How Strong is This Marriage?

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 don’t.

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?

Cities change.
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.

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But Does It Really Matter?

When I speak openly about my commitment to urban living, I get a lot of mixed responses. The most common response seems to be something along the lines of, “I agree with you that urban living can be great, but I like where I live and I’m just not convinced that it really matters that much whether I live here or there.”

In a way, I agree.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter where you live. Any place–city, suburb, rural village–can be terrible or wonderful and provide a rich, fulfilling life, especially as it relates to parenting children. An overwhelming majority of what fosters a healthy family life has more to do with the health of the family itself and not its location. This is why I don’t question the independent decisions of friends and strangers who have made different decisions than me. I may talk a lot about my commitment to urban living, but I don’t make a habit of picking fights with suburbanites.

But, in another way, I couldn’t disagree more with the idea that it doesn’t really matter where you live. Where you live–and why you chose to live there–says a lot about who you are, what you value, and what you believe to be your role in your community.

And that’s why I’m willing to raise the issues.

When addressing the issue of where to live, parents especially tend to focus entirely on the practical questions. I think this is a backwards way to make your decision. If you are committed to providing a healthy family life for your children, you can adapt to any circumstance and living situation. The logistics matter, of course, but they are not primary. Think bigger.

There are a few ideological questions to consider when addressing the question of where to live–especially if you’re making the decision as a parent.

1. Where/how will my tax money, purchases, and investments be best spent? This may seem like a practical question of affordability, but it’s not. Depending on where you live, your income will be spent in different ways. You can live comfortably on the very same income in two very different places and spend your money in completely different ways. How much of your income will go to paying for that “perfect house?” How much will you waste on transportation costs? How much will be spent investing in your private property, for your own gain? How much will you be contributing to public, shared amenities from which everyone benefits? How much will you use public amenities in other communities that someone else is paying for? How often will you be able to (conveniently) support local businesses? Will you even have the option?

2. How will this place change me? What can it teach me? What will it teach my children? First, I believe that it is your job to control the education and socialization of your own children. So, building on the foundation you build at home, what will your community have to offer your family? What can you learn from your neighbors? Will it be a place of constant comfort (and, therefore, complacency) or a place of constant challenges (and, therefore, struggle)? Can it offer both comfort and challenges? What will the “life experience” of growing up here teach your children about themselves and about the world? Will this place help them become wise, competent adults? Will it prepare them for the adult world?

3. How can I improve/change this place? Does it need me? I would not recommend moving into a community with some sort of savior-complex, committed only to change it. But I likewise would not recommend moving into a community that is perfect as it is. The fact is, your perfect community does not need you. Your “perfect” community is perfect because 10, 20 or 30 years ago, someone loved it enough to commit themselves and their family to making it the best it could be. They invested years of their lives into that community and it’s your job to do the same–somewhere else. You don’t necessarily need to adopt a decrepit building or become Mayor or anything like that. But all people of conscience should be committed to seeking the welfare of their community–not just themselves and their family. If you are no good to your neighborhood, then you are a free-loader. Everyone has something to give. Find a place that could use what you have and move there.

4. What will living in this place communicate about who I am and what is important to me? This question gets tricky because it assumes it’s possible to place judgement on the decisions and motives of other people, which is not really true. BUT. There is something to say for the power of our decisions to communicate to the world around us, whether or not the message is our intended message. The best example I could give is that of a church I was associated with a long time ago. The particular congregation was “committed to the city.” They showed this commitment by bringing food to the homeless, serving food at a shelter, and attending quarterly outreach events in the public park. These are all good, important things. But, you know what no one in this congregation did? Not one person moved to the city. Their commitment only ran deep enough to affect a weekend a month or a few hours a week. Their “commitment” never affected their life decisions–the way they spent their own money on a daily basis, they place they built their homes, the people they introduced to their children. I cannot judge the motives of the people in this church. I knew many of them and loved them a lot. But the simple decision of where to live communicated something that they did not intend. Namely, that they were faking it. So, does your decision about where to live align with what you claim to care about? If you hate the city, you hate the city. And if you love the suburbs, you love the suburbs. But, if you claim to “love your city,” then you should live there. If you “value diversity,” then you should live among people who are different from you. If you “want to make the world a better place,” then live in a place that you can make better. Seems simple enough to me.

Asking these questions will take us all to different places. Some will live in the urban core of their nearest city, some will cozy up in an ex-urban community outside the urban core. Some people will commit themselves to a rural farming community and some will run for a Council seat in their suburban paradise. I would simply encourage you to concern yourself more with the ideology of the decision, rather than the logistics. Why are you living where you are living? Are you doing it intentionally, or have you just settled for a nice, cozy house that you thought you could afford? You might not think it really matters, but I believe that it does.

* You’ll notice there are three important things I didn’t include in my list: affordability, safety, and quality of public education. Funny enough, these are the three excuses most people use for why urban living is impractical for families. I have some pretty strong opinions about these issues and it’s probably better for all of us if I don’t go into them now.

We’ll save that for another time…