on suburban loneliness, subversive living and courage for the long road

*debbie downer disclaimer. It gets somewhat less depressing by the end, if that’s any consolation. 🙂

Once upon a time we traveled 1000 miles north and east and made a new life in the heart of greektown.  Over two years we learned to navigate new currency and norms, a health care system and visas, transportation and cell phones. And it was so lonely. For months we sat in our little underground home, penniless, waiting for life begin. Waiting for rhythms and routines that would help us make friends in this strange season of life. Slowly, over many months and through two toronto winters, friendships were formed. We would TTC from one end of the city to the other to meet up with church and ICS friends, joying in the fellowship but bemoaning the far-flung nature of Toronto.

I suppose it is a different kind of far-flung in the suburbs. Instead of settling in for a hour on the subway, nobody bats an eye at an hour-long drive to the city. Unfortunately, the $3 token cost we complained about paying per trip in Toronto seems like a steal compared with the cost of the quarter tank that will disappear en route to Chicago. The life we moved from in the city, the friendships and church community and routines and rhythms, they seem tantalizingly close even as I remember that two years have passed and so much has changed. Life back in Logan square would be wonderful but not easy either. We would have to find new rhythms and learn to fit back into the rhythms of others.

Still, today the isolation and loneliness of the suburbs feels is so foreign. When we were making the decision about where to live I became a bit too idealistic about what our suburban life could be – a place to bring real friendship and slow living in the midst of so much movement and keeping-up-with-the-jones’. I spent the summer gorging on blogs that told stories of backyard garden bounty shared with neighbors who have never eaten a sun-warmed tomato. These bloggers where doing it – they had found their way in the suburbs and somehow held fast to convictions that quicker, cheaper and more convenient isn’t what life is truly about.

But here’s the thing. One month in and it doesn’t feel subversive, making a simple life in the land of plenty. It feels lost and weary. It feels guilty for more trips to walmart and target than I can count on one hand, stocking up on roach killer and junk food and clearance aisle camping supplies. It feels isolated, making or asking city friends to make the hour-long trek to visit for dinner, knowing the cost -literal and figuratively- of trying to maintain this presence with each other. Who would have thought it would be more difficult now that we’ve erased 960 of the miles between us! We are halfway unpacked, halfway still digging through boxes for random odds and ends. We are biking our hearts out while being honked and sworn at, drivers making forceful suggestions that we don’t belong on the road, some swerving into the next lane to give us space, some careening viciously close to prove their point.

Our odd little neighborhood is a collection of 12-unit apartment buildings, spread out over a dozen streets, tucked between the expressway and Harlem ave. There are people here from every corner of the world, newborns and retirees, all making a home nestled between the rushing traffic. There is a little liquor store and pizza place near the entrance to our neighborhood but neither seem the place for hanging out. There are no coffee shops or laundromats or even grocery stores within a square mile and so every one of us zips out in the morning by car to jobs or leisure elsewhere, returning in the evening where we pack back into our buildings and make dinner in kitchens 8 inches of drywall apart but not together.

Slowly, we are meeting our building neighbors. We’re overhearing fights of worn-out adults (and adding ours to the mix) and the gleeful chatter of two little ones down the hall. These friends have helped us move in furniture and given us tips about where to park our bikes but none of us have crossed the threshold into each other’s copycat home. It seems so strange to live so close, to know the exact layout of each apartment but have no idea how each has made it their home.

I remember feeling similarly when we first moved to Colorado Springs and our house was a mirror image of the one across the street (and about 80 others in the neighborhood) and how strange it was to know exactly where everything was in the Abernathy’s house, even though I rarely set foot in it. I was so curious about how they used the spaces differently than us, so impressed with the way the boys could jump from kitchen to split-level family room because they removed the banister partition. (My parents decided to remove ours and then put up a wall of cabinets…decidedly less fun.)

I wonder the same thing about our building-neighbors now except with less imaginative musings: “I wonder how they’re battling the cockroaches” and “Maybe they’ve figured out a better way to obscure the hideous light fixture in the bathroom”. Honestly, when can I ask about the roach problem?! Certainly not the night when I finally work up the courage to have one of these new friends over for dinner!

Courage. This is what I am lacking most and what I feel unable to scrounge up at the end of long days of adjusting to a new job, returning to an apartment with a leaking fridge and no friends nearby to run away to. When I am despairing that we are misfits here, the subversive charm of it all is lost on my lonely, worn-down self.

God, help me to see it.

Grant me imagination to see the resurrection poking in here, even as the sounds of semi’s drown out the chirps of birds and the hum of insects. The curiosity to dive into new friendships, practicing love for another even if we don’t share the same vision for life, trusting there are more beautiful things than ideologies and shared book lists to bind friends together. The patience to wait, to let the forming of life-giving friendships and the settling into our home take time and space so that both will have deep roots, unhurried by agenda or anxiety.

I am reminded of Wendell Berry’s poem, The Peace of Wild Things.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake at night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Here’s hoping I can find a wood drake in the cook county forest preserves!


One thought on “on suburban loneliness, subversive living and courage for the long road

  1. I absolutely LOVE your last paragraph: I too am struggling to have “The patience to wait, to let the forming of life-giving friendships and the settling into our home take time and space so that both will have deep roots, unhurried by agenda or anxiety.”
    I have spent these first two months in our home feeling much loneliness, and feeding it with comparison (“well, at least in Phoenix we had x, y, or z”). I am so glad to know I am not the only one struggling with making a new home! Love you, friend, and I love your writing!

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