I can usually tell how busy my life has been by the frequency of my blog posts.When I'm in survival mode, I don't have the time, energy, or mental space to go to the reflective place I need in order to write. Well, it's been more than six months since I've had a chance to write a blog, and what a six months it has been! We've been without a permanent address for most of that time, living on the road while traveling around the country screening our documentary film. Most of our belongings are in storage, Lily has been on more airplane rides than I can count, I've slept in more guest beds than I can keep track of, and over 8,000 people have come to film screenings and discussions. In true Dickens' fashion, it has been both the best of times, and the worst of times. But let me back up.
My last post, written in what feels like a different world to me, was about feeling gratitude for living in the city with Lily, about finally letting go of some angst around the concept of home and just settling into the truly wonderful situation we had living in San Francisco's Richmond district. We could walk to most everything and had the convenience and culture of city living next to the splendor of the Presidio and the ocean. Lily might not have a garden or a very big room, but life was good. We worked together on a meaningful project from our home, and Lily could walk to both world class museums with babysitters and roll naked down sand dunes with friends in the woods near our home on Lake Street.
My gratitude, while profound, was short-lived.
Just two days after posting that piece, we got word that our landlords were going to be selling our unit. San Francisco has strict rent control laws meant to try to help people like us stick around despite the incredibly high housing prices. However, our landlords had won what's called the "condo lottery", after applying for eight years, and normal rent control rules weren't going to apply to us for much longer. We'd known about the condo conversation for a year, but what was new was their intent to sell…and with a date attached. In November of 2012, we'd need to move.
Now, this is the second time we've had to move out of a space in San Francisco without it being our idea. Three years ago, our beloved studio space was needed by our landlady for her son's family, and now we were on the unfortunate side of the condo lottery. In both situations we could have made more of a noise and gotten a tenant's rights' organization involved--the first time we were technically due quite a sum of money to make up for the costs and inconveniences of what's known as an owner-move-in eviction. (We didn't pursue those funds because we thought of our landlady as family, and she'd treated us and our family with great generosity. I'm still very grateful we didn't try to get greedy and put money before a relationship. It was the right choice on many levels.). And, this time, we were advised by tenant advocates that we could refuse to move, put up protest signs in the windows, and test the legality of condo conversation evictions vs owner move-ins when a school-aged child was a tenant. If you don't live in San Francisco or another tightly-regulated rental market, none of this likely makes much sense, but in a place like San Francisco where rents are ridiculously high and the vast majority of residents rent, there are regulations and policies in place to try to keep a diverse population and to keep the city within reach of artists, teachers, pastors, non-profit workers, social workers, and the rest of us who don't work in high tech or finance. We ended up deciding we didn't have the energy to launch our film and have a big, messy, draining legal fight over where we lived.
Last time this happened, we took advantage of the rent savings and went on the road for three months (and 10,000 miles) to really dive into the production phase of our film. We set up story booths all around the country to listen to stories from LGBT Adventists, and we interviewed scholars, professors, pastors, and other experts from a wide range of perspectives (this was back before we realized we wanted a pure story approach for the film). Lily was nine months old when we left and a bit over a year old when we returned. It was tiring, a bit nuts, but incredibly rewarding. It's what we look back on as a formative and necessary research phase of this film.
This time, we realized that we needed to be on the road for several months doing screenings and discussions as our film started to roll out at film festivals and community screenings in theaters, churches, and community halls. We made a list of all of the locations where we really wanted to be present for a community screening and discussion in order to feel that we had put our best effort into this phase of the film. It was a long list…And, yet again, not paying rent and utilities would make this a lot more feasible to actually pull off. So, we first sublet for a month while doing screenings back east, then we asked our landlords if they'd help pay for moving expenses in exchange for us leaving a few months earlier than required (which would help them get the apartment on the market before the holidays). They agreed. We moved in a flurry of five days in between screening trips in August.
I've lost track of just where we've been and where these past few months (our screenings page helps me remember!), but what I do know if that life has been in almost constant motion. I've barely had a moment to myself, and the constant need to keep on top of logistics for the next flight and the next screening--all while on the road with a three-and-a-half-year-old--was all I could manage. We were living on adrenaline and from one screening and location to the next. In between screening trips, my parents generously opened up a wing of their home to us--and they kept our dog the entire six months.
Amazingly, Lily did really well with all of the travel, new people, new beds, and new babysitters. We did have a disastrous evening in Albuquerque after the Southwest Gay & Lesbian Film Festival screening. It was one screening that I hadn't been able to find a babysitter to help with, and we were at the end of a tiring two weeks (I was just off two red eye/very early am flights over two days to fit in an additional D.C. screening the day prior). We were all ready to collapse. The friendly volunteers at the festival helped entertain Lily, which was a lifesaver but resulted in her eating a large quantity of movie theater-style popcorn and frozen yogurt. Then after the screening, we went to tea across the street with a few friends and locals who had come. It was lovely, except Lily managed to snarf at least three or four cookies before I caught on. Then we slept in a guest room of a relative we'd never stayed with before in Santa Fe, which is over 7,000 feet in elevation. Tired Lily, way too much junk food, high elevation = one very pukey kiddo at 2 a.m. Did I mention it was an all-white guest bedroom? And we'd given her some kids' Pepto Bismal when she'd first said her tummy hurt? It was an unmitigated disaster.
And, it got worse. Usually Stephen checks us in online the day before our departure. With the screening happening, he didn't get to it that day, and somehow his Southwest app put the departure in his calendar for a different time zone. We arrived at 9:15 the next morning at the Albuquerque airport only to discover that our airplane left at 9:35, not 10:35 as we'd thought. We missed the flight. And this was the Monday morning after the hot air balloon fiesta. Every other flight was quite full, and the chance of getting on stand-by with a party of three was slim. We simply couldn't afford the upgrade fee to confirm a later flight, and we knew from how challenging it had been to find lodging that nearly every room in the area was booked (and marked up significantly) due to the balloon festival, so as appealing as going somewhere to rest sounded, it wasn't likely.
About this time, I put Lily's hair into a pony tail and discovered that she had chunks of vomit dried in the back of her hair from the night's drama. I broke down and began sobbing silently. The Southwest agent, who already felt sorry for us, brought me tissues. As we were considering driving to Phoenix to get a flight, Stephen happened to show the agent his Southwest iPhone app and the time error, although he also said he knew he should have checked in himself and double-checked everything. It was actually all she needed to consider the error theirs and not ours, which allowed her to confirm us on a later flight without charging us more. We still had almost six hours to spend in the Albuquerque airport with a child who had dried vomit chunks in her hair, but at least we knew we'd be on a flight that day. (And later, when we did get on the flight, they were asking for volunteers to be bumped, so we would not have made it on stand-by.)
That would be the worst of times. Thankfully, the best of times far outweighed the bad. There was always a lot of stress and nerves, but there was also a huge amount of satisfaction seeing the film screen to so many crowds and be so well received. Over the year, the film screened 42 times to over 8,000 people. We were personally at all but five of those screenings. I'm supposed to be the wordy one, but I don't even quite have words to describe what it felt like to feel audiences fall in love with the people in our film and be moved by their journeys--no matter their beliefs or convictions--people are moved and expanded by watching our film. This is, of course, thanks to the incredible people who opened up their lives and trusted us to tell their stories. But it is also because we just kept at this despite very large obstacles and personal challenges for almost four years. And it felt good to see it amount to something positive in the world and in the faith community that goes back for generations on both sides of our families.
One of my favorite moments was in the Powerhouse Theater in Walla Walla, WA, which is where a large Adventist university is located. The student leaders had planned and coordinated a screening in this theater, which was a renovated 1890s old, brick power house that had been turned into an authentic Shakespearean theater-in-the-round. It had great energy, and it sat more than 350 people, yet its vertical design managed to make the space feel incredibly close and intimate. They had a huge silk they draped for a screen, and the image quality was great. The turnout was phenomenal, and the only place I could sit was up above the audience looking down through the lighting rig. Feeling their laughter, their tears, their journey through the film from that vantage point was magical. I felt blessed and lucky to have been able to do work that felt so worthy of all of our time and our audiences. And then when the entire crowd gave us a standing ovation and stuck around for a beautiful discussion that focused on listening, sharing authentically, and loving despite difference--that was an evening and moment in time I'll carry with me. There have been a lot of moments like that (the La Sierra sanctuary and 1,000 people in attendance stands out too!), and a lot of emails and comments from people that help us know what a true difference this is making in lives, families, churches, and communities. It's what has made it worth the challenges.
Through all of the travel, we've been uncertain about where we would land on the other end. Our hearts have been in San Francisco for eight years now, and there is much that we love there by way of friends, networks, cafes, incredible walks--I could go on and on. But we've known for a while that the finances weren't going to work much longer. San Francisco is now the city with the highest cost of living in the entire U.S., even above New York. Prior to having Lily, we would have found a way to squeeze our life into a studio somewhere quaint and call it an adventure. But now, we knew she needed a long-term community that would work for her as well. San Francisco has a notoriously hard time keeping young families due to the housing costs and insane school-assignment lottery system that nobody understands or trusts. Unless you have the funds for private schools (easily $25,000 a year even at the grade school level), it's just not a situation that many families can tolerate. They move north, south, or east. Over half of the families we've been close to in the past four years have moved and become part of the family flight statistics.
And, as of this week, so have we.
It was not an easy decision. In retrospect, one of the only ways we could have left San Francisco was in stages, like we did--first a short sublet, then traveling with the idea of returning, then eventually realizing we were priced out. We didn't finally make the decision until after Thanksgiving when stayed for almost a week in a friend's apartment in Oakland. Parts of the the East Bay are affordable, and we wanted to see if they were parts we could imagine living in. It didn't help that on the third night our car window got smashed in--unfortunately, the affordable areas also often have much higher crime rates. And, since we'd lived on the western side of San Francisco, all of our routines, favorite haunts, and most of the families we did excursions with lived a good 45 minutes in good traffic away. That's not very realistic to keep up for a family, and the idea of living where we'd be looking across the bay at where we really wanted to live sounded like a recipe for resentment. And, we still wouldn't ever afford to buy a home anywhere we wanted to live in the Bay Area. That was becoming important to us again, both because we want a long-term home for Lily, and because we'd just been forced out twice from rentals before a time of our choosing.
We've been to a lot of cities and towns across the country this year (and when we did our first filming trip), and both times when we've been traveling, we were without a permanent home, so we found ourselves doing a lot of "trying on" and imagining if we could live in various towns. We were very tempted to live close to grandparents and cousins, as we love being near family. But ultimately, we also know we need the vibe and personality of the location to inspire us to want to do the work we've chosen to do, much the way San Francisco and our community there helped birth our current film. There are definitely several cities we could imagine calling home (love you Burlington, NYC, Fort Collins, Bozeman, Chicago, and Sydney), but only one kept us coming back: Portland, Oregon. For us, Portland feels like it has an independent spirit and creative vibe like San Francisco but without the banking and high-tech circles that drive housing up. And a surprising number of people, upon hearing we're going to be Portlanders, tell me that they have good friends here, that they love this town, that they can imagine us fitting in here.There is a small film community (nothing like our beloved SFFS, but one that feels like we could eventually find community). We have good friends nearby (and several in other Oregon towns…all CA immigrants like us!). The housing is just a breath of fresh air after the Bay Area, and, while we realize it will be a long time reaching fruition, we feel like there's the hope of community here. We think--we hope-we'll find a tribe. (Given how quickly our Portland screening filled up this summer, we think there must be good people here! ; )
Oh--and we've made a pact not to complain about the winter weather. Yes, we know it will rain a lot. At the exact moment, it's darn cold outside too…much colder than our CA blood is used to. But Lily assured us she likes the rain because puddles are fun to stomp in (they are, actually, and having a young one reminds me of that). And she wants to grow a garden. And she really wants us to own a house one day so she can paint her room whatever color she wants (it's a safe wager to assume pink and purple will play starring roles).
So here we are. This is one of those moments when I have a lot of hopes of what we want to lean into. It's a long way before most of them will come close to being realized, and we're sitting in a transition space, which is always hard. But I trust that we will find a way. We have each other. We have a fridge full of groceries. We have winter coats. We have a warm house (very wonderfully, a friend is letting us housesit in the area for several months while we get to work on the DVD and figure out which neighborhood is the best fit). We have the most important things right in arm's reach.
The other night while snuggling Lily to sleep, she reached out in the dark and touched my face. She said, "Mommy, I choose you forever." Those moments, that space is what matters above all else.
It's been a year of meaningful moments, sacred spaces, and reaching out to each other. I choose that too. The rest will follow. In that truth, I am trusting. In the meantime, I need to unpack our rain gear (and start requesting REI gift certificates ; ).