I was born into your arms in the early hours of a June day in 1986 and from then on, you were home. Sometimes I try to imagine the first time your summer sun kissed my cheeks, the first time I felt gravity pull my tiny body towards you, the first time I held a piece of you in my hands. But the truth is I have no memories of that time.
My memory starts in 1989 – the year you rattled and shook beneath my feet. I don’t remember what my room looked like, or what my favorite color was, or how I spent my days, but I vividly remember the sound of glass shattering in the kitchen, the look of fear in my mother’s eyes, the comfort of neighbor sheltering neighbor when we no longer felt safe in our own beds. I knew then that you were powerful. It wasn’t until later that I learned you were also cruel.
In 1993, I took a field trip to the epicenter of that quake. We counted rings in the cross-section of a massive redwood tree. I could barely fathom how old you were. While my classmates laughed and played tag and looked for banana slugs in the untamed grass, I witnessed a single tear roll down my teacher’s face as she stared silently at the meager brown sign planted in your fractured ground. I’ve now seen what must have been in her mind’s eye – bridges collapsing, people trapped, the heart of our town crumbling to dust. This was the price we paid for living on your faults.
I know now that these same deadly faults have given rise to your beauty – to the rolling hills, gaping canyons and wandering coastline, sights that have inspired me and filled me with gratitude again and again. I’ve stared out at the mountains from my desk when I can’t find words. I’ve pulled my car off the road and dug up my paintbrushes to capture the colors of your skies. I’ve seen allegories of life and death in your crashing waves, waves I imagine crashing in my own chest from time to time.
Your topography is muscle memory to me. I know the curves of Highway 17 the way I know the contours of my husband’s face – every peak and valley, every deceptively sharp turn, the signs that tell me I’m approaching home. For years I travelled that winding road in the backseat of my parents diesel car. With their voices drowned out by the whirring engine, I’d lay my head down and stare at the tips of the towering redwoods standing against a backdrop of a glittering night sky, all passing by like a reel of film as we drove. It filled me with a sense of wonder that has never left me.
I’ve come of age along your shores. There were carnival games and dipped cones on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk – sticky, melted soft serve and sand between my fingers on long summer days, sunrise drives down Highway 1 every morning for five years – past strawberry fields and migrant workers to an immaculate, uniformed school in Monterey where I never quite fit in, late nights on a beach in La Jolla with a boy I use to love – wrapped up like rattlesnakes in the backseat of his car, backpacks and anatomy books thrown defiantly in the trunk, post rock on the radio, bike rides with dear friends along the edges of Coronado – where I could see the city in the distance and try to escape my broken heart, and at last, a glorious sunset in Santa Monica where I turned to my future husband and saw forever in his kind eyes and knew the running and searching was over. But for you and I, this was the beginning of the end.
I may leave you this year – the same year flowers bloomed in your deserts and you burned wildly for months, stunning and merciless as I’ve learned you are. Over the last three decades you’ve been my mother, my teacher, my lover and my muse. I can’t tell you how much I’ll miss you. I take solace in the fact that you’re part of my fibers now; you’re imprinted in my soul. I’m still a little girl filled with wonder when I stare up at a starry night sky. I still feel love and heartbreak swirling around in my chest when I breathe salty ocean air. I’m still reminded of my own mortality when the ground shakes beneath my feet. And for all this, I thank you. You’ve helped me put pen to paper so many times, and it’s always been for me.
But this one’s for you, California.
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