The Gifts of Moving

Jan 22, 2024 by Amber McClain Shaw, in Blog Posts

For the past few winters, I’ve moved. I’m not escaping snow. I’m escaping my everyday life. Escaping routine for something more interesting and creative.

This move is one of the gifts of Covid. When the shutdown started in 2020, our busy vacation rental suddenly had no guests, and two of our sons, college students, abruptly moved home. If we were going to shelter together, why not take advantage of the bigger rental house we were not allowed to rent? We made the decision and moved out of our urban condo within hours.

It was a revelation to move, rather than visit for weekends here and there. We enjoyed living in a different location so much that the next year we blocked some time out of the rental calendar and tried it again. Although the move is not far in distance, it’s a big change. It's just 30 miles from a noisy downtown condo in a large city (San Jose) with a population of nearly 1 million people, to a much smaller beach town (Santa Cruz), population 62,700. 

The city and the small town are close enough that it doesn’t change our work routines much, but everything else is wildly different in so many ways. In the city, we can walk to everything we want to do; restaurants, grocery stores, neighborhood pubs, dog parks, theaters, an 8-story library, live music, museums, and swank hotel lobby bars. The airport is very close. The city is noisy, vibrant, and convenient. The city is diverse, more than most cities in the US. Less than 25% of the population is white, and about 40% of the population was born outside the US. My neighbors are both owners and renters; mostly tech workers. There is also an opera singer, a sommelier, a teacher, a dance instructor, and some international students studying at the nearby university. My city neighbors are from all over the world and they seem extremely busy all the time.

As exciting as it is, there are downsides to city living. It’s crazy expensive. It is a city that is struggling to care for its large vulnerable and unhoused populations, and there is a lack of community. The median property value is nearly $1 million. Every day I see people struggling with homelessness, mental illness, and drugs.

Santa Cruz has a different feel and culture. It’s much smaller, and much less diverse (60% of the population is white). Most of the population works in education, instead of tech. The median property value is slightly less than the city, but there are more stark contrasts here, with multi-million dollar beach-front neighborhoods across the street from high-density, low-income apartments. The poverty rate is higher in Santa Cruz than in the city. There is a huge unhoused population here too, but the community efforts to help people are more visible to me. 

In Santa Cruz, I can walk to several beaches and world-famous surf spots. It’s easier to be outside in beautiful and less crowded locations. I hear laughter and music as people walk by. My close neighbors are a varied bunch; some trust-funded, and some in tech (or escaped/retired from tech). My neighbors include three published authors, a machinist, an owner of a prominent business, a therapist, a fitness instructor, a retired pharmacist, a professional athlete, and someone with a lot of important patents to his name. Three elderly widows live in a row next to each other, each in their own house. There is a neighbor who bikes around the area every day with crows that follow him. I know more of my neighbors here, as they seem to have more time to stop and chat. I like the smaller city’s independent bookstores, coffee shops, the butcher shop, the farmer’s market, and the family-run restaurants where I feel known.

When my sons know we are spending time at the beach, they make an effort to travel from NYC, LA, and SF to spend time with us. I love to have them home. Friends and family love to come and stay. I switch between chill relaxed mode to mom or hostess mode. My husband enjoys having lots of people over, but often disappears to work, rather than entertain. During the winter, this obligates me to be more social than I want. I like the company most of the time, but I also like my very quiet relaxing days. In the winter I hibernate, my energy reserved for the spring ahead. When I’m in Santa Cruz, there’s nothing I want to do more than walk to a yoga class on the beach or take a long walk along the coastline listening to a good book. When it’s storming, I like to watch the rain come off the Monterey Bay horizontally, the wind whipping the ocean into foam that flies through the air, a glittering whipped saline-seaweed cream. I fill up my soul with a different, quieter life so when I go back to the city I can appreciate and enjoy all it has to offer. 

Moving between two different places has many advantages. I suppose the biggest one is that I reevaluate my habits, patterns, and possessions. I upend my routines and I’m nudged to be more creative. I use this seasonal move as a catalyst to organize and clean out. I clear the cabinets of expired or unused pantry items. I toss out the things I thought I’d use, but haven’t, like the fenugreek seeds I purchased for a specific recipe that was not good enough to repeat. I empty my freezer of frost-bitten bagels. I clear out unworn and worn-out items from my closet. At the rental, I do things that make managing it smoother, and more organized for the rest of the year. For most of the year, our house is occupied by groups on vacation. There is a lot of wear and tear, so we take advantage of the quieter winter season to touch up the paint and do more time-consuming repairs or renovations. I stock supplies, cull damaged or crispy towels and linens, replace missing wine glasses, and refresh whatever needs it; paint, lighting, furniture, and cookware. 

In the city, I plan my meals for the week and go to the one grocery store close by where I’m a super-efficient shopper. At the beach, I do things differently. I’m not stuck on the same routine coffee, the same breakfast, the same big chain grocery store. I have a weekly all-season Farmer’s Market I love. I buy my fish and meats from a local butcher where it’s hand-cut, displayed like art, and the guy wielding the big knife back there is dangerously handsome. I call him the Hot Butcher. While I enjoy things like being recognized at the butcher shop and the more farm-to-table vibe, the city has its advantages too: primarily, more variety. I can buy fresh udon noodles and Portuguese pastries, and I have an Eataly near me, with freshly-made burrata at my fingertips.

When I begin to miss the variety of the city, I know it’s time to escape my escape. I’ve lived away from my routine long enough to form a new one. Soon, I will come out of hibernation and go back to the hustle of the city, but it’s always an adjustment. I can be cranky. The adjustment helps me understand what I resist, and what I like and don’t like. It helps me to have a fresh perspective on my everyday routines, and not get stuck in my ways. I like to think it keeps me flexible and more open-minded. It helps me to appreciate the unique things about each location and to consciously take advantage of them. There may be a time when I want to be in Santa Cruz more than in the city, or I may want to spend more time traveling to other destinations. Tradeoffs will be made. For now, I’m enjoying this creative, stimulating life; the moving and the contrasts between big city and small beach town, and being able to escape back and forth.