Thursday, August 21, 2014

I love you, California!

I recently listened to Kevin Starr’s California: A Biography on audiobook. I have to be honest: I did not pay much attention to dates or details, but rather let the words roll over me like poetry, the poetry of California.

Los Angeles. San Francisco. Mojave Desert. Monterey. The Sierras. Santa Barbara. Salinas. Missions.  Miners. Padres. Ranchos. Joan Didion. John Steinbeck. Jack London. Death Valley. Santa Monica. Big Sur. Palm Springs. The Grapevine. Point Reyes. Sonoma. Mt. Shasta. Pasadena. Griffith Observatory. Sacramento River. Palos Verdes. Yosemite. Half Moon Bay. The Golden Gate. Napa vineyards. Catalina Island. Laguna Niguel. San Juan Capistrano. Big Bear. Half Dome. The Hollywood Bowl. The Berkeley Hills. The Pacific Ocean.

Have you ever heard such magical words?

It is a language and a poetry that holds greater sway over me than I can ever explain.
All politics aside, when he was running for governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger called California, “a golden dream by the sea,” and that is a phrase I can’t get out of my mind. I know this is a place with problems galore. I know it has poverty and inner cities and injustice, but it continues to be a place of promise and hope as well, and  I don’t know if I’ll ever wake up from the dream that is California. I just know that I wake up each morning and thank God that I live here. I just know that I’ve never been anywhere else so big, and beautiful, and bursting with life and excitement and adventure. I’ve never been anywhere else that I wanted to be as much as I want to be in California. Every time Sean suggests we move somewhere else where the cost of living is less, I reply with the adage, “I’d rather be dead in California than alive in Arizona,” and the truth is I’m only half-joking. What is it about this place?! 

I like living in a place that is bigger than me. Obviously most places other than a broom closet fit that qualification, but California is so much bigger than me: I will never master it. I will never visit everywhere I want to go. I will never know it by heart or discover all its secrets. It will always be wild and mysterious and grand, and somehow just out of my reach.

There is an energy and a gladness that fill my heart living here. Most days I just can’t believe my extreme good fortune to be here. Even my long drives in endless traffic can’t seem to dampen my enthusiasm for this place, but only serve to confirm what I already knew: this is the place to be. See? Everyone else wants to be here too. And I’m here, in California! I won’t apologize for being in love with this place. I want my children to be Californians and I want my ashes scattered here too.

I don’t know if I’ve known a happier moment than driving home at night on the freeway: the L.A. skyline gleaming on the horizon, the planes lined up to land at LAX glimmering in the sky, the mountains looming like purple shadows in the distance, a fat white moon rising over the L.A. Basin, and Blink 182 playing on the radio. That I can call this home seems a privilege too great for me, but I’ll take it, and appreciate every second of it.

This summer we visited three new (to us) California landscapes that further confirmed my awe of this state: 

Lassen Volcanic National Park, May 2014

           Duck Lake in the Sierras, photo from because I forgot my phone that day! 

                                                 Santa Catalina Island, July 2014 

I mean, really!!!!!!! Does it get better than this?!?!?! 

Monday, August 4, 2014

A Tale of Two Heroes

This past Thursday, July 31st, I attended the public memorial service for Louis Zamperini, held at his old high school in Torrance, California. Louie is a national hero, an inspiration, and just about my favorite person ever.

I met Louie in the pages of his biography, Unbroken, by the magnificent author Laura Hillenbrand, and ever since I have been wanting to write about him and this book but have been unable to find the words to express how deeply his story touched me, and how profoundly it has changed me. Unbroken is one of those books that makes you want to use your life’s savings to buy a million copies and hand them out to everyone you meet because you know the world would be a better place if everyone would just read this book! You say things to your friends like, “He was an Olympian! He lived for 47 days on a raft in the Pacific! He punched sharks! He survived years in a Japanese POW camp! He forgave his torturers! He is amazing! If you read only one book in the next five years, make it this one!” And you just hope that what you are saying will somehow intrigue them enough to read the book, but at the same time you know you are doing an absolutely terrible job of trying to tell Louie’s story because it’s just so incredible and you’re just so ineloquent.
It wasn’t until he died on July 2 of this year that I discovered the words I was searching for regarding Louie had already been written, years before, by the poet Maya Angelou:

“And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.”

--From the poem "When Great Trees Fall" 

I can never hope to express it better myself because those words say it all. Louie’s picture is the background on my phone because when I see him I am filled with courage and reminded that I have been given the strength to endure.

After the service, I wiped away my tears and turned my attention to celebrating another hero of mine: Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived. Since I read the series for the first time back in 2008, I have made it a tradition to honor Harry’s birthday in whatever way I can—ideally by baking a cake that says, “Happee Birthdae Harry” and celebrating with friends, but sometimes just by raising a glass and offering a toast to the Boy Who Lived.

As I drove home from the memorial service, I couldn’t help but feel how fitting it was to be honoring two of my dearest heroes on the same day, but a part of me wondered if I should feel a bit guilty comparing Harry Potter, a fictional character, to a World War II veteran who actually lived and breathed and suffered terribly. Was it unfair to Louie and to his memory? Did it somehow trivialize his suffering? And why is it so easy for me to think of Harry Potter as real? Have I seriously crossed a line in being unable to distinguish fiction from reality? Should my friends and family fear for my sanity? I know I probably have friends and family who at the very least don’t understand and at the very most are deeply concerned about my extreme love of Harry Potter.

 But I don’t think I’ve lost my mind quite yet. I know the difference between fiction and reality, but I also believe there is a sense in which Harry Potter is a true story. It tells a story about things that are True: love is stronger than hate, help will always be given to those who ask, joy will come in the morning, friendship will save our lives, death will not have the ultimate victory, and Good will triumph over Evil.  I love Harry Potter so much because it tells my soul true things, and I choose to live in the truth of these stories. At the end of the day I believe that the fictional character of Harry Potter is more real than a lot of things presented to us as true or factual by the world. 


I listened to Unbroken on audiobook, and one night after I finished the book, I went to Barnes & Noble and found a hard copy of it so that I could look at all the photos. Towards the back of the book there is a picture of Louie, in his eighties, riding a skateboard with a grin on his face. I'm telling you, I sat on the floor in Barnes & Noble and wept as I stared at this picture, which was, to me, the ultimate symbol of hope. Here was a man whose life was hijacked when the world exploded into war, a man who was lost at sea, then tortured sadistically for years, and declared dead by the U.S. government, and yet he lived. He lived a life of forgiveness and helping others. He lived to skateboard in his eighties with a smile on his face and joy in his heart. He lived to say he hadn’t been angry for 40 years. His story reminds me that no matter the evil we encounter, Good will win in the end. Our broken souls are not so damaged that they can’t be healed. We will soar and skateboard, free and whole. All shall be well. My soul needs these words of truth because life is hard, the world is sick, and I grow weary. I grow so very weary. But then I think of Louie skateboarding, and I think of Harry’s scar, which hasn’t hurt for 19 years, and my soul whispers to me, “They existed. You can be, and be better. For they existed.”