Birmingham to Montgomery (Summer 2018)

by Kait Mauro

I've spent a lot of my life trying to figure out where & how I fit into the world.

I'm still searching for where I fit into my own life exactly. My husband, Edward, is a third year medical school student who is training to be a psychiatrist. He has a clear, mostly structured path ahead of him & is quite busy. I move where he needs to move for his career because he is my person. Because of this, my life needs to remain, at least for now, somewhat mobile & flexible so I can take at least some of it with me when we relocate to a new city every so often. I never thought I would be a housewife. 

I've become lucky, hit the jackpot in some ways, to land where I have in life. My situation is such that I don't need to have a job right now. I have time to work on myself, explore my interests, do creative projects & continue trying to learn to keep my mental illnesses a bit more at bay. I feel ungrateful saying I don't like thinking of myself as a housewife when it's given me so much freedom - more freedom than I've ever had before, really. I guess I just always assumed a real adult would earn money, that having a job was a part of every adult's life - the thing you built the rest of it around.

I've had a hard time holding down traditional jobs. I got my first job under the table when I was 13 & worked my last one when I was 24. I've been a restaurant hostess, a cafe worker, a barista, a secretary, a librarian/archivist at the university I almost but not quite finished a bachelor's degree in gender studies from, an appliance repair company dispatcher, a nanny, a caregiver for an 18-year-old man with autism & a live-in caregiver for a rather passive-aggressive 80-year-old whose favorite form of communication was post-it notes.

The pattern has been this - when I have an episode of depression getting out of bed becomes almost impossible so I call in sick too many days in a row & get fired. When I have a manic episode, I impulsively quit to “live my true life/dreams.” 

My resume is very spotty - large chunks of time unaccounted for, no respectable excuse for them. Time spent living in my car in Bellingham WA or having dinner with horny old business men for money or staying in the guest room of my mother's farmhouse sleeping for twenty-two hours a day due to, at that time, undiagnosed bipolar disorder.

Stability still feels new to me - doing the same tasks everyday before I get to work on my projects, having a person, mostly not having to worry too much about being able to pay the bills. Sometimes the stability feels stale, feels suffocating. But it's a lot better than the alternatives I've already experienced.

I start this project of documenting my days with photographs so I can feel like I am more than just a housewife. I've been taking photos for about a decade - occasionally for money, most often not. Something within me bucks against the idea that I am a housewife. I don't like the label, “housewife.” In my mind it implies that I am not useful for more than doing laundry or organizing kitchen cabinets - but I haven't come up with a better term.

This particular summer begins in a liminal space. We do not take a vacation. Instead, a week or so after I decide to begin this photo-documenting project, we will move from Birmingham to Montgomery for Edward's career. Another new city in which to almost, but not quite, put down roots again - just deep enough to be almost easily pulled up again. This is the cost of my stability, of my person - long periods of loneliness while he's under medical school pressure & frequent moves to cities we would not pick, if either of us had any say.

The previous summer we traveled over 2,000 miles in Edward's car with our giant black dog whose ancestors were bred to hunt boar but who is afraid of plastic bags & our slowly aging little dog, Lena, whose ancestors were bred to be doorbells & to hunt mice. We stayed in a yurt in Madrid NM. We wondered the streets of Santa Fe, We stayed in an old post office in the ghost town of Cisco UT & were followed by an angry spirit until we crossed the state line into Arizona. We visited Marfa TX because I was obsessed with the show “I Love Dick.” I bought a bunch of their art catalogs meaning to collage with them. They'd all still be intact on my bookshelf a year & a half later. We visited national parks. I lost my rose gold wedding band somewhere in the coral pink sand dunes. Edward got a suntan on his left arm from driving. 

I fell in love with the Southwestern landscape. I felt like the best version of myself in it - maybe a version who could live in some sort of contented state, a version who felt inspired to create for something other than social media, a version who would live a simpler life of growing lavender & cacti & going for walks in the desert. I know it was a pipe-dream, some kind of nostalgia bubbling up from I don't know what time, but it has stuck with me. Maybe that could be my place in the world someday.

This particular summer begins with uncertainty, begins with trying to make peace with all the unknowns. Half of our belongings are packed into brown U-Haul boxes. I am very anxious about how I am going to move my ridiculously large collection of houseplants safely to their/our new home. I am anxious about starting over in a new city. It has only been 2 years since I had to do that the previous time. I am very anxious about a lot of things. 

Will I make friends there? Will I be okay? Will I be lonely? Will I ever see my husband or will his career completely eclipse us? I take to laying in the sunlight on a bedsheet printed with black & white feathers with Lena. I am dancing the line of slathering myself with sunscreen, trying not to get burnt but needing the sun time to quell some of my anxiety. It helps.

The logistics of moving are overwhelming to me but it all goes so smoothly that, once we & our things are in the new yellow rental house, I keep wondering if it hasn't actually happened yet. I'd obsessed about the logistics of finding a rental house & buying the right amount of U-Haul boxes & packing & moving trucks & schedules & heavy furniture for so long that I can't believe it has all worked. I feel like I've been given something I don't deserve & it is going to be taken back. I wake early the first morning in the new house. I begin the unpacking, the nesting, the struggle for some illusion of control over life through the putting of items in their designated places.

Edward does brain scan research analysis work from home for the first while we are in Montgomery - it's one of his “scholarly activity” modules he has to complete for school. We go on little adventures to the Montgomery zoo, the art museum, the dog park, the Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald Museum, to shops & to try out restaurants. I buy a bicycle & only ride it a few times. I get stung in the nostril by a wasp while trying to smell a giant white flower from the neighbor's magnolia tree - the one whose branches dip over into our backyard. We build raised reds & I grow all kinds of herbs & vegetables in the backyard. We hang fairy lights in the backyard.

The best part of our new little rental house by far though, better than anywhere we've lived before, is my studio room. Since it is only the two of us & they don't build one bedroom houses, there is little bedroom with french doors in the back of the house that I turn into my artist studio. At first it is sparse - white bookshelves Edward puts together for me, an old wardrobe with the mirror on the front that is there when we move in, a desk I had ordered online & a chair. I decorate the wall next to my desk with postcards from the Chinati Foundation & New Mexico, with doodles on index cards, with pictures I take with my instant film camera & with prints of photographs I've taken for the photo-documenting project so far. I wake early in the morning & start the day in my studio with Lena, an audiobook & way too much coffee. I tinker with my artist website. I ordered business cards with gold foil embossed onto them. I finally have a designated space, something that makes me feel like a “real artist.”

I want to try dance & sign up for some ballet lessons. Since it's unusual for someone to begin ballet training at the age of 26, no one in my level one class is over the age of ten. I am happy with this. I prefer them to the other adult students at another dance studio where I try a class The adult students take themselves way too seriously. The kids are sweet & give me tips in whispers not loud enough for the instructor to care about.

I add aquariums to my studio desk - one for a white beta fish I dub “Ghost” & one for fish who won't murder each other. I spend a lot of time talking with the guy who handles the fish at Petco & I give him one of my business cards. I tell him I like talking to him & that we should hang out sometime. I get an indoor composting bin & 2,000 red wriggler worms & I enjoy putting our kitchen scraps in there for my worm friends to eat until fruit flies became a serious enough issue. 

I'm searching, through all of these different projects, for my place in my own life. I'm seeking ways to fill my time in Montgomery - the long empty days, mouths wide open & menacing before me, while Edward is off doing his thing. There is no common thread between them except that they are my doing. I'm scrambling frantically for an identity, something I can define myself with, progress that can be measured, something that clicks, an ahah moment.

I do not have the ahah moment. I do not make any friends in Montgomery during the summer, much to my dismay. But I do make some promises to myself: I am going to get my type 1 diabetes under better control, I am going to keep making art because I needed to think of myself as an artist instead of just a lonely housewife, for my own ego's sake, & I am going to get out of the depression I am slowly sinking into now that Edward is gone at the hospital working 11 or so hours a day.

section break Photographs that go with this piece are at kaitmauro.com/summer2018