Searching for my true home

A ranch on a gravel road in Clinton, N.Y.

I dreamed of New York last night. I was in Ithaca, where I first went to college, and the first place I lived on my own. In my dream, Andrew and I were living there. I was in grad school. Andrew found a great job. It was summer. The sun was shining, but the air was cool. All I can remember from the dream was the downtown square with its cobblestone streets and lots of sunlight. I woke up at 7:40 a.m., surprised to find myself in our apartment. The dream felt so real. I should have been in Ithaca.

What is home? Is it a place or a state of mind? I’ve been in North Carolina for almost 11 years now, and it still doesn’t feel like home. But this is where my community is, my friends who have become family. This is where friends have laid flowers at my doorstep or brought me homemade chicken soup when I was sick.

The day after I found out I miscarried, two of my dearest friends came by just to be with me. I was on the couch wrapped in a blanket and wearing black stretch pants and a hooded sweatshirt. It was February. I hadn’t showered all day. My eyes were still puffy from crying; they felt scratchy. It was a no contacts kind of day.

Miriam brought me Chinese, pork lo mein. My favorite. She always tries to feed me when I’m depressed. She knows how I reject food when I’m grieving. She sat on the couch next to me and just listened. I don’t remember what she said, but I know that she made me feel better. She knows me in a way that not many do. She sees me straight down to my core. That’s home.

My best friend Addy arrived at my door with a tiny square box tied with a bow and containing truffles. She also brought Kleenex, the rectangular size, with blue and white splatters like an abstract painting. It reminded me of my grandma’s house; she always had the larger, rectangular Kleenex boxes. Addison sat with me for hours. She let me cry. She held my hand. Somehow, she managed to make me laugh.We binged on “Barefoot Contessa” episodes and talked about how Ina needs to be friends with us and invite us over for dinner every night. We took a selfie and sent it to my mom in California to show her I was OK. I was in good hands. That’s home right?

The best of friends will sit with you and your grief and see you through your darkest moments.

Maybe home isn’t a place. Maybe home is people, your village, the ones who lift you up in your darkest moments.

But in New York , when I was there last week, it felt like home to me. I miss it. I miss the feeling I had when I was there. It felt familiar. Being with my sister. Sipping white wine from stemless glasses. Giggling together, crying together. Gina is home.

Every day, I drove from my sister’s house in Albany to the Omega Institute outside of Rhinebeck, N.Y. where I was participating in a week-long writing retreat. I never minded the hour and 15 minute drive. It was peaceful. It gave me time to ease into the morning and space to decompress and digest the day on the way home. It gave me time to ponder and time to observe this beautiful land around me. Every day I crossed the Hudson River twice; it was my favorite part of the ride. The Hudson is breathtaking. It’s wider than most rivers I’ve seen and, damn, the light it’s just magical there. Most of my drive consisted of two-lane rural roads that careened through the countryside of fields and ice cream stands and rivers and golden sunlight and wildflowers and mountains and open roads.

On those drives, I felt a longing that I could not explain. It felt like home to me, even though I didn’t live there. Often during that week, I would catch my throat tightening or my eyes welling up with tears as I drove, taking in the landscape and all its beauty. At first I thought it was a side effect from all the intensive, personal writing I did during the day at my retreat. But this was more like a deep sadness, and I realize now, looking back, that what I was feeling was homesick.

One evening, I got to watch the sun set on my drive home. As I turned off the Taconic Parkway and headed north, the sky revealed a beautiful sunset of orange and pink dotted with clouds in various shades of blue. The Catskills looked like giant blue shadows along the horizon. Their presence was a permanent fixture, grounded and unmovable. Now I understand why so many painters have fallen in love with the Hudson Valley. Its beauty made me weep. Why do I feel such a deep connection to this place?

Somewhere along Route 9 in New York. (Photo by Carla Kucinski)

I’ve been sad since I’ve been back from New York. Tuesday night at the dinner table, I burst into tears. “I miss my sister,” I told Andrew. I choked on each word as it tried to leave my throat. We had just come from looking at a house to buy. We’ve been unsuccessfully house-hunting since July. That night we toured a split-level with green shutters, tan vinyl siding, white columns holding up the front porch. It’s in a great neighborhood — actually, one of the neighborhoods we want to live in. It’s woodsy, quiet.

As I walked to the front door of the house, I saw a dad teaching his son to ride a bike. Images like that still have the power to break me. Inside, the house was beautiful. But way too much house for just the two of us and our dog. It hit me that night as I cried over my ratatouille that we don’t know what the future holds. Even looking for a house makes me sad. As we walk through each new home, I count bedrooms, I imagine where the nursery will be, if the yard is big enough for a child, if it’s in a good school district. And then I think: “What if there’s no baby in the picture?”

Sometimes I feel like I’ll never be pregnant again. The concept feels so out of reach. It feels impossible, deep down in my gut. This feeling has replaced the hope I’ve been carrying all these months. I don’t know where it went. It just slipped away.

“Your true home is in the here and now,” says Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddist teacher. “Your true home is not an abstract idea; it is something you can touch and live in every moment.” He says home is in your body, in your mind, in your present moment. But what if in the present moment all you’re feeling is anxiety and fear and questioning everything? Then what?

Greensboro was supposed to be a temporary stop. I thought I’d be here for three or five years. But then I bought a house, got married and got divorced all in that order. This was 2010. I wanted to leave North Carolina and go anywhere, live anywhere but here. I wanted to run from the present and start a new life. I could have left then, but my heart already endured so much heartbreak and change that the idea of picking up my life and starting over scared me. I didn’t want to say goodbye to my friends; that would have been another loss too difficult to bear. They had become family. Without them, I wouldn’t have survived my divorce.

And then, Andrew came into my life. I fell in love. He reopened my closed heart and showed me how to trust again. He gave me hope. That was 2011. And now it’s almost 2017, and I still feel like I’m straddling a line – one foot in North Carolina and one foot out.

“Don’t think about leaving,” I told myself the morning I was flying back to Greensboro. I usually start crying much sooner before I get to the airport, like in the shower or while putting on my mascara, my lashes damp with tears. Saying goodbye to any of my sisters is never easy. Last time I left, I cried so much that the TSA agent came up to me in line to make sure I was OK.

Gina and I are partners in crime. The magpies, my dad called us. We’re two years apart. She’s the middle child; I’m the baby. As kids she gave me piggy back rides around the house. I was afraid of jumping onto her back for fear she wouldn’t catch me. (I have control issues.) She’d sit on the edge of the bed and let me crawl onto her back, and at the end of the ride, she’d return me to my bed as promised and let me roll off her back like I was falling backwards into a lake. She’s always looking out for me, even though we’re both adults now. I still need looking after.

Last night I came across an old journal entry from 2006. As I read my own words, I could feel my sadness and desperation. I was lost. “What’s my purpose? What am I supposed to be doing? Why am I here?” I laughed as I read the questions aloud. Ten years later, the questions haven’t changed. Will I always be searching? What is this void that I continue to carry and can’t seem to fill? Has this feeling always been there? Maybe the answers are waiting for me in New York.

Gina and me toasting to my last night in New York. The picture is blurry because we were having so much fun.

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Make a wish


My mother always made me feel special on my birthday. Every year she picked out the perfect Barbie doll, the best stuffed animal, the prettiest bracelet. When I look back on my birthdays as a kid, it’s not so much a particular gift or image that I remember most, it’s a feeling, how the people I love, especially my mom, made me feel important.

For years, my mom hung a Happy Birthday sign above the sink in our kitchen, chunky letters in every color of the rainbow strung together. It was the first thing I’d see when I came downstairs from my bedroom. As I stood sleepy-eyed in my pajamas, she’d sing “Happy Birthday” in a country-western twang with such passion – and volume – even though she doesn’t have the best singing voice. She still calls my sisters and me on every birthday and sings to us. I always let her call go to voicemail because I like to play the message over and over; it makes me smile.

What also made my birthdays so special every year as a kid was being able to design my own birthday cake. We went to a bakery called Mr. Baker, where your senses were greeted with the scent of vanilla icing whenever you stepped through the door. I loved the ritual of going with my mom to pick up my birthday cake and riding home with it sealed in a traditional white cake box. The anticipation of waiting to eat it drove me crazy. At age 36, I have not outgrown that and probably never will.

I took my birthday cake seriously as a kid – and still do. I had obsessions with Snoopy and Garfield when I was a child, so naturally they ended up on a lot of my cakes during my early childhood. I can still picture my double-layer cake with Garfield drawn on the top of it. It was my fifth or sixth birthday, and my whole family was gathered in the dining room, the lights dim and golden. My mom’s face glowed in birthday candlelight as she walked toward me with my Garfield cake, and everyone started to sing “Happy Birthday.” I burst into tears before I could blow out the candles. I ran to my room and threw myself down on the bed, burying my face in my pillow. My mom scooped me up, and I cried into her chest unable to explain the tears.

Now, as an adult, I know the reason. It wasn’t just that my mom ordered me the perfect Garfield cake; it was that everyone I loved was gathered in the same room to celebrate me, my life. That birthday was the first time that I recognized what it means to be truly loved and cared about.

I carried that same feeling with me throughout the day on Wednesday as I celebrated my 36th birthday. All day I felt surrounded by so much love from the moment I first opened my eyes and saw my husband smiling back at me. Sweet text messages and phone calls trickled in throughout the day, each birthday wish touching my heart. After the tough couple of months I’ve been going through, it felt good to truly feel joyful for one day.

My husband can’t cook, but he’s great at ordering takeout. When I walked into our kitchen on the morning of my birthday, he had set a table for two with a Chick-fil-A biscuit and golden hash browns waiting for me — my twice a year guilty pleasure. He went into work a little later that morning so we could eat breakfast together. It was a simple gesture, but it felt grand to me.


Later that afternoon, two of my dear friends treated me to lunch at one of my favorite restaurants. When I arrived, they were seated in a booth with a small flower pot of yellow Gerbera daisies on the table and the biggest balloon I had ever seen attached to it with spirals of multicolored ribbon. I shrieked with glee when I saw it — and teared up a little, too. Those little touches sure made this birthday girl feel special. I left our lunch that day with my heart full — and my face sore from laughing so much. Good friends always know what our hearts need.


Afterwards, I went for a stroll in the woods with my dog Molly, and as I walked among the towering pines and the wisteria in bloom, I paused and looked up, taking it all in, this vast and beautiful world.  My eyes, my senses, my heart — they felt wide open. In the middle of the woods, this place that I cherish, my daily haven, I felt a deep connection to the universe. Among the rubble of winter’s fallen trees and bare branches, new life was unfurling all around me. Birds chirped. Four monarch butterflies danced in a figure eight near me. Wisteria’s delicate lavender flowers clung to their vine. I thought about these last two months and all the grief that has consumed me, and I realized even in the midst of sorrow there are gifts. You just have to open your eyes, and your heart to see them.


When I got home, there was a card waiting from me from my best friend Addison, who I share this blog with. The cover of the card pictures a cluster of cars, traveling in different directions, and a young girl on a bike looking over her shoulder while pedaling away from them. “I like to think that this is you pedaling even further past the grief that began this year,” she wrote. “You’re looking back a wee bit but pedaling forward to your next adventure.”


I love that analogy. It’s always a comfort when those we love can see a future beyond our grief. Reading Addison’s words gave me hope. Yes, I’m still glancing back at the past as I weather this season of change, but deep in my heart I believe the best is yet to come. Birthdays are a perfect way to mark a new beginning.


That night my oldest sister, brother-in-law and two nephews sang “Happy Birthday” to me via FaceTime – a virtual birthday party. Hearing my sweet nephews’ voices in the chorus of adults made me laugh as they sang with such fervor. This time there weren’t any tears, just laughter and gratitude. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and made a wish. I wished for joy, but after I blew out the candles, and opened my eyes, I realized I already have it.

House Call

masanutten

Harrisonburg, Virginia

Cancer never plays fair.

One of my oldest and dearest friends was recently diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. She has never smoked, rarely drinks and could be a poster girl for fit over 50.

I’m not a doctor but even I know that on paper, she has about as many risk factors for this type of cancer as Snow White.

She retired a few months ago after 30 plus years as a pediatrician. Her father was my pediatrician. Yes, we go back a long way.

I met her in the 4th grade when my family moved to Harrisonburg, VA and we have been friends for 50 years.

She was always the smartest one in the class and went on to be our valedictorian when we graduated high school. But she wasn’t smart in an intimidating or condescending sort of way. She could be as silly as any of us and was often the butt of our practical jokes because she was so absolutely gullible.

I think she knew she wanted to be a doctor before she went to kindergarten. Her father is still living and I had the pleasure of seeing him recently at the funeral of another old friend’s mother.

He looked remarkably well for a man nearing 90 and he has retained his impish smile and charming bedside manner.

My friend (I don’t want to use her name for privacy’s sake and it feels weird to make one up) married a doctor and her son is now in medical school. I guess you could say it’s the family business. She has been a healer most of her adult life and now she is the patient.

She has one of those websites that keeps everyone updated and I have been blown away by her courage, grace, honesty and humor as she shares this journey with those who love her.

Her initial post was very clinical and written like well, a doctor. She wrote about how her cancer presented – an ulcer on her tongue – and the path to eventual diagnosis and surgery. She wrote in medical terms – cms and resections and such.

She had hoped that once her tumor was removed the pathology on the lymph nodes in her neck would reveal no more than two nodes involvement which would mean no further treatment. She had three positive nodes.

And that’s when the tenor of her posts changed. They became more vulnerable and very intimate.

It was real before that but if all it took to be disease free was an operation, I can do that. When (her doctor) started talking about radiation and chemo that hit hard. This wasn’t just a battle anymore. This is war and sometimes people die in wars. I was forced yesterday to face that possibility. I had to listen to my husband and children cry as we processed the news.

It doesn’t get any more real than that.

My friend noted in another post that she is much better with numbers and reasoning than talking about feelings. And she made me smile when she shared that her SAT scores were Math 720 and Verbal 520. Mine were the exact opposite but it turns out that she is much better at writing than I am at math.

Her posts have been a balm to those of us who love her and are still reeling from her news. She has a great faith – a faith that has been severely tested in the past few weeks – a faith that will sustain her through radiation and three rounds of chemotherapy.

Our High School Emblem

Our high school emblem. #bluestreaks

I last saw her at our high school reunion last October. She, of course, served as one of the chairs of the reunion committee and had spent a crazy amount of time on the fabulous decorations. She was a cheerleader and still retains that youthful enthusiasm for life.

We had a blast and giggled like school girls again. And, yes, she may have done a cheer or two. The girl’s still got it.

Her first grandchild is due any day now and she wants to get in lots of grandmothering before she starts her treatments at the end of the month.

Today the sunrise was beautiful. (A friend) and I prayed together and I feel at peace with all the treatment decisions. Now I need to get myself physically, emotionally and spiritually ready for this war.

Onward, Christian soldier, dear friend. We’re cheering for you now.

wiretap-clipart-cheer-march

The beginning

112

It began with an idea.

Let’s start a blog.

When I posed the possibility to Addison over lunch one day in June, tears began to tremble in her eyes. Behind those tears was excitement, happiness and the reigniting of a passion that has been dormant in both of us for too long: writing.

A little more than one year ago, I left a 13-year-career in newspaper journalism for a new career in public relations in higher education. I needed less stress in my life and more stability, and a job that didn’t occupy my head space 24-7. It was not an easy decision — my Type A personality weighed the pros and cons heavily. But I do not regret the choice I made. I knew in my heart it was the right thing for me.

What I do miss about journalism, however, was writing a column and having an audience who shared in my experiences. That column was my creative outlet and gave me an opportunity to connect with others on matters of the heart.

And I know Addison misses her column, too. She used to write monthly for the same magazine I was editor of. But when the company cut the magazine’s freelance budget, the community columnists were the first to go – a decision I did not agree with but had to carry out. Addison was heartbroken, and so was I.

Nearly two years has since passed, and although we have both moved on in our professional lives, neither of us has lost our desire to write. In fact, I think it’s only grown stronger. But we needed an audience and a platform to share our stories.

Now, with our blog, Bookends, we have both.

For the past two months, we’ve been giddy with excitement, brainstorming over wine and frothy beers on what to name the blog, choosing design templates that reflect us and scribbling words in our notebooks again. It feels good.

We do not know where this blog will take us, but we are excited about the possibilities and most of all grateful to those who want to follow us on our journey, connect, share or engage.

With open hearts,

Carla and Addy