April 17, 2023

The Heartbreaking Opportunity of Starting Over—Again.


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I am a military spouse.

This means that every few years, for the last 12, I have left. I leave places; I leave homes; I leave jobs; I leave familiarity. I am an expert in downsizing and cleaning rentals for checkout.

It also means that I leave people.

In all the packing and shipping and planning and driving, the most exhausting part is making new friends in every new place. I always do, and then just as I feel settled into the relationship, I leave again. I say “see you later,” but I know in my gut that it’s likely “goodbye.” It’s heartbreaking.

I recently had a conversation with a friend whom I haven’t spoken with in over two and a half years. We were close. When I left, I promised to stay in touch. As happens, life gets busy and conversations and text messages dropped off over time. Social media maintains connection, surface-level at best.

We scheduled a time and squeezed in a 15-minute conversation before she moved on to her next engagement and while I sat in a waiting room, trying to talk loudly enough to be heard and quietly enough not to be overheard.

I appreciate a friendship that requires no small talk.

She shared about a recent relationship upheaval; I shared about my husband’s upcoming job upheaval.

She moved to a new house in the same town; I am moving to a new house in a new state.

She rebuilt her home art studio; I will be rebuilding my home yoga studio.

We bemoaned having to start over, yet again.

There is a concept in psychology called the familiarity principle, which demonstrates that people tend to develop a preference for things with which they are familiar. This is the reason I feel so attached to life here in California where my family currently calls home. It is the reason I have felt attached to every place I’ve called home.

I wake up in the same room every morning. I know exactly where to turn the temperature knob in the shower to avoid being scalded and that it takes the stove exactly six minutes to boil water for coffee. I use the same gym locker, number 63, four days a week, and see the same mustached face greeting me at the desk. When I need some fresh air, I take the same walk around the pond down the street, surrounded by hundreds of squawking, hissing Canada geese. I make the same 25-minute drive through rolling green hills into town to shop at the grocery store whose layout I know so well I don’t have to think. I frequent the local bakery that has my favorite gluten free scone—artichoke, onion, and gouda.

The routine is safe and comforting. There are few unknowns.

It’s also one reason that people stay in unhealthy or unsafe relationships, remain working at jobs they hate, or always buy the same brand of breakfast cereal, even when they know there are alternatives.

Breaking up with a partner, moving to a new house, making new friends, buying a new kind of cereal—big or small, these changes ask us to release the familiar and embrace a new way of being.

On the phone that day, we wondered aloud when it would stop. Would it ever? Will it ever?

Does it ever?

Days later, I began to wonder if my friend and I, with all of our fresh starts, are outliers. Or, is starting over just another part of the human condition?

Like birth, growth, cooking, sleeping, seeking livelihood, procreating, is starting over, again and again, part of the human story?

Is starting over actually something to be embraced?

As I take my walk around the pond this morning, I watch the sun rise, painting the sky pink and shedding light into darkness. I see orange poppies growing by the side of the road, undeterred by the expanse of cement and asphalt. I find a bushy patch of wild daffodils in the corner of a neighbor’s yard. Tiny, dark purple grape hyacinths bloom under a redwood tree.

There is much to be learned from the rhythms of the Earth.

Like the new beginning of every day, every season, so must I find the beauty in starting over.

There is another psychological principle, the fresh-start effect. It has been shown that a temporal landmark—January first, a birthday, the start of a new job, or other major life transition—is effective in providing a motivational boost. It provides a chance to renew energy, separate past self from current and future self, and reframe routines and dreams. It’s the feeling of a clean slate.

Starting over is a reminder that within challenge, there is always room for growth.

After heartbreak, the heart grows back stronger.

I have two months left here in California. I will soon pack the house and watch strangers stack my family’s belongings into a hard metal truck. I will clean the walls and floors, wiping away the accumulation of three years of life here. I will close the front door for the last time, leaving the house an empty shell of echoes and memories. I will say “see you later,” my hugs actually a knowing “goodbye.”

And what awaits on the other side?

Waking up in a new room. The opportunity to learn the quirks of a new shower and a new stove. Finding a new gym, a new locker, and smiling at a new face. Discovering a walk that will take me somewhere beautiful. Exploring new roads, finding a new favorite grocery store and learning its layout. Maybe I’ll even locate a bakery with some delicious gluten free cupcakes.

I will make new friends, and I will always remember that I have many old ones just a phone call away.

In two months I will leave, and in doing so, I will come home again.


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