Once again, my husband and I are packing up everything we own and taking off, this time back across the country to the state we originate from.
California wasn't our first choice, but we're not complaining. We've been desperate to get out of the South by whatever means necessary, and any part of the West Coast is a more than acceptable locale.
Our time in Virginia was extremely difficult for both of us. We found ourselves challenged and out of place culturally, spiritually, intellectually, and physically. Until recently, the only good things I had to say about Virginia involved four seasons and the high degree of precipitation.
When we moved here two years ago, I was eager to learn. I knew it would be different and there would be things I didn't like, but I was open-minded and ready to be humble about my preconceived notions.
People say Southerners are kind and hospitable and love family. I like those values. Teach me.
Then we got here and they weren't. People are depressed, disoriented, and disconnected. Kindness and hospitality aren't as strong as what I grew up with and come with strings attached: you must live up to certain standards or no soup for you.
I also saw a huge disregard for the value of family. A child goes to jail and their parents cut ties because of how it looks to their friends. A girl gets pregnant and her family, instead of helping with single motherhood, tell her she needs to do it alone. An aunt comes out gay and suddenly she's not welcome in the family.
Everything felt fake. I doubted anything that appeared good, suspecting cruel secrets under every surface. I felt I couldn't trust anyone: nobody was honest. When something [perceived as] shameful occurs, Southerners cover it up. They fear judgment constantly, and so no real connection can take place.
It's so hard to live in a place like this.
Yet I hate hating my home. It's depressing to have nothing positive to say about the place where you must live and work every day. I don't want to be eaten away with bitterness. I want to point to definitive, positive things that came out of our time here. I want it to mean something.
I truly believe that every place and culture has both bad and good. So if I can't see one or the other, that means I'm not looking at it right.
My problem was my expectations. I thought I knew what I would learn here, and was angered at the pain and spite I saw instead. That's ironic, because each of Virginia’s true lessons came from something that seemed negative at first.
My husband and I each struggled with depression, but as a result, our marriage got stronger. The difficulty of living in a place where you don't belong brought us closer in amazing ways. I wouldn't change that ever.
Second, living in a new town not knowing anyone meant I started fresh with the patterns of my daily life. That launched me into an effective writing routine and enabled me to move from part- to full-time. As I got more serious about writing as a career, I learned all about the industry. I attended my first writing conference and met the amazing writers who are my dearest friends.
Moving away from our NorCal town also helped me grow spiritually. When you encounter situations that you're not equipped to handle, or are forced to have an opinion on matters that aren't clear-cut, your understanding of life gets deeper. In my case, it threw me on the mercy of a God whom I'm finding to be far bigger than I could understand before.
Change is the enzyme for healthy spirituality.
Virginia was the perfect place to grow, not just because it's different, but because it's diverse. That diversity greatly informed my opinions on life, which is the biggest gift Virginia gave me.
It's impossible to know what racism is until you've been around it and have listened without the selfishness of white guilt. Even still, I will never experience systemic loss of rights and opportunity resulting from my skin color. But now I can identify it and call it out--everywhere, constantly.
It's hard to understand until you're surrounded by impoverished neighborhoods how the inhabitants aren't lazy, violent, or out to take advantage. How good education really is something many people don't have access to. How they fear every day that they might not afford to feed their children, and that fear trumps concerns like nutrition. How they won't have anybody over because they fear the judgment that comes when your family of five can only afford a double-wide.
It's hard to understand that the thing that makes "those neighborhoods" unsafe is just as often us rich middle-classers. Gentrification doesn't sound evil until you've seen the damage it can do.
I came to understand the complicated factors that lead to poverty and make it nearly impossible to get out of. I came to understand racism as a system. I came to understand my own fear.
The people we're so often trying to fix and save, the people we're always discussing on the news, the people listed in the statistics: I see them as people now in a way that growing up in middle-class California* never showed me.
There are many things we middle-class white folks like to debate: abortion, domestic abuse, divorce, teen pregnancy, education, health care, immigration. But because we don't know--and I can truly say I didn't know at all--what the people are like, the totality of their experience, or why they have to make the decisions they do, we are the least well-equipped people to try to solve their problems, no matter how much we think we know.
It's painful to think how ignorant I was before I lived in a place as diverse as this. I've done so much growing and become (cliche as it is) a better person. I’d never trade that in.
I'm so glad I'm leaving, but I'm grateful for the person I’m leaving as. My time here was worth it.
The good of Virginia, it turns out, isn't happy-go-lucky hospitality and so-called Southern charm. The good of Virginia is the people: the single moms, the black folks, the domestic abuse survivors, the repressed queers. The culture may suck and the system may beat people down. But Virginia has people, and people are beautiful.
Word count: 1,078.
* Which isn't to say I've led a comfortable, totally-privileged life. There were many years when my parents didn't have extra income and the money was tight. I got a summer job in high school so I could pay for the orthodontic work I needed. I paid for college myself (with the help of the government) and didn't buy new clothes for 3 years. I worked a sucky grocery store job and thanked God I could get free birth control through Planned Parenthood.
But while I experienced these things and know a little bit about the pride and humiliation of not having money, I was still privileged enough to go to a good high school and thus a good college. I have parents who love me and are still married. I'm white. Despite my experiences, I still have no idea what it's like to be in a community where everyone is stuck in poverty and very few people ever escape.
I think that's our biggest problem: we think we understand when we really don't.