West Lands

1.

When I sit down to write fictional stories, the setting is always the same, and the setting is way out west in California. I don’t know other places well enough, and even if I grow to, which I might now that I live in the Midwest, my bones quite literally grew to their capacity in Los Angeles, and nothing can compete in terms of a visceral knowing than the place that created us.

But this isn’t a fictional story. It’s a a truth laid out against the map of my days. When you find yourself in other lands you see yourself both changed and fundamentally the same, and the reflection and ownership of that is essential.

2.

In Chicago in the middle of spring, I am reminded of a feeling of subtle appreciation. The experience of biting into a perfect burger or drinking coffee first thing in the morning; these aren’t serious matters, but they are no less warming to the spirit. 

We endure a brutal winter; taking the dog out or grabbing the mail can’t be done without a proper coat. There are moments when the wind hits you as you round the corner and you audibly call out to God, whether you believe in God or not. You have to know certain things, like how to drive in the snow and how to tend to the plumbing when the temperature dips below zero. When that bitter cold begins to subside and the sun hits your face through the windshield and you take a walk with only a light sweater, you feel appreciation. Eagerness. Such forward momentum and optimism for the days to come. Everyone will soon live outside. We will all take supreme advantage of sturdy stretches of warm winds. We won’t even bemoan the humidity. And when it turns once more to a beckoning chill of late fall, we’ll gear up for that, too, reverent for a turning tide.

Not so in Los Angeles, to which I am (almost) a native and is the city that owns my memory. There is a place hugged by the Pacific, a sprawling desert, that houses the richest of the rich and quite a few poor and some of the most beautiful people in the world. Beauty is among the highest value in California, second to the sunshine. Why else would one spend exorbitant amounts of money for a studio apartment in Santa Monica were it not for paradiscal weather? People come for the weather and stay for it. People fall in love with it and can never really leave. You’ll be jogging in a dry eighty degrees in the middle of January while the rest of the country is staving off Seasonal Affective Disorder and a round of the flu. The closer you are to the ocean, the better it smells. Clean and fresh, a forest of palms, and just to the east a haunting sceptre of glamorous old Hollywood, long dead but permeated into the essence. People are healthy. They do yoga. They hike and eat organic. They do drugs and then they stop doing drugs. They get sober out there and they find Higher Powers, they get gurus and healing crystals and tribes. They stay young and pretty, sometimes a bit too long. Peter Pans are a dime a dozen. 

It will always be my home. I will always know the feeling of rolling down the window in the cab (Uber) when it hits PCH and the salty ocean breeze cools the nausea of travel. But underneath all that beauty and warmth, it is a lonely place. Because when you can go outside in shorts and a t-shirt three hundred days out of the year without a care, I think you go outside less. And you forget to appreciate. And you don’t have quite the same permission to wallow in the winter. And one day bleeds into another. Nothing is so lonely as having to pretend you’re always happy. 

When I moved to Chicago to be with my husband, I noticed one stand out feature of the midwestern ilk: loyalty. I would not call Midwesterners warm per se, in the way that us flighty New Agey types from California are. In L.A. we hug tightly and clap loudly and shriek wildly when we see each other. The Valley Girl thing bears weight. It’s warmer, so we’re warmer, and we’re open-minded to the dipped in hippie crunchy kind of life. But we flake. We drift. We go with the flow. In Chicago, loyalty prevails. It’s not showy or even demonstrably kind, but it is steadfast and hearty. To those bones. My husband’s very best friend is his childhood neighbor from across the street. They met in first grade. He has known his other closest friends since they were teens. Their tight knit group hasn’t let anyone else in much, but they also haven’t kicked anyone out. And they all love each other. There is no faking it. Loyalty forces you to search for the good. If you’re in it for the long haul, you have to practice that. 

Loyalty is something I never pondered much until I got married and had a child. Because it isn’t just about love or romance or even good faith. And it certainly isn’t just about your feelings. I have learned so much from my stoic, even-tempered husband. He has, like many of his ilk, that contained, self-possessing quality, the sort that comes across to us emotionally messy west coasters as aloof, but that is buoyed by the absolute certainty that he would never abandon me or my children no matter how rocky the road. That means something in today’s world that is often governed by the spontaneous urge to Tweet snark and unfollow, cancel, quit and start over, follow that bliss all the way out of a marriage and into a broken home. 

I assume no moral high ground. I am not casting damning judgment. But in a world of instant and immediate and reactionary, I dare to take the risk and discern that sometimes loyalty does prevail over always doing what just feels personally best. Difficulty is not always “toxic.” I went through that phase of trying to block out all the bad, moving toward what feels good, dipping my toes into the instant gratification that is moral relativism. It’s a fruitless walk, an emperor without clothes. It is valueless, a center not holding. We are a misguided culture, and the reasons for that already fill countless books.

I am a child of divorce. I suppose I will always have a longing for what might have been, a father who stayed and a mother who dared to let go of new (and better) love for the heartiness of stability for her three young children. I have no memory of them together at the dinner table, only one flickering loop of my father at breakfast, loose-knotted tie, grapefruit and granola, a dozen pills and vitamins to tide him through rheumatoid arthritis and eighty hour workweeks. 

I am a child of Texans, even though my life was lived and formed in California. My mother and father grew up in Austin and we were all born in Houston, moving in the late eighties to Los Angeles and never returning to what was clearly their homeland. Their childhoods were that supreme mid-century Americana, quarterback meets cheerleader, wild nights of beer and Marlboros and nothing more. Football and Jesus, going steady. And marrying that high school sweetheart, yes. 

Such obvious irony that soon after moving to the loneliest city, they separated and divorced. Goodbye Texas Columbus, hello west coast moral relativism. Just do what feels good, oh well whatever, nevermind. I believe California breaks everyone’s heart. It is an exceedingly difficult place to remain loyal. The beauty alone seduces like the Sirens. It was Joan Didion who said it is a state that remains impenetrable; no matter how long one lives there and explores its vertiginous sprawl, it remains at a teasing distance. It is a transitory land. A place full of so many not from there, never belonging there, never remaining there. L.A. in particular did not revere the Homecoming Queen and thus remained a mystery and a disappointment to my mother. It is a city so much like what it breeds: gorgeous, modern, void of a center. 

3.

Belief will anchor you with purpose and meaning. The death of God did usher in, now going on century two, such loss and aching emptiness. A religion as profound as Christianity is not some accident. The comfort of knowing that no matter what you are loved and the urge to continuously strive to improve your character, to courageously carry that weight, to remain loyal to a through-line of values actually is a recipe for a joyful life full of grace. We have forgotten that. We have the part about loving ourselves down, but to do so without the subsequent conviction to adhere to common values, to remain loyal in spite of adversity and suffering, to sacrifice when things fall apart, is equally as important as tempering the hateful inner critic and feeling better. We love ourselves at the root, yes, and then we go forth and serve. Where has this gone? What are we here to do if not to grow and change and serve? Revel endlessly in fleeting pleasures?

My life in Los Angeles seemed to think so. I came from faith in Texas and lost it in California. I suppose I am returning to my roots here in Illinois, where it still remains a trend to deny many versions of God, but God is everywhere. Even when I don’t believe it. 

Ineffable as it mostly is, I have fallen in love with my child and cannot remember well who I was before him. I remember edges of selfishness and expanses of free time, idling away afternoons without a crawling baby grabbing at my hair, my feet, glimpsing me from his area of toys to remind himself that his safest person is still with him. I remember inevitable immaturity and smoking menthols when it got dark. I remember the zippy stress of teaching and the joy for my students, anxiously dating while always knowing, this isn’t going anywhere meaningful. I remember a lot of anxiety in general actually, I think because I felt so ungrounded, a drifter, unmoored to a home, to a city, to a marriage and family. I wanted those trappings. Something vague had convinced me at a point in my mid-twenties that I didn’t, or at least tried to convince me, but it was clear as glass when I hit thirty years old what I most valued. My career was ultimately empty. It owed me nothing. My clinging to my family of origin was gently codependent and kind, but it was not my family. My peculiar interest in dating those who were less intelligent, less kind, less available was growing weary. The endless sunshine of Los Angeles made no difference. It didn’t warm me. I only felt I was missing out. 

Recovery-oriented person that I am, slightly superstitious – not really a believer in manifesting but keeping that somewhere on the periphery – I set about making some changes. I left my stable teaching career and began freelancing as a tutor, starting my own little business as well as working for a couple of agencies; this really only heightened my anxiety but restored my energy reserves, which had been chronically in the red zone for the past five years. 

I made many excuses for why I loved working a 7:30 to 5 job as a sixth grade English teacher at a prominent private school, and I did love it – I have memories etched into my soul of that time – but chunks of my body rejected it. I could not catch my breath. I could not overcome my fear that I was an absolute failure, that I was unlovable, that I was destined to be alone. I was tired, too, of what felt like a culture of constant complaint and never enough; teachers often feel victimized, and perhaps rightly so, but I felt my years of claiming such a status had run their course. I was also a drunk and a drug addict trying to stay sober, and I felt unlike the other teachers, who eased into marriage and family and exercise classes and glasses of wine after a hard day’s work. I crumpled into myself and slept, read, wrote. I hid away, a meaningful retreat, pondering what mattered to me. I knew so very much of the logistics of the teaching world were a waste of time. The relationships weren’t. I am here to make meaningful relationships. At the start of my last year, we had an extensive two-day meeting about how to have meetings, and my mind was made up: I am out of here.

As a tutor, I had to hustle and pay quarterly taxes and drive to Hancock Park every day and homeschool the gorgeous children of celebrities. They all had incredible skin and clothes and an air of respectful superiority. What a riot. People sometimes give me grief about my wealthy father and growing up in Pacific Palisades, but they didn’t know what it felt like to be one of the help to America’s royalty and the true humility of that. Wealth has many tiers. 

In that time, I began working with a friend and made her my mentor, and we embarked upon the spiritual process as outlined in twelve-step literature. I had known her since my first weeks sober. We were always just fair friends. But I admired her, now, five years later, for she had what I was searching for, a family, and she had discarded her idiot ex-boyfriends and her bummer job and was doing what she loved creatively and staying sober through all of it. I wanted another transformation. I looked up at her through my stoic visage on her couch in Santa Monica and started crying. 

I feel I’ve been taught it is wrong to want this, but I want to be married and I want a family.

And she laughed – she has this hearty North Carolina laugh – and said, of course you want that, who wouldn’t? But first we have to do the work. 

I untangled a web of old ideas, in essence, and I came to some very painful ones that still plague me when I haven’t slept well. People who don’t know me closely, and most people don’t, are surprised when they hear I have an aching melancholy and an unshakeable feeling of ugliness. To the world, I can force a smile, remark that everything is going well. I fear making mistakes, because if I make mistakes I won’t be lovable. I undeniably understand the mess of life, but I still rail against the mess. I still feel such embarrassing self-pity. I don’t know why some of us carry this burden of shame more than others. I see it often in my fellow alcoholics. I also see it in the supremely well-adjusted. My son, it seems, may carry such sensitivity. 

My husband has the gift of utter self-acceptance and self-respect, and it doesn’t seem to come from any one thing. He is not cocky, nor is he modest. He is fundamentally friendly with his own being, as if to say, why be any other way? I wonder if they, those blessed children of married parents, maintain internal trust in the benevolence of the world that we of divorce lose. When your parents stop loving each other, the world turns grey. It might be as simple as that. Or it might have no explanation other than, there are various types of people. He lost his father at twenty-eight. Wouldn’t that make you question God? 

I have often wondered what wounds someone more – a broken mother or father? The mother is protection. But the father is how you make sense of yourself. The mother is home, the father direction. The most notable feature of my students who had loving fathers was a buoyant comfort with themselves, even in the midst of teenage insecurity. Boy or girl, did not matter. I could spot the ones with absent fathers, selfish fathers, fathers who broke into terrifying rage. Like I did myself in middle and high school, they tried too hard, their eyes quite sad. 

 My husband is confident but he is not pushy, he is strong but reserved, and in him I found myself centered and stabilized. But with the arrogant and the pushy, I am often turned off. One of my most common misperceptions is that when face to face with someone who possesses boisterous confidence, I shrink and assume I am the mistaken one. I am quick to believe I am wrong, and I am quick to assume malevolence in others. This sleight of hand mindtrick is a recipe for hell on earth. If I am guilty and you are evil, where is the hope? Luckily, I can correct this misperception fairly quickly. Somehow or another, with my husband, my first thought was, I am beautiful and so are you. 

 

I would live through a thousand frigid winters in Chicago to be with him. I only miss LA when we’re approaching June and chilly days seem endless and the sun is eclipsed by the clouds, lowering my energy. I find myself wanting to get rid of my phone, to retreat from social media and the endless world of hateful politics, from the people I meet but continuously fail to connect with on the grounds of my sensitivity and high expectations. I am not of the monolith. To declare so, is a lonely enterprise, let alone to live so. Chicago is like LA in that manner. Everyone is gravely concerned with appearing on the correct side of viewpoint, according to the ever-changing corporate dictates of trendy morality. Like with teaching, I always come back to the same defensive idea: all that we are discussing in this meeting does not matter. The relationship with the child is what carries weight. And so it is with those who continuously posture online and over the bar table just how good they are. I’m not interested in the beliefs you hold that you assume make you moral. I’m interested in your stories, removed from all of that, the hate you carry, the contradictions you live with, the inner demons that you combat with your chosen vices. I want to know who you are divorced from the latest New York Times op-ed and what you learned in graduate school. 

But of course we have to live in the world, and I can’t expect others to play by my rules, even if I do think it makes the game more fun. Like my mother is earthbound, conversely I can float to the clouds. We have to take care of the logistics. But I want loyalty to a value system that transcends the earthbound. As Chuck Palaniuk recently said, our job is not to participate and follow. It is certainly to at least observe and ponder first. And then freely criticize and mess with. Why are we not allowed to joyfully opt out but still be of this world? I am at heart a believer in meaning, and I like believing in meaning, I am comforted by believing in meaning, but my nihilism pokes through when I can’t make sense of every prickly edge. Sometimes it is just hard.

The older I get, the more I understand that no matter how much we try to be good or cling to ideals or align with the tribe du jour, we are all deeply flawed, prone to resentment and arrogance and self-loathing and selfishness, even in the midst of our decency. We are prone to despair, great and small. And I learned in my twenties that I was doomed to live out my days in that fashion unless I connected to a benevolent force that loved me and helped me to transcend my human frailties. Clinging to money or fashion or politics or fitness or family or motherhood or friendship would not cut it, for all of that, though sometimes nourishing, comforting, and inspiring, also promotes hatred and suffering. But we seem to have lost that idea as a culture, and everywhere I turn, we are all clinging to anything else. The louder we deny a Source and Force, the harder we cling. The more we shame others as simpletons for believing, the more we cling. The more we think the transcendent a waste, the more imprisoned we are right here, right now, feet of clay dried hard to earth. 

I like to set my default to belief and meaning, but that doesn’t mean the postmodernists were completely wrong. It is only my own selfishness and need for comfort that chooses faith and connection. I cannot live too long in the gloom of revelatory transgression, where the world smells like a molding ashtray, a heart-pounding withdrawal of a lost weekend. 

I used to like it, the cheap darkness, though I think I only thought I liked it: films that ended in tragedy, books that reveleved in lying, cheating, manipulation, and murder, music that lulled me to melancholy. Today I cannot get past the first chapter of a book if there is even a hint of child abuse. I cannot parse it out. I asked my step-father when I was pregnant, what is it like to live with the anxiety of knowing your children could be harmed and die? You can’t think about it too much, he said, or you will go crazy. You learn to block it out, at all the different stages of their lives. Falling into a pool. Car accident. Drug overdose. School shooting. And so it is with my sweet boy; I let those terrifying fears dance on the periphery, literally shaking my head as if to shake the thought out of my skull, and I hold him tightly when I can, and I cry occasionally if I do accidentally think too hard about it all. And I don’t read books about dead kids. 

 

I live in Chicago now, but I miss my old home. The air is different here. The smell. I miss the ocean. I miss knowing it was mine. I miss the place that broke me and then put me back together in my teens and twenties. It is deeply meaningful to sit in rooms with others who also lost their heads and find a way back to sober peace, together. Here, in Chicago, I am coming to the table with my coffee, unbroken, merely telling old tales. Or, rather, pretending I’m not broken anymore because eight years clean will fill your head with that sort of story. 

Alcoholics get a bad rap for claiming to be different, but we are, and not just in the way we drank. Though I married a loyal, stable partner, and I wouldn’t change that, in fact I needed that, drunks are my people. Sensitive, thoughtful, warm, self-absorbed, neurotic, introverted, aware, weird, self-conscious and temperamental, artists, lost, ill-equipped or else overly responsible, we are the ones who often lose ourselves, even in sobriety, to suicide, to a promise of relief, to an unflinching drive to find a way out. 

I like the sort of people who struggle desperately to get through life, steeped in melodrama. If you didn’t exist too, then I’d really feel alone, no matter the city, no matter the weather, no matter those around me who promised never to leave.

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