A nice place to visit
It has been six months since I circumnavigated the Lafayette Reservoir. Six months since I enjoyed a ‘South of the Border’ breakfast at Sunrise Bistro. Six months since I impatiently drove around Broadway plaza, desperate for a parking spot.
As a Bay Area native, I have moved away 3 times, only to return a year or two later, grateful for sunshine, professional prospects and a sense of belonging nurtured over many years. The last time my husband and I moved back in 2006, we trusted we would never leave again. We took on an obligatory jumbo mortgage, a dog, a kid and mounted ‘fast passes’ in both our cars. We understood that the traffic and the taxes were both draining but that the benefits outweighed the sacrifices. Yes, we worked long hours, but weekends offered Mount Diablo hikes, wine country lunches and farmers’ market bounties.
Last year, though, it was announced my husband’s job would be transferring to Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac river from Washington D.C. I was adamant about staying in Walnut Creek. I could not move away from my aging parents in Rossmoor. Leaving my son’s elementary school was out of the question; he had an IEP honed after years of securing limited public-school resources which nurtured our quirky kid who can tell you the date of the last Beatles concert but not the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
After half-heartedly interviewing for other positions, however, the move required serious consideration. Last summer, my husband and I went to D.C. on an exploratory tour. We fell under its spell. Yes, the winter cold and summer humidity would demand more tolerance than this California native was used to, but the proximity to the Capital was intoxicating for two former history majors. Additionally, people in Virginia seemed kinder. Surprised by a mid-August thunder storm, a stranger handed me his umbrella as he carried his food truck lunch into an office building. At Safeway, a teenage employee escorted me through the aisles, looking for my favorite seaweed snacks. He may have thought my obsession unjustified, but he seemed pleased to help. The houses in the quaintest neighborhoods in Northern Virginia looked like gingerbread houses with brick chimneys, flag poles and progressive signs with Human Rights declarations on many lawns. Sure, houses were also over a million dollars, but at least they had basements!
Flying back to the Bay Area after the week-long visit, it took us over almost 2 hours of sitting in traffic to get home along Highway 24. The hills were dry and thirsty-looking after the fertile greenery of the South. Houses in our charming Walnut Heights neighborhood were going for hundreds of thousands over asking price, though we had toured an idyllic cape cod house that had sat on the market for 3 months in Arlington because of some unfortunate paint choices. I was convinced we could buy the house for $100,000 less than the original asking price, unheard of in the Bay Area housing market.
But beyond all of that, there was something else that was playing out in my head. I woke up the morning after our return, in the stupor of a middle-aged mom who feels condemned to monotony. I loved my easy, comfortable life, but the repetition made it hard to appreciate. An adventure on the East Coast seemed full of possibility. Who could I meet? Where could I walk? Who could I become?
We signed the closing papers on that cape cod in Arlington 45 later.
This past month, I came back to Walnut Creek for a visit. I soaked it up! It was a treasure to talk with friends who have known me since I wore Doc Martens and drank espressos at 11 pm. It was soul-filling to lap the reservoir and wave at people who I passed daily for years. They acknowledged my return and I hugged these recognizable strangers, grateful to feel I belonged. I devoured my beloved diner breakfasts, not yet having found comparable replacements in our new town. But with each resurrected memory, I recognized something else too: a feeling of dis-ease.
Everyone here looked anxious. Standing in cafe lines, people were desperate to pound their pour-overs and race to their next appointment. On the roads, Teslas pursued Porsche Cayennes, only to be stopped at the light 100 yards farther down Ygnacio Valley. My friends talked about how they no longer went into the city because the stress wasn’t worth the hassle and they had to signup days in advance for their Orange Theory classes for fear of not getting a workout scheduled.
I realized I was witnessing a scarcity mindset, the idea that money, housing, movie seats, Starbucks points… there is never enough. I suspect this sense of competition must be tied in some ways to the costs of living. The idea that a 6-figure salary is inadequate, forces families to work multiple jobs, endure soul-sucking commutes and fill each waking hour with errands or duties, even supposedly relaxing ones, without regard to well-being.
I don’t think that this is new or unique to the area. The Bay Area has always been full of ‘boom towns’ attracting the most ambitious, successful people in the world. Certainly, D.C. is no bastion of calm or composure… ‘cut throat’ comes to mind. I suspect my impressions are amplified, born out of being away from the Bay Area bubble for six months and still in the honeymoon faze of living in an exciting new place. But things do seem unsustainable here and at some point, we have to ask ourselves if it’s all worth it.
My friends and I have a pact that when we are 55 (the age of entry for Rossmoor,) we will buy up a co-op. It’s over a decade away and who knows what my life might look like then, but that unknown future is exciting and one of the reasons I moved away in the first place. For now, the Bay Area is a wonderful place to visit.