It’s half-way through spring, which means the weather has mostly turned and the days have lengthened. The lessening (though by no means full stop) of the rain has warranted us removing the rain cover from the furniture set on our back deck.
The we is my parents and I. The place is their house in Pleasant Hill, Oregon.
That furniture set includes four comfortable cushioned chairs that rotate, a low circular table with central fire pit, and a stand-alone umbrella that can’t yet be opened because the early evening winds are still too strong, enough to topple that umbrella despite the heavy-weight base.
It was toward the end of our dinner earlier this week that I suggested we have a fire on the deck that night. A few moments after both agreed that it would be a good night for that (my dad because it gave him an excuse to try out the new package of cigars that arrived in the mail that day), I asked him “You feel like funding a six-pack to accompany the fire and cigar?” My dad responded with one of those grins that simultaneously represents acquiescence, displeasure, and mild amusement. He gave me a twenty and asked for all of the change in return.
I hopped in my mom’s car and made the quick run up to the gas station a half-mile away, picked up a six-pack of a spring ale, then returned home and placed all $11.62 on my dad’s bed stand.
So to recap – I live at home with my parents, have to ask my dad for beer money, and have to drive my mom’s car to go make that purchase.
And, strangely, that’s the life that I have chosen.
I moved back in with my parents about six months ago for convenience. I’ve remained by necessity.
The house I was living in up in Portland was disbanding, and since it was around the holidays I figured I’d just crash with my parents for a few winter months and then figure out where I wanted to live next in Portland while I saved up a bit of money.
The thing is, I got stubborn.
I got stubborn about the living situation I wanted to return to in Portland. And I got stubborn about the work that I wanted to do that would earn me the money to pay for that living situation.
I want an apartment to myself and I want to earn an income from my own independent work.
The problem is that single apartments are expensive in Portland and that it takes a while to build up a full income from independent work.
So I’m not there yet, and I’m too stubborn to get a day job that pays the bills while I pursue the work that I’m most-invested in at night and on the weekends. Instead of that sacrifice I have chosen another – to live with my parents at age 28.
In returning home I have come to know the daily life of my parents in all its regularity. That regularity expresses itself even in the newness of the first fire of the season on the back deck that evening in May.
My dad smoked his cigar, I drank my beer, and my mom told us stories from her day. Of the three of us it is clear who carries the conversation. My mom goes through her days intentionally keeping track of those things that she wants to share at the dinner table that evening. And it’s a good thing she does because my dad and I aren’t much for conversation most of the time. So we sit and listen to the stories my mother brings back from the church where she works, the preschool children she visits a few times a week (getting her fix of young ones that neither my two older brothers nor myself have yet to provide), and the visits to my 99-year-old grandmother who still lives on her own.
There are times when I’d like to share more in those dinner conversations. Times when I’ve made some progress on one project or another, times when I’m excited about the prospect of a new one.
But here’s what I’ve found out regarding talking with your parents about your efforts to create a career only somewhat related to your schooling within an online world that is relatively foreign to them while living under their roof, buying beer with their money, and borrowing their car: it’s emotionally difficult. Probably for all involved.
I’d like to leave those conversations about my work and my future as energized as I was when I entered them, but more often than not a genuine and well-intentioned question from one of my parents leads me down an emotional path that ends in self-doubt and deflation.
And that is why I tend not to talk about my work at the dinner table. Too much parent-child dynamic to manage. If I came at it with a full tank maybe things would be different, but if I’ve done my job that day then I’m already emotionally drained by the amatuear-feeling but slowly-improving stuff that I made in the ten hours of the day between breakfast and dinner.
Since work is about all I do during the day, that doesn’t leave me with much to contribute at the dinner table or at fireside chats on the back deck.
On that particular night the combination of the fire in front of me and the beer in my hand made me a bit more talkative. My mom still carried the conversation, but when her stories were interrupted by the bleating of our neighbor’s goats, I decided to chime in and inform my parents of the viral video Goats Yelling Like Humans, and of course the follow-up Humans Yelling Like Goats Yelling Like Humans. And, since I had washed the dishes earlier that afternoon while blasting my mother’s Taylor Swift album (don’t judge), I clued them in on the goat-laden remixes that can also be found on the web. That’s about as close as I can get to explaining the internet culture through which I’m attempting to make a living.
And when my mom asked about the book laying next to my chair, I told her about Cheryl Strayed, whom I had met at a TEDx event a year prior, and whose book about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail I was fully immersed in. I longed to be on a trail (that one in particular), but for the time being the back deck would have to do.
When my mom went in for the evening, my dad and I remained, and the conversation turned from goats to horses. When I was growing up (as if I’m not still) we had a big barn and a few horses, but now my dad gets his cowboy fix (to balance his city-slicker job as a lawyer) through sporadic trips to eastern Oregon and vigilant observation of those goat-owning neighbors who from time to time board horses. I told my dad of a recent morning when I had seen six – the most that either of us had seen there – galloping back and forth on a quiet foggy morning.
As it began to get dark, my dad headed inside as well. I, however, was determined to stick it out until the darkness of the sky contrasted the flames of the fire.
And so I stayed.
I’ve never had trouble enjoying time alone outdoors. The fire in front of me and the beer in my hand made it even more enjoyable that night. The sounds of conversation, of goat interruptions, and of laughter were replaced by the hum of the highway in the distance, the croaking of frogs nearby, and the crackling of the fire in front of me. Once I even heard the whinnying of an unseen horse. The sounds of semi-rural life.
I crept my chair closer and closer to the fire as it got darker, and by the time the stars came out I needed it for its warmth where before its primary purpose was to set the mood.
Of the things that Pleasant Hill excels in that Portland does not, the stars in the night sky are high on the list.
It was that sky in this place that led me to ask for a telescope for my birthday as a middle schooler. The same stars that led me to pick up Carl Sagan’s book Cosmos in high school, then go on to study physics in college, then on to a graduate program for a year before realizing that a Ph.D. in physics was not for me.
Due to the searching that I’ve been doing since then you could argue those stars lead me astray, but I wouldn’t say that. The path they have taken me on has worked its way through three careers, a false start on a fourth, and not one but two return trips to live with my parents. But as I let the fire die down that spring night and I looked up at those stars, I felt oddly optimistic about my future.
Hard to know if the root cause of that feeling was the beer that I was drinking, the misreading of those celestial objects, or the genuine knowledge that everything was going to turn out just fine.