When the pandemic lockdown hit in March 2020, I jumped on the opportunity to squeeze a few small glasses of lemonade out of a global bag of lemons. The University of North Carolina sent my husband, Bob, and me home from our jobs as a professor and communications manager. We should go to the river house, I told Bob. I pointed out how much safer we would be in that rural, sparsely populated part of the North Carolina coast rather than staying in our college town, Durham.
But really I was giddy: I’d finally get to live in our little house on the Neuse River, rather than just visit it for weekend getaways.
Life was cozy those first few months. Bob spent his days in the guest room recording class lectures on Zoom while I sat at a makeshift desk, writing stories about UNC global health faculty leading the fight against COVID-19. We took coffee breaks to walk the dogs down to a little river beach, all of us enjoying the mild spring air. We called it quits around 4:00 every afternoon and celebrated happy hour on the back porch, where a wall of windows looked out over a wide expanse of river.
All that coziness ended, though, when Bob’s spring semester wrapped up. Suddenly he found himself with wide-open days and not much to do. He’s a city guy, soothed more by busy streets and humming coffee shops than by wide open spaces. After a few weeks he admitted that he was spinning his wheels. If this is your vision of our retirement life, he told me, I don’t think I can do it.
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Talk of retirement had been on the table more than ever. Bob is six years older than I am; he turned 66 that winter. He’s one of those people—men, more often than not—for whom work has been his only hobby. He has always struggled to imagine how he would fill his days without the structure and familiarity of a job. But from my perspective, he was burning out from his accumulated years in academia.
Like conversations so many of us held during the pandemic’s Great Rethinking, I called the question and proposed a deal. If Bob agreed to retire after one more academic year, while he was still young and healthy enough to enjoy life, I would give up my beloved river house. My job had gone permanently remote; I could work from anywhere. We picked Westerly, Rhode Island, a small town on the Connecticut line. When the kids were little, we rented beach houses there for a week or so each summer.
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Bob could bike to the little downtown or to the beaches. He could hop a train to Boston to see old friends, or to New York City to see our kids.
I was focused, I’m embarrassed to admit, on finding a house close enough to water so I could easily launch my kayak, because I was giving up access to a river right out my back door.
A place to easily kayak was a priority at first.
We enjoyed a beautiful fall settling into our new home. But soon enough we faced a triple whammy of hard stuff: a New England winter, pandemic isolation, and a scary health diagnosis of lymphoma for Bob. By June, the reality of his retirement also took hold. As a therapist friend told me, like it or not, Bob was being forced to face issues of his mortality. He tried a few part-time jobs—produce stocker at a local grocery, odd-jobs day laborer, and middle-school boys soccer coach. Each of them came with issues and quickly proved not worth their hourly pay.
Then last fall I started a part-time job in Boston. Twice a week I’d be gone for 12 hours, commuting a few hours each way by train. The only human contact Bob might have those days was a grocery cashier, except he typically uses the self checkout. During a few frank happy hour conversations, we both admitted to feeling lonely. We had lived for a year and a half as each other’s primary and nearly only company, something we hadn’t experienced in our previous 34 years of marriage. I missed having running, biking, and yoga pals. Bob missed friends, but he also missed a general feeling of belonging when he walked into a diner or coffee shop. Our town was a close-knit working-class community, people who could immediately size up that you weren’t from around there, laced with smaller numbers of wealthy seasonal residents. We hadn’t considered that we wouldn’t find many folks in the middle, our people.
We decided to head back south. First we talked about spending February in Greensboro, N.C., as a winter escape and chance to see friends. That city, smack in the middle of North Carolina, was our home for nine years before we moved to Durham for better jobs. We’d kept in touch with former work friends and neighbors, running and yoga pals. As I was researching one-month rentals, one of our dearest friends in Greensboro died unexpectedly from surgery complications. Losing Brigitte was devastating. Reconnecting with friends over her loss reinforced how strongly we were connected to that community. We hungered for that feeling.
So, a little more than a year after driving two U-Haul trucks 700 miles from North Carolina to Rhode Island, we put our Westerly house on the market, found a sweet bungalow in Greensboro, and reversed the trip.
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Friends have laughed at us over the years for all of our moves, from Boston to Connecticut, then Ohio, then Greensboro and Durham. But those moves were always for job opportunities. This change feels the most embarrassing, especially when I had to ask my new employer in Boston if I could work remotely after just six weeks on the job.
It’s easy to get over feeling silly, though, when your changes feel right.
Walking home one recent evening from my brewery run club—a highlight of my week—I realized how much lighter life feels these days. It’s not just because the days are warmer here and pandemic restrictions are lifting.
Bob has consulting work that gives purpose to his mornings at a downtown coffee shop. He has a competent doctor at the University of North Carolina monitoring his lymphoma.
We’ve started playing pickleball, creating a foursome with a former teaching friend of Bob’s and an old yoga pal of mine. I meet three different sets of running partners throughout the week, each promising great conversation along with the miles.
When people ask about our move, I tell them the short version is we chose community over the coastline.
Two years ago I worried about finding a home where I could easily launch a kayak. I’ve since given away our two beat-up kayaks; I can rent one outside of town if I like. Home, I know now, is where we can easily embrace friends old and new.
We may have given up sunsets over the river and sea, but we are living in the flow.
Lisa Watts is a writer, editor, and nonprofit communications strategist. She lives in a 1930s bungalow, the third such home she and her husband have bought in 14 years (but that’s a whole other story), in Greensboro, N.C.