On Treading Water, and Knowing When to Start Swimming.

Let this serve as my attempt at a companion post to Amy’s thought-provoking recent discussion on the importance of participation, and the feelings of negativity that can prevent involvement. My story is similar, but different, in that it’s about knowing when to move on from something that just isn’t working. It’s about living in a place that you have attempted to connect with, but can’t, and how this lack of connection prevents participation. It’s about doing yourself a favor, because as Amy said, life is short, and feels shorter still when you’re not happy with your present situation.

San Antonio, my home for the last year, can be a solitary place for someone not from the area. In many ways, it is very much like a small town even though it’s vast and sprawling. It is an old city with old roots and everyone seems to know everyone else- that is, if you’re from here. I have nothing against small towns- I’ve always loved driving through them, even if it means taking the longer route. But I never wanted to live in one, or anything that felt like one. I wanted access to choice.

This city doesn’t provide a lot of choices. There is a sense of stagnancy, something that a handful of native San Antonians have even acknowledged while talking with me. It is a tourist town, but in very small pockets. The downtown is small and offers very little to locals. An example: there is not one single grocery store downtown, not for miles. And for a supposedly huge city, where are all the people downtown? Not an exaggeration, most of the time it looks like the zombie apocalypse just hit our neighborhood. Excluding the riverwalk, the downtown has almost as many empty storefronts as lively ones. The lack of development is, frankly, depressing. Outside the downtown (except for the very exclusive “09” zip code area), there are miles and miles of (often seedy) strip malls in every direction, the hot Texas sun beating down and slowing the pace to barely-moving. Not only is change slow, so are repairs to roads, neighborhoods, and most other visible social problems. A disproportionate number of neighborhoods are meccas of violence and gang culture. Like other major cities, there is extreme poverty and also extreme wealth, but the dichotomy seems more blatant and disconcerting than in other cities.

And there’s another thing I can’t quite get over: the whole lack of regulations (hello red state), especially with regard to the environment. When living in Madison or Seattle, I didn’t give much thought to being “green.” I was never one of those preachy environmentalists because it wasn’t necessary. Recycling was obvious and easy. I didn’t even have a car; I walked everywhere or took the bus. There were places to walk to. The transit was good. Here? Pretty much no one, including businesses, recycles. Most people don’t walk anywhere by choice. The public transit is severely lacking.  Owning a new vehicle, to the detriment of other life expenses, is a badge of honor. The bigger the gas-guzzling car, the better, in Texas.

The bottom line is, as native midwesterners, both my boyfriend Peter and I feel discouraged here. We get frustrated with the lack of energy, lack of creativity, lack of education (only 24% of SA residents have a college degree), low wages, the snail pace, and the weirdly defensive attitude. And we’re not the only ones. This article, and the comments, really hones in on what I’m trying to explain about the city. It’s a feeling we get here, an undercurrent of an odd sadness and, sorry, but a “lameness” that the city is strangely content with. And maybe most importantly, on friendship or even finding like-minded acquaintances? It’s been next to impossible for both of us.

I know I must sound whiny, and truly, I don’t mean to use this post to complain and badmouth a city. These are simply my musings on living somewhere that is different from what I am used to, and my personal reaction to it. This reaction, for the most part has been negative, but that’s okay. In a way, I think it’s been good for personal growth: it has opened my eyes to different parts of this huge country of ours: different ways to do the same thing, a different set of values. Living here has been the kind of challenge that my grandparents might have called “character-building.” I also don’t mean to make it sound like I hadn’t been provided with any opportunity: I am so glad I got involved with a local contemporary art center, especially working in education, with kids who don’t have a lot of those kinds of offerings in their schools. I am proud of my time here and feel that I’ve made a difference in some small way in the year I’ve been here.

And, of course, the city itself has plenty of positives; I would recommend to all my friends that they visit San Antonio at least once. The history here is OLD by American standards, almost reminiscent of European cities in certain areas of downtown. There is fantastic landscaping on the riverwalk, which we are lucky to live near. Now that the weather is cooling, my morning walks next to the river, in the heavily perfumed southern air, energize me for the rest of my day. At night, the riverwalk’s lights can be truly magical, and it was a lovely backdrop to many of my early dates with Peter. The winter, or lack-thereof, was a welcome respite from the snowy months I’m used to. And one of my favorite art museums of all-time is here: The McNay. If you ever find yourself in San Antonio, their art collection, building and grounds are a must-see. The King William historic district, and really all of Southtown is a little pocket of the city I enjoy, both for walkability and the little strip of bars and restaurants.  Another San Antonio favorite? We go to the grocery store, Central Market, way too much, but it beats any store I’ve encountered anywhere else I lived. Oh, and the avocados (one of my very favorite foods ever) compared to the north? Not even a competition. Consistently amazing here. Another silly little perk that puts a smile on my face: the wild geckos in my neighborhood. They are my new favorite creature, with sensitive little faces and bodies that change color. Here’s one I met while having a drink outside! So yes. San Antonio is a great place to visit, and I don’t regret my time here at all.

I call you Ferdinand.

But the truth is– we know we don’t belong here. We didn’t move here here initially for work, although I am thankful I found an arts-related job here. No, we’re here for family- specifically, Peter’s father, who is ill. But circumstances changed, and his dad, who is now in a bit more stable health, senses our growing frustration. He wants us to start the rest of our lives in a place where we feel comfortable. Of course, we have reservations about leaving him here, but thorough arrangements are being made that puts his dad’s best interests and health care in mind. He’s living in a great place, and is taking steps to receive more home health care that will improve his quality of life. He is excited for us, and as a parent, wants nothing more than to see his son happy. So yes, we have put in motion our plans to move back to Seattle. This is a city that is perfectly “me.” Peter, in his few trips there with me, feels the same way. And luckily, with regards to the move, things seem to be falling into place.

View of the city from West Seattle. And clouds, of course. Clouds love Seattle almost as much as I do.

Of course, we know that moving isn’t an instant solution to all of life’s problems. But we also know that pursuing happiness, in this case, requires living somewhere with more opportunities. We know we don’t want to start career-track jobs in San Antonio, or buy a house here, or do any of the things here that we plan to do in the future. No, we’re not doing a great job at “blooming where we’re planted,” but we’ve given it a try and know that for us, the best thing is to move on. We’re not oblivious to the fact that we’re lucky enough to be able to move where we want. I know, on this earth, there is such a small percentage of people who can just pick a city and start over. We’re grateful, and so we want to take advantage of this opportunity. My hope is that this doesn’t come across as selfish, or entitled. I hope, instead, is that this storyline is viewed more about balancing the needs of others and the needs of yourself, and knowing when you have to do what’s right for you and your own future.

Vent session over. I will lighten the mood ASAP. But still, I wanted to use this early post of Train is Lost (version 2.0) to explain my recent past and my present situation, and also to provide the background for future posts. With that, I will sign off and leave on a positive note: with a stellar example of the Texas art scene I was lucky enough to be involved with. 

Really amazing found-object sculpture by Dallas-based artist George Tobolowsky.

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One thought on “On Treading Water, and Knowing When to Start Swimming.

  1. Whoa, girl, that’s a novel! Why have I never heard you speak about the avocados or theMcNay art museum?! I’m going to have to read this a few times to pick up on everything. Glad you put yourself out there.

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