Sometimes when I go to sleep, I’m afraid that when I wake up, I’ll be staring at the ceiling of my childhood bedroom circa 2001, and for the next three hours, I’ll be telling my friends and family about what a realistic and detailed dream I had where I went to college, traveled around, met a bunch of people, and… and then the details will start to fade away, and disorientation melts into the reality that none of it ever happened.
Perhaps I’m mistaking hope for fear. I’m not sure. But in those brief, disconcerting moments of twilight during which I gaze at some white ceiling, there’s no telling whether it’s a ceiling in the Bay Area, Austin, or maybe a Motel 6 somewhere on the road. I’ve been many places in both time and space, but white ceilings tend to follow me around wherever I go. I never know when or where I’d like those white ceilings to lead me.
Today, my white ceiling gave way to a suburban home in California. It is 2013, but my clothes still say Los Altos High School Marching Band 2001 on them, because my bedroom hasn’t changed since then, and I’m too lazy to pack for vacation.
I have spent many better hours on hilltops overlooking the sprawl of indifference. My favorite hilltop lies four miles southwest of my childhood home. It is the pasture of a barn nestled in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains: tall grasses, mud, a wooden fence, ambivalent horses, and a disfigured oak cut out of a Tim Burton movie and placed in a Pastorale. From this hilltop, I can see the entire Bay Area, and what I can’t see, I imagine.
I seldom stand on this hill alone, and never during the day. In fact, it is midnight, and the air is clear and crisp. I am cold and can see my breath. In front of us, the city lights of the valley floor cast a silhouette of the bayshore. Behind us, the hills grow into mountains and become dark and wild. Somewhere on the other side of them is an ocean.
A woman speaks: “I guess I don’t miss the places. I miss the people.”
I speak: “So if everyone you ever cared about moved out of the Bay Area, you’d have no desire to ever come back?”
“I guess not. No.”
Our third companion puffs on his pipe. It’s customary. The fourth contemplates the meaning of friendship. It’s what we do. We’ve been doing this for years. I look down at the Santa Clara Valley. I’m sorry. I’m sorry these words hurt me more than they hurt you. But the Valley says nothing back.
Another hill. It’s daylight, and I can see the mothball fleet slowly decaying in the Suisun Bay. My companion talks of an artist’s life in New York. Refineries churn. Chemical plants puff out smoke. The hills are pea-soup green. They turn green in the winter and stay that way until late March. It’s beautiful. They look soft. We have all maintained childhood fantasies about the softness of clouds, only to discover later that clouds have no actual feeling to the touch. Hills are the same way. They look soft from afar, but up close, they’re still rocky and unforgiving. It’s hard to frolic in grasses without spraining your ankle. You could call this disillusionment, but I love these hills anyway because I can see the mothball fleet and talk about an artist’s life in New York.
My father and I go to Yosemite. We drive through the Sierra Foothills. His great-grandfather came to these foothills to mine for gold. California was born of the Sierra Foothills. There are no palm trees in the Sierra Foothills. California was the lovechild of an oak and a sequoia. Somewhere along the way, that lovechild became a teenager, went to a couple wild parties, and had a drunken threesome with a palm and a eucalyptus. Oh, teenagers…
Yosemite is covered in snow. My dad says to me: “California survives for another year.”
My friend gets married in Sonoma County. It is here the Californians rebelled against the Mexican government and declared their independence. 166 years later, I am wearing a tuxedo and giving a toast to a bride and groom, good friends of mine from my past. We drink Sonoma wine, because anything else would be blasphemy. Outside the reception hall, the country club gives way to vineyards, which give way to rolling pea-soup mountains. South of us, the rocky Marin Headlands set sail into the Golden Gate. They rise above the sea like a colossal ship of mythical yore, but one which could only conceivably be carrying brave souls from the heavens to fight a war here on Earth.
I drive through San Francisco. Every time I go back, it seems more and more peculiar. I mean the city itself – it’s visual character. The pastel-colored Victorian homes in front of gray, Art Deco skyscrapers. The oppressively crowded storefronts of cheap ethnic markets juxtaposed with the extravagance of urbanesque upscale malls. The neighborhoods last for mere blocks, and I can never tell if I’m in a bad part of town. Everything looks windswept, as if the City was built in the Alaskan Arctic and somehow broke off and floated into the Bay Area.
What is it about the Oak and the Sequoia that speak to me? How long can the Redwood hold me in awe? This spirit – the pea-soup hills, the bluffs, the existential longing for snowpack – am I imagining this out of some perverse need for something greater than myself? Is God not enough? Is Family not enough? Is Self not enough?
Happy Thanksgiving. Meal. Merry Christmas. Meal. Happy New Year. Meal. I’ll see you in the summertime.
Suddenly, I’m on an airplane. Maybe a car. The landscape whizzes by. I wake up in a bed somewhere. The ceiling is white. Where am I? Austin, Texas? School? Life? Yes. Life. School. Austin. Time for class. But please, let me tell you about this dream I had. Before the details get hazy. It took place in California…