Today a colleague turned to me and asked, so what are you now?
I looked at her blankly. What do you mean? You know, she said. You were a New Yorker. What are you now... What do they call it in Massachusetts? Are you a Massachusetts-ian? I thought about it for a moment. I honestly didn't know, and it made me uncomfortable. I'm just a Masshole, I joked. But inside I felt slightly sick. Am I not still a New Yorker?
(I looked it up, by the way, and it's either a Bay Stater or a Massachusettsan.)
It's been an eternity since my last post. We have been busy shutting down our lives in New York City and getting all of Teeny's medical and therapeutic services, all of both girls' activities and schools, everything we own and our entire lives uprooted to a brand new setting. We closed on our house about six weeks ago. Looking back at all we have done to get where we are is exhausting, because now almost everything in our lives is different. New house. (A house!) New town. (A town!) New schools. (Public!) New therapies. New doctors, new policies, new service providers. New people in our lives. Not a new job, but a very new way of doing it. New new new new new if I hear that word one more time I will just implode into an overwhelmed heap of introverted leave-me-alone.
The best part is that we have everything. Really. Our little house sits on an acre of land, much of which is wooded, wild and brambly, and even though we are in a thickly settled area a block from a school in one direction and a block from a horse farm and half a dozen tiny businesses in the other, three miles from the town center and twenty miles from one of the biggest cities in the northeast, when we sit on our deck, we are in the middle of nowhere. The trees are tall and thick, hiding nearly all evidence of neighbors and neighborhood. Hilly, desolate hiking trails, an old, out-of-use railroad track and a big boating pond are within walking distance. Occasionally a dog barks far off in the distance to remind us that we are not as isolated as we think we are, which is both a disappointment and a relief. The birds are noisy and enthusiastic about the feeders we have set up for them. The local chipmunks, hungry and thinking about the winter, do their best to stuff their cheeks with bird seed before the girls catch them and shriek excitedly, gleefully, to shoo them away. We have plants. A shrub! Flowers. Basil, thyme, a green pepper. My thumb is not green; we water regularly, check for new leaves dutifully and hope for the best. Sap from a tree I cannot identify drips on my new car; spiders spin webs in the front bushes. The wind is whispery. We sometimes have clouds that take all sorts of shapes; on clear nights we have thousands and thousands of stars. The longer I look, the more I see. I could lie on the deck forever, soaking it all in. It is easy to understand why so many writers have made this neck of the woods their home. The muse is with me, too, out here on my back deck. I have had many happy places over the years but never one I actually lived in. Now, my happy place is my home and that is probably the best feeling I've had in the entire world. I'm like Dorothy: there's no place like home.
The first night in the house, Bee was so tired from all the activity that she drifted off before I could even kiss her. I crossed the room and knelt down to kiss Teeny, whose big eyes were still wide. Mama, she whispered. I can't sleep here. Her lip was quivering. In the darkness I could see she was about to cry. Why not, baby girl? Because, she started, and thought about how to formulate her words. Her voice was shaking and she reached out to me, opening her arms. Because I don't love it yet, she said quietly. She blinked, and the tears spilled over her cheeks. Aw baby, I murmured, and pulled her close. I stroked her hair, her forehead. I held her until she too began to drift off. I felt sad because I did love it and I wanted her to love it too.
Three days later, Bee was spreading her wings, zooming from one room to the next, running up the stairs to her room, lugging bags of her stuff down to the basement, frolicking on the deck and scaring off the cardinal family that visits every morning. She stopped long enough to exclaim to me, I love it here! I don't want to go back to New York ever again. Can we stay here? She flew through the house, making me think of a dog marking its territory. And Teeny, always listening, always copying her sister, threw her arms out and chimed in too. I love this house now! I don't like New York anymore. I remember thinking, well, that was easier than I thought it would be. Sure, Bee, I smiled. I love it here too. And I breathed a sigh of relief and I turned to Johnny and said, Yes! We did it!
In the month and a half since then, I have retold that story countless times. Oh it's been great! I say to anyone who asks. Can you believe it? It only took three days to go from wide eyes in the night to never wanting to go back. The kids adjusted so quickly! Yeah, I'm traveling a ton for work but it's totally fine! Johnny loves it too! NBD!
Yeah, yeah. I know. I was silly to think it would be that easy.
About two weeks ago the tears started. Shyness invaded. Moodiness. At times our six year old transforms into an unfamiliar beast who storms the house with eyes that roll like a teenager's, a stomping foot, a balled fist and a sharp, whining voice like Veruca Salt's. My reaction to this is not always one I am proud of. When I am being my best self, I ask hey, what's going on with you, kiddo? in the calmest voice I can muster. I don't know, she sobs, suddenly a puddle of tears and sweaty emotion, climbing into my arms like when she was a toddler and could only get closer to me if she unzipped my skin and nestled into my bones. Mama, I am all mixed up.
I relate. I am all mixed up too, kid. We have traded an invisible life in a diverse, bustling, crowded city for life in a quiet town where everyone looks the same. We used to hurry along without stopping to look up, and now we take our time, looking around at all that space, breathing the country air. It's so green! And now I can't wait for New England in the fall. In the meantime though, I have weeds to pull, flowers to water, scraps to compost. I have furniture to assemble, paint colors to select. I am 43 years old and learning about septic systems, about tree sap, about the surprising complexity (to say nothing of the expense) of trash pickup. I stand in my driveway in the evenings and survey the property and all the things that need to be fixed and renovated and reworked and I don't have the first clue how to start. It feels like I have an awful lot to learn.
The people we have met are nice. No, better. Nice is an understatement. They are amazing. We have been embraced strong and hard by a few families with special needs kiddos, families who get it. We have had a number of play dates, ones that we actually enjoy and we come home and look at each other and say, I think I could be friends with that person. But still, I worry that they won't want to be friends with me. I am too weird, too poor, too tattooed, too progressive, too vegan, too unavailable, too employed, too sober, too uptight, too serious. And then I remember that I already have friends who love me perhaps in spite of or perhaps because of all these things and I made the choice to leave them and here I am in the most beautiful place in the world but I feel like no one here gets me. Yet. But the evil voice in my head hisses: I am not one of them. I'll never be anything but an outsider.
We make an effort with our neighbors. We greet the letter carrier, the trash collectors, the FedEx woman, the dozens of contractors, delivery people, house cleaners we see on our street every day. We say hello to every single person we pass. We wave. We smile. We small talk until our faces crack. Oh it's really such a pleasure to meet you. Yes, the house halfway down on the right. That's the one! Awww, hiya buddy! He's so cute, what's his name? Nope, we don't have a dog. Yes, from New York. Uh-huh, we lived right in the city! In Manhattan! No, not on the Upper West Side. We lived in Harlem. Yep, you're right, it sure is changing quickly there. No, they went to private school. Oh yes, my older daughter will be starting there in the fall too! No, we haven't joined the rec center yet, but we did sign one of our girls up for piano lessons. The other one has a neurological disorder; we take her to a number of therapeutic activities after school. Yes, she uses a walker on short distances now. She's such a great kid, she sure is. Yes, I do actually work. My spouse stays home with the girls because I travel quite a bit. No, we don't have a contractor yet, but could you recommend a plumber? On and on and on and all the while my eyes are wide with house envy and I try not to react at the enormous homes with their museum-worthy landscaping, their beautiful showers that work, their finished basements, their centrally air conditioned bedrooms, their renovated kitchens and their garages and the luxury cars within. And I feel ugly all of a sudden because I feel greedy and entitled to more than I have and more than I need when having less never bothered me before. I have never been especially materialistic, I remind myself, and I remember the time not so very long ago I when I lived in a 750 square foot apartment with my spouse, my two babies and sometimes two cats, sometimes three, and I saw a meme that said "Some people are so poor, all they have is money" and I smiled to myself because I had so much love in my life that I felt it even when I was up late at night playing with a checkbook that just wouldn't fucking balance but I knew it would be okay because I was happily partnered with someone who worships the very ground I walk on and my kids are enthusiastic about every single thing and they even eat broccoli without putting up too much of a fight and I have a job I absolutely adore and I never ever thought I'd be where I am in life and who cares if my apartment is small and I ask for hand me downs and we can't afford to go on vacations because I made all this happen and I love every minute. So why am I having house envy now? Why am I scared to invite people over? Why do I think that their lives are easier or better or more loving than mine for a second? For even a single second? I don't know. But I do.
The girls are growing tall. They are tan from beach vacations, the new neighbors' pool, weekend picnics on the deck. They are ready for school and I am dutifully adding orientations and welcome sessions and pizza parties and ice cream socials and moms nights out to my calendar. And suddenly I think about being a Massachusettsian or whatever it is and wonder, who in the world am I really?
Right now, I am not really sure. So I asked my spouse.
You're intelligent, he said. Hard working. A dedicated, loving mother. You love to read; especially novels and memoirs. You read about real life, about people. You like thinking about other people's lives. You're extremely organized and you get a lot of stuff done very quickly. You are too tightly wound and don't laugh or relax enough. You are chatty and friendly and outoging but you snap at people when they try to talk to you when you are engrossed else. You don't sleep enough. You're passionate and caring. And you're hot and I love you like crazy.
Yeah, I said. But who am I? I asked again. I don't know what any of this means. He gave me a look and went back to his book.
I know this: I am address labels on my unread New Yorker magazines, carried everywhere I go and ultimately tossed in hotel room garbage pails because I just didn't get to them. I am brand new frequent flyer numbers and hotel rewards program usernames. I am a name on a mailing list that someone sold to someone when we bought our house; I am the piles and piles of personally addressed letters and promotional material from businesses in a 50-mile radius begging me to let them offer me a quote to fix my this, renovate my that. I am exercise gear that I bring home from a work trip still clean because I just didn't find the time to run. I am the new kid in a town that is wonderful and beautiful and welcoming but where I have no friends and where the good coffee is not walkable and where people stare at me because I am not blonde and thin and beautiful and wealthy and where I feel like an outsider. I am the dream of having nothing to do but sit on my deck and read a novel and drink tea and hug my children. I am how I think my neighbors might see me: alternately the cool, hardworking, sophisticated city slicker, maybe a little artsy, maybe a little mysterious, maybe a little edgy; alternately the weird girl from Beetlejuice or maybe Girl, Interrupted only grown up now, but still crazy. And then I am how I see myself, which is tired and fat and always struggling to do more, be more, have more. I have gone from being someone who felt confident and satisfied to someone who is just not good enough.
So now it's late and I still have a couple emails to finish so instead of thinking about this, writing about it, or better yet just shutting all my shit down and going the fuck to sleep, I head back upstairs where I am too tired to focus well so I internet-shop for an hour or more until my spouse notices that I am missing and comes to hunt me down and drag me -- literally kicking and screaming because I'm an adult and don't I get to decide my own bedtime? -- to bed, where I act like I'm five, carrying on that I'm not tired and I just need to read this and order that and I'll go make a snack and then it's after midnight and before I know it my happy and beautiful and brave and brilliant six year old's face is in mine and she's pulling my eyelids open and Mama, can we go for a bike ride?
Nothing really makes sense to me right now, but these bike rides are everything to me and symbolic of so much. Together, she and I can take on the unknown. Early mornings in our town are quiet and beautiful and we ride and ride and ride. It doesn't matter who we are and where we come from. In those moments, the world is ours.