Minnesota dreamin’


A childhood spent moving all over the world comes with a side benefit: a feeling that the world is wide open, that there are no limits, no boundaries – the world is your oyster with a cherry on top.  Gross sounding, but a good feeling nonetheless.

The flipside could be considered a curse: drifting along without a tether or the grounding that comes with a community of beings who know you, without somewhere to come home to after all those global walkabouts. But like many sublime intangibles in life, if you’ve never had those things, you cannot possibly know their value.

So as an ignorant, nomadic, unencumbered citizen of the world, I, along with my husband-to-be, made the relatively risky decision during the teeny little “recession” of the early ‘90’s to quit stable reporter jobs in Washington, DC (where we met) and head West, if for no other reason than we could. That and we were miserable in a town of walking resumes who have no idea they are miserable until they leave.

San Francisco won out over Seattle for two reasons, one a bit misguided:  first, I was born there and had been back many times to visit my grandparents; and second, because it was “sunnier” than gray Seattle. Hah.

We found a one-bedroom, third-floor walk-up apartment between Nob Hill and Russian Hill that was slightly more than our planned rental budget. Hardwood floors, a fireplace and huge bay windows that actually looked out onto a Bay (the freakin’ San Francisco Bay, no less!) we were willing to pay extra for, though. The real estate agent, a woman from Hong Kong with a Chinese accent from Central Casting, took us up to the rooftop on a classic San Francisco summer day, the Golden Gate Bridge barely visible through the fog to the left, Coit Tower to the right.

She turned to us and said, in a perfect Charlie Chang imitation, “On a cle-ah day, you can see fo-evahhh.”

My fiancée and I looked at each other, eyes bulging with the strain of laughter containment.  I forced a serious look, “I think we’ll take it.”

We loved our little place – it was the perfect love nest for our first year of marriage, the tinkle of cable car bells barely reaching us, a pair of doves nesting in our window box.  When we found I, too, was “on the nest” (okay, I’ll stop the metaphor already), we decided we needed more space and found a quiet two-bedroom in Lafayette, the East Bay town where I worked.

Baby number one came. New jobs for me and my husband meant money enough to buy a house. Or so we thought.

We began our search as the dot-com era gathered dizzying speed.  Housing prices in the Bay Area began their fast ascent into the ether as people outbid each other by the thousands, throwing in airline tickets, cars, their first-born, only to find they didn’t even make it into the top ten bids. We ducked out for a little while, thinking prices would surely come down. We ducked out for good when we narrowly missed spending over $400K for a Berkeley house the size of a bread box and another about two blocks from the Oakland neighborhood where I’m pretty sure the hallowed term “ gang-bangers” was invented.

Baby number two’s imminent arrival brought on a serious reassessment.  With no family nearby, no friends within 40 minutes via a hellishly traffic-laden drive, and no houses we could afford without both of us going into indentured servitude and daily three hour commutes for the next 40 years, we decided a move away from the Bay Area and nearer family was the ticket.

My parents, ever citizens of the world, lived in Boston at the time, but could give no guarantees that the wind wouldn’t blow them to Oregon… or South East Asia. My husband’s mother, on the other hand, lived in the same Richfield, Minnesota house she purchased with her husband in the early 1950s. I’m pretty sure she still had some of the same furniture and canned goods they set up house with, too.

Stability and sheer numbers won out – seven of my husband’s eight siblings, their spouses and children lived in or near Minneapolis – and we made the move to Minnesota.

Eight-months pregnant, crabby and stressed with a potty-training two-and-a-half-year-old and a cat in a carry-on, I boarded a plane while my husband drove our car and our big dracanea plant named Stanley across the country.

My mother-in-law kindly put us up in her house while we looked for our own. We had the whole “second floor” to ourselves. A loose term because it’s really a converted attic with no bathroom and stairs too steep for a woman in my unbalanced condition to navigate in the dark every half hour for a potty break.  So we set up “the bucket. “ A large, plastic paint bucket, to be exact.  The chamber pot of queens.  And it was so hot up there in those late August weeks that I had to sleep totally naked. It’s a lovely thought, really, looking back – a naked, hugely pregnant woman peeing on a bucket every half hour.  During that month, I slept very little, read almost all of Barbara Kingsolvers books, painted cheap furniture for my daughter’s future room, was unreasonably nasty to my sweet mother-in-law and grew evermore impatient with our house-hunting.

Finally, we bought one. From our California perspective, we got an amazing deal for a really nice, old house in a nice neighborhood with good schools in the heart of residential South Minneapolis, ten minutes from downtown… ten minutes from everything, really.

So we settled in.  Baby #2 was born at the end of September, and winter hit soon thereafter.  I was woefully unprepared for everything:  two babies (#1 still potty-training , but reluctantly), driving in the snow, the isolation of having no one to talk to, I mean, cry to,  except over the phone to my mother and my poor husband who was trying to get work done at his new job.

I began to understood what my college-educated great-great-grandmother from Vermont must have felt when her husband dragged her to the vast, empty, howling plains of Colorado to make his fortune in cattle ranching. Lonely, lonely, lonely.  And while I was surrounded by people and she lived miles from the nearest town, the people who surrounded me were Minnesotans — nice, but extremely insular.  They just don’t let you into their inner-circles within five minutes, or even five years of meeting you.

Here’s why:

Minnesotans don’t leave. If they do, they come back to raise their families. They hang out with their kindergarten friends.  If they’re from outside the Twin Cities, they typically came here to go to the University of Minnesota and never left.  So they hang with their college friends.  As for the city kids, they often  return to the neighborhood they grew up in to raise their own children – in a three block radius in my neighborhood, I can count four young families who live on the same street as their parents.

This is not a criticism, by the way. It’s the very reason we’re still here. The values that drive that solid insularity  – family, friends, community – are palpable here. It makes the Twin Cities — and I shouldn’t be telling you this secret — an incredible place to raise a family. Schools are great, social services are incredible, housing is affordable and those all-important quality of life pieces – commute time, length of workday, etc. – are still quite civilized compared to the rest of the country.  My husband, for example, now on job number four here, has never had a commute longer than 20 minutes, and getting home after 6 pm is a rarity.

My husband and I secretly call our neighborhood Mayberry.  On the Fourth of July, there’s a bike parade followed by ice cream for everyone.  On Halloween, hundreds of kids roam the streets safely while the street adjacent to mine is blocked off for hot chocolate imbibing and hot dog consumption. I can count on my neighbors to shovel my walk in the winter while I am gone. If my garage door is open at night, we get a call. If my daughters behave badly, I hear about it – after they’vebeen parented by them the same way I would parent them.  If someone makes a too large batch of cookies or grows too many tomatoes, we’re sure to share in the bounty.  It’s no surprise to me that a recent study shows Minneapolis to have the most volunteerism of any metro area in the nation. Both my husband and I have donated hundreds of hours to our schools, church and community. But we’re not special –everyone here does that.

It’s almost a cliché in a way, but one you’re glad is real.

Ten years since that first rough winter, we’ve really made it. I know this because not only do we now have a wonderful array of friends from all over the country, including Minnesota, but we’ve been invited to cabins belonging to natives. This is a big deal.  It means we are thoroughly and completely rooted and entrenched here.  We are no longer from “out east.”

Sometimes this place feels a little too small, too narrow. That old wanderlust calls us. Our feet get itchy. So we travel quite a bit, which the lower cost of living here allows us to do.  We visit friends in other states, cities, countries. But every time we do, home calls us back. We feel lucky to live in this place with its strong Midwestern values and its stoic, but truly good people

You could say our wings have been clipped or that we’ve sold out for a comfortable life. Or you could say we finally understand the value of those intangibles I mentioned at the top of this very long story – because we now have them.  Either way, we are teaching our girls to be citizens of the world, but also giving them a place they can come back to, where they can re-ground if their heads get too big, re-juice if they’re beaten down by the world and re-connect to who they are if they ever lose sight of that.

The way I look at it, the world was our oyster and by happenstance, we found a pearl — we took the long way, but we were lucky enough to find home.