Hard Habits to Break

Illustration by Pete Ryan

A few months ago, I moved to a new address barely north of the Orange County line. So near yet so far! What hit me was the psychological distance after three decades as a homeowner living and working in central Orange County.

I had taken so much for granted; how smoothly time flew when I navigated within the county. Now if I wanted to play homing pigeon to my familiar places, I’d need to start with a baseline half hour travel time and as much as double that for the unknown of a probably clogged freeway.

The short move across the county line unraveled my routine and rattled my identity. I didn’t realize how invested I was in locale as well as the comfort of knowing the route. I enjoyed seeing people with whom I regularly conducted business at my grocery stores, my long-time dry cleaners, my go-to Ace hardware store, a favorite bank branch, and the post office. It’s about routines and preferences: When I had paint cans and canisters of old household chemicals, I headed for the reliable if unlovely hazardous waste site in Anaheim.

I was feeling dismal about my failure to adjust when a police officer blinked his lights and pulled me over. I’d been unaware that I was driving over the temporary posted speed limit in a work zone. Darn, I thought, this would be my first moving violation in decades. He asked for my license. I pulled out the temporary printed document, fresh from the DMV, with the new address. I explained, needlessly, that I had just moved.

“Moved from where?” he asked, being friendly and giving me hope that he might cut me a break.

“From Orange County,” I said.

“What?” he responded, as if in disbelief. “People usually move the other way, from L.A. to O.C.”

He must have felt sorry for me because he didn’t give me a citation. I felt grateful yet kind of bummed, as if his comment implied that my life had regressed. I had grown up in L.A. County. I’d left it for a decade in New York City then moved to Orange County a long time ago.

So why this move? A life transition.


In 2020, I lost my husband, Alan, after a long illness. Several months later, in a bitter-sweet decision, I decided to downsize and sell the house. Certainly, I could have stayed, but the house was too large and required too much upkeep. Plus, I wanted his only daughter to receive her part of the legacy from her dad right away.

Envisioning something cozy and manageable, I looked around a bit, figuring maybe a nice condo with a spacious balcony or a townhouse. But prices for all types of residences in O.C. were exorbitant, and nothing inspired me. A solution came into focus; I already had a place—except it was over the county line. In 2005, I had inherited my childhood home, a small Craftsman-style bungalow, and I’d kept it as a rental property. Now those tenants would be leaving, and it seemed like fate. I could spruce up the Long Beach bungalow a bit and move right in.

After my encounter with the police officer, I drove north to head home. I thought about how I’d once lived a short drive to South Coast Plaza. I slid into a reverie of other former haunts. Could I sustain a commute now, from farther away? What about my evening book group at Laguna Beach Books? Were my favorite restaurants—Sapphire in Laguna Beach and Citrus City in Old Towne Orange; Indian cuisine at Royal Khyber, and pho from a favorite Vietnamese takeout place in Garden Grove—all destined to be past tense? And what about McCormick & Schmick in Downtown Disney, where in the past I’d book Thanksgiving and Easter dinner for the two of us because Alan’s daughter and her family lived too far away for sharing those holidays with us.

Should I renew my membership, now as a singleton, to the once-nearby Bowers Museum, where Alan and I enjoyed strolling among fascinating displays, never missing a show, ranging from the interactive “Benjamin Franklin” and “Frida Kahlo: Her Photographs” to the perfect guy-theme of “Knights in Armor.” That led to thoughts of Bowers by day and its Tangata Restaurant, where I formerly met friends for lunch. Not so easy, with a midday challenge of the Orange Crush freeway interchange.

Then there were remembrances of seasons past at South Coast Repertory, where some of my standouts were the premiere of “Wit” by Margaret Edson and the magical, musical versions of “The Fantastics” and “The Tempest.” How could I give up the excitement of a new season at South Coast Rep? We’d been subscribers since the 1990s—second Saturday evening, second row center.

That was my world, my county … my former county.


What hit me hardest was a recent email, reminding me to renew my membership in Sea and Sage Audubon. The O.C. chapter meets monthly on the 300-acre site of the serenely beautiful San Joaquin Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary, with its public trails and ponds and islands. It’s across from UC Irvine, near where San Diego Creek enters Upper Newport Bay. My favorite blue-sky photo of the site, capturing a view across one of its islands to Saddleback, still serves as my LinkedIn background photo, and I have no intention of giving it up.

It wasn’t just about chapter meetings, now far less convenient to attend. For years, this sanctuary was a favorite place for my husband and I to take long walks together. It became a place for me to come alone and heal from the loss.

I thought about the resident pair of ospreys, sea eagles that make their nest in the wildlife sanctuary. They return every year. They can often be seen high up in their reed-woven platform nest surveying their Kingdom of the County. I recalled being there, standing on a trail, inhaling the sweet scent of sage and other natural foliage, and this set other thoughts in motion.

Is it realistic to cling—at least in part—to my old routine? Is the San Joaquin Marsh simply too far to drive? Am I being impractical … or is practicality overrated?

I was determined to move forward with my life, yet three decades of familiarity seemed to hold me back. Epiphanies don’t come easy, but sometimes they cut through confusion and mine was this: I am not trying to get over it. I want to embrace my life as an honorary resident. I want O.C. to keep its hold on me.

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