Standing on the Outside

For the last year, I have been frustrated, spilling tears between periods of indifference. Over three years ago, my sons and I moved to a small town in southern Oregon. My husband transitioned twenty months later after returning from a duty assignment in the Congo and retiring from the military. In those years, I invited neighbors into my home, volunteered at the boys’ school, patronized local businesses, attended community events, joined a sports group, made gestures of friendship and invitations looking for connections but always found myself on the outside.

As newcomers to this small town, we answered lots of questions about where we came from. “Southern Oregon but my husband is in (or retired from) the military so we have lived all over.” “What branch?” they ask. And after I respond, they spin into an anecdote about a family member who is or was serving. Some acknowledge the challenges the military family faces – the deployments, moves, separations, injuries, etc. A few thank me for my husband’s service. But here is what wounds me: during my twenty months as a geographically single mom with a husband half a world away, no one, not a neighbor or acquaintance from school bothered to invite me over, invite me to dinner, or simply check on me.

There’s nothing bad about our town, except its wonky four-way stop intersection. It’s a spirited country community with three banks, two Mexican restaurants, a coffee shop, hardware store, and a bridge across its namesake river. The setting is beautiful, and it’s an easy thirty-minute commute for me to the office. The town has some tight bonds, cliquish parse, typical of small communities. Lots of old families, people who grew up together, whose kids have known each other since before kindergarten.

Having attended many new schools, my boys had no problem integrating, finding friends and activities they enjoy, standing out as scholars and athletes. And I followed, volunteering with the school, helping with team activities. I met other parents along the way. They learned my name, tell me they enjoyed my boys. And I came to know their kids, appreciating each one, following them through elementary, middle, and high school, the teen relationships and sports injuries. I love community storytelling, not the gossip, but growth of individuals that propels the whole. Following the multitude of stories, I learn of the relationships around me – families that share time beyond the typical after-school venue, moms who look out for each other, share time together. If I asked, some of those moms would help me out. But I am on the outside of the glazing, always looking in, hearing stories reverberate through the glass. It’s a hollow sound lacking warmth. As I press my cheek to the glass, so desperate to be part of the story, the storytellers wave to acknowledge me because otherwise it would be rude, but never opened the door. And this so contrasts my experiences in other new communities.

Military communities are so open and welcoming. We, as in military members and their families, know that we are all on the move. We will spend one, two, maybe three years in each other’s lives before one of us will undergo a permanent change of duty station. Sometimes our paths cross again. Most times not. The older families always invite in the newbies. And the cycle repeats. But there is no qualm about making connections and keeping the connections beyond moves and even retirement. We need that friendship and community because what we do as families is overwhelming and stressful. We need each other. As spouses, there are baby showers, bunko groups, and childcare sharing. We exercise together, help each other with employment, through deployments, and never does a spouse spend a holiday alone. Don’t let me fool you; military communities have their own cliques but they always bring the newcomers inside to touch the community’s heart.

Is my town so set in its cliquish ways that it could not open its heart to me? If I had spoken aloud that I needed a friend, would it have heard? Or cared? I am left doubtful. As an author, I posted in community forums, notifying residents that I was an award-winning, local author in need of honest reviews, giving away copies of my books, encouraging them to support all local artists. Nothing. No likes. No sharing, echoing the chirps of crickets in the background. I am on the outside. Silence tells me I do not belong.

Besides the conversations with my husband about this topic, this blog is about the closest I come to complaining. As an introvert, I don’t cry for help. I shoulder my burden and muscle through the days, the weeks, the years, bandaging my wounds when they weep. So I was excited to be invited to a Friendsgiving gathering by a work associate who also lives in my town. Last Saturday was my first social outing in the three years and four months since I moved to here. Who’s counting, right? I spent an evening around a campfire with some lovely and unique ladies who have known each other for years. They told stories, shared worries and health issues. I listened and shared a few of my own. But you know what originally brought them together? Their kids playing the same sports to a degree, but that they also saw our town as cliquish. And unable to break through that same glass pane I gaze through, they built a house of their own.

Will they invite me again? Hopefully. That would boost my moral and smother self-doubt that I am weird or lacking of social etiquette. But the point of this post is not to disparage the town; my experience could have occurred in any town, big or small. It is a great little community with amazing individuals, but collectively, they broke my heart. Perhaps I expected too much of the town, of my neighbors, my community. But isn’t that what community is for? Otherwise, the town is just a collection of commerce and homes. The theme I wish to convey is to be on the lookout for loneliness. The smile a person may share with you does not necessarily indicate happiness but their excitement that you just might open the glass door.

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