I’m back from a two-week vacation in my homeland, inasmuch as I have one. I had gotten the idea to go a few months ago, partly because I wanted to see family and friends, partly to shake myself out of the torpor I’d fallen into in Washington. After we sold my grandmother’s house, I was ready to settle in and take it easy for a while, and I did: eating too much, drinking too much, and watching too much TV. The scarcity of blogging over this period was largely because there wasn’t much interesting to say.
I realized, after a while, that I had to get up and try to rebuild my life, but for some reason I never had the appetite for it. I’m sure part of this was the trouble that was continuing to plague my family — my brother-in-law’s lymphoma, my sister’s thyroid condition, and various other problems that have developed. And unlike with the grandmother situation, there really wasn’t anything I could do to help. So it’s hard to get excited about doing anything, when I can’t be doing what I wish I were doing. But also, in our age when people can choose their extracurricular activities, they tend to form them around their passions — mountain biking, philosophy, chess, Jesus, or whatever — and I seem to have no passions left. Going to California was, in a way, like visiting my old self, back when I had them.
I flew into San Francisco, and when I arrived I realized I’d been away so long that the scenery looked distinctly alien to me. I remember back in the ’70s, in the first few years after we moved there, my mother would sometimes remark on how strange some part of the landscape looked — the hills that turned gold in the summertime from dried-up grass, the high fog in a sheet a hundred feet above the ground — which seemed perfectly ordinary to me. But looking at the city from the airport’s elevated people mover, I saw what she meant. In my mind’s eye, both California and Washington are covered with greenery; but I forget how bare and dessicated California’s plant life is, epitomized by the palm tree, that great tufted needle that provides neither shade nor shelter. It’s beautiful in its way, but it takes some getting used to. On the other hand, going east never seemed to take much of an adjustment. I imagine that’s because all of us Californians grew up with an idea of a “normal” landscape that looks eastern, or even European. I remember as a child learning the signs of the four seasons — autumn leaves, winter snows, etc. — that I almost never saw in real life.
Early in my trip I visited a cousin in Healdsburg, a small town in northern Sonoma County. I had never been there before — strange to think now how the northern edge of my universe used to be somewhere in Terra Linda — but the ecosystem was much the same as in Marin, with that familiar summer smell of dry meadow grass, and Himalayan blackberries growing wild for anyone willing to brave the thorns. The Bay area, unlike Washington, was having an unusually cool summer. It’s hard to convey to outsiders with “sunny California” in their heads just how chilly and gray S.F.’s summers are even in normal years, and this year it just sort of gave up and started impersonating British Columbia. I was prepared for this — I remember the morning I dressed for the flight, noticing how odd it was to put on socks for the first time in months — but it was still kind of a shock to the system. I remember one evening I did laundry, and hung up some of the clothes in my closet to dry; in the morning they had barely changed, as the house had spent the night enveloped in sea fog.
In San Francisco I also visited the California Academy of Sciences, one of my favorite places when I was a child, which had been completely rebuilt since my last visit there. I went to a lot of science museums on my road trip two years ago, and I recognized the changes as part of larger trends: more high-tech, more interactive, more ecological, and lower on cathedral-like open space. It was hard to accept that my old neoclassical museum was gone, but there were some cool additions. Pathways led you through an ersatz mangrove swamp, where uncannily large sharks and rays swam beneath your feet. The African Hall had most of the same dioramas, but they moved in some live animals to illustrate the variety of habitats there, including their longtime flock of South African penguins. And, though the carpeting didn’t exactly go with the pristine marble hall, it sure helped mute the yelling children.
The alligator pit — now called the “Southern swamp habitat” — now had an albino alligator, which was one of the strangest things I’d ever seen. The building now also has a landscaped roof that visitors can walk around on. Mostly it’s covered with tough, uninteresting ground cover, but they designed it with window-covered mounds that, according to the signs, are meant to echo San Francisco’s hilly landscape. To me, what they most recalled was the old Zeiss projector that used to be in the center of the planetarium, which has now gone digital. I understand why the technology is obsolete, but — but!
After five days of tramping around the Bay area, I drove to L.A. Staying on the PMC email list can come in handy, and that’s how I landed a house-sitting gig in Pasadena for the week. The house belongs to Rob Muthiah, former pastor and current Azusa professor, and being there reminded me of both the good and the bad of the church experience. I had been to the house for the last small group I attempted to be in, which was studying the epistle to the Colossians along with Colossians Remixed. I didn’t like Colossians Remixed, and it sort of overshadowed Colossians itself, so I gave up on the group after a few sessions. But after that, when I went on my road trip, Rob told his parents in North Dakota to put me up if I ever went through there; and they did, feeding me baloney sandwiches and giving me the run of the house when they took off on a preplanned trip somewhere. That almost unthinking generosity is one of the things I miss most, in this untrusting town.
The house itself had a kind of wholesome, idyllic feel to it. Unlike with most California houses, the original builder had chosen to sacrifice square footage for the sake of the back yard, which takes up about half the property and is shaded by a magnificent live oak. It’s a tiny house for a five-person family, but the yard clearly functions as a living space, with patio furniture, toys, a firepit and a detached garage all living under the tree. That had a sort of civilized Mediterranean feel to it, as did the fact that the house’s only television was tucked away in a closet, while the small living room was dominated by a piano and a pile of percussion instruments.
In Pasadena the weather turned hot again, and I took more than one opportunity to run off to the beach. There, California starts showing the character that the tourists know it for. I remember walking the sidewalk near Venice Beach behind a woman who was wearing, by God, Daisy Dukes with a bikini on top. And sun-kissed skin so hot it was getting reddish at the shoulders. And a pink purse, and cowboy boots. As I walked along behind her, marveling and just how short shorts can get on someone with no hips, she almost got plowed into by a bronze young man on a bicycle. He apologized, but she smiled at him, and he looked pleased to have attracted the attention of such a vision.
The beach itself has a parking lot surrounded by a simple wooden fence; and as I walked by it one evening, I saw a man in a kungfu outfit and straw hat climb atop one of the fenceposts, and stand there in deep concentration, as if gathering himself. As I watched discreetly, he abruptly took off running along the thin edge of the fence’s planking, and went about ten yards before he dropped off. It would have been cool to say he was some kind of martial-arts master, but he looked like he was having trouble keeping his balance. He got back on the fence though, and tried again. He was, I suppose, practicing.
But anyway, I didn’t do much sightseeing in L.A. My main business was seeing people I knew. In many ways, the relative lack of passions on my part made it easier. I went to church, and had deep conversations with friends, and hung out with my old boyfriend, and was aware of a lot of things coming up that used to frustrate me that didn’t really bother me any more. It made it easier to appreciate the good things, but I knew the frustrations were because I was really trying before, and now I was just passing through.
My mellow got a bit disturbed when I had breakfast with Telford, on my last day in California. I hadn’t seen him since the first day of my road trip, and I was wondering why he hadn’t updated his website since then, and had barely published anything. (OK, there was a book, but given the pace of publishing that was surely done by then.) There has, in fact, been a lot of drama going on in his life, which I don’t feel at liberty to discuss, but all the catching-up led to an intense three-and-a-half-hour breakfast. And it didn’t surprise me that Telford, of all the Christians I know, made the most direct effort to get me to come back to the church. When someone looks soulfully into your eyes and tells you the church needs your gifts, it feels scroogy to decline. But I also knew that I had been there, and done that. Only God knows what he wants from me, if he wants anything.
And then a long journey home, and then back to the grind. Where does all this leave me? Annoyingly, not very far from where I started. But I did do one thing since I got back: join Facebook. I’ve been alone too much for too long.