An Alternate Universe

This is a diary entry from Sarah Noack (aka Urban Nomad) about how a divorce transformed her life--by helping her to shed possessions and rely on sharing through her networks and communities.

In April 2008, I lost everything in difficult divorce: my house, car, health insurance, and any semblance of credit or financial stability. My family couldn't help me; they had patched up our leaks for so long that their own finances were in jeopardy. I did not receive child support at the time for my then-four-year-old daughter Shayna (not her real name), and I wasn't making enough with my writing or natural health industry marketing work to make ends meet. I had to shut off our TV, phone and internet, and we sometimes went days without running water after utility shutoffs—we learned to stockpile it in the fridge and bathtub, and take showers at a local gym. To make matters more complicated, I am bi and genderqueer, which my ex had never wanted to accept about me during our marriage. I essentially had to come out all over again, at age 37. 


Facing foreclosure and the prospect of homelessness, I stayed up many late nights researching my options on a tiny, slow-loading Blackberry screen. Something about late-night Google searches tends to inspire subversive thinking. I realized that I could no longer survive on my own: I had to find new ways to share resources. I started thinking of new ideas—some desperate, some wacky. I could join a cult and get free food and shelter in exchange for blind conformity. I could become Amish and milk cows (as long as I went back into the closet... forever). I could find some other vegetarian single moms and form a housing and childcare-sharing coop (a plan I attempted in earnest, without success). I could move into the projects or Section 8 housing (waiting lists were closed in every major city). I could find a sugar daddy and get married (unfortunately I prefer to be a sugar daddy, and I definitely wasn't thinking about ever getting married again at that time). 

I admitted to myself that all along, I'd wanted to restructure my life. This wasn't a disaster at all—it was my big opportunity to redefine my priorities. If I was going to be a broke single mom, I wanted to make something vital and creative out of this mess. 

The first thing I realized was that I had to dump my car and move to a city with good public transportation, especially as homeowning was no longer an option. Second, I realized was that in order to do this, I might to move far from my daughter's father and grandmother's semi-rural exurb in Virginia. After researching many other cities within a 300-mile radius, I was stumped. I had no pressing reasons to choose one city over another, except for the cost of living, schools and overall vibe. After being almost the sole caregiver to Shayna, who has ADHD and Aspergers (a high-functioning autistic spectrum classification) for years, I didn't have much of a support network to anchor me to a place—most of my friendships were online, many with people I'd never met in real life. My daughter was starting kindergarten in a few months and I was self-employed, so neither work nor education kept us tied down. I was starting life again on blank slate. 

I had one close online friend (we'll call him Henry) in Jersey City, who was an emotional lifeline to me during this difficult time. However, I never imagined I'd someday become his neighbor. First, on principle, I'd never move anywhere just to be near a friend. Second, I'd lived in New York City  while studying at Pratt in the early 1990's. When I finally moved back Boston, I swore I'd never return. Six years in the Big Apple had burnt me out. 

Still, sometimes it crossed my mind. I mean, I was looking into all cities on the East Coast, so anything was possible. Henry, a Salvation-Army-diving, cabaret-inspired musician whose idea of fun was comparing Big Band era "standards" with old ladies in diners, had an almost cult-like love for Jersey City. I trusted his taste implicitly: he listened to Glenn Miller and carried a dog-eared copy of Anais Nin's diary around like a holy book. He loved the ocean, poetry and Coney Island as much as I did (I still have the black and white photos of the then-defunct Cyclone I'd taken in art school). While I'd never in a million years dreamt of moving to New Jersey, Henry's tenderly detailed blog posts about his neighborhood captivated me. When Henry and his boyfriend invited me up for a visit, I accepted. And much to my surprise, when I stepped off Congress Street's light rail elevator's glass floor mosaics into the cliff-top of Jersey City Heights, I knew I'd finally come home. 

It wasn't completely nuts—I had some family and friends in New York, and I knew my way around the city. Burnt out or not, I'd never stopped loving NYC. But I admit: in part, I was influenced more by loneliness than practicality. I didn't know if this friendship would last—and, spoiler alert—it didn't. It crashed and burned hard within a year of my move (and yes, I am still Henry's neighbor). But I knew that rents here were affordable by any East Coast standards, and I had a happy, electric feeling here that I knew portended good things to come. I was also as excited to move near New York City now as I was when I did it the first time as an 18-year-old urban nomad. I was excited about the options for professional development, culture, and, amazingly, even some fantastic public schools. When an artist friend of Henry's offered me a fun, design-related local job, I knew something was being put into motion. Without even a moment's thought, I accepted her offer and began working out the details of my new life. 

Some people slammed me for my decision. How could I, an almost 40-year-old mom, give up life in a comfortable Virginia town for the inner city—in a neighborhood that clearly was on the bottom end of "up-and-coming"? How could I think of giving up my car and living with a roommate I'd met online (a situation that didn't endure, but worked all right while it lasted), 300 miles away from her father? Was I not bezerk to uproot my little girl and move into a neighborhood where a good part of the signs were in Spanish and the only people I knew were a couple of random gay men I'd met on Myspace? How could I take a job offer from some random "cyber-friend" who only knew me from reading my poetry online? 

What most people thought of my idea

All I could say was, I acted out of necessity at the time. But what I've found, a year and a half later, is an alternate universe I'm excited each day to awaken into. I may have been forced into sharing resources and even, at one point, living space with friends and strangers, transitioning from homeowning to renting, and living without a car—but now I wonder how I could have done it any other way. And little did I know how much I would fall in love with Jersey City. I was excited to be near Manhattan, but now I no longer think of it in relation to her more glittery neighbor. In fact, I prefer her cranky, unpretentious intimacy to the anonymous cold shoulder of "the city." I've discovered a revitalized school system with a heavy focus on the arts and sciences. My daughter's school (located 30 feet from my window) has an excellent after-school and special needs program. For summer camp, she goes to the Hope Center, a progressive spiritual and arts center that's received TV news coverage. I've discovered Art Fridays in the Powerhouse Arts District, dosa and mehendi-painting mom dates in Little India, kids' chemistry classes at the Liberty Science Center, playgrounds with skyline views, and tarot readings at the Stockinette knitting café. Not only do I love my cheap, colorful 3-bedroom apartment that includes my own office and a backyard vegetable garden—but I just plain love Jersey City, in all its quirky, low-fi charm. 


Eco-friendly JC transportation (photo credit: Rachel Summers, www.

One observation has that struck me since my move, is the way online communities are beginning to merge with and shape real-world ones. Almost everyone in my life—from friends, babysitters, landlords, roommates and even my partner (now fiancé) of the past year and a half—I found on Craigslist and other online communities. I don't speak the same language as most of my neighbors, but thanks to online networking, this hasn't stopped me from finding my tribe here. The rate at which we can "grow" a meaningful local community has time-warped exponentially because of the Internet. It's a sweet irony to me that while computers are accused of depersonalizing human society, they've also created a potential for shareability beyond anything we've known in the past.

I often imagine a future in which neighborhoods are no longer determined by divisions—ethnicity, language, socioeconomic class—but by shared ideas and interests—things that draw people closer. Not economic interests, which are intrinsically finite and can take entire cities down with them when they fail (Detroit and much of the Rust Belt, for example), but social and lifestyle interests. A perfect example of this is the LGBTQ and arts communities. No one in any "gayborhood" or emerging arts district cares what your skin color is, what local corporate giant you work for, or where your parents came from; there is a shared culture based on experiences, preferences, and politics. I imagine a world someday in which it wouldn't be strange to find neighborhoods dubbed "The Origami District" or "Yoga Heights." I've lived in intentional "themed" houses before: vegan houses, artist coops, and houses where you're expected to love dogs, participate in renovations or gardening, or be cool with drumming at all hours of the night. These microcosmic, interest-sharing communities have always existed, but the ease of community outreach through social networking may be leading to their expansion beyond the boundaries of the housing or building unit. We might see communities of parents with special needs children, complete with appropriately designed activity centers and gluten-free restaurants with understanding staff. Or communities of cyclists, who keep their streets car-free and equipped with ample bike racks and air stations. I suppose that these, too, could risk becoming their own insular "ghettoes" in which marginality could still sequester people, despite the appearance of diversity and higher consciousness. Yet somehow, I'm hopeful. The idea of aggregation based on shared interests, to me, seems far more human and evolvable than the kind forced upon us by ethnicity or economics. 

It's almost two years now since I came to this town, and I don't think I can ever go back to the so-called American Dream I left behind. I've grown too used to my neighbors chatting on my stoop, watching eccentric people on the train, and Shayna being greeted at every corner by friends as we walk down the street. We never experienced such a rich interactivity with our environment when we owned a house and car. When the weather is nice, we make the hour-and-a-half long pilgrimage to our "vacation home"—my fiancé, Gretchen's apartment in Brooklyn. Not only is it directly overlooking the ocean, but it just happens to be a scenic ten-minute walk from the Cyclone. On Fridays in summer, we gather on her balcony and watch the weekly kick-off fireworks from Coney Island. 

Sometimes I think we each have a homing device inside of us, an internal GPS pulling us toward our happiness. Sometimes clouds block the signal, but it's always there.

Sometimes, what we thought was our destination was just a reflection on the glass—and when we finally venture onto the open road and find our own path, the real thing we find is even better than we could have ever imagined. 

(All drawings by Shayna).