I was the fourth generation of my mother's family to grow up on the same block in suburban Long Beach--and by "suburban" I don't mean tract homes, but rather an aggregation of abodes that I see now actually make up quite a charming and impressive neighborhood built on a traditional grid in the 1920s. We lived only a few blocks from the ocean, but the city's beaches, while indeed long, were not particularly noteworthy because the city had decades before built a jetty to serve as a breakwater. This chased the surfers, including my grandfather, down to beaches in Orange County. The city allowed the construction of palm-studded oil islands within the breakwater, and the Los Angeles river flushed--an apt verb, I assure you--into the harbor, ensuring that the beach's water quality merited an "F" grade after every storm.
It was, in short, far from my ideal place in which to grow up. By the time I made it to high school--in a magnet program in the "inner city," at Snoop Dogg's alma mater--I was tired of the schools' big iron gates, the razor wire atop the fences, the way the school buildings, thanks to the Field Act, Proposition 13, rising crime, and many years of Republican gubernatorial "leadership" that starved the schools of funds, were from the outside virtually indistinguishable from prisons.
I've told this story before. But what I haven't said is this: Growing up, I loved anyplace but where I was. And so I launched myself across the country, to a land of rolling green hills and brick buildings and deciduous trees, only to find I didn't find small-town Virginia any more interesting or less dangerous than urban Southern California.
By the time I ended up in Iowa in 1994, in my third college in three semesters in as many states, my parents had issued me an ultimatum: Make it work or move back home. Through writing poetry, through learning the history of a place, on long walks and by paying attention to the details of the sharp border where Iowa suburbs met monocultured farmland, I learned to love a place that was not, honestly, an easy place to love. The college, yes--the town and the state, not so much. There was too much sky, for one thing. And an awful lot of corn, soy, and alfalfa. Or empty, frozen, stubbled fields.
When I moved to the Sacramento Valley, in 1997 and again in 2001--with another sojourn in Iowa in between--I had already learned the lessons in loving the land. I was enrolled in a creative writing program, and in the class were people who wrote beautifully and passionately about place, including one woman who found beauty in the heat and star thistles and the raspy calls of scrub jays.
I learned, grudgingly, to tolerate the dust and heat, to find some charm in the lane of gnarled olive trees whose trunks shelter swarms of bees, the dust that coats everything, the odd grafting of English walnut onto black walnut trunks, the llamas and peacocks and zorses and camels that turned up on the patchwork of tiny ranches.
But I always thought I'd leave eventually. And I've been trying, desperately, to find a cooler, less dusty, more coastal--and yet more affordable--place to settle, but I keep getting pulled back into California, into this valley. I'm wondering if it's time to put down more than shallow roots here, to irrigate deeply, to learn to really love this place where I've now spent a decade, to accept it as home. The clock is ticking, as Lucas starts school within the next couple of years, and I don't want to move him around much after he begins to make friends.
I also have a good number of colleagues who I suspect will become lifelong friends if I let them--a rare thing, I think, in a town that is host to a second-tier university that many people see as being a place they pass through on the way to someplace more hospitable.
But oh, the rocky coast, the beaches, the coastal oaks, all the landscapes about which Robinson Jeffers wrote. . . Pelicans, seagulls, sandpipers, otters, sea lions, tidepools, sea hares, starfish! How much I want to inhale the briny breezes.
It's hard to always long for grass that is literally greener, but to find myself in this dry, brittle place that is, surprisingly, so very fertile in so many other ways. I have decisions to make, and soon. I want to settle without being settled.
What about you? Have you found your place? How did you recognize it as such?
Photo credits: Long Beach harbor, scrub jay, star thistle, strawberries for sale