July 2011 Archives

Sobriquet 74.1: On Moving and Starting New Chapters II

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I first left home when I was seventeen years old, when I moved to rural Norway as an exchange student after my junior year of high school. I'd spent the vast majority of those seventeen years living in the same house in New Jersey and I was ready to leave. I knew that I would miss my family and friends, but I also knew that I needed to leave my hometown. Although I generally performed well, I had never taken to school and I felt very strongly that my education would benefit from a drastic shift in my environment. I couldn't wait to bolt.

Leaving New Jersey was difficult, though. I'd grown up there and, despite my skepticism towards a culture I believed I had rejected, I'd absorbed some of the mores of the largely Roman Catholic community in which I had been raised. I anticipated this challenge on an intellectual level, but facing it in real time proved to be a more challenging experience than I had imagined. While I loved the secularism, democratic socialism, and egalitarianism of my new home, I was surprised to find myself uncomfortable with certain aspects of Norwegian culture.

Those feelings of discomfort, of course, were growing pains. Like the impossibly thin adolescent in the midst of a rapid growth spurt -- tall enough to reach the top shelf but so unfamiliar with his own body that he keeps bumping his head on the cabinet -- part of me had developed more quickly than the rest. In other words, I knew what I believed -- and, perhaps more importantly, what I wanted to believe -- about the world, but I didn't feel it just yet. As a result, I kept bumping into situations that made my head spin.

But I eventually adjusted and my heart began to inhabit the space my mind had cleared for it.

Since that first foray into the wide world, I have prided myself on my ability to get up and leave my comfort zone for the unknown.

***

Over the years, though, I have found it more difficult to move away from my comfort zone. Some of that difficulty is purely materialistic. When I first left New Jersey, for instance, I only had a couple of suitcases and a collection of punk rock CDs to my name. In college, I picked up some clothes, a few boxes of books, and more CDs. When I moved out after college, I bought a computer and a desk. When I went to graduate school, my library ballooned and I got furniture. At some point, I decided that I wanted to build the life I thought an adult should have by acquiring more stuff (as if owning a large television or a coffee table magically made me the grown up I felt I should be!). So, physically, moving has become an ordeal: I can no longer cram all my worldly possessions into a few bags and hop on a plane or into my car. I have to plan in advance and I can't pack the night before I take off. 

Yet the physical aspect of moving is not where the real difficulty in leaving my comfort zone lies.

It's leaving the people I know and love. 

But it's the returning, too: the awkward reunions, the shock of seeing wrinkles creasing a once-young face, the modular homes where a favorite farm stand used to be. In each of these examples, distance inhibits the individual's gradual acclimatization to flagging friendships, the aging of loved ones, and urbanization, resulting in trauma. Every time I move now, I am reminded of such shocks and, as a result, some of the existential angst those shocks originally produced infuses the moving process. The fact that the moving process now takes months of preparation rather than a few hours only means this peculiar emotional state lasts longer.

***

Those unsettling feelings change the way one views the present.

For instance, as I prepare to move, I cannot help wondering about the stability and long-term viability of my current friendships, remembering the impact previous moves have had on my relationships. As I moved from New Jersey to Norway to Minnesota to Montreal to New York, I kept leaving people behind and no matter how much I wanted to stay in touch, no matter how sincere the parting tears, no matter the ardency of the promises, my friends and I often drifted apart. As we attended to our daily lives, emails sat unanswered. With time, we had less in common. People married, others divorced. Some died. Some found religion, others found drugs. What everyone had in common, though, was that we lived our lives, but we tended to live them locally, as one famously creepy Canadian study confirms.

A few years ago, when I made an intrastate move from one town to another one less than an hour away, I felt the effects of this fact. I had initially assumed that, while I might not spend quite as much time socializing with my friends as I had before the move, the difference would be negligible. After all, what's an hour? What I learned was that many of my friends prior to the move were very eager to spend time with me, if I drove to see them. It did not always work the other way around. Several people with whom I had regularly shared meals when I lived nearby seemed to forget I existed the minute I moved away. I simply was no longer on their radar, which seemed to have a radius of only a few miles.

The sad fact is that physical distance does erode relationships, and often does so alarmingly fast. Even with Skype, AIM, cell phones, and Facebook creating virtual bridges, most long distance friendships can persevere only with significant and persistent effort. 

And this is why, as I get closer to moving halfway across the continent, I have some conflicting emotions. Intellectually, I know that my move is a good thing, that leaving New York for a well-paying job in a nice area, close to some friends that have stayed in touch for over a decade despite my having lived far away, is as perfect a no-brainer as no-brainers can be. Emotionally, however, I'm not there yet. I know that some of my current friendships will fade into acquaintances, that some of the people I enjoy seeing will, in all likelihood, not see me again. And I don't like it. If a one-hour move was enough to effectively cut me off from some people, what will a fifteen- or sixteen-hour move do?

It's that old growing pain again: While I know in my mind that I am going off to do something good and that I am ready for the next stage in my life, my heart keeps grasping for the familiar.

As I have been packing, I have come across the talismans of once warm friendships, now grown cool from lack of maintenance. Uncovering these photographs, cards, and other memory-bearing objects has had an emotionally-abrasive effect on me. I feel raw, as if I have shed a carapace and not yet replaced it. Each time I see a face or signature I haven't seen in years, part of me begins wondering which of the people I call friends today will end up as a nostalgic tug in my heart as I pack boxes in the future.

The more one packs physically, it seems, the more one unpacks emotionally.

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