It may be a little crazy that in my mid-50s, I sold everything except my dogs and children. Gone went the house, car, bike, tools, gardening stuff, bookcases, down to the recycling bins. Then I moved back to New York City after 10 years in a little New England town I never got used to.
You can call it a late-mid-life crisis but I thought it was a matter of survival (which is probably the most common mid-life crisis excuse).
Small town life was an experiment and now I was done. All my life I lived in big cities. Huge cities: Los Angeles, London briefly, and New York City. Moving here was about daydreaming. A little Victorian and a white picket fence would make everything manageable. My life would be under control. My kids would be in progressive schools, I’d take a break from my reams of editing jobs to have soy lattes with my new friends, I’d write my dissertation, my partner would miraculously become a different person …
My kids actually had a great experience but in every other way I was wrong. I never wrote the dissertation. My relationship ended. I took any job available, no matter how menial. And friends? Impossible. If there were a state affect, like a state bird, “aloof” would be it for Massachusetts. People were hard to meet.
I became grumpy, a cynic. I complained.
“What is with these New England people?!” I asked, Jerry Seinfeld-like, almost daily. And then I’d start the rant: “They are so REPRESSED!” “You’d think my red lipstick was a scarlet 'A' on my chest,” “I live among pilgrims!” “Who over 3 years old says ‘down cellar’ instead of ‘down in the cellar,’ and who says 'cellar'?” and “And what’s with these New-Agey men? They’re too nice,” and on and on.
And then someone said, “Give it 5 years.” The theory being that it took that long to warm up to a new place. And after 5 years I became complacent, enjoyed the scenery, had my routines, kept to myself, focused on my kids and went to New York City a lot.
I never thought of myself as a person who had a hard time making friends. But after 10 years here, even though I had acquaintances, they were not like my friends in NYC or LA—people you just did stuff with because you felt like spending time together or had a particular thing you both enjoyed, and you checked in if too much time had passed. Also, I know it sounds paradoxical, but big cities relax me. I think more deeply when I’m one among the masses.
Living in a small town made me claustrophobic. You encounter the same people over and over—until you start to see them and you’re no longer anonymous. Everyone started driving me nuts. I named people I didn’t know: “The Generic Lesbian,” “Goiter man,” “the Girner.”
So I moved back to the Big Apple. I wasn’t prepared for how expensive it was. I kept thinking something would just “happen.” But after 2 years of doing not much except working and dating the strangest people, I was going broke. On top of that, I saw friends, shows, went to museums, galleries and went out to restaurants more often when I lived in New England than when they were around the corner.
I knew I had to move back to New England. My choices were limited because my daughter lives here and my son lives in Brooklyn and I wanted to live near one or the other.
It was when I was packing my things that I came up with an idea that would make my re-entry to small town life a little easier, and I was determined to no longer be grumpy. I called it the “Hi Strategy.” I would say “Hi” to people who once drove me crazy, to strangers, to sourpuss bank tellers, to college students with their faces glued to devices.
There’s no big moral to this story. No amazing moment of humanity. It’s been 2 1/2 years since I’ve returned to this small New England town. I don’t have any big expectations about the place, just ones with myself.
The other day I was walking my dogs and up ahead I saw a man who used to give me a hard time at the Smith College gym when I was a personal trainer there. He’d tell me to put back weights, wipe down machines, not take up the whole stretching mat. He was a jerk and he had a face that was lined from scowling to prove he was a miserable guy.
My impulse was to walk by him and give him a dirty look but the guy was with his toddler grandson who spotted my dogs. “Hi!” I said with a big smile as if he was an old friend. The guy looked astonished.
So while I’m here, until I move back once more to New York (better prepared this time), I’m making the best of it.