I wish I had a picture of that last sunset on that last night.

It was one of those cloudless Valley haze sunsets, where the sky filtered evenly from yellow to blue to twilight dark behind the mountains. There was a small parking lot with a few guests, halfway to LA from Reno, unloading their SUVs and trickling in. A tall streetlight lit up the corner of the lot and interrupted my sky.

Everyone had gone inside. I was stalling to breathe, to take a picture in my mind like Laura Ingalls Wilder would have done. I looked west, thinking that this would be the last time I’d see the sun setting toward the ocean. And I turned and looked at the mountains and the stars piercing through the skyline above them and turned over and over the thought of an abstract future in the yet-unknown Virginia.

I’d said my goodbyes to my best friends the day before. We’d had our homeschool group friends over that day to load the truck. We piled into the rusty blue van, blankets and books tumbling around our seats, arguing about who sat where. We waited in the car at a friend’s house while my dad went in to pick up my sister from her last birthday party tradition with her childhood playmate. She had cake on her face and smelled like chlorine, and in the heat of August, we wished we did, too.

Then we drove — not far — to the hotel for our first night on the way to Virginia, and our last night in California.

I tried to collect in my mind my favorite California sensations. The smell of orange blossoms in April (I have now forgotten what they smell like, to my dismay). The smell of dairy farm country in the morning air. The sounds of the blue jay and the mourning dove and the walnut tree harvesters. The sights of Mineral King and Three Rivers. Sledding in Sequoia National Park and rumbling up the mountain with chains on the car’s wheels. The silky feel of Valley dust. The cool shade of orange groves and the soft, rotting soil below the trees. The taste of Christmas tamales, the taste of salt rub BBQ, and Sunday lunches at In-N-Out Burger. Sunday morning worship in the park under a tent. Shooting off rockets in a field behind a school. Rollerblading on sidewalks in the sun. Neighborhood chatter and gathering to set off fireworks in the street, to marvel at the rarity of a snowfall at 5am. The feel of chalk on my hands at the gym, the stretch and poise and soft thuds of ballet routines on wooden floors in a sunlit room with a record player. Walking the St. John’s river parkway and playing on sandbars with my siblings. Artichokes, fat and fresh, steamed and dipped in butter. Climbing skinny trees barefoot and smelling eucalyptus on the wind.

I clutched my bag with the journal inside for storing up everything I wanted to write about the trip, and walked into the hotel.

But I wouldn’t write about those things, for fear of losing them.


I’ve avoided saying these words to myself for a long time, but it’s really the most accurate description:

When I was 12, my family moved from California to the east coast to join a cult.

I haven’t felt at home anywhere since.

***

There were other factors, of course. Economy, family ideals for finding a supportive community for a family with young kids, etc.

We left the little yellow house where four of my younger siblings (there would later be four more) had been brought home, we left the friends I had grown up with and my first true best friend, we left the mountains and the sea and the sand, we left my mom’s widowed mother and my dad’s parents, and we left the only state and culture we had ever known.

We packed up a trailer, we squeezed ourselves into a little blue minivan with peeling paint, and we drove into the desert for two weeks of cross-country insanity.

When we arrived, we were love-bombed and surrounded by people who made us feel welcomed and at home in this new community. I was plopped down in the thick of 12-year-old-girl cliques, with all the political trappings of Sovereign Grace Ministries and their organic social pecking order based on appearances of humility and godliness.

And then there was the culture shock, as opinionated, confident me and my honest and blunt mother both felt squelched by passive aggressive social cues and vague disapproval from the women in our church.

I was so homesick.

***

In our new home, I shared a 10’x10′ bedroom with my younger sister for 6 years, my mom locking us into the arrangement with the words, “Well, you guys really need to learn to get along. I think you should be roommates for a while.” We fought for space, for privacy, for emotional safety. We never got it, not there. I withdrew into books, she into self-loathing. I stayed up late at night reading, because it was the only time I could be quiet and alone in a household with nine kids and heavy expectations. She hid in the bathroom and disappeared into self-isolation because everyone else was louder and more obviously needy than she was.

We’re only just beginning to discuss with each other how miserable that season was.

There were lots of reasons I looked forward to moving out and going to college, but getting space, quiet, and privacy was one of the things I hoped for the most. My parents laughed and told me not to expect that.

***

In college, I ended up in a dorm room that was almost twice of my bedroom back home. I had a wonderful roommate and it became a haven.

But nine months later and I was home for the summer, and I found I wasn’t welcome in my old space anymore. Space was tight and my sisters had rearranged the rooms while I was gone. Every break after that, I found myself feeling more and more transient, displaced, an intrusion.

I did internships in the summers. I lived in the basements of friends of friends. I lived in spare bedrooms and on old army cots. I lived in dark places and I set aside things that defined me so I wouldn’t offend. I put up with things that were personally revolting or emotionally oppressive to make it through.

I told myself, “I can do anything for a month.”

And I did. I loved people and explored new places and was hurled into discomfort and grew in the awkwardness.

But I couldn’t put down roots. Everywhere I slept, I knew that these places belonged to someone else, that I couldn’t cultivate anything, create anything, or impose myself on the place and space in any lasting ways.

I pared down my belongings. I invested in writing rather than drawing or painting. I cooked instead of gardening. Creativity oozed out in other places while I wandered.

I craved dirt I could love. A patch of earth and life that I could live with and care for and belong to.

***

Living in the little basement apartment has been hard for me.  I have a deep, psychological craving for light. I leave for work before it’s fully light out, and I walk out of my office building and the sun has already set. Winter’s dark season eats my soul every year.

But I’m a survivor, I say, to steel myself against it all. I can take it for a long while before I crumble into my own need for light, privacy, and space. After that, it becomes a slow slide into mental static. Other things start to bother me more. Dust and funky smells become more than a mild irritation, and then clutter becomes nails on a chalkboard and I shut down.

And then I snap, one way or another. I create, I organize, I clean, I cry, I sleep it off. I try to combat the transience and feeling of being lost, but it never quite goes away.

I had a basil plant outside our window. It was a little thing to love and care for, but it died. We don’t get enough light inside to keep anything green alive. The little cat is a comfort, but she doesn’t belong there, either. We are wanderers, pausing here until April. Then we’ll be gone, no matter what lies I tell myself now with paint and organizing and new bookshelves.

And I don’t know where we’ll go next or when I’ll find a home. I don’t belong here. I’ve been away from California for too long.

I dream of places where I belong, but they don’t exist when I wake up. Every place I live is borrowed, and no space I inhabit knows my name or touch.

***

This is the plight of the modern, the evangelical church kid who always worshiped in high school gymnasiums, the child of that American generation who will move anywhere for a job, the ahistorical American culture sinking its teeth into my humanity, the product of concrete suburban purgatory.

We need place. We need belonging. We need dirt and sunshine.

This is where the conservation of the conservatives and the humanism of the liberals meets with a kiss. This is where the incarnation reveals to me my own nature and reminds me of the Father’s promise of things made right. This is where I pray and know that I am dust, and am thankful for that connection to this beautiful earthy home.

And maybe someday, I’ll find myself at home, belonging to a membership of land and people in the way God intended.

Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us—a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.
– T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding III