Rarely does one consult the Chronicle and find that the perfect job has been posted at a university two blocks away from one’s home. Instead, therefore, academic life requires that one be able to move on command. Ben Aslinger’s recent post on the life of the single academic underlines some of the stresses and loneliness that accompany such a life, or I think of a good friend who survived a starter job in a godforsaken town by turning to wine, cheese, and Frasier reruns.
So I thought I’d write about moving. See, I’ve done it a lot. I moved countries when I was 5. And 8. And 10. And 12, 15, 21, 22, 24, and 28, before moving within the US two further times since then. None of the moves, moreover, was ever truly a choice; rather, first it was my father’s job and career opportunities that decided where we’d go, then my own. It’s not just moving that I know, therefore – it’s moving by assignment, and with the anticipation of moving later.
One of the hardest things about moving around is feeling like one can’t put down roots since one’s bound to be moving on later. I’ve had moments in my life when I felt it wasn’t worth the hassle to meet new people, get involved in my community, and truly belong, lest I simply needed to uproot and do it all again a year later. This damages the personal life, of course, and can freeze up the love life if one lives in fear of a long distance relationship. I think of the theme song from the great Canadian show, The Littlest Hobo (“maybe tomorrow I’ll wanna settle down, / until tomorrow I’ll just keep moving on”).
Certainly, the anticipation is the killer. There’s a horrible J. J. Abrams multiple realities thing that happens, as you start to think of all the places you might go (where will hire you, where you may have to settle) and create alternate versions of your future, some of which are then plucked rudely from the vine by a job search that doesn’t pan out. And once you arrive, you may find yourself feeling somewhat ethereal, living in a dream existence, rather than in the world you’d prefer. Add a partner and/or kids, and a great deal of guilt may accompany the process, as you feel as though you’re consigning them to hardship, but the hardship may be no less acute when single.
My thoughts on surviving the process:
Most importantly, the key to adapting to this life is to shift one’s way of thinking about moving. In particular, I wish we’d all just get over the silly notion that humans are “meant” to live in one place in perpetuity. It’s no more “traditional” or “natural” a way of existing than is staying in the same home for ten generations. Nomads are hardly a creation of the last few years! Indeed, while some bemoan “having to” move, for every person I’ve met who has pitied me for my moves, I’ve met someone else who is intensely jealous, focusing instead on how I get to move. With each new place come new experiences and friends and possibilities to grow and/or reassert who one wants to be; we all fall into ruts and routines, and a new location is a wonderful invitation to crawl out of the worst of them. Before one bemoans one’s moving existence, one should think about how many people in the world would love to leave where they live (cf. Friday Night Lights), but can’t.
If you’re carrying guilt about what this means for your partner, bear in mind that moving can bring a couple closer together. I’m always hearing couples say they struggle to find time for each other, but moving together requires you to be a better support system for each other.
If you’re carrying guilt about what this means for your kids, don’t. I hate when people look down their noses at my parents for moving me as a child, since I learned so very much from the process. The first day of school anywhere new was always horrible, yes, but inevitably it took a small amount of time to acclimate. Wisdom and maturity are gained through life experiences, so your children will likely mature faster; after acclimating they’ll likely feel more confident in their abilities to tackle new things; and from the days before they acclimate, they’ll know what it feels like to be an outsider, something that everyone should know (especially every American), as it calls for one to be kinder to other outsiders. As an added bonus, they may also get new accents that will amuse you and relatives (my extended family still talk wistfully of the days when my brother and I lived in Australia).
In general, though, I’d recommend that you avoid as much as possible the urge to cocoon yourself. You might wonder what’s the point of volunteering, joining a sports team, or even making friends, since you might see yourself as moving again soon. But that’s where the worst damage of moving would be done – through self-pity. If you don’t allow yourself to like a place and its people, of course you won’t, so find ways to invest in the community. In particular, find time in your first week (don’t wait much longer) to visit local museums (the quirkier the focus, the better) and do local activities. Get tickets to a local sports event. And go see a band play, or something like that. Submerge yourself in locality so that it doesn’t seem all that foreign, and so that you may actually know things other locals don’t (one trip to the Wisconsin Historical Museum and I knew lots of ‘Sconnie tidbits that lifetime residents don’t) and thus you won’t feel so foreign.
Don’t let mediated rhetoric about place convince you, either, that you absolutely need to be in New York, or Boston, or Seattle, and not somewhere small and relatively unknown. Get on Craigslist or a real estate website and see how much house or apartment you can get for your money in different places, and you’ll realize that NYC might give you great city life, but your extra 3000 square feet and beauty of home in the place you just made lots of jokes about living in might end up meaning a lot more on a daily basis.
And my big but simple tip: don’t move at the end of the summer. Moving before school starts can be a little lonelier, so you’ll need to let new colleagues know you’re around, and you’ll need to be prepared to make the first move in suggesting you get together. But moving when you’re not teaching or doing mad-prep allows you (and your family, if you have one) time to settle in and enjoy your new home, so that you don’t resent the place for all its newness as much as you will when you’re trying to navigate that newness while doing all the things that a new job entails.