As I write, I am looking out of my bedroom window, onto one of the hills in our Los Angeles neighborhood. Here in LA, houses are stacked up against each other like dominos. This hill, though, is lush, countless varieties of green trees – nearly all transplanted from elsewhere to this desert climate – coexisting, trying to flourish in shrunken spaces.
It is cultural lore here, that when one moves to LA, the energy of the city kicks you out of the nest. It makes you start over. It forces you to become who you are meant to be. I heard that before Jack and I moved here, before we made the decision on a weekend holiday at a bed and breakfast in Tennessee last year. Next to a roaring fire and while a thunderstorm raged outside, we clinked our glasses together. “We are moving to California!” we said to each other, the statement our friends had been predicting for months.
The next chapter of this story, as you will know if you’ve read any of my writing from the last year, was not simple. It was though LA was sending us the message, “Go back to the East Coast!” In many ways, we don’t look like we belong here. Jack owns tweed jackets. The majority of my closet is sweaters. While our neighbors might go to Joshua Tree, we read Russian literature and French philosophy to understand humanity. We drink coffee, not Reishi mushroom tonics. We overanalyze everything. And I regularly miss cold, snowy weather.
In another way, we were drawn to LA, obviously. We were drawn to its relentless sunshine. To its creativity. To its changeability. To its unassuming excellence. To its salt-laced air.
We’ve never had better coffee in the U.S or fresher oranges or better dinners out. Our cheeks have never looked rosier. Jack loves the Oyster Bar 50 feet from our house. I love hearing the sounds of seagulls and crickets. It is all beautiful in its own way. But though there has been joy, it has by no means been fun. Things have either worked or they haven’t.
Rather than saying “leave!” it seems as though this place is saying, “wake up!” Saying: “wake up! You don’t have your whole life to become who you are meant to be. Be that person now. There will be floods and natural disasters and pandemics and gas leaks. People you love will get sick. Time is precious, don’t you dare forget it.”
Unlike all the other more mild places I’ve lived, California sits literally on the cusp of disaster. Fires can burn whole communities to the ground. The earth can shake more powerfully than I could ever imagine. Waters can and will rise. The people who live here, whether they consciously acknowledge it or not, know in some deep way: life is not guaranteed, make it count.
The last year, since I graduated from graduate school, has not been as I had imagined it would be, in any way. No one could have imagined that we would spend the spring locked in our individual houses, worrying about economic collapse and losing loved ones and community heroes to a global pandemic. And yet, here we are. Alone and unsure, lonely and sad, trying to map ways forward.
For those of us in our twenties still, this is an interesting inflection point. Hopefully we are all still in the beginning portion of our lives, and if that is the case, then how can we not be made new by this? Some decisions may be made for us, by the twists of the economy, for instance, but in the ways we can control how we live…how can we be shaped by the experience of this pandemic in ways that make us more compassionate, braver, and stronger?
This is the gift California is giving me: more urgency in my becoming. This process begins with asking better questions of ourselves, like:
What is unspoken?
What needs to be healed?
What breaks my heart?
What brings me joy?
What needs to be made new in the world?
Frederick Buechner said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” In this season of greater simplicity, I think we all need to take those two poles very seriously and learn to honor where they intersect, so that we can reawaken, reinvigorate, and bolster our wayfinding.