“I know you don’t like hugs but …” a friend of mine said recently, as she raised her arms to say goodbye after hearing we were moving out of town. I happily hugged her back, all the while protesting such a characterization, promising that I come from “a very huggy family.” I waited until she walked away before letting the tears roll down my cheeks.
From behind the safety of my sunglasses, I thought of how this casual acquaintance had no idea how much she meant to me, how many times I thanked God for her, for being the one familiar, friendly face I saw every day at the preschool pickup line. “I know you don’t like hugs.” Once again I was reminded how my insecurities and shyness make me seem reserved and aloof, when inside my heart beats so loudly for those along my path.
Since I graduated college 17 (holy cow) years ago, I’ve lived in four states and I’ve moved 13 times. By now you’d think I’d be great at packing, hauling, saying goodbye and saying hello. But I’m not.
I do like hugs, as hard as they are. Well, I like half a hug. I like the holding on, not so much the letting go. And these last few weeks I’ve had to do a lot of letting go.
After five months of being unemployed, Chris found a job. (Hallelujah!) It’s a good job, in State College, PA., which is home to my alma mater. This meant we were moving forward while I was also moving back, in a sense. Back to one of the greatest towns I’ve ever lived in, back to familiarity and grilled stickies and Nittany Nation. I should have been more excited than I was when we finally got the call. Everyone kept asking how excited I was. “It’s your dream town!” they gushed. And it is. Or it was. Or I thought it would be.
But something about it felt different, unsettling. Perhaps it’s moving to Happy Valley during a time of great unrest and uncertainty there. Perhaps the summer of Chris being unemployed got to me. Maybe it made me crave a longer-lasting security, more solid ground. The thing is, though, we were never in jeopardy of falling. There was always something – a severance check, a family member, a freelance job, an anonymous gift in the mail – that spread itself beneath us like a net of safety just when we needed it.
Still, I couldn’t shake the unsettled feeling, all while we packed and planned and told the news of our new adventure to the boys. Letting go of what’s behind, and not knowing exactly what’s ahead, has been harder this time than ever before. I cried a lot, quietly, without letting anyone see me. I argued with Chris over what to pack, and how soon. I dragged my feet with the goodbyes.
I think part of the problem is once you have kids, you say goodbye to a place in a different way. The rooms of your home remind you of their milestones, their laughter. It’s difficult to say goodbye to your friends, but it’s heartbreaking to say goodbye to people your children love and trust.
When we pulled away from the old house last weekend, Kostyn sobbed in the back seat. They both begged to go back. They missed their bedroom, their little yard, their tiny playroom. They don’t know that the “playroom” was really supposed to be a breakfast nook, and their yard was smaller than most driveways.
I tried to calm them down as I turned the corner and drove away, passing the woods where my cat is buried. When they finally fell asleep, I cried again as I drove to our new town. My old town.
Regardless of where it is, I usually get excited for a new chapter. I move into a new place thinking about where the sofa will look best, which pictures to hang on the dining room wall. I like the decorating, the settling in. I like getting to work, making it feel like home. This time as I unloaded box after box into room after room, I couldn’t shake the nagging pessimist inside, wondering how long we’d be here before we’d have to do it all again. I resented the temporary nature of renting, all this inevitable packing and hauling and leaving. I felt like I wasn’t giving my kids the kind of permanence they deserve. This State College home is the fifth place Kostyn has lived. He’s only 5 years old.
We had permanence once, in the form of a dream home that we worked hard for, and that I loved dearly. We gave it up without regrets to move our lives and our kids closer to family. And then life twisted and turned and here we are, grateful and blessed but still somehow unsettled, facing a new job, a new home, a new town, a new school. With kindergarten starting in a week, Kostyn enters a new stage of life, and Evan and I are faced with a new daily routine, a new kind of quiet.
New neighbors, new church, new, new, new, new, all while missing the old home, the old porch, the old familiar playgrounds. I like the church that already felt like family, the neighbors who trusted me with their kids, as I trusted them with mine. When I don’t know what’s to come, I cling to what’s behind, since it’s the only thing I can see clearly.
The only thing helping me is a story my sister-in-law Lisa shared with us last weekend, as we bumped along U.S. 322 in a rented 26-foot Penske truck on our way back to the old place for a second load of stuff. Lisa, a personal trainer who helps train Hamilton College’s swim team, told us how she entered the college’s fieldhouse one morning before dawn, as she’d done many times before. In the dark stillness, the motion-sensored lights way up in the rafters turned on one by one as she walked through the huge building, lighting her way like a moving spotlight, a little at a time. She’d walk a few steps under the light and, just as she was reaching the edge of darkness – ‘click’ – the next light would turn on.
In that moment, alone in the fieldhouse, she heard God’s voice. Like a rushing whisper of a single thought, he promised her: “I’ll give you all the light you need to walk in.”
The story gave me chills, and the image calmed me in a way nothing else has been able to. Now every time that unsettled feeling creeps up, I think of those words. “I’ll give you all the light you need to walk in.” No more, no less.
The way I figure it, goodbyes and hellos and hugs are just points along the edge of the spotlight God shines down on my life. And the edge of anything is always a little unsettling. Of course I yearn to see more, to know that everything will be OK 14 steps ahead. It’s human nature. And when I can’t see ahead, I drag my feet, not wanting the light to fade from the familiarity of what’s behind.
But if I stand still, I’m not allowing God to light the path before me. And if I spend time squinting to see or imagine or fear what’s on the horizon, I miss the moments He is bathing in light before me right now.
The next step is really all I need to see.
So I will try to just enjoy the first day of kindergarten, not fret about the whole year. I will hang the pictures on the dining room wall, and not worry how long they’ll stay up. The rough edges of the unknown are softened by faith and trust, by the belief that my life will unfold the way it is meant to, and by the comfort of knowing it will be punctuated by many hugs.
Turns out I was wrong about those: I don’t like half a hug, I like the whole thing, for the perfect expression of love is both holding on and letting go.