“Mommy—there are so many trees here!” I looked into the back seat at my five-year-old daughter, Lily. She had put down the iPad we allow her to use on longer car rides and was staring out the window at the tree-lined road on the way from St. Helena to Angwin, a little town in the Napa Valley with a lot of history for my family and the location of Pacific Union College, a parochial liberal arts school where my husband and I had been invited to guest lecture about our experience as documentary filmmakers. It’s also the place we met twenty years ago in English class.
My eyes followed hers out the window. She’s right. There are a lot of beautiful trees. I had driven this road so many times in years past that I’d stopped noticing them. But on this warm June morning with sun filtering through the branches of sturdy oak trees and graceful pine trees, I realized that, being an urban kid, she doesn’t see trees in that quantity that often.
“You’re right, love, there are a lot of trees,” I said.
“Mommy—can we live here?”
And with that question I felt a catch in my throat and a welling of tears. Finding home has been a question fraught with complications for me in the past several years, ever since becoming a mother. And I’m keenly aware that the next five to six years of Lily’s life is what she’ll think of when she remembers her childhood. What location do we want those years to be rooted in? It’s been a tough question.
When she was three, at the height of imaginary play with an assortment of imaginary friends and creatures dropping by daily, she loved to play a pretend game about where we live. She’d mastered the fact that we live in a city called “San Francisco,” but she was always looking for a more exotic location. When she asked, “Where do you live?” I’d say:
“Machu Picchu,” (or some other fun-sounding destination).
“Is it faraway or close by?”
“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. One of my favorite thoughts from Maya Angelou, among many favorites, was this one:
“I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.”
I deeply long for that but have not yet found that peace around the topic of home.
Here’s my challenge: I love living in San Francisco. There is much about this city that has energized and nurtured me the past ten 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 good food, usually within walking distance.
Not too long ago, I read an article by a travel writer from San Francisco 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’ve just finished five plus years of producing and co-directing a documentary about the challenges and spiritual journeys of LGBT people of faith who are part of the denomination my family goes back in for five generations (Seventh-Gay Adventists), and I don’t think I would have been able to do this work living anywhere else. Just the energy and affirmation I got chatting with other parents at the park when the project came up kept me going.
And I love seeing Lily at home riding the bus, ordering vegetarian dumplings, roaming Golden Gate Park, or sketching at the De Young. I know raising a child in the city can be a vibrant experience.
But when I travel with Lily to quieter, more rural communities like we did recently, I catch a vision of something else. And while I can’t fully explain it, I feel such deep emotions well up in my chest that I know these feelings are something I must pay attention to. My body is trying to tell me something important.
When I think about home, I’m undoubtedly influenced by the rather idealistic space I had as a child. It’s a space that I have doubted exists as a possibility today but looms large in my memory of an idyllic childhood. We essentially lived on what could be described as a religious commune out in the country. (It was a boarding school on several hundred acres run by the Seventh-day Adventist church where my father was on faculty.)
Having all of our parents be members of and employed by the same religious institution meant that we were surrounded by kids and families with lots in common who all shared the same school schedule and general ideals. I grew up playing on the hills around the school with my sister and friends (roaming wild for hours), riding horses, and just enjoying a very community-oriented childhood. Our home was open to the other neighborhood kids as their homes were to us. We also didn’t have TV reception, so I read for entertainment. My books and horses were my companions whenever the neighbor kids weren’t over to play on the “mountain” (really a hill) in front of our house.
My problem as a parent now trying to find home for our family is that my idyllic childhood doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Not only is the actual property I grew up on long sold, but the social norms have shifted tremendously—kids don’t tend to roam free outdoors unfettered by adult supervision, riding horses and building forts.
I’ve also traveled a spiritual path as an adult that—at least until recently—I had assumed precludes me from being part of community like that. I deeply value my spiritual and religious heritage, but my path has a lot more questions and mystery now. Additionally, our work sharing the stories of people who have been marginalized in that faith community has been complicated. I’ve felt myself being cautious, uncertain sometimes of if we’d be welcome or if I’d only be seen as an advocate for a conversation not everyone wants. It’s utterly minor compared to what LGBT individuals experience, but it’s still real.
So finding a place where we fit, especially spiritually, has been a challenge. I recently admitted to myself that I feel spiritually homeless. In one part of our lives, we are the Jesus freaks, the ones who pray over dead butterflies, and in the other we are the heretics, often perceived as too liberal to be trusted anymore.
This angst bubbled up again a few weeks ago. I found myself crying—again—as I started talking about how much I longed for a spiritual home.
My husband and I were at one of our favorite overlooks in San Francisco, a little perch nestled into a hillside in the Presidio with a forest of cedar and eucalyptus trees to our right, and a sweep of native grasses through the Los Lobos valley and the deep blue of the Pacific not far off in the distance. We’ve lived near this spot for ten years, and with its sweeping view, it has a bird’s eye feel that somehow imbues a sense of clarity whenever we come here to talk about big questions.
“Have you noticed that you start crying every time you start talking about spiritual community?” he asked.
He was right. For someone who is often described as empathetic and emotionally articulate, I can be shockingly unaware of my own feelings sometimes. But when Stephen pointed out my pattern of tears whenever I started talking about my feelings of spiritual homelessness, I suddenly knew that he was right. I had been crying every time I had space to talk about the one big thing I felt missing in our life—community.
I have been aching for community ever since I became a mom, specifically community where it’s okay to be a person of faith, as odd a collection of questions and beliefs that I carry around. And, even more importantly, I ached to see Lily hang out with other kids where she wasn’t acutely aware at moments—like at impromptu funerals for dead butterflies—that she was the only one of her friends who believed in God.
We always wanted to raise her with a deep respect and appreciation for the many different ways people find meaning in the world, including those who don’t find religion meaningful at all. But it has felt like we over-corrected, and she’s been feeling like the odd kid out when it comes to all things spiritual, and she’s a highly sensitive soul who started asked me the big questions about life, death, and the meaning of it all when she wasn’t even quite three. She’s got a believer’s soul, and I don’t feel like I’ve found a way to help nurture her spirituality in a sustaining and meaningful way yet (we’ve tried various options). It’s been a big gap.
All of this came to a head in part because our current living situation is no longer sustainable. It’s a complicated situation with our lease that’s up in two weeks involving rent control and the upstairs neighbor renting out the bedroom directly above our bedroom nightly on the popular short-term rental site Airbnb. Long story short, having a mini-hotel above us has meant a great deal of stress, interrupted sleep, and much unease over the building security now that we have no idea who has access day or night (and Lily’s bedroom window opens to a common space in the building). It turns out that I am a terrible person without sleep.
Thanks to a booming tech sector, San Francisco prices have soared, and it’s now the most expensive city in the country, beating out even Manhattan, so if this living space isn’t so livable anymore, we were going to have to think beyond the city limits.
I was the first to mention it outloud—do you think we should move back to Angwin?
At first it seemed crazy. Do we really want to move back to the little town where we met 20 years ago? There’s only one stop sign in town and nothing is open after the town market closes. It’s the sort of place where you are likely to see someone you know every time you run in to pick up milk. We have lots of family in the area. And we would be back in an Adventist community.
But as crazy as it seemed at first, I kept hearing a little “yes” from deep down, from the same place the tears flowed from. Yes, as crazy and messy as it sounds, yes.
And so, we are moving again, moving back to Angwin, the little town nestled in the hillside above St. Helena where Lily had been so transfixed by the trees.
Oddly—or maybe not—it’s the Adventist church in this town where I still have my name on the books. Adventism is a bit unique because only local churches control a person’s membership. Keeping my membership at that church is one reason why I’ve stayed a member, even when I’ve disagreed passionately with some of the decisions made by the corporate structure of the Adventist church. This is a church where a lot of people supported our work over the last five years to share the voices in our film, voices usually not heard in publications or pulpits, sometimes taking personal risks to do so. It’s a church I can be part of, and these are the sort of people of faith I’d like Lily to grow up knowing. I can risk her getting a little too much Adventist indoctrination—hoping to moderate that at home—for the hope of community and connection. At least I am willing to try.
All of this feels very overwhelming in the moment, not just because we have a lot of packing to do still, but also because we don’t know where we are actually going to live yet, even though we move in two weeks.
I’ve learned in the last few years that things happen when you take the first step. But the glow of the light isn’t bright enough to see more than that first step to the next or the next after that. It’s only when I step forward that the light moves forward as well, slowly and steadily illuminating the trail. So we are taking the first step. We are moving to Angwin. We will keep our business in our beloved San Francisco and work very hard to keep connections here, especially in the film community, but our home will be in Angwin now (address to be determined!).
Yesterday I napped with Lily, a rare occurrence these days. 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. As we lay there, her little hand in mine, I felt myself relax at a core level. I breathed deeply, inhaling the scent of her, just resting in the moment. This must be what if feels like to be at home wherever I am. Now to learn how to carry this space with me to Angwin, to wherever the trail leads.