Wet Earth

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I was at the high cliffs overlooking La Selva Beach. It was a Saturday afternoon in September, after Tai Chi training. Not far from the shore, pods of migrating whales were on the move. They breached, they spouted, they breathed in and out of their extravagant whale bodies. Great plumes of spray rose into the air, drawing attention to the swimming shadows just under the surface. Warm, wanton sunlight fell all around.

I was on the move, too. I felt unsettled and confused. Unlike the whales, I did not have a clear destination. I paced back and forth beside the eucalyptus trees, then decided to call a friend.

The friend on the other end of the phone was in Iowa City, where I recently spent three years in the embrace of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a literary community of a richness and depth perhaps unparalleled anywhere else. In Iowa City, I studied with wise and supportive mentors, learned from gifted and generous peers, taught classes of committed and fabulously creative students, and made lasting friendships rooted as much in a shared passion for writing as in the everyday pleasures of company and conversation. I had discovered how valuable such a community can be for a writer who likes to work alone. I had made a better acquaintance with my writing self. So the sun could shine and the whales could spout all they liked: my return from Iowa to California was proving to be far more disorienting than I had prepared myself for. I found myself wondering if I still belonged here. As my husband and I worked through the changes that accompanied my return, I noticed myself looking at California’s natural beauty slightly askance, with an uncertain, almost mystified gaze. Where am I?

The air was malty, sun-warmed, slightly spicy: mellow earth, dried eucalyptus leaves, a touch of brine. There were the dried blossoms of sage plants, their aroma tangy-sweet, as if the earth were a body giving off the seductively musky odor of sweat. Pungent beach sand spread below the soft cliffs, miles of pulverized rock, smoothed by seawater and time, whitened by sunlight.

They all slipped under my skin, each one. I was powerless. The earth and sand, the leaves, the water, the air, each with its scent. Despite myself, my resistance to the present moment began to give way. But give way to what? In her beautiful and immensely helpful book Step into Nature, Patrice Vecchione asks, “Is part of the job of our senses to help us identify what’s ours, to whom and what we belong?”

If I root myself once more in California, must I cease to be the person I became in Iowa?

As a boy living at the end of a curving road in Topanga Canyon, I loved to walk up the little sloping street immediately after a heavy rain. Named for the black walnut trees—las nueces—which grew wild there, one towering above a fence in our backyard, Nuez Way overlooked the long canyon as well as Topanga Creek, which flowed to the Pacific. After the rain, the creek would be muddy and swollen and swift and you could hear its tumbling roar from the road. The abundant grasses and trees were drenched with clear clean water. The air touched your skin with damp coolness and it smelled of wet earth. The scent, for me, of memory.

This post marks my return to blogging after three years away in Iowa. The blog’s former name, Arts Alive, was inspired by a determination to encourage and participate in a wider conversation about the arts on the Monterey Peninsula at a time when the local daily newspaper was slashing its arts coverage. Although I’ve renamed the blog, you can still read those old posts, about string quartets and Harold Pinter, about Pina Bausch in 3-D and writing music about the death of a child. You can also read my open letter to the man who wanted to propose a bill outlawing the presence of gay men in the National Football League.

The blog’s new title reflects my need to write from the inner world I came to know and trust more intimately in Iowa. It is a world penetrated by scent and sensation, a place that is dense with memory and imagination and ambition and desire and an innocent childlike curiosity I guard with my life.

I said goodbye to my friend in Iowa City, grateful for the call, slipped my phone in my pocket, then stared out at the whales. I thought of the long distances they travel, the ones that survive, year after year. I stopped my pacing and gave myself permission to experience the weight of my feet on the ground. Yes, as I inhaled the familiar coastal flavors I felt the quality of belonging that had eluded me. Bonded by molecules of scent, it crossed over my resistance and became part of my body. It was my belonging to California, to its coast, to the blessed life and the love I have here. As I felt myself letting go there was relief, as well as some regret.

And I wonder if there is a deeper belonging that I carry with me wherever I may travel, one that is not dependent on my history or my hunger. Perhaps it is possible to stand in an unknown place, a place of not knowing, and not be a stranger to myself. In wet earth, there is promise and potential, dark, unbound, alive. It is always a new time.