Every two years, I set up my Little Free Library at the end of my driveway in my new town, scrawling Take One or Leave One on to the chalkboard front. My book box is often the last step in setting up my new home, and I watch as neighbours approach and tentatively peek inside. I take this chance to wave or pop out to give reading suggestions and before I know it, I’ve made a friend.
When you’re parachuted into new communities as regularly as I am, friend-making becomes a honed skill, despite the difficulty when we’re all busy with work, parenting and relationships. I’m 37 and I’ve moved more than 20 times, from coast to coast, thanks to a military childhood, my own Armed Forces career, and now, as a service spouse to my husband, Joe. It’s a life of instability but also one of adventure.
With each move comes a choice: I can waste time wishing for what was, or I can invest in the new place and people that surround me. However, that’s easier said than done. We only need to flip on the news to find we’re more divided, lonely and stressed than ever. Sometimes my politics deviate from the local riding, or the town appears ugly, or I’m stuck in a hamlet when I love cities. Still, without community, loneliness becomes a hunger that goes beyond social and COVID strain. So I choose to invest myself and my time.
Regardless of where I’m headed, the first step is buying a travel guide for the area. I also immediately arrange to volunteer—something that serves my heart as well as my interests. Women’s shelters, arts councils and equality groups are often my go-to, but there’s something for everyone to contribute.
That said, some places are definitely easier to enjoy than others. I loved living in Vancouver, but it was only subsidized military housing that allowed us to afford the symphony, the ballet, literary festivals and food trucks, and I saw many others fiscally denied the opportunity. Vancouver Island also had lots to offer, with constant access to hiking and skiing, incredible views and mountain ranges. It was hard to not love that glass of local ortega sipped on a lapping Pacific shore.
We’ve also been posted to a few places that have made my heart sink, even if the move was cancelled last minute. Once, we were told we were off to Bagotville, Que. While gorgeous and charming, my limited French skills made it a frightening challenge. How would I make a home in a place where I didn’t speak the language (despite my best efforts to learn it)? On the flip side, there have been some locations I’ve enjoyed that others would dread, like Winnipeg, with its cold winters and mosquito-filled summers. And yet Winnipeg’s arts and culture scene is unparalleled, its Museum for Human Rights is a place of endless wonder, and its restaurants are loaded with delicious First Nations cuisine. You don’t have to love where you live, but learning to appreciate its gems makes each transition easier.
There are also times Joe and I have found ourselves far from people we love, including one another. In 2016, while living in Trenton, Ont., Joe was deployed to Egypt for an entire year without me. In that time, we found out we couldn’t have children (not a fun discussion over WhatsApp), my sister was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I plunged deeper into depression. But that posting meant I could be near my southern Ontario family while my sister died, with a chance to hold hands, share grief and be reminded by the hospice staff just how vital human connection is.
Our next posting, to North Bay, Ont., kept me close to family and gave us a stunning spot to ride out the pandemic. “I’ve never seen trees this colour,” Joe said during his first fall there, but then, he grew up on the Prairies, where rows of corn appear lined with rulers. Last month, we moved to Greenwood, NS, and while it’s gut-wrenchingly beautiful here, it’s hard to enjoy because the people I love most are so far away and still so tenderly suffering.
So what to do when it’s hard? I appreciate all that Greenwood offers. The rolling Fundy tides just over the North Mountain. The fruit-laden apple trees that my neighbours encourage me to pick from as I bike by. In every place I’ve been, if the town appeared to lack at first blush, I quickly discovered the elements that made it sparkle, like its people, restaurants, day trips or hikes. It sounds corny, perhaps, but each spot is what you make it—go in with a bad attitude and that’s the experience you’ll have. What a gift to have lived in so many places that there’s a friend in every proverbial (and literal) port who will attend my book launches and send Christmas cards.
In all my travels and towns, the greatest lesson has been that the only thing standing in the way of enjoying a new place is my own ignorance. So explore the place you call home, whether it’s been two years or 20. Meet the neighbours through barbecues and yard sales. Volunteer at the shelter or library to connect with the people who have their pulse on what’s happening locally. It’s up to each of us to make community, and you never know how much the person next to you on the subway needs it, and how much you need it, too. And if all else fails, you can always get a book box.