I never wanted to live in the city of my childhood as an adult. It was boring. Definitely not cool. Ugly. I escaped briefly to Long Beach, the part that felt like a nice mix of Orange County and Los Angeles County, where we could walk to restaurants and bars and parks and go to summer concerts with our wine glasses and crackers and cheese and feel like we were living a more interesting life than we did in the suburban cities where people mostly stayed inside.
I always wanted to live somewhere creative. Somewhere with grocery stores that sell lots of organic food, a place with an abundance of vegetarian options, a city that is socially conscious and progressive. I wanted to live where it would be easy to make hordes of new friends, a place where breaking bread and clinking glasses with your neighbors was commonplace. Somewhere with public transportation options, bikes that crowd the streets, and great walkability. (The place of my dreams sounds a lot like Northern California. Too bad it’s so expensive!)
At any rate, none of what I desired in my ideal city could be found in my hometown.
My hometown is a place where tourists go, but not to the neighborhoods where people really live. My hometown is a medium sized city with not very many parks, and the ones that we do have are often crowded with homeless people. On my side of the city, we have our very own busy street with prostitutes that work every imaginable shift of the day. I see them at 6AM and I see them at 6PM. Whatever time of the day you prefer, there’s a skanky woman with a too-short skirt pasted onto her backside and a seductive saunter in her gait for your pleasure. My hometown has great neighborhoods with homes that cost over 600K, and also streets of crowded apartments, some of which are the homes to gangbangers.
My hometown is where I got my primary and secondary education, elementary through high school, in great schools with great teachers. Mr. Elm, who introduced me to creative writing in the first grade. Mrs. Jefferson, the coolest 6th grade teacher who made learning fun and believed in my abilities. Mr. Davies’ biology class in high school. Mr. Quigley, our mock trial coach. There are too many amazing teachers to recall in one paragraph.
My hometown is where I rode my bike with my siblings and neighbors during the summer months, sometimes to the park, and sometimes to Target, where we’d comb over the clearance bins and look for useless crap to buy. Before the years of the drought we’d go to our local park and play in the public water area, a cement wading pool where you’d sometimes skin your knees, perhaps considered an early version of the modern splash pad. That was the same park where we played softball on teams during the summer, and also where we buried our pet parakeet Jasmine after we turned it into a mummy and made a sarcophagus, complete with offerings for his next life (yes, we had a male bird named Jasmine! Not a typo!). My hometown is where I went to Girl Scouts and sold annual cookies. It is where I was born, in a hospital that is now a community college, a hospital where I was a candy striper in high school, working a four hour shift at the gift shop once a week in my pink and white frock.
We have an amusement park, a baseball team, a hockey team, a convention center, and other major city things that make it a destination on a map, but this city was never a place where I wanted to stay. It always felt so hopelessly boring.
I started traveling at 17 years old, and I’ll admit that when I travel, I’m often measuring a new city by how much I’d like to live there. I’ve experienced my tastes evolve over the years. I first fell in love with Rome, since it was one of the early cities that I visited on my own. These days (four visits later) it has lost its place as my favorite city in the world, and I think it’s too hot and too crowded. Venice is dreamy, but I wonder if I’d get bored with it. Paris is amazing and has everything I want from cafes to museums to parks to oozing creativity and inspiring political slogans (liberty, equality, fraternity!), but it’s too expensive. London bores me and their food sucks. Copenhagen has the bikes and happy lifestyle, but its homogenous population (albeit a happy one) unnerves me and their language seems difficult to pick up. Kyoto would be cool, but Japan is irradiated and I’m not sure how well I’d be able to learn Japanese. Also, I don’t think I can live off udon and curry for the rest of my life.
I’ve always harbored a secret hope that someday I can have a second place to live, preferably overseas. I dream of going back and forth, my foot in two doors of culture, changing destinations with the seasons, picking where inspiration pulls me, making friends abroad, expanding my roots, learning a new language. A place with socialized medicine, rich history, the best food, and societal values based on connection rather than money (does this place exist??).
I never found that place.
I’m still here.
As my roots expanded in or near my hometown, and my responsibilities and anchors deepened, my plans shifted. Perhaps I resigned myself to the typical fate one grows into with age. As your roots deepen, you become tied to where you live for better or worse, and transplanting seems like an almost fatal decision.
Dreams changed. Maybe I wouldn’t move abroad, like I wanted so badly to do, but maybe I’d just visit. Or maybe I’d execute this plan “someday,” like retired-someday, or if something-extraordinary-happens-someday.
Something else happened besides the roots, though. As I’ve gotten older and more experienced, I’ve realized a few truths about living. It’s easy to glamourize a place that is different from what you know, whether it’s another city in your state, another state entirely, or places out of the country. It’s the old “grass is greener” adage. Now when I visit a new city and I’m using the measuring stick in my head to size it up, I try to think of it in those terms. I make myself pause and think about what the place might look like in the dead of winter. What would it be like to bundle up me and the kids and trudge through snow on our bikes or take the bus to school and work and repeat that every single day? What would the food taste like when I’ve had it every day for weeks and years? Would this park look so awesome if I saw it day in and day out?
The truth is, every place has its pros and cons.
Wherever you go, there you are. You can’t automatically land into an amazing life by mere location. If you are seeking changes in your life, it has to come internally, and it can happen in a cardboard box if it must, not necessarily in the color-splashed canals of Venezia.
When I travel, one of the things I’m able to reflect on these days is what my life means to me back home. Over time, I’ve developed an appreciation for where I live, my hometown, despite the fact that it is almost literally a concrete jungle. I realize how much I value my home. I pull into my driveway for the first time in three weeks, fresh from the airport, and I see my garden and the new paint job on my house and the new windows and the wheelbarrow with the kids’ garden tools and I smile because it’s all mine and there are so many memories attached to it. My driveway, my front yard, my backyard, four bedrooms and 2.5 bathrooms. It could be bigger, it could be smaller, but whatever it is, it is our home. It has my books inside of it, our pictures, my clothes, and everything else we attach value to.
While I like and appreciate all of our material belongings, I realize it isn’t the main reason I’ve accepted “this” as not only my home, but a place where I am happy to live. The real reason is the relationships I’ve formed over the years. The network of people I have through work, our temple, my friends, family, neighbors, community, and acquaintances is all something I feel would take more than my lifetime to attempt recreating. This is where I have built my career, a career that never feels like a job, where I get to reside amongst my students and former students with a genuine community feeling. This is where I had my children. This is where I buried my husband, and when he died, this is the community that lifted us up in our time of despair. This is where my parents live and my sister, and two hours away my 93 year old grandmother. This is where I went to school, where I had my first job, where I’ve had good and bad times. My roots are deep in this boring and ugly part of the world, and that counts for something. (I should also disclose that we also have excellent weather, I’m 25 minutes from the beach, an hour from the mountains, and I live in the best state in the country. All of this helps make the downsides more palatable.)
The truth about life is that everything becomes boring and ugly after a while. The mundane finds its way into every nook and cranny of your mind. It’s not a city that enhances your life: it’s relationships and connections to others. It’s the meaningful contributions you make, the fulfilling activities you participate in, the creativity you forge in whatever circumstances, with whatever resources, in whatever city you happen to be in. It’s not a place that makes you great, it’s you. You have to put in the effort. You are responsible.
I still have incredible wanderlust, but I’ve reached a new stage where it takes me off on adventures, but doesn’t prevent me from feeling grateful or happy about coming home.