Los Angeles: the city of angels, a false idol, a circle of smog. Irvine: quintessential suburbia, the safest city in America. Laguna Beach: a beautifully Mediterranean yet tightly packed coastal community that was featured on reality TV in a past life.
These images don’t necessarily summon any kind of escape with a clarity-seeking intent. They are not exactly epitomes of quiet, monastic living, nor of the natural sorts of havens I tend to crave.
And yet, while visiting both places this past week, I found the kind of headspace on which I’ve been scrambling to get a grip.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. For one thing, the pockets of this area I chose to step into – Griffith Observatory, the Last Bookstore, my friends’ impossibly surfy apartment in Irvine – did hold the promise of stillness and creativity.
For another, over the course of this year, I have been trying to believe that one can find space to breathe, to think, and to simply be just about anywhere. But it’s a hard thing to absorb at home, and especially at home in the city. Packed tight as it is, some of us tend to wiggle into roles that barely fit us, and then wonder why it is so hard to relax and be ourselves. No one ever told us that it was possible to seek out a different role without dropping everything and starting over. But truly, who can afford to drop everything in such a dramatic way?
There are certain parts of American culture that ring with the heaviness of mythology, and to me, this is one of them; that is, the idea that in order to become yourself, you must go west, or east, or elsewhere – get away from your past self, escape your old life.
There is some truth in this story. Experiencing other cultures, for example – even traveling to another, unexplored American region – adds such layers and depths to what we think we know. It does one more good than ill to have one’s frame of reference flipped. If I had enough money, I would fund a semester abroad for everyone I know.
But the need to be elsewhere, alone, to be free? The idea that we are all rugged individuals? That, I am increasingly convinced, is a myth, and an occasionally dangerous one.
That said, I am also more and more convinced that the reality is better than the myth.
By this, I mean that coming to learn the truth of oneself – who you are, who you were made to be – can happen at home, turning an environment of relative discomfort into something not unlike home.
This is a hard lesson that I am still learning, and perhaps will never cease to learn. But there’s a richness there, and it eased this visit to a place I did once call home.
Orange County was a place where I had a challenging time finding peace. California, of all places, is supposed to be where you can try anything and be anyone. But inner pressures and hidden corridors within oneself – when they remain closed, sealed, and locked – make those possibilities seem impossibly distant. Even if they are actually within reach. Perhaps especially when they are within reach.
For example, I’ve known I was wired to be a writer for essentially my entire life. I’ve also known I’m interested in health, wellness, and food culture for quite awhile. There is no shortage of opportunity to pursue these on the West coast, but fear is an amazingly good roadblock.
One year later, not much has changed in Orange County, at least not visibly. And, granted, one week is not quite enough time to dig up anything meaningful.
But the main big change – that happened within, and it is a continuing process. The change was of my outlook, which is vastly different than before. This is partially because this visit was a break from my daily reality. Yet even in observing the uglier points of LA and OC – traffic, smog, homelessness, suburban sprawl, and corporate dominance – the beauty peeked through. It was not – is not – entirely lost.
You open yourself up to it – to the beauty.
Back home in Virginia, nothing much is new: there are more holiday decorations sprinkled about, and it’s about 10 degrees colder, with a more intense wind chill. We are all a step closer to the unpromised maybes and hopes of a new year.
And what lingers within, in this moment, does not have to completely disappear, even as it fades. It is as true for a season of love and light as it is for an adventure away from home. There is the excitement of creating something new out of what once seemed drained and empty, per LA’s Grand Central Market.
There is the emergence of the natural through the cracks in the pavement, as is happening slowly in Costa Mesa.
And there is the idea that, maybe, new life can exist where it was never thought possible. That maybe, by working within certain confines, you can come to find that there is more than one way to be your limitless self.
To me, that is the reality. I’ll take it over the myth any day.