8 August 2002
|I type these words sitting at a whitewashed picnic bench in the shade of a maple tree. The leaves overhead rustle in the breeze, a sound like the wind itself but soft and sussurating. This is not my city home. This is a peaceful country home.
To my left, through the tall spruce trees, I can see a wide lake with a handful of tiny islands jutting up, rocky and piney and mysterious. The kinds of islands I would have loved in childhood, peopled in my imagination with pirates and runaways and animal families. The light blue water rushes and spins in the breeze. Dan and Damian are somewhere out there right now, sitting in a white pedal boat. Dan sits in a blue bucket seat, moving the boat forward with the push and pull of his leg muscles. Damian sits beside him bundled up in a bright orange-and-red-and-yellow life jacket, probably trailing his hand in the water.
To my right, a rock garden. Pebbles define a path around circles of boulders that ring the edges of the planted areas. A vegetable garden in back, with lettuce, sugar snap peas and string beans for the kitchen; in front, the orange balls of marigolds, the pocket of plants with gentle bell shaped pink and white flowers, the scattering of wooly thyme and droopy echinacea and a profusion of plants I dont know. Shrubs rise above ground cover, plants with pale green leaves contrast with dark green needles behind them. Its an artists palate, a gardeners sensibility, set against a forest of tall trees. So much green. This is not my desert home. This is another kind of home altogether.
Behind me, the house. A three story narrow tree house of a building. Large picture windows to drink in the view, an eagles aerie in modern stucco and glass painted inside with gentle, muted colors, with wood and slate and white edging, every detail carefully considered, all the small beauties hidden within the bright space.
No, this is not my beautiful house (this is not my beautiful life). Its my mothers Nova Scotia home, the place she dreamed for years, the land she fell in love with and bought before she knew where the money would come from to build. Its a lovely house, an ideal spot. I can understand why she loves it here. And because its my mothers home, it is my home too, at least a little. Im more than guest here, and I can relax into it.
When Im in a place like this, its hard to believe we live where we do. Los Angeles seems like another country (which it is) and another world (and oh, how it is that). The thing about travelling is that here is so very tangible and there is distant, other, a mirage you can only faintly make out through the shimmer of desert heat. Even when there is supposedly home.
Before Halifax was New York. New York was Dans parents house in Rockland County, a broad expanse of back yard, a low stone wall behind that. An enclosed house, sealed against summer heat. A house that holds so many memories for Dan, holds his teen years in fading photographs and the creak of a floor board at midnight. A house with a staircase and an upstairs for Damian to explore, a king sized bed on stilts and box spring, a glorious substitute trampoline. Damian declared on the first day that we were going to move in, that we would buy the house from Dans parents and make it ours. He loves travel and newness, it seems. Also, I think, loves the size of the house half again as big as ours and the comfortableness that comes with welcoming grandparents. Not something he gets to enjoy every day. Something I wish he could have in his life the way I had it in mine. I spent nearly every weekend with grandparents. Damian spends one week every few years (or a few weeks a year, in the case of my mother). It makes me sad. We live too damned far away.
Rockland feels like home to Dan. It does to me in some ways too, unexpected ways. The green, mostly. This is a dry year; drought has hit the Northeast and lawns languish unwatered. But still, the hills are tinted forest colors, not earth tones. The trees that lean against the highway are birch and maple and oak, so thick and full and present. The stone farmhouses too, and the white clapboard cottages, houses that predate the oldest California adobe. Houses that look right amid tiger lilies and blueberry bushes. For a time, the world I saw matched my inner concept of the way things should be and I drank it in, outrageously thirsty.
We cant be in the New York area without going into town, of course. And there I felt that shock of home the most, that "of course, this is how it is and should be" shiver. Strangely, I found myself on the verge of tears constantly in the city: As we drove through the Lincoln Tunnel, emerging into midtown, the spire of the Empire State Building peeking out from behind a flat-topped gray and white skyscraper. As we walked down Sixteenth Street on our way to Union Square Park, shaking our heads at the profusion of boutiques, tiny tile-and-fabric stores, sidewalk cafes that poke out beneath awnings under the former warehouses and narrow turn of the century apartment buildings that line the street. It feels unexpectedly like Paris, this part of the city. My city.
Yes, its still mine. I dont live there, I live thousands of miles away, but its where I grew up. Where I wandered the streets at two a.m., drunk on being seventeen. Where my ears felt like they were solid ice, where my breath froze my nose, where I stepped into a huge drift of gray slush and wet through my boots to socks and toes. Where I reveled in the wet pavement, the way colors deepened and the water washed cobblestones clean and dark after a good rain. Where I knew the best places for eggcreams and knishes, the last place to drop off Fed Ex packages to catch the overnight flight to the west coast, the entire map of the subway system (except maybe in Queens), and the entire movie schedule of the St. Marks Cinema. Not to mention the proper way to stand on the subway without holding on: like a drunken sailor, letting your body sway with the rush of air through the tunnel.
Its my city, dammit. And yet I look at it as an outsider now. Inside and outside both at once. A tourist snapping pictures and gawping at the majesty, the history, even at the piles of garbage stacked higher than a person. A tourist driving past the hole that was the World Trade Center, a flash of emptiness on our way to the bottom tip of the island. Did I imagine the faint scent? Was the sulfur tinge from the Hudson River or the echo of last autumns horrific morning?
This is how I know Im not completely a New Yorker anymore: I wasnt there. I dont personally know anyone who died, nor anyone who was in the towers or the vicinity and escaped with a tale to tell. I was only shocked and appalled from a distance, the way everyone else in this country was affected but maybe a sliver more simply because this is still my city even though its moved forward without me.
Have I moved forward without it? Would I fit there again? In New York or New Jersey or even Nova Scotia? My inner landscape hasnt changed in the fourteen years Ive been out west, surely that means something. But would I get used to the snow and slush of winter, the summer humidity that drips down your neck in rivers of sweat? Would I get used to summer thunderstorms, to mosquitoes and fireflies (surely the latter)? Would I get used to the paltry produce (California keeps the best for itself) and the short growing season? Would I get used to the complication of bus and train and parking garages that cost as much as hotel rooms? Would I still fit with my friends? Would they find time for me, would spaces appear in their full schedules if I was back in town for good? Would I be able to reconfigure my life, to form that new accounting of days and places that a huge move necessitates? Would we?
Thats the problem, really. Its not just me now. Its Dan and his long work history and the depth of his contacts in Los Angeles versus vaguely remembered faces from the New York film community. Its Damian, too. Damian, who needs good schools and a back yard and a certain sense of peace and security to grow up healthy and happy. We dont entirely have all that now his current school is wonderful but after that its a question mark and we dont live on a terribly peaceful street but a move like that? Not something to take lightly. Not something you can try for six months or a year and say "Oops, made a mistake, lets pack up our entire lives again and head back west."
Still, the lure is strong and if theres a way to make it work in two years or three or ten, we want to try. I think ultimately its a simple issue. Where do we feel at home? In the Northeast, specifically the New York area. Its not just about family or old, still-close or close-again friends, though thats obviously a factor. Its more some kind of internal sense that the place is right. Internal and external too. New York is still the only city Ive been in where I look like I fit. In the supermarket, I see half a dozen women who could be long-lost cousins. On the subway, I overhear voices and accents I recognize as shades of my own. My walk, my clothes, my affect. My forthrightness. When I say something blunt here, people often look at me like "Did you really say that?", but in New York? They join in. And when I was pregnant, I remember watching for young children babies, toddlers trying to find ones who looked like my baby-to-be might. And I couldnt find a single damned one. They were all blonde, these kids, or dark but Mexican, or occasionally Asian. But mostly blonde. I know this city is filled with Jews, but somehow theyre not Jews like me. They turn blonde, and its apparently not just hair dye. They dye their genes too, down to the roots. Me, Ive never assimilated. I dont fit in my current home town, and its felt strange for the past fourteen years.
What defines home? Im not sure exactly. I have a friend who grew up in the Boston area, who has lived in Cambridge and Seattle and Berkeley, and who finally told her spouse, "I have to move back to Seattle. Thats where I belong." For her it wasnt about roots or memories, it was about a certain indefinable fit. I have a cousin who moved from Cleveland to Rome (yes, the one in Italy). She always seemed content in the Midwest but she fits better in Rome. Shes more herself among the ancient stone walls and tiny winding streets. Then again, my friend Chris -- who I always thought fit perfectly into the energy of San Franciscos Mission District, not to mention the Castro, and I know she loved it too recently moved back to New York and I think feels the same on-the-verge-of-tears about her life now that I feel visiting that "oh yes, this is my real life." Theres some fit between internal and external, puzzle pieces snuggling together easily, falling into place with a satisfying click.
Knowing all that and knowing, too, that its not possible to move now and may never be possible, how do I go back to Los Angeles? With a wistful sigh, thats how. You do what you have to do. Ultimately, my life will suck me back in. It may be an uneasy, somewhat uncomfortable fit, but its not a terrible place and our friends and house and the habits of daily life there are actually pretty nice. Sometimes more than nice. Were planting spiky sweet lavender and wavy red fountain grass in the front yard when we get back, Damian will be back in his sweet school and Dan back at his pleasant editing job twenty blocks west of home, and nearly every morning Ill sit in my tiny office at my pale wood three cornered desk and watch my novel grow long and dense on my PowerBook. And well go to the Hollywood farmers market on Sundays and haunt Home Depot and meet Diane and Darin for dinner as we watch Sophia and Damian romp in the living room together. And maybe well follow up on some tentative new friendships and get back in touch with old ones, maybe well go to the zoo, go to Disneyland, go to the beach. Well live as well as we can where we live. And gradually this trip will slip into nostalgia tinged with hope, our lives past and future, while we continue to live in the present.
Home is what you make of it.
current log / Damian essay archive / other essays archive / what's all this, then?
copyright 2002 Tamar