When people ask why I moved to Seattle I answer truthfully, “I wanted to write poetry in coffee shops and look out at the rain.” It is an honest, romantic statement and sweet story that has shaped my 19.5 years in Seattle that will end in two weeks.
I’m moving to Madison, Wisconsin for many reasons. You could sum it up in words I’d written across a vision board I made seven years ago, “I want change more than I fear change.” I moved to Seattle to write poetry in coffeeshops, but I also came to live a big, urban, Sex and The City life concluding in a particular type of dream job and life partner that no longer feels attainable or relevant.
There have been so many times in these 19.5 years I’ve wanted to leave because I didn’t have this “job” or “man.” Or, I had one and not the other. Or a not-quite-right one or the other. There have been tiny, multi-month windows when I felt I had both. In the last seven years I have been a finalist for multiple jobs I would have left Seattle for: Keene, NH, Buffalo, Napa, Cleveland, outside of Boston and on and on. When I didn’t get these jobs, I either kept looking and interviewing or took a break and pursued all that was good about life in Seattle. I couldn’t figure out my narrative. I had a death grip on the story of “move to the big city and get a great job and a great man.” I watched this happen (or so I thought) to at least eight women friends--five of them from the Midwest. I thought if I got online just one more time, run one more mile, bike up one more hill, surely it would happen to me. Surely I would be next.
It recently struck me that my narrative of writing poetry in coffeeshops was not unlike Meg Ryan’s goal to be a journalist in New York City in When Harry Met Sally, “So you can write about things that happen to other people.” There is the dark shadow side that I “wrote about things that happened to other people.” But the bright side--the bright Seattle sun--is that when it does shine, it is so very, very bright. How when I look to the light it blurs into so many giggly girls happy hours, shows at the Nectar, Neumos, and Showbox, late night dance parties and Taco Tuesdays, briny oysters and craft cocktails, garden parties and Green Lake walks, stellar runs and epic rides, interesting and wonderful men, and cool jobs at Seattle companies I could have only had right here. How do you sum up 19.5 years of life? 19.5 years of friendships I could have only had right here. “I didn’t meet a life partner or find a perfect job?” That doesn’t feel right. Maybe, in the end, I’ve had more fun than a person could have with a “perfect man” or “perfect job.” Maybe I did it right after all.
Still, three conversations with friends nudged me to a story I’d never heard or dared to write. The first was with a friend I’d only known for three years who, as we walked along the rain-soaked sidewalks in 2019 said, “Seattle is sticky. It’s hard to leave.” She was and is the only person I know with a truly different narrative. Who wanted to leave for the sake of leaving. Who didn’t stay for a man and job and ultimately didn’t leave for a man or a job but because she couldn’t not leave. We recently talked on the phone three weeks after she’d moved from Seattle to a town in the Southwest. Her voice bubbled over like a fountain--totally different that the strained woman I’d spoken to before. She was dating, lifting weights, roller skating, and going to see Jackson Browne in concert. If this is what happens when you leave Seattle, maybe I could do it too. “Get ready,” she said. “It’ll happen fast.”
The second triggering conversation was with a friend I’ve known for 24 years. That day I’d gone from thinking about wanting to leave once a day to all the time, throughout the day. Leaving Seattle was all I could think about. On that sunny, early fall day I walked up to Sunset Hill Park and, wanting to soak in all of the sun, laid down at the top of the hill. Curled up, I could feel myself being nourished by this land, loved by its earth, and warmed by its sunshine in a way that it had never cared for me before. I felt hugged from above and below, wrapped in a kindness that said, “It’s ok. You can go.” Then my friend called and soon after I told her I’d been thinking of leaving Seattle said, “I think you should do it.” Affirming that my wanting to leave has been “a consistent message” “for a duration of time.” Just as the earth loved me and let me go she said, “I know you’ve been unhappy.” Her mirroring was another kindness that let me go. I know we’re all some kind of unhappy right now. My ennui is nothing special. We’re all sipping our own cocktail of anxiety and depression. Nobody’s having a great time. But my unhappiness in Seattle also stretched long before COVID and had nothing to do with it. It had been its own problem I’d needed to solve--only I didn’t solve it because the world’s problem’s were so much bigger. My friend saw me in a way I hadn’t felt seen. My friend said my talking about leaving Seattle probably felt like a broken record. (It did.) “I need to stop the record,” I said.
“And play a new one,” she said.
The last conversation was with myself. My mom had sent me a care package of treats and magazines from Madison. I intentionally sat down with the cheese, crackers, and sausage snacking and flipping through the University of Wisconsin alumni magazine, hoping to have an emotion. What would it feel like to live this life? The snacks were delicious and the pictures of peaceful farmland were soothing, but nothing magical was happening. I closed the magazine and looked at the back cover ad for a UW program. “FORWARD has no finish line,” it read. I hadn’t met my finish line in Seattle, but to stay meant not moving forward to the things I know I want, and that’s no way to live.
After these women spoke to me, the sun-soaked Seattle land cared for me, and I’d read these simple words, I paused. I was done waiting on potential employers and Mr. Right. Done waiting on Republicans and anti-vaxxers to get their shit together. Done. If there’s anything we can do to make ourselves healthier, happier, and kinder, we need to do that thing--because doing that thing will be better for everyone else in our world and beyond. Finally I was able to leave for the strangest irony of them all: The absence of things I’d been clawing at for years--perfect man and job--was the thing that set me free.
The day after I decided to move, one of my best high school friends told me she was moving to Madison. Two weeks after I decided to move, I got an awesome job.
You can’t force the universe to meet you in opportunity, but I have to think making the decision just for me and not for a job or man sparked this energy. Will I reach the finish line? Maybe not. But the journey in Madison might be a gentler one. No more looming hills to bike up or mountains closing in on me. No more hanging off a cliff clawing at the crumbling rocks of an old dream. Madison has the best bike trails I’ve ever been on. The oldest friends and family. Cheaper cocktails and beer and cheese for days. Less tech, more Frank Lloyd Wright. An airport within the city limits. A free zoo. More affordable housing. Bratfest. Cross country skiing. Killer birding and a kickass arboretum. A blue vote that counts.
How do we decide to stay or go? Is wanting to go enough? Some have questioned and summarized my move to Madison using the word “back.” (“Back to Madison,” “You’ll be back in Seattle.”) That tiny one-syllable adverb is the word that jabs me the most. It pokes at a narrative I am still writing. What is the best story? The truest story? “Know when to hold ‘em. Know when to fold ‘em?” Maybe. Partially. But there’s another narrative that feels richer. More hopeful. A story that begins on the last page of that UW magazine I flipped through desperate to make a choice and full of wanting. A tiny two-syllable adverb that happens to be the Wisconsin state motto. It might not be a finish line. It might be even better.