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FINDING MY GREAT BIG LOVE | Part 2 | Oxford Street: Falling Down and Fixing Up

Updated: Jul 2



HOUSE No. 2 ~ OXFORD STREET


The negotiations with Mary’s family were not smooth at first, some of her kids were delighted that she was ready to sell and didn’t want anything to get in the way, others wanted to test the market. Then life got in the way for a while parking the conversation. Eventually though we revisited it and settled on a fair price by meeting in the middle, and a few months later we moved into a house that hadn’t been cosmetically upgraded in about forty years but had great bones. With a picture-perfect high school at the end of the street, I envisioned our family living there happily during our next chapter as we ushered our kids through the teenage years.


But thirteen months after moving into our even dreamier dream home, my husband and I separated. After 21 years together there was no friendly conscious uncoupling for us, just a painful, messy process of tearing the last vestiges of our relationship apart. In the divorce proceedings I bought him out of our family home, we had bought it together, but now it was mine alone.


Sometimes I try to figure out why we had all the ingredients of a great life but we still imploded. The best I can come up with (almost 11 years later) is that we just didn’t laugh enough together. It sounds trite, but this is what I’ve learned after observing other marriages go through rocky patches and survive them — or not.


All marriages go through ups and downs, but our ups weren’t high enough to pull us through the downs.


I also think we just didn’t seem to speak the same language, his is primarily academic whereas I speak an emotional one. He became a workaholic (which is easy to do in academia) and I withdrew from the relationship.


As a result neither of us were getting our need for connection met.


I also lost myself, I was a stay-at-home mom with little in the way of self-awareness. I was going through the motions of what my friend Lianne calls “living my surface life”, but meeting the needs of my husband and our three kids didn’t leave enough oxygen left over in the house for me. I used to expend a lot of energy making sure everyone else was okay, I used to refer to it as "my happy, dancing ways" but eventually I had no dance moves left, I was exhausted from constantly trying to keep everyone else ‘up’.


I did not have words like self care, or coping skills, or healthy boundaries in my vernacular yet, I still had everything to learn about living my best life.


All I know for sure is that by the time my husband and I separated the toxicity of our last few years of marriage had left behind a sticky residue of self loathing. But mostly I realized that if that was “it” for me, if he was the "Great Big Love" of my life, I felt cheated. Because the emotional truth of our marriage is that we were friends, and co-parents, and although there was love one upon a time it was not a deep love match.


So after two years of mourning the loss of our family unit, and some self-reflection about my own role in the break down of my marriage, I dusted myself off and signed up for Match.com (an online dating site).


And that’s how I met Boyfriend No. 1.


 

SEVERAL SEASONS AND A REASON


Boyfriend No. 1 is a therapist who lives in Stratford, he is funny and it was clear that when it came to emotional intelligence we both spoke the same language. I had started working again in my field of graphic design and had a part-time job in Waterloo, which is a half-way point for both of us. In September of 2015, we met up for lunch which went well enough to warrant a second date. We were negotiating when that might happen when my life took another u-turn and I found myself blindsided by another rough patch with my eldest son.


My life was suddenly very messy, my walls went up, and I definitely didn’t want anyone peeking over them.


But (about-to-become) Boyfriend No. 1 was a consistent presence and a good sounding board during a very dark period of my life. In addition to being a therapist, he is proficient in photography, and every few days he’d email me stunning photos from his nature walks quietly reminding me that life is beautiful if I just remember to look carefully enough.


After about three months my life settled down again and I decided I trusted him enough to let him in a little. The first time we held hands a tingling warmth rocketed up my arm and went straight to my core. It felt like something was waking up inside of me that had been dead so long I didn’t know that it still existed, or if it ever had.


It’s been said that people come into our lives for a season, a reason, or a lifetime. Although in the end we only lasted two years, his biggest gift to me was reminding me that I was someone who was worthy of love — just as I am — something I had forgotten in the charred remains of my marriage.


 

FIXING UP MY HOUSE AND FINDING MYSELF


When my ex-husband and I separated, the main floor of Oxford Street had been renovated and the second floor was comfortable, but the rest of it was in shambles. The porch was still peeling, the roof leaked, the attic was a hodgepodge of little rooms with 70’s paneling, and the basement was a concrete hole in the ground.


My house still needed of a lot of love and attention, as did my kids. As did I.


Throughout the next eight years I threw myself into DIY projects when I had the energy. I painted every inch of our house, some of it more than once, including the peeling porch. I made a bathroom in the basement doing all of it myself including installing the shower (poorly I might add). I tiled the shower, floors and backsplash, I installed in-floor heating. In the rest of the basement I lay down vinyl flooring  and drywalled until it became a livable space for my then teenage kids to hang out in with their friends. I wainscotted the hallway and, best of all, I tore down the 70’s paneling and opened up the attic. It took seven years, but eventually I finished drywalling the attic and installed a skylight making it a heavenly master bedroom for myself.


There is something deeply meditative about doing DIY, you can get quite lost in your thoughts and delve into some unconscious places allowing for all kinds of a-ha moments. So as I restored my house back to its potential, all of this painting and puttering helped me slowly find my way back to myself as well.



I loved my attic bedroom on Oxford Street, it was my happy place. Although I only got to enjoy it for two years it insulated me from the world outside and, to an extent, my kids lives. I spent a lot of time lying on my bed watching the clouds blow by through my skylight, daydreaming about life, plotting my next move.


My attic was my escape. But when I first moved into it, it just felt big and lonely.


 

FINDING MY NEXT GREAT BIG LOVE


Ten months after I broke up with Boyfriend No. 1, and the final coat of varnish on the attic floor was drying, I signed up on Match.com again because there was a guy living in Guelph who piqued my interest. If you didn’t already know this, on-line dating is brutal, and one has to develop a thick skin to survive the experience with your ego intact. You really only have one chance to make a good impression when you initiate contact, and most of the time your interest in someone else is not reciprocated. I was well aware of the fact that signing up for just one person was most likely going to be a foolish waste of money, but I waited until Match offered me 50% off for a one month trial satisfying myself that I may be dumb, but at least I’m not stupid.


I went to bed composing a potential greeting to this 'Guelph Guy of Interest' in my head, but surprisingly I didn’t need to sweat it because there was a message from him in my Match inbox the next morning. That was easy, I thought to myself.


It turned out he lived just three blocks away and when we met up for dinner a couple of weeks later I was instantly smitten, more so when I discovered how much we had in common. We both grew up in Toronto, and even though we lived in completely different neighbourhoods across the city from each other, we had teenage crushes on siblings from the same family — the Jones family — I’m not kidding, we weren’t keeping up with the Joneses, we were crushing on them.


We both loved living in Guelph but we hated the same stoplight because it was always turning red when we were running late and racing our kids to school. But the real clincher came when he walked me home at the end of our first date and we realized that we had the same birthday, just four days later I was turning 50, he was turning 52.


In my magical thinking it felt like these coincidences was the universe’s way of telling me that this was the Great Big Love I’d been looking for. Someone who totally gets me and whose company I enjoyed. Someone who would be a co-pilot in life through the turbulence. Someone who finds me perfectly imperfect. Someone I can be myself with.


When Boyfriend No. 2 and I started dating my eldest son (then 18) had been living away from home for a year-and-a-half at a therapeutic boarding school (aka treatment program) called Pine River Institute (PRI). Pine River Institute is an amazing publicly (and privately) funded program for teenagers who are struggling, and part of the brilliance of PRI is getting parents to participate in the parallel program which helps us understand our role in the dysfunctional family dynamic. It was a time of enormous personal growth for me and having that community wrap their arms around my family was honestly one of the best experiences of my life.


My son thrived at PRI, and two months into my new relationship he moved home again. For a while we were in what is known in treatment communities as the aftercare honeymoon phase, he was happy and continued thriving, as did I, life felt full of promise and possibility.


But after about six months the wheels started falling off the bus again (as they often do) because honeymoon phases don’t last and life always has a way of getting real again eventually. Through the parallel process at Pine River I learned that we all return to our childhood ways of coping when life gets uncomfortable, my son’s is irrelevance, mine is placating. My son quit his job, stopped going to the gym and school, and eventually he started smoking weed again. Just a little at first, and then a lot.


Then COVID hit eight months later and life went from real, to surreal.



 

FIRST GOD WHISPERS, THEN HE THROWS STONES


Like it did for many people during COVID lockdowns, life’s whispers that I had been ignoring got way louder forcing me to take stock of things.


For starters, I knew that my home life had become very dysfunctional. By this point it had been over a year since my eldest son had done anything productive and I knew that I needed to stop enabling him, but my youngest son was still in high school keeping me rooted right where I was. As long as I had a basement where my eldest son (and his messy lifestyle) were mostly out of sight, and an attic I could escape to, enabling him was the path of least resistance. But it was not sustainable, I knew that.


By then I also knew for sure that after over five decades of living in cities, I was not a city girl at heart. It felt like my soul was slowly withering away in an urban environment.


Another important insight was that ironically not much changed in my day-to-day life when COVID hit. Yes, I now had three teenagers sitting around the house doing nothing instead of just one, but my work-life stayed pretty much the same. Kind of. At least my commute to work did.


At that point I had been working for seven years as a freelance graphic designer for charitable foundations. My part-time job in Waterloo had come to an end and I was working solely from my home office. This is what my commute looked like: I would get up and shuffle to my desk 15 feet from my bed, some days I would not even get out of my PJ’s.


What did change was that suddenly there was an echo chamber of how socially isolating and mentally unhealthy it was to work from home, and this resonated with me in a very deep way. I knew that for my own mental wellbeing I had to find a new career where I would get out of my house and off my computer.


The final straw that forced my hand when COVID hit though was that work came to a skidding halt, and the financial pressure that had been building up slowly for some time suddenly became crippling.


I had been toying with the idea of starting a glampground for a few years and it checked many boxes on my list of how I thought I could transition into a lifestyle where I was living a more authentic life for my temperament (country living, camping, solopreneur) and use all my skillsets that I had developed to date (DIY, marketing, photography, becoming an Airbnb Superhost). With real estate prices going through the roof selling my house and starting a glampground felt like not just the best way — but the only way — out of living a life that had become stifling to me.


To this day, when people ask me how I had the courage to change my entire life, and go it alone in the country, my reply is that it wasn’t so brave. Life forced my hand. The truth is that it felt less scary to uproot my life and take a chance on something new than to keep living the life that I was living. At the risk of sounding dramatic, I needed to save myself.


 

FINDING MY CHRYSALIS IN THE COUNTRY


One of the early points of connection for my boyfriend and I was that we both shared the same dream of moving to the country eventually, preferably by a river. He was not in a position to move for several more years though because he needed to remain in Guelph until his youngest son finished high school and he could retire. But he was amazingly supportive of my idea because it gave us both the best of both worlds, together we would create the perfect mash-up of city and country living.


So we were determined to make my idea of starting a glampground work, and together we house hunted — sometimes walking vacant land up to our thighs in snow — until I stumbled upon a listing for Deer Lake Lodge.


Deer Lake Lodge is a century old farmhouse on 10 acres of land in the Almaguin Highlands. It started out life in the 1890’s  as a working farm and became a hunting lodge in 1920’s. In the 80’s it was abandoned for a couple of decades before being brought back to life by a series of owners. The last owners ran it as a riding stable and there was a small cabin on the property that was rented out through Airbnb. I knew from the real estate listing that it had a ton of potential, but it was February 2021 and snowstorms and COVID lockdowns prevented us from touring it right away. But when we finally did pull up to this yellow, vinyl clad farmhouse, I knew instantly that I could see myself living here.


All that was left to do was to uproot my entire life and change everything about it.


(Which I did).


I had no idea though how hard that was going to be, and that my life was a house of cards that was about to fall down completely.


(Again).


 

"In those moments the solitude of my property wrapped me up in its magic and held me tight, and with each passing day something elusive deep down inside of me felt sturdier and more grounded. When I first moved to the country this city gal found the isolation so terrifying that my whole bed would shake at night with the pounding of my heart. But during this period of mourning I knew that in spite of life’s curve balls and crippling uncertainty, I was exactly where I needed to be, and the universe was watching out for me in some intangible way."

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