10 years ago, I sold a guitar so I could pay my way to Cincinnati. I had no job and no savings; I had found an apartment only a few days prior. I was moving for a relationship, not for a city. In fact, Cincinnati was barely a blip on my radar and, as far as I could tell, the move was temporary.
10 years ago.
When I knew my ten year anniversary was around the bend, I considered doing something to celebrate. Throw a party. Release a new cd. Write a Top Ten list of my best Cincinnati memories. But as the days inched closer and closer, my heart grew more and more conflicted and I let the day pass last month without making much of a racket at all. Not publicly, at least. Privately, my mind and heart were wide awake and wild.
What the hell am I even doing here?
Oh, I know what I’m doing here. I’m living a pretty wonderful, charmed life. I am wife to a wonderful husband; I am mother to three beautiful, spirited children. I sometimes play music and sometimes plan community events and sometimes host parties and concerts and sometimes write articles and blogs and other assorted read-ables. Heck, I “do” a lot.
But how many of us really measure the wealth of our life by what we “do?”
I want to know “why” and “for what” and “to what end” am I here?
And, in that way, the “do” is rather inconsequential.
The “do” can come later.
When did I fall in love with Cincinnati?
From the moment I arrived, there have been wonderful people who have embraced me as their own and shared the best parts of Cincinnati with me. Many of those parts are hidden away in their favorite corners of the city, tucked into houses and storefronts and laughter and singing songs that no one other than those they call their own would care enough to notice. This city has become familiar to me in a way that I never expected. It welcomed me as its child and I fell in love with it, hidden piece by hidden piece.
But what does it mean to truly love a city? And how much of my love for Cincinnati is more about what it has given to me than about what I can give for it?
And, what does loving a city truly require?
Living in a growing, changing neighborhood has been a huge challenge for me because this neighborhood was a huge part of that first affection I felt for Cincinnati. And, with every small change, I’m losing a little bit more of what made this city feel like it was “mine” in the first place. And if I, being here only ten years, can feel such torn affections, imagine the heart and mind of someone whose entire history centers here.
There have been many times in the past few years when I was ready to cut and run.
The truth is: I. Want. Out.
But I’ve thought a lot about love and commitment and the concept of marriage recently. Not related, specifically, to my marital relationship but more related to my marriage to mission and work and my love of place. Wendell Berry talks about the idea a lot when he talks about farmers and their relationship to their land. It’s the idea of husbandry and it’s, sadly, a concept that has lost its gravity in its modern usage.
What would it mean to marry myself to this place?
What would it look like to make a covenant with this city?
How can I love this city and these people with the kind of love required in marriage?
Look, I’m not suggesting that a person’s relationship to their place holds nearly as much weight as an actual marriage. But I am suggesting that maybe we don’t really understand what we claim when we claim to “love our city” if we’re willing to just walk away when the affections wane or when the greener grass next door peeks our interest. Most people don’t think twice if a better opportunity, a bigger house, or a higher-paying job shows up.
But maybe, like a good marriage, loving our city means much more than the tickle in our belly or the ebb and flow of our affections.
I like the word “efficacious.” It’s a word I don’t use in conversation because it would make me sound obnoxious. But it’s a good word. And it’s one of the words I remind myself of most often when I consider whether or not I am acting in love toward another person. In the context of loving, efficacious love would be a love that is productive, effective, constructive, or beneficial. It is a love that is fruitful. One of the best ways I’ve heard it expressed is by St. Augustine when, in relationship to God, he wrote: Quia amasti me, fecisti me amabilem. (In loving me, you made me lovable.)
In loving me, you made me lovable. How awesome is that?
What would it look like to love this city in that way, in a way that made it better? Made it truly lovely?
Then, after committing to see that love through, what does it look like to love a city that doesn’t always love you back, at least not in the way you wish it would? What about when it no longer feels as welcoming or accepting? And what would it look like to truly love a city that grows up to be something other than the thing you always wished it would be?
How do you love a city that no longer resembles the city you first loved?
I’m sure most people don’t care too much about this stuff. They just move on when their affections shift. Find a more comfortable place to call “home.” But I can’t get the questions out of my head.
Wendell Berry writes about the responsibility to one’s place:
When I lived in other places I looked on their evils with the curious eye of a traveler; I was not responsible for them; it cost me nothing to be a critic, for I had not been there long, and I did not feel that I would stay. But here, now that I am both native and citizen, there is no immunity to what is wrong.
What is my responsibility to this city– to this place that adopted me as its own, who gave me back my faith, gave me another chance at love, brought me my babies, and cradled me into adulthood?
The truth is that sometimes I just don’t have it in me to give back. Sometimes I feel like I’ve already given too much and that I’d like to take some time for myself. I want to find a wooded, wild, quiet place to raise my children without the fuss of loving a place and a people in return. (Because, in the city, it’s impossible to ignore the heart beating next door. You can hear it through the walls. And I’ve got enough damage to repair in my own heart and my own home, thankyouverymuch.) Why not find someplace more comfortable? A place that doesn’t require so much work?
So, I’ll ask it again: why am I here?
How deep is my love for this city?
How strong is this marriage?
I can’t honestly say whether or not Cincinnati will be my home in ten years’ time. This city doesn’t really need me. Not in the same way my family needs me. There may be another vision or mission around the bend.
For now, I’m thankful for this city. And reminiscent. A little melancholy. And pretty hopeful for its future.
This city has given me a lot in ten years’ time. I am praying I have something to offer in return, even if it’s not for forever.