OCTOBER 15, 2016
I recently read This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live, by Melody Warnick. So, today I’m sharing a combo personal experience plus book review as it relates to my own recent and upcoming changes in place.
Why I Wanted To Read This: The Background
I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. My family moved several times during my childhood, but stayed within the same general area and most of the neighborhoods we lived in were unremarkable, yet pleasant, reflections of American suburbia. When people ask me where I’m from, I say ‘I grew up in Atlanta.’ But the reality is I probably went into the city of Atlanta a handful of times as a child. Still, we need a point of reference for the purpose of identification, so this is what I have used.
I fell in love with the exploration of place at an early age, despite the fact that my family travel growing up consisted primarily of occasional vacations to visit grandparents in Florida and summer holidays in Hilton Head, South Carolina. There was something inside of me that wanted to see more. I loved observing how people lived, the varying character and personalities of different towns and to imagine what it would be like to live in different places.
When a representative of an exchange program spoke during Spanish class one day during my sophomore year of high school, she took a poll of where we would all go if we could go anywhere in the world. I said Australia. I’m not really sure where it came from. But I suddenly found myself at home after school, armed with program brochures, begging my parents to let me study abroad on the other side of the world for a semester. So, at 16, I spent 6 months living with a host family in a small town south of Sydney. I went to the local high school and became a part of my wonderful host family and their local community. I marveled at the local landscapes consisting of both beaches and mountains. I couldn’t believe people lived with all of this at their fingertips on a daily basis.
In college I spent another semester abroad, this time in Seville, Spain. A city with such an intense culture that at times it was almost overwhelming. I lived with a local Señora and immersed myself in this stunning historic place, filled with colorful views at every turn, mouthwatering aromas in every bar and restaurant, a hypnotic Flamenco soundtrack and endless celebratory family and religious traditions.
After college, I felt drawn to big city life and remained curious about different areas of the country and world. In my 20’s and 30’s, I lived in Boston, Atlanta, San Francisco (twice) and London. And lived in the heart of each of these cities, no outskirts for me. Whether it was Boston’s North End, a block from Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, Pacific Heights and AT&T Park in San Francisco or a beautiful village in Southwest London, I was in the middle of it all. With countless things to see and do at every turn. Plenty of built-in friends from work. And never a shortage of visitors wanting to share in my home city.
As I have previously written in my blog post about mini-retirement, my priorities began to shift in my late 30’s. Finally in a serious relationship and considering the possibility of having a family, the things I wanted, even needed, in a place suddenly changed. And it wasn’t just me anymore. Now there was Max too.
Fortunately, he and I were on the same page and when we started thinking about where we wanted to live, we created a list of pillars, or things that we must have in a place to consider living there. These included being within driving distance of our families, being in a place where we could afford to buy a house, being in a small city of 800,000 people or less (we were ready to slow down the pace!) and being in a place that didn’t experience harsh winters. Jacksonville won our ‘Where Should We Live Next’ contest. It fit the bill and, additionally, Max’s Navy Reserve squadron was based there, so we already had an anchor.
We’ve been in our house in Jacksonville for about a year and half now. And, while we both really like it here, adjusting to this place has been different than all of the others for me. Compared to other places I have lived, it’s a less obvious city. Not as many cultural activities at our doorstep, a shorter list of great restaurants and feels less diverse in its population. In addition, I am building a home-based business and, for the first time, have had no obvious network from which to handpick my friends. We’ve been extremely lucky to have the Navy community to connect with and I have made some great friends through this, but the community is transient and most people are coming and going as their orders change. I had never appreciated how challenging it can be to make friends as an adult. I actually considered creating a friend match-making service at one point. And Max literally met a couple walking down the street one day who were asking for directions and asked them if they wanted to go on a blind couple date with us. Unconventional friend finding methods became necessary.
As I also shared in a recent post, earlier this year I was fortunate enough to become pregnant with my first child. So the past 8 months have felt a bit limbo-ish as we wait to transition from Fun Childless Couple to (still fun, I hope) Couple With a Kid. And Max and I are pretty much that State Farm commercial where the Dad keeps saying things won’t change - they will stay cool with kids and remain city-dwellers. But, of course, they are in a mini-van in the ‘burbs a few seconds later. We are those people. Practically minutes after I made it to the 2nd trimester, it was as if a lightening bolt struck us and we determined that we must go to the suburbs. Now.
The suburbs. The very place I have spent my adult years intending to avoid. And the suburbs of Florida, no less. Let’s just say this wasn’t in my ‘where do you see yourself in XX years’ plan. Ever. But now we find ourselves almost zombie-like, piling into our (very hip electric) car every weekend and touring model homes, gated communities and scoping out neighborhood pools and golf courses. Dreaming of a backyard pool and summer kitchen. Nodding enthusiastically when the realtors tell us about the A-rated schools the county is known for. Picturing ourselves surrounded by couples like us, having fun block parties in a cul-de-sac, while our toddlers all become best friends.
And each time we return from a day of suburb exploration without finding the right deal on a new home, we try to say “Let’s just stay put for a year or so in our beautiful and charming 1930’s-era home in this cute neighborhood near the city.” Then within days, we’ve inevitably acquired a new ‘must-have’ baby contraption – perhaps a stroller or a swing – that our character-filled home’s lack of closets cannot accommodate. And we are back in the car, which now pretty much drives on autopilot to one of the 3 communities we have narrowed our search to.
A few weeks ago, we made an offer on a house we love that had been listed just a few days earlier. And we currently have a signed contract and pending closing date.
As we go through this process, I’ve been thinking through the reality of actually moving ‘out there’. Does this mean my baby – and our family – will be “from” this suburb of Florida? Is this really where we want to be? As I scroll through the images of charming home towns and exciting cityscapes posted by my social media friends, I can’t help but think that it’s so much quainter everywhere else. But then I always go back to our pillars, which, in addition to our original cornerstones, now include the safety and environment with which we surround our future child and a vibrant family-oriented community. (And access to a pool. It’s hot as hell here in the summer.)
The Book Review
And so I read This is Where You Belong. The author, Melody Warnick, was a recent guest on a podcast I like, called What Should I Read Next. She mentioned she had been driven to write the book because she and her family had averaged a big move to a new city every couple of years. And each time, she would think ‘This is a clean slate, this is where I am going to finally flourish and be the person I want to be.’ And then would fall back into similar patterns that did not ultimately lead to a strong connection with her new place. She was always looking ahead and trying to determine what city or town might be their ‘perfect place’. And then she decided to take a new approach. She reframed it by asking herself, ‘What if instead of looking for a place to fall in love with…what if I learn to love where I am?’
Melody creates a ‘Love Where You Live Experiment’, detailed chapter by chapter, where she tries different ways to achieve ‘place attachment’ and identify ways to become a Stayer instead of a Mover. She also researches other similar projects in various places, includes plenty of encouraging stories of other successful place-attachers and outlines checklists for readers to try themselves at the end of each chapter.
What I Liked About This Book
I like how Warnick offers plenty of practical suggestions that are possible for anyone to implement. The checklists make it easy for me to create my own experiment. And I appreciate that there is plenty of research supporting her theories, as well as anecdotal profiles of others’ experiences.
I also valued her proactive approach to creating community. In most of my own experiences, I have waited for my city to perform for me, to guide me or for others to lead the way in creating the things to love about it. I haven’t had to work as hard to find instant friends and, if anything, have struggled with limiting the endless options of things to do on a given weekend. Warnick often suggests that we create what we want if it isn’t there. That we become a contributor to building the place we want to be in.
Something doesn’t exist in your town that bums you out? How can you make it happen?
And while many of the suggestions are somewhat obvious and things I have done in the past or am already doing, I appreciate having a comprehensive thought process behind them, and Warnick’s encouragement to incorporate them re-invigorated me to “get back out there”. In addition, she includes some creative ideas that I hadn’t thought about before.
Here are some of my favorite suggestions:
· Walk. Walk everywhere you can possibly walk. Running errands. Exploring your local area. Even for me, a future suburbanite, I can think of ways to walk to my new grocery store, take a run to Starbucks, etc.
· Support local businesses. Find local spots that make you happy and spend money there – even if it’s pricier than ordering the same item on Amazon.com. Attend or organize a Cash Mob – get a group to commit to spending $20 at a “surprise” local business. The group shows up in an agreed meeting spot and is told which local shop they are spending their money in. It creates a connection with the local business and is ultimately good for your community.
· Eat a meal with your neighbors. Either invite a neighbor that you don’t know very well over for dinner, organize a potluck event with a group or throw a block party on your street.
· Develop your out-of-towner list. What is your plan for visiting guests? Audition local sites and activities and design your 2 to 3-day visitor tour.
· Get outdoors. Find local parks, walking or hiking trails or outdoor spots with great views. Visit them often. Invite a friend or two on a hike.
· Volunteer. Explore ways to volunteer to support places or local causes you support.
· Eat local. Join a CSA (community supported agriculture) or visit a local farm. Plant your own vegetable garden and learn about what grows well seasonally in your area. Become a regular at your favorite locally owned restaurant or bar.
· Create something. If there’s something you enjoyed doing in a previous town you lived in and it doesn’t exist in your new place, can you create it? Think proactively.
In addition to the thorough strategy for becoming a Stayer, I felt reassured that Warnick also notes that many Stayers still eventually move. Nothing is set in stone and there is always the possibility for change. The key is to pursue connection while you are in a place, regardless of how long that is.
My Favorite Excerpt
“Researchers who measure place attachment don’t try to examine the objective magnificence of one’s city- the soaring beauty of its skyscrapers and statues, the leafy depths of its parks. That would be like measuring a couple’s love for each other by posting their photos on Hot or Not. Instead, scientists study residents’ emotions by asking whether or not their town feels like home. When it comes to place attachment, our towns are what we think they are. That means your city doesn’t need to be the Platonic ideal of a city, in the same way you (thankfully) don’t have to be particularly gorgeous, clever or wealthy to love and be loved. You can adore a place that makes your friends shudder and still accrue the physical, emotional, and social benefits of place attachment. Your town just has to make you happy.”
What I Want More or Less of In This Book
I found This Is Where You Belong to be well worth the read and perfect for where I am right now. It provided more inspiration than I had anticipated. The only thing that didn’t resonate as much for me was that Warnick’s focus trended more towards traditional small towns, with a Main Street and town center. There was not as much direct discussion about suburbia and the unique challenges a more sprawling location without a central focus brings. However, by the end of each chapter I had found at least one or two things that were applicable to my future situation.
You Might Enjoy This Book If
This book is a helpful companion for anyone considering a drastic change in place. Perhaps you’re like me and moving into the seemingly suburban abyss for the first time. Maybe you’re a ‘mover’ and can’t seem to find your niche. Or you like your home town okay, but could use a little inspiration to shake things up a bit. Or you are new to a city and just want some ideas to help you find connection. Or you are seeking some new, creative ideas of things to do locally with your family. Anyone looking to connect more with where they are may take away several things they can implement right away.
I highly recommend This Is Where You Belong to anyone with whom this post has resonated thus far, for whatever reason. It’s a compilation of positive things you can do for you, your family and others to increase your daily satisfaction, wherever you are in the world.
And for me, this book is not just about my family and me finding happiness in our home, it’s also a commentary on the importance of community and how strengthening the camaraderie and connection of the people in your place makes life better for everyone.
I, for one, plan to use it and other thoughts I’ve come up with as a roadmap while I navigate my new home and build new networks. Maybe I don’t have to be “from” anywhere just yet. If ever. There’s time to explore. As my business coach recently pointed out to me, this move doesn’t change who I am. It does not extinguish my adventurous spirit or halt my exploration of the world. I’ve perhaps just swapped out some of my physical adventures for new emotional ones in this season. I may not ride an iconic red double decker bus past Harrod’s to work anymore or take a stunning daily run along the Embarcadero, but I wake up with my puppy licking my face asking to be fed, I have cozy date nights at the local movie theater with Max and I eagerly await the moment in the next several weeks when I finally get to hold this little bundle inside of me that is kicking me all day.
I guess it’s possible that our place is not necessarily just a zip code. Our place is also about the meaningful connections we have with the people that surround us, the way we choose to spend our time and the attitude with which we approach our daily life. Our communities may look different in different eras of our lives. And maybe we don’t have to try so hard to figure out where we “should” be, but simply look for the cues and follow our instincts, flowing where life seems to naturally be taking us, even if we find it surprising and unfamiliar territory.
My Mom has always said to “Bloom where you are planted.” So I intend to do exactly that. And just see where it takes me.
If you have additional ideas on how to love where you live, I’d love to hear them! Please feel free to post your suggestion in the Comments section at the bottom of this page or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.