I came by Jenn’s home on an afternoon at the start of summer in 2019; I was greeted by her and her dog, Cruzie, at the front door. When she and I had first started planning for her session, she was living in the suburbs of Chicago and was in the midst of contemplating a potential move to the city. After a change in plans (and heart), Jenn decided instead to move back to the area we both grew up in in Central Illinois.
She works as a physician recruiter in Peoria, IL, and lives in Toulon, IL, a town made up of roughly 1,200 people located 4o minutes from Peoria. Jenn’s journey feels personal to me in the way that it does when you’re two people who grew up in the same small town, watching the same football games and hearing the same rumors and driving down the same back roads. There’s something about leaving that can feel empowering and raw and necessary, especially when you’re going through something big and difficult and need the change of scenery. For Jenn, that was going through a divorce in 2015 — when she told me that picking herself up off the floor and moving on from that was her biggest accomplishment thus far when we initially started talking about the project, I believed her.
She had been living in Stark County for about four months when I came by to photograph her and Cruzie in their home. The walls in her new place already held her chosen decor, her fridge already adorned with photos of her niece and nephew. One of the biggest draws of moving back had been being closer to her family — her brothers and her parents and her niece and nephew all live nearby, and she beamed when she told me how happy it makes her to be able to help them on their farms, and how they’ll help her out with Cruzie, and that she gets to see the kids more often.
She mentioned the inevitable “adjustment period” that comes with moving — that she’s still figuring out how she wants to spend her time outside of work and family, spitballing the idea of getting a second job since she also used to bartend. I understood everything she was describing when she spoke of not wanting to revert back to old habits upon coming home, because it’s incredibly easy to fall into old ways when you’re back on the soil you grew up on, down the road from the same small town pastimes and people you knew when you were nineteen. We chatted and laughed about how much more we both care about eating well and the benefits of not being hungover on a Sunday morning as we’ve aged, and I think those are a few of the many things that can come with being in our thirties and noticing what the specific things are that make us feel better. And the thing about Jenn is that she’s really paying attention; she’s disciplined and hard working and knows that she’s at her best when she’s going to the gym regularly and reading books and playing with her pup in the backyard and rekindling old friendships while also making new ones, and she’s sought out the life that allows her to hone in on those things while swatting away the old distractions. She mentioned that her mom had recently asked her if she wanted to join her book club, which is made up of other local women and some of our former teachers at SCHS.
“These days I’m excited about book club and my library card,” she laughed.
And though she was cracking a joke about it, I could tell it was true. And that it made her happy. And I thought about the bravery that comes not only with resetting your life once before, but doing so again by going back home, and building a life that looks even better than the old one you had lived here before.
I admire the way Jenn dove back in, but did so with a new set of rules for herself — she isn’t the woman she was when she last lived here, nor is she the same woman she was seven years ago when she was married, or three years ago when she was living up north. We take all of these pieces and experiences and they make us a new version of ourselves, and when you’re single, it’s no one’s responsibility but your own to guard and protect the work you’ve put into the new version you’ve become. And seeing Jenn in the midst of this action reminded me that sometimes getting and keeping a grasp on your life doesn’t always look the way it looks in movies and books — sometimes it’s simply in knowing the deepest parts of yourself, and what you want and need and deserve, and doing everything you can to make that happen.
We didn’t talk much about dating during our afternoon together, mostly because it didn’t feel relevant at the time. Jenn described herself as “purposely single”, a phrase that I personally know and understand well. As we chatted upon saying goodbyes, we briefly discussed apps and dates and whether or not you sometimes just “know” when you’re ready to dip your toe back in the dating pool. She mentioned then that after over three years of singledom, she was starting to feel ready to branch out into dating again, and about six months or so after our session, she was happily dating again. To be honest, though, this simply feels like a footnote in Jenn’s larger story — because though she mentioned picking herself back up after the divorce being one of her biggest accomplishments, I think that moving back home and making a new kind of life for oneself in a place full of old memories and waftings of who you once were seems just as big.