Why We Miss Our Childhood Houses

With a sizable percentage of people under 40 having moved here in the past three years from some other place, I am one of the increasingly smallish number of youngish people who can say I am from Nashville.

Of course, as real Nashvillians will tell me, I am NOT actually from here. I am FROM Mt. Juliet, which is 20 miles to the east of downtown, in Wilson County. Mt. Juliet – known now for rapidly growing mixed-use residential-commercial developments like Providence and Del Webb – is where my parents moved when I was 6 and my brother was 3.

In May, I will have had a 615 area code for 31 years.

My parents are about to trade theirs in. They are putting their house on the market, and they plan to move to Auburn, Ala., when it sells. My mom’s family is in Auburn, and she is going home.

The emotion I’ve felt about this has caught me by surprise.

I see Mom and Dad all the time, but I haven’t been to their house in maybe a year, even though it’s just a half hour from town. They long ago converted my old bedroom to a guest room, and they’ve been carting out my old stuff (and often hauling it to my house, where it gets stuffed into my garage) for years.

Nonetheless, their house is important to me.

It’s where I grew up and where I lived when I went to elementary school, got teased in junior high, and entertained young romances with boys my dad didn’t like.

When I lived there, I worked in a grocery store a half mile away, and practiced for track meets on hills in our subdivision. My brother and I buried a pet hamster in the yard behind the boat shed. My best friend, Jill, who lived next door, co-starred in the movies we staged in the treehouse my dad built between our back yards.

When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I remember sitting in the boat shed, writing in my journal about what it was like to have a mom who worked all the time. I’ve re-read that journal as an adult, and wondered if my daughter has had similar feelings.

My parents were those parents who let all the other kids hang out at our house – on snow days, weekends, after school. We had countless sleepovers there, even co-Ed ones – which seems unbelievable looking back on it. My brother once caught me making out with a boyfriend I was supposed to be “watching a movie” with.

That house is where I stayed up late working on school projects I think I was more into that the teachers sometimes were, where my mom would bring me brownies to keep me going past bedtime on my type-A schoolwork binges.

That house is where my dad threw karaoke parties on our deck and cast fishing line in the living room, trying out new spinner bait while watching Bill Dance on television.

It’s where I stayed the night before my wedding, after running Mom’s car over a curb and puncturing her tire and calling in the groomsmen to fix it for me.

I lived in California when I was first married. When I got pregnant, I moved back to Tennessee and built a house in Spring Hill. While it was under construction I lived with my parents in that house and I remember feeling that I looked like a pregnant teenager when we went places together.

That house is where I folded 1,001 paper cranes for my wedding (origami cranes mean good luck), and it’s where I immediately drove 10 years later when my husband and I first began our divorce.

It feels self-indulgent to think this much about someone else’s house, especially when I haven’t lived there in 20 years. It also feels terribly unsophisticated to more or less be living in my hometown at the age of almost-37, behaving melodramatically because my mom and dad are moving to another state.

But I do have a history in that house, and I guess it isn’t surprising that I’m mourning it.

Sometimes we grow up before we fully move on.

The Inherent Hope of Uncertainty

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Like many in the South, I grew up thinking that faith required conviction, and that uncertainty, or doubt, was what we experienced in moments of duress or weakness.

Like many here and everywhere, the older I get, the more I realize that I (and everyone else, particularly those with the most unyielding beliefs – about religion, politics, how we ought to live, whose football coach is the biggest cheater, whether Coca Cola or Miracle Whip makes a more moist chocolate cake – you name it) am utterly clueless.

I will be 37 next month. My daughter is 12, and every year she can remember, one of the teachers in her public school has asked the class to raise their hand as she reads off a list of Christian denominations. Because teachers when I was growing up did exactly the same thing during history units about “religious diversity” or the Reformation or the Puritans, I believe this is for the most part innocent if not completely ignorant, disrespectful and borderline unconstitutional.

And when she tells me she raises her hand for a different “random” denomination each year because she doesn’t want to feel left out or – worse, be called out – my heart aches because I know exactly what it was like to feel “othered” because, unlike the kids who were unquestionably BAPTIST! or CHURCH OF CHRIST! or raise-your-hand-if-you-are-CATHOLIC!, I went to a tiny Lutheran church where I constantly questioned and even fought against most everything we were taught. Continue reading

Time and the Price of Wasting It

I had a moment of freak-out earlier this week when I received an email from WordPress letting me know that the domain on this blog had expired.

I’d been so busy with my real job that I’d forgotten to do the routine maintenance on the one I do for fun. The domain name is cheap (not a lot of demand for KnightStivender.com; shocking), but my time isn’t.

Whose is?

And yet, unless we clock billable hours, we frequently fail to acknowledge the value of our time.

A colleague told a story today about how when she was a teenager she lost the gas cap on her car, and her father made her drive to the dump and rummage around for it for a few hours. A gas cap costs, what, $12? I’m sure somewhere in this story is a lesson about responsibility, but I think it’s at the expense of productivity.

I wonder what else she could have done in those hours spent searching for the gas cap, and if it could have involved something useful to earn her $12 to buy a new one.

I shouldn’t pass too much judgment on this well-meaning father. I do this kind of thing all the time – robbing Peter to pay Paul with my time, rarely pleasing anyone but often disappointing people.

For example: At the office I tend to push time beyond the last possible second – sending just one, two, three more emails; editing one, two, just three more stories; writing one, two, just three more proposals – at a gain to no one but me in that particular moment but at a loss to the people waiting for me at home, at dinner … in worlds that don’t involve a single one of those last few whatevers I’ve felt compelled to do.

I cheat myself, too, of time. I often do this in late evening, sifting through social media feeds and clicking on news stories when I’d be much more fulfilled reading the novel on my nightstand…

And this has the effect of stirring up bad ideas and weak emotions when I ought to be settling down and drifting off.

And all of that is followed up with time I waste the next morning, after a restless night, hitting the snooze on my iPhone when I’d be much happier awake (as I am, ironically, on the weekends) enjoying a quiet moment alone before the carousel begins again.

Tonight, it cost me less than a minute to email WordPress and ask what to do, and another 30 seconds and $18 to click the link in their response and renew my domain during their – hallelujah – two-week grace period.

In return, I get to keep my name — and so much more.

12 People Everyone Should Know

Here is a short list of the kind of people everyone should know at some point. At 36, I’ve been lucky to know most of them. Some of them in multiples.

1. An eternally pessimistic person. If you are optimistic, as I am, this person will drive you crazy until the one day he says everything will work out just fine. That will be the day you can’t possibly believe anyone but him.

2. An eternally optimistic person: This person will drive you crazy because you won’t believe her when she says everything is going to be ok … because she ALWAYS says that. But one day you will need someone to do something impossible for you, and this person is the person who will figure out how to make that happen.

3. A devoutly religious person who doesn’t care if anyone else is religious: If, like me, you grew up in the Bible Belt, it will be a surprise when you meet this person. Because she doesn’t talk about her faith, you will ask about it. From her, you will learn how to do, which is different than what to say.

4. A thoughtful person who knows practical things: How to put air in a bicycle tire, when to bring someone a casserole, when to change oil, how to sign up for Amazon Prime.

5. A person who levels with you: This person conveys harsh truths in a way in which you can hear and even feel good about them. You go to him for advice and clarity.

6. A person whose life is much harder than yours: Yours are not the biggest challenges in the world.

7. A person whose life is much easier than yours: Chances are good they think of you as some sort of inspiration. See No. 6 and consider how you think of her.

8. A young person: She will make you feel wise.

9. An old person: He will make you feel unspoiled.

10. A person with lots of ideas: She will inspire you.

11. A person with spreadsheets: She will get shit done.

12. A person who remembers in advance that Tennessee liquor stores are closed on Sundays and major holidays.

My Love, Before I Knew Him

We had dinner last night with his best friend from childhood. These two grew up together in a small town, attended college together in Murfreesboro where they played in bands they say no one listened to, and they both remained in Nashville to work in the music business.

They share an inside language of family, music, friends, exes (girlfriends, band members), trips they’ve taken, dumb things they’ve done, gossip, gin and sometimes work.

This childhood friend’s wife is a photographer – quite exceptional with portraiture – and she pulled out some prints she’s made of the two of them, and others in their friend group, from seven or eight years back. This is before I knew him and his circle, when I was married to someone else.

I was afraid of what they might think if I did what I wanted to do, which was inspect and dissect every pixel of his portrait, so I said a polite, “Great photo!” or whatever, and left it at that. But it was beyond a great photo. This is what I saw:

I saw a classically handsome man of 35 or 36, with hyper-animated, expressive eyebrows, a half-smiling snarl in one corner of his mouth, subtly but suggestively jutting hip, black suit. If his friends read this, they’ll tease him, but he looked to me like a celebrity, like if I had seen him out somewhere at that period of my life, I would have intentionally ignored him so I didn’t look like I was staring.

In that photograph, I saw a man a few years younger, cockier, and perhaps even freer than he is now. I saw a man who had already known for a long time how beautiful and sensitive Chris Bell’s music is, who had already read “A Prayer for Owen Meany” 900 times, and who had given copies of that novel and “I Am The Cosmos” to plenty of other creative, sensitive brunettes.

Knowing someone intimately does not necessarily mean you know the details of their life before you were in it. Sometimes those things reveal themselves in conversations with old friends, in photographs, in the context of someone else’s circumstances, or seemingly from nowhere but fate.

Sometimes mystery is best.

I looked at that photograph of him for but a few seconds, felt jealous that I wasn’t in it, then almost as quickly felt the sort of crush I’d felt when we met, when every little thing about him was new.

He will always have years that are not mine, things about him I don’t know. That is wildly sexy, and I hope someone has taken photographs of those moments he was awesome, long before he met me.

Let The Bad Times Roll

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For several weeks now, I’ve been struggling with anxiety around the idea that 2014 is going to be unbearably hard, like worse than trying to hold my awful cats Livre and Lola at the same time.

There are real and real-ish reasons to think this:
- I have an incredibly challenging job leading a startup organization with a new business model, using skills I am still developing. (That is a politic way of saying that while I’m convinced we have a great idea, and I know we have great people, I AM TERRIFIED TO NO END that I’m going to screw it up before I figure it out.)

- My daughter is turning 13. I remember being her age. I was many things. Rational, consistent and even-tempered were not among them. Some closest to me might say I have been rebooting my 13-year-old self lately. Thank god my hair is not my 13-year-old hair.

- Mom and Dad are getting older. I’m not worried about their health; Dad makes more unsolicited comments about their sex life than a 15-year-old boy would about a lack thereof. But I do worry about their obligations to others. They’ve more or less moved in with Mom’s mom (my last living grandparent and anxiety soulmate; related: when I am my grandmother’s age, I expect my daughter’s daughter to soothe me with iced Bailey’s and her handsome boyfriend). Anyway, selfishly, I miss my parents and wish they still stalked me on Facebook like they did the year I was getting divorced. More on that in a bit.

And also right now, it is negative a million degrees outside. It is awfully hard to imagine, at the moment, a day in spring when the 400 bulbs I planted in October will have arrived for the kind of party with sundresses and asparagus dishes that I love.

But to my saving grace, I have been writing woe-is-me stuff since I was about eight. I can pull a random journal off my shelf from pretty much any year and read for very little time before I’m reminded of this amazing pattern: The times I thought were hard – indeed, the times that were the toughest – turned out to be the best.

Take this one, from March 2011, two months after my divorce was finalized:

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