It has been six years since I moved to Arizona, after spending most of my twenties in Washington, DC. DC is a vibrant, transient city, full of young people eager to make a difference, people who care about current events and issues affecting our country; it's a city full of history, culture, and possibilities. (So... the opposite of Phoenix -- I joke! Sort of!) I met my husband in DC, so I'm a little partial to that city.
And the thing about a city so densely populated, so full of youth and energy and drive, is that it was easy to meet people. My husband teases me that my job as a lobbyist was primarily about happy hours, and he's not totally wrong. Everyone wanted to network, so one new acquaintance led to ten others. And then some of those acquaintances became some of my best friends. Or maybe it was just about being in my twenties?
Our life is decidedly different now, and it would be easy to blame our relative lack of social interactions on becoming parents or getting diagnosed with breast cancer. In fact, having our son has probably improved our social life, as we meet parents from his preschool and get invited to toddler birthday parties (hey, it's an invitation and it usually involves cake).
I am not the first person to lament the culture shock that comes with a move to Arizona from just about anywhere else. It quickly becomes a topic of conversation at most events we do attend. The question boils down to: why is it so hard to make connections here?
Part of it is the sprawl, as Phoenix stretches for seemingly hundreds of miles in every direction. I met a couple of women at my son's swim school who seemed really cool, then found out they lived in "the Avenues," meaning west Phoenix, meaning a good 45 minutes from our house just east of central Phoenix, so we didn't even bother to exchange numbers. Friendships here are often geographically unrealistic, and so they don't get off the ground.
Part of it is the heat, as everyone goes into hibernation (or leaves town) during the unbearable summers here. We hardly even saw our next-door neighbors last summer because we all move from air-conditioned house to air-conditioned car (parked in a garage, if you're lucky) to air-conditioned store/movie theater/office. 115 degrees is too hot for small talk.
Part of it is the culture (or lack thereof). It exists here, but you have to seek it out and even then the results can be disappointing (see: food and wine festival we went to a few years ago that was essentially an excuse to wear minimal clothing (or show off surgically-enhanced assets) and drink at a park during the day. Five weeks post-partum, this was not the culture I'd been looking for).
But mostly -- I think -- it's the sprawl and the heat. Friendships here take an amount of effort and planning that ones in DC never required.
DC is full of politicians and has terrible parking, though, so it's not perfect.
And I didn't mean to turn this into a post about how hard it is to connect with people in Phoenix. After six years, I have formed some really outstanding friendships with people I've met through my husband's job at ASU and my yoga community and our son's school. I have other moms I can call on for help when I'm feeling overwhelmed or friends I can invite over for a (relatively) impromptu dinner. Our social life is quite different than it was 10 years ago, but I'm okay with that.
What I want to talk about is what happens when I do meet new people here, and this is a direct consequence of cancer: I never know when or how it's appropriate to share my health history with others. I feel awkward and insecure, which is not typical for me. I went to three different high schools. I know what it's like to be the new girl, know how to make small talk with strangers. Or at least I did. Now I can be found milling awkwardly over the guacamole and chips while others mingle. I can't be the only woman living with Stage 4 cancer who has this problem, right?
A family in our neighborhood hosted a block party over the weekend and I met a couple of new faces. One woman complimented me on my haircut. Do I mention cancer? I wondered. Ultimately, I did, saying this was grow-out from chemo and I'm not quite sure what to do with it in this in-between phase. "Oh, I'm so glad you're a survivor!" she responded. And then I wondered whether I should explain further -- that, actually, I'm still in treatment, and I'm not completely comfortable with that word. But I didn't. I just smiled and said, "Yeah, me too." A version of this exchange happens pretty frequently. More and more, as my hair gets longer, I'm less inclined to mention cancer, but should I? Do I then become that weird cancer woman who doesn't talk about anything else? Am I already her?
Another neighbor standing nearby chimed in: "Oh, I just did the three-day walk! It was so inspiring!" See? Cancer makes everyone awkward. I did resist the urge to get on my soap box about the evil empire Komen.
Another couple of women at the potluck had seven children under the age of seven between them, and asked the inevitable question of whether we were going to have more. What should I say? I debated saying I couldn't get pregnant because of health issues, but I didn't. I just said we had our hands full with one for now. I felt like I was admitting defeat to these super producers of little humans, like I am a lesser being because I don't know if I could handle more kids and here they were with three or four each. But I don't want every conversation to be about cancer.
Yet another woman asked whether I worked and whether our son was in preschool. No and yes were my answers. "He's in school a couple days a week because I have some health issues and need the extra help so I can make it to all my doctors appointments," I said. Or something like that. I skirted the issue, which felt disingenuous. Should I have just talked about how good I think it is for his social development? Probably.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. Because lately, cancer has been making me feel awkward, insecure, and insincere. All good qualities for sparking friendships, right? So... short of becoming more of a recluse, how do I navigate this weird space I'm in where I look mostly healthy but have treatments and am on disability and still live with this disease all the damn time?
At least I don't have to worry about dating.