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I can't tell if we are gonna be friends
On always feeling like the new kid
Just over a month before we moved to Nova Scotia, Haritha and I rented out an old church that had been converted into an AirBnb, and invited about a dozen of our friends to come eat food and stay for the night, and then watch us get married the next afternoon.
This is the invitation we circulated:
Our friend Jon — bless his heart — missed the part about it being a wedding.
When I tell this story, it is usually to highlight how extra Haritha and I are about our cats. Like, it felt completely plausible to someone who knows us quite well that we had rented a big building an hour and a half out of the city and expected everyone to join us in celebrating our cat’s made-up birthday.
But to me the real heart of this story is that even not knowing it was a wedding, Jon RSVP’d yes anyway. Because Haritha and I have the kinds of friends who would happily do a three-hour round trip drive to celebrate a cat’s made-up birthday.
These are the friends we left behind when we moved to a town where we knew no one. And I’m really struggling with how much I miss being around people who know me and love me the way I am. People who let me feel like it’s okay to be myself.
I’ve had to try to make all new friends a lot of times. As a kid, I went to six different schools before I finished grade eight.
Making my perennial “new kid in school” status even worse was that I was a child actor. This meant I missed a ton of school — which made it even harder to settle into a routine in a new place and get to know anyone. It also put me in the spotlight, which meant dealing with the projected expectations and possible resentment of strangers.
Negative outcome: Never feeling comfortable in my life.
Positive outcome: I got to hug that dog:
Once I started high school, I got to stay put for four years. I had a lovely crew of friends (and favourite teachers) who I formed secure attachments with.
But once I graduated, I started bouncing around a lot again.
In 1994 I moved to Windsorto become an ASL interpreter.
In 1997, I moved to Annapolis Royal to be an interpreter in a high school.
In 2001, I moved to Kentville to go to back to college.
In 2002, I moved to Halifax where I planned to live forever.
In 2007, I moved to Ottawa to take a lucrative job with CUPE.
In 2007, I moved to Edmonton to keep that lucrative job with CUPE.
In 2008, I moved back to Ottawa because it seemed like where jobs were.
In 2011, I moved to Toronto because I really don’t like living in Ottawa.
In 2022 (January), we moved to Mahone Bay for a total nightmare.
In 2022 (August), we moved to Port Medway, where we plan to live forever.
Each time I’ve moved to a new place — including this time — I’ve felt like I must make quick connections with whole bunch of strangers, or risk living in crushing solitude forever.
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Small towns especially can feel a lot like a new school. There are a finite amount of people, an infinite amount of gossip, deeply entrenched social histories / hierarchies, and I miss my old friends.
Now, some of those old friends are people I’ve been missing since I moved away from this province the first time more than fifteen years ago. But when I came back, I didn’t move to where any of them are. And with a handful of exceptions, I haven’t done a good job of making plans to go visit them, or inviting them to come see us here. For the first several months, I was so wrung out and tenderhearted. I couldn’t intuit an entry point to reach out, or trust myself to not end up feeling too anxious and having to cancel. Now that I feel more steady on my feet, so much time has passed that it feels impossible.
Figuring out where we fit in in this new community has been a real struggle too, because we didn’t just buy a house like normal people. We bought a building that (here I go again) put us in the spotlight. Which (you guessed it!) makes me feel like I have to deal with the projected expectations and possible resentment of strangers.
(Another layer is that we moved here during a pandemic, so big group getting-to-know-you meetups have felt really fraught.)
I know that once we get this place open (which will be equipped with a gazillion air cleaners and offer mask-only hours), people will have the chance to get to know us. But for some reason I worry that window of opportunity is closing, which makes me turn into a panicked fourth grader desperate not to sit alone at recess again. I lose all perspective.
Haritha helped me regain some of that perspective this weekend. My feelings are in such a jumble, and when I’m in the thick of it I just feel lonely. But he helped me realize I’ve been lumping two groups of people together: people I actually want to get to know better, and people who I feel like I have to win over for some random reason.
He pointed out that we have been gradually building deeper connections with the people we’ve met and liked — and that the warmer weather will make it much easier to spend time with these folks.
He also helped me realize that there isn’t anyone I need to win over. That’s all in my head.
I mean, it’s maybe in their heads, too. Someone did think it was reasonable to send me an email saying I was “ruining the store”. But whatever ownership anyone who isn’t us feels over this building is imagined, and I can’t take that on.
In some ways, I understand it. A lot of volunteer effort went into making this place as valuable as it was. But we didn’t inherit that moral debt when we bought the building. We borrowed $450,000 to buy this place, and that’s all we have to pay back.
We do feel a heavy over-arching responsibility to the community to make this place an asset to everyone, but that’s not the same as pulling ourselves in a millions directions trying to make sure no one is mad at us.
But sometimes it’s hard to remind myself of that. And I start bringing misplaced feelings of obligation onto every social interaction, which just gives more power to the people I already don’t like. Particularly the ones who I hear are coming apart at the seams because we’re not serving alcohol.
There is literally nothing on this earth that would make me feel bad about my refusal to profit from or facilitate the consumption of alcohol. Also, the longer we are here, the more people tell us they are so thankful we are not getting a liquor license. They tell us about feeling pressured to attend pub nights because they were the main social event in town, but describe the experience as miserable for them as a sober person.
Note: If it’s only ever people who drink who tell you that drinking events “Don’t get that bad”, never believe them! They are not credible on this subject.
Edited to add: I don’t think everyone who didn’t drink was miserable at Pub Night! I know lots of people had a blast always! I am just trying to push back a bit — like I have been my whole life — about the perceived positive (or at least neutral) impact of alcohol in our culture. That’s not everyone’s experience, not by a long shot. If reading that makes you angry and defensive, I think that’s worth examining!
Anyway, people can type themselves to death in the comments of our posts about how the business will never succeed unless we sell alcohol. I don’t even care, because I can say my piece and they can respect it or pound sand.
But what does put me in emotional red-alert mode is knowing that people are complaining to each other about this decision, because I get panicked about being a topic of conversations that I am not part of.
From the time I was a tiny child, my mom would tell me things that people were saying about me to her. Looking back, there is no way any of them were true, because normal people do not talk about children the way my mother talked about pretty much everyone. But when you are nine years old and your mom tells you “Your grandfather said you’d grow up to be a backstabber”, it really makes you feel desperate to find out why he thought and frantic to talk him out of it.
And then you grow up feeling like there are people all over the place talking to other people about you, and you can’t even defend yourself because you aren’t there when it happens.
Having this trigger is sub-optimal, because much of my adult life, I’ve been someone who people talked about whether they knew me or not, mostly because of my online presence. Like, every so often I will stumble upon someone on Twitter who I have never interacted with but who has me blocked, and I’ll make myself crazy trying to figure out what they’ve been told about me and wondering if it was true.
But I cannot bring this energy into every interaction in real life! It puts me on edge and leaves me actually unable to check in with myself long enough to see how I feel about the person I’m instantly trying endear myself to.
Luckily the solution is simple for once: I just need to spend more time with good people who let me feel like it’s okay to be myself. And there are so many of these people! Even though it’s scary, it’s time for me to put serious effort into making plans with old friends and people I hope will be new friends. This will redirect my emotional energy away from social landmines real and imagined, help ground me in our new home, and put me in a much better place to build a positive future.
And it really is going to be a positive future! Because the kinds of friends we are making are the sort to have our backs when our names come up around town.
One of them recently told me: “I just shut them down and told them it’s your building! You bought it! You can turn it into a cat hotel if you want to!”
With rad new folks like this in my life, I’m not going to be lonely for long.
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We don’t know the date she was born, but a vet estimated her to be five in 2005.
This is an oversimplification but not inaccurate.
We went to one of these parties. We got COVID.