…of somewhere I’ve been coming for a long, long time.
It turns out you can counteract a lot of “I Work on a Computer All Day” angst with nothing more than a pair of branch loppers and an hour on an overgrown hillside trail.
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.
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:
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.
This concludes the evening dispatch of Owl News.
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?
Ojai, California, the valley I was raised in, to move in with my parents and my 21-year-old cat.
Is this permanent?
(By which I mean: I don’t know!)
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?
I have mail forwarding set up for the next six months. If we’re already penpals you can direct mail to my old address and it’ll still reach me, albeit with a slight delay. I’m looking into getting a P.O. Box here in town so I can offer my address more freely.
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 💛)
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.
“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.
This morning I opened Twitter and saw that John le Carré had died.
I don’t know how to talk about this.
He wasn’t John in our house, but David—his given name. I grew up alongside his grandchildren in California, fellow offspring of English parents who had come to LA to work in film and stayed to raise families. Those eight children formed a counterpoint to my existence as an only child; a reassurance that I’m not the only person who pronounces certain words with a different vowel emphasis, or who feels like she needs to have a foot in two countries at once to make any kind of sense.
They’ve also become external sources against which I can confirm my experience of my parents. As dementia alters the way my father moves through the world, I’m more and more attached to the people who knew him as he was before. I don’t believe I’m capable of fully expressing the kind of remarkable and loving man he is and was. I need witnesses.
At 81, the majority of updates my father receives from friends and family are about death.
He and David were eight years apart in age, two patrician Englishmen dual-wielding charm and intellect. They delighted in each other’s company whenever they crossed paths at parties and family gatherings. We’d receive Christmas cards from David’s house in Cornwall and my father would send cheeky handmade bookmarks in return (although, to be fair, he was exceptionally generous with his bookmark-gifting. This week alone I’ve talked to three people who have them sitting visibly on shelves in their homes or offices).
I’ve always had a hard time bridging the generational and international gap between my parents’ worlds and mine. So often, when I go to try and explain my family to my peers, they don’t know the first thing about the people I’m referencing. It feels alienating and strange. Whenever a friend or relative in the UK passes, it feels like losing a fragment of an impossible world I got to be part of as a child.
I remember David taking us to a Chinese restaurant in London where I ate crispy duck with plum sauce for the first time. There was a fountain running down an indoor staircase and everything felt glamorous and grown-up. I’ve never had duck that good since.
I feel strained and strange because the public grief sits at odds with my own experience of this man. It’s not the intimacy of family, nor is it the distanced attraction of fandom. It’s something tangled around the fact that David and my father were of a type, and his death points at something looming in the mist of my future.
The loss of creative people is complex. If we have nothing to do with a creator in person, then our grief is often more to do with the loss of potential future output—the books unwritten and songs unsung. But we are not our work. It is a part of us, but not the whole of us. Certainly no substitute for the love we give—or are unable to give—to our children. No shortcut to understanding our innermost selves, or what we meant to the people who loved us.
The one cult hit my father played a hand in writing is so far from what I want him to be remembered for—but sometimes it’s the only thing I can point to that might help a stranger understand what he means to me.
There is so much about his life that is improbable, delightful, complex. I can’t recount his escapades without feeling like I’m trying to brag. He came of age in the midst of Britain’s satire boom, bucked familial expectation to travel halfway around the world, and ended up touring America as a stage actor and writing movies in Hollywood. Each time I think I know every celebrity anecdote in his arsenal, he surprises me with another.
I can’t tell so many of the jokes he told because my Yorkshire accent is abominable.
How am I going to tell anyone about who he was if I can’t tell his jokes?
The news of David’s passing shakes me because I realize there will be no pageantry of this scale when my father goes, but there will still be some kind of reckoning between what he represented to other people and who he was to me. I’m grieving for my friends, who have lost a father and grandfather, but I’m also grieving this dwindling thread to a place that made me; to something I cannot hold.
I’m lying in the dark, brain whirring. Too much Borges before bed.
There’s a dog baying at regular intervals somewhere down by the river—a canine foghorn. There are crickets, and the wash of cool night air already filing the room. I’m on the edge of going under when I hear the faintest echo of a Great Horned Owl.
It jolts me awake. Ears pricked. Eyes wide. After a moment’s hesitation, I climb out of bed, unlatch the window, and slip into the garden.
There’s no moon in the sky—just a riot of stars, all dull amber and icy blue. I pause, the night chorus seethes around me and then: the owl. Resonant and distant. A warm, mournful sound from the end of the drive.
I pace the gravel in the dark and I am eight years old, flush with the freedom of having snuck out after bedtime, certain I am running away to go on adventures only to stop, as I do now, at the edge of the road. I am wrapped in the scent of pepper trees and dust, soles pricked by scalloped oak leaves. The owl sounds again, but it’s across the street, lost in the tangle of houses that was once an elaborate bed and breakfast.
I remember hovering on the edge of this curb, young and dreaming, aware that everything in the dark was held in a kind of suspended animation. A sacred in-betweenness. I wanted to go further, perhaps even knew that I could, but I was too enthralled with what was here. Every time I’d walk back to my room, or whatever part of the property I was nesting in at the time, and return to bed, as I will now.
Perhaps that was what I came looking for in the dark. Not the owl, but the reassurance that slipping out would still grant entry to this surreal and weightless darkness. Would let me pass my former selves in the drive, circling farther and farther from the cradle, always coming home before dawn.
It feels strange to cross these streams here, but my Hometown Self and my Professional Self got together and gave an interview to my friend Bret Bradigan about being in Ojai and what I’m working on right now and how I’m thinking about communities and support for artists these days and some other stuff. You can listen in via this handy embedded player:
Incomplete list of links to things discussed:
- 100 Demon Dialogues
- C. Spike Trotman of Iron Circus Comics and her XOXO talk
- The Right Number
- My Patreon Page
- Kevin Kelly’s 1000 True Fans
- Reed College
- Bookends, an absolutely marvelous bookshop in Meiners Oaks housed in an old church (with an tiny, auxiliary bookshop housed in an Airstream trailer in the yard)
- Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows
Bret also publishes a local magazine called Ojai Quarterly, which I did an interview for last…winter? I think?
Oh, November 2018. Two years ago. Ha. Cool. Wow.
Anyway, there are some things to read and listen to! (I still don’t know if this blog is the place to be sharing these, but I’m throwing everything at the wall for now and seeing what sticks.)
This morning I woke up in my childhood bedroom and now I can’t stop thinking about time travel.
In her memoir Yes, Please, Amy Poehler talks about her belief in the phenomenon. Not in the fantastical Marty McFly sense, but in the “I just caught the last line of a song I used to love and suddenly I’m eleven again in the back of a bus driving across Death Valley” sense. Sometimes we seek it out, other times it catches us unawares. The fruit of this practice is a sense of cyclical, mutable perspective.
In this room I am and am not my eleven-year-old self. I see her contextualized through a different side of the prism, sharper from some angles and less accessible from others. The built-in desk I’m sitting at right now, with the mirror in the back and the two squeaky drawers and the carved channel for holding pencils, is a DeLorean in its own right. I remember filling it with childish renditions of animals in colored pencil, pouring my angsty teenage heart out into endless text documents on an iMac G3, coming home from college to stare at the photos taped to every surface.
The entire experience of being home is like this. Every artefact. Every tree. Every item of clothing. The layered richness of memory is so thick that I find it hard to look at or think of anything else. I shed my guise of being a self-made woman and become, instead, a stack of vellum sheets.
Such a reveal and a relief to see that I have roots. That I come from somewhere after all and it’s here.