Now that I am single, I can live anywhere; I have global carte blanche. But this begs the question: Do I stay or do I go? I’ve lived in the Midwest (St. Louis with a five-year stint in Chicago) most of my life. I still have a son living here and a great support network of friends and family. But two of my children live out of town---one on the East coast and the other on the West coast--and two of my siblings live in the East, too.
After my husband died in 2011, it took me more than two years to decide to sell our family home. It was too big for one person, expensive and difficult to maintain. I opted to stay in St. Louis because my mother was still alive. I was primary caregiver as the only one of my siblings who lived in the same city as she did. After cleaning out my house and fixing it up, I put it on the market, sold it, and moved to a condo in a different St. Louis suburb.
With the struggles of moving fresh in my mind, I thought then it would be a long time before I would move again. However, 1 ½ years ago my mother passed away and I began to think that maybe it was time to uproot, move on, expand my world and my social circle.
My search for the ideal landing place, I reasoned, would allow me to step outside my own surroundings and dive into another. In my quest, I set guidelines to take every variable into account—tangible and intangible, objective and subjective. I decided to keep a journal and start a spreadsheet. Writing it down allows me to remember my experiences, compare data, and refer to it to determine if I need to rejigger my criteria as I consider different options.
Here are some steps that I've taken and questions I've asked myself to make the decision, which others may want to use, too:
1. Climate. Do you like four seasons, mild, hot or cold?
2. What about the terrain/topography? Flat, mountainous, desert, beaches?
3. What is the cost of living--higher or lower than where you now live?
4. Is there affordable housing to buy or rent and the kinds of housing you want to live in such as a one-story condo or a small house within walking distance of a downtown?
5. What about taxes—property and sales?
6. Good neighborhoods. Do you want a place where you can walk? Is there public transportation? How is traffic and busy in the morning and at night?
7. Are there resources that meet your needs i.e. if you’re a reader, good book stores and libraries? If a foodie, are there good restaurants, cooking stores, classes and a great grocery store and fresh seafood and butcher shops? A wine aficionado, what about wine stores? A chocoholic, what about good chocolate shops and bakeries? Is there a cute village or city center? What about small museums and art galleries and collections, fitness places, churches and/or temples, book groups, walking/biking trails, parks, proximity to a college or university, opera, classical music venues, and to friends and family?
8. Size of the city or town. Do you want a large or medium-sized metropolitan area or a small town near a big city, perhaps a college town?
9. Is there access to an airport, and how good is the airport? Do major airlines fly in daily or regularly?
10. Is the community politically in line with your values? Check out the local politicians and research state and regional politics and policies.
11. Is it a friendly city? Are people open to new friendships? Talk to people and ask; not all communities welcome strangers.
12. How will the new place work for you as you age? Are there activities and centers for seniors? Is it senior-friendly? And is there a good major teaching hospital or at least a community hospital. Aging brings health issues.
The Journey Begins
I started my journey by spending a month on slightly familiar turf in Los Angeles. My only daughter lives there. I found a condo to rent on VRBO that overlooks Marina del Rey. The view in the photo of a harbor with the ocean in the background was unlike anything I’d ever encounter in the Midwest where the only water I see most days in my suburban enclave comes from either a faucet or lawn sprinkler.
Here’s what I discovered: LA is like its way of life: not trying to please anyone but itself. I fell on it like an old pal. After settling into the condo, my daughter and I went for dinner and wine. The next morning and for 30 days after, I’d wake up, tear open the drapes, and soak up the magnificent sun-dappled view. Then, I’d hit the road walking. Walking is my chosen way to see a city. It enables me to stop, snoop, explore and smell the proverbial roses. Everyone said you must rent a car in California. I decided not to. I used Uber for long hauls when my daughter had to work and couldn’t serve as my LA chauffeur.
This was a trip to focus simply on living in the moment. Mostly, I hoofed it up and down the palm-tree lined streets of the marina, which was in proximity to both Venice and Santa Monica beaches as well as grocery stories, libraries, shops, eateries, boutiques and small museums. Who knew that the sight of a jacaranda tree sprouting purple against a blue sky could be so dazzling or the smell of jasmine so pervasive. This wasn’t virtual, it was hands on. No websites, twitter feeds, cell phones or any technology could duplicate what I experienced.
I did a barefoot walk along the beach, had seal sightings, was asked on a private boat as a guest, and was invited to spend an evening at someone’s lovely town home situated right on the beach in Venice. A childhood friend and I went to the Getty Villa and then to Duke’s in Malibu where I watched waves crashing against the building while we dug into a large ice cream sundae.
I walked several times to See’s candy one of my guilty pleasures, down main street in Santa Monica or along the quirky and charming Abbot-Kinney street in Venice. I visited my niece in Palos Verdes where her home is on a bluff overlooking the ocean.
A trip downtown was eye-popping. I went to hear a rehearsal of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Disney Hall, made a stop another day at the Los Angeles Times where columnist Steve Lopez, who wrote “The Soloist,” took my eldest son and me to visit Nathaniel Ayers who’s in an institution in Long Beach (my eldest son was PR head of the LA Phil and was an integral part of Nathaniel’s story). I also perused the offerings at an open market. Downtown LA was a huge surprise with its pockets of colorful ethnic and artistic neighborhoods sporting foods, goods and services from fabric to flower shops and a revitalized architecture.
I learned, too, that a huge part of the pleasure of traveling to a new place and staying there for a chunk of time is seeing how other people live. I broadened my understanding of them and, in turn, myself and seeing where I fit in. Could I ever live there? The jury is out. And when asked this question repeatedly by friends and family, I reply jokingly but with a tinge of seriousness “I don’t think so. The weather and water in L.A. are terrible for my hair.”
But I did make some decisions. I found I cannot travel far from my basic needs and that the personal (as in relationships) is more important than the perfect. I found that truth exists in every-day experiences and individuals, more than in the great and powerful expressions of culture and its trappings. I can marvel at a thrillingly austere sculpture garden or a tour of a gorgeous historic home, but in the end, these places won’t create memories for me. Memories have more to do with spirit than substance.
So, I continue my journey as I attempt to boil my search down to one message, which Barbara told me a friend had advised her to do when she was searching for a place to live after her divorce. And that message is: Close your eyes and imagine the return address on a letterhead. Right now, that address circles back to where I currently live.
L.A. is a great place to visit and next time I may spend two months there and in a different neighborhood. For now, I plan to take trips East to test those waters. Only time will tell where I’ll end up, but I’m having so much fun in the process. And that’s what life is really about—enjoying the journey rather than just coming up with a final destination.
* Title taken from Chapter 7 in “Suddenly Single after 50: The Girlfriends’ Guide to Navigating Loss, Restoring Hope, and Rebuilding your Life.”