A Life Illuminated

Something happened to me this year just after my February breakthrough that I mentioned in my last post. I was finally able to connect with my life here in Vermont on a deeper level. My moods are no longer determined by the weather. I can, at last, see the beauty in a grey sky. 

Staring down the mundane, facing my boredom, facing my fear of obscurity and a quiet life—and coming through to the other side—it allowed me to reclaim the ability to see art and poetry in every day life. It was a turbulent psychological experience that I dreaded even before we moved from Los Angeles to Vermont. I’d lie awake in my bed in Topanga in those weeks leading up to our move knowing that there was a lot of internal work waiting for me here in Vermont. Yet, I still chose to move here because I wanted to live a beautiful life somewhere where we could have land, be immersed in nature, and find the extraordinary in everyday life.

Living in Los Angeles was exactly what I needed for the 4 1/2 years that we lived there. So much happens in childhood—good and bad—that living somewhere very other and different than where I grew up was very healing. I’ve written before about how I wanted to differentiate from my past and others’ concept of who I was. I wanted to be immersed in the anonymity of a vast, exciting city. In LA, my story was my own entirely, and people only knew about me what I wanted them to know.  

In LA, everything was different than it was where I grew up in Delaware. The natural landscape was vastly different: mountains and coastline versus farmlands and creeks. The cultural landscape was very different: urban and metropolitan versus rural and suburban. The seasonal cycles were drastically different: everything gets green in December versus everything gets brown in December. The climate was different: sunshine most the year with the exception of the rainy and coastal fog seasons versus fall, winter, spring, and summer. Even the oceans were noticeably different from each other. In the Pacific ocean, the waves come rolling in from such a distance that they crash far from shore. In the Atlantic, where I grew up, the waves are punctuated and crash much closer to shore. The foods are different, the ethos in general is very different. There is a whole continent’s width between Delaware and Southern California. And you feel that difference entirely even when you just travel between the two places. 

Traveling is one thing, but living in a place is entirely different. When you are traveling, you know that you are passing through and you still have your reference for reality based somewhere else. When you live somewhere long enough, you start to shift your reference for reality to where you are.

It took me about 6 months to stop feeling like I didn’t actually belong in Los Angeles. There was a steep uphill climb to realize there were a lot more rules for the good of everyone than somewhere like Pennsylvania. And people don’t mind telling you if you’re breaking them. I was gently scolded a number of times in the beginning about my neglect to turn my wheels the proper direction when parking on an incline, checking google maps on my phone while in the driver’s seat (though I was at a red light), my tardiness to gather my mail from the shared mailbox that we had for our multiple residence address, and most of all if I EVER forgot my reusable grocery bags.

Living in Los Angeles required me to shift my thinking from “I’ll do whatever I damn well please” to “in a city of 20 million people, everyone’s choices directly impact each others’.”

Soon, I had mastered the unwritten SoCal Westside Social Handbook, and then it felt like a very socially agreeable place to live. One of the key factors to adjusting to life in LA is knowing you belong there just as much as everyone else. Most people are transplants, and everyone is working hard to stay there. It’s a place where who you are can be more important than what you own. What your passions are can be more important than how you earn your income. Anyone can aspire and live into their dreams there. It’s a very inspiring place once you learn the basics in the unwritten social handbook. 

In fact, I became so acclimated to living in LA—a place so very distinct and different from everywhere else in America—that leaving began to feel like traveling to another country…or worse.

After 3 years of living in LA, we got Fern (our RV) and traveled around America for 3 months. It was so surprisingly strange to be in our own country and yet feel so other. Very quickly people stopped looking like aspiring movie stars or starving artists. Somewhere around Arizona we stopped being able to find Pellegrino and arugula.

Without realizing it, I had become a resident of LA LA Land (not just Los Angeles, that is, but the LA LA Land mentality). I had acclimated to the very elite and non-representative qualities that draw so many to such a place. I had forgotten about cigarettes. I had forgotten about bugs. I had forgotten about soda, cheese doodles, and Kmart. I had forgotten about overcast weather and graveyards. I had forgotten what ordinary felt like. 

Unfortunately, I was experiencing culture shock in my own nation. That felt worse and more terrible than experiencing culture shock in a different country. I wanted desperately to be able to connect back to my life wherever I was, but I just kept only seeing through a lens of utter shock—and it all felt like people didn’t care about their lives. I was interpreting ordinary as equivalent to apathy. 

The last half of our trip, we spent either traveling to or in gorgeous, world class destinations. When we hit the Badlands on our way back west, I started to feel better. Then National Grasslands was serene and helped me to remember how beautiful our continent is. Then we got to the Grand Tetons. That was a real boost. Gorgeous, snowcapped mountains are like an oxygen mask when I otherwise can’t breathe. Jackson Hole, albeit culturally very different from the West Side of LA, was curated for people who want to experience nature while being insulated by the benefits of wealth. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had become on of those people. 

Yellowstone, US Glacier, Canadian Glacier, and then finally my favorite place in the world—Banff. We stayed in several different parts of Banff, and my favorite was a beautiful spot called Waterfowl Lakes—off the beaten tourist path. Nowhere on earth compared to how that place made me feel. Especially there with Collin, Sen, Junes, and Zuri. I felt complete. And there was no cultural luxury and in fact the locals seemed very ordinary. 

We had packed Fern’s refrigerator before we set out from Canmore, so we had everything we needed. At one point, however, we went to try to buy something and the nearest store was very…rustic. But not in that Jackson Hole way. Like in a “chewing tobacco for sale” and “no arugula” kind of way. 

And yet, Waterfowl Lakes was one of the most gorgeous and inspiring places I’d ever been. And this created a rift in my self-concept. When did I become someone who needed more than ordinary life had to offer? Had I become an elitist? How had I become someone who felt most comfortable surrounded by people exactly like me? How had I not noticed this? When did I stop traveling like a poet as I once did—inspired by Jack Kerouac and Simon and Garfunkel lyrics—and begin traveling like a Bougie middle-aged woman? When did I stop seeing the art and beauty of every day citizens’ lives and instead start turning my nose up in disdain at their very ordinary brands and very ordinary foods? I’d come from connecting with the living poetry of eating a Mrs. Wagner’s pie and smoking cigarettes to shopping at Whole Foods and eating imported cheese. 

I’m not blaming Los Angeles for this change that happened to me, but I do know that my time there played a part in shaping my expectations for what a good life looks like. I moved there to allow my spirit, mind, and social identity to expand beyond the limitations of my hometown. And that happened there, and I will forever be grateful for all that I learned there. Some of my dearest, friends and cherished family members live there. It will always feel like a home to me. 

But traveling within my own country and having culture shock made me realize that I had become very limited in what I could internalize as a good experience. My muscles to create synthetic happiness had atrophied significantly. I had lost almost all my grit. 

Somewhere along the way, I had stopped believing that transcendence, beauty, meaning, and extraordinary experiences can be created from the basic, ordinary stuff of life. Somewhere along the way I had started to mistake money and glamour as the mode for extraordinary. Somehow I had become less capable of seeing how someone who is wrinkled and worn with age can be tremendously beautiful when they smile. Suddenly you can realize that the crinkles around their eyes are from decades of joy and kindness. Somewhere along the way, I had forgotten that in college a fantastic date with Collin cost a grand total of $1.20—two bagels and a hike through the woods with excellent conversation charged with all we were learning in college. Somewhere along the way I had started to internalize the belief that happiness was the end goal. Somewhere along the way I started to value following my own aesthetically easy-to-access version of happiness more than staying in difficult circumstances and learning and growing from them. 

So, I led the charge to move to Vermont. Why Vermont? Well, we headed out here to look for properties based on the following. It’s a socially progressive culture in a rural landscape. People vary in their specific political leanings and views, but overall it is very progressive and inclusive, and that was important to me. I wanted to be somewhere with very distinct seasons. I wanted to be somewhere with water—rain, streams, ponds, rivers, waterfalls, etc. I wanted to be somewhere where we could create our own experience in nature. This particular part of Vermont is not just a second-home destination. It’s rural, and it’s one of the only places I’ve been where the farmers are also likely to be philosophers, artists, professors, writers, or educated (either formally or self-taught) in some other interesting field of thought. And once we got here and stepped onto this property, my heart fell in love with this place in the same kind of way that I had felt about Waterfowl Lakes. I felt like I could experience anything here, and it would be big enough and beautiful enough to contain whatever I was feeling. 

So, I knew it was a good choice all along; that’s what gave me the courage to do this. But I was a weakling in the ways of grit and synthetic happiness. It took me almost a year and a half, but I am proud to report that cloudy days do not send me into the abyss of despair anymore.

The thing about chasing happiness is that it’s elusive. It’s like trying to embrace the shadow of an object rather than the object itself. Happiness is the shadow that is cast by a life illuminated. The sunshine is Love. When we reach for happiness we cannot grasp it. We do better when we look to the sunshine and plant ourselves somewhere with great southern exposure. Then we can know that our shadows will come and go depending on cloud cover, time of day, and seasonality. The sun always rises, and we can rest in that. It may be obscured from us at times, and we may go days without shadow. But just because we are obscured doesn’t mean the sun isn’t there. And eventually, we will be illuminated again. 

PS: I still love arugula. And fortunately, I’m surrounded by farmers who grow all kinds of fancy micro greens. 

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