As a kid, I moved around a lot. And when I wasn’t moving, everyone else around me was. Such was the life of a quasi-military brat. I didn’t like it — losing friends all the time, always saying good-bye, starting over. Over and over. This was all before social media and Skype and FaceTime. This was back when long-distance phone calls cost a fortune and there was no way I was going to be calling my friends in Colorado or Virginia or England from our home in Germany on a regular or even semi-regular basis after they moved away.
It was a relief to get to college and make a core group of friends who stayed put, for the most part, for four whole years. I’d never had that before. A comfort and familiarity grew, and I hoped this was how friendships would be forever now that everyone was putting down roots.
Of course, people don’t put down roots in college. They high-tail out of there after graduation with their degrees fresh in hand (or not), back to their parents’ homes, or to Europe for a summer of back-packing, or to grad school, or to the nearest next city to write the Next Great American Novel and serve coffee at Starbucks.
I was unmoored again, untethered in a way that especially scared me because not only was I lonely, I was totally pissed off. Not at the people who left but at my own idealism, I guess. I thought that once I left home and became an adult, or “an adult,” in control of my own life, finally — of where I lived and whether or not I moved away — that I could stop starting over saying good-bye all the time.
That didn’t happen right after college or even in the years that followed, though by my mid-to-late 20s or so, when I’d gotten settled in Chicago, there was a blessed period of people sort of staying put for a while. But then I up and moved to New York, following my heart, hoping that this next move would prove to be it, and that I could finally, finally put down roots and cultivate friendships that would last throughout the rest of my life, through various stages of adulthood, and everything would be like how I had always wished it would be.
But here I am, almost forty years old, I’ve lived in New York nearly nine years, and I can count on only a few fingers the number of close friends I’ve made here who haven’t left or aren’t leaving this summer. And it would take several hands to count the number of close friends I’ve made here who are no longer in the city — who have left either for the suburbs or for much farther away than that.
“Do you realize,” I said to Drew the other day, “that in a few weeks almost everyone who means something to us will live somewhere else?” That’s a slight exaggeration but not much. It’s mostly true, and it mostly breaks my heart.
At what point does the starting over stop? At what point do the new friends become old friends who still live nearby (instead of old friends who live in other places we hardly have time to visit)?
Is this simply a symptom of living in New York City, where gentrification constantly prices people out and the challenges of urban life, especially with kids in tow, inspires even the natives to seek refuge in more easy-going locales? I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t know ten years ago what I know now, or leaving Chicago, where most of my friends stayed put for New York, where everyone seems to move after four or five years, would have been that much harder.
I should be grateful for all the friends I’ve made, whether they’re part of my daily life or not, and I am. Rather than wishing I had fewer friends in general, I just wish there were more I didn’t have to miss so much. I wish the effort and time I’ve put into cultivating and fostering friendships paid off more in terms of long-lasting local connections — maintaining that village that’s so essential for modern life and especially for modern families raising kids without the support of nearby family.
I was at the playground the other morning with Joanie while Jackson was in school, and there were two other moms there with their similarly-aged baby girls. We exchanged some small talk about our kids and the weather. One of the moms commented that she’s seen me there before.
“Oh yeah, I’m here all the time,” I replied, and almost said more but stopped. I found myself wondering if she’d still be here or not three years from now when our daughters started pre-k. Would she be here when our daughters turned five? Would I? Is it worth the effort to move past small talk about the weather?
I’ll always have room in my heart for the people I love, regardless of where they live, but I’m just about tapped out on starting new friendships that quickly become long-distance ones. Wouldn’t it be nice to have some kind of five- or ten-year guarantee on the investment of ourselves? But then, imagine all we’d miss out on if we limited ourselves to guarantees (or convenience, for that matter). It’s true in love, and it’s true in friendship. It’s just hard, when your heart’s a little battered, to remember that.