At least twice a year, I come back to my hometown in California for a visit. The goal is to get back here every quarter, which, in the math of our crowded lives typically translates into every six months. These trips take on significance beyond a vacation. They are a form of meditation for me, a head-clearing journey back in time. While many people avoid visceral reminders of the person they have been, I seek them out whenever possible. In the movies, characters often return home to revisit glories from their youth or to avenge some wrong that they carry into adulthood. This is not my story---it is nothing so black and white. I do, however, perform some touchstone rituals that allow me to take stock.
Along with every German backpacker and family from Minnetonka, I pay a visit to the seals at the Cove. I stand on the wall above the beach where, as a child, I spent hours diving to examine sea creatures and baking on the course sand. I watch the slippery, spotted beasts cuddling close in the sun and am reminded of piling onto the roof of the car with my brother to watch a drive-in movie on a summer evening. I walk up the hill along the water to a patch of grass that saw a friend’s mother’s psychotic break, a cottage that was the site of a first date turned into a marriage turned into an excruciating divorce and a cliff where I learned to bring my battered heart to the ocean.
As with so many aspects of my life, all this revisiting is at once healthy and productive and also like repeatedly running my tongue over a sore tooth. I am afforded multiple opportunities to process the wounds and confusion of childhood and make some adult sense of things. I am flooded with the sugar rush of memories from a mostly charmed young existence. I call up primal fear and devastation and then forgive myself and everyone else. I hit up every frozen yogurt joint in America’s Finest City because it just tastes better here.
Back home in New York, I have rituals, but they are rooted in keeping my present life manageable. I fold the towels in the kitchen just so. I put pacifiers in every room, ensuring I always have one at-the-ready. I put ice cubes in Ruby’s dog bowl in the morning hoping her water will stay chilled for a few hours. I approach the apartment through Fort Greene on my way home so I feel like I live in a nicer neighborhood. The million and one things like this that comprise and organize my days feel like some version of a lifeline and I suppose have some relationship to my identity. I don’t cook, but I like a clean kitchen. I am a mother to child and bulldog, alike. I worry about the shady dudes on my street corner. But without a periodic anchoring to the chapters that have come before, I start to feel adrift.
I wonder whether moments in time will come to have the same power in my new(er) city. In that place, I am collecting formative experiences all the time. And I know that someday I will trot my daughter around and show her the block where her father first made me swoon on the walk back to the apartment that would become my home. I will take her to the stoplight where we sat idling with her three-day-old, tiny, chicken of a self stuffed into a carseat on the way home from the hospital while they played that one song on the radio that it seemed like we must have willed them to play. I will sit her on the Great Lawn and describe a hazy afternoon when we talked about books and politics for hours and I realized I could see myself moving back here so that this conversation would continue on forever.
The snapshots of life are more convoluted now. They are messier portraits, built on layers of knowledge that temper the way they imprint on the psyche. Perhaps coming back here and slogging through ancient history is a therapist’s version of escapism? It is infinitely easier to solve the puzzles of the past than it is to do the complicated work of the present. Still, I like the idea of looping back around again and again to find new twists on the narrative. Each round brings me closer to this moment, where I have the chance to re-engage my story with a few extra insights.