A View From the Trees A Year Later

A year ago I wrote about our decision to move from San Francisco to a little town in the hills above St. Helena, a town that has a lot of history for our family. Moving from an vibrant urban center to a private road surrounded by trees and the sound of crickets at night takes adjusting. I’ve hesitated to write more because it’s felt too soon to have any perspective yet. But recently I was in New York City for a speaking engagement and to film a friend’s wedding, and I had a conversation with a couple with young children who live in Manhattan. They told me that they were quite impacted by my essay and had similar thoughts of moving out of the city. 

I felt a wave of responsibility hit me. The last time I wrote I was at the beginning of a transition into what I hoped would be community, home, and belonging. Of course, life always turns out to be both more beautiful and more messy than our idealistic visions, and I feel like I should process some of the journey of this move more transparently since I shared our motivations for moving publicly. 

What hit me first about our move to the country was the quiet and darkness at night. Our house is on a quiet, private road surrounded by trees—and big windows to appreciate the trees. At first, the quiet unnerved me. I only heard crickets and the occasional owl or coyote. We don’t even hear the main road from our house, and with only two houses past us on our private road, there is very little traffic noise. We never lived in what would be considered a noisy area in the city—we slept fine. And yet, I hadn’t experienced quiet like this except on backpacking trips in years. It wasn’t instantly calming as I would have suspected; rather, I felt out of place. Instead of feeling safer, I wondered in less-than-confident moments if anyone would hear me scream should something really go wrong.

Our street does not have street lights, so on nights without a moon, the darkness is complete. I am enveloped completely just a few steps outside our front door. And the stars. I’d forgotten what stars look like. Sometimes I take Lily out of her bed at night just to look at the stars. We both stare at their bright, twinkling light, sometimes laying down on a blanket to fully take in the view. Not only did we rarely see the sky at night living in the foggier, western districts of San Francisco, but the city lights kept all but the brightest stars and planets hidden even on clear nights.

Someone asked Lily recently which she like better, Angwin or San Francisco. She paused for a minute or two, thinking. And then she said, “Both, but for different reasons.” I swelled with gratitude for her awareness and ability to articulate that dual-truth. It’s both/and, not either/or, and she gets that.

When we are in the city, Lily misses a lot about city life, especially her friends and former pre-K co-op. But she is also doing well as a country girl. She learned to ride her bike and to swim this year. She loves the manzanita trees growing across from our driveway, and she’s gradually getting comfortable exploring the yard (it’s a somewhat wild, overgrown acre). She doesn’t go outside without one of us or a friend with her, although she does occasionally run down to a neighbor’s house where a girl close to her age lives. I love that she can ride her bike in our driveway, although she wants us to watch her closely still. When we had two families over for supper recently, the children played t-ball in our driveway and rode scooters happily for over an hour. Those are some of the moments I had in mind when I envisioned living here—and they have happened. 

The other aspect of living here that I am relishing is Sabbath afternoons. I suspect only those raised Adventist or as an observant Jew will understand what it’s like to be in a community where most people (or enough that it’s a normal part of life for everyone) keep a full 24-hour Sabbath from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. While I no longer subscribe to most of the religious dogma I was steeped in growing up about Sabbath, I find Sabbathing a beautiful practice. It’s a recognition that people are of of inherent worth because of who they are, not because of what they produce. In fact, it’s a very subversive, anti-materialistic practice that I’m grateful I had modeled as I’m not sure if I would otherwise give myself permission to take a full 24-hour rest from my usual activities. (The concept of taking a Sabbath is growing in secular circles—many good books on Sabbath that are not religiously-affiliated have come out recently.) Generally people stop their normal work and errands and spend the day fellowshipping at church, at each other’s homes, or out on a walk. Nobody plans birthday parties or soccer games. People spend time together without the pressure of other deadlines or obligations. There is an ease of companionship and sense of community that is incredibly hard to replicate without a whole community engaging in this practice together. 

The rural location (although just ten minutes from St. Helena, so not truly remote) means that there is very little to do. Part of me feels overwhelmed at times imagining filling an entire Sunday. And yet, that same lack of options means that people do have an easier time spending time with each other. I’ve lost track of how many times we’ve run to the little town market to get a popsicle because, well, it’s the only thing to do, and we run into a family we know. Before I know it, Lily is running around playing with a friend, and I’m having a nice chat. Last Friday this sort of encounter turned into an impromptu picnic on the grass that would have taken weeks to schedule in my previous life. I am imagining this summer spending a lot of afternoons at the local pool with Lily because, again, there isn’t much else to do. And I have no doubt we’ll see friends every time we go. The community aspect of small town living has proven to be something that I thought I would enjoy, and I really do.

But I do deeply mourn several aspects of city living, especially diversity, walkability, bike-ability, and just the energy I felt walking down the sidewalk encountering a wide variety of people. Lily and I just had a week in New York City together, and I loved seeing her interact with a huge diversity of people. Our small town life lacks almost all diversity, but especially religious diversity, and that can breed insularity and a sense of one’s views and habits being the only right or moral path. So I intentionally struck up conversations with a wide range of people as she and I walked (and walked and walked) around New York and navigated the Metro system. She got to go to her fourth same-sex wedding (which for her is the typical wedding since she’s only been to one opposite-gender wedding), and we stayed with our friends who are a married, interracial gay couple, whom she promptly fell in love with (they have a pool and a dog, and genuinely like kids—what’s not to love?). I used to be able to have that diversity easily within reach, and now it takes effort to broaden our experiences.

I find that people who have never had true walkability do not understand at all what that’s like. I miss simply walking out the front door and being able to go to the library, park, grocery store, or local cafe. And beyond that, I miss good public transportation that can easily take me almost anywhere. I miss biking to the car-free zone in Golden Gate Park on Sunday mornings where we could take a free swing dance lesson or watch roller-skate enthusiasts dance to classic rock. And I miss popping by to visit Pierre the penguin at the Academy of Sciences. And I most definitely miss the divine soft serve ice cream cones at the Twirl and Dip ice cream truck parked near the Shakespeare Garden. 

Reluctantly, we’ve joined the majority of America in being a two-car household just for sanity’s sake. I resisted; after all, we’ve lived with only one car for over 15 years very easily. But even though we live just a mile from Lily’s school, it’s not safe to walk or bike her. There aren’t sidewalks or real bike lanes. And, more importantly, drivers are not bike-aware. Luckily a family member had a car to spare for a while, so now we fill up two cars at the gas station every week. These losses sound minor, but they are the daily rhythm pieces of life that I’ve had the hardest time adjusting to.

When I try to replace my city losses with my country gains, I find myself frustrated. Instead I find that my peace comes simply from letting each space have its own gifts. But settling into that peace has taken me most of the year. Maybe it’s the human condition, but my subconscious was continually comparing or trying to search and replace. 

A bigger peace has come for me as I’ve found a handful of people to be fully honest with. I’ve particularly needed to process my religious identity. As I’ve written about before, feeling spiritually homeless has been a major challenge in my sense of belonging and home. Because of the work we’ve done to share the stories of LGBT voices in the religious community we know well (and beyond), I’ve felt an extra measure of obligation and responsibility to be careful about my questions and areas of concern other than inclusion and welcome for all. 

In many ways moving back to an Adventist community has been precisely what I needed to do to be in a space to begin the personal work I’ve known was coming at some point. That’s an ongoing process, and I’m deeply grateful for the people who have been willing to be on that personal journey with me without judgement or expectation but just as witnesses. That’s been healing at a deep level, even if I still hold the future with an open hand.

In my last post, I included my desire to feel what Maya Angelou spoke about when she said:

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

Much about our future feels unknown right now. I’m six months pregnant with another little girl. Our work in one chapter is drawing to a close with the next one unclear. I am not fully sure how to answer when my daughter asks, “What’s an Adventist? Are we that?” but I know that I love hearing her occasionally pray to "Heavenly Mother". It gives me hope that she is also holding a both/and space somewhere for the metaphysical questions, even if she doesn't realize what any of that is yet.

I don’t know if Lily will grow up in one place like I did, or if her childhood will be very different. And yet, miraculously for me, I am feeling at peace with all of those open questions. I suspect that for the first time in a long time, I am learning to feel at home right where I am without being attached to that place. This sense of being at home with myself is still a new expansion for me; these baby wings are still wet and weak. But wings they are because that sense of at-home-ness with my own self is what’s freeing me from the worry about home and belonging I’ve carried for a long time. 

I see now that my daughter—and I—have the capacity to bloom beautifully here, there, or even someplace we haven’t tried before. We belong to each other. She’s resilient. So am I.