Last week, I arrived in California after a year-long absence. It was hot in England and I felt a little bad to leave it behind just as summer was blooming, but sometimes a change of scenery is what you need. Two weeks of work, I said, and then two weeks of time off. To get to the time off, I first have to get the work done. Simple, in theory.
“a sense of place can happen at the very borders of myth and history.”
– Eavan Boland
What I’m trying to do now is finish a paper. I’m at the excruciating almost-done stage: being done feels so close at hand that it’s entirely out of reach; all I can think about is what it will be like to finish, which leaves me no room to think about the things I need to think about in order to actually finish.
After dinner, I go downstairs and sit at my desk with my laptop open and listen to the roar of the crickets and the rustling of small animals in the macadamia orchard. This is the desk where I did homework in high school: here I solved (or more likely didn’t solve) math problems, read books on the Mau Mau revolution, wrote an essay about A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man of which I was particularly proud. And now I feel just like a sixteen year old kid again, staying up late, trying to finish something I should’ve started much sooner. I always thought that once I was a real person in the real world I would try harder, be better prepared, more consistently disciplined, but I guess that never happened.
To try to maintain some kind of routine, I drive into town to go for a swim. It’s quiet – just me and the guy in the next lane over. He’s in his mid-sixties, maybe, sun-whitened hair, doing a labored front crawl. I’m faster than him, but no one is watching, no one cares. I want someone to care; I want someone to notice me, being here, when I’m usually elsewhere. On the way home I stop at a sporting goods store for a new pair of goggles. I used to come here every year at the start of volleyball season, for spandex shorts and kneepads; it’s vast, and always virtually empty. As I’m paying, the girl at the checkout offers to sign me up to their rewards program.
“It’s okay,” I say, “I don’t actually live here.”
“Oh, really?” she says, so classically California-chatty, like she really, genuinely cares, like we’re about to be great friends. (I’m such a sucker for this.) “Where are you from?”
“Here,” I say. “I’m from here.”
One afternoon I’m standing on the deck when I hear a noise, or catch a glimpse of some sudden motion, and I look up and see that two rattlesnakes have tumbled down the hill behind the house and are engaged in a dance, or a fight. Two males, vying for the right to a female. They’re entwined and upright; then they twist and slide and come apart, and then back together, graceful but at the mercy of gravity. They’re beautiful, and dangerous, and the sight of them makes my heart beat faster. My mother, trying to get a good photo of the snakes-in-motion, jokes about what a great place this is to raise kids. It is and it isn’t. I mean: I grew up here; I learned early to identify the shape of a rattler’s head. And I keep thinking that one of these days I’ll write about it on its own: this place as a discrete entity, not this place in relation to me and the place I live now.
But I never really do, and I can’t tell if it’s because there’s nothing to write about or if it’s because I feel like by moving away I ceded the right to speak for it. After all, what do I know? I haven’t lived here in ten years.
This paper I’m working on, or not working on, is partly about writing itself: writing as a form of exploration, as a tool for understanding ideas about place, about what it means to be in or of a place. “The language of the writer is a tool for doing geography, just as geography is a tool for doing writing,” I type. I do believe this. I’ve always believed this. I remember driving home from school one dreary winter evening, chasing the setting sun along the coast, anxious to get home and get my homework done and get good grades and get my diploma and get out and get on with being a real person in the real world, and thinking that this place had made me that way. I loved it, but I hated it, too: it had isolated me, forced me to confront facts of physical geography every time I wanted to see my friends or go to the shop. In the forty-five minute drive to town was so much space to think and so little space to do. So I wrote to escape as well as to explore. But even then, seventeen, angry and anxious, I knew I loved it, and that my relationship to it had important implications for my relationships with other places and other things. And I still don’t know how you separate where you are from what you write, or what you write from where you’ve been.
What I want is to say something more interesting about this place than, “here is where I’m from,” but I don’t know what, yet; it’s still too foggy – it’s home/not home, mine/not mine, complicated/not complicated. It’s just a bit of earth: a few miles of south-facing coastline, somewhere between Southern and Northern California. But it was invented, and continues to be reinvented, by a process of remembering and misremembering.