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The Golden Coast, Childhood Death, and the Eternal Return

I remember the first time I realized I was in California. We had sold everything that wouldn’t fit in my civic coup and left Virginia a couple of days earlier. The night before was the first time I had been to Vegas. That morning I drudged through the Mojave Desert, as amazed at the amount of life that thrives there as I was exhausted and dehydrated.

It was outside of Bakersfield that I realized it. Driving though the desert had put me in a bit of a trance I didn’t come out of until I stopped for gas. I’d missed the state line somehow. As I opened the car door, an autumn-like breeze I didn’t believe could exist in late July snapped me out of my half-conscious state. Looking around I realized I was in a valley, surrounded by a large yellow hill speckled with what were either very large bushes or very small trees, all dark green. The next few hours were spent driving through hills in wonder at a new topography that embodied a new life.

It was probably then then I fell in love. I didn’t mean to really. To be honest, I knew little to nothing about San Francisco when we moved to the Bay. I had just finished my masters at Liberty University and left in absolute frustration, without conferring the degree. In hindsight I was in the beginning stages of a rather large existential shift. Distraught, I pushed west, looking to start over. I went as far from the conservative mountain as I physically could without leaving the country. I wanted the continent in between me and that place. And I put it there.

There is something about leaving everything that is cathartic.

Stepping out of the car that day, California became to me what it has been to millions of Americans throughout the last couple centuries. A symbol of change and adventure. Something better. A new life.

I spent two years living just north of the Golden Gate. It was a pivotal period in my life, looking back. Stemming from the damage of my experience at Liberty, I slowly began to come to new conclusions about the tradition in which I was raised. Often this was subconscious – sometimes unconscious. But I began to learn to trust my own thinking in a way I never had before. The process was slow and when I left California to finish seminary at Princeton in 2012, it was still incomplete. It likely still is.

But California represented much more than refuge. It was hope. It was teaching in San Quentin, bombing the hills of San Francisco, exploring Berkeley, walking between the Redwoods, and standing on the edge of the only world I’d known, both literally and metaphorically. Even when I found out we were leaving for New Jersey, California remained incorruptible. It was the springboard to the next adventure in a journey that felt new, freeing, and irrepressible.

In the years that followed my departure, California remained a symbol. A temple of sorts to that optimism. Idealistic, open, unbridled. The antithesis to the daily monotony that overtakes American domestication.

It is interesting the way the mind works in these ways.

When I was 12 my best friend died. He was 2 years older than me. While his missionary parents were on furlough, he and his family lived in the house behind our church. We would ride our bikes throughout the summer down the gravel driveway between the lakes. Spend hours playing Street Fighter at the bowling alley arcade. Play Nintendo and eat Doritos, like so many other kids, laughing early into the morning.

I had always been predisposed to put great weight on friendships in my youth. Ironically, in contrast to now, I was never good at change back then. Especially when it was permanent. His death in many ways marked the end of my childhood.

But just as with California, the loss of something so valuable elicits a response in the brain. It was like my mind put that house, that gravel road, those lakes, video games, bowling alley, and the weathered old barn – everything – into a sort of golden envelope in the back of my mind. It preserved minute details – conversations, geography, the way he made fun of my music (like most of friends have).

It kept the details in ways I am not even conscious of. Until I dream about it.

Its a curious mechanism. A function of evolutionary biology perhaps? The tendency to preserve positive memories in a type of mental amber. To stave off depression, or maybe self-destruction. It is being human.

I have done it with places, past friendships, particularly meaningful lovers, the third season.

The historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, talked about a concept he calls the Eternal Return. The way mankind has thought there is a sacred time that exists outside of the now. An eternal origin that grounds the present. How we have a “nostalgia for the origins.” How time is experienced cyclically. And how religious rituals bring us back to that sacred time and place. How they give the profane meaning.

That concept has always stuck with me. I have borrowed it to understand myself. Taken it from its original context and adapted it to my own experience. No longer religious, I still reach for the sacred.

My recent trip back to California was a research trip. But it was a sort of pilgrimage as well. I wanted to go spend time with that idea. To explore the yellow earth as it creases naked, folding intimately into the Pacific. To canvass those mountains, riding them close. To experience that coast, building myself up, until I saw San Francisco again. To return, again, to that eternal origin.

If Andrew would have survived into adulthood it is likely that we would have become very different people. It is possible that my perspectives would have put us as odds with one another as they have so many of those from that older time. Or maybe we would have drifted, as is the case with most childhood friends. Who knows.

The truth is the mind creates those things, those places. And as such they are imperfect representations. The reality is not the memory, despite its tenacity for detail. The active nature of the mind fashions something that is founded on reality, but transcends it. I don’t think this takes away from the experience.

It reminds me of that scene in the movie Garden State when Zach Braff is in the pool and disenchanted with his trip back home, he reflects to Natalie Portman that he feels homesick for a place that doesn’t exist. That maybe family is a group of people who miss the same imaginary place. I don't think that is a good definition of family. But I understand the sentiment.

My recent experience was positive, if difficult. It did live up to my desire to return, although in ways I could not have foreseen or anticipated. For me and for there, the analogy of an old lover is perhaps more apt than a lost home. Something living, changing, even aging.

A place like a person who taught you things about yourself in an early and impressionable time. Who still teaches you. Who still represents adventure and hope.

Maybe, despite my insatiable longing, my nostalgia, they won’t come back around again in any permanent sense. Or maybe they will. In either case, I will drink them in any chance I can get.


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