Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Magic of the Outer Banks

I'm not really a joiner. My life in organizations has been a series of half-hearted attempts, most abandoned pretty quickly. There have been book clubs, yoga studios, houses of worship. None stuck for more than a few months. I did do a few years of volunteering for a non-profit, but managed to find reasons to kick that to the curb as well. My default has been a return to solitary walks, books, and making a living. Over the past eighteen years, I have grown a network in Fort Worth, but rather than being ready-made, it feels like I've put it together myself by dint of time and effort.

For the past decade, work kept me so frantic and continually tethered that I took it to be an identity of sorts. At bottom, I knew that it was a hollow commitment on the other end, and almost every day I felt like an imposter. Almost around the clock, I bounced like a pinball between gnawing anxiety and flat out panic. Surely, I reasoned through my cortisol haze, if I was spending my days, nights and weekends catering to to an organization, I at least I belonged somewhere.

A sage friend of mine told me fifteen years ago that I lead a charmed life. Through a divorce and a second stint as a single woman, I clung to this notion in spite of ample evidence to the contrary. Then I landed a dream job that both allowed me to support my children and travel the world. I soon learned the role would become my life.

Unlike many of my more dedicated colleagues, I did have the good sense to carve out a day or two after business travel to see some places. My long, post-conference walks took me through the streets of New York, Chicago, and Washington. I went to Asia twice, to places I never would have gone of my own volition. On the way back the first time, I met the love of my life. My world became gilded as never before.

Even though work was still my first thought in the morning and my last before going to sleep (not to mention the main subject of my routine rumination at 3 in the morning) I now had a reason to enjoy myself. Teddy and I jetted back and forth from Texas to Northern California, walked and talked and ate and woke to views of the Bay Bridge. A year in, he invited me to a family wedding in the Outer Banks in North Carolina, where many of the people he holds most dear in the world are resident.

We drove from Norfolk to Southern Shores. As we crossed the Wright Memorial Bridge, so named for the brothers who first took flight, Teddy told me that it's the moment when OBX people know they are home. It was September, still warm and light-filled but mostly free of the pilgrims who travel there every summer to make memories on the beach.

Arriving at his sister's house, it was immediately clear that love was all around. They are not only siblings but the best of friends. Her house is frequently filled with a circle of friends and extended family, including their brother (her twin) and his wife. This squad has seen one another through young love, child-rearing, midlife, loss, and a whole lot of fun. That particular long weekend involved a series of parties with a cast of dozens who have all been linked for a long time through the good and the bad. They have deep history and are devoted to one another. I am an only child, and gatherings like this can put me into withdrawal mode. Even as an extrovert, I'm more sensitive than most to my perceived status as an outsider.

From the first moment, Teddy's Outer Banks family embraced me. And maybe for the first time in my life, I didn't resist being part of a tribe. How could I not want to join this club? We all talked and talked, drank wine, laughed, and danced our asses off at the wedding and during impromptu musical moments in the kitchen. Everyone greeted me like an old friend. On several days, Teddy went fishing with friends while I stayed home and checked email and made an appearance on conference calls. In the evenings, we all cooked together, ate and talked some more. I learned life stories. There was no initiation: if I belonged to Teddy, I belonged to them. On a quiet morning, we walked on the beach and for the first time I said I love you, though in my heart I had known it long before. We parted at the airport, and I remember leaving the ground and thinking, now I have this whole new circle of dear people, people I hadn't met a week ago. There was a certainty of belonging. It wasn't familiar, but it was real.

We've had other, similarly wonderful times with this crowd, including a trip to the Bahamas last winter for another wedding. Fun and love prevailed there as well, proving that the people make the difference, although pristine beaches and clear water don't hurt. I shed tears as I bid the group goodbye. This past summer, we took my children and one of their young friends to experience the full OBX deal. It my first visit since letting go of my identity as a corporate warrior.

This time, I worked for a couple of hours on a freelance deadline. But the rest of the trip, I luxuriated in beach, food and parasailing time with my teenaged children, my darling man, and all the people who have welcomed us into their orbit. After a week, we had to leave and head back to our real lives. I was assured by our gang that they don't enjoy themselves this much all the time, but I think they were trying to make me feel better.

Of course, part of the charm for us (and them!) is that we aren't always there. Maybe I am not so different from the pilgrims. In my mind, the OBX is a gauzy, sunlit place where everybody knows your name. I don't trudge through the quiet months when it rains and blows and the beach is empty. But then again, I have my people.