May 16 2016

My First Cali-versary

I’ve been here a year.

One whole year. After a year of being in a place, it’s maybe supposed to start feeling like home, I suspect — but sometimes I still look around and think, Wait a second. I LIVE here? This usually happens while I’m driving, for some reason. I’m on the highway and at some point I inevitably notice I’m heading toward a mountain and there is this almost out-of-body experience. I have to actively remind myself, This is my HOME. There are mountains. There is not a whole lot of space or fresh water or lush green grass, but there are mountains, yes, and this is where I live now.

Am I weird? (I mean, yes, but am I weird because of this?) What’s the timeline for this kind of thing?

Maybe it’s because this alleged “year” actually feels like twenty minutes. Okay, three months. Four, tops. The other day I called someone to make an appointment for something and I said, “I’m not sure exactly where you’re located — we just moved here from Michigan a couple months ago.” Wait…what? That’s not right. “I mean, it’s been almost a year or something. Anyway. I have no idea where you are.”

The phantom pain I mentioned is still there: in my mind, I continue to see Michigan roads and destinations about as often as those in California. Sometimes these visions hit me out of nowhere, and sometimes, if I close my eyes and really concentrate, I can almost smell the crisp fall air we didn’t get to experience last October, or hear the gravel road under my tires on the drive to work. It’s so strange to have two alternate realities swirling around in my brain.

I don’t miss people any less. In fact, I would like to ship out the following things, please: my parents, three to four of my closest friends, and a handful of summer thunderstorms to unleash upon command.

Now there’s something I can get behind. THAT would be totally doable.

Of course, it’s worth mentioning that some of Al’s colleagues have developed into a wonderful, supportive network of friends. We’re fortunate that he landed on a team that really seems to gel, and I honestly don’t know what we’d be doing right now without them. I didn’t expect that when we moved out here a year ago — in fact, I kind of anticipated that my only acquaintances would be other mothers, but so far that’s been a big fat fail. That’s mostly my fault, I guess: when you don’t join any mom groups and just about everyone in your rental neighborhood is retired, it’s sort of tough to make mom friends.

By far, the coolest thing about being out here has been the ability to pursue something I’m truly passionate about. I have a “Five-Year Goals” list that I typed up and posted in my makeshift office, and it has only two columns: 1) Goal and 2) Date Accomplished. I blatantly stole this idea from a friend of a friend, by the way — although his goals are comprised of intimidatingly physical, badass nature excursions, and eighty percent of mine have something to do with writing.

I am openly stupefied by the number of goals I’ve been able to check off this first year: things I expected might take at least the full five years, like “Get published in print” and “Write an article for a major online publication.” Every time I enter something into the Date Accomplished column, I actually, LITERALLY sit there shaking my head, back and forth, back and forth. Every time. That’s a semi-embarrassing visual to give you. Its just that, in those moments, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude — they are small blips of Maybe we moved here for a reason. They are flashes of happiness and achievement — proof that, even if we don’t stay here forever, this is a tiny adventure I was meant to take. They suggest that I might be on the right path, just for right now, brief and jagged as it may wind up to be.

I still can’t believe it’s been an entire year, but one scroll through my phone proves that it has, in fact, been that long. When I see photos of Peaches from last May, the difference in her face and in her posture absolutely amazes me. She is definitely not a baby anymore. Not even a toddler. I thought she was already out of that stage when we moved — she felt so old and capable, especially compared to the squishy newborn who arrived a mere three months after we landed in California — but she wasn’t. She was still so little then. The change from two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half is staggering.

2-year-old and 3-year-old girl comparison one year in california

Of course, I’m sure I’ll experience the same disorienting sensation when she is four, and five, and twelve: She was so little when she was three. She was so little when she was ten.

When I look at those photos and then at my daughter in real life, I feel like I missed it. I worry I was so busy moving and birthing and nursing and stressing that I didn’t even see her growing up. I’m afraid that I spent so much of this last year trying to write ALL THE THINGS that I missed the exact moment when she transformed from a toddler to a little girl.

The cliché is true: it really does pass in a blink. A BLINK. Sometimes I start to get a little panicky about it, like I should be using every single second to just stare at my babies so nothing is allowed to escape me.

I wanted to prove — to myself, mostly — that I could do this writing thing; especially when I lost my identity as a teacher, it felt important to try to find it somewhere else. I love being a mama. I love my children so much I sometimes cry for no reason, because there’s nowhere else to put all that emotion and it has to spill over somewhere. But their existence does not replace the dreams I’ve had since I was a child myself.

Maybe that’s a terrible thing to admit.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll throw my laptop in the trash and spend every waking moment so wrapped up in my kids that they won’t even be able to breathe their own air. Maybe that’s the only way to MAKE SURE I don’t look back on year-old photos and think, When did that happen?

Or maybe I will just get better at finding that elusive balance.

We plan to officially inhabit the new home by mid-June. I’ve spent the majority of the last year feeling “stuck” inside the walls of our rental house: pregnant and exhausted at first, and then blessed with a precious, miraculous infant whom I am in love with but who will ONLY NAP IN HIS OWN FRICKING BED, rendering it semi-impossible to leave the house for any length of time. And since the rental backyard is an attack zone of dive-bombing yellow jackets (and is also surrounded on all sides by watchful neighboring windows), I’ve barely ventured outside, period.

Whenever I hint at homesickness, people say, “But don’t you just LOVE the weather in California? Isn’t it just AWESOME?”

Is it? I mean, I hear it’s pretty sunny, but I usually see it through a window. With a few exceptions, I feel like I’ve basically spent the last twelve months alternating between two chairs: rocking and desk.

I imagine we will be here for at least another year. After all, we’re closing on a house — although you never know what may happen, and this We-Shall-Suddenly-Up-And-Move-To-California! saga has certainly taught me that sometimes long-term plans are not to be trusted. But hopefully, before my second Cali-versary, I will have the chance to get out of the house so I can experience more of the good stuff California allegedly has to offer: More mountain-gazing while sipping wine. More time oceanside. More lounging lazily in the sunshine with a book in hand. More driving down the coast, more sightseeing with my children, more parks and playgrounds and kiddie adventures. Those are some unofficial, unquantifiable, non-writing goals for the next year.

But first, we’ve got some packing to do.

About Melissa

Melissa is a SAG-AFTRA actress and former high school teacher from Michigan who (reluctantly) moved across the country when she was six months pregnant. She is the winner of the SmokeLong Quarterly Grand Micro Contest and a past winner of the Breakwater Review Fiction Prize (selected by Susanna Kaysen, author of Girl, Interrupted), the F(r)iction flash fiction competition, and The Writer's inaugural personal essay contest, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Cincinnati Review, The Greensboro Review, New Ohio Review, HuffPost, Scary Mommy, and The Boston Globe Magazine, among others. She has been shortlisted for both the Bridport Prize and the Bath Flash Fiction Award and was recently selected for The Best Small Fictions and the Wigleaf Top 50. Melissa is represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

17 comments on “My First Cali-versary

  1. Hi Melissa, you struck a cord with me! We have been in Michigan for 21 years and it still seems not real and much less time. Yet so much has happened while we have lived here. As we prepare to sell our house and retire to Atlanta, GA, I wonder if it will feel like home!

  2. I have friends who are leaving San Diego on the 21st to move to South Lyon. …on purpose! He left at age 7 and feels like he is coming ‘home.’ At last. It’s going to be fun watching them and their three kiddos experience what We take for granted. Love that you are settling in. Love that you still call the mitten ‘home.’

  3. Happy Cali-versary from someone who’s lived in CA her whole life! It is too bad we don’t get to really experience Fall. My friends post their Fall pictures on FB, and it looks so beautiful. I hope your move into your new home goes well and you’re able to make some mom friends.

  4. i love this. we’ve been here for 3.5 years now and i still feel like we just got here. it may be a feeling that never goes away, but it doesnt mean you dont belong or its not where youre meant to be. and ive come to realize that where youre ‘meant to be’ is by no means a permanent endeavor. just like there are phases of life, there are phases of where you are located. i dont intend to retire or die here, but i do love the idea of raising young kids here. im making no permanent promises to myself in my head, but rather want to give each place we go a fair shot, and once ive sort of settled in, reap the benefits of what it has to offer and see how me and my family can grow from it. i can have a great work life-balance here, im cherishing that because i am someone who needs uses-her-brain-in-ways-other-than-how-to-disentangle-hair-from-the-chain-in-the-tire-swing time. and thats not a terrible thing to admit. they will grow up with the benefit of seeing their mother as a person, a whole person, a person who follows her dreams and reaps the happiness from that as easily as the happiness that comes from her children, they will see her go on mom-vacations to napa valley. they will see her be a real woman, and not just a mom. it cant be anything but good. enjoy your time in cali, enjoy their childhood, cali is giving you the chance to enjoy that much more easily that the teaching routine would. look for the benefits of every place to you live, and try to focus on those, since no matter where you live you cant have everything you want at the exact same time. <3

    • Love this comment. So well said, as usual! 🙂 I can’t believe you’ve been there for 3.5 years already — and it makes me happy (and relieved) that it still feels so new to you.

      No permanent promises + reap the benefits of each location = excellent mindset! Thanks for leaving your always-inspiring words, friend.

  5. Mrs. B!
    I felt the same way when I was leaving school for the summer last week. College goes fast enough and living in CA doesn’t seem real sometimes I totally have that same feeling. But PLEASE come visit San Luis Obispo when you’re ready to exit the rocking/desk chair phase. It would be nice to catch up !

    • Your first year of college is over already?! Wow, time sure does fly. And congratulations on getting through it — I always thought freshman year was harder (emotionally) than the rest of them. I hope it treated you well, and that the remaining three years treat you even better!

  6. This brings back so much. I made that reluctant move from MI to CA with my husband. I think it took me 3-4 years to finally accept that it was my home. I never got over missing family, but once I had that shift of mindset, I really started enjoying CA. So much so, that when we finally moved back to MI after 8 years, MI then felt foreign and weird. We’ve been back… wow, it’s been almost 9 years now… That just hit me hard. We moved when I was 7 months pregnant with my first. (She’s almost NINE! Wow) Anyway, we’ve been back that long, and I still feel like I’m sort of a Californian. I do miss it, terribly. And every winter when it’s freezing cold, I wish for that sunny, achingly unending, warm weather. Toting around little ones in freezing temps is exhausting. I think I’ll forever be torn between the two places. A true Michfornia girl I guess. So I’m glad I found your blog. ❤️

    • So beautiful, Lashara! I’m enthralled that MI felt foreign once you moved back, even though you didn’t want to leave in the first place. And you moved while you were pregnant, too? We are living semi-parallel lives! And you’re right — I’ll totally admit that it’s kind of a blessing to NOT have to worry about the winter coat/car seat combination. 🙂 I’m taking that for granted already!

  7. Pretty funny. I’m a CA girl who relocated to Michigan. I’ve been here a long time now, but I can relate to what you are going through. It took me a long time to think of Michigan as home. About a year after I moved, I read that it takes 5 years to really settle in and feel like you know a place. I used to find that advice comforting, because a year in, I still felt like a fish out of water. I think I sorta irritated everyone I knew in Michigan by making comparisons. I observed everything as an outsider and felt internally that I was allowed to make judgements about things – “I like this”, “I don’t like that”, “who in their right mind came up with this” (applies to Michigan construction patterns, roundabouts etc) Fortunately, I didn’t speak my observations aloud nearly as often as I wanted to, and hence, they have so far let me stay.
    I got excited when the post office finally had automated machines like I was used to in California. I hate my open backyard in Michigan, where there are no fences and all neighbors backyards butt up to each other, for some sort of open concept community where children are supposed to play (they don’t) and neighbors are supposed to gather (pshht). I dearly miss being able to be in my California fenced in backyard in the morning, drinking coffee in my pjs (aka ratty t shirt that no one should have to see). I doubt the communal backyard in Michigan would appreciate that view of me on my deck in the morning – so I just don’t do it. Oh and the neighbors windows you mention? I know what you mean, CA houses are close together….but unless you have super suspicious neighbors – no one is watching…no one cares. We’re all doing the same things in our back yard and they grew up being used to 5 feet of space between houses. They probably aren’t aware of it in the ways that you are.
    I felt betrayed by Michigan summer thunder storms. I expected snow. I knew I would deal with snow, that was fair game….but rain? during the summer? Torrential, downpouring rain? Rain that causes 3 inches of water in parking lots and puddles that quickly become small streams as you try to make your way into the grocery store? What’s up with that? Oh, and were you wearing sandals? Ya, that’s too bad, enjoy that asphalt water you just soaked your feet and shoes in. 🙂 Rain in California cools things. Here, it’s STILL hot. One giant hothouse of humidity. Makes for gorgeous mounds of Daylillies and Impatiens though. We don’t get that in California.
    I woke up for years with a view of California mountains. In Summer – a view nearly nonexistent due to smog. 🙂 …Fall, there in the background, behind the line of parkway treas with barren limbs and the leaves swirling at my feet. …Winter – with an ice cap of snow. I learned to navigate by knowing where the mountains are.
    I cannot tell you, how truly lost I felt then, when Michigan was nothing but flatness, and sky, one solid plain in all directions. Sure, there are cities and buildings and even tall commercial buildings – oddly I sometimes feel a little more at home in those spaces, but turn a corner and the land simply stretches away before you, seems to fall off the horizon. The street you are on simply disappears in the distance, or the view is obstructed by trees etc. …but the view in one direction looks very much like the view in another. There is nothing to anchor it. No majestic mountains that change colors with the evening light to say – home is this way.
    So I get it. …and it’s funny that what I dislike, you miss, and vice versa. Hang in there. It gets better. The new place… becomes your identity, too (in that it ALSO becomes part of who you are). It takes longer than a year, it took me longer than 3…maybe closer to that five. When I go back to California now, it doesn’t seem so much like home anymore. Sometimes that makes me feel a bit sad, and sometimes it makes me feel a bit relieved. Rather than wondering which of these places my identity lies in, now…I find myself noticing how living in two places has changed me…and how I will never again share the same life view/world view as someone who has lived in the same state or same area their whole life. I am aware of how a place shapes you. I am aware of what it is to not have your social system around you and have to make new ones. I am aware of the things I have in common with people just because we grew up in the same place and that place shaped our values and world views. I am aware of what it is to move to a new place and reevaluate those views and values, because they are different from many others in the new place. Some of those values get evaluated and cemented, and some of them, I decide I can be more flexible with or let them go. I have grown and changed. I have ties to two places, and they no longer feel like adversaries within me or choices I have to make – that this place is better than the other. I no longer long for the place where I grew up and where I never once had to evaluate whether or not I belong there. There was a certain unthinking bliss in that. Not knowing all the ways I fit in my environment and all the way it shaped me. This though, relocating, has made me grow. Has made me unsure and uncomfortable, and finally has made me learn to accept, learn to adopt, learn to create, and to assimilate another place and another group of people into my identity.
    It’s a kind of gift. I just didn’t know it at first. I now kind of think everyone should have to relocate, at least once in their life. 🙂 It’s good for compassion and even, for practicing diplomacy. 😉

    • This comment made my whole day. Seriously. I need to be packing (heading back to Michigan for a few weeks, woohoo!), and/or getting in the shower, and/or sleeping or something, but I just sat here and read this entire thing and fondly teared up at your incredible descriptions of all the things I still love. Your perspective is eye-opening and fascinating and exactly what I needed to read. I want to print this out and put it somewhere in my office. <3 Thank you!!

    • I’m a California girl that moved her family to Kentucky for three years then moved back home. So much of your comment hits home for me. Leaving SoCal was so painful for me, I loved everything about it. In Kentucky, I learned about open yards, watching the weather come in, changing seasons, gravel driveways, what green truly looks like and the peace that comes from being surrounded by space. Returning to SoCal was blessing and challenge combined. What a joy it was to be around family, friends and the familiar once again. And the sight of the ocean ? Oh how I had missed that. But the move changed me. Now SoCal looks so brown, the traffic is so bothersome, the suburbs feel so claustrophobic and the year drags endlessly onward without that wonderful reset given by the seasons.
      I am happy to be “home”. Like you, the presence of those majestic mountains anchors my world and gives me pause to drink in the beauty of the day. It’s been 10 years since Kentucky and I miss it’s beauty still. I feel un-tethered now. Home used to be a location. It may never be that way again for me as my heart lies in two completely different states now.
      My own Cali-girl was changed as well. She eagerly went off to Northern Michigan University for college and drank deep of the beauty of the Upper Peninsula. Circumstances brought her home to finish her degree and I get to have her around for a few years as she gets some work experience under her belt. She is no longer anchored though. She knows the beauty and the ugliness of both worlds. She knows that life can be created wherever you land if you are patient and persistent. She knows that change happens, with or without you. Perhaps it is best to embrace it whenever the opportunity presents itself.

  8. I am also a Michigan girl turned Californian! My husband (also from MI) and I stayed here after I was stationed at Camp Pendleton. I served my term and got out after 5 years… and we have been here 8 years now, raising two kids. I love your articles, and can relate to them all. I also miss the thunderstorms (and rain….). It is beautiful here but I really never realized how beautiful Michigan was until I left for a while. Now every time we go back to visit I think it is just a heaven on earth- especially in the fall! 🙂

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