Saturday, October 6, 2012

Waking Up in California

Because I have lived most of my life away from California, when I return for a visit I see it with different eyes than those who have never left.  Everything is new to me, and at the same time, I remember and know every detail.  There should be a word for that, a word for remembering what you didn't know you knew; the way déjà vu means you feel like something has already happened even though you know it hasn’t.  But déjà vu is not it, not what I feel when I step out onto California land.  This is, perhaps, more of a bone and blood memory:  the air, minerals, water, scents, pollen, light, angle of the sun and stars, that my body remembers, that some deep part of my brain remembers.  Usually this is triggered simply by being in California: feeling the thunder of surf on a flat sweep of beach, stepping over the rampant roots of huge fig trees bursting through slabs of sidewalk, or smelling eucalyptus on the evening air, running my hand along the ancient spears of agave or sitting beneath the shameless purple blossoms of jacaranda. 

Once, taking a bus a few years ago in Westwood, I suddenly stepped back into my four year old body, going up those bus steps, my hand in my mother’s hand, sitting next to the window looking out at hot sidewalks and palm trees planted along the way.  I had never consciously remembered taking the bus with my mom in Los Angeles, and yet once I stepped on that bus, I felt as if I’d never been without that memory.  It was as much a part of me as the color of my hair.

So my experiences in California now – as a middle-aged woman - are constantly doubled with memories of being a child here; sensory memories, emotional memories, that shadow my every move.  In some ways, this is like walking simultaneously on two timelines; my two bodies, one three or four years old, one fifty-one, connected suddenly by the geographic location and my history with it.  This probably wouldn’t happen with someone who had grown up in a place and never left, because there is no rupture in that timeline – it’s all connected.  For me, there is that moment when my mother and I got on a bus and left California “forever.” 

We took a Greyhound, actually, all the way from Los Angeles to Washington State.  I remember only parts of this (no doubt I slept much of the time).  I remember that someone had bought me a lovely new dark blue sweater that buttoned up the front, just for the journey, and that I left it on the bus when we got off.  How I mourned that sweater.  It had been a special gift for the journey, and I lost it to the journey.  I also felt bad that I hadn’t kept hold of my possessions, a little guilty that someone spent money on me and I’d wasted it. Mostly, I remember the heat: the bus must have had AC, but the sun beat in from the window anyway, and I stuck to the seat.

We must have gone up the middle of the state, up through the deserty valley, because my body is filled with those rolling golden hills and flat brown fields when I think of this bus ride.  We stopped at my grandparent’s home near Bakersfield for a visit, I recall; but then we got back on a different Greyhound and continued on to Washington, where my mother’s new husband and my new stepfather, Tommy, waited for us.  We would stay at his sister Tina’s house while looking for a place of our own to live.  I would enter another world, a lush, green, gray, wet, close, dark world.  And my Southern California body would withdraw deep into the core of my being, wrapped in fog and clouds and months, years of fir trees, rain, puddles, wet shoes and hair.  My California body would stay there, curled up, dormant.  Even when I returned for a visit at age nine, or when I visited Santa Barbara with my mother when I was nineteen, my California self didn’t emerge – completely enveloped in who I had become, a Pacific Northwestern girl, someone who had gone into that grey land and submerged herself, become a creature of water, mud, pine needles, decaying red cedar, salmonberries, creeks, stinging nettles that left raised tattoos on my skin, skin no longer the color of deep cinnamon brown but an olive-beige – reminiscent, I often thought as I grew older, of the underside of a mushroom.

Like most people who live in the Pacific Northwest for a long time, like any child relocated at this age, I quickly became fiercely territorial of my new home.  No other place was as clean, as beautiful, as friendly.  And California?  California became the Devil, signifying all that was wrong with the world:  impassable freeways, earthquakes, heat, violent upheaval.  People in the PNW who came from California did not advertise that fact; it was a slur to call someone a “California Driver!” or imply that some outsider was “from the land of shake n’ bake.”  Now I realize that part of this attitude must have come from my mother’s sense of having fled a past she wanted to forget, a place and time when she made unforgiveable mistakes and was subject to abuse that could not be forgiven.  She had fled California and who she had been there as if it were Hell on earth; as if the fires of Hell had caught her, burned her, left her with raging scars that could only be healed in the land of endless rain.  My mother was in hiding.  My mother had gone underground.  And she took me with her, because she had lost all her other children to the maw of a monstrous state that would never, never give them back to her.

And I loved my mother.  Oh, how I loved her.  My loyalty knew no bounds, and would suffer no correction of my mother’s behavior, even when that behavior wounded me past all healing.

So my California body slept.  Waited.  Dreamed.  Did it struggle to get out?  Or was it lulled into dormancy by the long wet winters that went on for ten months out of twelve?  I was always such a good sleeper, my mother told people.  I slept through car rides, bus rides, parties, even disappearing into my bedroom for self-dictated naps when life got too busy.  I became practiced at retreat.  I adapted.  I transformed.

At least on the outside.  On the inside, my body remembered everything.  I sit in this California coffee shop this morning and my skin tingles with what I know.  What I remember.  What I will remember.

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