In late July, we packed up our home and sent a truckload of boxes and furniture off with movers. That same week, Liz piled the remaining most-treasured items (especially Reese, our family dog,) into her Subaru and started the week-long drive from Connecticut to California. I followed a week later, flying solo across the country with our two kids in tow.
We spent the first month in San Diego holed up at a Best Western Hotel. We enjoyed a “two room” suite, which turned out to be one large room half-heartedly divided by an archway. This meant that every member of the family could be easily awoken by any other member of the family at any point during the night. Anytime Reese shook his collar, my son cried at 5:00 AM, or an adult took a 2:00 AM bathroom run, there was a good chance that others would rouse. A typical day at the Best Western included waking up groggy, taking conference calls from the bathroom due to lack of space, and discretely microwaving frozen meals for dinner after the kids had (hopefully) fallen asleep.
Yet, hotel living wasn’t entirely unpleasant. We enjoyed breakfast every morning (we learned that cheese omelet/sausage day and scrambled egg/bacon day were both delightful). There was a well-heated pool (often just to ourselves). And, the housekeeping staff got to know and appreciate both of our kids.
Physically moving ourselves and our stuff across the country has taken the better portion of three months. And, as you might guess, the psychic disruption has been even more pronounced.
At first, I coped with the change by attempting to consciously and quickly put down roots. My intention was to “root ourselves in San Diego”, and I set to it with typical fervor. Sitting on the balcony of the Best Western, I researched and reached out to the service providers who would help us make a home here – the pediatricians, babysitters, dentists, hairdressers, lawyers, and car mechanics whom would take care of us. I fired off emails to reignite our network of friends in the area. I even found ritual ways of honoring our relocation, ordering a new return address stamp and change-of-address announcements for friends and family. I journaled about what our best life in San Diego might look like and what was needed to manifest that.
Wasn’t this putting down roots? Wasn’t this what I needed for us to self-actualize our best lives in this new city? To feel completely at home in this place?
And yet, none of my efforts helped me feel settled.
No, it wasn’t until the truck arrived with all our stuff, six weeks after moving, that I got a hint of what I was missing. I shared my three-year-old daughter’s unrestrained joy when she exclaimed, “It looks just like our house in Connecticut!” after the moving trucks left. I felt just as giddy – and just as inclined to jump up and down on the newly-delivered bed.
Why did all these things – our familiar sofa, a loved coffee maker, and even the boxes of old college books – bring such succor? I found it disturbing to think that I was so materialistic that these items could significantly impact my happiness. And yet, as I sat at the dining room table, eating Chinese food off a real plate and drinking from a real wine glass, I couldn’t deny the feeling of home.
The answer came to me in a conversation with a friend: “It makes sense that you weren’t settled; it’s like someone kicked the bottom out of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.”
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is an all-too-familiar and yet oft-applicable psychological model. It holds that the more basic human needs – beginning with physiological needs for food, water, warmth, and rest – must be satisfied before more complex human needs – like achieving one’s full potential – can be addressed. Between these extremes there is an entire pyramid of needs, building one layer upon the other. The original version, presented in Abraham Maslow’s original 1943 paper on the topic, is illustrated below. For the academically-inclined looking for the source materials, you can find the whole paper here.
Now, as an executive coach, a leadership development professional, and a writer, I am accustomed to live and move in the realm of self-actualization. I sit in the realm of the emotional, the conceptual, and the reflective. And, frankly, when I arrived to California, that’s the natural level at which I engaged. I automatically went to manipulations of meaning, purpose, community, and ritual to make us feel at home. My efforts started at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy and extended down.
But these top-heavy efforts were doomed without the foundation. While I had the few creature comforts that fit in my luggage, I fundamentally lacked my own bed to sleep in as well as my own clothes to wear. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was getting the pyramid of needs upside-down.
Now that my feet are underneath me, I can get back to focusing on the things I do best. And next time I’m inexplicably disoriented, I’ll know where to look: to the bed underneath my head and the things around me.
Postscript: Frankly, my experience was temporary and – even while in transition – quite comfortable. I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like for those who struggle without the fundamentals on a day-to-day basis. For refugees, for detainees at the border, and for those without a home the question of self-actualization is far from fundamental; it’s a luxury. It’s important and grounding for me to remember that shifting one’s focusing at the top of the pyramid is, in itself, a privilege. While I continue to work at the top of the pyramid, I am recommitting to make a positive impact for those struggling to address the bottom.