Archive for the ‘California’ Category

It’s a beautiful Saturday in Southern California: bright blue, cloudless sky; trees still full of green leaves; temperatures in the mid-seventies at the coast, in the eighties only a short drive inland. The few trees in my neighborhood that drop their leaves won’t finish doing so until January – mere weeks before the new leaves arrive in our early spring. By January I’ll be delighted to be strolling along the beach in the sunshine rather than shoveling snow in Massachusetts. But there is something about New England in the fall. I miss the gorgeous autumn colors, of course. But I also miss the sound of leaves crunching underfoot; the sight of the first frost glistening on the grass; the smell of wood smoke and earth and rotting leaves in the crisp, chilly air; the annual ritual of putting the garden to bed for the winter, and bringing the wool sweaters and mittens and heavy coats out of storage. Fall in New England is a poignant time, a time for letting go of the long, hot days of an all-too-fleeting summer, and preparing for the endless, dark, cold winter. It’s a time that lends itself to reflection on the cycle of birth, growth, decline, death, and rebirth.

In New England, it seems like no coincidence that the Day of the Dead comes in the fall. There is something about pondering death that just feels right when you see it and feel it and smell it all around you. That cycle is less visible here in Southern California, at least to my eyes. Last year, my commute took me past huge farms that grew something all year round. The crops matured, were harvested, and were replaced with something else at a startling pace. One month I’d smell cilantro; the next, onions, then strawberries, as I sped by on the freeway. I’m sure locals recognize seasonal cycles here. But for me, there is little about the subtle change in climate in the fall that stirs the associations I made as a New Englander between autumn and death. Yet this time of year, with Halloween and the Day of the Dead just around the corner, still makes me think of those I’ve lost, still makes me ponder change and mortality. So I’m delighted that there are so many Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos events at my college. When I left the Luria Library on Friday afternoon, the installation of the annual exhibit of traditional altars was underway. I can hardly wait until Monday to see it. I want a visible, tangible link to the season.

One of the Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos events is a poetry reading outside the library. The event prompted me to look back at (and edit) a couple poems I wrote a few years ago about death. I don’t know whether I’ll have the nerve to share them at the open mic, but I have just enough nerve to share them here:


This morning
breathing the crisp autumn air
and holding the new lump
in my mind like an ember

I stood in the perfect, golden light
waiting for my ride and listening
while the leaves clicked off the trees
like little suicides abandoning burning edifices

The sound reminded me
of the shrimp jumping in the mud
in the green Carolina spring
the year we kayaked and fought

and of how tired it made me
to listen so hard
for that small sound
behind the big ones

I want to hold this moment
with the leaves and the light and the perfect air
without knowing
the bleakness to come

But as I watch the red and white pickup
stir up then disappear behind
the swirling cloud of yellow leaves
like something out of a movie

dramatically I think
that I may not be here long either
in this world with the leaves and the shrimp and our tears
and the exquisiteness of their passing

by Ellen Carey

with thanks to Jane Hirshfield for her poem, “It Was Like This: You Were Happy”

Read the poem, the one
about persimmons and how it was
the sadness
and the happiness
and the turn
of days into years
of words into silence
The one that tells
of the inconsequence
of what was
and was not done
The one
that reminds you
your stories
do not belong to me

Play the song, the one
about loss
and redemption
The one that strips you
of everything
but your perfection

Dance. Embrace
your beautiful,
temporary weight
on the earth
Allow the center
of your being
to spin
into every borrowed cell

Sit. Be still
and silent
the witness knowing
there is no tether
but the roar
of your own thoughts

And remember this:
Your stories
will become air
even to you
in the end
Water and fire and stone
are all that is
and even these
moment by moment

Do not turn away
no matter how painful
from the letting go
that will lead you home

You too
will step into this water
You too
will let the bright robe fall
You too
will be surprised
by its weightlessness
after all these years

You will know
what you have always known
That each of us
is filled with light
That each of us
is just
as insubstantial

by Ellen Carey


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Today marks the six month anniversary of my arrival in Ventura. I feel surprisingly settled – especially considering I’ve been here a relatively short time and certain things are still in flux. Looking back, I realize a lot has happened in six months. Aside from the new home and new job, I’ve ended up with a lot of other newness: new car necessitated by my breakdown in the desert; new bed necessitated by the fact that my old one didn’t fit in the POD; new wardrobe necessitated by a lot of the in-between weather I never bothered to prepare for when I lived someplace that was mostly either very cold or very hot; new habitual routes between home, work, and grocery store; new movie theaters and restaurants and coffee shops and libraries and park benches with new people sitting on them; new hiking trails and bike paths to explore, and new friends with whom to explore them; a whole new ocean to fall in love with (mission accomplished); and of course a new understanding of seasons to develop.

It is warmer and sunnier today than it was when I arrived in town on July 29th. Birds are chirping and trees are blooming and buds are popping while last fall’s brightly-colored leaves still resist drying up and blowing away. Meanwhile, my former home is buried under several feet of snow and my old friends are probably feeling relieved to see the mercury inch above freezing after weeks bundled against unseasonable, well-below-zero cold. I’ve had moments of envy as the news, Tweets, and Facebook statuses reported blizzards and my former colleagues reveled in yet another snow day. There’s something cozy about watching the snow accumulate while being snug inside, adventurous about venturing out into the storm, satisfying about shoveling, and lovely about coming back in & sipping something hot while everything is still hushed and slowed by snow. I love how a blizzard shrinks the world to whatever distance can be traveled by foot or skis, and makes it difficult to imagine anyplace that is not blanketed in cold and white.

But overall, I’m grateful to live someplace where I can watch the sun set over mountains or sea nearly everyday, where I can venture out in short sleeves for a January lunchtime walk and find myself squinting in the sunlight even through my sunglasses. I relish the subtle changes of season and light, the way 75 and sunny is different in January than it is in July. I’m awed by the number and size of the beautiful vistas that continue to outshine the strip malls and freeways. Every mountain range and canyon is an invitation, every tide a welcome. I don’t know how to reconcile living in a place that evokes such a strong, clear sense of connection to the earth while living in a way (crazy use of fossil fuels, water piped in from someplace else) that threatens the earth. But I do know that I feel more connected to the landscape around me, more compelled to venture out and commune with it, than I have in a long, long time.

I think that’s only partly about the weather. It also has something to do with the landscape here – a terrain that is simultaneously grand and accessible. Both the mountains and the beach are easy to get to, in spite of the unpredictable freeway traffic through the valleys. But there’s something else as well, something difficult to quantify. There’s just something about California that takes hold of you even as you find yourself complaining about the traffic and the cost of living and the shallow commercialism of much of the culture. Someone called Ventura County “seventy-five suburbs in search of a city,” and that description fits. Sometimes I think it’s nothing but strip malls, SUVs, cookie-cutter subdivisions, and factory farms spraying god knows what toxins into the air. How someplace that often seems to have no “there” there can get so deeply under my skin in six months remains a mystery to me. But I’m not putting too much energy into trying to figure it out. Because right now, as I look out my big, uninsulated window at the green grass and the lush, gorgeous cypress trees that obscure the view of the ugly 1970s condo village across the street, I have a hard time imagining being anyplace else.

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My spot

I made my decision to move to California on a blustery January evening in New York City. I’d just gotten back to the Northeast after two wonderful weeks in Costa Rica on my first-ever tropical vacation. To my surprise, I had delighted in the heat and humidity. Not much to complain about when working up a sweat wandering around the jungle can be followed by snorkeling in bathwater-warm seas or lolling in the hammock. It did occur to me at the time that actually working in that kind of heat would be pretty miserable – and I’m certainly getting a taste of that this week as I try to pack up and move my belongings as the mercury passes 100 degrees. But back in January, as I braced myself against the wind whipping through one of the skyscraper canyons in the city, I resolved, “No more of this! There are people in the world who actually live in warm climates year round, and I could be one of them. And I will be, within five years. I’m going to develop a plan.” And now, here I am packing up my belongings in sweltering weather to move to someplace warmer that’s actually cooler at the moment. Funny. But, boy, am I looking forward to getting out of this humidity and finding a place where I can thrive year round.

A friend told me about www.findyourspot.com after I’d committed to move to California, and I was intrigued. I’d already been to Ventura County for a week for my job interviews and some exploration of the area. I stayed in Ojai, and fell head-over-heels in love. I mean LOVE. Like I could see myself living there for the rest of my life. Just picture it: a little house with perpetually blooming gardens, down the street from a funky used bookstore, in a completely walkable town of less than 9,000 that still manages to sustain its own natural food store and independent movie theater and good restaurants. The town center is surrounded by avocado and orange groves, in a little mountain valley that glows a magical pink at dusk and nestles up to millions of acres of National Forest with some serious mountains for hiking. And it’s only 30 minutes from the ocean. Pretty much paradise, if you ask me. Unfortunately, it’s too long a commute (over an hour) to my new job. So I’ll live in Ventura, which is 30 minutes away. Close enough for now.

Though Ojai had me at hello, I was still curious to see whether SoCal is really the place for me. So I took the quiz on www.findyourspot.com just to be sure. I took it three times. With different answers. Some interesting towns came up repeatedly, mostly in the South (hmmm), Hawaii (I wish, and I did look for jobs there), and, yup, California. Silver City, NM came up a couple times, which is interesting because a dear friend lived there for a few years. But most interesting? Ojai, California. Every single time. I suppose the jury is still out until I actually live there (or near there) for a while and see how I like it. But so far, I’m pretty impressed with the divinatory powers of www.findyourspot.com. And I’m pretty sure I found my spot.

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When I think of the part of California to which I’m moving, I think of two things….


Wildflowers and mountain at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

Wildflowers at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

Hiking in the Topatopa Mountains above Ojai

Hiking in the Topatopa Mountains above Ojai

Near the summit of the Gridley Trail

Near the summit of the Gridley Trail

and the ocean

Ventura Beach

Ventura Beach

Having them within minutes of each other is pretty cool!

Carpinteria State Beach

Carpinteria State Beach

Channel Islands on the horizon, from the summit of the Gridley Trail

Channel Islands on the horizon, from the summit of the Gridley Trail

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It looks like this blog, which started as an exercise for a 23 Things class, is going to get a lot more personal. At the request of several friends and colleagues, I plan to document – sometimes in words and sometimes in pictures – my next big adventure: moving from Western Massachusetts to Southern California.

This is a journey of rebirth in so many ways. For starters, for the last 20 years or more I’ve been telling myself and anyone who would listen that I’m moving “out west” someday. In the ’90s I spent all my vacation time in the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia, the California coast, New Mexico, the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, and the mountains of Colorado, backpacking, mountaineering, rock climbing, biking, and visiting friends and family. When any opportunity to hop on a plane and land myself in the western wilderness presented itself, I took it. The first time I flew to Washington I glued my face to the window from the Rockies westward, hoping for a glimpse of Mt. Rainier. When I finally saw it, glowing pink in the 10 pm dusk, it’s 14,411 feet looking close enough to reach out and touch, I burst into tears. From that moment on, the west was more home to me than was Boston, where I lived at the time. The light was different, and the size of things, and the sense of space. I felt more than the usual post-vacation disappointment each time my return flight made its decent toward Logan Airport. I promised I would stay out west someday – right after after I finished school and found a career that really fed me and found love and had kids and…..you know how it goes.

And suddenly, over ten years passed. Over ten years filled with moving to Western Massachusetts, finishing my college degree, getting a job, being laid off from a job, changing careers, going to grad school, getting married, being diagnosed with cancer, getting divorced, getting another job, getting well slowly, etc. etc. And in the midst of all that, the West faded into dream and memory. I couldn’t seem to find the time or money or physical stamina for vacations there anymore. Not to mention the stomach for visiting a place that tugged at me painfully every time I had to leave it to return to “real life” in the East.

And then, just as suddenly, something clicked and I realized it was time to resurrect the dream. I was ready. I was established in my career. I was healthy and ready to get back to the mountains, back to the physically active person I used to be. My life was stable enough that I was ready to shake it up a bit. I was ready for change! Or to begin preparing for change anyway. I developed a relocation plan. A five-year plan. Five months later, I’ve quit the job I’ve had since 2005 and I’m poised to start a new one in California in August. Another reminder that you can’t control the pace of rebirth – or the magic of it. I’m sure there are adventures to come that I can’t even imagine. Stay tuned to hear all about them!

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