EXAMINED LIFE We are, none of us, on steady ground. This is a spiritual truth, but it’s also increasingly become a practical truth, especially in San Francisco. Things we once counted on here can no longer be counted on. If you’re new to town, this may not be relatable. But if you lived here before 2010, you know the eerie feeling that things are disappearing all around us.
It seems like every place and person we’ve ever loved has left or is perpetually on the verge of leaving, mostly because the city has become livable only for the wealthy. There are now articles and web pages documenting these strange times, in which we watch our favorite tea houses, bookstores, bars, and restaurants close on a weekly basis due to rent increases. For the last several years, there’s also been a mass exodus of people we love hightailing it to other places in the state or country where they have a shot at an affordable rent, raising children above the poverty line, saving for retirement, or buying a house. Those who remain are a motley crew of folks who either work in high paying fields (predominantly tech), have a spouse that works in a high paying field, or are desperately clinging to a rent-controlled apartment as if it were the edge of a slippery cliff jutting out over the Pacific, their fingers dug in tightly as they stare down at the long drop below.
I moved to this city nearly two decades ago, running away from snow, subways, and a mess of complicated feelings that were woven into the landscape of my New York City childhood. At the time, San Francisco was a magical unicorn town in which anything could, and would, happen. When I arrived, I knew one person in the whole city, and he was someone I’d merely had a conversation with once on an airplane. He let me stay in his house for two weeks while he was gallivanting at some weird party in the desert. By the time he’d returned, I had a room in an apartment for $380 a month. Two weeks later, I had three new best friends and a great job as an arts writer. One of my new friends gifted me an old car, which was a big help in my commute to grad school. To me, this felt like a city of riches in the most bohemian sense. The rainbow flag that waved at Castro and Market was like San Francisco’s Statue of Liberty, beckoning not only the queer community, but all of the country’s misfits and runaways. The city felt like home.
I don’t know if runaways still come to San Francisco, but it does feel like San Francisco has run away from itself. Living here for so long is like being in a marriage where your partner has changed beyond recognition and you’re left with the task of assessing whether or not to stay married. The discrepancy between the haves and have-nots widens by the day: The city’s homeless population has reached historic proportions, as have the rental prices of the insufficient amount of housing units.
It’s hard to know what to make of it all, so sometimes we try to forget it. While waiting for the housing bubble to burst, we take long bike rides through the trees in the Presidio and then drown our sorrows in a cup of organic chia pudding. Or we takes trips to places outside of San Francisco to remember what it’s like to pay less than $30 for lunch.
But at the end of the day, everybody is always talking about leaving. They may not be leaving, but they are talking about leaving. They are talking about who left. They are talking about when they might leave, and what they might do when they leave, and where they may go. These days, my heart sinks every time a friend tells me they have something to tell me. The news is always that they are moving.
First world problem, sure. But that doesn’t mean our livelihoods and communities aren’t at stake. This incessant uncertainty about our future whereabouts causes strain on our relationships and on our nervous systems. (The situation is, of course, further complicated by questions raised by climate change: Will California soon go up in flames or fall into the sea?) It can feel like we are living on an internal treadmill, perpetually running toward possible solutions, but never actually getting to a destination.
So what to do in this time and place of transience? Should those of us still here, but not raking in enough to live comfortably, keep hanging on to the edge of the cliff? Should we leave? Should we take a poll on Instagram?
In a way, these aren’t the right questions to ask. We may wind up staying and we may wind up leaving. But so long as we still choose to stay in our marriage with San Francisco (despite the fact that it’s more impatient lately, and charges too much on our credit cards), we’re going to have to adapt to this strange new world. Part of that may look like taking action to right social wrongs, like campaigning for more affordable housing, working in social services, or reporting on the realities of economic inequity. But the other part is equally important: We need to check our own beliefs around what we truly require to be content and joyful. We need strategies to wring what we still love out of this town, while we are still here, independent of what our future holds.
If we believe we can only be happy in a place that is less transient, we can look at that assumption and ask what skills transience teaches us. If we believe that our self-worth rests upon economic parity with our peers (and thus compare ourselves unfavorably), we can remember that our lives are worth more than our paychecks, and that all beings age, get sick, and die, regardless of their financial position. If we believe that a home is someplace we (or those we care about) stay forever, we can remember that humans are naturally nomadic, with a history of packing our lives onto our backs and meandering around the mountains and valleys and streams of this planet.
Personally, the profound changes to this city over the last several years have changed me. They have, at times, broken my heart. But more significantly they have matured me into someone who can better roll with changing circumstances. They have schooled me on the hard lessons of letting go, being flexible, and rebuilding community during a time in my life when I’d thought I would be more settled. They have taught me to be grateful for fleeting things that I know will change (a ladybug on the back of my hand, an afternoon walk through Alamo Square park, a day where my body feels strong walking up these hills) rather than focusing my gratitude solely on perceived fixed things that I fear will change (a stable community, the last whispers of youth, a rent-controlled apartment).
They have taught me that we are all equally terrified about something, regardless of our financial situation, and that we must be open to sharing these fears so that our relationships can transcend beyond economic class. They have taught me to remember my own wandering heart, and spend more time living now than living in an imagined utopia where conditions always meet my expectations.
And there’s also this: San Francisco, with its earthquakes and gold rushes and boho vibes and unpredictable weather patterns never made any promises to me. It doesn’t owe me anything. It took me in and nourished me when I was young and adventurous and eager to create art and community and a new life. And now, in its updated version, it’s teaching me new lessons about flowing with change and releasing expectations. Of course, I enjoy lessons about art more than lessons about resilience, but they’re equally important. San Francisco never vowed to be a friend—to any of us. But it has always been a teacher.