In California


California is a place where long, long roads are usually the only means of getting off the road. You can go places without a car in California if you really try, but you will find yourself in a car most days. The reason is simple: size. The size of the state is stupefying to the first-time visitor, and in the two years I lived there, my brain never got accustomed to it. The northern half, where I spent most of my time, is particularly hard to wrap your head around. I longed for it to all be walkable, or bikeable, but it was not, unless your idea of ‘bikeable’ is going on a 40-mile tour of Marin County, balancing on the edge of a snaking highway with a cliff on one side of you and a car on the other. No matter how much I saw of the state, I still felt like a small kid wandering around the Museum of Natural History, intimidated, awestruck, and confounded by the size and volume of everything — trees, sunshine, cars, orange groves, crop fields, everything.

How much does beauty matter to the brain? I remember once showing my friend a picture of some guy I loved, and her remarking, “You know, he’s really not that attractive,” as if this would put the matter of my loving him to rest for good. Well, I didn’t agree, because the face in the photo, to me, was not so much a face as a mental map, impossible to draw, but fully navigable by the weird forces that governed my emotions. It was a map of why I loved that person. If you asked me why I loved him, I don’t think I’d be able to tell you.

We know that nothing which can be categorized as love — love being synonymous with joy, or so argued the author Zadie Smith recently — cares a lick about appearances. Of course, our brains like beauty, like colors, like variety, like change. But as Smith argues, those things provide our brain with “pleasure,” with fleeting doses of happiness, not with joy, which is deep and lasting, and which, I would say, tends to involve more of the brain than pleasure does. At least it should: it is a weightier thing, joy. It is harder to find, it is harder to achieve, and if you are too distracted by pleasure, you will not see it, or hear it, and if you’re not careful it might skulk quietly out of your life and find someone else to convince of its merits.

California was all pleasure: a baffling cornucopia of flora, fauna, food, wine, architecture. My stomach sinks just thinking of it, and that physical reaction makes me wonder whether maybe it was joy — love, out there. No: it was just an overwhelming volume of pleasure, an overdose of pleasure, day in and day out. It fed all my senses in a way that few places have: the smell of redwoods, the feel of the always slightly-too-cool evening air; the spellbinding pink light at the end of the day; the sound of four different species of birds arguing over their shared turf just before sunset, their voices all suddenly going quiet minutes after the sun disappeared; and the taste of ridiculously cheap food grown a few towns over. Who, if they could afford to, wouldn’t upgrade the grumpy grisaille of New York City to this travel brochure-quality lifestyle?

Joy tends to be deep and lasting, and I realized only after living in California for two years that my joy is inspired by things that are deep and lasting — by history. By things, places and people I have known for a long time. But such is the shallow human mind: I tend to reach more readily for change, for the cheap thrills that change provides, instead of holding fast to the slow and steady things, the things that eventually bear joy. Or have always borne it, but have been pushed aside or taken for granted by the naive pleasure-seeker. My favorite kind of change is the geographical kind: moving has always made me feel more comfortable than not moving. If we are in motion, or in transit, we don’t have to think about the fact that life will eventually end. Motion allows us to ignore a gnawing fact that we will never really be able to escape from: that patience and focus only come to those who are standing still, and that patience and focus are the only things that will allow us to do valuable work in our lives, or to have meaningful relationships.

It’s normal for a young person to feel fidgety in life, to feel that their circumstances are always ill-fitting. Young adulthood is the battle between pleasure and joy, between fun and obligation, between now and always. When we’re young, we’re often convinced that everything we’re doing is forever. We will be with our high school boyfriend forever. We will live in California forever. Often it’s that pressure, that tendency to try too hard, to commit, to be grown up, that causes things to explode. But explosions are normal. Anything active, anything kinetic, is liable to explode. If we don’t act, we end up with more regrets later on. It is better to regret doing something, etc.

So we went. The recession had had a way of making New York City seem particularly insurmountable. California, on the other hand, made me feel like Snow White cleaning house with her forest animal friends. Surely there was enough pleasure in California with which to concoct some joy. And there was, don’t get me wrong: we nestled in there, we got a dog, we collected more and more plants. Being surrounded by so much life, you cannot help but feel more alive. And of course, the easiest way to feel joy is to watch someone you love in the throes of pleasure: a cat lying on a porch in the sun, or staking out a squirrel, or your other half playing the guitar, stoned, on the same porch, or your dog careering through acres of public California land designated specifically for dogs.

Which all makes me think: God, what have I done? I’m back in New York City now. But when I walk a mile through the city from one obligation to another on an eerily warm February afternoon, I feel love. Love for the restaurants just opening, bracing for a busy night. Love for the weirdly and impeccably dressed people I pass by. Love for the amusing snippets of conversation I overhear. Love for the artificial light of various kinds adorning every building along Bleecker Street, making the light from the sky seem more blue, more bruised. I do not feel confusion, or that strange, low humming in my head, the hum of oversedation. California was melatonin to me; New York is adrenaline. Fundamentally, these two places aren’t that different, nor should I feel like a different person in each place. They are both America. They are both settings of my life. Yet I do feel completely different here than I did there. Why?

It is small things, like the seemingly inane things that added up to my love of a “not very attractive” man. It is the creature comforts of the mind: the history of me on the East Coast, the safety of being in proximity to family, and to the state in which I was born, the state in which I lived during college, and the Canadian province my father has historically called home, a place I love so much that I want to squeeze it to the point of suffocation. These places don’t all feed my senses the way California did, but they feed my mind.

Before and after I moved to California, I would listen to the song “In California,” arguably Joanna Newsom’s magnum opus, and wish I could make that narrative mine. But my song is called “In New York.” There’s a grumbling verse about how food is too expensive, and another about how I am always almost accidentally crushing a rat underfoot as I walk my dog back home from the barren rectangle of dirt where she does her business every night. But there is also a verse about how I have always felt invited to New York in a way I never felt invited to California, that it is a haven for peregrinating lost souls like myself. It is the arrivals lounge of the world. And it is a mostly unrequited love I feel, but unrequited love, perversely, is a fount of joy.

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images – [Colin Clark]