The Places We Call Home

I spent most of Tuesday down in Orange County, first in Long Beach and then later in Laguna Beach to be part of the Pen on Fire Literary Salon, which was just fantastic. (Side note: I’m so happy to have had the opportunity to get to know the two other writers I was a panelist with: Dinah Lenney and James Brown, both of whom have fantastic memoirs out.)

But really, what I thought most about that day was California. As I wound along the 405 freeway for miles and miles, as I drove past long-familiar exits like Golden West and Beach Blvd., my eyes skimmed to all the places where my father once lived. I thought so much about him and his years in California, first as a young man in Pasadena and then as an old man in Garden Grove. He first moved to California in his mid-twenties, along with his wife, three children, as well as his mother and sister, all of them exiling themselves from Michigan, the only place any of them had ever called home.

My grandmother got a job as a perfume lady at a department store and my aunt Jean worked at an auto-dealership, which in the 1950s was kind of glamorous. She set her blond hair into waves each morning and spent her days smiling at customers amidst the gleaming new engines of big, beautiful cars. My father and his little family settled in Pasadena, his wife staying home with the kids while my father drove off each morning down the oak tree-lined streets to his engineering job.

My grandmother and my aunt never left California, settling into Long Beach as if they’d always known that this was the turn life would take for them. My father and his family were here for at least fifteen years before moving on to Florida and eventually to Atlanta, my father following his dreams of owning a steel manufacturing company. It was in Florida where he divorced his first wife; he was living in Atlanta when he met my mother. For years after he married my mother and had me, we flew out to California at least once a year to visit his mother and sister. I don’t remember what my father thought about California. I only remember my own fascination with it, with the constant sunshine and ocean air, the strange plants pushing themselves out of every corner and crevice, and the bright, tropical flowers cascading over front doorsteps and back fences.

One year on a visit that we took when I was eleven or twelve, we all drove down to Laguna Beach, and I completely fell in love with its oceanfront cliffs and glimmering, artistic community. For months after we returned home I wrote stories about a girl who ran away to Laguna Beach. Even after the stories stopped my fondness for California never quite abated, and later in high school my best friend Liz and I schemed to go to UCLA for college. But then I got swept up by life, and also by New England, and for quite some time I forgot about California.

My father never forgot about California though, and after my mother died he moved back here. He lived with his sister Jean in her condo in Garden Grove until she died only a few months later of pancreatic cancer. She left not just her avocado-green couches and swimming pool-sized ashtrays, but the entire condo, to my father. And he was happy here, among the soft warm air and palm trees, and each time I visited him from New York I could see it in the way he always had something new to show me about this place he once again called home. He took me long drives up through the hills of Riverside or out into the desert. He pointed out plants and mountains and water ways that would seemingly never exist elsewhere. And I stared out the window at the little bungalow homes and the tropical flowers passing by and I was glad my father was happy, even I longed to return to the grit and grime of New York City.

I moved here when I was twenty-four, and right into Hollywood, where I failed to fall in love with my new city right away. It was really only after moving to the beach over a year later that California’s strange shimmering air and tropical plants filled up my heart before I really knew what was happening. I realized then why I could never shake the feeling all those years that my father knew something I didn’t. It was if he’d always known that this was where I belonged, but typical to my father, he let me figure it out on my own.

It’s a strange thing to love a place. We’re so good at loving people and things, but so many of us spend years and years in places that fail to inspire us. The first place I ever loved was New York City, and I still love it. Each time I visit, it’s akin to running into an ex-lover, one who I’m never quite sure I should have left. I could equate my time in Chicago to a lover as well, my life there like a forced relationship I always knew was never quite going to work out. On the flip side, returning here to Los Angeles last year felt like coming home, in the deepest sense that I’ve ever known.

Funny that we often think the place where we grew up is where we belong, and how many of us never bother to find out if that’s true or not. Driving back to Santa Monica the other night, I realized that I’ll never stop feeling grateful to my father for giving me this place, for showing me where my home was.

 

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Motherhood: A Life Unexpected

Being a mother is never something I imagined for myself. Inside all the things I’ve dreamed of becoming in my life (a veterinarian, a marine biologist, a poet, a nurse, a therapist, an author), mother was never among them. When I made the decision a few years ago that I did, in fact, want a baby it was a tenuous one, born out of a love for my husband that overtook me in an unexpected way.

(Mother’s Day 2010)

I’d never loved anyone like I love Greg. When I fell in love with him it was surprising and swift and immediate and I wanted so, so much more from it than I’d ever wanted from love before. I wanted an endless future with him. I wanted to call him something more than boyfriend, which is all I’d ever called the other boys I’d loved. And I also had the deepest, simplest urge to create something with him that was made from us.

We stopped trying to be careful two months after we were married, and Vera was conceived out of that very first time. But the waterfall of changes that occurred as a result of pregnancy were just as swift and immediate as the way we’d fallen in love. Motherhood suddenly loomed, bigger and stranger than I’d ever imagined. In fact, I hadn’t ever imagined it really. I’d only thought about me and Greg and what we were together, wanting something more from that, but not quite realizing what.

Three years later and I am constantly surprised to find myself making preschool lunches and applying Elmo bandaids to scraped, little knees. The incongruence I feel when I find myself pushing a stroller to the playground or bargaining with my fussy toddler as I try to get the grocery shopping done is startling.

That’s not to say I don’t love her. I do, I do. And I love her in that same deep way in which I fell in love with Greg, helplessly and utterly.

(Mother’s Day 2011)

It’s just that in rare moments these days when I find myself alone with time to think (usually in the car or on an airplane), my thoughts are a jumble of who I thought I was going to be compared to the pressing vision of my daily life. Last night driving home from a friend’s house I couldn’t stop the images of myself in other roles: traveling abroad, teaching, researching, hosting, connecting. All things that are surely still to come, if I want them to. And if only I can remember to peek my head above the life in front of me. The one in which I dream daily of owning a home, of a second car, of a nursery for our new baby or of the swirling calendar of toddler birthday parties and playdates.

All last summer Greg and I went back and forth about whether or not we wanted to have a second child. We simply couldn’t decide. There were a hundred reasons on each side and for those first long, warm months of our new life here in California we debated endlessly. In September there was just one time when we weren’t careful, and a few weeks later we realized the decision had been made for us.

I’ll never know why some of my friends struggle for years to become pregnant, enduring loss and heartbreak and the utter rebuilding of futures imagined. And why I myself, a woman so unsure of motherhood in the first place, has so easily entered into it. Some will say it was meant to be, but of that I’m not so sure. These days I struggle to make sense of the idea of destiny versus free will, of creating the lives we want, opposed to the lives we were always going to live.

But I do know this: I know that motherhood has made me into a woman more complex and layered than I’d ever imagined. I know that the woman I have become in the last three years has only made me even more capable of being all those things I always dreamed of being. I know that my dreams are even richer and deeper and more daring, because the world is that way too, and being a mother has taught me so.

Read more about how motherhood affected my marriage in the new anthology Wedding Cake for Breakfast

Finding My Mother Again, an essay I wrote for Salon.com

[booksellers] Want to buy my book? Do so at any of the above!

 

 

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Friday Round-Up

Suddenly there’s only about a month left to go in this pregnancy and I’m getting that nesting urge, although nesting is the totally wrong word because I don’t mean cleaning the house or getting the baby stuff ready. Instead I’ve been struck with this insane burst of energy to get as much writing and work done in the time I have left before the baby arrives. This past week I literally wrote six essays and have been just busier than ever with clients and books and publishing stuff.

I think part of it is just a way to distract myself from how wildly uncomfortable and fed up I am by being pregnant, and the rest is just like I said — spawning from the knowledge that in about a month ALL my attention will be going to pretty much one thing only for a while. This morning I woke up to an email from Stephen Elliott telling me that someone saw me in LA recently and said I was the most beautiful pregnant woman they’d ever seen. I’m certain they must have been drunk, but it was still really nice to hear all the same.

Speaking of Stephen Elliott, yesterday I got some actual letters in the mail back from the one I wrote for The Rumpus that went out this week. I was astounded. The letters were so personal and heartfelt and real and such a nice alternative to the emails and Facebook messages I’m used to receiving (although I love those too).

Get this: it’s almost eight in the morning and Vera is still asleep. Of course she finally reaches this blissful stage of sleeping from 8pm to 8am *just* as we’re about to bring a newborn into our lives, but hey, it’s still great. Maybe we’re all on that final push to get as much out of this last month before the craziness hits.

This post will be kind of a mish-mash, with nothing particularly important to say, so I thought I’d push you towards others who might be more interesting.

I was quoted in the LA Times today about a few books I’m reading right now and it got me thinking that I should type up another list here since my list is currently overflowing with good stuff.

Books On My List Right Now (some I’m reading, some I intend to be reading):

A Land More Kind Than Home, Wiley Cash (Everyone is buzzing about Wiley.)

Night Swim, Jessica Keener (This novel has been at the top of my list for too long now. Thank goodness for sleepless nights coming up — they just mean more time to read.)

Bringing Up Bebe, Pamela Druckerman (Finally started reading this and am LOVING it. If you’re a parent be sure to pick it up.)

The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, Kathleen Alcott (This novel won’t be out until the fall, but trust me, you’ll want it on your list.)

Legs Get Led Astray, Chloe Caldwell (Chloe emailed me in the spring after having discovered my book on Cheryl Strayed’s nightstand. I hear nothing but phenomenal things about Chloe’s debut and it’s hovering near the top of my Kindle list.)

Lost Saints of Tennessee, Amy Franklin-Willis (Had the pleasure of having dinner with Amy the other night and she is such an exceptional woman. I have no doubt the same is true about her book.)

Girl Unmoored, Jennifer Gooch Hummer (Got to meet Jennifer last month at my reading in Manhattan Beach and if Robby Auld says her book is great, then I believe him!)

When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron (Recommended by a client.)

Insurgent, Veronia Roth (Have to have a little YA on the list. Loved the first book in this series.)

Waiting for Birdie, Catherine Newman (Memoir about having a second kid.)

No One Here Except All of Us, Ramona Ausubel (I got to hear Ramona read at Literary Death Match the other night and she was fantastic. Afterwards I told her how, because our books came out the same week, I saw her book next to mine in every store I read in all spring, and how hers is my favorite book cover possibly EVER.)

Speaking of Literary Death Match, I went for my first time ever the other night and had a blast. I recently had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of the charismatic Todd Zuniga who runs the event and he really couldn’t be more charming or more intent on making LA’s literary scene really something to be talked about. If you get a chance, you should definitely attend one of these.

Okay, and now here are some blogs I’m reading:

Book Pregnant — this is actually made up from a writers’ group I belong to. We all have books coming out right now and being part of this group has been such an amazing opportunity to have people to commiserate with, ask advice from, and support. This is a blog a few of them started all about writing and publishing.

E Tells-Tales — I recently discovered Elizabeth’s blog and am in love.

Kelly Bergin — I recently discovered Kelly’s blog as well and can’t get enough. Reminds me of my old days in LA.

Robby Auld — my favorite teen book critic writes this really smart and yet also heart-warming blog.

The White Elephant in the Room — Always love checking in with Tre.

Nothing But Bonfires — Always love whatever Holly is up to. Especially her design projects and obsession with Evan Dando.

 

Other Things:

My last events before baby:

Pen on Fire Writers Salon, Tuesday May 15 at 7pm in Laguna Beach

May 31 at 7pm, Reading & Launch Party for Wedding Cake for Breakfast at the Santa Monica Barnes & Noble

I wrote about my mother for Salon.com: Finding My Mother Again

I interviewed Robby Auld for The Huffington Post: What We Can Learn From Teen Readers

I write about Redefining the Five Stages of Grief for The Huffington Post

I write about my mother for BookReporter: On Introducing the World to my Mother

I write about caregiving for Maria Shriver’s network: The Hardest Job I’ve Ever Had

(Told you I’ve been busy this week.)

[booksellers] Want to buy my book? Do so at any of the above!

 

 

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