Some people are surprised to learn how much I love coastal southern California when my entire personal brand is “girl who’s obsessed with the desert.” But it’s true. I might have spent more of my life so far in Arizona, but some of my most formative years were spent in the Orange County/Long Beach area, and as a result certain SoCal things are nostalgic to me. I like the fountain at the center of the Orange circle, and the giant Christmas tree they put up there in the winter time. I like the smell of my dad’s house and the lemon tree in his backyard. I like downtown LA and its endless variety of restaurants, museums, and quirky boutiques. I like The Beach Boys and surfboards and seeing people’s wetsuits dangle from their torsos, even though I’ve never surfed a day in my life (and don’t intend to).
But it’s become clear to me lately that while I might have memories, family, favorite places, and a stable place to stay in California, the state (or at least my little corner of it) is no longer something I want to call home. When I left SoCal for college, it was so easy to say that I was “going home” on winter and summer break, even though I intended on staying in Arizona long-term and quickly found a full-time job there. This habit stuck past graduation. I continue to tell people I’m “going home” for a few days even now, when I own a house in Arizona and am more committed to the desert than ever before.
All the while, I’m realizing now, the “home” label has started to peel off.
Home is a place to which you can bring your full self. It’s a place in which you feel you belong. For some, I would hope (and for me specifically), it’s a place in which you can envision some form of future. It’s somewhere you want to return to.
Arizona is all of these things to me. I am unabashedly and unapologetically myself there. I breathe easier there. I have hope there. I not only see myself being there for a long time (maybe forever?) but I’m invested in the well-being of my friends there, the businesses there, even the state itself. I’m also honored to know that people there are invested in my well-being. My friends and “chosen family” make an effort to see me the way I do with them; they remember things about me; they care about what I have to say. I am never doing life alone there.
California may be a place I’ve consistently wanted to return to, but it’s also consistently made me wonder why I’ve wanted to visit so badly whenever I’m there. It’s a token of the tricky emotions I battled as a depressed teenager. It’s a reminder of the reasons my dad and I are not close. It’s a space in which my social circles are no longer baked-in, in which people are perfectly fine moving on without me.
I’ve committed to a two-and-a-half week stay in California, book-ended by a short trip with a friend and a massive party my dad throws every summer. On my second day, I get into an argument with my dad over his tendency to join every single one of his girlfriend’s family trips, despite the fact that he doesn’t make an effort to vacation with his own family. He deflects by pointing out that I’ve gone on several trips with friends; why couldn’t I have spent that time and money vacationing with my family, the way I’m asking him to try?
It isn’t appropriate to say what I want to say. How can I tell my dad that my friends in Arizona make me feel wanted, the way I’m not here? How do I say aloud that I don’t have to beg people in Arizona to spend time with me or remember things about me, when in California I’m the persistent hangout coordinator who’s stuck reminding her family over and over that she can’t eat raw tomatoes? My neighbor remembers my allergies: “No honey!” he proclaims when he hands my partner and I a casserole. My dad meanwhile hands me a bottle of mead.
How does someone divorce the concept of “home” from something they remember so fondly? Maybe the answer is hidden in the way I’ve developed a mild disdain for Disneyland, a place I visited 100-plus times in my youth but would be hard-pressed to visit now. I might have felt delight there before, but now it’s too expensive, too crowded, too corporate — too distant from the place I remember loving as a kid. I could return to Disneyland tomorrow, but it won’t be the place that once filled me with joy and comfort and confidence. The same goes, apparently, for the rest of southern California.
This isn’t to say what’s no longer “home” is no longer worth visiting. Just as cream cheese-stuffed pretzels, the intoxicating scent of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, and twinkling It’s a Small World lights occasionally draw me back to Disneyland, there are things and people in California that make visits worthwhile. But there are costs. I might have to be okay with leaving a part of myself behind, at least temporarily. I might have to accept that no one’s dying to see me. And maybe two and a half weeks is a little too long.