Location, Location, Location: Six Stories on Moving House

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 In “Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion muses on how her perception of New York City –– and who she is as a result of living there –– has evolved over the span of eight years. When she first arrives in New York City she describes herself as “twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal, and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct, programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard sung and all the stories I had ever read about New York, informed me that it would never be quite the same again.”

Didion’s exquisite sentence brims with a preemptive nostalgia, one that I have experienced often but struggle to put into words. When I was a child, I used to look forward to moving because it meant for a brief period of time –– during the miles that unfurled between the sticky heat of Louisiana and the crisp blue summer sky of Alaska, for example –– I could suspend myself in the allure of who I might become in any new place. I would often dream that I might shed my tendencies toward introversion or that I would find my true self reflected back to me in ways I didn’t know existed, not realizing that I had to do the work of growth on my own. Before I learned language for any geography and before I sullied the dream of myself with who I was in reality, I could exist as a figment of imagination passing through an unfamiliar world. 

Like the shine of any silver exposed to too much air, the idealized version of myself –– and any new place I came to –– was inevitably tarnished the longer I lived anywhere. But then my family would move again, and I would be free to once again imagine that a place would be enough to change me. My childhood was one of moving boxes and beige walls; divide my age by the number of places I’ve lived, and the answer comes to 2.25. And I have not stopped moving: I attended college in North Carolina, graduate schools in Oregon and Oklahoma, and now live in Pennsylvania, where I hope to put down roots. But even here, I live in an apartment with unpainted walls. A hallway downstairs is stacked with plastic bins and boxes I keep telling myself I’ll unpack soon, though it’s been months since I moved in. And I still use a GPS to get to the grocery store, some sign I’m scared of committing to knowing this geography, the many circuitous routes that point toward home.

What does it mean to always be leaving a place –– and the sense of self created there? What does it mean to have the privilege to move? How do we idealize locations –– both where we are and where we hope to be? What effect does perpetual transition –– both desired and undesired –– have on a person? A family? A community of people? 

1.  This Hell Not Mine: On Moving From Nigeria to America (Kenechi Uzor, July 7, 2017, Catapult)

After Kenechi Uzor leaves his home in Lagos, he wonders if the opportunities advertised about the U.S. –– opportunities, literary magazines, freedom, safety –– are really what they’re made out to be. Uzor bears witness to injustices against “brown souls and unknown bodies, and trans and cis and more. All suffering from the other” and weighs the cost of a life lived in the U.S.

So we sought escape, convinced that to leave was to live. We fled for dry eyes, for a sigh, for firm handshakes and raised heads, for two closed eyelids, we fled. For our babies and grannies. For light.

2.  Two Moms Share Stories of Migration and Breastfeeding (Sarah Mirk, August 5, 2019, Bitch Magazine)

Realizing that stories about migrating across borders during parenthood are underrepresented, a group of Portland-based Latina and Indigenous immigrant parents created a bilingual exhibit, Amamantar y Migrar, to share their stories through audio narratives, videos, and photographs. Sarah Mirk curated two narratives –– one from Minerva, whose mother made the difficult decision to leave her in Mexico for a time, and Maria Elena, who was taken to an immigration center even though she was breastfeeding –– for this multimodal piece. 

I tried to breastfeed, but since I didn’t get enough to eat, I didn’t have breast milk to feed my baby. We arrived here, I gave birth to my third daughter, and nine months after she was born, immigration agents showed up at my work. I was still breastfeeding my daughter.

3.  Location, Location, Location (Jeannie Vanasco, October 15, 2017, The Believer)

Part personal memory of her upbringing in an uneven saltbox house, part reflection on the significance of a moveable dollhouse her late father built for her, and part history of the house moving industry in Chicago –– and the violences that accompanied such an industry –– Jeannie Vanasco explores what it means when the stable walls of a home become transportable, and what types of grief exist in both the construction and loss of a place. 

Pressured to accept food, whiskey, and cash, they signed the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, agreeing to move west of the Mississippi River within the next two years. The wigwams and wooden lodges would be replaced with thousands of new homes for white people. White men would become rich moving them.

4. The Barriers Stopping Poor People From Moving to Better Jobs (Alana Semuels, October 12, 2017, The Atlantic)

The percentage of people who move within the U.S. has been cut nearly in half since the 1950’s. Why? As Alana Semuels reports, factors like zoning in certain states, lack of incentives for low-income workers, and proximity to family affect people’s decisions on whether or not to move, and have led to shifts in the populations of cities across the country.

The supply of workers isn’t increasing fast enough in the rich areas to bring wages down, and isn’t falling fast enough in the poor areas to bring wages up. Why is this? Why have people stopped moving? The reason, economists believe, is that while there are good wages in economically vibrant cities like New York and San Francisco, housing prices are so high that they outweigh any gains people stand to make in earnings.

5. They’re Fed Up With America’s Racism. So They’re Moving to Africa. (Mark Beckford, May 20, 2019, Narratively)

When Lakeshia Ford decided she was going to pack up her life and her budding career and move from New Jersey to Ghana, her family could not understand why she wanted to make the trek to a country thousands of miles from home. Even more surprising, to some, was Ford’s reason: the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

Ghana’s fast-growing economy and “Year of Return” initiative in 2019, under which the Ghanaian government hopes to encourage people of African descent to move to Ghana, have attracted many African-Americans to the country. As Mark Beckford reports, Lakeshia Ford is one of a growing number of African-Americans relocating to Ghana in search of community, job opportunities, and freedom from the violence prevalent in the United States. 

6. Keep Moving: The Nomadic Life of an Assistant Basketball Coach (Michael Croley, November 12, 2014, Sports Illustrated)

What does it take to be a Division I head coach? What sacrifices is a person willing to make –– in regard to uprooting family, turning down other lucrative career options, etc., –– to vie for an elusive spot? Michael Croley, in this profile of assistant coach Gus Hauser, who has moved six times in 11 years, seeks to answer these questions and more.

Like their colleagues in academia, they give up nearly all control of their life in order to move where the jobs are and more often than not, like Gus, uproot their families every two or three years. The sight of Brown, the success he’s had and the stir his presence caused, leads me to believe every single coach, except for a handful, is always working for his next job, and that next job will be dependent upon who he can sign, how many of those signees he steals from the other men in the gym that day, and then if they can turn those guys into players within their system.

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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.