When This Is Over, I’ll Live By the Sea
Before the pandemic, stepping off the treadmill always felt impossible
In the first sentence of Joan Didion’s iconic essay, “Goodbye to All That,” on leaving New York City, she wrote, “it’s easy to see the beginning of things, and harder to see the ends.”
No offense to Joan, but I actually can remember when it ended for me — the moment when I decided to leave London, the place I’d lived for nearly a decade.
It was late April, several weeks into the UK’s lockdown. I was lying on the grass outside, taking a break from reading a book. I watched an ant crawl up my leg, and marveled at how different I felt compared with just a few weeks before. Back then, I had a constant, low-grade sense of dread that was impossible to name or find a cause for. I always felt busy. And even when I pared down my schedule as much as humanly possible, I never seemed to have enough time to do what I wanted (namely, read, write, and lie in the grass). I remember in January, mapping out my year of work and leisure travel and other social commitments ahead, and feeling slightly short of breath.
Then lockdown happened. And, suddenly, that particular brand of dread was gone. I found myself in possession of something I’d long wanted, even in the midst of a horrific world event: time. Once I had it, I knew that if I wanted to hold on to it, I needed to move to a less outwardly stimulating place.
Of course, like any overworked urbanite, I had certainly thought before about decamping for locales with cheaper rent. But stepping off the treadmill always felt just out of reach: Maybe I could start thinking about it next year, or after this job, or when my relationship status changed, I’d say.
Large cities like London are predicated on constant forward motion, after all. There’s something undeniably beautiful about that — the time-honored mix of grit, luck, persistence, and the hunger of youth that launched a billion careers, including my own. But when you’ve lived there for a while, you forget there’s a version of life that’s not so relentless. Plus, as the pandemic seemed to underline, those aspirational lifestyles in mega metropolises also have tremendous…