The Suburbs: Where Noise Goes to Die

April 21, 2015

Last week we moved out of downtown San Diego.

Our new address is in a cul-de-sac near a playground in a neighborhood where kids ride their bikes in the center of the street.  The posted speed limit is 15 mph, which is the average pace for an athletic rollerblader.

Most of our new neighbors have both a minivan and a pickup truck in the driveway. Several houses have an American flag waving out front. Apparently, we left the city and landed in the middle of a country song.

As I write this, the windows are open and all I can hear is the sound of birds chirping. No cars honking or airplanes taking off. No sidewalk conversations or moving dollies going up and down a ramp to deliver food to nearby restaurants. Living in suburbia is like living in a library that never closes: it’s always quiet with ample parking outside. Neighbors silently wave before closing the garage door; owners tell their dogs to hush when they bark too loud. Everyone is deeply entrenched in the habit of using their inside voices.

I loved living in the city. I loved walking everywhere, being close to the water, and running across the street at dinnertime to pickup fresh pasta and red sauce. But in the city there was also the traffic and complicated parking, the burden of walking a leashed dog down the street every time nature called. Our home was small but expensive, exciting but loud, equal portions convenient and chaotic.

We decided to move because we woke up one day and realized that we had a toddler and every parental stereotype suddenly applied to us. We needed a place to park a second car. We really needed more living space. Mike got orders to a different base and Molly went up a size in diapers. Our life was expanding whether we liked it or not.

Before turning in the keys to our landlords, I sat in the empty apartment for a few minutes remembering all the meaningful moments that occurred within those walls. We encountered many great surprises there, the best of which was a little girl that we welcomed into the world with great hope, fear, and uncertainty. Even now, we pull her out of her crib each morning with the same cocktail of emotions, all of which add up to the complicated fullness of joy.

A physical space is defined by the history it holds, and our downtown home facilitated an important part of our family narrative. Now we live in a residential pocket of the city and I am at once thrilled and disoriented. “What does this mean!?” I keep asking myself, “Am I old now? Have I lost my edge? Why does extended kitchen counter space thrill me so much?”

We moved the day after returning from Iceland. It was a reckless decision, but perhaps we were feeling especially adventurous after surviving glacial climbing and a couple of transatlantic flights. In the middle of the move, several friends said, “So!? How was Iceland!?” I stared at them blank faced and thought, “Who cares about Iceland!? I’m moving to the suburbs right now. THE SUBURBS. This is the big news.”

And now here I am. Writing in silence while a baby naps and the washing machine hums and our compact SUV sits out front with organic puff cereal wedged in the seat cushions. In my sparse free time today I read articles on parenting strategies for young toddlers, natural flea remedies for dogs, and car seat safety for children under two. I’ve been to Target three times this week and our new backyard has a plastic playhouse in it.

What. Is. Happening.

Over the past year I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to figure out which parts of my pre-parent self carry over into the trenches of post-parent life. The trip to Iceland was an experiment. Molly stayed behind with grandparents while Mike and I traveled hands free with limited luggage.

On the trip, I thought that maybe the new me could get reacquainted with old me and the two could collaboratively form a well-rounded person that is good at all things, equally spontaneous and responsible, and that knows what age-appropriate clothes to buy at shopping malls. But instead, traveling without Molly taught me how shockingly portable responsibility is.

In Iceland, we climbed ancient glaciers and stood at the base of enormous waterfalls and for the first time in my life, the extraordinary experience of travel did not capture my full attention. It captured my partial attention. The rest of me wondered if my child was sleeping and eating or if I had missed some fundamental milestone that I would later regret. These thoughts were not prompted from worry or anxiety, but from habit, from a love that has apparently consumed all parts of me.

I don’t know when it happens exactly, when an adult begins finding joy in the mundane. And I don’t know when it happened to me— when the task of parenthood stopped being an accessory to my life and instead became the main thing.

On one of the first nights in our silent house on the patriotic street, I held my hands out wide and caught a laughing toddler that suddenly realized she could take running steps across the room. She wobbled forward and clapped for herself once she reached the other side. And I must tell you that the most photogenic moments of Iceland could not hold a candle to the euphoria I felt in that moment. Walking– an unremarkable feature of human existence— became an awe-inspiring event at the exact moment my daughter discovered how to do it.

Maybe the mundane becomes interesting only at the moment you get a stake in it, when you personally move into a house with a yard instead of a Starbucks in the basement, when you witness life through the wonder-eyes of a child that is somehow your child. How can that be? How can I possibly have a kid? And how has she so easily wrecked the cynic in me and made the smallest adventures large?

There is wisdom in humility and perhaps that is why with age we become more busy but in less interesting ways. The best moments are not the most photogenic but the most personal, moments where you become a sacred memory keeper for someone else.

The greatest surprise of parenthood is that there is nothing lost, the past is not superior to the present and the opposite is also true. But the fullness of joy looks different than I expected. It always does.

And in this ongoing transition, both to a new house and to a new life, I keep asking the radical question: What if we all gave ourselves permission to be engaged exactly where we are? No excuses or apologies. What if we moved-in to the places God has built for us, knowing that he is guiding us and providing for us not from someplace in the future but in the nearness of today?

Then, I think, we could look at creation transpiring right in front of us and say, “Yes, God, I see what you mean. This is actually very, very good.”

It is so quiet, but it is good.

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