Some dreams — the literal ones — occur overnight. Others — the big ones — take a while to percolate. For some, it takes decades. For me, it took three.
Somewhere between Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Superfudge, I decided I wanted to be a writer. In my seven-year-old mind, accomplishing such a thing didn’t just mean being good with words, but also having good handwriting. So, I practiced my penmanship by copying chunks of my parents’ World Book Encyclopedia set onto Hello Kitty paper. I’d “write” about elephants. Waterfalls. Diseases. Whatever struck my fancy on any given day in Jacksonville, Florida in the mid-1980s as Huey Lewis and the News blared from my cassette deck.
The thing about northeast Florida — at least, back when I was growing up in the middle of it — was that it didn’t quite have a sense of place. I mean, sure, there was water in Jacksonville; it was almost a coastal town, just 20 minutes from the beach, and the St. Johns River bisected what should have been its downtown. But in a sprawling dystopia of suburban homes and strip malls, I grew up reading every book I could get my hands on and craving an existence in a place with more soul.
Fast forward twenty years. It’s 2005, and I’m only living a whopping two and a half hours away from my hometown in a place even smaller than the one in which I grew up. How my big plan has gone awry is far simpler than I like to admit: the tiny college town of Tallahassee, Florida has trapped me after school with an internship that’s turned into a job, and of course, there’s a boy. (Oh, cliche.) I’m making my way at the pace of molasses through the world of state government communications – that’s a fancy way of saying “low-paying, soul-sucking PR job” — and I find myself driving aimlessly at night up and down the highways leading out of town, never actually going anywhere but just sort of zigzagging back and forth, driving just under the speed limit, listening to other people’s music, singing along and wondering when my life is finally going to start.
Through a series of events I can’t very well encapsulate in just a couple of pages, I soon found myself mourning the loss of both my mother and grandmother around the same time my engagement abruptly ended from someone with whom I’d spent more than half a decade. Knowing the only thing keeping me there was fear, and realizing I was truly miserable in the cardboard life I’d built for myself, I started carefully looking for the exits.
One of them was DC.
“Don’t move there,” my friends begged, even though I was excited about the likelihood of landing a job writing for a large non-profit, finding a little creative footing and eating somewhere more exciting than Qdoba. “It’s cold. It’s expensive. It’s political,” they all said. “There’s like a one in three chance you’ll get murdered.”
“Have you been to Austin?” others asked. “It’s warm. Figuratively too. If you want to write — really write — and meet nice people and just be free, go there. Right now.”
So I did.
It’s been four years since I first walked into BookPeople after a job interview and felt, for the first time in my life, that a building — a physical, brick-and-mortar building — was somehow giving me a hug. I wandered up Red River that night, studying the faces of strangers walking down the sidewalk, laughing, comfortable with each other as they tumbled out of Stubb’s and ambled toward a food truck. I longed to be one of them. On October 29, 2008, I sat at the intersection of 5th and Lamar, glanced around at what could be my grocery store, my lake, my city, my life — and burst into uncontrollable tears.
For all its flaws and growing pains, Austin is genuinely a place like no other, and I’m honored to call it my home. When I meet people who’ve lived here since birth and ask how it feels to see such growth in their once-small city, most say they’re excited. More than anything, they express hope that we’ll treat it with respect… embody its spirit and be as warm and welcoming to others as the lifers have been to us. (For the record: dear lifers, you have my oath, and you can kick me right back out if I don’t abide by it.)
Others look at the skyscrapers and sigh with disdain. Worry. And I get it. I don’t want anyone to “Dallas my Austin,” either (sorry, Dallas). I feel a strange mix of envy that some people can truly call this city theirs, and pity that they’ll never know what it’s like to grow up inside a cookie cutter and wake up here one day, sighing a breath of relief between each bite of breakfast taco. Because the difference between “there” (not just Dallas, but almost anywhere) and here is astounding. It’s what makes this place special. And yes, as it grows, there’s a balance to be kept.
Sure, there’s hype and hoopla and South by Southwest. We love the things that make others take notice of us and hate it when they look for too long. But even with all the maternal hand-wringing over this amazing place and what it’s going to be when it grows up (although we kind of wish it would just stay young forever), one thing that hasn’t changed since the moment I first set foot in it is the spirit of its people.
A friend once sent me an article – I think it was from the Statesman — in which a woman named DeDe Wilburn Church wrote, “It matters where you are. The space we choose dictates the richness of the life we have and the quality of the characters who bump up against us.”
In the years I’ve lived here, I’ve bumped up against some brilliant souls. People with talent and grace and a oneness with the world around them that makes me realize what a stark contrast my life stands in now against what it used to be. This city gets all the credit for that. While my twenty-seven-year-old self might look at me now and be confused as to what in god’s name happened so quickly (“Where’s the boy from Tallahassee?” she might ask. “The hell are you wearing?!? Where’s your car??”), that’s okay. Because the seven-year-old version of me is a whole different story altogether.
“Good job,” she’d say with a grin, her uneven pigtails held up by mismatched ribbons as she looks up from her encyclopedia to study her life as an adult. “You must be right where you’re supposed to be, because it’s exactly where I want to go.”