I set out alone from Santa Barbara on a hot July day, my little sedan packed to the brim, and cruised north along Highway 101. The only key I owned was to my car. I had just finished packaging up my life to leave the place I’d lived for 32 years. I was alternately thrilled and worried, exhilarated and exhausted.
I was 59, newly retired, and had just said goodbye to a beautiful place where I’d forged my adulthood; raised two kids, built a few careers, formed bonds, created community, and shared a history with people who knew me well. I was leaving behind my beloved Pacific ocean, perfect weather, and small town vibe. I was leaving California, the cradle of my identity and lifestyle, where I grew up, met my husband, and where my family still lived. I even said goodbye to my husband, who wouldn’t join me for another six months, when retirement caught up with him.
I’d been (anxiously) looking forward to this solo drive to Portland. A thousand miles to ramble, unfettered by responsibility or schedules! I could catch my breath, let go of the last several months of chaotic planning and stress that preceded this red letter day. Amidst all the work of getting out of town, I’d set aside time for this drive as a stretch of much needed quiet, when I could mentally prepare myself for the next step into an unknown future.
All I really knew was that I was moving to a big city where I would start over again, an opportunity for transformation that I’d been craving, but unable to create for myself while mired in my old life. Almost everything around me now would change. The question remained, would I be able to change myself as well?
Although I was worried and a tinge regretful at what I was losing, I was also delighted with my audacity, and felt quite ready for this new adventure. I was setting out to do new and unknown things, something I thought I’d left behind in my 20s, and was ready to seize whatever adventure came my way. For now I would sleep on my daughter’s spare room floor, and beyond that I knew very little.
“It’s a dangerous business… going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” — J.R.R. Tolkien
How does change happen when you’re attached and committed to something? I tend to stand my ground and chant, “No, no, no, maybe, ok, yes.” I once found comfort in the rhythm of my routine, and had a good life. Why change?
Until recently, Portland was just a place to visit our daughter and have big city adventures, but it wasn’t a place to live. We were rooted where we were, and thought we would only leave our house feet first.
“Who wants to let go of something they love?” –Natalie Goldberg
Then the birth of my granddaughter planted seeds of unrest. This was my first hint of something new drawing me away from my settled life. Hours after she was born on a winter solstice evening in a warm, candle-lit room, my daughter handed this little baby gift to me, and I felt a soul-cracking shift in who I was, and in what and where I wanted to be.
My heart ached on that return south, my world crashing down. “How can we leave? We’re missing everything!” I told my husband. But the truth was, we were years from retirement, and our roots were deep at home.
Upon our return, everything seemed smaller and emptier. I had been happy with my general lifestyle, but now work felt confining and had outworn its pull. My stale habits weren’t working for me. My heart had shifted allegiance.
You know when it’s time to change, even while instinct urges you to resist. I recalled my college years, failing to both adjust to college and get over a heartbreak. I spiraled into a series of bad decisions, bad sex, bad food, and bad attitudes, and only managed to escape by spending a year abroad. Desperate and apprehensive but excited, I threw myself into the unknown, a transformative fire. Navigating life on my own, jumping when adventure came along, I emerged burnished, healed, and confident, the best year of my life. It didn’t change who I was at my core, but it was a new and improved me. I learned that I could take chances, that I had the necessary tools, and that I could do it again if needed.
I’d lived in California most of my life, in Santa Barbara all my married life, and at the same job for too long. My once comforting routine became predictable, a well-worn rut. The kids were grown, friends were busy, and I was restless. I dragged myself out the door each day, and when I finally returned home, played rounds of solitaire, and fell down internet rabbit holes. “Creature of habit” described me pretty well as I increasingly skulked in my cave.
Sometimes all we want is transformation. Stories about leaving everything behind and reinventing oneself are intriguing, romantic, and alluring. But when it became personal, it was scary and full of seemingly uncrossable barriers. My preference is to wade in slowly and gradually acclimate myself. I prefer to tread water a while, and do what I can to keep from going under.
It’s easy to get stuck when thinking about making changes. An idea comes along, but you reject it out of hand. Maybe after the second or third time you pay attention. You follow a few paths, poke around, and find some dead ends. You explore one a little further, probe a little deeper, and there you are heading down a road you only recently knew nothing about.
A friend once called this “being had by an idea.” Similarly, in “Big Magic,” Elizabeth Gilbert believes that ideas are waiting for us to be ready and willing to receive them, sending coincidences and portents to get our attention.
The idea of upending our lives began with a back and forth dance between California and Oregon, small steps at first, a see-saw of allegiances South to North, though I wasn’t quite conscious that that was happening. When our son moved to Portland, and our daughter announced a second baby on its way, inevitability took over, and that see-saw landed firmly on the other side. The momentous, heart-squeezing excitement of our decision to move still delights me now, more than three years later.
At my age, these moments don’t come as often as they once did. I questioned my flexibility and openness, but what I did have was experience, a sort of wisdom, and an abiding wish for adventure.
That drip of idea grew from a trickle to a steady stream. Once we jumped in, we rode the torrent, breathlessly hanging on. We fully immersed ourselves in the idea of a new life, and maneuvered around the inevitable obstacles one by one.
As we got closer to our move, in rare quiet moments, my emotions about a new life ran to extremes. While change was familiar – changing roles to wife, mother, changing careers, moving cities, moving houses, starting new ventures – they’d each come one at a time. This move to Portland would change everything at once!
It felt like a rebirth of sorts. I imagined that I would test my mettle, rethink and reinvent myself as I never would by staying in the same place, the same job, and the same routines. I ran hot and cold, feeling soaring hope and doubt, giddy with possibility and a being a nervous wreck. It was like being 20 again, jumping into the unknown, running away and running to. There was adventure and mystery, blank slate and blind groping. All I knew for sure was that I had family handing me a foothold in a new, attractive, and exciting place; everything else was up for grabs.
As the big move approached, we weren’t much in control of the pace and sequence. Momentum gathered and gained on itself. The house sold before we had a local place to live. The moving truck took our things (to storage) before we were ready to move out. I would arrive in Portland before I had an apartment. Within six months of deciding to move, I said goodbye to dear friends, to a place I loved, and hit the road.
Footnote: In my saddest moment as I left town, my brilliant Yoga teacher and friend knew just what I needed to hear, and read me this perfect Rumi poem:
Your grief for what you’ve lost lifts a mirror
up to where you’re bravely working.
Expecting the worst, you look, and instead,
here’s the joyful face you’ve been waiting to see.
Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralyzed.
Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding,
the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated