Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #19: Washington DC

When I first moved to the metro DC area the summer after graduating from Penn State, I lived in perpetual awe of the importance and fame of my new hometown. My roommate Rachel and I, both fresh to the city, would often drive down Constitution Avenue at night on our way to visit friends, staring transfixed at the glowing orb that is the Capitol Building dome. In small Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, where I grew up, I knew this view as the backdrop for World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, but now, I lived within miles of the very place where so much world news actually transpired.

In many ways, living in the shadow of power suited me. Unlike my husband, I have never been particularly politically oriented, but I am driven and goal-oriented, qualities I soon found describe the personality of the average Washingtonian. People in DC expect to succeed, and they're willing to sacrifice a lot to that end, something I quickly noticed at my new job teaching middle school English. In Pennsylvania, when I was student teaching, most of the teachers I worked with would line up at the door of the school, waiting for their contract hours to end at 3 p.m. so they could go home. At my new school in Fairfax, most teachers voluntarily stayed and worked in their classrooms until 5, 6, or 7 p.m., sometimes later. As a lifelong overachiever, all of this felt comforting in a way, like I'd found a place where I fit, where I was surrounded by people who were like me.

But in other ways, I struggled. DC is a hard place to find community, which thrives on time, relational energy, and proximity, all of which are lacking in a city characterized by sixty-plus hour work weeks, lengthy commutes, and over-committed people. I made friends, both at work and through religious organizations, but they were scattered and fragmented, often living so far away that even if I had energy to visit them on a weeknight, I would have spent half of my evening driving there and back. I missed my small college town, where no one lived more than ten minutes away, where grabbing a meal or watching a weekly TV show with friends was simple and easy. I often felt tired of trying so hard to connect with people and lonely because I wasn't. There were many times I wanted out - out where the lanes were fewer, the parking lots emptier, the groceries cheaper.

Eight and a half years later though, I am still here. I often wonder why. It's not that I haven't tried to leave. In fact, there have been several times when I've developed an exit strategy (grad school, new job, etc.) only to find doors closing and myself still here in DC. Sure, there have been changes. I've moved a few times within Fairfax County. I've lived with twelve different roommates, including a now-permanent one. I've even tried to make my world smaller by living, working, and going to church within one small Fairfax County community.

But the reality is that I am still here in a place I never really planned to stay. I met my husband here. I own a home here. I am about to have a baby here. I very well may spend most of my life here.

And I'm okay with that, even though I am still not sure I'd choose it out of a catalog of "dream places to live." But having invested almost nine years of my life here, DC is now, for better and for worse, part of me. Were I to leave for smaller, greener country, I'd miss being able to walk to Egyptian, Thai, and Chinese restaurants, not to mention Chipotle and my favorite little local bakery. I'd miss shopping at Trader Joe's and walking around Old Town Alexandria on a warm, spring evening.

But most of all I'd miss the many people, who as I realized at my local baby shower last week, have gradually become a community that, while still fragmented and scattered, has walked with me through the real joys and trials of my post-college years. They've come from scattered places - colleagues at both Frost Middle School and George Mason University, old roommates, friends from Navigators and from church, even friends I met while studying abroad in Cambridge. They don't all know each other, and some of them live further away than I'd like. But in God's kindness, they have made my experience of DC much less about being successful and much more about walking through life with people, even when it's hard.

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