Our eldest had the most to lose with this move. He is in a phase of life when he is working at shaping his identity, becoming the person he wants to be. He has very strong opinions and a strong sense of self; strong and yet still so new and fragile. So much of that self was formed and developed by the natural environment and the things he could do in Montana.
He is a dreamer and a builder. He loved nothing more than disappearing into our messy shed with the power tools and wood scraps. Or even better, in his Grandpa’s workshop with him or his Uncle: better tools, better scraps and expert advice at the ready. Plus ten acres of forest at his fingertips.
He is an outdoorsman. He loves nature and gets all worked up about pollution. He skis beautifully and I think some of the times I saw him happiest and most confident were at the bottom of the ski slope, when he would come skidding to a stop in front of me, spraying me with powder and casually saying ‘Oh hey Mama.” He loves to hike to mountain lakes and fish. He mastered fly fishing: stunning horseflies and baiting hooks with them and catching, on occasion, lots and lots of fish. Just before we left he figured out a good method for catching Salmon on Ashley lake that my dad and brother are still successfully implementing on a regular basis.
He charges up the trail and has learned to contend with a healthy fear of heights and exposure in order to climb mountains. I have to run now just to stay in good enough shape to keep up with him. He swims beautifully and loves to dive down to the bottom of crystal clear lakes and streams and watch fish swim, find especially pretty rocks, or simply glide over the bottom, staying below the surface long enough for me to start scanning, wondering where and when he will come up.
He was proud of not having a cell phone yet, disdained social media and preferred books and outside time to computers or movies.
And then we moved.
He had to get an iPad and smart phone for school.
No workshop. No one to help him execute overly complicated plans. No ten acres of forest, just a little bit of regulated nature squeezed in between freeways and cities. No mountains. No snow, or at least not much. There aren’t even rocks, not naturally, at least, in our part of the country. There just aren’t, and this really bothers him. I will never forget the day we arrived. He grabbed his goggles and ran up the dike to go swimming. And then he saw, remembered maybe, that the lakes here are brown from peat moss … clean, but not clear. He stood there on the shore, his shoulders slumped, the goggles dangling in his hand; his quiet sadness enough to tear our hearts out.
Stripped of all this, he’s floundering. His talents aren’t shining through yet. School is hard and overwhelming. And weekends. Good Lord weekends are hard on all of us. Sunday morning we talked and he told me he just doesn’t know what to do here, and wants to go home. That was really hard to hear. I want to too, some days, or moments of each day. Home has a powerful pull.
I made him eat some food and rubbed his back and let him lean his head on my shoulder and I told him that I understand, I feel the same, and it is okay to let the sadness and hurt in, but then you have to stand back up, turn around and look closely at the things that you do have. Because there is so much.
He collected himself, took some deep breaths, climbed onto the SUP and paddled off to play with his friend. We laughed together as he stepped aboard: taking a shortcut via canals to a friends house, now that is cool! They went fishing. They only caught a few tiny ones and then came here and made a campfire using Sam’s flint and steel to roast them – a chance to teach some real Montana skills to his friend. They tasted muddy, I hear, which makes sense, and really, I’m not even sure they should be eating those fish, but they were only two inches long by the time they were filleted. Toast and marshmallows rounded out the feast.
It will continue like this, potentially for a really long time. But slowly he will rebuild his identity. Or rather, add to it, for all the things he was in Montana, he still is and always will be. He will find different ways to be himself, to use his skills and express his identity in this new environment. He will learn that activities do not define a person, nor does the environment in which they live. We are so much more than that. And he will add layers, beautiful layers and depth, that will make him a stronger, more multifaceted person with an amazingly varied set of skills and interests and a broad perspective on this crazy world we live in.
I know this, because this is what I did almost 15 years ago when I married his dad and moved here fresh out of college. And his dad knows it, because it is what he did when he moved with us to Montana for five years. And now here we are, doing it again, coming alongside him to support him and guide him in this process. And we know, we are confident, that it will work out, it will get better.
Just don’t try to tell him that, not yet.