For the past month, Joni Mitchell’s “California” has been going through my head. If you’ve never had the pleasure of the fluting vocals of Miss Mitchell, please do, as the Millennials say “Treat yo-self.” Who am I kidding, I say that too. It’s fun, no? Totes.
Anyways, pop culture colloquialisms aside, Miss Mitchell had been dancing in my ears for days on end. I’m the type of person who constantly has a song going through my head (I used to even be superstitious during my soccer games that if a sad song came into my head, we were going to lose, which of course, as the odds would have it, proved true) so there have been many other companions to “California” but she has, overall, been the main show.
The song holds a sweetness to me as I first discovered it on my own (I’m sure I grew up hearing it but never purposefully interacted with it solo) during my first year of college. I was 17 years old, living in Washington, D.C. Back then, Sebastopol, the little town I grew up in, was still holding on to its hippie roots. Tie-dye and incense were the accessories of my youth and I had just started to dig into who I was to become as an adult (tie-dye not so much, incense yes) when this country girl landed herself smack dab in the middle of a metropolis. Not just any capital, it was the Nation’s Capital: D.C.
I was completely overwhelmed.
Upon meeting my “floor” and cohort in college I was introduced to the business handshake…
These kids were ready to succeed. They had a drive I’d never seen and a lingo I didn’t speak and an overall sense of entitlement I had only caught glimpses of at my Grandparents’ Country Club, a place where I would say I was about as comfortable as a lobster at a hot spring. It just didn’t fit.
So, I did what every teenager does at one point or another and I split in two, trying on a new side of me: the professional. I put on the business suits and I shook the hands of my friends instead of hugging them as I’d grown up doing. I updated my resume and printed it on a hard fancy stock. I spoke the vernacular, I did the dance.
I hated it.
D.C. in and of itself is amazing. Free museums? Yes, please. Cherry blossom wonderland? Sign me up.
The constant hustle and bustle of grey, black, and khaki? The colorless wheel of all day business? The inevitable “Who do you work for/who do you know” self-elevation quandries. Thank you and no, thank you.
I spent most of my time amongst art and artifacts realizing all the while that this, indeed was not the place for me. Upon discovering Joni’s “California”, I felt more and more sure that I had been given a peek into a different world, one which I appreciated and admired in many ways but about which I could wholeheartedly say was not for me.
Joni sang me through the months in an almost mantra-like fashion.
California, I’m coming home.
And come home I did where my lurking decision on whether or not to return to D.C. became wildly clear. I was not going back. I had left to try something on and found out from the first leg in that it was not my size. I very much believe in leaving what doesn’t suit you to allow the space for the person it does fit to find it. Don’t take it simply because it’s there. Leave it for someone else to wear.
I settled into my home again at a new college with a little better idea of who I was and was not and continued to find me, often by finding what didn’t fit first.
Joni Mitchell marked a time where this all started.
The next time Joni became a focal point and “California” started again to be the title track playing through my head was three years later. I had recently turned 20 years old and I had been living in Italy for the previous nine months in an unplanned journey away from heartbreak right into the loving arms of Italy (this was pre-Eat Pray Love but I’m O.K. with Elizabeth Gilbert and I sharing a shockingly similar narrative and love of eating). I fell absolutely head over insanely fashionable heels for the place and I found new sides of myself, this time by finding what I loved. Good food, walking, history, art, a slower pace and a deeper purpose.
I thought I would never leave and part of me never did but slowly, as my European classmates left to go back to their respective countries and the weather started to cool, the song turned up and all I could hear was her singing:
“Oh, it gets so lonely when you’re walking and the streets are full of strangers.”
I was lonely. The beautiful Italian families surrounding me made me miss the sense of home I had felt in Italy only a few short weeks before and so, I followed the whispering welcomes of California.
“California, I’m coming home.”
I arrived, and that time, unlike the relief I had felt upon my recovery from D.C. something felt different. California suddenly didn’t fit quite as well as it had before. It wasn’t a non-fit like the squeeze of trying to wear post-break-up jeans two years into a cozy loving new relationship, but something wasn’t quite right. My favorite old pair of blue jeans had started to wear thin but still, my love for California and all that it held kept me close for the years to come.
The years until Alaska.
Just the opposite of Italy (in so very many ways), I landed in Alaska and did not feel like I’d arrived at a forever home. I was scared, truly and uncomfortable to say the least but I felt a stirring in me I hadn’t felt since landing in the land of pasta. Something again had shifted.
Almost three years in, I’m in love with Alaska not just because of her beauty but because she is both comfort and discomfort all in one. She is constantly pushing me to find new parts of myself I would have rather left undiscovered, dust them off and love them into a new shine. She’s challenging and I’m challenged into becoming a better me just by being in her presence and also constantly reminded that I’m not “there” yet. But I am there, in Alaska, most of the year in the almost three years which have suddenly flown by.
Yet this time, it’s not only me who has changed, it’s California as well. Since my journeys away often ended before a year had passed, I’ve never returned to her being as different as I felt after my time away. Yet now, as I am more able to let go of her as my main home, and as the years continue to pass, I see the change.
And so I ask: “Will you take me as I am? Strung out on another man (Alaska, don’t worry Chief)?”
I will do my best to accept you as you are.
California I’m coming home.
And then, we arrived.
To be continued…
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