by Alice Lowe
Wherever you go, there you are.
My first husband, Terry, hailed from a long line of Texans, but his family migrated to Wichita, Kansas when he was a tot. He was the only one who left, first to college back in Texas, then to Southern California with the Marine Corps, where we met and married. San Diego was our home. Terry had no desire to go back to Wichita, and for me everything I’d heard about Kansas—too flat and colorless, too conservative and religious—was true. Terry’s family, predisposed to stereotypes of their own, was dismayed when he took up with a California girl who would lead him to ruin and depravity. I allayed their fears with my levelheadedness and was welcomed into the family, though they were disappointed that I kept him in California.
When our daughter was four, Terry died in a car crash. I took Jennifer to Kansas soon afterward and then every couple of years to maintain the ties, to reassure his parents that they wouldn’t lose the last link to their eldest son. They urged me to move to Wichita and raise Jennifer there, to be closer and no doubt to mollify their qualms about their granddaughter growing up with a single mother in this hotbed of licentious living. I could have presented statistics on crime and delinquency in Kansas, sent a copy of In Cold Blood to remind them of the grisly murders that took place within their borders. Is a child’s safety assured anywhere? When Jennifer had some behavior problems as a teenager and I sought the family’s help, they were quick with the “I told you so.” The rift took a long time to heal, and by then she was old enough to fly back by herself for visits. I haven’t been back to Kansas.
New York City
Don’t we all at some time yearn to submerge ourselves in the magic and mystique of Manhattan? A New Yorker by birth, I spent my first six years in Franklin Square, Long Island, a suburban outpost. I recall going into Manhattan only once, a stuffy, stomach-churning ride on the Long Island Railroad with my father. We moved to California, and I didn’t get back to New York until I was an adult, but I became infatuated with the city through fiction. The neighborhoods, the parks and squares, the energy and excitement wafting from sidewalks and doorways and the high reaches of skyscrapers; it all came alive in novels and on screen, in nineteenth century classics like The Age of Innocence, in Mary McCarthy’s The Group, and in the daily lives of modern Manhattanites in Sex and the City.
My stays were never long enough—I always yearned for more. I wanted to be part of it, to weave myself into the fabric of the city. I would lose myself in contemplation of what I would do, where and how I would live, the person I would become if I actually moved there. From my earliest visits I felt an instinctive chord of connection. Manhattan lived up to my imaginings, but I never ventured beyond fiction and fantasy. Along with tales of fame and fortune found, New York lore includes countless stories of the young and hopeful who come to find their place and make their mark but are chewed up and spit out. Better to keep my illusions.
After my friend Priscilla decamped from San Diego to Seattle, I visited her occasionally, always for short stays, always in summer, always when the sun blazed throughout elongated days and the dahlias were in full bloom. I liked the feel of the city: the crisp air off Puget Sound, lustrous lakes and lofty trees, good walking and public transportation, wild salmon and bountiful bakeries, progressive politics and thriving arts scene. Everyone read books at bus stops.
Raw around the edges after the breakup of an eight-year relationship, I invited myself to Priscilla’s for a brief escape. It was March, and I was prepared for Seattle’s relentless rain, but a fluke early spring delivered dry, sunny, unseasonably warm weather. I took it as a sign of welcome, and, vulnerable to the city’s ambience and natural beauty, I thought I could live here. I entertained the possibility of a move until I recognized my desire for flight as temporary and driven by emotion.
I started spending two weeks every summer house-and-cat-sitting for Priscilla while she traveled east. I met my second husband, Don, on one of those trips. If a move to Seattle was still in my mind, his living there would have been an impetus, but I was once again firmly and happily tethered to San Diego. We shuttled back and forth each month until he took a job in Southern California, a two-hour drive away. We commuted on weekends for three more years before he moved to San Diego.
A few years ago Priscilla inherited a fragile old cat—her others long gone—that needed live-in care while she was away, fulfilling an annual commitment. I resumed my solo summer trips. I still find Seattle a green and pleasant land, a walkable city with good food, but it’s become congested and chaotic like every other big city. Bicyclists rampage past walkers and runners on shared paths. People at bus stops and in coffee shops paw electronic devices instead of reading books as they used to—why did I think Seattle was special?
I was in my mid-thirties when I went back to school and earned my bachelor’s degree at San Diego State University. I juggled four years of undergraduate studies with part-time work while raising Jennifer, 15 at the time of my graduation, single-handedly. Next I planned to get a master’s degree in public health to pursue my chosen field of work. The fledgling program at SDSU was the obvious choice, but I entertained alternatives. A prestigious east coast school—Harvard, Columbia, Johns Hopkins—was out of the question, but the University of California at Berkeley offered a highly-regarded program.
In spite of frequent visits to San Francisco, I knew Berkeley only through its notoriety, it’s radical past: the free speech crusade and civil rights activism, protests against the Vietnam War, early days of the women’s movement. The prospect of going to grad school there cast me back to the life I might have had if I’d gone to college right after high school in the sixties. I couldn’t go back in time, but Berkeley was still a progressive and stimulating political and cultural center.
Cowardice? Pragmatism? I recall my shortness of breath and restless nights, panic attacks at the idea of leaving the safety and security of home, finding affordable housing in a neighborhood with good schools for my daughter, obtaining work that would support us and mesh with the demands of full-time academic studies and practicum. Overwhelmed, I enrolled at SDSU.
Since then I’ve gotten to know Berkeley. The first time I strolled through the tree-lined campus and viewed its landmark sites, I was in tears, grieving the path not pursued, the turns my life might have taken if I had come here. As a city Berkeley has it all: food and walks, art and books, ambience and academics. Familiar yet always fresh and stimulating. Its proximity to San Francisco—a short BART ride—adds to the attraction, as does the body of water that keeps that frenetic city at bay. But the person I am now finds the Bay Area a hospitable retreat, the perfect getaway but no more.
Seattle wasn’t the first or the only magnet drawing me toward the great northwest. The year after my first husband’s death I visited an old friend who now lived in Astoria, a small port city at the mouth of the Columbia River on Oregon’s northwest corner. I was charmed at first sight by the village-like ambience, old world culture and rich history. It seemed idyllic. I blame transitory delirium for the wave of melancholy that swept me up into thinking I could live there, even with cosmopolitan Portland within reach. I grew up in a small town and escaped to the city as soon as I turned 18. My current instability wasn’t traumatic enough to send me into a virtual nunnery.
Some years later, again in limbo and between relationships, I became enamored with Portland. I believed myself a northwesterner mislaid in southern California, seeking my true place. But the urge passed. Again.
Lewes, East Sussex, England
The first time I set foot in England, in 1988, I knew I’d found my soul’s home. My heart started pounding as the plane made its descent and I gazed over the vast open spaces, green fields broken up by church steeples, tiny villages, and winding rivers. Two years later I went back for a six-month house exchange in a Devonshire village. I loved the wildness of west country moors, unspoiled villages with antiquarian bookshops and charming tea shops, the old and new mix of nearby Exeter, the rugged charisma of the Cornish coast.
Strong and serious stirrings arose on my next trip, when a pilgrimage to the homes and haunts of Virginia Woolf took me to Lewes, the county seat of East Sussex. I made treks to surrounding villages and the coast via foot, bus and train. I paid tribute at Woolf’s Monks House in Rodmell and nearby Charleston Farmhouse, home of Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell, and away-from-London gathering place for the Bloomsbury artists, intellectuals, and hangers-on.
As homage was paid and my curiosity sated, my husband and I fell in love with the region. Sussex is dismissed by some as a collection of lackluster bedroom communities inhabited by London commuters. “I can understand being attracted to the West Country,” a Brit friend said, as we returned year after year, “but why Sussex?” We found the area intoxicating and ourselves suited to it culturally, intellectually, aesthetically. We went back for two or three weeks a year over the next decade. On our third or fourth trip we rented a flat in Rodmell and tasted village life. We hung out at the local pub and got to know some of the residents. I faithfully visited Monks House—just yards from our flat—and other Bloomsbury outposts, the Woolf flame still burning strong. We traipsed over the South Downs to rural villages, farms, and pubs, and availed ourselves of the cultural and literary life in Lewes.
At some point we started talking about making a move. Was it possible? Village life would be too insular, but Lewes would be an ideal place to live. Would it work? Could we find jobs, get work visas? Were we willing to leave our comfortable and established lives in San Diego? The obstacles were many, the motivation never quite strong enough.
Wherever you go, there you are – or, there’s no place like home
There’s wisdom in this Confucian adage that’s been trivialized since it was co-opted by new-age gurus. Wisdom too in Dorothy’s epiphany after her adventures in Oz. They remind me that starting over is mental as much or more than it is physical. That a new place doesn’t guarantee a new me. That my baggage will accompany me to the ends of the earth. I’ve lived in San Diego since the age of eight. This is my chance, I would think each time some attractive new prospect presented itself, but there was never a compelling reason to leave. My roots are deep, and my yearnings to partake of the green grass of elsewhere were always short-lived. There was never sufficient lust in my wanderlust.
Alice Lowe reads and writes about life and literature, food and family. Recent essays have appeared in Ascent, Bloom, Concho River Review, Hobart, Superstition Review, and Waccamaw Review. Her work has been cited in the Best American Essays and nominated for Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net. Alice is the author of numerous essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work, including two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California; read her work at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.