Moving to Greensboro in September was a step of faith, not in a religious way, but very much in the Indiana Jones, I-might-fall-into-this-cavern way. My cousin called over the summer with an offer to escape New York and try the South on for size. Greensboro was only an assortment of ideas and a Google Maps image in my head then. Five months, a bad short story and 50 cups of Spring Garden Bakery coffee later, I’m still here. And I’ve decided to stay.
When I say I was in New York, I mean to say I’m an actual New Yorker, one of the last real ones (There are a few others: my friend Paul in the Bronx, and probably some old Italian men playing bocce in Corona). I spent my childhood on a block of Hasidic Jews and Bangladeshis, taking field trips to sketch at the Met. Children and fear in a post-9/11 city moved my family across the river to New Jersey. I vowed in my bitter 10-year-old heart that I’d go back someday.
I can’t blame my Manhattanite coworkers for sending me off to North Carolina with polite bewilderment in their goodbyes. To those who came to New York later in life, drawn by its energy, cutting yourself off seems like suicide. Natives suffer under no such movie-inspired delusions. I went anyway.
At first New York was great. I had the life I planned on Pinterest: subway rides with Steinbeck in hand, ambitious friends working for TV shows and newspapers, a socially minded internship that kept me busy enough to feel important. But as the adrenaline of change wore off, I realized what I had feared all along: It wasn’t what I really wanted.
I couldn’t tell you when the disenchantment set in. Somewhere in between bad roommates, acknowledging the depression that had been camping out in my chest for years and struggling through the cognitive dissonance of leaving my friend’s cushy loft to ride home next to a homeless man catching a precious few minutes of sleep. New York wasn’t the only home I could ever have. It was, like most other things, a choice I had made. Disenchantment was just an expansion of options.
Greensboro sounded too crazy not to try. My plan was to get some coffee-shop job, write things and breathe. I spent a lot of my first afternoons walking down Elm Street to be comforted by tallish buildings. I left Northern cafés and bookstores for Southern ones, hiding in Spring Garden Bakery to type my angst out in a story about — what else? — twentysomethings in Brooklyn. I joined a support group for artists. I hung out with my housemates and cousins. I pursued people at my church, Hope Chapel, with spunky energy. I worked at a hotel. I babysat. I freelanced, all the while begrudgingly letting Greensboro woo me with its friendly baristas, neighbors who remember my name, green things growing in the middle of winter and pretend traffic. And under it all, wondering: How long is this going to last?
I don’t do the whole staying thing. In the past year and a half, I’ve lived in four different states, held six different jobs and, up until recently, believed that New York was the only true home I could ever have. In December, when I accepted a dependable job here and told my cousins I’d be staying for now, I was surprised to discover a deep peace completely foreign from my usual commitment panic.
Maybe something had taken root while I was buying spices at the Super G or driving down the rolling hills of West Market Street. It might have happened sometime when the fall colors were changing at the Arboretum. Wherever it began, it really sank in when I was flying back to North Carolina after Christmas and I realized I was actually coming home — a home that seems to have chosen me against my will, and with being claimed, a profound sense of belonging I hadn’t found yet in the city set in.
When you’re 22 and uninhibited, and everyone unhelpfully tells you that your whole life is ahead of you, every choice you make feels like it carries the weight of a hundred different possible stories. Thinking that way was exhausting.
Five months and too many cups of coffee later, I can tell you the secret Greensboro taught me, and it’s very simple: that to exist is enough. To feel safe, to not worry about making rent, to enjoy the sunlight, to sit in coffee shops. That being okay is more of a home than any particular place. And I’m okay here. That’s why I’m staying.
Joanna Rutter is a writer and editor living in Greensboro. She splits her spare time between becoming friends with people against their will and blogging at jorutter.wordpress.com.