Homesick for Many Places

I am wired for coming home in the same way it is assumed we are wired for leaving. Any adventure that lures me out is no match for the ties that draw me home again. I come home in the way you’d fall asleep after a day spent in the heat of the sun—before you know it’s happened, before you know you want to. Half the pang of growing up for me was realizing that I’d somehow have to create a sense of home wherever I went, that for all the effort I spent trying to leave, all I would ever want to do is figure out homecomings, ways of returning to the place where I feel the most like me.

Libby sent me this Rainesford Stauffer essay from The Atlantic (adapted from her book An Ordinary Age) and god damn. It’s about home and motion and FOMO and belonging and it is very, very good.

Where do you feel safe, and like you belong? Are you homesick for many places, like a hometown and a college town and maybe somewhere entirely different? Is it possible to have roots in multiple places?

The last one: woof.

I spent so much of my childhood wrestling with confusion over where I was supposed to fit in. English parents, California upbringing. Older family, only child. House full of books and in-jokes and accents and cultural references my peers didn’t get. A voice that sounded out of place on family visits to the UK. I wanted so badly to figure out why it was so hard for me to feel a sense of belonging, or why, when I did find a place that seemed to capture the rare scent of home, I couldn’t quite fit in.

It’s a much longer conversation than I have time to dive into now, but that question—the notion of being homesick for many places—just knocked the wind out of me. I stopped wrestling with it quite as much as I got older—partly because I began to grow more comfortable with myself, but also because I started to feel shame around wanting to explore immigration or dual nationality or being a third culture kid when a) my nationality is split between two massively privileged, problematic countries, and b) I’m white.

I know it’s not that binary. I’ve had rich, magical conversations with friends from varied nationalities who have enunciated things I never thought I’d hear another person capture. We’ve found common ground in those moments and it has felt like a form of belonging—of home. But I’m still scared to claim it. The focus at this moment in time (rightly so) is on making space for the intersections of identity that have been elided or repressed by White Supremacist culture to be heard. I don’t feel like I have the right to take up space with my own investigation into why I feel out of place—at least not in public. I know, on some level, I am robbing myself by doing this, but I’m still trying to find my way toward the method that feels both ethically considerate and true.

Anyway, the Stauffer essay. It was very good.

First Plunge

I’m pulling into Santa Barbara, 940 miles of highway behind me, as the sun dips low to the west. On my right: occasional glimpses of the sea, tantalizing and unreal, but ahead there’s only bumper-to-bumper traffic. 

I’m racing the clock as I inch through Montecito, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel. The sun’s fully below the horizon by the time the cars thin out, but there’s still time. I’m navigating by instinct across overpasses and down twisty back roads. I’m ignoring the sign that says “Park Closes at 5:30” (it is after 6) and flinging my car across two spaces in my haste to get out. I’m scrambling toward this place I’ve been coming to since I was 3 because I am giddy with disbelief and this is where I need to go to know it’s real.

James calls right as I reach the edge of the sandstone cliff. The sea is mirror-bright and full of sunset. I show him my view (an inadequate FaceTime mockery) and babble about the impossibility of it all. The prickly scrub is catching at my ankles as I stare out at this thing I’ve been unable to feel like I deserve to be near for so long. I realize there’s no time for talking, make my apologies, hang up, and start running down the slanted track to the sand.

There’s barely anyone on the beach as I kick off my shoes. The light’s failing. Everything smells of salt and woodsmoke. 

Up close, the colors in the sky and the immensity of the water make me dizzy. I feel simultaneously tiny and expansive. Opening. Unfolding. 

What’s the rule?

If I am near a body of water and I can feasibly get into it, I must get into it.

I didn’t think to grab my towel—or my bathing suit, for that matter—but I don’t really care. There isn’t time. I strip to my underwear as the dark closes in and stride toward the water. The sand is gleaming blue with light. The waves are gentle at first, waist high and cold, but I’ve braved worse. I can’t believe I’m here. I shuffle my feet, wary of stingrays, and move deeper, chattering to myself. To the water. To the sunset. 

“Hello. Wow. Hi, hello. Oh my god. Hello. I missed you. Okay. Woof. Okay. Okay okay okay here we go. Here we FUCKING GO—“

And then I am under the onrushing breakers and nothing matters anymore. I am not cold. I am not alone. I am not uncertain.

I come up laughing, and I am home.

A gleaming ocean at sunset. The sky is blue fading into fiery apricot at the horizon.

The Infinite Carrier Bag

What’s the thought you think all your life long? It must be a great one, a solemn one, to make you gaze through the world at it, all your life long. When you have to look aside from it your eyes roll, you bellow in anger, anxious to return to it, steadily to gaze at it, think it all your life long.

— To The Bullock Roseroot, an improvisation spoken during the Second Day of the World ceremonies by Kulkunna of Chukulmas

I’ve been making my way, very slowly and over the course of many loans from the Multnomah County Library, through Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin’s unclassifiable, meandering, pseudo-anthropological record of a fictional future people called the Kesh. I’m not even a third of the way into the thing, but as the above quote from the book suggests, I’m thinking about it all the time.

There are so many things I love about this collection, particularly its place-specific-ness. The Kesh live in a far-future, post-societal-collapse Northern California. Even with the ravages of climate change, they describe the local flora and fauna in a way that taps straight into the landscape of my childhood—what Cassie Marketos calls “our good earth to grow in”. It brings me back to hot, dusty hikes through the Sespe wilderness in grade school, shifting my weight side to side as a leathery naturalist lectured us on different varieties of manzanita. It roots me in a place I think about even when I am not thinking about it.

If we are friends in any capacity, chances are high that I’ve pressed Le Guin’s essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” into your hands at one point or another. It explores a hypothetical world where stories are about the things they gather and contain, rather than the bodies they pierce and conquer, and I want to talk about it with everyone. It took me years to bother looking up where it had originally been published, which led me to Always Coming Home. Now that I’m a third of the way into this massive, discursive, lovely collection, it makes perfect sense. Theory in practice.

I like a book that forces me to take my time.

I’m a fast reader, and the first to admit that I can get a little breathless with my consumption. I spin out over ideas, get caught up in the excitement of newness. A book like this resists every opportunity to rush. The chapters and sections are all relatively small, but they loop and meander and digress. They build in layers over hundreds of pages to give an impression rather than a narrative. The experience feels very similar to reading oral traditions of cultures other than my own—an abruptness as one’s expectations of narrative symmetry and pacing are undermined in real time. The lack of them speaks louder than anything; makes me more aware of what I’ve been raised with, and of how things could be different.

Despite their distance from our current world of technology, the Kesh still interface with certain vestiges of present-day culture. These moments are some of my favorite in the book so far.

The City mind thinks that sense has been made if a writing is read, if a message is transmitted, but we don’t think that way. In any case, to learn a great deal about those people would be to cry in the ocean; whereas using their bricks in one of our buildings is satisfying to the mind. […] What does it mean to cry in the ocean? Oh, well, you know, to add something where nothing’s needed, or where so much is needed that it’s no use even trying, so you just sit down and cry.

If that isn’t social media in a nutshell, I don’t know what is. The desire to know everything, consume everything, document everything butting up against Marge Piercy’s recognition:

Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

When I retweet or double tap on a post by a friend to express my approval, I’m not using their bricks in one of my buildings. But when I write? That’s when we’re in conversation—occupying the same room across space and time, building it together.

This is what Le Guin manages, in this layered, looping collection of stories and ideas: she writes a re-envisioned world into being, and then writes herself—writes all of us who create—into that world. “What do they do,” she asks, “the singers, tale-writers, dancers, painters, shapers, makers?”

They go there with empty hands, into the gap between. They come back with things in their hands. They go silent and come back with words, with tunes. They go into confusion and come back with patterns. […] The ordinary artists use patience, passion, skill, work and returning to work, judgment, proportion, intellect, purpose, indifference, obstinacy, delight in tools, delight, and with these as their way they approach the gap, the hub, approaching in circles, in gyres, like the buzzard, looking down, watching, like the coyote, watching. They look to the center, they turn on the center, they describe the center, though they cannot live there.

It’s the doubled items in this list that I love the most: “work and returning to work,” “delight in tools, delight”. I love that Le Guin understands these as separate, yet interlocking elements. I love that she has thought, so deeply and with so much lenience and also so much slantwise clarity, about the purposes we might serve in remaking the fabric of society.

She was a writer with a thought to think her whole life long. And the beautiful thing about writing is that the thought didn’t end when she did—now I’m thinking it, too.

Tour Dates for LA and Beyond!

Hi friends!

Keeping you all updated with a few more confirmed tour stops on the great 100 Demon Dialogues Summer Experience.

Catch me this Sunday (August 12th) at 6pm at Other Books in Los Angeles for an intimate chat about the creation of 100 Demon Dialogues. Other Books is a wonderful shop in Boyle Heights that specializes in underrepresented voices and exploring notions of “the Other” in literature. They’ve got loads of zines, small press books, and rare finds. I think it’ll be a lovely night. RSVP here.

Looking ahead: I’m headed south to SAN DIEGO for not one, but TWO events later next week.

On Thursday, August 16th, I’m fulfilling a long-time dream of appearing at the Maritime Museum of San Diego for a free signing in the gift shop at 6pm, followed by a lecture inside the museum ON A REAL BOAT! Admission is $18 for adults (various discounts available) and gives you free reign of the many amazing vessels and exhibits until 9pm. Well worth the price of admission, I promise.

This tour stop will be more nautically-themed, since I haven’t been down to San Diego since Baggywrinkles came out. Expect discussion of scurvy, maritime history, and what I got up to when I crossed the Pacific Ocean on R/V Falkor. It’s gonna be GREAT.

Then on Friday, August 17th, I’ll be at San Diego Writers, Ink with my “Cohabiting with your Inner Critic” workshop. Learn more about that in this blog post or just snag tickets here.

Looking ahead, we’ve got stops in Austin, Boulder, England, and Cambridge (MA):

It’s ALL HAPPENING! Hope to see you on the road.