What I Miss About Living In California

I lived in California for 22 years, which is exactly half of my life. It’s been three months since I left the Golden State, and it seems like a good time to write a list (in no particular order) of the things I have begun to really miss:

1.  In-N-Out Burger
Like many California transplants, I remember the first time I ate an In-N-Out burger. I was driving home to Yosemite with my boss Claudia, and it was growing late. We were hungry, and as we discussed dining options, she discovered I had never eaten at In & Out. We stopped in Tracy, and I remarked at the simple menu. Hamburgers…Cheeseburgers…Double Cheeseburgers…and fries. How could something so simple be so good? As we drove away and I took the first bite, I realized SOMETHING SO SIMPLE IS SO GOOD. There is nothing like In & Out. Anywhere. The fresh meat that is perfectly salted; the melted cheese; the bun toasted to a slight crisp; the crisp iceberg lettuce with thousand island dressing; the french fries that are ACTUALLY POTATOES cut there, in the restaurant…oh my gosh. In-N-Out…Get in my tummy right now.

2. Yosemite and the High Sierra
Beauty. Majesty. Unexpected, breathtaking gloriousness unfolding on every single drive. Hikes to waterfalls and 8000-foot domes. Meandering alongside ancient trees. Taking in fantastic mountain vistas, and equally intriguing minute details…I will never grow tired of exploring and loving the Sierra mountains.

3. My Friends
So many great friends. Real, true friends, who I had babies alongside; wrangled toddlers with; homeschooled together; and otherwise navigated the craziness of life. I can’t stand the fact that I will likely never again live in the same town as these soul sisters. Can we please meet for coffee, or Bunco, or a 10K in Santa Cruz, once again?

4. My Mom and Dad

My parents moved to California a decade ago, and I grew used to them being in the same town as me. It’s so odd to live across the country from them, and know that when I call, I’m 2000 miles away, and not simply across town. How did I manage to leave California before they did?

5. The Turkeys
Seriously. We had the most entertaining wild turkeys at our last house. They paraded on our front deck, acting like they owned the place…and in truth, they did own it, far more than we did (we sold the house and moved…they are still there…). In the 3+ years we lived there, we saw the flock grow from about a dozen to over 30. There were Tom turkeys who plumed their feathers and walked with a cocky strut; baby turkeys who grew from tininess to awkward toddlers within days; and hens who seemed both interested and indifferent to the Toms, depending on the time of year. Every day we watched them peck for food in the grasses; balance on the handrail of our deck, 20 feet above ground; and roost in the old Ponderosa Pine in our side yard. They were a part of our family, and “turkey” was one of my son’s first words, because they were (and are) so remarkable to watch.

6. Cool Bean Cafe
Cool Bean is the quintessential small town coffee shop. Cool Bean owners Casey and Alyssa Lucas built something far beyond Starbucks. It is the heart of the town, and on any given day you can find people from nearly every social circle gathering there to share time and life. Besides being a place to gather, the coffee is so good, it’s art. I miss coffee made with the craftsmanship of Cool Bean’s offerings. I have yet to find something as good, in taste and ambiance, here in Tennessee.

7. Pizza Factory

Everyone knew my name at the Pizza Factory. They knew I ordered a #3 (a slice of cheese pizza and a salad with an iced tea and lemon)…then a diet special (a salad bar and iced tea with lemon), once it became apparent to me that gluten was no longer my friend. I enjoyed meals there as we launched our business; countless lunches with my husband as we navigated our way through business ownership; parenthood; cancer; life. We had staff parties, and birthday parties and going way parties at that place…When you are done eating, the staff yells, “Thank you!” and “Good Bye” as you push the glass door into the parking lot. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t leave Pizza Factory happier than when I arrived. I miss settling down into a booth, and enjoying yet another tasty lunch with my family.

8. The cool summer mountain evenings

The heat of California’s Central Valley summers are only made bearable by one thing: the cool evenings. When the sun sets, the heat lifts, and you are left with a fresh coolness and a slight breeze that is altogether wonderful. It’s almost like the beach…but it’s more like a breath of life and hope at the end of a parched, dusty day. Those summer evenings are the perfect setting for sitting on the porch, enjoying a margarita, and pondering the stars.

9. The stars at night

Away from the glow of the city, the stars take on a spectacular three-dimensional quality. I always meant to memorize all of the constellations, but never got beyond a handful. So many nights, I’d arrive home from town, unfold myself from the car, take a deep breath of the crisp mountain air, and look up to see the twinkling lights of the magnificent stars, shining down on me. It made me feel so small and insignificant, and like the richest person in the world…I had something better than diamonds shining down on me, showing me their glory, every clear night.

10. The view from my bedroom window

When I first moved to California, I could see Yosemite Falls from my bedroom window in Yosemite Valley. Then when I moved to Oakhurst, I saw a riverbed with a spectacular mountain vista rising above it. Later on, once we bought a house, I saw 250 year old oak trees amongst the tall brown grasses…and then in our final home, and spectacular vista of Sierra foothills, Ponderosa Pines and Sycamore leaves. I loved waking up and seeing such beauty. It was an early morning blessing, every single day.

Places That Matter

You would hardly notice they were there, unless someone told you. They could easily be mistaken for hills, or piles of rock leftover from some glacier an ice age ago. But there was a sense of form to the hills…some kind of plan…and on the summer solstice, the sun shone through the opening to this ancient ceremonial ground. They say it’s from 8000 years ago, and as I walk in this ancient place in this Eastern forest, on the edge of a Tennessee river, I consider what that life must’ve been like for them. I wonder who toiled to build these mounds made in a specific pattern of rock and dirt…mounds that stretch hundreds of yards, built without modern machinery, created by the sheer determination of man. Was it slave labor? Was it a work of passion? What group of people devoted their life’s work to building this ceremonial ground?

No one really knows.

I am in a place where people have walked for thousands of years, yet all I can see is this moment. The trees I see are second or third growth, leveled and cleared time and again in the space of time between me and them.

Later on that day we went to the Stone’s River Battlefield, and walked through Hell’s Half Acre, a piece of ground about the size of my backyard. This small slice of land served as the point of reckoning 160 years ago, and at the end, was soaked and saturated by confederate and union blood. The monument commemorating this hallowed field has stood watch since that battle, the first official Civil War memorial, erected by fellow soldiers lucky enough to live.

National Park Service photo by volunteer Buddy Secor

My little boy wandered through the tomb stones. He loves playing soldier, dressing up in military gear and pretending to be the bravest man standing. I explain to him that other brave men died…and their bodies rest beneath our feet…and these stones have their names so they would never be forgotten. He wants me to pick him up, because he suddenly realizes there are dead bodies in this place where we and the cannons still stand. Those dead bodies were once heroes, and indeed, still are.

The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. Psalm 103:15-16

This idea of “place” has been echoing in my head. Physical places latch onto our hearts, and somehow we define our lives by them.

I just moved to Tennessee from the place of my dreams near Yosemite National Park. The Sierra mountains were my home for half my life, and in the course of that time, I became intimately familiar with the intricacies of each season. The smells of autumn; the blazing sun of summer; the gauzy clouds of a winter storm.

When I came to Yosemite, I was a broken and tired 22-year-old, freshly out of college with dreams of being a writer. For a girl who grew up in the flatlands of Ohio, I felt like I was going to heaven. I became a student of the Sierra, hiking hundreds of miles of trails; learning the names of countless birds and wildflowers; studying the rocks beneath crystal streams of water that had been snow, just hours before it passed beneath my feet.

I wanted to make my mark on that place because it fundamentally made its mark on me. It changed me, showing me a place of peace and an imaginative landscape my brain never could have construed. I fell utterly and resolutely in love with Yosemite, and I held onto that affair more tightly than I should have. I discovered that, at a certain point, insatiable love does consume you.

I was frustrated to discover that Yosemite had tourists who beeped their horns in the parking lot beside my home; miles-long traffic jams; kids who chipped pieces off the Ponderosa Pines, making jigsaws of bark at its base; forest fires and camp fires that marred the view and filled the valley with unbreathable smoke. It was tremendously disappointing to realize my slice of heaven was just another place on earth…

That place of heartbreak led me to the truth: Yosemite wasn’t heaven. What I loved about Yosemite was its sense of grandeur. It was bigger than life, bigger than my dreams, and wider than my (very active) imaginations. But what drew me to Yosemite was deeper than its beauty. It called to something deep in my soul. And I realized, over time, that it was God who spoke to me through those rocks, showing me the beauty He could create…and if He could create something this amazing here on earth, imagine what Heaven itself will be like someday…

It was no person who led me to God, but God Himself, through the handiwork of those granite cliffs.

Psalm 19:1-6 “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”

Photo by Rich Seiling

My love affair with Yosemite and the mountains that surrounded it lasted until October 8, 2016. My husband and I were walking and talking, trying to make sense of our lives, yet again, in El Capitan meadow. We’d hiked in that meadow hundreds of times, yet that day we managed to find a little area we had never explored. We marveled at the river rocks; the reflection of El Capitan in the water; the yellowing grasses in the Autumn light…when God revealed a new plan, in the midst of our conversation.

We were to sell our house. We were to move. This was the beginning of a big change…And, my husband thought that ultimately, we would be moving to Nashville. He had never been to Nashville.

The calling was like a declaration of truth coming from somewhere outside of us, yet from within our souls, and the news filled our severely burdened hearts with a sense of hope and joy that could only come from God. We were giddy, excited for something new…and just like that, the soul-level satisfaction I gleaned from exploring the Sierra dimmed to a small flicker. And this place I loved, this place I had left my family and friends to explore and immerse myself in…this place I called home for 22 years…I had no interest in exploring anymore.

It took nine months for God’s plan to unfold. We sold our two homes. Our previously successful business failed. Everything we owned and had acquired in California was liquidated or packed into a 28-foot moving truck and hauled to Tennessee.

Starting over. In a new place. With new rules, and new places to explore, like this Native American ceremonial mound, and this Civil War battlefield.

Maybe it’s losing the majority of our earthly possessions; maybe it’s the realization that what man spends 20 years building can be liquidated in the space of a few months…but the overriding impression I am living with lately is how truly fleeting life is; how our concept of a place exists only within our minds and our experiences there; how fire and floods and rockfalls and tornadoes can forever change the character of a place…and how a place is not something solid to build a life around. Not even a place made of solid rock, like Yosemite.

There are very few people whose names live in infamy…and those who are remembered, are notorious for small aspects of their lives. The concept of building a career, making a mark, gaining notoriety or celebrity is truly chasing after the wind. Only one thing this side of heaven will last, and that’s the feeling left on other people’s hearts.

Did you value them, or what they could do for you?

Did they feel loved by you, or overlooked?

Did they want to be in your presence, or were they afraid of you?

Were you kind, or curt?

Did you reflect your Creator well?

Were you critical or encouraging?

These are the characteristics that will be remembered from generation to generation…these are what shape the hearts of those yet to come. I’m not perfect at any of these, and in fact, I fail often. But I am trying, and I have been trying, and I will continue to try to make loving others my top priority.

My children will never know what it was like to look into the clear blue eyes of my grandmother. They will never know how the blue sapphire on her ring finger matched the blue veins of her hands, and how as a child, I’d study the map of her veins as she read me book after book. This person, my grandmother, someone they will never meet, shaped me, because she took time for me. She taught me about Jesus in words, and showed me His love when she’d reach down, hold my face and peck my cheek saying, “Hello, love! How are ya?”

These things we pass down…the words we speak…the love we create…this is what lives forever, in the hearts of our children, our grandchildren, and the generations yet to come. Love is a place, somewhere within us. And this place of love is the only thing that can change the world, one intentional moment at a time.

Hail To the Crossing Guards

I just moved to a suburb south of Nashville, and I feel like I’ve found myself in a Richard Scarry “Busy Town” book. Traffic lights dangle from the power lines, bobbing in the wind; lawns are perfectly manicured; firetrucks are tucked neatly into garages every few miles apart; there is a big library, as well as bakeries and parks with playgrounds…it’s all so different from the small mountain town where I spent the last 20 years of my life. It’s all so…busy…so many things to do…so much traffic to take in…

That traffic is why they need the school crossing guards.

Every morning, truer than the clock, the guards take their positions in front of the elementary school we drive by, and then the middle school my kids attend. The guards stand boldly, smack dab in the middle of the intersection, systematically creating one traffic jam while relieving the others.

The first guard on our route is the thin black woman I’ve lovingly nicknamed Flo. She looks to be about 65, and has the look of a grandma you wouldn’t want to cross. This is the lady who blew her whistle with a severe look of disdain the first day I drove my kids to school…I didn’t realize the school zone started quite so soon. Being me, I gave her a big broad smile as she frantically waved at me…I thought she was saying hello…My, these Tennesseans are friendly!!!

Then I heard the whistle…and her face came into focus. My face dropped. Yes, Ma’am..I will slow down…way, way down, every single time I come up to your corner, from now on…they put Flo on the first corner for a reason. She means business, and isn’t afraid to make you know it. The sound of her whistle can overpower my crying toddler in the back…

Next is the older white man who is at least 65. I call him Ned. He has the easy corner, guarding an intersection into a neighboring subdivision. Flo already slowed down the traffic for him…all he needs to do is nod and wave, every once in awhile when a car or child decides to come out of the neighborhood. I like to wave to Ned because he often smiles and waves back at me…which is kind of confusing, because then I wonder if he’s actually signaling me to stop…or slow down…

I should probably stop waving at Ned…

Bravely standing watch over the next major intersection is Belle. Of course, I don’t really know her name, but she is a bigger black woman, a bit younger than the others, but certainly old enough to stop us. I study her black outfit every day as I wait for her to wave me on…marveling at her gloves. They are called “Glo Glovs“…all black, with orange caution triangles on the palms, and I think they come with superpowers. Unfortunately, Belle has the version with the triangles on her palms, not the stop signs. Her hand motion says stop, but her gloves say caution…and I think I look at her with a confused, knitted brow as I drive past her, every single morning.

After we get by Belle, it’s smooth sailing for a few miles until we come up to the middle school. There is only one crossing guard there, but she is the grand crescendo of the morning…I call her “Crazy Arm Lady.” Crazy Arm Lady is in her 30s, blond and thin with a very tidy, no nonsense appearance. She stands at the corner, rolling her arms in a spectacular fashion that make her look like she’s doing some kind of aerobic move…yet with such a serious face and deliberateness, that you KNOW she learned that move from some kind of traffic training program. Man, she is fun to watch, that Crazy Arm Lady…arm roll, arm roll, arm roll…stop!

Every morning, I think about how I’d like to buy each of them a cup of coffee. I want to say thank you for being out in the rain and braving the miles-long parade of minivans with children spilling out of it…but their hands are so busy, I’d have nowhere to put the cup. It would just result in an awkward dance of arm gesturing, and a sad Starbucks cup left on the cold sidewalk, waiting for the commute to be over. So I’ll just continue to drink my coffee from the confines of my Toyota. I will drive by quietly, heeding their passionate arm signals, and saying a prayer for their safety as they take on another early morning commute.

The Next Chapter Of This Life

In early July, I moved across the country with three kids, two cats and two fish. It took us four days to travel the 2100 miles from central California to Tennessee, and I have a grey hair to prove each and every single mile.

In all honesty, the actual move was not as trying as preparing to move.

We downsized our lives from 4000 square feet of living space to all that could be contained in a 28-foot moving trailer. The last six months of my life were spent hosting yard sales, selling off small appliances, childrens clothes and the extras we accumulated during our 22-year adventure in California. I met neighbors I never knew, just in time to move…

The past six months were also spent closing down our business. For 19 years, we made the best fine art photographic prints in the country. It’s ironic to have a struggling business, while also having a show we printed hanging in The Smithsonian. After our best year ever in 2015, we found ourselves struggling through 2016, then plummeting in 2017. We were reasonably good at managing a growing business…but bad at downsizing. It was painful, tiring and awful to experience the slow and steady death of our business. To say the least.

But now…

New life.

I now live in Tennessee, but keep meeting Californians everywhere I go. Some moved to be near family, but most moved for the growing economy and the cheaper cost of living. Some moved for the change of scenery. Indeed, it’s a different kind of beautiful here. The hills are lush and green. The forests are thick with foliage. The air is heavy with humidity, which makes my achy joints relax. Yes, I can begin to relax…

All those dreams I shelved when we launched our business 19 years ago are beginning to rustle in my brain, reminding me of who I am at the base of me.

Deep in my soul, I feel this song of Hope…and it brought me to Tennessee…