The following post--which is about Life Before Sophia--was inspired by the book, Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English, by the March selection of the online bookclub, From Left to Write. I received a copy of the book from the publisher free-of-charge, but was not compensated to write this essay. Read other posts inspired by the book here.
I made a promise to my husband. After spending five long years in graduate school in New Jersey together, I would follow him down to North Carolina. To live. Forever and ever.
My husband has a deep love of the South. His parents both came from Georgia, and though he was raised in Illinois, he felt more deeply connected to the South than the Midwest. I, on the other hand, was a diehard North Easter. I ate fast, I walked fast, I slept fast, I talked fast. Though I knew I had neighbors, I rarely spoke to them. And I like bagels, preferably with lox.
At the time of The Promise, I was terrified, but game. Having never been able to escape the throes of New Jersey (outside of four years of college in New York), I was ready for a change.
I went in good faith.
We moved to Asheville, a funky little town situated on the French River overlooking the Smoky Mountains. It was a liberal artist-haven oasis surrounded by rolling, rural country-side of staunch conservatism. It had a thriving center with steep, angular streets flanked by galleries, shops and restaurants. We rented a house in the historic district that was so huge (we couldn’t believe what we could get for our money), I’d have to call Kevin on his cell to find him. We were minutes away from phenomenal hiking and outdoor sports of all kinds—kayaking down the Natahala, mountain biking on rugged trails.
I was miserable.
I became a joiner. I joined a thriving group psychological practice—and was never at a loss for meaningful work. I joined a local gym and worked out for hours each day, getting into the best shape of my life. I joined a book club with so many participants you had to fight your way to be heard. I joined a knitting group and made small talk with hippie moms as I wrested cables onto a hat for Kevin.
I participated, but I could not assimilate. In fairness, I am told it takes time. At least a year. Perhaps it was due to the fact that I literally kept one foot in NJ, flying up there once each month to conduct trainings for curriculum I designed in alone in that big house in Asheville. I loved those whirlwind weeks—filled with friends, family and the familiar. I mourned a little every time I stepped back on the plane for Asheville and left what still felt like home.
Or perhaps it was simply that I was too identified with my Northern persona. When I left the house, I’d first peek out the windows, scanning for my neighbor with the 16 cats. If he caught me, I’d be drawn into a half-hour conversation about how much he adored Maxwell (my cat). I dreaded trips to the supermarket, where I was sure to be interminably stuck on line at the register as each person had a very lengthy conversation with the cashier about the weather. I’d squirm uncomfortably as women would discuss people they didn’t like while smiling and saying things like “bless her heart.”
No, I much preferred the place where it was socially acceptable to say, “sorry, but I’m in a hurry.” Or, “could you please open up another register?” Or, “She’s a real b****.” without raising an eyebrow.
I am a blurter. I have no filter. I say what comes to mind. I was exhausted at days end from holding back. My cheeks hurt from smiling too much. I felt like, in the South, even in Ashville, I couldn’t be my authentic me.
As fate would have it I didn’t have to stay there for long. An irresistible job opportunity opened up for me in the North, and we moved back. For ever. And for the first time, I really understood what Kevin was sacrificing.
Fortunately, we managed to find a place where we both felt at home. A place where we love our neighbors, and it’s okay to tell them we’re in a hurry. Now, I look back on the days in Asheville with some fondness. I’m glad I had the unsettling experience of living in another place. It helped me to understand how much place is a part of who we are.