It took me about a week before I felt that I could breathe again.
The journey from Alaska was a three-day affair, and by that I mean a week-long affair, and by that I mean a month-long affair, filled with cabin prep, shut-down, packing and prioritizing, tidying and un-tidying and then re-tidying again. As someone who needs my space to be relatively uncluttered, the leaving game is basically a vomit inducing tug-of-war with my ability to handle chaos (P.S. it doesn’t always go well. P.P.S. I definitely ran inside after we were all loaded into the truck and gave the floor a quick mop down).
However, this year went better than last. This year, we had our systems figured out. I wasn’t relying on The Chief for my every move, I had My Own agenda, he had His and we had Ours. It was great. I only cried once…maybe twice.
The stress of it all, the magnitude of a simple mistake like leaving a water line slightly filled and coming home to a frozen lake was swimming through my ears after my foray into freezing lines the week before. The sheer potential for a mistake in a three-day all-day hustle hung around me and so, the occasional stress cry was necessary.
The real cry came later.
We left late morning on the 30th of October.
For the first time, The Chief and I left together with snow on the ground and rain in the sky.
For the first time, we left together in a vehicle with a heater.
For the first time, we left together in our own vehicle.
And, for the first time, we left together without our girl.
The body remembers what the heart tries to forget and as we rounded the corner that meant we were heading away from home, I turned to see my Lou in the backseat as I had on countless trips before.
Where she was to be sitting lay a mountain of cold weather survival gear but it couldn’t have felt emptier.
For the millionth time, I broke and The Chief held my hand as I sobbed my way through our first turn towards California, for the first time, without Lou.
Eight hours and a plant baby drop-off and a lovely visit with our dear friends and we were in Anchorage.
[Insert scary music]
We arrived just in time to grab some food and hit the hay.
The next day was packed to the brim with appointments. Two dentist appointments plus four doctor appointments between the two of us. When you’re in Town, you make the most of it and we crammed every ounce of health we could into that endless day. Yet, end it did, in the company of good friends on a not so spooky Halloween.
The next day was our Travel Day: California.
I felt like we’d already been traveling for days on end (we had), but those had been the easy ones. A slow move into society via miles of highway through beautiful mountains. But the airport? Be Still My Heart and not in a romantic way, but in the Stop Beating Out Of My Chest, Chill, Be Still My Heart way. The bright lights and the constant movement and the utter pace of it all wrapped up into a sterile environment left us both a bit dumbstruck but, we made it through.
All the way to California.
We arrived in the evening to two tricksters, my Mom and my Girlfriend (both of whom visited this Summer) who scared the living daylights out of us by jumping up from behind a wall to greet us.
I almost lost my lunch.
After we caught our breath and were able to hug them without passing out, we headed downstairs.
Again, my body triumphed and tricked my heart into hoping. I instinctively headed over to the Oversized Baggage Area to collect our girl. Habit trumped heart and again the pain came over me and my eyes welled up with tears. Yet here were these two people I love, here to greet me, here to welcome me Home. I felt ungrateful and so stuck in my inability to meet their enthusiasm but I couldn’t help it. I felt stunned and stunted.
Re-Immersion is always hard but it took on a new shine this year as my comfort, my steady, my love was no longer with me. I didn’t realize how much I relied on her to make this process easier, to make this culture shock carry a bit less voltage.
But there we were and there she wasn’t and so we set off to bear the brunt of the change on our own, together.
If you’ve ever come back from abroad to the U.S., especially from a less developed nation, you’ve likely experienced culture shock. Coming back from Italy one of the first of many shocks came in customs. In Italy, every direction in the airport was written in countless languages and although customs agents were still serious, they were kind and conversational. Yet upon arriving in the U.S. I immediately felt as if I had done something wrong. Agents were looking me up and down, scrutinizing my passport, asking me questions…and I was a citizen. I couldn’t imagine the stress of being a non-citizen (until I picked up my Norwegian girlfriend from the airport and had to wait 3 hours for her to make it through customs. A two-week holiday in the U.S. by a thirty-something cherub-faced Norwegian? Verrrrrrrrrrrry suspicious (apparently)). To add to the discomfort was a feeling of unwelcome. The signs were posted solely in English (this may have changed). English is well-known, but to have a single language at an International Airport? Sounds like xenophobic notes playing on your xylophone, sweet S.F.
Point being, if you’ve been there, you know. You emerge from a new point of view into the old and suddenly, you look at everything with new, slightly shifted eyes. You see things you didn’t notice before, you re-evaluate how you lived your life prior to your travels. It changes you. And, in your absence, if you return to the same place you’ve left, it too has changed by the passing of time.
Joni Mitchell has always sung me back to a California where I feel like the changed one and certainly, I am. This year, I felt it most. Leaving Alaska and arriving in California felt like walking through customs again. Me, I’m further and further accustomed to my life in the woods and less and less inclined to be in cities (though more and more grateful for their amenities). And, for now, I’m not the happy-go-lucky person I was before Cinda. I’m a little quieter, a little more reserved, less the life of the party, and though it won’t be forever, it is for now.
Yet, despite all of my differences, I’m not the only one who’s changed. For the first time, I’ve been away long enough, often enough to get outside my bubble and see.
You’ve changed, girl.
(I can’t account for the whole state, so when I say California, know that I mean Sonoma County.)
I think the reason Alaska fits me so well is because of Sonoma County, the Original Sonoma County. I was raised in the outdoors, taught to nurture nature, encouraged to explore, and things were quiet. I would go whole weekends lost in a land of solo play amongst the redwoods and rhododendrons or the tall wheat colored snake-tail grasses of my birth home. It was simple.
Slowly but surely, things got busier. Wine came in and took out the orchards of apples that made up my youth and soon, I grew accustomed to that shift. It was normal to no longer see singular farmers drive their tractors up and down the street but instead to see crews of workers change a landscape in days. With the changing land, came a new breed of people, wine people, but still the shift was slow and steady and the bones of our community felt the same.
Yet, it wasn’t. This place hasn’t been the same since the first apple tree went down. My ideas of it remained the same, my values garnered from it grew stronger but it continued to change as I continued to hold onto the past.
Maybe because this year has been a year of letting go, I was finally able to see it.
The quiet hippie town I’ve loved is a bustling bourgeoise town. There are still enough remnants of the old to feel utterly familiar but everything has changed. And, since I haven’t been here through the change, I haven’t changed with it.
The library where I used to spend hours on end getting lost in books, talking to librarians for recommendations and discovering worlds I’d never dreamed of is still there but everything is automated. You check yourself out. There’s no one looking at your selections, asking if you’ve read this or that book by so and so.
The once industrial part of town is now a bustling uppity center for delicious eats and fancy finds filled to the brim with people I don’t recognize.
The traffic, once non-existent (I once saw a tractor and a horse driving/walking down Main Street) is fully present and the impatience with which people drive is both catching and depressing.
It’s not just me. It’s not just the Alaska factor. Friends around me I’ve grown up with are noticing it too, even those who live here and change with it. It’s different.
Yet, still, it is home. It was the first home I’ve known and now, it is the first home I visit when I have the chance. Our relationship now feels like the first meeting of two old lovers. You see the change, you see the new and different and perhaps, maybe it’s all for the better, but all that you have in common now, is the past. What there is to talk about is the past and it makes you feel perhaps grateful for the time you spent together, a bit melancholy for what once was and realize that you no longer fit the way you once did.
Don’t get me wrong, that lover was gorgeous. It’s absolutely lovely here. The leaves are turning and the Winter light is shining so that everything at least feels quieter. There are Christmas Fairs popping up with wonderful local artisans and holiday concerts with local talent. There are small businesses (even apple businesses!) and tie-dye and hippies. There is so much of what I grew up on, I am just no longer a constant part of it and it doesn’t always fit. I am holding on to a past that has passed.
In an unplanned year of letting go, I find myself again being faced with a reality I hadn’t expected. Yet, to see the truth is to truly live. And so, since the first time Joni sang me home to the present, I see the truth. We both, California and I, have been changing all along, becoming who we are.
As the first line state in a speech I wrote and read at our 8th-grade graduation read: “Change is inevitable.”
If only I had listened, it might not have made re-immersion so hard.
For the first week, I could barely breathe. The fast-paced life, the constant sounds, the hustle, and bustle all shook me but what I really think jarred me were the changes on all fronts. We were without our girl, without our comfort and the wool was suddenly pulled from my eyes. The realization came and swept me up: change happens, with or without your acknowledgment.
In self, in state, in life…
Change is inevitable.
Welcome home to us, to a home I’ve always loved and to a place I didn’t realize I was trying so hard to hold on to. As Joni said: “My heart cried out for you” and it always will. You have a piece of me and as I change, you too change.
I adore you, California, new clothes and all.
Cheers, to change.
Cheers, to California,
Cheers, to our Lou. Always and forever, you will be our first.
Sunshine on my shoulder.
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