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Recently I’ve been to Chicago, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Palm Beach, and Naples, and each trip I’ve craved Cleveland and felt grateful to be back to its cozy familiarity. I guess that means I’m over the hump; I think I like Cleveland. The panic that slammed me at three months (What had I done?) has been soothed away; already I can feel the tug of San Francisco lessening, like heartbreak just starting to heal, and the once-distinct experiences of eight years spread across Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco blurring and merging: my California era.

That’s not to say that Cleveland has or can replace San Francisco. Cleveland has its own worthy story, it’s own unique charm and texture, but there’s an extraordinary something like myth or magic about San Francisco and the people there that I don’t expect to get in Cleveland. My friend Matt gets at it in naming “the magnetism of San Francisco’s starry-eyed dream makers….the ambitious creatives who are drawn to the city in droves.” The Bay Area is a starry-eyed place of ambition as much as abandon, with a Peter Pan delight in never growing up. This is what makes it so fantastical and invigorating, but ultimately, I decided I didn’t want life inside a bubble, and so back to the real world of Cleveland I came.

So what can Cleveland give me that San Francisco did not? Space. The real space of Cleveland — more living space, parking space, accessible wandering space — has seemed to open up more inner space in me. Here I feel like I have the emotional and spiritual room to think, to process, to contemplate ideas, to imagine possibilities, to ask questions, and to hear answers from my heart. In San Francisco I frequently felt stuck on a social carousel and struggled to keep up the pace — not because it wasn’t fun, but because I felt that so much fun came at the expense of my individual creativity, spirituality, and balance. Here I don’t need to compete against the world to get a piece of myself. This isn’t for lack of things to do in Cleveland; I could keep busy every night of the week at interesting places and events (like the Brews + Prose reading series at Market Garden, where I’ll be tonight). It’s partly a change in my situation — I don’t have the social circle I had in San Francisco — but I also think Cleveland grants more allowance for simply being and stopping. Maybe it’s the snow effect: we are used to hibernating, we get forced to slow down.

The other night, a guy in a bar in Delray Beach was fascinated by my San Francisco to Cleveland story (married — all the ones who think I’m fascinating are married) and told me the premise of his friend’s graduate school thesis: that we can account for the difference in the innovative West Coast and the less enterprising Midwest by looking back at the risk-taking pioneers who braved the Wild West verses their contemporaries who stayed safely behind. I’m sure the actual thesis was not so simplistic (or smug), but the basic idea is tidily intriguing. And of course San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and LA are destinations for modern-day adventurers who go west to chase dreams, launch ideas, and experiment with life. I’d like to think I was one of them.

But many of us come back and others just come, seeing possibility in places that aren’t so obvious. And maybe places where possibilities are even more…possible. With this newly found creative and mental space, I’m feeling revved up about what I might do here in Cleveland — things that are new, potentially risky, that I didn’t have the time, money, or audacity to try in San Francisco. I could start a business. Travel more. Indulge in classes and workshops. Audition for the roller derby team. (Well, I opted out of that one…for now. But I didn’t take skating lessons when I was little for nothing.) I don’t know yet what new adventure is ahead, but I know it’s coming, and Cleveland is preparing me for it.

I’m not the only one feeling it. There’s a whole growing movement — a Micropolitan Manifesto — to realize the potential of Main Street, and see “small cities, tiny towns, and rural outposts” as engines of transformation in our own lives and of sustainability in the larger environment and economy. Read the manifesto — it’s refreshing and electrifying stuff — as well as its parent blog, Urban Escapee. It’s all about living a big life on a smaller scale.

Life in Cleveland is a lot like garage sale shopping: half the fun is the thrill of the find (and scoring a bargain). San Francisco offers up an endless supply of fascinations — you hardly have to try to live a full and fabulous life. You have to work a little harder (and drive a little farther) to unearth the gold nuggets in Cleveland, but they’re all here. And isn’t there something that’s maybe a little more pioneering about that?

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