Wednesday, February 24, 2010

road trip

The drive from Northern California to Southern California, or vice versa, is one I've made many times. It can be accomplished in as few as 7 1/2 hours or so, but it makes more sense to allow 9 hours. Usually I do this drive alone.

For some time, after moving to San Diego for my husband's career in 1996, I continued to seek out and accept freelance corporate video work in the San Francisco Bay Area where I had lived my entire life. This allowed me to retain the source of income I'd enjoyed since 1987 (and, truth be told, a good portion of my identity), but also to ease the overall change.

Once I eventually realized I hadn't lost a home town but had gained a lovely new area and lifestyle, our unexpected 500 mile relocation ceased to be a source of deep anxiety. This relatively unexplored, balmy, less counterculture part of the state proved to be nearly perfect for me; it only remained to reassure myself that my old friends, family, and livelihood was a mere half day's drive away.

And so it was.

But I didn't always take the overland route from point A to B. I'm no longer sure of the sequence, but for a while I managed this new living situation by flying back and forth on Southwest Airlines, maintaining not only two complete sets of work kits, but two cars. The ambivalence demonstrated by this elaborate duplication seems painfully obvious to me now, some fourteen years later, but I didn't question it at the time.

That first year of my new life now has a hazy, dreamlike quality to it.

Just how much was crammed into that time period wasn't clear to me until the other day when I was sorting some boxes of slides. Before digital photography eclipsed film and rendered it a quaint folk art, most of my photography took the form of 35mm slides. I unfailingly sorted them for perhaps the first ten years of our now 30-year marriage. The rest are in unmarked stacks, awaiting my attention.

Looking at these slides a couple of weeks ago, I noted that some time during that blur of a year that was 1996, my husband and I moved to a small furnished apartment in downtown San Diego with our four cats, awaiting our eventual move to a new home in North County some six months later. I had never lived anywhere but in the suburbs, and the urban setting felt unreal. It would be some time before I figured out how to grocery shop there; restaurants proved easier. All of our furnishings and most of my art and craft supplies were packed up and sent away into long-term storage. Life, as I knew it, would clearly be in a kind of holding pattern. I can't recall where we spent Christmas.

This was also the year my husband and I took a trip to the UK for his work; grafted onto this excursion was a side-trip to a small, elegant Human Consciousness conference at Jesus College in Oxford with a difficult friend and writing partner while my husband stayed back in High Wycombe and carried out his work.

There was another conference that year, this one in Tucson, Arizona, a twelve-hour drive away. This was the time of my growing involvement with the lucid dreaming and consciousness community; dreaming and psychology had long been of interest, but my sudden immersion was evidence of restlessness and indecision about my life path. In this quirky world (scientific, but with whiffs of new age-ery) I was making my civilian contributions wherever I could, losing myself in a kind of extended pseudo-academic reverie. It escalated to the point where I spent nights in the Stanford dream lab with electrodes glued to my head, and even co-authored and presented a sound and respectable paper despite lack of any official credentials. Caught up in the magic and yet aware of the limitations of being a fringe player, I toyed briefly with the idea of returning to school for a psychology degree, before coming to my senses and realizing going back to school would, in my case, be a stalling tactic.

More stacks of slides later, I'm reminded this was also the year of our trip to New Zealand. Like England, this too was a trip undertaken for my husband's job. I can remember packing and wearing a spray eau de parfum called Red, new at the time. The scent reminded me of my mother because we'd bought bottles of it around the same time.

The people we met there were unfailingly kind. They fed us, and drove us everywhere, and the scenery was spectacular at every diverse turn; New Zealand seemed like a half dozen marvelous countries combined. We peered into exotic Maori houses, scampered around steam vents and mud pits, savored gourmet food in convivial restaurants, and rowed through quiet caves with ceilings lit by fairytale glowworms. Every day we felt the giddy rush of being further from home on this amazing blue orb than we'd ever been.

All too soon, my husband and I were on the long flight home. For many surrealistically long hours where we'd never fall more than half asleep, we felt the plane drop from the sky again and again in the worst nauseating turbulence we'd ever experienced.

By October, my mother would be losing her year-long battle with colon cancer. My father would later recall a conversation they had about our pending move to San Diego, and that athough her thinking wasn't as sharp as it had once been, she was aware our relocation plans were becoming more definite. I recall the months just prior to her death as a blur of video jobs, staying at my parents' house in my old bedroom and helping my father and sister with her care as best I could. Throughout this, I must have been travelling from one end of the state to the other, but I have no recollection of it.

Our new home was ready in the spring, and we moved in. I'm sure my mother would have loved seeing it.

Our move to San Diego was cushioned by some work benefits, including compensation from my husband's company for what would undoubtedly be my lost income. I spent some of this money in one extravagant and unforgettable night attending a party at the winery estate of Francis Coppola with the idea of casually wearing my fashion designs, theoretically facilitating career contacts with the event's promising guest list. Because hotel rooms in the Rutherford area turned out to be prohibitively expensive, I rented an Airstream trailer to serve as a hotel room, situated in a funny little trees-and-dirt park in Calistoga.

The trailer floor swaying under my high heels, I stepped into my evening gown, put on my makeup in waning sunlight, and stepped out the doorway with my original, elaborately decorated handbag. I walked carefully across the dirt parking lot to my car, drove a winding road leading to the gated estate, and wandered among the rich and famous for one magical night.

* * *

When we are young, we're told again and again that time passes more quickly as one grows older. This has certainly proven to be true in my own life, but never more so than after 1996.

Moreover, just as the process of evolution seems to happen with glacial slowness and then in cataclysmic mutations, the forces of change seem to come in stunning clusters, seemingly from out of nowhere, followed by periods of repetitive quiet that slip by with unnerving speed.

Last week I drove up north for the first time in nearly three years, the longest period without going home since my move to San Diego. Enough time had passed such that as my car descended into the Livermore valley on I-580 for the last hour's stretch, the vista was noticably changed with large new electronic billboards and sleek new car dealerships. There's nothing like a greatly changed landscape to make a person feel like Rip Van Winkle.

It occurred to me during those long hours of driving that this older version of myself hadn't made this trip before. Just as one never steps into the same river more than once.

Southern Californians call freeways "the" I-5 or "the" 101. Northern Californians do not use the "the". I now take the I-5 when I drive from one end of California to the other.

The drive is a long one, a kind of extended meditation, an endurance test, a game, a session of mind control, a tributary of time removed from the river's flow. I calculate and re-calculate mileage and speed, plan when I'll stop, when I'll refuel, and what book on tape I'll listen to. I remember a car trip I took with an old friend from the production business, now deceased, a trip planned not for speed but for the special, quirky sort of adventure that a road trip can be. The I-5 allows the miles to slip by quickly, but other routes with greater narrative value await anyone willing to spend the extra time.

In some ways, my life has become quieter. I leave home less often, I've lost family members and friends, and I'm no longer either driving 500 miles in the blink of an eye at the drop of the hat, nor am I turning road trips into idiosyncratic personal theater. It's been many, many years since I've had two complete sets of work gear and two cars, in two worlds. My work has slowed, and last year for the first time, I had no income to report.

This is not a bad thing. Mostly, my days are spent at home now. This is something that feels good to me, and feels right. I'm not always on the road chasing either a fast trip or an eventful one. I now appreciate my life, my gifts, my marriage, more than ever before. I spend my time keeping my home, making art, interacting online, and doing the writing I'd long promised myself. I'm reminded of the old saying about doors closing and windows opening. Or is it the other way around?

With the passage of time both leisurely and blurry-fast, I've now learned in my soul what I've always intellectually known: except through the power of dream and memory, we can't keep everyone we love with us forever. We can't seize every dream, take every route, and be every version of ourselves. But we can find good paths, and zero in on the goals that matter most.

There will come again someday another year of upheaval where too much happens, where good and bad episodes jam up against eachother and rearrange my life as they did in 1996. Some of this will be purposeful as I push myself to complete my projects. And some of this, outside my control, I steel myself against. And dare not even mention.

That's life.

Road trip. Not a metaphor I invented, but it certainly fits.

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