Longing for Home

“I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.” -Maya Angelou

Our "city girl" just around the corner from our flat.

Lately Lily is very into pretend play. One of her favorite questions is to ask me where I live, and she’s not looking for the straight answer. She mastered the fact that we live in a city called “San Francisco” months ago. No, she wants an exotic location.

“Machu Picchu,” I’ll answer (or some other fun destination).

“Is it faraway or close by?”

“Far away.”

“You have to take a bus there?

“Oh yes—or maybe even an airplane.”

“Are there babies there? And girls? And kittens?” That’s the ticket for her—babies to comfort? Girls and kittens to play with? She’s definitely going to visit me.

This game is just as fun for her in reverse, and the names she makes up for where she lives are so exotic I sometimes have a hard time repeating them. Lewis Carroll would have been in awe.

I’ve actually been playing a similar game in my own head lately. Lily’s criteria for what makes a place a good one to live—babies, girls, and kittens—might not be quite what mine are, but it turns out I’ve got my own criteria for the where-will-our-family-really-settle-our-roots game.

I’m finding this game hard and not much fun.

No question, the city by the bay has been good to us.Here’s my challenge: I love living in San Francisco. There is much about this city that has energized and nurtured me the past seven years that I’ve called it home. There’s a vibe, an energy that I resonate with here—it’s an openness to ideas, a commitment to authenticity, and an acceptance of people. And, really dang good food. Just around the corner.

I recently read an article by an SF traveler who was told by several people on a trip to India that he was lucky to live in the “spiritual center of the earth.” This idea surprised him, as San Francisco is often described as quite secular, but as he asked around, he was told repeatedly that yes, for hundreds of years the spiritual center of the world was India, but now it’s San Francisco. The “spiritual center of the earth" was defined by a teacher as “the place where new ideas meet the least resistance.”

That is definitely the sense I have living here—this town is one place where you can try any idea, be anything you want. It’s liberating to know people will respect you for trying. I know I wouldn’t be producing a documentary about the identity challenge faced by gay and lesbian Seventh-day Adventists if I didn’t live in this city. And, living here, I don’t have to worry about someone defacing my Obama bumper sticker on our car like a woman did at a trailhead on our last trip to San Diego.

But I have grown increasingly anxious when I think about our future here. It’s not at all about the challenges of raising a child in the city. Lily runs in the Presidio woods just around the corner from us almost every day finding banana slugs, watching the resident heron, and occasionally spotting a great-horned owl. We have five parks within easy walking distance, several favorite cafes a few blocks away for afternoon hot chocolate treats, and world-class destinations like the Academy of Sciences, De Young Museum, and the splendor of Golden Gate Park just a bike ride away. Lily not only has easy access to nature, she has cultural opportunities that I never had in my idyllic country upbringing. And she’s growing up in a diverse environment. She won’t likely scream in terror at the sight of an African man as I apparently did at age two in the small town we lived in at the time in Walla Walla, Washington.

But, here’s the thing: I’m a tree by nature. I’m someone who wants to foster and gather community around me, sinking my roots in deep. And I am finding it hard to imagine ever owning a home in this city or even affording a rental big enough to host Saturday suppers, book clubs, and the sorts of playtime with neighboring families that helps kids actually grow up friends.

I’ve been too busy lately to admit this growing angst to myself and even a little ashamed. I don’t want to be this shallow. I want to be a bigger person about materialistic things. I don’t want to grumble every time I have to circle to find parking. I don’t want to be the type of person who would move for in-unit laundry. I don’t want to be the type of person who looks enviously at the big, warm yards of my wealthier mom friends whose homes I bring Lily to play at. I don’t want to be the cliché family that moves out of the city when it’s time to think about schools.

I’ve been Googling things like, “Great places to live with a family outside San Francisco” and checking out home prices, but I’ve been doing it late at night when the rest of the house is asleep.

That is a nice big yard...Part of the problem is that I don’t know where else we would live. I had a moment of bliss yesterday in the warmth of Larkspur, but housing prices there pose the same problem. I’ve been having strange fantasies about Vermont. And I’m pretty sure I’ve been imaging a home garden scene straight out of The Bernenstain Bears. If only my criteria were as easy as babies, girls, and kittens…I think we could manage those. (I’d add easier and more affordable babysitting to my list. Being near family does have one mighty big perk in this department.)

But I want to feel this same sort of energy and openness that I love about San Francisco in a place with decent home prices, vibrant schools, great walkability, and good weather, and, while I’m dreaming, my friends and family nearby. What I’m talking about at some level is a spiritual issue. I’m feeling like I haven’t quite found my tribe, or, possibly, that I’ve found them, but I don’t have the personal energy and space to find true community with them.

Part of this challenge must come from the fact that I was raised in an almost utopian environment, at least from a kids’ perspective. My dad taught at a private boarding school in the country, and we grew up running wild in the hills, riding horses for hours on end, and having close friends all living in the same neighborhood whose houses we ran in and out of as if they were our own. Everyone was the same religion—Seventh-day Adventist—so there was a shared culture, language, and worldview that could be assumed. We were a tribe.

But that world is no longer open to me (mainly by my choosing), and I couldn’t actually do what my parents did, even though it was a fabulous life for my sister and me. It feels like such a big responsibility to pick home for Lily, to pick the place that will mean (I hope) comfort and love, the place that she'll always carry a small piece of in her heart. Of course where I/we are happy, she is most likely to be happy and at peace, but I'm finding it a lot harder to imagine home in the realm of the real.

I’ve promised myself not to do anything drastic for now. I’m trying just to sit with this, to observe myself. Given the intensely cold and foggy summer we’ve had in the Richmond district this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if my mood changes considerably with more sunshine. I forgive the city a host of ills on beautiful days.

I napped with Lily yesterday. When we stirred two hours later, she was laying on her side, facing me, still in the final clutches of sleep. She reached over, touched my face, said, “Hi Mommy,” and then simply held my hand for a full five minutes. We lay there in a dreamlike space, and I felt myself relax at a core level.

This must be what if feels like to be at home wherever we find ourselves.