it feels impossible to believe that something greater is waiting, that you won’t always long for life as it was before, that you won’t go to bed hoping to wake up and realize it was all a bad dream. Despair will come, but it will also go, and someday you won't remember exactly how it felt because you've made it to the other side, and you know the rest of life awaits you.

All my love,
Kayley