Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
If you were to pull up to my small-town high school on a certain day in June, you’d find the parking lot full of dozens of huge, gleaming tractors, many of them looking like they’d been buffed up for the occasion, ready to be paraded through downtown at lunch hour. That my alma mater has an annual “Drive Your Tractor to School Day” will tell you a lot about the sort of community it exists in: a town of several thousand people surrounded by farmland, where if you don’t know someone personally, you probably at least know their sister, or one of their cousins.
While I knew I’d have to leave home to pursue the kind of education I wanted, I was never one of the ones just itching to head for the city after graduation and never return. I always knew I’d come back. I loved the slow pace of rural life, feeling like I knew everyone (or at least their cousin), and having the particular sense of knowing what was expected of me and where I fit in. And I loved the traditions — the way each year was marked identically by planting times, agricultural fairs, harvests, and parking lots full of tractors.
So you can imagine the kind of culture shock I experienced when I moved to Toronto, a city of more than two million, for school when I was 17, a move followed a few years later by one to Montreal, where I stayed for the better part of a decade completing my graduate studies. My life in Montreal studying molecular biology felt very far from the languid dirt road under open skies that I grew up on. I learned French, attended music festivals and public lectures, and traveled regularly to places like England, Guyana, and South Africa as part of my studies. Always, the farm was part of my identity. There wasn’t a single friend in Montreal didn’t hear me talk about my hometown.
I returned as often as I could, never missing a Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter, despite the eight-hour drive in frequently terrifying weather conditions. Because I knew I was going back for good eventually, the literally hundreds of hours I spent traveling between Montreal and the farm felt like my way of keeping a foot in that world, of reminding everyone that I hadn’t abandoned my roots while I pursued my dreams elsewhere. Life in the city often felt lonely and confusing; my French was never good enough to blend in, never good enough to make people laugh in the way that makes you popular in a group. There was little in the way of tradition to mark the passage of time from one season to the next, so I marked the years by going home and doing what I had always done.
But while I never quite fit in in Montreal, I found over time that I didn’t really fit in at home anymore, either. The way I spoke changed. No one knew quite what to say to me at family gatherings and community events. Our lives had become too different. In my loneliness, I started to have some romantic notions about living on the farm that I would have once found laughable. I remembered life as slower, friendlier, and more … bucolic than it really was. I remembered my early life there as a perfect fit — which of course it never was, or I wouldn’t have felt so compelled to go away to school. I remembered my home the way people tend to remember the places of their youth: in soft focus, with all the faults smudged away.
By the time I moved back, at 31, I’d spent nearly half my life away from my hometown. In my mind, time had sort of stopped there while I was gone. I imagined everyone was just doing the same things they had been while I was in high school, and would be waiting for me when I got around to coming home, like a book you’ve set aside for a while.
I know how naive that sounds. And so my triumphant return, doctorate and French Canadian fiancé in hand, did not go as expected.
We moved back right after we both finished our degrees, and shortly before the picture-perfect country wedding we had planned, which was set to take place in the cavernous, sun-dappled old barn at my family farm. We were throwing a big celebration that would be both our wedding and our homecoming party. Naturally, I reasoned, we would then be neatly slotted back into the order of things and included in everyone’s lives.
But I soon realized that we wouldn’t be able to do something I’d watched many of my home friends and family members do before their weddings: a stag and doe. Stag and does are particular to rural Canada. They’re a fun way to raise money for your wedding and have a boozy night out with your friends at the same time. Basically, you throw a big party at the local community center, and anyone is welcome to come. There’s a cash bar, and games that you pay a buck or two to play, with prizes to be won. People come, spend a bit of money, have a good time, and whatever profit you make goes toward your wedding. From the guest’s point of view, they get an entertaining evening with friends for less than the price of going to the bar. The idea is that you chip in, and when the time comes for you to get married, the favor is returned.
It was emblematic of the way things had changed. The problem with a stag and doe is that you need to have lots of local friends and acquaintances to make it work. These parties are a bit of a popularity contest: the more well-known you are, the more people come out. Seen another way, they were a reward for having stayed put in the community. And I hadn’t earned it.
Not being able to partially crowdfund my wedding was only the first of many ego blows I absorbed that year. Throwing a wedding in a dusty barn full of decades-old moldering straw is even more work than it sounds like. In Montreal, I’d been used to having a network of friends I could call on to help out in a pinch, and now I didn’t have that, either. No one was going to drop what they were doing and come help my fiancé and I haul dusty straw or fix broken floorboards. So we did it ourselves, and it probably made us stronger as a couple, but it wasn’t what either of us had hoped for.
I still often feel unmoored, as though I now fit in nowhere. The place I dreamed of coming home to for my entire adult life — the place I’d pictured in my mind a million times during long, sometimes alienating years — didn’t exist when I got back. I wasn’t a teenager anymore, and everyone else had lives to get on with. The people who might have had the incentive to help us make a new home were the very ones we’d left behind: the community of friends my fiancé and I had worked hard over the years to assemble in Montreal, my adopted city and his home.
In the years since the move, we’ve gone on to have two kids and raise them without the village one supposedly needs. We’ve managed stressful medical problems, impossible work schedules, countless bouts of household illness, and gotten through the hardest years of our lives, largely by ourselves. Life on the outside is hard.
It’s been four years, and we’re still rebuilding. We’re starting to create a new circle of friends and do the work to make ourselves a part of our town. I understand now that I just had the wrong expectations: A community doesn’t sit and wait 14 years for you to come back from your adventures. When you come back, you come back as a new person, and you start again. Even when you think you’re going home, you start again.