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When we left Brooklyn for what was supposed to be a year living out West, a family of three that feels unfathomable now that we are five, I stood trembling on the moving walkway at Denver International Airport, swallowing tears, hand to my swelling pregnant belly. My husband leaned down to our curly-haired three-year-old daughter and pointed out the window at the white tent-like structures dotting the landscape outside, meant to simulate the mountains I had no idea then I would come to associate with freedom, possibility, a sense of self outside of everything I’d been conditioned to believe. Around these tents, the ground was dry and strange, an unfamiliar sweep of crinkled brown grass.
Three weeks later, we would be on our first camping trip in the Colorado mountains with new friends who were also the landlords of our rental house, who had “exotic” things we would later have too: a camper, tents, camping chairs, an outdoor stove, a tub to wash plastic dishes outside, and a net to dry them from a tree branch out of reach of bears. On a hike with our friends and their small children, I stopped at the obviously arranged stack of rocks in our path and turned to my friend. What is that? Offhandedly she answered, Oh, it’s a cairn. She told me how it points the way for hikers on a trail and was surprised I’d never heard of one before. This was at least partly because this was the first real hike I’d taken in my thirty-four years of life, but also, where I’d grown up in New Jersey and where I’d lived for eleven years in New York City, I couldn’t imagine anyone stopping long enough to build a marker so a hypothetical person wouldn’t get lost. We dealt in concrete and realities, not in hopeful speculations.
In Brooklyn, where my husband and I lived right before L., and then for her first three years, our path was marked by blocks and subway stops, places to grab a coffee, bounded by the horizon of Prospect Park, always waiting at the top of the hill with greenery and friends. We longed to find a way to stay, or at least I did. I loved where we lived with an irrational passion for stoops and Sunday bagels, a Barnes and Noble where everyone let their children run around the kids’ section because no one’s apartment was big enough for that.
My husband, always thinking ahead, had us searching for homes where we could see raising L. and any future children, but the places were always too small, too much money, too far from a subway. Getting a car and finding a place to park it seemed like an astronomical dilemma. I also hadn’t driven in fourteen years, leaving it to my husband to pick up and return the Zipcars we needed to visit our families in New Jersey and Connecticut. We toured a high rise in Chinatown but couldn’t see taking the elevator to and from our apartment with L. every time we wanted fresh air. For the years we’d lived in Manhattan and then Brooklyn, we’d sacrificed closets, doors on the bathroom, bathroom sinks, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to settle into all of that, not when it meant putting down every penny we had. And the surrounding suburbs felt like malls, lawn care, Chili’s, and defeat.
So during one of L.’s naps on a cold November Sunday afternoon, my husband sat next to me where I was writing in the concentrated, frantic way I did on our brown velour L-shaped couch, one of our first pieces of furniture not picked up from a street corner. I barely looked up as he said we should think about moving to Denver for a year—his company had an office there, and he thought he could get a transfer. I laughed, though he wasn’t kidding. I’d never been anywhere between the East coast and California except a brief stay in Minneapolis, and I thought Denver was cowboy hats and steak, tumbleweeds and dust.
But then he got my attention.
He said that there, we wouldn’t need both our salaries. Maybe I could focus on writing.
Until then, I’d been writing my novel in a marble notebook during the twenty-minute subway ride to and from the school in downtown Brooklyn where I was the Assistant Principal, typing it up on the weekends during L.’s nap. I was taking Gotham fiction classes in the evenings, and dabbling in writing groups, under the spell of the novel I’d birthed around the time L. was eight months old, based on two students I’d never met but couldn’t get out of my head.
So a couple months later in the long cold of a Brooklyn January, we visited Denver, me for the first time, though my husband had been for work. It felt bright, clean, and untouched in the same ways New York felt gritty and trodden, like it had everyone’s hands knuckling its edges, attempting to crawl to its center. It felt like California, a place I’d always dreamed of living, and the Midwest, a place I’d found calm and charming, had birthed this sunny, uninhibited child. Everyone was bearded and flannelled, ready with pick-up trucks full of gear to head into the snow-capped mountains. At coffee shops, baristas asked, what are you up to today? I gaped at them, unsure they wanted an actual answer, and later learned that they did, and would even comment on what you said, even though for me it was mostly that I was dropping my daughter at preschool and writing. I came to miss that on my visits to New York where if you tried to eke out a how are–, you’d be cut off by someone asking what you wanted to order.
On our last night checking out Denver, I squealed, jumping on my husband, seeing the pink line on the pregnancy test. We were going to have a baby that coming September, and if we had the baby in Denver, I wouldn’t have to go back to work within weeks the way I had with L. I wouldn’t have to hunch in my office, pumping milk, the plexi-glass walls covered in poster paper and a laminated sign with a cow on it taped to my door, a sign that made one student smirk and say, Miss, no one wants to see your little breasts anyway.
Often, once we were living there, my husband and I clung to the lyric from the Lumineers who had also left the Northeast for Denver: I headed West, I was a man on the move, New York had lied to me, I needed the truth.
We sang it at the top of our lungs on car rides and when he played his guitar around campfires. It was a reminder of what we were finding in Denver: empty cabinets in an impossibly spacious home, daily sunshine, soaring mountains everywhere you looked, concerts at Red Rocks under the stars. It was a reminder of what we’d left behind: five floor walk-ups, picking up Zipcars in Coney Island, a car seat in our coat closet, staying inside for many January days because our toddler couldn’t walk in the snow and a stroller wouldn’t fit through the narrow path between sidewalk snow banks.
To our jaded New Yorker sensibilities used to gray skies, rows of buildings, waiting for trains, and aching shoulders from carrying groceries up the hills of Park Slope, Denver was a wonder. The sky was a near constant blue dome over the set of pastel houses in our charmed neighborhood, part of a larger gentrified community in Northwest Denver, or the Northside, called the Highlands by real estate agents and the new crop of people buying Denver squares and sometimes “popping the top,” a ubiquitous expression I’d come to learn for making those small houses bigger, though to me, not necessarily better.
In our corner of the Highlands, we were a mile in either direction from a park with a lake and a surrounding bike/running path, both also ringed by mountains. We had group camping trips on our neighbor’s land in the mountains, communal meals in our common greenbelt space, a community garden with community mailboxes at the edge, and a utopian co-housing space next door where we sometimes shared their common house for a Halloween haunted extravaganza. We would also have our own costume parade from a white gazebo we used for everything from Santa visits to birthday parties and nine years later, as a place for our older kids to sit around chatting during the pandemic, six feet apart and masked, and for me to do yoga when gyms were no longer an option.
In those first early days there, I thought of The Truman Show and looked around for cameras. It seemed impossible that any place, especially in a major American city, could be so sedate, so bathed in constant sunshine, so bestowed with cloudless skies. But the three hundred days of sunshine, like so much else in Denver, was a well-kept secret, at least from New Yorkers who maybe don’t want to look in that direction.
Still though, I felt lost in the beginning, untethered from everything I’d ever known to be true. Desperate during those first lonely weeks, not realizing everyone went to the mountains in the heat of July, I wandered the empty playgrounds, slowed by my huge pregnant belly, trying to find friends for L., the equipment too blazing for her to use. I hid tears from her, sidling one desert hot morning to the only other pair in one of Denver’s many parks, a father with a girl who looked about L.’s age. He was British, and I’ve never forgotten that when I asked him if he liked Denver, he said it was “a bit pedestrian.”
I missed the way I would race home after work, picking up L. from her nanny and bringing her to Harmony Playground in Prospect Park. Without even a phone call, we would meet up with any number of moms I knew, where we’d migrate from the slides to the crowded sandbox to blankets in the grass, same as where we’d once nursed our babies, all of us new mothers confused and in love. Or maybe I’d go to one of my two best mom friend’s apartments, and we would have intense, unforgettable conversations, while at first we nursed and rocked our babies together, then watched them crawl after each other, and still later, race their doll strollers up and down the wood floors.
Even with all I missed though, we knew within weeks what many of our beloved friends and family members had predicted and feared.
We weren’t coming home in a year, maybe ever.
It took six months for me though to admit it for real, and that was when I told my principals I was no longer just taking a year leave of absence. I wasn’t coming back.
I felt both free and like I was betraying my promise to be in the trenches with them. The work was hard – breaking up fights, reporting cases of abuse, navigating the constant pressures and demands of quality reviews and school report card ratings, but I was passionate about it and skilled too. I cared about the students, the teachers, the school where I’d joined in its second year when we only had grades six and seven, where I’d looked forward to being as we grew into a full high school. One of my two principals had even hinted she was hoping I’d take it over one day – she trusted me with this precious dream she’d founded with her best friend. I remember walking in the dark on a hushed city sidewalk after a Gotham fiction class, wondering if I’d rather be a successful writer or the best principal in NYC. I didn’t have an answer, yet somehow I knew it could be both, but not either. Being a writer mattered more than I would’ve liked to admit.
Throughout our decade in Denver, with preschool for L. and a morning babysitter for baby A., and later, once they were in full-time school, and our third girl, baby O. had the morning babysitter and then the preschool, I wrote like Jack in The Shining, obsessively, like it was my job, as I considered it to be. I still wrote as if the nap was about to end or the subway stop reached, even if those weren’t my only windows of time anymore. But it was if my time was limited in a different way that it had been before, not by hours, but by the cards I scrupulously, sometimes shrewdly, and sometimes fearfully held to my chest, figuring out when to add one or two to the table, the cards I’d have to lay out one day, as if to display what I had to show for my time. But I wasn’t sure what I wanted to win, other than to keep playing.
In the mornings, I wrote in the back room of the Starbucks in walking distance from our house. I’d look out at the graffiti on the building across the road and drink cup after cup of black decaf coffee, sitting in a leather chair next to Bill, an older man with his banana, coffee mug, newspaper, and occasional questions about my writing. Bill, who’d taken down the speakers over our heads, because we were both tired of asking the baristas to lower the music so we could have peace and quiet, me to write, him to read.
During the afternoon, I’d write at the desk placed in front of our bedroom window, a desk I found in a dusty corner of an antique shop on South Broadway, pale blue and painted with goddesses.
I reluctantly joined in on field trips to corn mazes and Natural History museums because I was “home” after all, but stopped short of volunteering for much else besides bringing the paper plates to a class picnic. Sometimes guilt about this flared up, and I would have to reassure myself that being a woman and a mom didn’t automatically mean I wanted or needed to do those things.
Just like feeling left out, even if by choice, of the world of PTA moms and women throwing MLM parties, selling everything from leggings to candles to beauty products, the ease others around me seemed to naturally embody felt remote, inaccessible at times. Favors were offered without even being thought of as such; there was a discernible lack of agenda or concern about inconvenience, a quality I’ve tried to bring back with me. I was used to self-preservation and a reserve of resources, an agreement that you took your portion of the square footage and you didn’t let an inch of it go. I admired the calm generosity around me, even as I missed the intensity of New Yorkers, their fiery single-mindedness.
I didn’t realize until I was living out West and visiting New York City how the cement and sidewalks and anchored trees made me feel anchored too, enclosed. Safe. The open space always on the horizon in Denver fueled visions of soaring over beautiful valleys dotted with pine trees and winding rivers, but that flight was also weightless, unmoored, like I was an eagle longing to be higher and higher in the mountain, to land in the loneliest, quietest space my heart could find.
When we flew back to New York for our many visits, I’d exhale a breath I’d been holding, as the tiny, ruthless island of Manhattan came into view, relentlessly staking its claim in the lapping Hudson and East Rivers.
During those ten years, we talked about moving home almost constantly, but it didn’t make sense, really. Why leave such a place, where we could afford for me to write? Where neighbors gathered in the common space behind our house, pulling out grills and folding tables, where we could pack up our own camper and trundle into the mountains I’d come to love more than any place I’ve ever been in the world? A place where I’d learned to stand up paddle-board on glorious lakes, snow-shoe up through white, glittering paths, run on the trails, hurdling over rocks and panting, and then descending through Aspen trees until I was back at the trailhead, trailheads being something else not even in my vocabulary before I lived in Denver. I’d come to love them too, feeling my body melt with peace as soon as I parked near one.
An intense, less idle longing for home took root about nine months before all of our lives were to change with the pandemic, soon after my father died suddenly on his kitchen floor of a stroke and my brother and his wife had their first baby, a girl they named after my father.
Nobody would’ve been happier to have us back home, and nobody would’ve been happier to meet this new child, than my father, but he didn’t get to know of either, though we consoled ourselves like so many other humans that he could see and hear us, that he did know.
Many others in our lives hoped for this choice – my husband’s four siblings, his many nieces and nephews, our friends of twenty some years, my cousin with whom I’d grown up and her children, my mother, brother, sister-in-law – though none said it like him with the pleading sadness in their eyes, longing in their questions.
This time instead of five floors up, sunk into our couch, my husband and I sat by a creek in Golden, Colorado, an ironically idyllic setting to make a decision about leaving. We filled out a spreadsheet of pros and cons, and looking at it logically: finances, ease of lifestyle, and the different communities we had, Denver scored the most points. And yet, it didn’t win.
Cairns, as it turns out, are not only to mark the way for other travelers, but are also used to mark burial sites, places for ceremony, and sometimes as a form of art or a way to say I was here. They aren’t always there to tell us which direction to go, but maybe to remind us that we are yearning beings, always searching for meaning, creating experiences and connections out of the material that threads our lives.
We moved in August of 2020, going East when so many others were heading West, waiting out the pandemic as long as we could before my daughters needed to start in their new schools. For a while, we marveled at the familiarity of New York, of fast-paced conversations, of trains, of abundant green. We marveled at not needing to have long weeping goodbyes with the people we loved.
Our final goodbye in Denver, we stood in a circle in what we called the fireplace room, emptied of our books, games, and children’s artwork. We held hands with our closest neighbors, their children and our children who had all grown up together, who had welcome my third child into the universe with a mother blessing, and we wept. There wasn’t anything left to say for what we would miss of these people who had been our family during Jewish holidays, births, first days of school, deaths, Halloweens, last days of school, and now this, the moment we would leave it, them, behind.
Later, in our new house in a town just north of New York City, which many like to call the sixth borough, but bordered by a nature trail and the Hudson River, we stood in a different circle. This time, it was my brother, his wife, their 18-month-old, my mother, my husband, and our daughters. We smiled at each other, our eyes shining with tears, almost disbelieving we were together like this in a permanent place, a place we weren’t going to leave in a week or so, one very important person missing from the circle, but also there. As many times as I returned to our house in Denver, I never came home like that.
Sometimes back living in New York now, I follow the gray movement of clouds, loving the build-up of pressure before the sky opens, like when my babies suckled, and the sighing let-down of milk. A giving over, a permission to be still, a tethering to the earth.
During our second summer visit to Colorado after the move back, I walked through our house, which we rent. I touched the glitter on the white IKEA chairs from my daughter’s slime projects, sighed at the light fixtures we’d spent hours picking out at the urban lighting place we loved on Sante Fe Boulevard, sat on the porch swing where we rocked at night after getting the girls to bed. And finally I looked out the window I faced day after day while writing in the afternoons, gazing at those ever-present Rocky Mountains, getting in one more paragraph, one more sentence, one more word before it was time to rejoin the world.
Later, I peeked into the back room of the Starbucks. They hadn’t re-opened that space since COVID, and so it was stacked with boxes, the leather chairs gone. Bill was gone too, having passed away in March of 2020 only months before we left, presumably of pneumonia but maybe one of the first COVID cases to hit Denver. I saw the ghost of him and remembered his strange funeral at a local brewery, the cast of characters I met there inspiring a story of a lonely man who more or less lived at a coffee shop, his only friends the other regulars who barely knew him, as it turned out. And me, the woman typing the story, also living part of her days in that space of unobtrusive singularity. A ghost too, when she chose.
Here in New York, thankfully still able, with parttime work in education, to spend time at my writing desk, I look out at my new writing scenery, cliffs blooming with oak-maples rising behind the Hudson River, the currents by turns volatile and serene, with murky, demanding depths.
And yet I miss the wildflowers, scarred pine trees, a moon rising from behind a mountain and shining down onto a lake, the bridges and docks, and the cairns pointing the way. Cairns are more controversial than I would’ve thought – many believe them a disruption to nature, an imposition of human impulses to create, to proselytize, to shape landscapes to a particular objective. Yet, I hold onto the romantic notion of the cairn as an act of love, a reaching out from one expectant wanderer to another across unknowable voids.
To me, cairns are decisive, marking a path that isn’t destined to lead you through brambles and to dead ends. On the trails, I always trust the cairns. Yet, on my last trip to Colorado, I turned right during a hike, following a gravel road where I thought a cairn was leading, only to turn back, realizing it was gesturing to a path I hadn’t seen straight ahead of me. Which is to say that we can’t always know which direction we are being pointed; we can only make one choice after another, even if it means becoming lost in forests, then finding our way to summits and places to land, again and again.