I’ve written in previous blog entries how sometimes I feel a bit like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, and over the past few days, I’ve found myself wishing that I had a little bit more of the confidence that Dorothy displayed when she squeezed her eyes tightly shut, clicked her heels together and chanted, “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.” In that moment, at least, she knew exactly where her home was – back in Kansas with Uncle Henry and Aunty Em. She may not have been trying to run away at the beginning of the film, but by the time she has journeyed through the land of Oz, she knows that there’s no place she’d rather be but Kansas. Her voice is fervent and self-assured as she recites the magical mantra, and happily, she ends up back in her very own bed, surrounded by loved ones. But if I had my own pair of magical ruby slippers right now, I’m not so sure where I’d ask them to take me.
My husband and I are originally from Michigan, which has become a wasteland during this fabulous economic recession. We left our home state so that we could go to graduate school and get jobs, but we were a bit ahead of the crowd. It seems like we started a trend – and when it comes to considering your individual survival, it’s a trend that makes sense. We worry, in fact, about our friends and family who are still back in Michigan and are either fearfully monitoring the precarious position of their jobs, or counting down the days until the unemployment checks run out. We miss our parents, brothers, sisters and friends more than we can say – but we also know that we can’t go back.
Moving from Michigan to Washington D.C. was extremely difficult – more difficult than I thought it would be. I had imagined that setting up shop in D.C. would be a lot like going off to college – I would go to parties, meet new people, make new friends. I had a lot of friends in college. A lot. I had eight bridesmaids, for Pete’s sake – and that was the whittled down number. I used to be good at mingling, chatting, being social. But the reality is that once you graduate from college, it’s a lot harder to meet people, so things didn’t turn out quite like I had envisioned. We had been living there a couple of years before we really hit it off with anyone.
I missed being social – and I also missed having a place that felt homey. When I was in college, I felt like I belonged at Eastern Michigan University. During a five minute walk across campus, I would see three or four different people who would want to stop and talk, I would zig-zag my way from building to building, taking care of different pieces of business. I knew how to handle different all my different responsibilities, accounts and social situations. I also felt like I belonged in the town of Ann Arbor. With all it’s little novelty shops, old theaters, restaurants, bookstores and hang-out coffee joints, there were a million different familiar places that I could settle down for an afternoon to read, finish up some homework or catch up with a friend. I knew my way around. I had routines and favorite seats. And all of this gave me confidence.
D.C. wasn’t really like that, though. We lived in a less-than-stellar neighborhood and I didn’t really enjoy going out on my own. When I went to visit the campus of American University, I had the biggest thrill that I had experienced in a long time – it was adorable, clean, safe and, as I told my husband when I came home, it was “me-sized!” As soon as I stepped onto the quad, I immediately had a sense of belonging that I hadn’t experienced since we left Ann Arbor. Unfortunately, after I completed two years of graduate school, they insisted on giving me a diploma and sending me on my way. I threatened to chain myself to the furniture in the Literature Department Lounge so that I wouldn’t have to leave, but I’m not sure how I would have gotten my meals on the weekends. So, I felt like I lost the only place that felt truly homey to me in D.C.
Fast forward to July 2010, when we moved to Nyack. Our little village in the Hudson River Valley reminds me so much of Ann Arbor. As we drove down Main Street toward Broadway, coasting slowly down the hill that overlooks the water, I had that feeling again. I gaped at the bright blue façade of the Blissful Spa, the little second hand stores and gift shops, and the wooden sign hanging outside of the Patisserie. I knew I was home, and so did my husband. We hadn’t seen more than a thirty-second stretch of street in Nyack when we turned to each other and said, “We have to find an apartment here.” And even though we don’t know many people here – we certainly haven’t made the kind of good friends in New York like we have in Michigan and D.C. – I still have that feeling that we belong in Nyack. I have favorite spots to sit by the creek at the park, at the Art Café, at the library. I have opinions about local restaurants and certain routines.
So when we went back to Washington D.C. for a visit this past weekend, it threw me for a bit of a loop. We drove down Friday morning and met a friend for coffee and some bookstore browsing. Then another friend had us over for dinner, and we were able to catch up with several people. It was great seeing everyone and after we left, my husband was practically glowing. With a big grin on his face, he told me, “It’s good to be back. It feels like coming home.”
Awkward pause. I didn’t know what to say because despite the fact that I loved every minute of the time spent with friends, there still wasn’t a sense of belonging in my heart. Washington D.C. was where I learned to detach from people, places and things. It was there that I learned how to cope with isolation and long-distance relationships. While I had once been deeply interwoven into a church community in Michigan, it was in D.C. that I became an island, an independent and absorbed academic. I may have met some great people in D.C., but I didn’t allow myself to get too attached to most of them. And I certainly didn’t get attached to our neighborhood, with its punk car thieves and active local arsonists.
My husband made several comments that night, in fact, that made me feel awkward. Usually he and I feel the same way about things like this – we both loved our undergraduate alma mater, Ann Arbor, and some of the suburban hang-outs near my parents’ home like Royal Oak and Birmingham. We’ve usually agreed on places that we have disliked, and we both immediately loved Nyack. But here was my husband sharing a well-spring of happy feelings, practically saying that he wanted to move back to D.C… and my heart just felt hollow. All I could think about was the hours that I spent sitting in the most horrendous urban traffic that you can imagine – the Capital Beltway. Even traffic in New York City has nothing on the Washington D.C. Beltway, and while my husband never had to commute to work on this notorious freeway, I did. His experience and my experience of living in the D.C. Metro Area were quite different, and I’m all too aware of how urban congestion can literally choke you, smother your soul. I now relish the fact that I live in a village, and that if I’m going to get held up by traffic on my way through town, it’s going to be pedestrian traffic.
There were some tense moments that night, as I tried to let my husband enjoy the buoyant feeling in his heart without out-and-out lying to him about how I felt. And honestly, the difference between our reactions scared me. I couldn’t help but wonder, what do I do if he decides that he really does want to move back to D.C.? Now that I’ve realized just how cramped I was, packed into that tightly-packed urban sprawl, I don’t think I can leave the Palisades cliffs and the Hudson River. I don’t think I could survive without the park with the creek where I actually feel safe to go and sit by myself. Now that I’ve learned to live detached from the people around me, I’m not sure that even the idea of moving back to be with some of my favorite people in the world (and there are a few of them in D.C.) is enough motivation to uproot me from Nyack.
[There is more to come on the subject, though…]