As we crossed the Mississippi river into downtown, I overflowed into the passenger seat, seven months pregnant with my first son. My husband Tim, who was dropping me off at work, slowed down at a yellow light, rolling to a full stop in front of a new apartment development above a Whole Foods. While he looked the brick highrise up and down, I chirped in typical idealist fashion: “Wouldn’t it be fun to live somewhere like this someday? I don’t even care about owning a house, I just want to live somewhere fun and easy.”
Admittedly, there was nothing really aesthetically attractive about the apartment building. It was the location and its amenities I had idealized. Situated on the hem of a burgeoning neighborhood, literally above a grocery store that symbolized doing well and, by extension, being whole, this wasn’t the type of place people just lived in. It was a place, I perceived, where people lived.
“I bet that place is three times as much as our mortgage,” Tim laughed, inviting me back to reality. I pulled my iPhone out of my purse to Google it. He was right. “Maybe when we retire,” I sighed. The light turned green, and we moved on.
Over time, the apartments on top of Whole Foods became a running joke, a monument on our morning commute reminding us of a life we would probably never get to live. We had a baby on the way, a pair of entry-level jobs, and six figures of combined student loan debt; at that point, even retiring one day felt like an unrealistic prospect. Our debt sucked away whatever was left of our meager income every month, and there was no end in sight—until I had the baby, quit my office job, and started freelance writing.
My husband and I were equally surprised about the sudden momentum of the small business I had built. Before I even had a real grip on what I was doing, an agency in northern California reached out to me about a job opening for a copywriter. I had never worked in the creative industry, and I’d always wanted to move somewhere outside the midwest. Why not? It felt like a worthwhile gamble. A few months after I got the job offer, we loaded up a moving truck and drove west until we reached our new home.
Fueled by wanderlust and the curiosity of what was ahead for my family, I floated through the first few months away from our home of Minneapolis. But when I became pregnant for a second time and very, very sick, anxiety slowly eclipsed my idealism. I had panic attacks daily and spent most of my time in my bedroom, only leaving to throw up or go to the doctor (a pregnancy-anxiety crossover is all glamour). Not only was I disconnected from friends, my job, my husband, and my son; I was beginning to feel disconnected from myself, wholly defined by my physical and mental illness. To regain some control in what felt like a spiral of hopelessness, I decided that If I was going to be paralyzingly sick and anxious, I wanted to do it somewhere that felt like home. My husband and I agreed that it was time to get back in the moving truck and head back to Minneapolis. And fast.
“To regain some control in what felt like a spiral of hopelessness, I decided that If I was going to be paralyzingly sick and anxious, I wanted to do it somewhere that felt like home.”
Like any good millennials would, we took to the internet to begin our search. Buying a house was out of the question since we would exhaust our savings by moving halfway across the country for the second time in a year. And putting down a deposit on a house or duplex rental we hadn’t yet seen in person felt like a gamble. We thought about asking friends if we could stay with them, but then we’d have to move again when we found a place of our own. The future seemed blurry, but one thing was very obvious: After a very hard and isolated season, I needed a soft place to land. A place to rest and recover from what had felt like the darkest few months of my life. A place to become whole again.
The only low-risk solution we could think of was an apartment—ideally, a reputable spot with the option of a shorter lease, so if we didn’t like it, at least we wouldn’t feel stuck. Most of the options on Apartments.com were expensive, but they were very obviously nice, and all within walking distance of my husband’s job. And then, on the last page, with the heftiest price tag of all, the beacon of our newlywed dreams: The Whole Foods apartments had a two-bedroom available in our timeframe, with a nine-month lease. How could it be wrong? But more than that, how could it be right?
I felt like I owed my family practicality by that point, since moving to California in the first place had been my idea, and I was the one who ruined it. “Let’s go for one of the cheaper ones,” I said. “I’m not sure how much I’ll freelance after the baby comes, and this feels too risky.” Surprisingly, it was my logical husband who asserted this impractical choice, reminding me that this building was two doors down from his office, within walking distance of everything I could dream of, and, best of all, I’d never feel alone, since Whole Foods was right downstairs. In awe of how our life was at once unraveling and coming together, we signed the lease that day. We weren’t sure we could afford it, but we were sure we’d love it. It would be my soft place to land.
It was a gamble, but this time, our “why not?” instincts were right. Emptying our pocketbooks to live at the very edge of our means was, at times, stressful. (More than once, I overdrafted our checking account buying lunch or coffee from Whole Foods. Whoops.) But high-end finishes aside, it turns out this apartment was a haven for me not because of what was in it, but what was beneath it: a very expensive grocery store stocked with a community of people.
“High-end finishes aside, it turns out this apartment was a haven for me not because of what was in it, but what was beneath it: a very expensive grocery store stocked with a community of people.”
Of course, having easy access to the objects of my cravings at all times made my last trimester of pregnancy easier. And being able to swing downstairs for a quick coffee (or bottle of wine) in those early postpartum days was nothing short of a lifesaver. But for me, the built-in connection was far more valuable than any of the (fine organic) commodities Whole Foods had to offer.
The magic was in the baristas who doted on my baby, the florist who gave me parenting advice, the cashiers who gave my toddler free cookies, the burrito bar employee who made my food the way I wanted before I even asked. It was in being known, but also not being known: the sense that I could be perceived apart from my once-debilitating anxiety and known only for my quick wit, chubby baby, and complicated sandwich order. It was in roaming the aisles of a grocery store on winter mornings and connecting with another disheveled mom who looked like she could use the adult conversation as much as I could.
Just like I thought it would, living in my dream apartment above Whole Foods afforded me a sense of wholeness. But it had nothing to do with the coveted address or the marble countertops and everything to do with having space to learn how to re-engage with the world. To be honest, I don’t know if I would recommend leaving and returning to a city in a matter of months. It’s hard. But if the journey, however exhausting, means returning to yourself, it’s probably worth the gamble.