The Responsible One

"Oh, she's the one who never ran away." I was standing in a hospital waiting room last winter when a childhood pal I hadn't seen in years walked in, surprised to see me. The mutual friend with her offered the brief explanation.

In a way, it's true. And in another, it's not.

Unlike nearly everyone I know (notable exceptions excluded), I've moved about 22 times in my life, both nearby and cross-country, starting when I was just a little kid. And, although my family stayed in one place while I was in high school, I did run away the very first chance I got. With my choice of universities ready to invite me in, I only bothered applying to four. I was waitlisted at my first choice, received an insufficient financial offer from my second, and ruled out the fourth.

That left me with my third choice. The University of Houston was recruiting hard in academics in the early and mid-'90s, in part because several years of NCAA sanctions had done a number on its sports programs. That was after the days when UH's "cougar keepers" prowled the football sidelines with a live mountain lion on a chain, so the chance of mauling wasn't even available to liven up the weekly trouncing at the hands of Texas A&M (with their barking German Shepherd), University of Texas (with their rumored-to-be-drugged-up steer) and a host of other high-performing teams throughout the region. 

As a 17-year-old West Coast/desert transplant in the comparatively sedate Northeast, I was clamoring for a way out of the bubble as high school ended. I was susceptible to the UH admissions office spiel, lunch with the dean of the honors college, visits with the marching band and percussion directors, and general amusement of the big Gulf Coast oil city. The zoo! The giant Boot Barn! Papacito's! That festival we drove through on Montrose! 

However, in all of the warm, sunny, humid, shiny (also sparkly, painted, leathered, and feathered, at least on Montrose) whiz-bangs that weekend, what I disregarded was one very direct comment. I was meeting with one of the journalism professors, a man whom I expected to be my advisor when I eventually enrolled. He had seen my transcripts and knew the region from which I was visiting.  And he asked, "Why the hell would you come here?"

Clearly, my mother and I thought, he must be having a bad day. Or he was one of the many who saw that I was first in my class, planned to study journalism, and lived three hours outside New York City ... so immediately assumed that I would apply to and attend Columbia. (One of the guidance counselors at my high school made that assumption. I told him I was considering truck driving school. Not sure he ever knew whether I was kidding or not.)

So, in late August, my father drove me and a carload of stuff down through the Appalachians and the flatlands of Arkansas and Louisiana and East Texas. I lasted from mid-August to just after Christmas break.

By mid-January, I and all of my gear had returned to the Northeast. The spring semester saw me keeping up on courses at the local community college and the next three years found me finishing my bachelor's degree at Fairfield University on the southwestern coast of Connecticut. A responsible choice. A fine Jesuit institution of higher education with stone and brick buildings, tasteful amounts of ivy, and a close proximity to many wealthy families in need of babysitters. I walked one of my charges and his family's black Lab right past Martha Stewart's house on our afternoon constitutionals.

Since then, with very few exceptions (one or two each in the career, financial, and relationship fields, in fact), I've stuck to the responsible path. For the most part, that's meant working. To pay off that education. To eradicate credit card debt from keeping up with older friends and a decade of pipe band travel. To gain skills for later. To earn recognition for what I was already doing. To give myself opportunities to travel. To buy my freedom from the white collar grind.

When I started my MFA and began working for myself a little over two years ago, I kept up that streak. I didn't do either until I'd gotten completely out of debt and put a few months of living expenses aside. And although I wanted to find a new place to live, with hopes of reinvention, I promised myself I'd stay put, where I knew my expenses and local resources well, until I finished my degree. 

This summer, when I packed up my gear and stowed it away, I envisioned finding a whole new place to unpack it. In fact, by a complete travel fluke, I wound up somewhere worth exploring. Threading the needle between the expense of the southern California coast and the temporary insanity of eclipse-generated inflation, avoiding the dizzying High Sierra passes of my childhood, I chose Tehachapi and desert driving to bring me back toward the east. On the way, I spent a week in the aptly named Land of Enchantment. 

Over the last couple of months, since I returned to the Northeast, I've changed tracks so many times I've gotten dizzy. Ultimately, though, the options narrow in two directions. Bearing southwest appeals most, with the four reasonable seasons, substantially lower cost of living, friendly faces, and new experiences. The giant hurdle of cost getting there, with 41 years of collected "stuff" and the crime rate requiring careful neighborhood vetting make the move itself more challenging. Bearing due east flips the challenges. The cost of getting over to the charming coast isn't so much, even with all the stuff, and the crime rate is negligible. But once there, the cost of living is high, the population more segmented, the experiences and companions harder to find, and the seasons divided into cold and the remainder of the year. 

Neither path is without major potholes at this very moment. So I find myself, once again, making the responsible choice. Surrounded by boxes and materials, with work projects lining up for the next few weeks, I sit in a small duplex less than five miles from my last abode. My task over the next year or so, in addition to all of the work- and book-associated projects, is to purge the things I don't really need in order to get to those that I can justify for a long-distance move. 

Sometimes, as I learned long ago, the value isn't in the running away. It's in taking the steps that make it possible to run toward something, unencumbered and able to seize the new day.   

PS: I'm totally using both The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and The Little Book of Hygge to make this whole purging thing work without hitting austerity and misery. Despite the KonMari Method sounding like a bunch of hooey, objectively, it makes a ton of sense for someone like me, who is holding onto things that reflect past emotions rather than current practicalities, and without regard for the positive or negative tenor of those emotions.