This Is Where You Belong: “it’s about knowing yourself”

First book of 2019: Melody Warnick’s This Is Where You Belong: Finding Home Wherever You Are. The suggestion came from a podcast but I can’t recall if it was Happier with Gretchen Rubin, Forever35, or The Minimalists. (I highly recommend all three, by the way.)

In the book, Warnick unpacks what is means to put down roots through a series of “Love Where You Live” experiments. The idea came after she and her family relocated from Austin, Texas to Blacksburg, Virginia—the latest in a series of moves that had Warnick questioning what it might feel like to cultivate “place attachment.”

“The average restless American will move 11 times in their life,” the back cover explains. “In the lonely aftermath of unpacking, how does the place we live become the place we want to stay?”

I have made three major moves in my lifetime—one of them international. This doesn’t count the dozens of times that I’ve hopped from one block to the next within a particular city. At the height of place-hopping, we moved three times in 18 months while overseas—one particularly annoying move was from the 29th to the 27th floor of the same building. Those local moves are disruptive in their own way, requiring the closing and opening of accounts, the removal of items hanging on walls and the disassembling of furniture. But only three times in my life have I moved to an entirely new state/country and experienced the total disorder that is really starting over.

Two of those moves were career-related and one was for love. These opportunities have been foisted upon me or come about based on specific circumstances.  I have never researched a town or a city in advance and decided, “Yes, this is the place for me!”

So far, Baltimore has been the one place that’s checked all the boxes which is the reason I’ve stayed here, more or less, for the last decade. A walkable (somewhat), affordable (somewhat), pretty waterfront city full of kind, interesting people. Charm City has a relatively diverse population, good job opportunities, plenty to do, and some serious hometown pride. It also has two professional sports teams, plenty of street festivals, a thriving arts community, a booming brewery scene, museums, parks, green spaces, historic buildings, a pretty waterfront, several universities, good hospitals, and a history made rich by legendary people like Harriet TubmanEdgar Allan Poe, John Waters and, of course, Divine.

But I married someone from out west who longs for wider roads and houses that don’t touch. He also spent several very happy years on the left coast and finds the Atlantic’s waves small and disappointingly nonthreatening. The hot, humid summers here are as soul crushing for him as the dark, icy winters. But our jobs are here and I am, at heart, a stubborn East coaster who feels very strongly that there is something missing from the souls of people who thrive in warmer, milder climates. This impasse living situation is likely not permanent.

We are not looking to make a move anytime soon but we do have discussions about what our “perfect” life might look like. Is there a town somewhere that will satisfy his desire for a house built outward, not upward AND give me the city buzz that I crave? Is there someplace more walkable/bikable, with ample parking and lower property taxes? Is there a place that exists where we can have all four seasons but none of the extremes in humidity or temperature? A city or town with sports, breweries, lots of outdoors activities, museums, arts, AND good schools for our (theoretical) child? Somewhere close to a coast and a major airport hub but also close to both of our families (impossible)?

In all likelihood, we will have to stay in Baltimore for awhile because I have my doubts that this Utopia exists.

Our wishlist is hypothetical, a mashup of all the things we’ve loved about different places we’ve lived and visited. So how do you go about identifying the “imperfect perfect” place to live?

The answer is: it’s complicated and no place in the world is awaiting you with open arms, all boxes neatly checked. Warnick makes the case that finding “home” requires us putting in a little effort on our part to adapt. Her well-written and well-researched book covers areas that she’s found help lay the groundwork to really love where you live such as eating local, volunteering, walking instead of driving, and getting to know your neighbors. Spoiler alert: finding the perfect home is less about good schools and tax brackets (although those can be important drivers, they’re rarely the things that ultimately help us find joy in the day to day) and more about “fuzzier” qualities like look and feel. Neighbors, she discovers, can make all the difference in the world between a place that really feels like home and a temporary stopover in between moves. A local hangout with a favorite dish becomes an anchor point for your life. Learning how your local government works and what issues plague fellow citizens weaves you into the fabric of a place.

It’s also about knowing yourself. Having lived in both desert and tropical climates, I know that I prefer something more diverse. I love a good overcast/rainy day and the occasional snow. I hate oppressive heat and humidity and endless winters. I grew up in a city (albeit a small one) and I have never not lived in one—the suburbs have always felt lonely to me. I am drawn more to oceans than mountains. I prefer walking/biking to driving and know that a long commute crushes my soul.

So I probably won’t move to a gated community in the Arizona desert or a cabin in the Alaskan wilderness. But, if I had to, Warnick tells me there are ways to learn to, if not love, at least appreciate where you live. It’s investing in your community, not the availability of movie theaters and bars, that creates roots.

Warnick’s book offers a series of activities you can undertake to really get to know your neighbors, your community and your city. Invite people to visit, she says, and you wind up playing tourist for a weekend and perhaps discovering or rediscovering what makes your area unique. Just saying hi to your neighbors and keeping your front stoop clean can help you feel more present and active in your community. Walking, instead of driving, pulls those roots even further down as you begin to connect with your area in a different way. Buying local not only helps boost your town’s economy, it also gives you a sense of pride in where you live and a feeling of (quite literal) buy-in.

One thing I especially loved about this book—Warnick is real about how much she could/wanted to take on. She makes a lot of suggestions but is quick to say that these are just suggestions and that not everyone will find place attachment through civic involvement or attending an arts festival. Pick and choose what experiments resonate with you (and your available resources!), she encourages. No need to take it all on.

We may not always live in Baltimore and chances are decent that another major move will come about because of a job opportunity or some other set of circumstances that dictate where we go. This Is Where You Belong makes me hopeful that, wherever we wind up, we have a blueprint for finding place attachment. Ultimately, I know, it will be up to us to make wherever that is truly feel like home.

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