Failure to Thrive


How long do we need to live somewhere before it feels like home? A year? Two years? Ten?

It’s been three years since we relocated from Chicago to Colorado and my husband and I have had approximately 200 conversations about staying, going, and the metaphorical roots, weeds and soil of home. We didn’t anticipate the culture shock involved in transplanting ourselves from a big city to a college town just an hour south of the Wyoming border. We didn’t know searching for a church would wring us dry. And we misjudged our ability to make friends during a stage of life (three kids, age five and under) that prohibits deep conversations, free time, or any excess emotional energy.

We miss the culture, diversity, pace, and pride of Chicago. We even miss the way the grit of city living grinds your character, polishing it through inconvenience and surprise. We miss the old us.

We keep coming back to the same question as a prayer, flickering thought, or as a two hour-long discussion with no resolution: Should we stay?

When do you dig deeper and when is “failure to thrive” a sign you’re on the wrong path, that you don’t belong? In my writing life lately, I’ve been trudging through the mud of a book manuscript, mining it for treasure. Each week, I hand my husband a stack of revised pages, paper-clipped together with a pink post-it note on top. The note I write for him always contains the same two questions:

“Where can I go deeper?” and “What can I delete?”

As I step into fall and a new school year, I want these same questions to guide me. Where can I go deeper—in relationships, with God, and in my city—and what can I delete? Somehow I think the answer to thriving is hidden here.

Going deeper with people could involve inviting someone over, asking an acquaintance to coffee, or planning ahead to talk to someone new after preschool pick-up. It could look like learning the names of neighbors, planning a neighborhood get-together, or walking with my kids to knock on doors and drop off banana bread.

I could go deeper with my children by putting down my phone, sitting on the floor and forcing myself to play pretend. Instead of eating my cereal in front of my laptop at the kitchen island, I could join them at the table as they slosh cheerios out of their bowls and make boats out of apple slices. Going deeper with my husband may be less about adding fancy date nights or special getaways, and more about seeing him, asking questions, listening, and responding to him instead of finding the bridge that takes the conversation back to me.

Going deeper with God could look like waking up earlier to be still, listen, pray and meditate on passages, sentences or sacred words. I could try new spiritual practices, or revisit old ones. It could mean diving into a group and seeking God next to another person.

Going deeper in my city could mean joining a book club, attending a writers’ meet-up, or volunteering at a homeless shelter. I rode the bus with my kids for the first time last week and marveled at how simply changing our routine alters our perspective, increasing our curiosity for the unfamiliar streets and people we pass.

When my husband and I ask God about staying, God is silent. So in our own logic, we’ve decided to dig into the soil of our city. At least for now. Neither of us are quitters and if we do end up leaving, we want to know it’s because we tried everything in our power to stay.

An expert recently pruned our apple tree. The once-full branches are now scraggly and bare. But new nourishment flows to the bravest branches and hopefully next fall we will pick apples again. Going deep demands that we delete. Writers love the quote attributed to various people to “murder our darlings,” meaning to cut some of our most beloved words, sentences, paragraphs and pages. (The quote is actually from 1914 British author Arthur Quiller-Couch, according to Roy Peter Clark of Writing Tools). Deleting evil, harmful and unhealthy habits from life is an obvious win, but deleting the good takes a certain kind of tenacity, a trust that by severing “good” we enable “better” to grow.

What do I need to cut so I can go deeper elsewhere? I’m still figuring that out, but I know going deeper involves saying “yes” to relationships and “no” to many activities. It means reserving unscheduled time to take my kids on walks around the block, eat meals together, and stoke the coals of community as we pause to notice the people around us. It means choosing “being” over “doing.”

I have a quote by Natalie Goldberg scribbled on an index card next to my desk. It reminds me not to settle for staying in the shallows as a writer, though as I think about it, it applies to relationships, church, God, our jobs, our art, and our cities as well. It says, “Sometimes when you think you are done, it is just the edge of beginning.” It reminds me to wade out into the waters, then to dive deep, then deeper, and deeper still. Just when I think I’m at the end is when I’m getting to the beginning of friendship, of God, of community, and of life. So maybe we’re not done here, perhaps we’re just at the edge of beginning.