I still remember the day I told my husband he was “ruining my life”. It was an eerily clear day in San Francisco in April 2017 and we had just finished having lunch. In a few weeks, I will resume my work as a journalist to Fortune Magazine after taking a few months of maternity leave, and was trying to enjoy my last days of total freedom with a leisurely walk in the middle of the day.
It was then that my husband, Suneel, told me he wanted to leave San Francisco, return to his hometown of Michigan, and run for Congress. Tears flooded my postpartum eyes; there were a lot of “absolutely no” and “fuck nos” thrown out. But over the next few weeks, my stance softened. It was 2017, a few months after President Donald Trump was sworn in – in part, winning Michigan – and deep down, I felt as strong as Suneel in helping a swing state go blue. .
So we made a deal. If he lost his election in 2018, it was only my choice on the next step. I was sure that if he didn’t win, we would go back to San Francisco, or New York, where I had spent most of my twenties. And so, after nearly a decade of living in California, I agreed to tidy up our apartment and our two little daughters and move to a small Midwestern suburb called Birmingham, Michigan.
The first week was a blur of Target and Home Goods shopping. I remember thinking, the streets are so wide, there are so many trees and Ford explorers everywhere. One evening, unwrapping what looked like the millionth box in a row, our doorbell rang. I just knew it would be a neighbor complaining about the big moving truck parked out front that had been blocking most of our street for days. Instead, the woman at the door – our new neighbor Jenny – handed me a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, along with her and her husband’s cell phone numbers, “in case we did. would need anything. ”
There’s a saying, “closeness breeds intimacy,” but in a place like San Francisco, I lived above people without ever exchanging names, let alone pastries. The only person whose emergency number I had was our part-time babysitter. When I was nine months pregnant and my husband had to travel for work, she was the one I planned to call if I started having contractions and had to go to the hospital.
I quickly discovered that while the Michigan suburbs were much less dense, they were much more cohesive. When temperatures started to drop to a number I feared, I found myself drinking eggnog and even singing Christmas carols in neighborhood living rooms. I bundled up and took my daughters on dates with new friends. We were officially in “hibernation” mode, but so were everyone.
Months later, as the snow began to thaw, people rejoiced with backyard barbecues and street parties, a palpable ‘we made it’ vibe in the air. None of this converted me into a fan of the cold, but it did help me understand how people in the Midwest wear winter almost as a badge of honor.
For the first time in my life I was starting to understand what people meant by community. I had people who wanted to be there for me, and they knew the feeling was mutual. New friends distributed flyers for my husband’s campaign and organized fundraisers. They drove my daughter to activities when I had to travel for work.
I felt even more supported this year during COVID. During our Shelter in Place order, my youngest daughter was injured on a bicycle, cutting her finger off. One of our close friends and neighbors, an emergency doctor who was about to work a night shift at her hospital, rushed over to our house to check on her, escorted us to the nearest emergency room and waited that we can determine what the next steps were for our daughter. Another close friend dropped off freshly prepared Indian food every week, without fail, for no reason other than to help ease the challenge of preparing every meal during the pandemic.
During my early years in Michigan, very few called to ask for advice on how to leave a city. (Actually, I can count the number of people: one. Someone called me for advice). But this year I’m suddenly very popular. Over the past few months, I have heard from over a dozen friends. (Honestly, I think I’m losing count!) They ask, can we still walk for their morning coffee? What is it like without public transport to take your kids to school? Does DoorDash deliver to burbs? What types of coats protect you from subzero temperatures? Oh my God, call me back, how to get a driving license?
I tell them everything I just told you – about the closeness and the community I found here – but I also share the flip side: that not all members of our new community have embraced us. In my years in San Francisco, no one has ever commented on the color of my brown skin or that of my family. That’s not to say that racism didn’t exist in California, but it’s not something that I’ve personally experienced. But in parts of Michigan, when my husband and I knocked on doors for his campaign, many people made their feelings clear. Door slams were accompanied by cries of “Get back on your camel!” or “Go back to your own country!” When I posted a photo of us on Facebook on our anniversary, a Michigan resident said we should “kick ourselves out”. (For the record: Suneel was born in a suburb of Detroit; I was born in Baltimore.)
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, I sat down with my eight year old daughter to talk about racism. Taking a deep breath, I explained to her what discrimination is and how it hurts people of color. She looked at me with wide eyes and said, “I know what it is mom, this has happened to me many times.” My heart broke when she recounted in detail a story where she was told she couldn’t be in a “club” with the other girls because her skin and hair was “dark”.
Close encounters with racism wasn’t the only downside I experienced as a result of our distance from the West Coast. While proximity cannot breed intimacy, in San Francisco it can create opportunity. As a tech journalist juicy stories seemed to fall on my knees and I fed off the ambition around me. Parents in my child’s kindergarten, who worked primarily in tech, became my sources. Standing in the queue at a cafe, I overheard people leaking non-public information about the latest startup they were working on.
My local Starbucks in Birmingham, Michigan is lovely, but the latte gossip is much more relevant to the PTA than the tech media. When stories and jobs are no longer handed to you, it powerfully gives a moment of stillness to figure out what you want in your career. In suburban Michigan, I wasn’t asked to write stories about the buzzing new startup that had raised a load of venture capitalists from celebrities. Facebook and Google no longer came to see me with exclusives on their last hire or launch.
Instead, I was a freelance journalist with no story, no platform, and no relevance. I felt like our move meant the end of a career I had worked so hard for. It was painful to deal with and yet very liberating. I realized what it was was writing stories like this for Her, not chasing the scoops about Amazon’s latest acquisition.
My husband ultimately lost his campaign for Congress in 2018, but neither of us forgot the deal we signed the year before. A few months after his loss, he asked, “Where is he going to be?”
I don’t think he ever expected me to say, “Here. I want to stay here.”
Even now, after three years in Michigan, I would be lying if I told you that I haven’t missed San Francisco sometimes. My life there was exciting. Interviewing CEOs of big tech companies, profiling celebrities, drinking wine in Napa, hiking Marin County, spotting fancy apartments that we might one day be able to afford – that sounds like a long way off to me. my life right now. This is how I came to see it: I traded an exciting life for a busy life. I live on a tree-lined street where my daughters cycle the sidewalks with their friends. During the days, I work to write stories that are really close to my heart. And on the weekends, we spend time with friends. We rarely talk about work or whose business is being acquired. And it smells awesome.
Sometimes it takes experimentation to understand what you really want out of life. To my friends who ask for advice on leaving coastal towns for a “simpler life”, I encourage them to think of it as a two-way street. Give a shot; you can always go back. And maybe you’ll learn more about yourself along the way. I’ve learned that for me happiness doesn’t depend as much on my physical situation as it does on the community around me.
Now, instead of watching the sunset over the Pacific, I watch it descend above a tiny cluster of evergreen trees that line my backyard. Until now, I hadn’t believed what they were saying – that beauty is everywhere, if you look with love. These days when I call it a night, I lean in to hug my husband and with a smile I whisper, “Thanks for ruining my life.”
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