The Move: Making Big Change with Less than Perfect Grace

pcs-tape-600Dear Tina Fey, why haven’t you made this movie yet?

I call it, The Move.

Loving, middle class couple makes big cross-country move with two kids—let’s say, ohhh, a 5-year-old and an infant… Every Single Freaking Thing that could possibly go wrong goes wrong. And despite truly exceptional communication skills (ahem), the couple spirals into a kind of seething hostility until, on the first night in their brand-new home, their brand-new neighbors feel compelled to call the police.

The police arrive to find the couple in the kitchen, ankle-deep in packing peanuts, looking as disheveled and sleep-deprived as war refugees. One is using a stained pizza box as a shield, while the other brandishes an industrial packing-tape dispenser as if were a gun.

(Coda during closing credits: it is one week later; the books are on the shelves; the kitchen is spotless; soup is bubbling on the stove. The couple has resumed life as loving partners and parents—all acrimony forgotten. The camera pulls back from their new home to a great height, rapidly pans across the country, and zooms into another kitchen, where another loving couple has started to argue about how to pack the silverware…)

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You got it. For the New Year we made The Move: Oceania to US East Coast.

New house, new schools, new jobs, new community, new life.

And yes, save for acute danger to life or limb, Every Single Freaking Thing that could go wrong…did.

So, ok, no one had to call the police on us. Count us one step ahead of the movie plot? But we did have to call the EMT our first night here, which made for an interesting introduction to our new neighbors the next day…

We were, to put it mildly, forcefully reminded how tough a family move can be. All the personal angst and uncertainty of starting over, distilled into arguments over how to label boxes and handle the pets. Anyone who has lived through a move with a spouse and children knows how stupidly fast even the most trivial of disagreements can escalate.

I leave it to the psychologists to figure out how to strengthen your marriage while moving cross country.

But I can share the thing that (more or less) saved me from unraveling.

And why it didn’t, not completely.

And what I learned.

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For a couple dozen years I’ve been an ardent fan of this bit of Taoist wisdom:

      Fire cools; water seeks its own level.


Every fire consumes its fuel and burns itself out. Every flood abates as water settles and seeks its own level. Calm always returns. Equilibrium is always restored.

So for the past two and a half months—as we sorted and packed and planned (and planned and planned) and argued—I sat dutifully every night, meditating to the phrase:

      Fire cools; water seeks its own level.

My orders change the very day we ship our car from Hawaii to the mainland?

      Fire cools; water seeks its own level.

The movers botch the paperwork and send all our worldly possessions to some guy in Seattle?

      Fire cools; water seeks its own level.

Our very first night in Virginia, both kids fall ill at once, and we find ourselves headed to the ER at 0-dark-30 in a time zone our bodies have yet to comprehend?

      Fire cools; water seeks its own level.

You get the idea.

Moving Van

But the more the move went on, the less it helped. After decades of practice, meditation became an exercise in mind frenzy. Lists, complaints, barriers, missteps, frustrations…none of these were willing to step aside while I breathed.

     Fire cools; water levels. Fire cools; water levels. Fire cools; water levels. Fire cools; water levels.

“QUIET DOWN ALREADY!” screamed my brain, which wasn’t buying the Taoist line, not for a second.

I called one of my bluntest but most unflaggingly supportive friends for a little advice. “‘Fire cools; water settles.’ What’s that supposed to mean?” I could hear her rolling her eyes. “It sounds like a fancy-schmancy way of saying, ‘This too shall pass.’ How’s that going to help you now when you’re right in the middle of all the sh*t?”

As I say: blunt.

But helpful. She made me realize that I’d been treating this piece of Taoist wisdom in the most superficial of ways. I wanted my “this too shall pass.” I wanted to squelch all the disorientation of moving cross-country with my family—and jump ahead to the part with the tunnel’s end and all the happy, reassuring light.

I’m pretty sure that’s not what the Taoist passage is supposed to suggest.

Fire and flood aren’t just events that pass. They are events that burn and roil and rush and take their toll before equilibrium is restored. They change the landscape, sometimes beyond recognition.

But they do abate, leaving a new kind of peacefulness in their wake.

They give rise to something new.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Here in American, we talk about “newness” as if it were the same thing as “escape.” As if every new job and new address offered a fresh start, a blank slate.

In reality there’s never a brand new start—only cycles of transformation. Cycles of loss and resilience and renewal.

We don’t begin again with something brand spanking new: we begin with something changed.

      Fire cools; water seeks its own level.

In the military we’re used to movement and change. It comes with the territory (and our territory is, as I’ve blogged, wherever the military decides to send us).

Nor was this move about hardship. So, ok, maybe I left a few claw marks on the Gate 6 jet bridge at the Honolulu United Terminal as we departed? But we looked forward to my new assignment and our new home. We are grateful to be back on the East Coast, closer to friends and family. We are grateful for the chance to embrace a new community. I am grateful for the chance to minister in new ways.

Still, leaving a place where I’ve put down roots feels a good bit like watching a fire rage. The sense of being there, of having my bearings, of being in a community—all suddenly curling into smoke and rising away, never to be recaptured in the same way. Like a forest fire, a serious move leaves the ground fertile and ready for something new, but it also leaves the landscape barren-seeming and forlorn.

No wonder packing the boxes becomes such an issue.

Moving Box

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There are things we could have done differently on this move. There are ideas I’d like to try next time.

One friend suggests “adult milk and cookies”—20 minutes every night, after the kids have gone to bed, to relax with your spouse, eat some cookies, and laugh about the day.

Another friend suggests taking “meltdown turns”: every time a new hurdle arises, one partner gets to freak out, the other has got to hold it together. Come the next crisis, you switch.

Mostly, however, I think I need to give up on the fantasy that we can rip up our lives and start again and make it look like a video by Martha Stewart. The fantasy that this could have been easy if we’d just planned hard enough…or meditated hard enough…or labeled the boxes ourselves…or kept the right perspective all the damn time.

Before it burns out, fire burns.

Before they find their level, floodwaters wreak havoc.

To put it in Old Testament terms: the Children of Israel had to wander in the desert before they reached the Promised Land. And despite all the manna and tambourines, that desert period was a total mess.

But deep down I suspect that when I give up the fantasy of making life transitions easy, I am not left with something less fantastic.

I’m simply left with my one true—and wild and precious—life.

Tina+Leaves+Admission+Set+Jdnyzg1gmBclMade even more wild the day Tina Fey calls to say she’d like to interview me for inspiration for this lead role in which she recently was cast for a movie about a loving, middle-class couple making another big cross-country move with two kids…