What makes a place home? The land? A place? A set of things? The people? Contentment with life, the loveliness in the hills or in the flowers or in the faces, perhaps...
I've been having a hard time thinking about what I could say about the topic of 'where I live'. Maybe because I grew up not considering any place really home, with all the moving we did and thinking that everyone lived out of boxes in their rooms. But I've come to realize that I have learned to put down roots, and the wider answer of 'where I'm from' has to be answered with 'California'. Born and and raised in enough parts of it to feel pretty much at home anywhere in the whole big state. I like this place with its vast variety of landscapes and incredible diversity of people. I feel connected to the land almost any place I go in this state and I get choked up about it if I think about it too closely.
This isn't where I live now. It's one of the many places we lived when I was a kid. I took this picture on my first camera, a little Kodak Instamatic, when I was around 8. California was the one consistent thing about all the various places we lived. My folks both came out here from Missouri, and they liked the weather and the people enough to stay even though they moved around a lot. I liked living in the Mojave Desert; having to ride a yellow school bus to school every morning and afternoon (2 stops after the boy who lived out at a silver mine), walking home on the washboard dirt road that started at the saloon and went off into the desert, hopping and skipping along the ridges in the road after awhile because the soles of our shoes got so hot. At that point we lived in a tiny rental house on the outskirts of town. There was lots of spiky, dangerous cholla cactus that grew just along the fence line and people rode their horses past our yard. My sister and I ran around in the desert all the time catching lizards and horny toads and learning to avoid scorpions and how to watch for rattlers and recognize sidewinder tracks. We moved into town there, then later left the desert to chase jobs in other places like San Diego. I eventually left home and went off to college at Davis and finally ended up in the San Francisco Bay Area.
I love this area; there are so many things within easy distances and there's not much missing in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. I know it pretty well now through exploring all over, going for drives on little twisty back roads through the redwoods and all. I started a collection of pictures called 'home' over on my Flickr site and when I look through it there are pictures of my house and garden and all, but also pics of the Bay Area, some of my favorite haunts, as well as pics from all over California. I love having that feeling of connection to all these spread-out places.
This was taken recently, over in the Niles area of Fremont. I realized that we've lived in the Fremont area now for over 20 years. I think it's closer to 30 years, actually. We moved to this part of the San Francisco Bay Area from Davis so that Paul could go to work at Atari Games and I could commute to art school in San Francisco. The Bay Area is one of the most expensive places to live in the whole US; within the area Fremont was one of the most affordable but still a nice town with lots of diversity, a progressive attitude and hills and preserved wild areas to hike around. And somehow we've stayed, had our kids here and they're growing up here in this town. They've gone to the same primary school since Kindergarten, which seems very odd to me, but it's normal to them to have friends they've known most of their lives. They've lived in the same house all of their lives. Now and then it makes me stop and marvel at what that might be like, the consistency of friends and family and places in their lives.
Living in the same house for years now has grown into something I hold onto tightly. I do sometimes resent all the care and upkeep that doesn't happen around our place, since I'm the one who has to do it and there's never enough money to maintain things as they need to be; our back yard is big and wild and overgrown. There are Pine and Redwood and Sequoia trees I planted as seedlings in the back yard 10, 15 years ago that are huge, towering trees now. They are wonderful majestic presences back there, and I find myself hoping that they'll be allowed to stay there growing ever taller, long after I'm gone.
I found out just how attached to this place I was a year or so ago when Paul's unemployment and my inability to bring in enough money made us seriously look at relocating somewhere else where there might be jobs. I was very resistant to the idea of leaving my house and this area, clinging desperately to the hope that we'd find more work again here. We did eventually, but costs are still high and salaries have lowered; finances are still a big problem. These are tough economic times all over, though, and it still seems to me that things might not be any better in other places. After all, I grew up in a family that chased the dream of better times, better places all over California. And Buckaroo Banzai was right; no matter where you go, there you are. And all of your problems do come with you.
It doesn't feel sensible, or rational, to have grown so attached to this house, this town, the community of friends that I hold dear, but it's happened slowly over time, imperceptibly. I see clouds out over the Bay sometimes while I'm out running kids around and it makes me take a deep breath or two. I have formed deep friendships here, put down roots, which I used to think I'd never be able to do; having to leave here would be very hard now. I'm not sure if it's a side effect of growing older, having kids or having to take responsibility for a lot of hard things, but sometimes I find myself despairing over local and wider politics and economic situations, which I never did when I was more of a transient presence in places I lived before. I have more at stake now, and I care about what my kids will have to deal with. I find my deepest wish for them is that they have long, happy, fulfilling lives, and if I can help that come about by being more involved in the wider community, then it seems like I have to try. It's really hard; my introvert tendency is to want to back away, but having local friends helps pull me out of my shell.
I joke that if we ever had to move we'd be in deep trouble, but it's not far from the truth, since we've accumulated a lot of stuff over the years we've been here. I'm rather a packrat and Paul is worse. I like lots of colorful things, well-crafted artistic things. Seeing other artists' work all around me is inspiring and gives me more ideas, though the clutter does get out of control. I like having things where I can see them, otherwise it's like living out of boxes again and I find the old saying of 'out of sight, out of mind' to be true. I'm too sentimental, it's true. I get too attached to things and to lose them is painful. When you combine two packrats and two kids and all of their accumulated stuff, it gets more than a bit crazy.
I like having a clean, comfortable place where you come in and breathe a sigh of relief and relax from the pressures of the day. Keeping an immaculate, stylish house has never been at the top of my list. Life is too busy, too short and way too interesting to worry about an artificial set of standards imposed by... who? So instead we have a messy, chaotic house and I get embarrassed about the state of the house and I'm rather careful about who we invite over. I admit it's silly; anyone who comes over who's likely to be judgmental isn't likely to be a friend I want to keep around, so why should it matter? Still working on that one.
If I question where I live, one of the questions has to be where does my heart live? With Paul and the boys, obviously, but I have found out the hard way that I need to take better care of myself, both my body and my mind and heart. If I totally give over everything of myself into taking care of everybody else I get angry, impatient, dissatisfied with life. It's proving to be harder than you'd think to actually consider my own needs as well as the boys'. I need to be able to create things; I crave that creative outlet. I do a lot of different stuff and it could be argued that I'm too scattered to accomplish much in any one area, but I get bored doing the same things for too long. A lot of the satisfaction in creating turns out to be in the process of learning new things, trying new approaches and reaching for new abilities, new skills. I need time alone to recharge, but I find I also need time to sit and talk with the boys at the end of the day, time to talk with friends too. I miss all of my long-distance friends and having visits with time to sit around and talk about life and everything are treasured things, intense bursts of social interaction that recharge me for extended periods.
My natural tendency is to be introspective and moody. I decided a while back that I had a choice and I could decide to keep a positive outlook and savor the small moments that happen in a day. Paul would snort and laugh to hear me say that, since he gets the brunt of the times when I feel overwhelmed and dissatisfied, but I do make conscious efforts to enjoy life. Life is short and unpredictable and the older I get the more I believe that those little moments only come along once. My working theory is that the key to a well-lived life may be the ability to recognize and enjoy those fleeting gifts. And yeah, it sounds sappy, but some things are cliche for a reason.
Debbie and I went on a walk around Lake Elizabeth recently, and we talked as we walked by trees in bloom about loss; deaths of family members and friends and how hard it can be to really talk about such things to others who haven't passed through those ordeals yet. We talked about feeling our own mortality and contemplating our own deaths and how quietly and matter-of-factly we considered it. And we talked about how it doesn't feel acceptable to openly speak of such things; it really disturbs people. And yet, if you never consider such things, how do you know what really matters to you and what you want to accomplish and see or do until it's really too late?
It's not as simple as a 'bucket list', it's about making choices all the way along about how you want to live and the attitudes you choose to live by and what you see and smell and listen to and savor in your life. It's about trying the best you're capable of to find the best path through the hard places, to live a positive, loving and meaningful life on your own terms without worrying about what society thinks. It's also about how you approach dealing with losing your loved ones or your own loss of health or eventual demise. It's such hard stuff and not something people want to think or talk about and yet everyone eventually goes through it.
It was such a relief to talk to Debbie so openly about it and find her attitudes mirrored mine so well. Life is such a gift, not to be wasted, and yet of course you can't savor every moment of every day; the mundane necessities of life continue on despite anything monumental that might be happening in our lives, and the very fact that life swirls on around you when one of these huge events happens can make everything feel very surreal. But I'm finding, after my own episodes of loss and bad health and bad luck with cancer and other issues, that maybe the little fleeting moments are the bits that stick, the ones I'll remember down at the end of the road. Those bits of beauty that make the breath catch in your throat, those chords of music that make you tear up uncontrollably, that thing a friend says that hits so close to home that you stop in your tracks, even if it's just for a few seconds. And maybe that's going to be enough to feel it's been a life well lived.