Our family recently completed our seventh move in 13 years. We moved from Northern Virginia to Columbus, Ohio, after having lived in several places in the United States as well as in New Delhi and Singapore. With so many postal codes and zip codes we’ve called home, you might think that we have mastered the art of fitting in, making new friends and settling into our new digs.
I find though, it’s not necessarily true. Yes, I’m a pro at unpacking the boxes, but the connection with neighbors and finding like-minded people is a challenge. I always worry – with each new move – whether the new neighbors will accept our version of crazy chaos, understand that our background includes a diverse collage of experiences, and welcome us into the fold anyway.
We’ve been in the new house for two weeks now. We have been blessed with great neighbors, a true Ohio welcome: everyone bombarded us with treats, including breakfast one morning, dinner another evening. But as we approached Halloween, I was faced with dread and dismay.
Halloween has always been one of my favorite celebrations. Yes, I dress up. But this year, since we are new, I was freaking out a bit. We don’t really know anyone yet and I’m once again left to keep the cheerleading going for the family as we settle in. For instance, my kids have no one to trick or treat with, we have no idea what time the neighborhood starts trick or treating, and we don’t even know if older kids trick or treat here.
Last week, as I met some of the neighbors, many of them excitedly said, “We gather in the cul-de-sac for Halloween. Bring wine and some food and your candy bowl.” I was thrilled.
We have five neighbors on this cul-de-sac, the circular street that marks the end of the neighborhood. Two Italian-American households are related to each other, one couple has grandchildren, another house is occupied by a single, older man, and another is occupied by an older Polish woman and her Japanese husband, who both immigrated to the U.S. 30 years ago.
So when we were invited for Halloween, I of course accepted, and then a few days later, when I was talking “over the fence” to the Polish lady with the Japanese husband, I asked if they would also be there. They shrugged. In broken English, they said that maybe they could come.
Fast forward to tonight. In my head, I knew that we’d been invited, I KNEW that we were welcome, but I was anxious and nervous. Did they really want us to join them? What if we were supposed to cook something? Should I make a quick cheese plate?
Suddenly, I saw the kids were starting. Should I take our chairs over to their driveway, or sit in ours? I poured a glass of wine at 5:30 p.m. and hid behind the blinds, as I peered out and tried to discern the rules. I tried to hide my discomfort from the kids as I encouraged them: “Right! Go get your costumes on! Let’s go, let’s go. This will be fun!”
A bit later, it was obvious that the neighbors had indeed gathered in one central driveway. Soon enough, everyone was there around a bonfire. We placed our collective candy contributions on the centralized table for the visiting children and we had chili, and pizza from the Italian families’ restaurant, and s’mores.
We talked and laughed and then I watched as the Polish lady and her Japanese husband met —- for the first time in three years —– the other neighbors in the cul-de-sac.
Flabbergasted, I asked one of the neighbors sitting next to me if they had never met this couple before. She said, “Apparently it takes the newest of neighbors to truly bring us all together.”
When I dug a bit further, I learned that this couple moved in to the neighborhood when everyone else had a lot going on — kids graduating from high school, babies being born, a death in the family. Their move-in was also complicated by a 10-month renovation project, so it was a bit less obvious of a move-in than when WE pulled up with our 40-foot truck, three obnoxious dogs, two cats and a red Jeep.
Tonight I watched them share their stories of life abroad, being expats in the U.S., with our neighbors and new friends. The Italian families then talked about their own parents who immigrated, the couple with grandchildren announced they were soon going to retire and go traveling, with the wife doing “on the road” hospice and other nursing care. Another neighbor’s daughter discussed her plans to combine her psychology degree with a master’s in education so she can have an impact on the lives of students living abroad.
We all found we had more in common than simply the same cul-de-sac address. These new neighbors of ours had never talked about their worlds before.
Lesson learned? Just because you’re the newbie doesn’t mean you don’t have something to offer the neighbors.
Moving is hard. Fitting in sucks. Figuring out where and how you belong is exhausting. But sometimes just showing up — especially when it feels the most awkward and difficult — is where the magic lies. When I said goodnight to everyone, the Polish lady gave me a tight hug and in her beautiful broken English said, “Thank you for inviting me to be a part of this.”
For all those struggling with finding their people, and meeting new friends, I say: Change your perspective ever so slightly. Lead with an intention to serve, volunteer your time somewhere, or invite someone to the table. Asking “how can I help?” can be the best introduction to authentic and meaningful relationships.
I am often asked by my friends from around the world whether I am proud to call America home. With so many nasty things happening in America these days, I am reminded that this truly is the spirit of our country. Our basic nature is to welcome new friends. I am living proof that’s who we are.