We were spending the night on East Beach with her siblings and her cousins who had driven up from Mexico. We had a job to do: stake a claim on a spot for the following day’s Fourth of July gathering. Mothers and abuelas from different families would arrive early in the morning to cook chorizo and eggs, but the night belonged to us teenagers. We danced, gossiped, and smoked pot. I flirted with Angie’s cutest cousin. We wandered along the beach to see who else was camping out. Mariachi music drifted from a car stereo. When we finally crawled into our sleeping bags, stars were poking through an inky sky. I pulled the bag tight against the cold California night until only my eyes were exposed. Phosphorescent waves rolled in, as sparks rose from our fire pit along with the scent of burning wood. An occasional snap broke the lull of the ocean’s roar.
That summer in high school, the cadence of Spanish came as easily to my tongue as English did. Lying on the beach with Angie and her cousins, I scrunched into the sand until it conformed to the contours of my body. They were my tribe, the beach our homeland. But it was a borrowed sense of belonging. It receded when our friendship ebbed.
This morning, I planted nine seedlings
in a strawberry pot, seeing,
instead, the lane leading up to the farm.
If you can’t go home again then why
do I go home so often? Why trace
my bloodline down the side
of a red clay pot?
–––From A Red Clay Pot, by Janet Sunderland
I suppose we farmed a bit––helped Mama pick rutabagas and dandelion greens for supper. Hard packed clay soil poked my knees. Sweat traced lines down my forehead, the salt stinging my eyes when I wiped it away. Mama studied the Burpee seed catalog at the kitchen table and planted marigolds, but our yard was more arsenal than farm. It grew snowballs, rocks, and buckeyes, which bullies threw at my head. After ten years in Des Moines––I was fourteen at the time––Dad moved us out to California. The brick sidewalk leading up to the yellow house did not burn an after-image in my heart.
Home was a place I could not fathom, the mythical Land of Oz, instead of the farmstead Dorothy tried to get back to.
I spent five winters in Minneapolis with my first husband. On the February day we first pulled into town, the temperature dipped well below zero, yet joggers and bikers in brightly colored tights crowded the trail around Lake Harriet. An environment that froze your nose hairs from October to May could not be ignored. You had to come to terms with it, or else build your life around hating it. I adapted. I learned to navigate downtown skywalks. I learned the value of front wheel drive and a manual transmission. Mastered plowing my Honda CRX through bumper-deep slush. Prided myself on the ability to take off from a stop sign at the crest of a slippery hill. Those were the survival techniques of a foreigner. Locals, on the other hand, traced their bloodlines in the rituals handed down by the tribe. Certain behaviors defined fitting in. Ice skating. Ice fishing. Ice sculpting! I signed up for a class, but failed to master staying erect on cross-country skis, atop snow crusted over with ice. I could not discern the names of the people leaving messages on my office phone: Lena Larsdatter, Hans Helland, Tormod Oefstedal. And what was a hotdish?
For every house I’ve called home, I did not go home again. Iowa, California, Oregon, Minnesota, Missouri. A roll call of places where I failed to set down roots. A litany of states describing a single state of mind: outsider.
I’ve been in Kansas City thirty years, certainly long enough to develop an attachment, but by the time I’d moved to my suburban split-level, a wary relationship with place had already set in. I planted marigolds in red clay pots around my patio, in a simulation of homestead, but when I leave for a daily walk, neither pots nor patio linger in my mind’s eye. The front steps cease to exist as soon as they're behind me. I don’t look at my street and see the snow packed lanes of Minneapolis. And nothing pulls me back to Santa Barbara’s shoreline. I live near a wooded area crisscrossed by blacktop trails. A deer once startled me on a day I’d braved our miniature forest. She stood at attention a few yards away, her head lifted in my direction. We eyeballed each other and then she stepped daintily into the brush. I envied her sure-footedness, the way she seemed to know where she was headed and where she’d come from. The environment looked opaque to me.
Dawn Downey is the author of “Stumbling Toward the Buddha: Stories about Tripping over My Principles on the Road to Transformation.” An essayist, Downey finds inspiration in everyday situations. Topics under her scrutiny range from her pursuit of the perfect purse to her search for the meaning of life. Toss in jealousy, prejudice, guilt, and inadequacy for good measure. Thanks to a spiritual path that winds through the teachings of the Buddha and around to non-duality, she now enjoys a kinder, gentler relationship with her eccentricities.