Two months ago, I was working for one of the world’s largest tech companies, doing something I actually loved and believed in and was pretty good at, with people I liked seeing every day. I had a cozy apartment on the Upper West Side, just like I’d dreamed of when I was a kid, and I would frequently walk to the Lincoln Center and pretend I was Dana in Ghostbusters (had Zuul never shown up and ruined Dana’s pretty awesome life playing in the symphony and sitting in creamy furniture overlooking Central Park).
I had my rush-hour subway-to-train commute down pat and alternately adored my fellow New Yorkers and cursed them under my breath. I had a brilliant therapist and a talented, careful chiropractor and a cheap and efficient massage place down the street. I felt safer and stronger than ever in my life. I belonged, at last, and it was to a city that wouldn’t have just anybody.
So naturally I quit my job and moved across the country.
But wait, there’s more! I moved back to the state in which I was born and raised and had a pretty tough time and where lots of painful memories were still lurking everywhere. A place I ran away from 13 years ago.
A year ago, a wise friend introduced me to the notion that the direction in which you move is significant.
In shaman-pagan traditions, the orientation of a place is sacred. Moving from east to south to west and finally to north completes a cycle of birth, maturity, and death. At least death of a kind. Take my journey, for instance: The West is a place of senescence, settling and integrating, adulthood. So of course I had to leave when the bad thing happened; I needed to explode like a supernova. I went South, to Austin, for anger and heat and seeking. Think high noon in the summer you were nineteen. And explode I did. I loved and added more members to my tribe, became a writer, showed my belly and got kicked, then grew some claws.
And then New York City. Sure, this wasn’t all my doing—my husband precipitated the move, but I was so ready to move on. I’ve learned that in the East, you get perspective on your life; you can see your future and know what you must do next. It’s the light of a new day. In the East, I broke down, shook off all the bad old noises and started a new thing. I grew a parent in an unused plot of land where there was only a scared kid hoarding the glowing artifacts of anything good from her life.
I’m not finished growing that parent, lordy lordy no, but I can wake up and take care of myself and be brave enough to hold still and write and know it’s not always good but that’s part of it and that’s how you know you’re working—when it’s not going well and you do it anyway—and forgive myself like a parent forgives a child for hitting the wrong note on the piano. That’s okay, try again, you can do it.
I’m telling you all this because I’m also trying to understand the sudden, strong call to go West. It was completely mystical, the way it rose inside me like a song I couldn’t shake, and the vision grew clearer and the path began to form. I remember first feeling it when we put Chloe down, ended the 17-year love that began yesterday in California. I became obsessed with the southwest, Mexican blankets, cow skulls, Georgia O’Keeffe. I craved the friends and family and landscape that first made me who I am. I listened to America, Cat Stevens, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty. I read old diaries and babbled about my childhood. A vast storm was gathering and ready to take me back to where it all happened. To be closer to my mother and the ocean where half of her ashes are. Our ancestors are said to reside in the West.
I’m afraid I’m giving the impression that these transitions are glorious, self-actualizing events. They’re not. They’re fraught with panic attacks, weeping, paralysis, coping, and self-medicating.
I was in that place a few days ago, when I dropped Nat off at the airport an hour and a half away. I came back to what was to be my new home for the next three months, and felt numb and unmotivated and lost. Why am I here? What the hell did I just do? I cried on the floor and felt very, very afraid. My diaries from the most terrible years of my life leered at me from the shelf where I’d set them up, critical research materials. You haven’t changed, they said, and you never really escaped. We can go ahead and call California one big trigger.
People said I was brave for quitting my job and moving to the desert to write. This wasn’t bravery. Do you want to really know the secret of my “bravery”? It’s deciding to do something and then pretending it isn’t really happening until it’s too late. It’s one part of you—the part that knows what you need to do so you can live with fewer regrets and that believes in you and thinks you deserve a chance—throwing the other part in the back of the car with a Gameboy and saying we’re just going on a little trip.
Maybe that’s all bravery is: looking out the window and playing punch-buggy until you’ve arrived at the place you were afraid to go. And there will be discomfort and tears and self-medicating but you get to the other side of that. The cool thing about doing scary, hard things like moving across the country a few times is that you gain experience. You remember that you will live through it and things will get amazing. It’s like building muscle or writing: it sucks at the time, but after, you’re strong and you’ve written and you barely remember when it sucked and how badly it sucked.
In some ways, that’s what I came out West for: to see how strong I am. To see if the soft, still-forming inner parent I created in a long, cold winter back East can bake into something sturdy and reliable under the California sun. If I can stand, my second-made self, in the place where I was first made, and tell the stories of that making. If there is still a palm-lined river in the canyon near where I am writing this, the river where we scattered the other half of her ashes 13 years ago, and if the river will remember who I am and welcome me home.