Though this Long Island girl never imagined she'd live in the south, the decision to move to Nashville was a relatively easy one, all things considered. After all, I'd packed up my life and headed to southern Africa when I was only nineteen. Choosing a U.S. city to settle in on my return Stateside didn't seem quite so consequential.
But that didn't make my transatlantic move any less heart-wrenching.
The summer of 2011, I arrived in Nashville, broken in every way.
My decade-long marriage had ended, my ex running off with my (ex-)friend. As founders of a donor-driven nonprofit, when news of infidelity and then divorce was made public, financial support started to dry up. Eighteen months later I was forced to make the most devastating decision of my life: closing down our organization (and, in doing so, laying off over 60 staff members).
In one grand swoop (that seemed equally far too fast and painstakingly slow, all at the same time), I lost my marriage, career, home, friendships, future, and country. My entire adult life had been spent on African soil. And in a proverbial instant, it had all vanished... shattering into a million pieces.
When I relocated back to the U.S. after 13 years abroad, I felt like an absolute and utter failure.
Friends graciously welcomed me into their homes with open arms (and open hearts) in far-flung places around the country, like Ohio and Georgia and Oregon. Most days, I considered getting out of bed a win. The days I went to counseling, or engaged the "free therapy" of my own writing, or swallowed my Prozac (along with my pride), or allowed myself to laugh? Those were the days I knew I was taking healthy steps forward.
Don't ever let anyone fool you: Healing is hard work.
All the while, I had my sights set on Nashville. I'd visited a few times over the years, had some friends here, even completed the half-marathon just days before the fateful flood... After living in a rural agricultural region of South Africa for so long, I craved city life. But I'd also grown to love some aspects of small town living that I wasn't ready to give up just yet. Nashville seemed to be the best of both worlds, fitting the bill of the "manageable" city I was looking for.
But the biggest reason I moved to Nashville was to chase down community.
I knew I needed to be intentional about surrounding myself with quality people. If I'd learned anything in my 30+ years of life, it was that I can't do this thing on my own. I need a strong support system. We all do. We're wired for it, built to require it. And the handful of friends I had here (almost all of whom I'd met through social media in my early days of blogging from the mission field) were the primary reason why I knew this is where I should put down roots.
Chase down community. It became my mantra. My touchstone.
And it proved to be far more difficult than I ever thought possible. In my first year here, almost all of my friends moved away, relocating for work or love or adventure. Others drifted in the way that friendships sometimes go when different life seasons take over. I struggled to make new friends, having limited opportunities or contexts in which to meet people. I was left feeling incredibly unanchored. Disconnected. Unsettled.
Community isn't as easy to come by as I'd hoped. Maybe it's Nashville. Maybe it's my age. Or my stage of life. Or my personality. Or maybe it's a Rubik's Cube combination of all those things together. Who knows.
All I do know is this: Developing a life support system gets way harder the older I get.
And it will never just happen on its own.
It demands all kinds of time and effort and intentionality. It necessitates vulnerability and risk. It requires that I keep putting myself out there amid the (disappointingly) often hollow Southern platitudes about "getting together sometime". (It took this Yankee a long time to realize that phrase is more of a pleasantry than the start of a plan to really connect.)
But eventually, slowly, I began to find those true heart connections again. One relationship at a time, I started to find and build community. I've found it in Instagram connections turned friends. And in wine-infused porch conversations that run late into the night. I've discovered it in the bartenders and staff at my local Cheers. And in laughter and heartache and shared bowls of pasta.
It was years in the making, but I realized its presence in a solitary instant one night last fall. As my autumn porch party was winding down, I looked around at friends old and new, spilling from the kitchen in the back of my house all the way through to the front yard, and it just hit me all of a sudden: I finally have that community I'd been chasing.
I noticed it in the same way you suddenly realize, as winter starts to fade, that it's no longer pitch black out by 5 PM.
That seasonal transition never seems quite as gradual as it really is. It sneaks up on you. You just look around one evening and it takes you by surprise to discover that there's sunlight where previously there had been only darkness.
My circle of friends is small, but deep. And they strengthen and support me in countless ways (as I hope I also do for them). But I finally feel that sense of belonging. Of connection. Of settledness. I feel more anchored than I have in years, and as I approach my fifth Nashiversary, I do so with immense gratitude.
My heart discovered sunlight again in this little big town, with its creativity and innovation, its social mindedness and collaboration, its food scene and its musical pulse. And, most of all, its community.
I didn't find a home here.
But I'm building one.
This is my Nashville story.
After pioneering a nonprofit in South Africa for 13 years, Alece now lives in Nashville, TN.
She’s a nonprofit communications strategist, freelance copywriter/editor, and the founder of One Word 365. More importantly, she dances in the car, talks with her hands, and makes a mean guacamole. She blogs occasionally but candidly about searching for God in the question marks of life and faith. Follow Alece on Instagram and Twitter, and visit her blog, Grit and Glory.