Permanent Exile


Two years ago, my parents and maternal grandparents moved from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where I grew up, to Huntsville, Alabama. The other day I was thinking that among the many losses that move signified for me, including maintaining a connection to my childhood and teenage years, was the loss of my grandparents’ house. They had lived in that house since before I was born. It was the only constant place in my life.

I hate not having a sense of place. I have moved every four years or less for my entire life. The place I’ve lived longest as an adult was my college apartment in Baton Rouge, where I lived by myself for three years. I’ve had so many dwellings that I can’t remember all the addresses or phone numbers anymore. I don’t know why those memories are so important to me, but they are.

And it’s not just residences, but towns, cities, states, and even regions. David and I have nowhere to call home, no logical place for us to go in order to be closer to family. Both our parents no longer live in the places where we grew up, and they are clear across the country from each other (while I’m from the South, he’s from the West Coast). If we moved closer to my family, we’d never see his. If we moved closer to his family (although they are too scattered themselves to make it worth it), we would be much further from mine. The area where we live now is connected to no one and nothing except our work. We don’t even have any close friends here — they all live in other cities, other states. In a lot of ways, we are alone. We don’t even have a babysitter. We had to put someone from David’s office down as our emergency contact for Casey’s day care. They were like, um, don’t you have someone local? Well, no, now that you ask, we don’t. We don’t know a single neighbor or anyone who lives in our town. Not. one. person.

I get the sense that a lot more people are in this predicament now than were in it 50 years ago, and in case you missed my glum tone, I don’t think it’s an entirely positive development. Sometimes I long for small town life because I think that having that sense of place would fulfill something that is missing in the life that I have. I know I’m romanticizing it — there are a number of negative aspects of small-town life as well, chiefly nosy and judgmental neighbors and the related woe of having everyone know all your business, and then of course there is the not-small matter of politics — I remember hating being around all conservatives when I lived in Mississippi. It was incredibly isolating. There are reasons that I used to say that I would never live in any but an urban area. But even though I have a lovely family and good friends, sometimes I feel as though I have never been so lonely in my life.

I guess in a way what I really wish (sometimes, only sometimes) is that there wasn’t so much freaking choice, that people stayed the same and in the same places for the whole of their lives, that families could see each other more than once or twice a year, that they didn’t miss seeing their grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins grow up. That going far away was not considered so normal, that people’s dreams for their lives were smaller and simpler. That we had a community to be part of, a place that felt like home.

22 Responses to “Permanent Exile”

  1. Whitney Says:

    Hi Sandi,

    First of all, this isn’t in any way meant to be condescending, just a reflection of my experience and how it has been different than your own.

    To begin, Joe and I both have family (moms and dads and brothers and grandparents) living in the general area where we grew up. Another advantage we have is that they live a grand total of 6 hours apart, despite the fact that we actually met each other almost 2000 miles away from either place. So, we do have the real likelihood of “going home” after all this military stuff is over.

    Like you, I have moved constantly since 1994. The longest I have lived in a single dwelling has been 3 years. That was in our home in San Diego, from which we just moved just over 1 year ago. We’ve been in Hawaii 13 months and have already moved once. And like you, I can’t, off the top of my head, tell you where all I’ve lived (that’s what my credit report is for…).

    But I can honestly say the only reason I have never felt the loneliness you speak of is because of our church families. Through college and grad school my great friends went to church somewhere, and often with me. DeJon, Al and Jody were our other family in Mississippi. San Diego was where it was felt the very most. I knew no one in all of Southern California. But we were immediately welcomed into what eventually became our home congregation. They were just our family. The same eventually came true in Hawaii, although the Navy community here is much more a family that bases back on the mainland.

    Despite the Navy community in our different locales, I can say without hesitation that the reason I’ve rarely felt alone is our bond with our church families. I’ve always had a community and people who make me feel at home, and for that I am incredibly thankful.

    I hope you can find the same.

  2. urbino Says:

    I share your feelings and concerns, Sandi. I don’t know anyone here but the people I work with, and it’s rare that we do anything social together. A few weeks ago when I set out on a longish ride on our last blazing hot (103) Saturday afternoon, developed heat exhaustion and had to stop and sit under a tree for 45 minutes, there weren’t any real friends I could have called to come pick me up.

    To me, though, the problem isn’t so much that we’re a mobile society as that we’re a fairly closed society. That is, the problem isn’t that we move and need to develop new friendships; it’s that somehow we’ve managed to be become a mobile society without developing any good mechanisms for establishing new friendships.

  3. alsturgeon Says:

    Good stuff, all three of you.

    I share Whitney’s experiences. (Well, I’ve never been to Hawaii, but you know what I mean.) And JU is right on the money about mechanisms for establishing new friendships, with the caveat that churches still fill this role for many (like my friend, Whitney, and I).

    In fact, though this is in no way a “church” blog, every single person listed on the long list of contributors is a relationship I developed in some way related to church (or a church-related institution).

    Starbucks has exploded through its attempt to be a new mechanism. Others exist, too. But, yes, outside of churches, our society is woefully lacking in mechanisms for establishing new friendships.

    (BTW, I have learned so far that Pepperdine SOL prides itself in creating community, very unique I suspect among law schools. And it does a terrific job of it. I have instantly created friendships here. Once again, however, this emphasis is related to “church” – a fact they do not push, but do not hide.)

  4. alsturgeon Says:

    Hey guys, please keep talking about this stuff. Just returned from my morning walk, and it’s all I could think about…

    Today is my 2nd day of law school, and I’m slammed with four classes – three this morning. Struggling to stay afloat.

    But I’m deeply connected to “church” – and yet, as comforting as this has been, I remain lonely in a crowd in some very important ways. The tension is so much a part of my life… I think Joe/Whitney stand on one side for me, and JU/Sandi stand on the other. I think DeJon keeps me company in this unfortunate tug-of-war. (not that the rest of you are fighting against each other, just coming from different places on this issue – and I think there are some identifiable reasons).

    Anyway, I just wanted to encourage the conversation (for one), but also make it clear that I recognize my conflicted position (I love church, I hate church, I love it, I hate it).

  5. urbino Says:

    Pick a side, Al! The country’s at war; this is no time for fence-sitting.

    I don’t know that I have terribly much more to say about this. I agree that churches CAN be useful at community building. ISTM they often are not, however. And, of course, even the ones that are, are for only a certain kind of people.

    Part of what we’re feeling is, of course, a result of just the general privatization of society. With air conditioning and tv and dvds and computers and video games and lawn services, etc., nobody’s in shared, public spaces much; if you’re not at work, you’re at home and inside, and between the two you’re inside your own private car. Even when we are in public spaces — typically stores of one kind or another — we’ve developed such a severe case of Stranger Danger that we don’t talk to anybody and aren’t receptive to being talked to. I sort of reflexively say “hi” to people when we meet head-to-head in a store aisle, and the reactions are interesting. Very often, people are almost alarmed by it; you can see it in their faces. It’s rare that you get any kind of mirroring — any friendly “hi” in return.

    Okay. So I did have something more to say about this.

  6. Whitney Says:

    I find that when I smile and say hi to people averaging probably 65 years and older, they reciprocate in kind. Younger than that and you start getting the strange looks. You all know I grew up in podunk, USA, where you knew everyone. I loved moving to the city where I could go to Walmart and not see anyone I know. But it is also a little bit disconcerting when people don’t even acknowledge friendliness. I would guess it is certainly exacerbated by iPods and Gameboys. Kids live in their own little world, effectively excluding anything to which they don’t want to attend.

  7. Sandi Says:

    I intentionally didn’t mention church in this post even though I know that it is a source of community. I have been saying for literally years that I wish there was church for secular people. I said this to a therapist I was seeing a few months ago, and she said, “There is.” I immediately knew what she was talking about (Unitarian), and we have been strongly considering stopping by one Sunday and checking it out. As it happens, she is a member, and she said it is a close-knit and welcoming community. I have also been a total wanna-be Jew for years because of the sense of community I see in my Jewish friends.

    Interestingly, David saw a neighbor of ours today who invited us to a barbecue they are having. They are another young couple with two kids, one pretty close to Casey’s age. I think we’ll stop by just because this type of thing is so rare. We also had a couple from our childbirth class and their daughter (who’s 4 days younger than Casey) over two weekends ago. So we’re trying to make some connections, but it’s hard in this area. You meet people at work, but like as not you live so far away from each other that it’s very inconvenient to get together. Also I have found people to be relatively closed to friendships since I have moved here in a way that I had not encountered before.

    So there was a little bit of melodrama in what I was saying — I was feeling lonely at the time I wrote it — but I do also think that it’s not such a great thing that extended families do not live around each other very often anymore. This is just something that tends to come up when you have a child, and not just because the free child care would be nice. My parents are over the moon about Casey, but only get to see him every three months or so (and that’s far more often than anyone else does). We send DVDs, but it’s not the same.

  8. Sandi Says:

    BTW, I only get internet access once a day. I really like not being tethered to e-mail — if someone needs to tell us something, they have to get up and walk over to our area to do so — but I do feel a little out of the loop. I haven’t read the New York Times in days. 🙂

  9. Sandi Says:

    Oh, and to respond to JU and Whitney’s comments on saying hi to people, I have to remark that in DC in my experience, people of color are far friendlier and more apt to say hello on the street than white people. When we lived in the hood, we knew (not to hang out, but to say hello and their names) many more of our neighbors than we do here.

    I am definitely guilty of not saying hi to people, but it’s honestly because I’m rather reserved until I really get to know someone rather than because I’m closed off. If someone approaches me and asks me about things I know, I’ll talk their ear off. 🙂

  10. alsturgeon Says:

    I talk to people all the time. But I’m weird. Sometimes I talk to myself.

    Here’s what got me a bit worked up this morning: I find church to be an excellent vehicle for community – as JU said, for a certain kind of people. If you are a different kind of people, you can be a part of a wonderful community, too – if you keep your mouth shut and don’t let people know what you really think.

    The Unitarian church is a good idea, Sandi. But my thinking is (where’s Bruno when I need him?) that there would probably still be the same Us vs. Them mentality there. You’d just be part of the Us instead of the Them.

    What kills me is that I think Jesus broke down all the social walls that keep us from community. A peacemaker in a particular way. Well, that’s what he modeled at least. Where is THAT community today?

    I can fit into Church really well. I’m good at keeping many of my thoughts hidden, which makes it a very lonely endeavor at times. Here’s the deal: I like a LOT of folks who are different than me (generally, conservative folks). I hate that most of them wouldn’t like me back if we were free to be open (and, in case I don’t communicate here, I think this works both ways, including in churches and out).

  11. urbino Says:

    I find that when I smile and say hi to people averaging probably 65 years and older, they reciprocate in kind.

    Yes. I find the same thing, Whit. I dunno if it’s a generational thing, or because older people tend not to get a lot of social interaction.

    If you are a different kind of people, you can be a part of a wonderful community, too – if you keep your mouth shut

    Which is, of course, the same thing as not being part of a community at all. Only worse. Because you know your silence is taken as support for all the crapola.

  12. urbino Says:

    Oh, and I resemble this remark:

    I have also been a total wanna-be Jew for years because of the sense of community I see in my Jewish friends.

    Plus, liberal Judaism is just a wonderful moral/ethical system.

  13. alsturgeon Says:

    Yeah, the crapola stinks. HA! I made a funny.

    But you highlight the negative side of my dilemma. The positive side is being part of “something” (unleash the Cheers theme song). I am literally never alone.

    And if you are patient, relationships form over time that prove much more difficult to throw away once folks “come out of the closet” (so to speak). A bond similar to the extended family bond to which Sandi refers.

  14. Sandi Says:

    You know, Al, David and I were talking the other day about how you and I met. I said that it happened at all because my dad didn’t know you well enough. He might have held out some hope you could convert me because although he knew you were a Democrat (let’s all say it together now that you’re no longer preaching), he didn’t know you were a very different sort of Christian from him and most of the other people he knows — or thinks he knows. You know, “this is not your grandparents’ Christianity” or something like that. Obviously, it was still a good thing for me to be exposed to a religious person who wasn’t narrow-minded, intolerant, and, you know, a Republican, but it certainly didn’t accomplish what he probably intended.

    I admire that you’ve been able to tolerate the CoC community for so long, not that I haven’t met many other nice people therein, but the politics of it just stank to high heaven (I guess because of the crapola?). I could never go back there — the conception of spirituality in fundamentalism is just too limiting. Oy vey. 🙂

  15. urbino Says:

    You’re such a mensch. The crapola, OTOH, it’s all so meshuginnah.

  16. alsturgeon Says:

    Before he moved, Sandi, your dad some some really nice things to me – things along the line that I’ve helped him see “it all” in a different way, and that this was a good thing.

    I love your dad. Which is half my point in all this. I’d hate not to have known him, even though we have fundamental approaches to things like politics.

    May be just me, but I wish there was a place where people came together across all the dividing lines. Sometimes it feels like it’s just me. But the hippos help.

    Gotta run. Meeting, followed by studying both Property and Contracts.

    Yale must’ve been intense.

  17. DeJon05 Says:

    Boy, I’m afraid I might’ve missed out on the high point of the engaging discussion that followed Sandi’s insightful submission. I lend my meager contribution anyway.

    (As an aside I should totally be outlining Torts right now, and my guilt will decrease the quality of my contribution. Alas, I’m a 1L, and that’s how we roll.)

    I might be missing Sandi’s point because of the preconceptions I projected in to my reading, but this discussion only re-energizes my thoughts on community. That’s an idea I think about a lot. The idea dominated most of my conversations with Duane. (I miss that dude.) Mostly I/we were trying to figure out how we screwed it up so bad. We talked about the rampant dehumanization that eats away at our common bonds.

    It’s easy to be divisive, cynical, and jaded. I get first prize in those competitions too often.

    Maybe that’s why I lament that I have no community. Even more I curse contemporary religious organizations for by and large trading in an authentic community for a cheap pseudo-community.

    My situation differs from Sandi’s in that my folks are still living in the same house in which I was raised. What’s strange is how I’ve changed so much that I prefer to reject the idea of that place as home. All of those old relationships are predicated on an outdated version of me. When I attempt to be honest about who I am, where I’ve been, and what’s led me to where I am, I’m met with a narrow-mindedness, an unwavering philosophical certainty and a backlash that is better avoided. I have rejected almost everything that makes up my hometown environment. It lives up to all the stereotypes of the south.

    I just finished a near month-long stay there. I was reminded how it is a place where ignorance is pooled together and called religion and tenaciously guarded as an uncompromisable worldview. Its a place where Liberal is a curse word, but the N word is acceptable in some social situations. Where social justice means tipping ten percent versus the normative two dollars. The most foreign culture that is still moderately acceptable is the town no more than 50 miles down the road.

    But understand this place still meets the technical definition of “home” for me. And it is a real conundrum trying to resolve this fact with how so much about it is patently offensive to me. To be frank, it hurts.

    Don’t get me wrong for every accusation I throw at my old hometown, I’m guilty of two or three separate offenses of my own.

    Mostly I just resolve to be a man without a home. But I miss that sense of community.

    ISTM that as a culture we have experienced a fundamental breakdown in one person’s ability to relate to another. It is hard, and risky. It takes too much compromise, and understanding, and patience.

    And I have no idea what to do about it.

  18. urbino Says:

    Well what good are you, then?

  19. DeJon05 Says:

    Ha! “One good problem identifier–Free to a good home… debt included.”

  20. jsturgeon Says:

    DeJon, I always have room for one more good problem identifier, I just cannot take the debt that comes with you….And Sandi, find a good babysitter soon or you may just go crazy!!!!!!!!!!!!

    All joking aside, Sandi you have been great for Al. I remember the first time the two of you meet many years ago. He did not share information with me about your conversations those first few years but I know they were very important to him. I thank you for allowing him in your life.

    I think the most important thing accomplished by that meeting was a friendship you both needed.

  21. Sandi Says:

    Dejon, I so hear you on everything you said, and that’s why I said I knew I was romanticizing the idea of being around family and living in a small town. Thanks for the reminder that there are real, good, concrete reasons I left, and why going back to a place like that would be demoralizing in a different way from here. I remember in high school that I was the only one with a Clinton Gore ’92 sticker on my car. At least here I see other Obama stickers. I think for the moment we are sticking with Virginia, and hoping that the connections will come with time. I sure as hell don’t want my child growing up around people like you are describing. Living here, it’s easy to forget that there are people who actually think like that, and that they are the majority in some places. I’m shuddering just thinking about it.

    Hi Jody, it’s nice that you are stopping by the blog. Knowing Al has been great for me too. We’ll have to find a babysitter by November because we’ve bought concert tickets, but other than that, we’ve been pretty happy with lots of family time.

    It’s crazy to hear you guys going through first-year law school stuff. Lotta bad memories. I didn’t become so depressed I didn’t want to get out of bed until the second semester, but I cried a lot during the first. I’m sure things will be better for you than they were for me. Being a man helps.

    Oh, and about my dad, I love him too. At heart he is a really good, compassionate person, which is why it’s so frustrating that he thinks he’s conservative. I will continue trying to be a good influence on him.

  22. Jami Says:

    My friend! You and I both know about our “small town” upbringing. When we decided to move, it was very hard. I realize we moved from one small town to another, but it was a BIG deal for me to do.
    There are many reasons we moved, but here’s the big one….we were lonely at home. We knew lots of people, but since we had known them forever, we were tired of each other. All our family was there, and they brought us down. I mean….we would get calls to come and hook up my mother-in-law’s DVD player. There IS such a thing as knowing too much about people.
    Since we have moved, we enjoy spending time with our families much more. We too have co-workers on the emergency forms at school. We have found great friends, and since we HAVE to rely on them (as opposed to family), it has made our friendships stronger. 🙂
    Since ya’ll brought up religion…one of the reasons we chose Judaism was for the community. At home, we had a large Jewish community. The kids had friends to hang out with and we all had common interetsts. It’s a very social religion. We miss that degree of socialization where we live now (there are like…10 Jews that live inthe swamp with us).
    I suppose the point is….there are good and bad aspects to living at home or living away. You just have to make the best of it.

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