“Mommy, there are so many trees here!” I looked into the back seat at my 5-year-old daughter, Lily. She has put down the iPad we allow her to use on longer car rides and is staring out the window at the tree-lined road in Angwin, a little town in the hills of the Napa Valley, and the location of a college where my husband and I had been invited to guest lecture about our experiences as documentary filmmakers. It's also the place we met 20 years ago on the first day of honors English class.
My eyes followed hers out the window. She's right. There are a lot of beautiful trees. I had driven this road so many times in years past that I'd stopped noticing. But on this warm June morning with sunlight filtering through the branches of oak and pine trees as far as she could see, I realized that as an urban kid, she doesn't see trees in that quantity that often.
“You're right, love, there are a lot of trees,” I said.
“Mommy, can we live here?”
And with that question, I felt a catch in my throat and a welling of tears. Finding home has been a question fraught with complications for me in the past several years, ever since becoming a mother. And I'm keenly aware that the next five to six years of Lily's life is what she'll think of when she remembers her childhood. What location do we want those years to be rooted in? It's been a tough question.
One of my favorite thoughts from Maya Angelou (among many) is this: “I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.”
I deeply long for that, but have not yet found that peace around the topic of home.
Here's my challenge: I love living in San Francisco. There is much about this city that has energized and nurtured me the past 10 years that I've called it home. There's a spirit and energy that I resonate with here — it's an openness to new ideas, a commitment to authenticity and an acceptance of people. Not to mention really good food, usually within walking distance.
I've just finished five-plus years of producing and co-directing a documentary about the challenges and spiritual journeys of LGBT people of faith who are part of the denomination my family has roots in for five generations, and I don't think I would have been able to do this work living anywhere else. Just the feedback I got chatting about the project with other parents while we pushed our kids on the swings at the park kept me going.
I wanted to be one of those parents who could make it here despite the alarming statistics that show that San Francisco continues to bleed families, especially middle-class families, once children are school-aged. I love seeing Lily at home riding the bus, chatting with the barista at her favorite cafe, roaming the Presidio or sketching at the de Young Museum.
I know raising a child in The City can be a vibrant experience, but I worry that it's beyond our reach financially to stay. And when I travel with Lily to quieter, more rural communities like we did recently, I catch a vision of something else. And while I can't fully explain it, I feel such deep emotions well up in my chest that I know these feelings are something I must pay attention to.
One thing I haven't found in The City since becoming a parent is a strong sense of community for myself or for our family — we're all so busy that it takes a month to get on anyone's calendar (add cold and flu season into the mix with kids, and it's easily two months between get-togethers).
In particular, the spiritual community has been a challenge, especially given our advocacy work sharing LGBT voices in faith communities. A lot of churches with children's programs are theologically conservative, and the spaces where my collection of questions and passions would be welcome tend not to have any children, or, as one church told me: “We used to have several families with kids, but they've all moved to Oakland.”
These tensions all came to a head this summer because our current living situation in the Outer Richmond is no longer sustainable thanks to a nightly Airbnb rental happening directly above our bedroom.
Starting about three months ago, we found ourselves getting woken up in the middle of the night, and people who were clearly tourists kept buzzing our apartment to get in. Eventually, we found the upstair neighbor's Airbnb listing, and suddenly the tourists and 4 a.m. noise of suitcases on hardwood above our heads made sense. Besides the greatly increased noise, we've felt very unsettled about the inherent changes in building security now that we have no idea who has access day or night (and our daughter's bedroom window opens to a common space in the building).
It didn't take long for us all to learn that I am a terrible person without sleep.
Our landlords weren't very helpful. They're retired in Costa Rica and don't want to be bothered. And they can re-rent our unit for significantly more money given soaring housing prices.
When I contacted The City, it quickly became clear that officials are overwhelmed trying to enforce zoning laws, and our situation isn't a top priority because it's just one room and not an entire unit being taken off the market.
Airbnb was dismissive when I contacted them about our security concerns. It apologized for the inconvenience, but said it is just an Internet company and can't get involved.
Current prices in San Francisco are far beyond our capacity to pay, so with our current living situation untenable, we needed to think outside The City.
I was the first to mention it outloud — do you think we should move back to Angwin?
At first, it seemed crazy. Do we really want to move back to the little town where we met 20 years ago? There's only one stop sign in town, it's the sort of place where you are likely to see someone you know every time you run to pick up milk.
But as crazy as it seemed at first, I kept hearing a little “yes” from deep down. Yes, as crazy as it sounds, yes. If not an urban childhood, let's give her a small town with a tight-knit community.
And so, with a sense of loss but also hope, we are moving back to Angwin, the little town nestled in the Napa Valley hills where Lily had been so transfixed by the trees. We will keep our business in San Francisco and hope to keep connections here, especially in the film community, but our home will be in Angwin now.
A few days ago, I napped with Lily, a rare treat. When we stirred two hours later, she was laying on her side, facing me, still in the final clutches of sleep. She reached over, touched my face, said, “Hi, Mommy,” and then simply held my hand for a full five minutes. I breathed deeply, inhaling the scent of her, just resting in the moment. This must be what if feels like to be at home wherever I am. Now to learn how to carry this home with me.
Daneen Akers is the co-producer and director of Seventh-Gay Adventists. This piece is excerpted from a longer blog at daneenakers.com