they were shorter than i remembered.

coming home to a three-year-old and a one-year-old is a like entering a fun-house mirror. in your mind, these tiny creatures who whip your sorry ass out of bed at ungodly hours and spend half their waking moments trying to boss you into oblivion just seem…taller, somehow. they are large in spirit.

until you burst through the gate at the airport and the impossibly tiny boy who is your big kid hurtles in your arms laughing and you realize his little body is barely heavier than a suitcase.

and then, home finally, you come through the door and tiny legs run thump thump thump to meet you and your body sweeps up its baby like a missing piece and there are tears in your eyes.

you don’t know whether it’s going to be good to get home until you get there.

it was. and i was relieved to find it so.

seventeen years ago, i sat on a back fire escape in Montreal on an October night, weeping into a boyfriend’s arms. we were scheduled to leave the next morning, head back to the tiny college town that had been our stage and our womb for 3+ years. Magic Johnson had just announced he had AIDS. the boyfriend’s father had just announced he had diabetes.

neither were the source of my misery, only the flavours that separate that trip from the others in the cloudy, grotty puddle of memory.

i just didn’t want to go back.

i don’t think it was the seedy charm of the big city, or even the pressures of the daily grind as a senior honours bulimic with a manic-depressive roommate and no clue of what to do with myself after college.

it was me. i just didn’t want to go back to the confusion of being me at nearly 21. a Thanksgiving weekend in somebody else’s parents’ apartment was a vast relief. i ate pumpkin pie made with Splenda and said thank you and washed up the dishes and everything was nice and externalized and tidy and i felt validated and safe.

the kid i was that fall hadn’t felt particularly safe in a long time. and the year that was about to follow would knock everything out at the knees – my first real breakup, my first betrayal, a reckoning, the scattering of my circle to the wind post-graduation. and in the midst of it all, my grandmother’s house, the one she’d been born in, the one that’d been my only constant home in a childhood of apartments, sold and lost as the slow decay began.  i didn’t know any of  that out on that fire escape, watching the city, but i think maybe i sensed it, smelled the shift on the air. or maybe i simply knew i didn’t have a clue how to handle the inevitable closures that accompany one’s last year of anything.

i was scared shitless. i grew up risk averse and yet reckless, a combination not so uncommon among those who have little to lose in status and material goods. i had no long-term planning skills, no sense of agency to choose next steps or any belief that the choices i made would actually impact anything much. i felt like i was supposed to be figuring something out, but i couldn’t, for the life of me, sort out what it was.

i remember thinking, if we could just stay here, skip all the next steps, the part i don’t know how to do. get to the next chapter, whatever that is.

i found myself thinking the exact same thing last week.  different fall evening in Montreal.  no fire escape, no tears this time.  and the illusions of safety centered around leaving the city rather than staying. homecoming as escape from having to get to the next chapter somehow.

i spent our five days in Montreal last week wondering if we could live there, if  i could drag a whole family of four to the city and have us stay afloat, financially and emotionally.

while we were there, i met with a woman who analyses writing and discourse and rhetoric for a living. she’s kind, funny, disarming. open. and she stated flat-out that she’s willing to work with me on my long-neglected Ph.D, be a mentor and supervisor for my dissertation. i’d need to commit to two years in the city.

they have little Portuguese pastries there, and a Czech bar. they also have rents three times our mortgage. there are museums, places other than MacDonald’s to take kids to play on a rainy Saturday. there are waiting lists a mile long for childcare, and apparently you have to know where you’re going to be living to even get on them. there would be no Nannie there…my mom gets traveller’s cheques just to leave PEI. which is an occasion reported on the local news.

i meet tomorrow with a representative from the fledgling Ph.D program here.  two faculty members here, whom i respect and am deeply fond of and whom i’ve worked with for a few years now have also said yes, they’d take me on.  if the program will accept me, because they’re only taking four students next year. four is a teensy little number. a number so small it hurts the ego to attempt it, because Everyone Will Know. (that and the blogging about it. that always helps with the privacy).

not much funding for first year in either program, so far as i can tell. my mouth gets dry as cotton when i look at the proposals, the grant applications.

it’s heady and daunting both, an eight-ball of self-doubt and projected glory.  part of me tells myself it makes sense, either way – that investing in my education, after my childbearing hiatus, is the kind of long-term planning i’m still struggling to master.  part of me wants to flatten myself to the ground like a hedgehog and stay stock-still until i can just wake up in the next chapter.

i need to do something about that instinct.

but i have these little kids. they were born in the aftermath of upheaval and sorrow like i hope never to know again. and since they came along, grounding me, making me happy to come home even from the glamour of a hotel room with cable, change scares the shit out of me even more than before.

halp. what would Jesus do? what would you do? i know people move to big cities all the time, even without much capital and with kids. but lord above, this all has me nervous, people. even staying. just the risk of putting it out there, applying, courting the possible no. and the possible yes.

talk me down off the fire escape after all these years, friends. tell me how to think about it all in a way that doesn’t hurt my head quite so much?