6 years ago we decided to move back to Pennsylvania to be closer to family. Having always lived in either the country or the city, the suburbs were a bit intimidating to me. The city offers anonymity, the country offers space. In the suburbs there is no escaping. All your quirks and peculiarities are delicious fodder for neighborhood gossip.
Besides not having as much privacy, I worried that the lack of excitement would bore me, that the lack of diversity would be harmful for my kids, that the lack of like-minded individuals (aka, weirdos) would make me lonely.
Ultimately, the good schools, proximity to family, and spacious yards won out over my fears and we ended up buying a home in the suburbs.
There have been a lot of really wonderful things about living here. Our neighbors are kind, our yard is rejuvenating, and our kids are blissfully happy. The biggest issue seems to be my difficulty feeling a deeper sense of connection to suburban culture and people. But, over the years I’ve developed a collection of strategies that seem to help.
Here are my 10 coping strategies for being a weirdo in the ‘burbs:
1. Fly your freak flag proudly. You’ll be surprised at who waves back. What I’ve learned is that even the most conservative looking person often has a few quirks up their sleeve. Dressing in gypsy skirts or carrying around copies of obscure books gives people an opening to reveal their own peculiarities. Many times what could have been a routine exchange of talk about the weather turned into something much deeper because I’ve openly displayed my “otherness.” Which brings me to #2…
2. Bypass the small talk. Whether I’m in line for coffee or at a school open-house, I make it a point to shy away from small talk and push for deeper connection (or at least a good laugh). It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it can be amazing. I’ve had some of the most profound conversations in my life with complete strangers. This doesn’t only satisfy my need for deeper connection, but it also brings an element of surprise into what can become a rather routine lifestyle.
3. Look for rabbit holes. Even the most boring suburb has interesting pockets if you know where to look. The former Broadway star who runs the local hair salon or the “haunted” bridge just outside of town can be just what you need to break up the monotony. The best way to discover these interesting people and places is to spend some time just wandering around town, keeping your ears and eyes open for magic.
4. Be a mensch. Whether it’s helping an elderly woman carry her bags or volunteering in a more formal setting, some of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve had in my neighborhood have been helping other people. Besides the internal high it gives you, it also helps to form bonds with people that you might never have gotten to know before. The elderly woman whose bags I carried invited me over for lunch and told me all about her family’s escape from war in a third world country, and the woman I volunteered with to help homeless people became one of my dearest friends.
5. Take a class that honors your uniqueness. Much of the bonding in the suburbs comes from a shared interest in physical fitness. As someone who loathes gyms and only runs when chased, I often felt out of the loop. But then, one day, I noticed an ad for a belly dancing class a few towns away. Not only did the shimmying and shaking illuminate something deep in my soul, but the class helped me meet other women who shared my love of dance and Middle Eastern culture.
6. Break the rules. Married women in their 40’s don’t go out dancing at night. Or…do they? Although my town can be a bit sleepy in the daytime, on Saturday nights it transforms into a vibrant college town. For many years I felt excluded from that world of pulsing music and young faces. But, one day, I gathered up a few brave girlfriends and went out dancing anyway. The moment I stepped onto the dance floor, all the years faded away and I was 21 again. What was most surprising is that I didn’t feel out of place at all. In fact, I formed friendships with some younger women who I probably never would have encountered in my regular world.
7. Create! Art is something you can do wherever you are…even in the sleepy burbs. When I write, I connect to a deeper energy force which transcends any labels or borders. It helps me see clearly how we are all in this human struggle together, no matter how “normal” or “suburban” we may present ourselves. Art can be the ultimate cure for loneliness.
8. Find a spiritual community. For me that place has been Chabad. Even if I don’t have many close friendships with other Jewish community members, there is something about joining together in prayer or holiday celebration that gives me the feeling of belonging. Even if you are not a spiritual person, there can be comfort in having that consistent community and place to go.
9. Walk barefoot. One of the best parts of the suburbs is the availability of green spaces. Whenever I can, I lie on the grass with a book, or walk barefoot through the park. This connection with nature is especially helpful on days when I’m really struggling to feel connected to the suburban community. It lets me know that, no matter how alone I may feel in the world of people, there is another, more universal world that we are all a part of.
10. Escape! When all else fails, I hightail it out of town. A day in the city (New York is my city of choice) reminds me that there is a great big amazing world out there and that, while my current circumstances may keep me rather grounded, there will hopefully come a day when I can live in a place a bit more suited to my weirdo self.