California and Me

Yesterday, I rather unexpectedly had the day off from both work and classes. I could have worked on updating this blog. I could have caught up on e-mail and homework. I could have applied for a summer job or set up interviews for next month’s newspaper articles. I could have attended to the mountains of manuscripts and handouts that I never seem to get through. What really needed attending though, wasn’t my work, but my spirit.
California is seriously gorgeous. Seriously.

Ironically enough, it was Tim Keel’s reflections on the plains in his sermon on the Geography of the Spirit: Plain that got it into my head that I needed to go to the beach. I’ve lived in California for nine months now and though I’ve gone to visit the ocean over half a dozen times, I’ve only really been to the beach twice. Yesterday was my first time on the south peninsula since October and everything in me needed it.

Sometimes we get so caught up in attending to the immediate–in my case the high school history essays that need to be marked, e-mails that need to be answered, parking tickets that need to be paid, workshop submissions that need to be read, and articles and essays that need to be written–that we lose sight of the important. I was reminded of this in my small group last night when someone referenced Charles Hummel’s The Tyranny of the Urgent, an appropriately short pamphlet on reconsidering how we prioritize our time. Which brings me back to the beach. I have spent so much of the past four months sitting in the library, in coffee shops, in restaurants, in classrooms, and in my apartment that I had forgotten that my soul needs space; that my spirit needs to make room for God to nurture it outside of a building and away from community.

So I took the day off. First I went to the gym and made my favorite lunchtime smoothie. But after that, it was time for a little adventure. And let me tell you, it was much more exciting to pack a beach bag with reading material than it is to load up my shoulder bag with my papers, books and laptop.

I didn’t have time to make it as far south as Santa Cruz, so I drove across Bay Bridge and headed south on “the” 101 (initially I was VERY averse to putting articles in front of freeways–as averse, perhaps, as I was to KC folks who say 69 Highway instead of Highway 69–but I’ve given in. I think I’m going to be here for a while, I may as well get used to it).

View of Bay Bridge and downtown SF

In order to fully experience my trip, consider pulling up Spotify and listening to these. After putting them away for a good four months, I pulled out my copies of the second and third Enter the Worship Circle CDs. In order to fully appreciate this act there is something you need to know, and that is that these are the songs that brought life and peace into a very painful period of life. These are the songs that taught me to hope when I first moved to Oakland. They are the songs I played as I drove to and from interviews for my first slew of newspaper articles (the ones that set me on the road towards becoming a journalist), they are the songs I blasted through open windows as the leaves turned to flame and I commuted back and forth from the autumn hills of Moraga to the apartment I was learning to call home. We all have songs that are significant because of the memories, moments, periods and people we associate with them. We have other songs that are significant because of the emotive power of their rhythms or the poignant truth of their lyrics. These songs are all of those things for me. And the relationship they conjure is not with a friend or a relative, but with the Spirit of God who found me in my brokenness; a Spirit I knew I needed to reconnect with.

Destination: Montara Beach

It was a beautiful day for a drive. San Francisco has been uncharacteristically warm the past few days, with  midweek highs reaching into the 80’s. Though I was wearing only a swimming a suit and a light cotton cover up, I had to run the AC to keep from sticking to my leather seat. The AC. In April (well, practically April). When the freeway narrowed to the two lanes of Highway 1, however, the AC went off and the windows went down. If you’ve never driven between the Pacific Ocean and a ridge of Northern California hills, I’m sorry I don’t have the words to describe it. We don’t learn that kind of language in the Midwest, where the ground is flat and the water doesn’t move. I couldn’t photograph and drive at the same time, but it looks something like this (only I was going the other direction). At the point where the road broke away from the land and the air began to smell salty, I audibly laughed; uncontrollably giddy by the fact that I was in California and driving to the beach. It reminded me of last September’s drive down Highway 1 and of a September years earlier, one that I sometimes forget.

San Francisco 2011

It was good that I chose to go south when I decided to drive to the beach. That’s where it all started–California and me. Two and a half years ago, right before my 25th birthday. I was still living in Kansas City and very much set on doing so until I could find a teaching opportunity in Europe. I was dating a man–a good man–who worked in the tech industry and was far too brilliant and ambitious for his job. His relationship with California had started long before, when he was six years old and saw Honey I Shrunk the Kids for the first time, but more so when he was thirteen and purchased his first copy of PC Gamer, the magazine that introduced him to the mysterious land of Silicon Valley, an area that is now ubiquitous with technology and the site of California’s most recent “gold rush.”

My history with California had consisted of a week-long family vacation five years earlier, back in 2006. I don’t remember when the man told me that he was applying for jobs in the valley, but by the middle of the month he’d booked tickets for both of us to fly to San Francisco, where he had a job interview with one of the leading companies in the industry. I’d been to San Francisco before, so I guided us through the sort of touristy things you do when you visit the city–a walk along Pier 39, clam chowder from a bread bowl at the Boudin on Fisherman’s Wharf, ice cream concoctions at Ghiradelli Square, a misguided venture to find Lombard Street, a view of the Golden Gate Bridge–there wasn’t time for much else and being a tourist was all I knew how to be in SF at that point.

So, I did see the ocean…sort of (2011)

Later that week, while the man was in an interview, I took the rental car (a Toyota Corolla that we had named “Carol”) and headed to Half Moon Bay to see the Pacific. Growing up landlocked, I couldn’t stand the thought of being so close and not seeing the ocean.

Visitors be warned, Half Moon Bay is just about the worst place to go if you want to see the water. I’ve yet to visit when it isn’t ridiculously foggy and overcast, though I think yesterday was probably an exception. What I remember even more than the fog on that first solo trip along the coast (where I did hear the ocean, even if I didn’t see much of it), is the drive there.

It takes a good 40 minutes to get from Cupertino to Half Moon Bay. My GPS had told me so. What it had not told me was that I would be driving through hills that may as well have been mountains and skirting by the redwoods of San Pedro Valley Park with the Upper Crystal Springs Reservoir between them.

Cupertino to Half Moon Bay (2011)

My brother called in the middle of the drive. “What are you up to?” he asked. “Well, I’m in California,” I said. “You’re what?!?” It was a serendipitous moment, to be caught getting caught up in the giddiness of so much beauty. When I pulled to the side of the road to take pictures of the landscape, I sent a text to the man in the interview. “California is So. Freaking. Beautiful!”

Half Moon Bay to San Mateo (2014)

The stretch of Highway 92 that first led me to Half Moon Bay back in 2011 is the same stretch I took yesterday when I headed back to Oakland. It reminded me of everything I love about California–things I’d forgotten during too many late nights alone with my laptop.

If only every day could be like this

California is inspiring. People from all over the world come here to pursue their dreams. They always have. That’s how California got here in the first place–because gold diggers and westerners, Depression farmers and hopeful youths, Asian immigrants and European entrepreneurs came here with hopes that were big as the ocean, wide as the spread of Big Sur. My stated dream was not quite so big–to pursue the MFA in creative writing that I had put off during four years of post-graduate “exploration”. My less explicit hopes had been a little loftier.

View from Treasure Island, the midpoint from Oakland to SF

My first dream will be realized in just over a year, but I imagine that by that point my dreams will have changed, will have grown in the wild fecundity of the gold-speckled soil. They will still look like dreams, will probably still look like writing in some form or another, but may have morphed into something so exotic and strange that I forget how they started, like so many of plants I’ve discovered since moving here; creatures that must have come from another world entirely.

During my two and half hours with the ocean (which was plenty visible from my towel on Montara Beach, thank you), I read through glossies and local magazines, getting ideas for potential layouts and envisioning possible profiles I might pitch along with applications for editorial internships with magazines in San Francisco. Becoming that kind of a writer for those kinds of publications is something I have only just begun to discover I want.

View from my reading spot

Realizing such a dream is a long shot, but it’s one that I’m in a position to make, or that I will be by the time this degree business is finished. I don’t think I’ve ever been ready to dream that big before; capable of dreaming among dreamers, of throwing myself into something with all that I am, knowing it might fail, but workings as if it won’t. California has changed that about me. It is innovative and creative in ways I’ve never seen. I think half of the people I’ve met are either working for a start up or planning one. That mentality is contagious.

I brushed off the sand, packed up my bag, and headed back to the car. Highway 1 took me to the 92, which took me inland toward San Mateo. I stopped along the way to take pictures. I don’t usually do such things, but it was just “so freaking beautiful”. So California. The 92 runs along Madonna Creek and through Albert Canyon. Once you get past the traffic of downtown Half Moon Bay, it’s gorgeous. Towering evergreens line the sides of the road, the air is cool in the valley, fresh with the scent of forest. Along the way I passed local wineries and organic fruit stands, an artisan glass blower and greenhouses nestled in the valley of forest-covered hills.

See? Pumpkin Farm, 2011

I also passed a nursery that I am certain was a pumpkin farm when last I saw it (though pumpkins are not in season right now, not even in California where there are two growing seasons and fresh food all year round). I hadn’t realized on that first trip what I have come to see now–that California and I were made for each other. That this is exactly the place where someone like me ought to live.

Sometimes love is like that. Latent and obvious at the same time.

California is delicious. It is home to more farmers’ markets, produce stands, local wineries, award-winning vineyards, organic restaurants, sustainable sea food and cross-cuisine fusions than any place I have ever been (and that includes Paris and London). There are gourmet ghettos and ethnic food markets, taco trucks, China towns, pop ups, street food vendors, French bakeries, artisan ice cream, Michelin star restaurants, slow food movements and entire eateries dedicated to “California comfort food.” I started writing about food inadvertently last fall, when I was working on a piece about the person who taught me to love it. I didn’t realize that I could have a future in the field; that my gifts and my passions could fuse as easily as Thai chiles and Mexican tacos.

Exotic plant life, Exhibit A

California is exotic. I have spent most of my adult life in the pursuit of two things: my identity and an unusual life. Though the stubborn pursuit of these desires has sometimes led me to thoughtless actions and regrettable decisions, at the heart of them is a fascination with the “other” and a desire to make it known (essentially to story share). That kind of thing happens here. All the time. I write for a newspaper in Lafayette, a bedroom community in Contra Costa County comprised of 25,000 people and known for its rich inhabitants and rolling hills. In the eight months that I’ve worked for the paper, I have interviewed residents from Switzerland, Germany, Czech, France, Australia, England, Korea and Italy; and not because they were foreigners, that was just a bonus. The Bay attracts all types, and that attracts me.

The way I feel about CA
Tangentially, the Bay Area is also home to the marginalized–the immigrant, refugee, foreigner, homosexual, artistic, bizarre, homeless, unstable–this too is how it has always been. It is part of what makes the city what it is. And it is one of the reasons I love it. Maybe it takes having been an outsider yourself to want to be among outsiders, to want to spend your Thanksgiving roasting vegetables for the homeless and dishing out potatoes to refugees who have never seen a candied yam and haven’t learned the word for corn. This is not a humble brag. It’s a part of my life. It’s a part of living in a city this size, and I like that. I like that I have to deal with the discomfort of seeing people on the streets of the most expensive housing market in the country, which brings me back to my trip across the south peninsula.
You get the idea

Even when I reached the 6:00 pm traffic of downtown San Mateo, I wasn’t really bothered (which is saying a lot, because rush hour in the Bay is, like, crazy). I was on my second dose of lost CD music and the wind was whipping through my hair for as long as my vehicle was moving. I couldn’t help pounding my hands against my steering wheel, not in frustration, but out of compulsion as I kept time with one of my favorite tracks. (If it doesn’t jive with you, that’s cool, but I seriously love it; the You Tube version doesn’t have the drums, but they are the best part, so if you check it out, make sure there’s some solid percussion).

I was in a cross-path of traffic, driving among the brilliant minds of San Francisco–the ones who start the trends and create the products that change the world day by day; the best of the best learning from each other, idea sharing, networking, everyone with their own idea for the next best thing, their dream of a start up that just might make it. I find all of this fascinating in a way I never knew I could.

California has changed me (and I’m not just talking about my wicked new parking skills, which I must admit are rather impressive). It has made me a better person, a more open and accepting person with new creativity, confidence, enthusiasm and kindness, some of which did not come easily. I believe that God has had an awful lot to do with this whole process, that God’s Spirit has broken and reshaped me, though I have not always yielded to the pain of being reformed.

One of my favorite promises comes from Revelation 21:5, where “he who is seated on the throne” (we’ll call him Jesus) declares, “‘Behold, I am making all things new’.” God does not replace us, but renews, restores, and redeems us. Being made new is a process. A journey of becoming the people we were made to be, living the lives we were made to live in the places we are called to dwell.

Right now, for me, that place is California, and I feel rather lucky to be here, even when my feet do not follow the path I had hoped that they would.

There is a Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, who is attributed with a quote that was shared with me years ago, long before that first trip to California: “The road is made by walking, by walking one makes the road.” So it is and so it will be.