Monday, May 19, 2008

My own mini "Eat, Pray, Love" experience

Since March, I have been ping-ponging back and forth between North Carolina, New York, and California. I've never gone back and forth quite this way, and it definitely highlights the contrasts between these very different locales. I'm almost developing my own mini-version of Eat, Pray, Love out of these travels. Here's what I have learned:

California: Breathe In, Breathe Out

Southern California has to put up with a lot of stereotypes, but some of them are rooted in wonderful reality. Last week my family traveled to San Diego for my cousin's wedding. We had some free time to explore, and after spending half a day playing in the surf by the little town of Del Mar, I was dreaming of renting a beach house for a month.

I have been wound up pretty tightly lately, and the hypnotic rhythm of the surf broke through my chattering mind and gave me a few hours of real peace and relaxation. My daughter was happy to play in the sand, without any toys or tools, just exploring with her hands. She made friends with another girl and they dug all kinds of canals as they tried to build pools that would capture the sea.

The morning at the beach, plus a meal of fish tacos, fresh avocados, artichokes, and Mexican beer reminded me of some of what I love about California.

New York: Mind Your Own Business

On the opposite pole of existence, I've been spending time in Manhattan. My mother-in-law lives there, and it's the center of the publishing and media universe, so between family and business ties I've been up twice this spring. I've lived most of my life in a small town or suburbs, so Manhattan has always been rather intimidating. It's probably taken me a dozen trips to feel really comfortable there, but I have broken through. I can now plug into the energy of the city and enjoy myself.

I have come to respect the way that New Yorkers protect their personal space. When you travel in an extremely crowded environment, you need to be able to emotionally keep your distance even when jammed up close to other strangers. You don't want or need to acknowledge every person you pass on the street. I remember that when I was in college, I'd pass the same people on the way to class every day, and wonder how many times in one day I had to say hello to someone when our paths crossed on campus. Two times, three, or every time I saw them? And if I said hi to one person I knew, did that mean I had to say hi to every single one?

In New York, those obligations are minimized. It's really okay to "mind your own business." This is a useful exercise for me, because I tend to lean forward, reach out, and connect, even when it's not necessary or useful to do so. Living in a small town like Chapel Hill reinforces this tendency. This can pull me off center and causes problems when I take on other people's responsibilities or requests when I don't really have time to do so. This is a classic issue for many mothers, wanting to be helpful and people-pleasing to the point that we neglect our own priorities. I encourage you to get in touch with your own "inner New Yorker" and learn what it feels like to set clear boundaries when necessary.

And here's a secret I have learned about New York: most people are actually pretty nice, and are willing to help you, or at least point you in the right direction, if you have a specific question or problem.

North Carolina: Home

Finally, coming back to North Carolina does feel like home. We've been here for seven years, the longest I've ever lived in one house. My daughter is growing up here, and we are putting down strong roots. For the first time in my life, I feel like if we moved away, the community as a whole would actually miss us. You'd have to be a pretty "big fish" to feel like that in New York or San Francisco, but in Chapel Hill, we actually have the chance to get to know each other.

If travel has taught you important lessons, especially relating to life as a Mom, I'd love to hear your comments.

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Blogger dasht said...

This is a difficult thought to express because I don't mean to pick a fight or be gratuitously critical yet my jaw dropped a bit at a detail in your post.

You say that your current situation is the first time in your life where you feel like you've begun (and we are always beginning at this) to put down roots. I suddenly felt sad for you and, for the first time in a long time, an increment towards understanding of your family.

The first time, you say, that people would miss you if you left. I am sorry for you. I am also happy for you that you report starting to feel that feeling. It is something that many ... perhaps a majority ... take as a fact of life.

I think this has something to do with the price of access to your platform: to your path in higher education, to your access to book deals, to TV appearances... the voices that emerge from those segments of society are, to many of us, surrealistically detached. There has (I'm sorry but) seemed something so very peculiar about your giving advice about motherhood and parenting. I couldn't put my finger on it but now I can and it's just in that passing comment. You are only just now, it would seem, beginning to get what "community" really means. And only barely because you still frame your new understanding in terms of how others see you rather than how you see others or, even better, on interdependencies. Desperate interdependencies that are habit, and norm, and the wellspring of true appreciation and participation in community because we're all in this together.

Growing up wealthy is one thing, growing up privileged and / or rich another. Wealth makes you the custodian of a community resource; privileges and riches isolate and that is what you suggest happened to you and, frankly, fits your family story well from my perspective.

You get cities like New York all wrong if you think the main lesson is "mind your own business." If you haven't already you surely shall learn that "mind your own business" is, if anything, somewhat more important in a small town, even if the pleasantry habits are more effusive. In the city the walls are thin and more business is common knowledge. In the city, though, strangers stand out and, well, they have their place -- that's all you're seeing -- you're just interpreting it wrong.

Don't isolate your kid. Kick her out the door as soon as you think she has a half decent chance of finding her way home. Turn her over to the community. Otherwise, she'll make it clear on through to middle age without so much as discovering the concept of putting down roots.

What a strange messed up world you describe coming from. How odd to issue parenting advice from that world to hoi poloi. It borders on the classical grotesquerie, from my perspective. God bless a community that has got your ear and is tugging at your heart. God bless us all. You explained much, in that small remark.


3:02 AM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

There is no reason to feel sorry for me. The main reason I hadn't felt like I'd put down roots before is because my family moved every four years or so. After living all over the country, we've finally found a community that is "big enough to serve you, small enough to know you."

It takes time to make connections to get to the point where I feel like we'd be missed by our whole community, and not just our individual friends, if we moved.

8:32 PM  

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