Location, location, location. It makes all the difference in real estate, and it can make all the difference to one's happiness. But finding a place that really feels like home can be tricky.
Home is where the heart is, we're told. But what if "where the heart is" doesn't align with where your job is? Or when your head — or your significant other — tries to talk you out of a location that makes your heart happy?
The Sugars discuss the significance of location and home with the help of Pam Houston, who has a forthcoming memoir about finding her forever-home on a ranch at 9,000 feet in Colorado. Her other books include Contents May Have Shifted and Cowboys Are My Weakness.
This episode was originally published on March 9th, 2017.
I am a 25 year old little person (I feel it's important to mention this because it is a huge factor in understanding who I am). I’m a college graduate and, though I hoped to go to law school, my LSAT score wasn’t good enough to enter into the program I’ve been working towards for the past six years. I've accepted the fact that it’s no longer possible to enter my dream profession. Now is the time to make a decision about what comes next.
Two years ago, while on my first trip to Europe — which was a big deal considering my physical challenges — I met a man. It was all the romance movies come true: I fell in love with a kind, funny, beautiful Frenchman in Paris. Too good to be true, right? It took me a year of convincing to take a chance, return to Paris and see if this love was real. It was. Now we have a long distance relationship, flying back and forth every three months. He is deep within his career, but is willing to move wherever I settle down in my own career. I feel guilty and ashamed of my LSAT failure. I'm stuck and he's waiting on me.
My question now is, would it be stupid to move to Paris to regroup, refocus and find a Plan B? Or do I need to face this juncture alone, as I have done every other problem in my life? Am I simply "running away" from my problems by going to France?
Paris or Bust?
Cheryl Strayed: I want to talk about this idea of running away from your problems. I have often traveled when I was at a juncture. The reason I took my hike on the Pacific Crest Trail was because I needed to reset my life and find myself again and figure out where to go next. I don't think of that as running away. I think of that as running to. To me, Paris or Bust, there’s not even a question of what you should do. Please go to Paris. You're going to open yourself up to so many interesting things, and they will all be helpful in telling you what to do next when it comes to your career and your life.
Steve Almond: The thing that's more complicated here is, you’re feeling disappointment, Paris or Bust. And it's tough to take the risk of heading to Paris when you're not feeling like you're in a position of strength and assurance. But I still think that you should go. After I finished graduate school, I had no idea where I was going to go or what I was going to do. I had a lover in Poland, and I went over there. The point wasn't that the relationship worked or didn't work — it was that I put myself in an uncertain place and saw who I really was. An experience like this strips away the part of ourselves that wants to have a life plan. It sounds like you had a very clear plan, which was, you were going to get into this law program that you had been working towards for six years. It's scary to then throw yourself into an adventure, and you have to be really self-forgiving. It's okay to be a little lost. If you're not lost at 25, something's wrong. But even if things go south with this guy, you would have some time in Paris when you were 25. When I look back, I spend a ton of time regretting all the things I allowed to inhibit me. And I'm happy and proud that I did things, especially if they didn't work out, because that's actually the most interesting part of life — when you're a little bit lost on the way to home.
Cheryl: Good luck, Paris or Bust. I’m just going to call you Paris, because that’s where you’re going. Give me a call — I will take you to the airport.
I'm a 36 year old woman with a wonderful one-year-old baby and a loving partner that I have been together with for almost a decade. We’re very happy, but the question of where we live is a source of constant anxiety and stress, and I don't know what to do about it.
First, the background: We met in a beautiful Smaller City and fell in love there, both working in the same artistic field. When I was accepted to a prestigious graduate program in The Big City, we were both thrilled. We thought moving to The Big City would be great for both of us. I’d attend graduate school and he’d pursue larger-scale projects. The way it turned out was that the graduate school part was wonderful for me, and the working part was terrible for him. He never got the momentum he needed, and his depression, which he’d previously managed, spiraled out of control. Our relationship almost ended, but we were able to right the course once he was on medication, and we started talking much more openly to each other about our feelings and desires. After I finished school, I had an opportunity in The Other Big City, which was on the other side of the country. He was ready to leave the city where we’d been living. I was less sure. I liked where we were living, but I agreed to move because I could see that was what he wanted. Plus, the opportunity for me in this Other Big City was hard to turn down.
Six months after we moved to The Other Big City, we were surprised to learn that I was pregnant. My post-graduation plans were put on hold as I scaled back to working my intense full-time job and taking care of my body. Meanwhile, his work did not develop any more in this city than it had in the last. It was the same string of small jobs and dead ends, but he was thrilled about my pregnancy. He said he thought the baby would give him the purpose in life he’d been needing. His depression dramatically improved, as did our relationship. We decided that since I had a stable income, I would return to work full time, while he took care of the baby. This has worked out well; my partner is a wonderful father to our son.
Our major issue is that my partner pines to return to the Smaller City. He is very isolated as a stay-at-home dad and believes the Smaller City is where we would be happiest. There, we’d be surrounded by friends that are more like family. Both of our families are great, but they live in places that don’t provide good options for my line of work. He thinks the Smaller City is our true home and that I could find work there, and so could he. Now that our baby is becoming a toddler, my partner is ready to start working again.
The idea of moving back to the Smaller City puts me into a spiral of anxiety - stress over money, over a job, over everything. It feels like the same promises we have told ourselves with every move, only this time it all feels bigger and heavier because of our child. With each move, his job prospects have not worked out. I have become the sole breadwinner for our family. If I'm being totally honest, I don't believe him when he says he would be able to start working once we were back in the Smaller City, and then, once again, all the money pressure would be on me. I'm also fearful of a return of his depression, as he has an excellent therapist here and is doing very well. But I understand when he says that he just does not belong where we are and it does not feel like home. I agree with him that the Smaller City is where my heart is, but I'm not convinced that is enough. I'm getting promoted at work and feel like I'm finally starting to get enough sleep that I could start my creative work on the side again.
We are both so badly wanting a home for our family. But where is that? What do we do? Where do we go? Do we stay somewhere that doesn't feel like home, but is better for my job and possibly my creative dreams? Or do we go where we feel the most love and let the rest of it fall how it will?
Lost in La La Land
Steve: Lost in La La Land, you've got it tricky because your partner feels pretty clear about wanting a move, and you feel much less clear. And this is actually the repetition of a pattern that's come up a few times. As I read the letter, this is really more about your relationship itself than it is about the locale.
Cheryl: I agree that this is a relationship question, but sometimes the conflicts we have can serve as the way to talking about deeper things. Lost In La La Land, there's nobody who's a bigger fan making lists than me. Get a big piece of butcher paper and a couple of markers. And first, make a list of all of the things you and your partner agree on. You do both agree that the smaller city is the place where you feel the most love. That's a compelling thing. It sounds like the reasons you don't want to live there are all about your relationship. You don't trust that your partner is going to be a full partner to you when it comes to finances and emotional stability. And then, make a list of what each of your fears are if you stay in the big city, and what each of your fears are if you move to the smaller city. And when you put those items on the list, try to be as neutral as possible. Come from your own perspective without putting your feelings onto your partner. Then see what's there, and talk about it. When we have conflicts, there's just this whole pot of feelings inside. But a list allows you to see things very clearly.
Steve: One cautionary note, underneath the question of whether to make this move or not, is a question about the respect and esteem that you have for your partner and about the power dynamic within the relationship. The place where you felt the most in harmony was when you fell in love in that smaller city, both working in the same artistic field. It might be that within the desire to return to this place is a desire to return to the before-the-fall version of the relationship, because since then, you've done well for yourself, and your husband has struggled. The fact that he has a good therapist in this city that you're living in now is no small thing, because it's very destabilizing to move. Whatever tensions exist within the relationship are going to be exacerbated by a move. You have some legitimate disappointments and worries about his capacity to manage his mental health and to contribute to the marriage and family in the ways that you want him to. And that's a very tough conversation to have, but I wouldn't move to a new city until you've had it.
Cheryl: And it takes a while, when you move to a new place, to love it. When I first moved to Portland, Oregon, I didn't know if I was going to stay or go. I fell in love with Brian, and the first couple of years of our relationship were a struggle because I was saying, “Why am I here?” I had acquaintances and new friends, but they weren't the same as those old, deep friends I had in other cities. I felt like there was no real reason to be there. That shifted when those acquaintances became dear friends. I started to have a sense of my place in this community and in the city. It sounds like you've not lived all that long in this other big city. Give it a little time — a year or two. Maybe that's the contract to make.