Bring It On Home

A good day to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a while: shifting monthly donations from Portland-area organizations to ones in my hometown. The Pandemic has had me thinking a lot about the movement of capital, and how focusing my efforts on redistributing resources on a hyper-local level often feels more productive and meaningful that flinging money into national programs. Then again, there are many issues that transcend my immediate bubble, so I want to keep a certain amount going farther afield. I haven’t figured out an ideal ratio, really, it’s just been on my mind.

I grew up in schools that acknowledged the history of the Chumash people in this region, but didn’t go so far as to emphasize the full impact of settler-colonial violence on their communities—nor to focus on the crucial modern-day work of reparations. I’ve admired the Shuumi Land Tax program in the Bay Area and Real Rent Duwamish in Seattle, but hadn’t heard of a similar initiative in Ojai.

It turns out Ventura County doesn’t have an exact match, but we do have the Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation. I’m excited to become a recurring donor there and start to learn more about the programs they’re working on.

The Bag of Theseus

A saturated photo of Lucy on a green hillside on a sunny day. She's lying on the grass reading a book, a small orange backpack on the turf next to her.

The bag in this photo is now old enough to drive.

I got it sometime early in high school, probably from the outdoor shop Riley’s mom managed down in Ventura. I eschewed carrying any kind of purse for years because I like keeping my arms and hands free to scramble about, and this little pack was a dream come true for that purpose. It’s just the right size to hold all my essential belongings: a water bottle, a sketchbook, my pens, snacks, a book, even (these days, when necessary) an iPad.1

It’s been down the Grand Canyon and across the Pacific Ocean, to conventions and signings, through endless TSA checkpoints, and to the Edinburgh hillside in this photo, where I passed a blissful and sunny afternoon in 2007.

But last week I came home to find the front panel shredded open thanks to the escalating Rodent Situation here at Bellwood Towers. I was heartbroken. Patagonia have a repair program where they’ll do their best to fix anything that’s gone wrong with their stuff for free (pretty cool!), but the wait times right now are long, and I couldn’t really imagine being without this thing for months on end. I could patch these little rodent holes myself—they’re not huge, after all—but the truth is, the bag’s seen better days.

The elastic is shot. The zipper pulls all broke off long ago. The inner lining is dingy and stained because I’ve never learned my lesson about which pens can and can’t survive air travel. The waist straps are missing because I cut them off to make a belt for my dad when we’d evacuated from the Thomas Fire and his trousers kept falling down.

And so I thought “What’s the harm in looking?” and opened eBay.

As you might expect for an item released in 2005: not a lot of options. Some from the same line, but inevitably in a larger size, and all of them black. The only similarly small one was $115. From Japan! Excessive. Unreasonable. I gave up.

And then the following morning I checked again. A bag! My bag! The same color (well, the color I guess my bag must’ve been once upon a time, though I’d never think it to look at them side by side), thirty bucks, shipping from Texas. Too good to be true.

I hit the button.

Two small Patagonia backpacks side by side. They're identical, but the one on the left is faded to a light brown with tears across the front. The one on the right is newer-looking, vibrant orange.

When I was working on A Life in Objects (my first 100 Day Project, back in 2016) it became very clear to me that I love long-term belongings. Partly it’s because I grew up in a very thrifty household and the idea of randomly replacing or upgrading things willy-nilly is blasphemy to Bellwood ears. But it’s also because I love the stories that trail behind oft-used and much-loved items. And yet: a huge benefit of that project was giving myself permission to let some of the profiled objects go after feeling like I’d preserved them for posterity in some small way.

In fact, I’m pretty sure I drew this backpack. Oh yeah, here it is: Day 52.

A black and white illustration of a small backpack with written text. It says "Day 52: doing the math, I think I've had this little orange patagonia daypack for more than a decade(!!!). I've never been good at carrying a purse—I want a waterbottle, snacks, a sketchbook, something to read, and a mess of pens with me at all times. I also prefer to keep my hands free. This trusty companion has held all that and more on boats and buses, in forgein countries and throughout the greater Portland area. I love it dearly, like a limb. To be utterly self-sufficient, that's a precious feeling."

I guess my feelings about it haven’t really changed.

Anyway, I’m blogging about a tiny, ancient backpack because I want to give myself permission to take its replacement with me on my next adventure: a flight tomorrow morning, my first since February of 2020. I’m sure I’ll be twitchy and anxious under my double-masked exterior, trusting in two shots of vaccine to carry me across the country and back without incident, but I think there will also be a lot to appreciate. A lot to wonder at. I feel rusty, but renewed by this long break from going anywhere.

Tiny miracles. Old things made new again.

1. Hell, when I first got this bag the iPad hadn’t even been released. I didn’t own a cell phone. Different times.

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.

Owl News

Usually we get Great Horned Owls in our garden, slow and mournful and resonant, but last night I heard a newcomer with a call like a rubber ball dropped down a flight of stairs.

Listen:

It’s a Western Screech Owl!

This audio recording is from April 4th, 2020. It was captured 130 miles from here in the San Gabriel Mountains by Lance A. M. Benner, a Principal Scientist at NASA JPL, and uploaded to the miracle that is Xeno-canto. If you haven’t come across that site name before…well. It’s a community-driven database of bird calls from around the globe, but that description doesn’t really capture its magnificence. The site’s been around since 2005, and the breadth and quality of the recording collection is staggering. You can look for absolutely anything there, and a great deal of it is licensed under Creative Commons.

Benner has contributed 1,926 recordings to the site.

Isn’t it wild that people just do stuff like this?

The most famous Western Screech Owl in my internet circles right now is probably Coconut the Owl, who took up residence in Austin Kleon’s backyard earlier in the Pandemic and recently received a new abode:

A photograph of a small owl fluffed up and looking very satisfied in an owl box, a tall wooden crate nailed to a tree. There's a fringe of icicles on the box's roof, and the branches are bare. The owl is barred grey and white. Its eyes are closed.
Coconut in situ.

Also apropos of nothing I followed some links about Benner out of idle curiosity and found myself listening to a few of his owl-specific recordings on Owl Pages Dot Com, a site devoted to…well, you know.

A screenshot from Owl Pages Dot Com showing eight sections titled Owls of the World, Owl Physiology, Owl Gallery, Owl FAQs, Owl Articles, Owl Sounds, Owl Artwork, and About the Owl Pages.

This concludes the evening dispatch of Owl News.

FAQ

Hi friend! If you’ve landed on this page, you probably just asked me a question about my move, possibly prompted by hearing about it for the first time via my 2021 Hourly Comics. Hopefully your question is answered below:

Whoa, you’re moving?

I have, in fact, already moved! I drove away from Portland on February 4th, quarantined for a week upon arrival, and then received a negative COVID test so I could relocate safely.

Where are you off to?

A dusky digital painting of a desert at dawn. The sky is light blue and there's a tiny moon rising above pink mountains. The foreground is full of yellow, scrubby brush.

Ojai, California, the valley I was raised in, to move in with my parents and my 21-year-old cat.

Is this permanent?

Is anything?

(By which I mean: I don’t know!)

Why now?

I realized I needed to move now the night before I was due to give this talk, so if you’d rather hear me verbalize why I’m making this choice, you can watch it.

The textual version is that my dad is 81 and has moderate dementia. He also had a couple of micro-strokes last November. My mum’s been shouldering the bulk of caretaking for the last few years, barring the odd break when I’ve come down to help. I’m an only child. We’re all muddling through a Pandemic. It’s the right time to be here.

I’m also going to be head-down working on my next graphic novel (Seacritters!) for the foreseeable future. Given that a publishing advance isn’t enough to live on for the time it takes to complete a book, reducing my financial overhead right now is a smart move.

This sounds really hard!

I have a remarkably functional and loving relationship with my parents. Ojai is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the most beautiful places on earth. (It also has the best bookstore.) I’m near the ocean. I’m in a community of people who’ve known me since I was very small. I get to focus more fully on work that delights me. I’m no longer panicked at the thought of missing opportunities to care for and connect with my dad. This is all, actually, really good.

I don’t want to downplay the fact that caretaking is complex and often devastating. This will not be a walk in the park, but it is 1000% the thing I have been longing to do for several years. Being in this place, with these people, gives me a sense of purpose and fulfillment and love that is irreplaceable.

Do you need anything?

If you’ve had parental caretaking experience (especially if you’re also under 40), maybe drop me a line and say hello. Never a bad idea to have allies who know what this is like.

If you want to support me materially while I make my next book, I’m sharing stuff on Patreon and would love to have you in that community.

Can I have your new address?

YES! I got a PO Box and nothing so exciting has ever happened to me ever. It is:

Lucy Bellwood, PO Box 734, Ojai, CA 93024

I would love to receive mail from you.

Three elongated human shadows, holding hands and walking along a dusty trail.

Okay! The end! Thanks for reading!

(Obviously if there’s something I didn’t talk about here, please return to our conversation on whatever platform you came here from and ask about it, but at least you have the facts now. I appreciate you reading through all this so I don’t have to repeat myself a bunch 💛)

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.

Turncoat

“I’m so tempted to just go—not tell anyone, just load everything up and leave.”

She narrows her eyes.

“Can we unpack that for a minute?”

Maybe I protest too much, but it’s not what it looks like! I’m no thief in the night! I’m not trying to desert my friends! We do all our socializing on Zoom these days anyway—what difference does it make?

But the truth of the matter is that I want to up and go without any fanfare because I’m dreading the endless cycle of small talk. Why should I keep telling people when the first thing out of anybody’s mouth is “Is it permanent?” and I have to throw my hands up and do the same dance over and over yelling “I don’t know, is anything?!” 

The shock in people’s voices also nags at an ongoing pattern of worry: that I have somehow neglected my duty to Keep Everyone Informed.

This happens often: the people closest to me are surprised when I share things that I think I’ve been talking about non-stop, but it turns out I’ve just been thinking them very loudly for a very long time. Not the same thing.

But it is exhausting to always be informing on myself. If I share a thought in progress and then change my mind five more times before coming up with a decision (common), I condemn everyone else to the same vicissitudes of anxiety and overthinking that I’m busy contending with in my own head!

And then even when I have come to a decision, there’s still so much performing. There I am hemming and hawing for the benefit of communicating to other people the complexity of the situation and how I came to this decision and all the factors at play and before I know it I’ve bought into my own mummery. I’m believing the hype that this is terribly difficult and I am terribly conflicted—oh woe is me!—when perhaps if I am quiet and listen only to myself and act only for myself it turns out not to be so difficult or conflict-laden after all.

My word for the year is “flow; or, the sensation I get in the center of my chest when I watch footage of starling murmurations” which, yes, isn’t just one word, but it is a word plus a feeling, or a word distilled from a feeling, which I think still counts. Maybe counts more.

So I am flowing downhill to Ojai. Swimming upstream through my own history to land back where I started. I’m grateful that the blogging urge rekindled when I was down there last summer, because I can see it in my own paper trail—the rightness of this.

I don’t know how to tell everyone, but I do know that tomorrow morning when I am driving south with a car full of unread books, I will feel light, and I will be singing.