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A Newcomer's Notes

PUBLISHED: September 11, 2015

Photo by vmiramontes via FlickrEvery departure is a confession, an admission of longing, of desire, of unbridled want. It is also a testament to hope, an act of faith that there is something to be found in the coming place, that the next town will satisfy our thirst. That nourishment is the hope of every voyager who ever traversed a dark sea to make his or her way in a new world, of everyone who rode the Conestoga across hard lands for the promise of the West, of any of us who uproot our lives and arrive hat in hand in a new city saying, “Please.” Take me, accept me, let me, feed me. In short: Love me. 

I left my home on the East Coast in January. A few feet from the swimmy blue Pacific Ocean is the “Tsunami Evacuation Route,” and now I live in a home a few steps past that, here in Santa Barbara, California. Living literally on the verge of disaster, surrounded by constant reminders of danger, takes some getting used to. I walk by the tsunami sign every day, the little white human stick figure on it just about to be wiped out forever by the wave looming above its head. I drive through canyons with signs that warn of mud and rock slides in case of rain. But it never rains. 

Still, we hope for it.

I can’t twitch without bumping up against the cathedral of beauty that is Santa Barbara. The architecture is Spanish colonial, bright-white stone buildings scrubbed perfect by the bleach of the low beaming sun, covered by roofs of vibrant clay-red tiles. The clouds drift across the jagged mountain backdrop and crooked swaths of yellow orchids grow abundantly, standing tall like castles in the garden. Jacaranda trees dust us in lavender confetti. We have fat lemons and limes and figs growing in our backyard. Palm trees wave gently and everywhere there are glimpses of the Pacific. And: We keep a quick evacuation bag packed in the closet—a “go bag” for my husband, our dogs, and me. It’s there to grab should we have to get out in a hurry if Santa Barbara burns like it does every few years during massive fires that stalk the state. We store water in large quantities in case of an earthquake, when water can get in short supply quickly as bridges close and shipping grinds to a halt. We keep a crank radio and extra batteries for the nightstand flashlight. I imagine the tsunami wave. I find myself longing for home, for safety, for comfort. Yet, I love it here. 

Living in Southern California is its own act of faith, a living without, an imagining of a good life, a reckoning with nature, a show of hope, deprivation. It’s a tradeoff here, on this slice of the Southern California coast, beauty for danger. Every place is dangerous. Here, though, danger seems more present, like it will just come without warning and swallow us whole. There’s notice back east before a hurricane, a derecho, a blizzard. Here, the earth just starts shaking. Here, a random spark starts a fire in a canyon and an hour later it meets the freeway and torches the cars on it. Here, houses slide off cliffs and slip away with the mud. 

After moving to Santa Barbara I saw San Andreas, a terrible film with vivid, tremendous earthquake and tsunami scenes and all manner of destruction a la Independence Day—but more realistic, bigger, better. There goes the Hoover Dam, there goes the Golden Gate Bridge, there goes America. Kaput. 

While the devastation of San Andreas couldn’t happen the way depicted on screen, we do live in cities here in California that have been decimated by quakes in the last century, and more are certain to occur. The tectonic earth is not still. Yet, we carry on like doom will never happen. We store the water and go on about our lives. You can’t worry all the time, of course, or at least you shouldn’t … but the price we might be paying to live somewhere so beautiful—death with no warning (as happens, and not infrequently, from quake or fire or other natural disaster)—is astonishing. The price we pay is risk and risk is the cost of beauty—for warmth and grandeur, mountains next to the sea, a year-round natural wonderland.

Or is it? Is that notion all imagination? In reality, the world is ending anywhere you look. As the poet Jack Gilbert wrote, “Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies are not starving someplace, they are starving somewhere else.” Indeed. “Risk is the cost of beauty” is perhaps the dominant narrative, but the truth of it is limited. So why does it feel so true, so immediate here? 

The risk that is truly crushing us now is the slow one, the nonimmediate one: the drought. And the drought is a story that comes actively alive every day. Our old dogs have been thirsty ever since we came to town. Parched. They drink bowl after bowl of water. Triple what they drank back east. We had them checked for diabetes, though we knew it was ridiculous that they would both be afflicted with it at once. Our vet, who had lived here for more than thirty years, laughed and kindly chided us, “You’ll all get used to it,” he said, meaning the dry, meaning this drought. 

When you are from the mid-Atlantic, you are glad to have fled the oppressive qualities of thick humidity, but you never even noticed how the moist air fed you.

It rained heavy, ink-thick drops one night a few days after my husband and I arrived here. I heard it on the roof for a few staccato seconds at its mightiest, but it dried overnight and by morning the coast was once again painted bright gold with sunshine. It is surreal living where it almost never rains. We had a couple of quick mists after that first wet kiss—both lasting only an hour or two. It did rain hard once after that, but I was in Minneapolis with good friends, looking out the window of a joyous bar at the sloppy wet snowflakes shaking down during the gray midwestern sunset of early April. 

While it’s not raining in California, we think about water and how we’re using it all the time. It’s the front page of the paper, the drought. A constant topic of conversation. 

We sit on the pier and watch the sun fade on the vast westward expanse of ocean while we have local fish and clink the ice in our cocktails while bad-mouthing the neighbors who still dare to have grass. Our next-door neighbor, retired from the NFL, nurses his lawn and his roses—heirloom, nine varietals—with lots of water every day. He loves those roses and he’s a pleasant man, yet I’ve taken to glaring at him and shaking my head when I see him with his hose. The whole huge issue here of letting your lawn go brown or not divides people. I think watering is morally bankrupt unless people are otherwise hardcore rationing, which, despite what people say, studies show they really aren’t doing. My husband is a patient, tolerant man; he teases me about the neighbors, “I bet they eat almonds, too!” The newspapers publish charts of how much water it takes to grow just one nut. Everyone in California can tell you exactly how much water every kind of nut grown here uses. “It’s not my twenty-minute shower that’s the problem, it’s the almonds!” “My lawn is nobody’s business, the cashews are the trouble.” 

We’re not going to let those roses die and lawns go brown without a fight, or, as is more typical here, without just ignoring the regulations for a while to see if we can get away with it. There are too many people here in this massive state to actually enforce the water restrictions. The government here relies a bit on public shaming to do its work, which throughout the history of this nation has been a wildly effective tool for good and bad. People keep on with their hoses until a large enough group of people picks up the mantle of “we should all do our part.” And isn’t that what California has to be about, given the nature of nature here? Yet, no one wants to do without. 

We came to California in large part to get away from the rain. I miss friends, the familiar, the sense of community, and, surprisingly, I even miss the rain. I don’t miss the five months of cold and gray—not one bit—but rain, sometimes, yes. I miss the grand hi-hat thunder and the bold flashes of lightning and the soaking water. The renewal, the sense of some sort of handful of something necessary in every drop. 

But California is home now and staying that way. No place is perfect. And yes there are dangers, yet, already, they fade into the landscape of life. Seven months in, I still notice the tsunami sign, but no longer imagine an actual wave. We still store water, but I’ve lost track of the flashlight, am not quite sure where the go bag is. 

I am learning that one story of California is the story of water. That like our own lives it is a calculus of having and wanting and needing and learning to balance the three. 

We are still wanting, though, so we are moving one more time. This fall we are settling a bit south, in L.A. Santa Barbara is beautiful, but it turns out our community is in L.A., and maybe this is ultimately what every departure is: a quest to find belonging. L.A. is gorgeous in so many ways. Diverse. Thrilling. Full of historic neighborhoods, vibrant architecture, a deep cultural beat, my writing tribe, my husband’s colleagues, mutual friends, beaches, baseball games, a community to be part of, that we have started becoming part of this year. We are hungry for that. So we are moving to it. 

We’ve decided to live a bit inland there, and given L.A.’s vastness, it will take an hour to get to the beach. That’s surreal to me, that I could live in a city with beaches but that they could be a full hour away. But like the lizards here, we acclimate.

Instead of the water there will be mountains right outside the window. Friends nearby. A community of fellow working writers and a Quaker meeting that will take us in and an art studio for me and a return, after ten years, to painting. The other day I bought a tube of good acrylic in Pacific blue. We will be in L.A. when the next rain comes. I’ll master that drive to the beach. Like everyone here, I’ll just keep looking for the water.


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