Psychologists define major life stressors as events which bring upheaval, often challenging our identities and relationships, and requiring significant adaptation or change. On any list of major life stressors you will find events such as:
Death of a loved one
Starting a new job
Buying a house
This list is my 2023 in review. All of it.
Even positive or planned events can be stressful, and 2023 definitely brought so much positive change and growth. It was a year of long-term plans finally coming to fruition and major goals met, but also unexpected twists and turns and feelings. In retrospect, it was all too much for one calendar year, but we can’t always control the timing of change in our lives!
I entered 2023 with a clear vision for completing my book project. I had just spent a solo month writing and researching at the beautiful and inspiring Huntington Library in southern California on a short-term fellowship, where I gathered a wealth of letters, newspaper articles, scrapbook pages, and images related to suffragist Sara Bard Field and her 1915 cross-country suffrage road trip that forms the main story of my book. (Click here to read my earlier blog post about the suffrage road trip.)
I was so thankful for the gift of the fellowship and a month-long getaway, as we were also preparing to sell our California home of 20 years and move to Florida. When I left for The Huntington, I had already packed up over 1,100 books in my personal library and put them into a storage POD, reserving only two boxes of history books I needed for my research.
Packed for my research trip to The Huntington Library, November 2022
When the New Year rolled around, the house sale was still a couple of months away and, after tying up holiday festivities, I woke up on January 1, 2023, ready to dig into my research notes and the hundreds of images scanned into my phone and make writing progress before the big move!
Four days later the best-laid writing plans came to screeching halt. On January 5, 2023, I got a call from my sister in Oklahoma that our mother had collapsed at home and been rushed to the hospital. She had been sick with Covid all through Christmas and never recovered. Within a few hours of arriving at the hospital, she passed away. An obituary ended up being the longest piece of focused writing I did all year. I flew to Oklahoma the next day and spent three weeks there with my sister and my niece and nephews.
I returned home to California full of grief, anger, disorientation, and a complete loss of writing momentum or motivation.
Brenda and kids (Tiffany, Mandy, and Nathan), somewhere on a cliff in California in the late-1970s
In April we finally put our house on the market. A home sale is never just a financial transaction, though, and this one was loaded with excitement and anxiousness for the next phase of our lives alongside a deep sadness at letting go of the current phase, the place where we raised our children and where, since the first Covid shutdown, one or both of them had still been living with us. We had an offer on the house in 29 days. We moved out 3 weeks after that.
We gathered at the house the day before handing over the keys, walking through together as a family, the now-grown kids standing in their now-empty childhood rooms for the last time, and recreating a favorite childhood photo of them in front of the tree outside our kitchen window. Bittersweet.
On June 25, 2023, my husband, David, and I left Santa Cruz County where we had lived since 1995, a location chosen so that I could attend graduate school at UCSC. Leaving Santa Cruz was easy. We had never been more ready for a change of scenery and a change of routine. The hard part was saying goodbye to our young adult children who have both chosen to live in California for now.
Wayne family (Miles, Tiffany, Lillian, and David) on a cliff above the Pacific Ocean, June 2023
We spent two weeks making a cross-country trip, taking the least direct route to Florida, first to Portland, Oregon to visit my father-in-law, then through the middle of the country, by way of Oklahoma to see my sister again, then south and east to Florida.
California to Florida cross-country move, Summer 2023
In the early part of the trip, we followed a route that overlapped with the 1915 road trip I am researching, and I thought about what this broad stretch of still-wide-open countryside looked like for my three suffragists as I drove through Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Kansas. After Kansas, the suffragists continued east through the Midwest and on to New York and D.C. to meet President Wilson, whereas we took a sharp turn south. All together, we stepped foot in 13 different states.
We did not spend as much time as I would have liked in each place, but as an American historian, I feel deeply the stories connected with this land, and I thought about the beauty and the tragedy of our national story in every state, every small town, every field, every river, every forest, every swamp. I hope to capture some of what this nation meant and looked like in 1915 in the story I want to tell about the suffragists’ cross-country road trip through some of these same places. I want to focus on the journey, not just the destination, and geography is so central to that story.
The short version is that we wanted a break from California, where we have both spent most of our lives to date, a new place where we could afford to live well and work remotely while still pre-retirement, but also still enjoy year-round warm weather. The even shorter answer is warm water sailing. There are many waterways and islands to explore from our new base in Southeast Florida and, now that we are settled and found a house, we have sailing adventures at the top of our list for 2024.
We now live near the intracoastal waterway, a bridge away from the Atlantic Ocean, and our yard backs up to a state nature preserve and pond. I never once took for granted the dramatic natural beauty of California, but Florida is dramatic in its own way. There is water and green space everywhere and we have seen manatees, alligators, new (to us) species of birds and lizards, and even sea turtles laying their eggs and babies returning to sea.
View from our backyard pool, Jensen Beach, Florida
We love our new home and our new home state. Not only the natural environment but a new history to explore. Is “new history” an oxymoron? Well, it’s new to me! I’ve been reading up and listening up to podcasts on Florida history and, as an Americanist, I’m surprised at how rarely the story of Florida has been integrated into major threads of general U.S. history. My historical explorations have been facilitated, in part, by the surprise of a new job. Very soon after I arrived in South Florida, I was presented with an opportunity to teach History and Writing at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton as a Visiting Professor. The department there has been welcoming and intellectually engaging, and I’ve enjoyed the energy of working with students again. I’ve also enjoyed having access to a research library again and was even able to do some archival research in FAU special collections, which was fun!
My new campus and an FAU campus friend
Lastly, I’ve been reading up and making connections with Florida-based and Florida-themed writers, and will be attending the Key West Literary Seminar in January 2024, which seems like a good, tropical way to kick off what I hope will be a fresh start and a new year of writing!
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