Guest blog post on Single at Heart, PsychCentral, February 4, 2020.
“Most people move across country for work, love, or family. Sometimes they move for adventure, as I did, but earlier in life, not at sixty-one, single, and without connections. In Portland, I started from scratch.”
Thus begins my memoir of a five-year sojourn in the fabled Oregon city, where I hoped to begin a new chapter in a starkly different setting from my Southern roots. Rose City Audition: Stories from My Portland Adventure reveals “a garden of delights, disappointments, and reflections on what it means to belong somewhere.”
Portland had long sparkled brightly as my idealized city—progressive, quirky, on the leading edge of sustainable communities, green living, and alternative lifestyles. For decades I fantasized about moving there, occasionally applying for academic jobs in my field. After retiring early from my university in Florida, I realized with elation that I could live anywhere I chose. Being untethered to a life partnership enabled me to make the move with ease. In 2012 I packed my earthly possessions and arrived in the Promised Land.
Being an older single woman without family nearby shaped my adaptation in nuanced ways. I relished the freedom to explore the wonders of Oregon, volunteer for worthy causes, champion social issues, and receive nurturing touch through snuggle parties. But weak neighborhood inclusivity, difficulty making friends late in life, and frightening vulnerability during a medical scare all played a role in my ultimate decision to leave Portland and return to Louisiana, my home state.
The biggest challenge I faced was finding a community of friends to call “my people.” Despite diligent efforts to connect with others, I never developed a sense of belonging to a group. At first, I’d hoped to find a sense of community among my neighbors, mostly couples and families, who were friendly and welcoming. Yet, to my surprise, none of them invited me into their home during the first four years, despite having regular sidewalk conversations. I believe that had I been part of a couple living on the block, we'd have been invited inside the home of one or more neighbors. Only in the fifth year, when my next-door neighbors separated, did the wife have me over after her husband moved out. Indeed, I don’t recall socializing with any couples, just the three of us, even beyond the neighborhood, during my entire sojourn. Similar patterns of exclusion are documented in Singled Out, Bella DePaulo’s seminal book on the single life, including the biased norms surrounding social relations between partnered and uncoupled people.
A few people introduced me to single men, presumably as potential romantic partners. The chemistry wasn’t there, but I’d hoped to continue seeing the guys as companions and activity buddies. Unfortunately, these men were only focused on finding a significant other. Once they found girlfriends, they lost interest in spending time with me; the very idea seemed inappropriate to them in their newly coupled status.
Mostly I socialized with other single women near my age. None of them had moved to Portland for adventure, as I did. These women had either grown up in the area, moved there for work, or relocated to be near a daughter or, less often, a son. All of them had close family ties in the area and showed little interest in welcoming an outsider into the fold. More than once, I reflected on Mother Theresa’s sage quote, "The problem with the world is that we draw the circle of our family too small."
In Deborah Tannen’s book about women's friendships, You're the Only One I Can Tell, she addresses the challenges for single women who move to a new city later in life. People in that life stage already have full, often overcommitted lives and aren’t seeking to expand their social networks. As one woman explained, the "people you meet already have friends—and busy lives. They're not looking for new ones. Even if you do make friends, they know so little about who you are. You can't exactly catch them up on your whole life." More than anything, the difficulties I encountered in making friends and finding community tipped the scales in my eventual decision to leave the city.
For a time, I’d hoped to find my people within Oregon Touch, an organization that sponsored platonic cuddle parties for single adults and others seeking to meet their touch needs within a safe, caring environment. In our culture, intimate touch is approved only within a romantic relationship, while peer contact is limited to brief hugs and handshakes. This leaves unpartnered adults with few options to experience being held and embraced, an essential need for all humans. Before moving to Portland I’d fantasized about organizing touch support groups and couldn’t believe my good fortune when I found them readily available in my adopted city. In a previous guest post, Cuddle Parties: Would You Snuggle with Strangers? I recount the delights and disappointments of my experience in Portland’s touch community. While I gratefully savored the tactile benefits, I often felt like an oddball at snuggle sessions where folks over sixty, especially women, rarely attended. Moreover, I had little in common with the younger members, many of whom were into polyamory and other sex-positive lifestyles.
Two realizations cinched my decision to leave Portland. After exhaustive efforts to build community and achieve a sense of belonging, I acknowledged the extent to which my being on the autism spectrum affected my social relationships. In one of the chapters of Rose City Audition, “Somewhere on the Spectrum,” I recount a life-long struggle to get along with people and maintain satisfying relationships. That story holds one of the keys to my inability to find home in Portland.
The second realization involved a medical scare that proved I couldn’t rely on any of my Portland friends to have my back in a crisis. The unfortunate timing of foot surgery during a monster snowstorm left me alone and vulnerable, with no one to turn to for help. All the people I’d lined up for assistance were snowbound, but the fact that none of them called to check up on me was demoralizing. I needed to get to a place where I could count on someone to care about me and lend a hand in times of need.
During my final year in Portland, I gained important insight into the reasons I failed to achieve a sense of belonging with the groups I tried and why I found only casual friends. A wise and caring psychologist laid it bare for me. "You set your sights on becoming a Portlander and embracing everything special the city had to offer," she explained. "You selected groups based on your interests and those offering lifestyles not found in other places. To find ‘your people,’ you need to target groups where you'd likely find women like yourself—older, professional, civically engaged." She encouraged me to try organizations like the League of Women Voters. I promised to do just that once settled in Louisiana.
My advice to anyone contemplating such a big move alone is to seek out like-minded folks right away. Look for affinity groups in which your own demographics are well represented and you are likely to meet people who share your values and goals. My misstep was to prioritize novel experiences that I couldn’t find in other places and to take advantage of the unique things offered by the city. That approach makes for interesting stories but doesn’t necessarily put you in contact with people who are like you and who hold the potential to become close friends. For example, faith communities can sometimes play this role. Two years before leaving Portland, I began attending a meditation center that transformed my worldview and set me on a new spiritual path. But I’d already made the decision to leave the city by then, so I didn’t invest as much of myself as I could have had I started attending in the beginning.
Two years after moving back to Louisiana, I feel more secure living near my extended family, confident I can count on them in a crisis. I see my relatives and old friends at holidays and life celebrations, but more intimate socializing is sparse. They, too, have full plates with children, grandchildren, and long-term friendships. In fact, many of the people I’ve met, both retired and working, seem to feel stretched to the limit, a condition of the times. Ironically, I’ve found fast friends in my new neighborhood. Within the first month I’d been invited for meals in two households, one, a single man living alone, the other, an older gay couple who already treat me like family.
I can’t imagine starting over anywhere else.