This is a long one, and a little rambling, but that’s because it’s our One Year in Vermont Anniversary Post!
Songs are the road markers for my personal history. Like most people, I have very strong associations between certain songs and specific moments or people. Alphaville’s “Forever Young” immediately transports me back to high school. “Omaha” by The Counting Crows reminds me of the football player who lived next door in my freshman dorm and used to belt out that song on sunny Sunday afternoons. And almost any song by the Indigo Girls, Elvis Costello, or Diana Krall will recall various memories from my relationship with Erick.
Each of our girls has their own song. Georgia’s is the most obvious, since we named her after Ray Charles’s “Georgia on My Mind.” Fiona’s song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — a song that I heard repeatedly on the radio when I was pregnant with her, to the extent that I finally said, “If the baby’s a girl, this will have to be her song.” And she was. Campbell’s song is a little trickier (figures). I’ll always associate her with U2’s “Yahweh,” which I was listening to as I started labor with her, looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows in Kaiser Hospital as the sun rose over downtown Oakland. But this past year, our family was listening to Ray Charles sing Georgia’s song, and the next song to play was “Hit the Road, Jack.” Fiona turned to me and asked, “Is this Campbell’s song?” And I thought, Yup, that’s a much better fit.
Erick and I tend to make multiple major life transitions all at once, and then I look back and wonder, How did we do all of that?!? The craziest time in our family’s history was a two-week period in February 2011. During those two weeks, Erick flew to the East Coast to do four consecutive second-round interviews at various colleges, universities, and organizations (including a certain small liberal arts college in Vermont). These were the interviews that would ultimately land him a post-PhD job (we hoped), and thus would determine where our family would spend roughly the next decade of our lives. I stayed at home, nine months pregnant with Georgia, caring for a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old, and finishing out my part-time job. It felt like we’d thrown all the puzzle pieces of our lives up in the air, and whichever piece landed first would determine our entire future. In other words, everything felt unknown, and everything felt hugely important.
The song I associate with those two weeks is “The Cave” by Mumford & Sons. (You can watch the original music video here, or see a breathtaking live performance here). I first heard this song on the car radio, on one of the rare times during those 14 days when I was running child-less errands (Thanks, Grandmommy & Granddaddy!). I listened to it and said, “WOW.” And I immediately felt like everything was going to be okay.
I can’t tell you exactly why this song spoke to where I was at that precise moment. I couldn’t even tell you what all the lyrics mean, or what the songwriters’ original intent was. But to me, at least, this song is all about hope. The music itself, as it swells at the end (Those chiming guitars! Those trumpets!) is hopeful, uplifting. And my favorite part is the chorus, particularly the last line:
But I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck
And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again
Isn’t that really what we’re all after in life? To know our names as they’re called again? Isn’t that basically the point?
I suppose another phrase for what I’m talking about is “finding yourself,” but I prefer the idea of knowing your name. Names are slippery things; to a large degree they completely define us – we are called by our names, sign our names, we are our names — but do our names describe the truth of us? You may like your name just fine, but chances are that it was bestowed upon you within days of your birth, out of some combination of family history and parental inclination. Through repeated use, our given names tend to lose all meaning; most of us probably never think about our names — we take them for granted. Names don’t really tell you all that much about a person; I can recall all sorts of facts about someone I’ve just met, but their name is always the hardest thing to remember.
Of course, we acquire other names throughout our lives: daughter, sister, Mrs., Program Director, B.A., M.D., Mommy, Nana. These names describe parts of who we are, but I doubt that any of these names, or even all of them together, accurately describe the totality of who we are — our core selves.
And who ARE we? I suspect that most of us feel that we aren’t quite the people we should be; we don’t fully know our names. We spend our lives circling the goal of being who we are, and everything we do gets us nearer to or farther from that goal.
One year ago today, June 6, a green minivan carrying the five members of the Gong family pulled into Vermont for the first time. The 9-months-pregnant me who listened to “The Cave” while running errands around Berkeley feels like a character from another life. The song still speaks to me, though. And looking back over the past year, I see that moving to Vermont brought us all a little closer to knowing our names.
I think of 2011-12 as the year we finally became grown-ups. For starters, it’s the first year since our marriage that neither Erick nor myself has been in graduate school, so it lacked the sense of impermanence that goes along with student-hood. Erick has a real job, and we came here to settle. We have three very real kids. This year was our first experience with home-ownership, and all that responsibility and hilarity. It was also a year book-ended by loss: the death of a friend we were just getting to know right after we moved here, and the death of a friend’s baby last month. Both deaths were untimely, unfair, and hit close to home — and our girls were aware of them, so we had to figure out how to quickly process these losses through the filter of what we believe.
In brief, this was the year we bought instead of renting, in every sense of the word.
Here’s how I’ve come closer to knowing my name this year:
I‘ve learned the importance of being honest about who I am. When we moved to Vermont, we had no prior history here. We didn’t know a single person in our town, and we have no family anywhere nearby. Clean slate. So it would have been easy for me to fool everybody by constructing a perfect front, by pretending to have it all together, by trying to make everybody like me.
For the first time in my life, I didn’t do that. I’m not exactly sure why I didn’t. Partly, I’m just too exhausted to bother. Writing also helped; as I tell my stories on this blog, it’s the most honest ones — the ones that are scariest to publish — that tend to get the warmest response. I think this carries over to life: the more honest we are about ourselves, the more open we are to honest relationships. So I’m learning that it’s not a virtue to put up a good front. I’m supposed to love my neighbor, which does not mean that I have to please my neighbor.
This fresh start in Vermont also helped me realize that I spend a lot of time spinning my wheels over what I should do. What should I be doing with my kids? Should I be volunteering? Looking for a job? Staying home full time? Finally, one of the wise women whom I’ve gotten to know here said to me (well, she said it to God, but really to me) something like: “I hope that Faith won’t worry so much about what she does, as about who she is.”
Huh. That brought me up short. And she’s RIGHT. If I don’t know WHO I AM — if I don’t know my name — then it follows that I won’t be doing whatever I DO very well. It matters less what I do with my daughters than that I provide them with an example of a woman who knows her name. And whatever future work or volunteer duties I take on will also benefit from me knowing who I am. It’s like one of my favorite Anne Lamott quotes: “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”
Here’s who I am after a year in Vermont: I’m a wife, and I love my husband. I’m a mom, and I love my kids — most of the time. I’m a daughter, and I wish I were a better one, but I’m working on it. I believe in God and Jesus, and I’m working on that, too. I’m kind of a flaky friend right now, but I trust that’ll improve once I can sustain conversations for longer than 2 minutes. I don’t particularly excel at anything around the house — cooking, housekeeping, crafting — but I try to enjoy all these things while keeping them in their place. I have a messy, imperfect past, mostly because I was trying to be too perfect and kept falling on my face (I may write more about this soon, but it’s scary). I have a messy, imperfect present, too, but at least I know it’s covered by grace (God’s, mine, others’).
I LOVE to write and to tell stories, and rediscovering that through this blog has been one of my favorite things about the past year. Thank you so much for reading.