It seems Jack and I tend to make major life decisions at the top of mountains, usually with little to no water. This time, we were on Camelback in Phoenix, doing an unexpected amount of climbing in an unexpected level of heat. We had a one large water bottle between the two of us, and drank it fast. When we got to the top of the mountain, I was bleeding from the leg and Jack was sweating out his breakfast. The view though, the view was glorious.
As many of you know, Jack and I have spent the first several months of our marriage living in separate time zones, a sacrifice we made to give each other the freedom to embark on wonderful, career-building adventures. Jack would move to Charlotte, NC to take on an exciting opportunity working in student conduct. I would move to Tempe, AZ and begin a graduate program in Creative Writing.
When we started this arrangement in July, we knew it was going to be challenging. We had prepared for that. We just didn’t know how challenging and in what ways. I mean, how could we? While you hear horror stories or triumphant testimonies, you can never be sure unless you actually live it. And live it we did.
First of all, while Skype is amazing, and I don’t think we would have ever agreed to this arrangement if it did not exist in this world, Skype conversations kind of suck. While there were days we had really great ones, there were epic word droughts too. The thing we didn’t quite grasp until time zones were between us: conversing in a vacuum is difficult. Jack and I are happiest when we are out in the world, interacting with others. We fell in love going on long walks. We spend hours after parties and get-togethers talking about what happened and what we thought about it. We watch Netflix together, pausing at choice moments to ask, “What would you do?” I don’t think we fully grasped just how difficult it would be to give these things up, and what a toll it would take on our relationship.
So all of that is hard. Very hard. But we knew our relationship was strong enough to handle it. We knew we could do it. We knew we could do it. But as the weeks and months drew on, we started asking: should we?
I was absolutely loving my program. I felt so fulfilled with the work, with the possibilities of writing, with the challenge of teaching for the first time, with the lovely friendships I was forming with my beautifully talented cohort. But at the same time, I was just unbearably sad. Sometimes it was hard to get out of bed. Sometimes it was easier just not to talk to Jack at all. Just to forget I was married. When Jack and I would visit each other, it was hard to enjoy it because our time together was so brief. Always, anticipation was framed by dread, my happiness was tainted by the fact that no matter how fun our visits were, no matter how nice our Skype conversations were, we were living two separate lives and it was awful. So it was easier to spend nights watching Parks and Rec and forgetting to be a real person. If I could be truthful with myself, I would have told Jack to quit his job and move within my first week there, but I endured. I counted down days and counted down days. I let my misery simmer and then occasionally explode over Skype, which really, really sucked.
Meanwhile, Jack was still new to Charlotte, working at UNCC in an office with no windows. He thought his job would involve more hands-on work with students, so he was surprised at how much time he spent alone doing paperwork. If you know anything about Jack, you know that he’s the most extroverted person ever. He wasn’t made to be in front of a computer for most of his working life. At night, he would come home to an apartment filled with our wedding pictures, the furniture we so carefully picked out together, and he would watch television until he fell asleep. So many times over Skype, he would tell me how miserable he felt and how alone, but I tried to be encouraging. He found a church, an adult kickball team, and a bar to watch football on Sundays with $1 PBRs. Things improved. But still, he felt a deep emptiness that he couldn’t shake. He sat in his windowless office exhausted during the day, yet somehow restless at night from existential dread. He started wondering if all the trouble, all the pain, all the late night calls, all the long flights were worth it. This life was not what he expected. Perhaps he was waiting for me to flat-out tell him to quit his job and move to Arizona. Perhaps he was waiting for a sign, or an epic push from somewhere in the universe telling him to go. There were a few times I came close to asking, but I never did. We couldn’t admit that this wasn’t right for us.
We were both so tired.
Cut back to us on the mountain. We had been apart just over four months. It was November, and we could see the entire valley from where we stood. It was beautiful. But our water bottle was empty. We quickly made our descent, and stopped at the nearest gas station on the way back so I could chug a Gatorade. Then we got dim sum. It was a great day.
At this point, what exactly was holding us back? Clearly, we were both feeling a deep sense of loss. Jack’s experience in Charlotte--his life, his work--couldn’t satisfy his heart. He loved his students, his co-workers, his friends, yet it wasn’t enough. But we had decided to make this work. We had made such a big deal about it. We had “chosen” freedom and independence and creativity, and to give all that up felt like we would be betraying the spirit that led us to make such a decision. We thought our separation would help make us successful and ensure a comfortable future together. And we didn’t want to be peppered with I told you sos. We didn’t want our decision to be thrown into our faces as if we could’ve avoided this pain all along. So again, we endured. It didn’t make us happy and deep down we knew it wasn’t right. We hoped and prayed to find a way. And then, quickly and dramatically, we did.
After a series of hard life events, Jack finally realized that he needed to leave Charlotte. His work wasn’t turning out the way he intended and after a hard (yet somehow relieving) conversation with his supervisors, everyone agreed that he needed to focus on his personal life. More specifically, his marriage. While it was scary at first, we look back at that conversation with so much grace and admiration for Jack’s supervisors. How often do you get supported by your colleagues to put work on the back burner and take time for yourself? It was exactly what we needed. Finally, an opportunity to rest. Finally, an opportunity to focus on the most important thing in our lives: each other.
Things moved quickly. In a matter of days, we were able to formulate a plan to reunite for good while limiting the hardships associated with such a move. Jack sold a lot of our unnecessary belongings, and started driving Uber to keep us solvent in the meantime. I focused on preparing our life together in Arizona. The rest fell into place. We found someone to take over our apartment, financial blessings came our way, our resourcefulness paid off big time, and now we’re here together patiently waiting to pull the trigger on the big move. It was pretty touch and go for a second, I’d be lying if I said that tears weren’t involved. But I’m happy to report that we’ve come out of this only slightly banged up.
So here we are announcing: Come January, Jack and I will be venturing out to Arizona together, suddenly and at last.
Now what have we learned here? We thought our relationship was strong enough to handle a three year separation. And maybe it would have been. Honestly, in the end it was an admirable feat that we simply weren’t called to (thank you, God). To stay apart would have been to deprive ourselves real happiness for the sake of our pride and ambition. This year we surprised ourselves. Our relationship surprised us. We learned we are strong enough to admit our weaknesses, to voice our wants and needs. We are strong enough to advocate for each other. We are strong enough to make sacrifices. We are strong enough to move across the country, and start a new life, and climb down a mountain in the Arizona heat with no water.
It’s easy to look at our story and think, “Well...could’ve told you so.” “You were wrong.” “You did it all for nothing.” First of all, rude! Second of all, that’s not how we want to look at our life choices. Ever. We don’t regret taking risks. We don’t regret going through the hardships. We don’t regret the sacrifice. Despite this insane journey we’ve been on, we’re absolutely convinced that we were meant to do this. I think of how much we’ve grown, and all the new, amazing people we have in our lives. I think of how much our marriage has strengthened through our separation. Life happened exactly how it was meant to, we wouldn’t change it.
So there you go. Our honest take on our journey thus far. It’s been more than interesting, at times, downright depressing. But it was all worth while. Now that we’re together, we can truly know more fully that we’ve prepared ourselves to weather the storms. We know what it means to put our marriage first. We know when it’s time to bet big and when it’s time to fold. And that’s something we will carry with us for the rest of our lives. There is no room in our hearts for regret. They're too full of life's marvelous lessons. I really wanted to avoid quoting Rascal Flatts in this post, but their lyrics are like the sand of music, they just get everywhere. So anyway, God bless the broken road.
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Annie & Jack
Love. Marriage. Teamwork. Art. Offsetting the patriarchal footprint. These are some of the things we're thinking about.