When Moving is Not the Magic Solution



At the beginning of this month, my husband and I celebrated our one-year anniversary of living in our new city, Nashville, Tennessee. It felt like such a victory, knowing we had survived such a significant change and all the obstacles that came with it.

These days, we rent a sweet little brick house on the east side, we have a garden overflowing with fresh produce that my husband planted from seed, we have a home office to work and write in. I have two jobs that I really love, that challenge and grow my creativity. My husband plays in a band, and he’s finishing the final recordings of a new album.

In very tangible ways, this is the life we wanted when we decided to move almost two years ago. My husband and I had been through so much together for being newlyweds; my mom had died and we could feel ourselves orbiting around that tragedy, surviving yet not moving forward. We knew we could thrive, we just had to give ourselves permission.

So we told our friends and family we were leaving. We packed, donated, or sold everything we owned. We quit our jobs and said goodbye to our too-expensive one-bedroom apartment in the Chicago suburbs, and we moved 500 miles south.

It sounds adventurous and rewarding when I write it that way. This is the part where I could laud the merits of “living a good story” or proclaim that everyone should just quit all the things that make them unhappy. Another blogger might tell you that ditching their job and moving cross-country set them free AND got them a book deal, so you should do it too. It seems to be a cultural (or perhaps generational) archetype, these days: millennial girl is completely unhappy with her career path/relationships/tiny apartment, so she quits everything and finds a new vocation that makes her deliriously happy, spiritually enlightened, and wildly successful.

But I think the way we talk about “chasing our dreams” idealizes the process. What often gets left out of stories like these is the long, slow effort of everyday choices. The economic privilege of quitting mediocre jobs is usually glossed over. Or the details about how many times they over-drafted on their bank account get left out of the conversation, because it doesn’t fit the narrative of freedom and success.

So here’s the real-talk version of our first year in a new city:

For the first six weeks after we moved, we had no permanent place to live. For the first six months, I worked as a maid for a residential cleaning service. My freelance writing didn’t pay off the way I hoped. My blog sat empty for months, and then my website crashed. Our bank account went negative more times than I care to admit. There was the weekend that will live in infamy, in which we moved into and right back out of a cockroach-infested apartment. A few weeks later, my car broke down and the repairs were too expensive, so I shared vehicles with my husband and our housemate for a few months. It took several months longer to gain back all the necessary furniture we had sold before the move—a couch, a dresser, a desk, a filing cabinet, a dining table and chairs. It took even longer to regain a sense of stability and confidence in our future.

I’ll spare you the self-help speech of “quit everything and do whatever makes you happy!” Clearly, our move to a city was not the magic solution for getting our ish together. For awhile, the move felt distinctly like failure. Progress was so slow that I felt certain we were actually moving backwards.

When I talk with my friends about the parts of our lives that we want desperately to improve, or when I’m relaying all the overwhelming obstacles and small victories of the past year, I’m reminded:

Wherever we go, there we are. 

Each of us absolutely have permission to pursue lives that make us content and fulfilled. But there is no magic formula, no reset button, no shortcut to a better version of our lives. There’s no quick leap into the future where everything is fine and nothing hurts.

Transformation happens slowly, over a whole lifetime. I think each of us know those deeply-rooted parts of ourselves that need restoration and healing, the parts of ourselves that go so much deeper than a job or a relationship or a city. I knew, though I couldn’t even admit it to myself, that finances were my big, instant trigger for shame and fear and self-sabotage. I knew that my husband and I had yet to be really honest with each other about how deeply the trauma of my mother’s death had affected our marriage. The move to a new city helped us see all of it with fresh eyes; it was like stepping back from an impressionist painting to see the big picture emerge from the chaos. But the move didn’t fix me or us; that’s the work we have to do every day now that we’re here.

I’m proud of us for leaving a life that made us unhappy, but that was only the first step. I’m more proud of the hundreds of days since, when we rolled up our sleeves and got to work building a better life, even when the effort felt impossible.

If our goal is to thrive—to live a wholehearted life that gives us joy and resilience and connection*—then it is the slow, daily work we do that will set us free. No shortcuts, no leaps.

So leave if you need to. Or stay. The lifelong work of self-love starts wherever you are.

*Reference to “wholehearted life” is inspired by the work of Brené Brown, particularly her book Daring Greatly. If you haven’t read it, Lovelys, here is a link to the Red Couch Book Club discussion on it from last spring!