Do I choose to live somewhere I wildly love — where I love the wild — where I feel I belong on a cellular level? Or do I live in a place where I am held by people and stories — where my children and I were born in the same hospital and where my father is buried? Do any of us live in our hearts and take our homes with us, or do our homes become a place around which to build our hearts? Is it the new story of the world is our home and we can go anywhere, or attachment to the old story of roots and generations?
I heard a talk the other day in which the teacher counseled: “Do not live in a foreign land.” Her “foreign land” was among people who do not nourish you, among habits and ways of being that are not in line with your essential nature. I cannot decipher which is the foreign land — the place for which I long or the place I’ve come to know so intimately. Can the intimate actually be the foreign, disguised by our habits which make us blind to all of the ways it doesn’t fit us, while the seemingly unknown holds our true home?
When I was a kid, it never occurred to me that any place other than Iowa could be home. I spent a summer in Maine in college and became smitten by her rocky shores and endless cool green days, but still it wasn’t home. That Maine accent also sounded a million miles away from familiar, and lobsters, though delicious, were exotic as all get out. I lived in Seattle for nearly a decade and never stopped ceased longing for lightning and fireflies. The skyline became more familiar on every return drive back from the airport, unfolding on the ribbon of the I-5. “Home?” I’d ask myself. “Yes, a little.” But always a little. Never a lot.
Though I’ve adored many places I’ve traveled to–Ireland, breathtaking; London, natty; New York, lively–it was Provence where I had a sense of recognition, that sort of past-life ping of yearning. It was something about the land.
It’s that same undulating, full of growing things, no straight lines, small towns and mountains with the ocean just over there that draws me to California. So much so that every time I arrive, I cry. Every time I arrive, I am back in some alignment with self. Every time I arrive, I count the hours to when I’ll have to leave.
As though madly gone for a lover who is down on her luck, I love this complicated place. California is on fire. She is bursting with one in eight Americans. She is in threat of losing her beautiful coastlines. She awaits to tremble and shake and break open, the very plates underneath here pulling apart. She is out of water. And yes, she is costly; a lover who demands unthinkable riches from anyone who danes to stay.
It makes sense that California, the word itself, is the imagined kingdom of a novelist. Queen Calafia was a creation of a popular 16th-century Spanish writer named Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo. “Know, that on the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise,” he wrote, “and it is peopled by black women, without any man among them, for they live in the manner of Amazons.” Although she fights, the Christians and the men win the battle for the queen’s heart and sovereignty. She succumbs. I’d say Queen Calafia is overdue for a Marvel-esque remake in which she never loses her lush island, never gives her heart away, never bows to the US government.
I wonder if Calafia is selling legal weed in Oakland. Or running an Airbnb in Sebastapol. Maybe she waits tables at a diner outside of Death Valley, or repairs the roads of the fabled Highway 1. Calafia picks grapes in the Russian River Valley and fights fires in Escondido. She’s a barista in Davis and a vet tech in Modesto. She sleeps in Los Angeles and wakes up in Eureka. Calafia spreads herself from north to south — pointing toward Canada and dipping her toes into Mexico — while always cradling Mother Pacific in one arm and the Sierras in the other.
Her kingdom is indeed magical, a direct line to something beyond. While hiking in Big Sur in my twenties, the Buddha, who has never come to me before or since, tapped me on the shoulder and told me I was home. I’ve never forgotten the scent of bay laurels that intoxicated me in that moment. Two decades later at Muir Beach, I was married in front of a stone Buddha, an ethereal wise witness, and the ocean. Stay, I heard. A few years later, standing on a cliff over the Pacific, I suddenly received words that I am still pondering: Grace, Grace, grace, make me a vessel. She is magic.
Under her thrall, I search room-for-rent ads north of the Bay (because a house in California is a foolish dream). I listen to the local news while I make my coffee in the morning and sigh over the traffic and the fires. I imagine jobs, humble and out of the way jobs, like those of Calafia herself. Mostly, I think about the conundrum of home, a puzzle I may never put together.