Reinventing Myself in Richmond, Virginia

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Richmond – Week Three Report

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In this posting I do not mean that staying in one place and building your life where you are is unimportant. It is key to a meaningful life. I am simply describing the experience I am currently engaged in as how it relates to my own journey. Eventually I’ll tie all these writing together in to a book and will be able to expand and clarify in many directions then. For now, just little pieces of the pie at a time. Thanks for reading!

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In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell writes, “Most of us seem to have a consistent character because most of us are really good at controlling our environments most of the time.” And not just controlling our environments but also keeping our environments familiar. It’s perhaps part of the reason people like hotel chains, they are predictable, we know what to expect. He goes on to explain how we tend to put ourselves in repeated social situations where we shine and where people know us mostly from those situations. Put us somewhere very different, and we will probably seem like different people. Think about it. If you corner a very friendly dog, they might bite. Even if they’ve never bitten before. New scenarios call forth new behaviours.

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He explains a study where divinity students are put in situations to test their characters. It would seem, from some specific study he reviewed, that someone who has dedicated their life to helping others, someone who would usually be described as being especially compassionate can be reduced to indifference to the suffering of others even with three very uncharged words. “You’re running late.” That was enough for the candidates to have no time to help others, to step over and possibly even see someone in distress as an annoyance impeding their way. How important was what they were late for? Only typically important, someone was waiting for their late arrival. Not life or death. For more specific info., read the tipping point. Gladwell is one of my favourite authors and I will probably often quote him in my blog. As I have mentioned before, he is a fellow Canadian outsider.

The point is, the person who we see ourselves as being, that person is not fixed in all environments. We like to think that our character is fixed, but the truth is not that simple. We act and react differently in different environments, to different and unique situations, in the presence of different people. Adapting to our surroundings is part of survival, it’s natural. If this trait had not evolved I doubt I’d be sitting in my temporary apartment in Richmond, Virginia writing this now. And you wouldn’t be reading this either.

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I have always noted that personal growth spurts often come from transition, from change. When I moved from Fredericton, New Brunswick, to London, England I wrote home to my family that I felt, “Like a plant that’s been repotted in new soil.” (Or did I write, “flower”, I’m not sure.) My entirely new environment promoted growth; I was more easily able to change as a person. Without the familiar around me I was better able to move towards becoming who I wanted to become, without the expectations of anyone around me of who I already was. People come to know us as a certain way, and their expectation of who we are has a tendency to keep us there too. It’s like we have agreements together and it’s really hard to break those agreements.

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I think there is a certain core of your person that family and certain friends who come to feel like family can grasp, and that changes in who you are can flex around that. Most of us have had the experience of outgrowing someone, either we changed and they didn’t or we both changed in different ways or they wanted you to stay the same and stagnate when you needed to embrace growth. “You’ve changed.” Of course I have. We are always changing. The people we meet and the experiences we have shape our ever-changing lives. Even beyond movement within personality types, which tend to have one set of characteristics when someone is emotionally healthy and quite a different set when emotionally unwell. Even without great change, one’s state of mind can alter who one seems to be considerably. I am quite a different person when I am feeling loving than I am when I am feeling anxious. I am still the same person, but I don’t seem like the same person. Not even to myself. I think I’ve only lost friends during the latter state although I’ve chosen to weed some people out of my life during the former state too. In respect for myself. I’ve made some mistakes when feeling anxious, and probably some good choices when feeling loving.

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In my third week in Virginia that is what I have most to report. This trip, it’s not mostly about the travel. It’s not mostly about writing. It’s about growing as a person. I am going out-of-my-way to put myself into unfamiliar environments. My writing this month might be completely useless in the long term, but the experiences I am having will have an imprint on my writing for the rest of my life as I continue to grow into the person I am destined to become. As we all continually change throughout our lives. I feel incredibly grateful for the opportunities to experience hurt and pain, love and joy, as I find my way through the world.

During week three I went to a social event where, for the first time in Richmond, I was in a diverse crowd. Richmond has it’s diversity, there are black people and white people, gay people and straight people. But until Wednesday evening of week three, I had only conversed with one person outside of these confines of diversity. A nice gentleman from Libya, a really interesting entrepreneur. Wednesday I attended a wine-tasting event and met people from India, China, Vietnam, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands. I also met people from several different states as well as locals as this was a mingler for people who are new in town.

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I felt connection with people when they said they were from Bombay, and I could relate with my three weeks in Mumbai. I could picture the life they came from before finding themselves working in America’s IT industry. I’ve not been to Chennai, but when someone said they were from that city I at least had notions as to what that meant too. Of course you can feel connection with others without having visited their homeland, but I think it is like a boost. It’s like dog owners befriending other dog owners at the dog park. It is still possible to make friends with a dog owner even if you’re not one yourself, but it is undeniable that for most people having that little commonness provides an opening. As a writer, I will be better able to connect with readers the more I understand about them. I am sure that my current readers know that I have a great desire to reach out and connect. And that my writing has evolved in a short time from being mostly about sight-seeing to being mostly about life. Real life was always my main interest, and meeting people always the priority over seeing things. Incorporating real-life into my travels is something I am learning how to do. Often clumsily. And often with failure. (And here I mean that it doesn’t always go as planned, not true failure. To me, true failure only comes from not trying.)

My experience in Richmond has been enriching. As an outsider, I have witnessed a separation here. I have been kept at arms-length by some, embraced by others. I have heard stories of success and of progress and of change. I have come to understand that my own culture, that of inner-Toronto which is different than Greater Toronto, is probably more similar to that of Manhattan than most anywhere. I think that most people don’t see that connection at all.

Many American cities seem to be moving in a very positive direction. City centres have changed a lot in the past decade, they are moving towards having thriving city centres and away from having ghettos and dead zones. “You should have seen it ten years ago, it wasn’t safe,” is something I have heard now in LA, parts of NYC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, even Richmond. The era when everyone who could afford to moved to the suburbs is definitely over. I never understood that myself, why would anyone want to live on a street that only has a bunch of houses and where you always need to use your car to get food? How could that ever be someone’s preference? When I can’t walk out my door and already be somewhere, I feel cut-off.

I know it is lots of people’s preference, we all have our own ideas as to what an ideal life looks like. How I and my siblings grew-up in suburban New Brunswick and all developed urban preferences is perhaps unusual. I do think that high-density living is more sustainable and I would argue that it is probably better for most people’s mental health. At least in neighbourhoods where neighbours embrace each other. I found that in London the opposite was true, people kept to themselves and protected their space more, seemingly due to the density. But, I am a different person than I was when I lived in London more than fifteen years ago! Where did the time go! I think I am well-overdue spending some serious time in England’s capital. Again.

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So I am seeing my time in Richmond very differently than I did at the start. It’s like I’m discovering more about myself, at age forty. Who am I in Richmond? And I see it more as contributing to the development of my understanding of the diversity of American culture outside of world-class urban centres. This is a great city and I think I could happily live here. I think it is probably a place where I meet more everyday Americans than I do in places such as NYC and LA and New Orleans which have very unique local cultural environments. I don’t mean this as being good or bad, it’s just that some places are more typical of a general population and others less so.

People may not see me as such, but I am an invisible foreigner here. The influences that contributed to my world view and my place in it are not the same as an Americans. They are perhaps not the same as most Canadians either, but they are more similar.

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Some pretty homes-made-businesses in Uptown Richmond, the area around VCU. (Virginia Commonwealth University)

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Stay tuned for my Final Richmond Report as well as postings from NYC, Philadelphia, Fredericksburg, DC, and more! Thanks for reading and if you enjoy my blog, PLEASE, share it with your friends! Cheers! Darren

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Me showing-off my Canadian hair. When I get another American haircut tomorrow, will I still have Canadian hair, even if most of it grew-in while in the US?

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