On What You Want Your Life to Look Like & Why You Should Go Do That

Be warned, here be long narrative and life advice. Proceed with caution.

On Friday, February 10 I got into an unexpected conversation with a friend while making our “goodbye” rounds at a going away party for another friend (the best things in life typically come from community, but that’s a blog post for another day). The conversation began with some simple, “Hey, how are you—what are you up to these days?” and ended with me [Friday Night Lights spoiler alert] pulling a Coach Taylor and verbally processing that maybe it was my turn to start sacrificing some for the work pursuits of my wife because maybe it was her turn. So on Friday, April 20, ten weeks later, we moved to Greenville, SC.

Let me back up a few steps…

When we relocated to South Carolina from Boston at the end of 2007, Mandy was openly a bit terrified of moving to a small town (the NewSpring offices where I’d be working are in Anderson—population 35,000). She had only lived in Not Small Towns (Dallas, Seattle, Madrid and Boston), so we moved to downtown Greenville, an up and coming city with a metro population of 600,000+ and a thriving downtown.

Unfortunately, I was a personal finances idiot then, and while we were technically living within our means, we were doing so barely, with no margin for saving or really seriously tackling our student loan debt. “You can keep doing what you’re doing, but it will take you at least eight years to get out of debt,” said a financial counselor friend. So we made the difficult decision to break our lease on our brand new downtown apartment in Greenville and we moved into a tiny 50’s duplex in Anderson. It was a hard move, emotionally, not even a year into a marriage that had already included two cross country relocations, a found and lost job, chronic sickness and the implosion of some close relationships around us. It probably took a solid two years to even begin to feel “at home”.

I grew up in an even smaller town near here—population 3000—and I have a sort of locals only love/hate relationship with small, Southern towns, but four years after leaving Boston for South Carolina, we loved Anderson. Mandy learned the wise ways of shopping online, we tried to travel a good bit (mainly back and forth to Texas to visit family), found lots of local places, restaurants and rituals, discovered the best thrift shopping loop in existence, I started to get my act together with our personal finances and we managed to pay off somewhere in the neighborhood of $25,000 of debt. And we still drove to Greenville frequently to eat with friends, see shows, walk downtown and lounge in the park.

What we didn’t have, despite our efforts, was a vibrant artistic community for Mandy.

I work with an amazing team everyday—the immediate staff I serve with at NewSpring, as well as the interns, volunteers and other 200+ staff spread across eight campuses (and growing) in South Carolina. The work we do matters, the vision and mission are clear, the leadership is world class. It’s the best place I’ve ever worked. I don’t want to be anywhere else (nor will I be for the foreseeable future). But to be perfectly honest, while I am immensely thankful for it and never want to take any of this for granted, my personality is driven enough to not “need” a team to get things done and be encouraged I’m on the right path. But Mandy isn’t designed the same way; she thrives in community, she loves collaboration and essentially misses the community-based environment of higher education. She loved school. She longs for constraints.

So we moved. To Greenville (again). But this time to West Greenville instead of downtown.

I can’t think of a worse environment for creating and new ideas than one where you can do whatever you want whenever you want to do it, all on your terms (then again, I always label myself a designer, not an artist, so there’s that). Sparks come from many sources; it stands to reason that the more you expose yourself to, the greater chance for creating something new and good. Fortune favors the people metaphorically (and physically) rubbing up against other people. Cities are great for this. The suburbs, for all their comfort, are simply not.

West Greenville has a storied history, and quite a reputation. It, like many neighborhoods in South Carolina, trudges along quietly in the shadow of a long since abandoned textile mill, its remaining residents stuck in a perpetual reliving of previous era, sitting on porches, walking for transportation, living in houses they grew up in. People are cash poor—the median household income here is something like $28,000—we’re in the bottom 10% nationally for professionals and college degrees (FYI, I’m not helping that degree stat), and in the top 10% of Black residents, so you can likely extrapolate what a wealthier, bustling, young downtown Greenville perceives this neighborhood as.

But it’s also been identified as the Greenville Arts District. In and around a block of storefronts on Pendleton Street, the previous heart of the old Mill village, a loose collection of painters, sculptors, and other artists creating unique jewelry and furniture have been forging a new community of art studios. And a trio of young photographer friends opened up a shared shop last month. And so will we.

We rented the biggest house we’ve ever lived in for less cash than I’ve paid since I lived in a 200 sq ft studio in Dallas. It’s a block from the Arts District. It’s temporary, a way to get used to the neighborhood, to be here, to be in the midst of it all. And it is not without its share of quirks. One bathroom. Weird driveway. Miniblinds. Beige walls. No central air. (I grew up with window units and attic fans, but the South Carolina Summer can be brutal. Today’s high is 102° with 66% humidity. And mostly window units are just annoying—loud, spotty coverage, insufficient, ugly.) But again, this isn’t about me, this is about my wife. This is about community. This is about what do we want our life to look like?

We want it to be about community, about creating things, about risking. We’ll be splitting storefront space, the former Amazin’ Kreations Salon (you can’t make this stuff up) with our good friends at Billiam Jeans, and we’ll hopefully be open for business at the end of the summer, taking Shop-Keep from an occasional Etsy hobby to a brick and mortar collection of homegoods, furniture, vintage finds, unique items and clothing. You can follow along on Instagram with the shop progress, just search for #shopdashkeep or #billiamjeans (floors were being sanded today).

We don’t know what we’re doing, apart from risking alongside people we like and trust. But will I regret living in a house with window units on the shady side of town more than I’ll regret not trying to launch a business with my wife?

I think no. And thus we go, onward and upward, into the unknown.