I may not belong in California, but California is my home.
During a recent visit to Wisconsin, I flew through the crystal blue skies above my hometown in a tiny airplane. My three-year-old son sat next to me; my dad sat up front with the pilot. Three generations curved above the sparkling lakes, peered down at the capitol dome, watched the houses grow small like a Mr. Rogers episode. "There it is!" I caught a glimpse of a brown roof tucked into the trees behind the elementary school: my house, the land I grew up on, my home. As we circled back over the city, I remembered— this will always be my hometown, but it isn’t home.
I love Wisconsin fiercely. Some might consider the summer humidity oppressive, but the wet air is easy on my lungs. Everything is green. I grew up next to a lake; sunsets were glorious. Winter brought welcome months of hibernation: fires in the hearth, family game nights and hot cocoa. We spent our afternoons sledding in the schoolyard, walking home in the pinkish glow of a snowy night. Each year brought a competition—who could be the first family member to clock another with a snowball? Once my sister and I made a batch of snowballs on a cookie sheet and bombarded my dad from the upstairs window. I picture those days, and I long for similar memories for my children.
When we married, my husband and I moved to California “for three years.” That was ten years ago. Every year we agreed to one more, because of jobs, friends and a church we loved. Two years ago, we decided to stay in California for the long haul. Today it’s home, with its golden hills and palm trees. And so, I live with unmet longing in my gut. I waited ten years for a call to leave, and I was called instead to stay. This is my reality. How do I live it well? If I do not find contentment here, I will never find it anywhere.
Living well with unmet longing is a dance of gratitude and grief.
Some days I give into the grief. I make lists of loss. I long for weekly runs with my mom and mochas with my dad, for my boys to play in the quiet beauty of the Midwestern woods. My sons do not live close enough to raise caterpillars with their Papa, from egg to butterfly. The distinctive squeak of fresh snow underfoot will be more memory than reality. I mourn the loss of everyday memories with our extended family built over years, especially for my children. Tears come. Living my grief is harder than ignoring it, but better. I am softened by my tears.
Living well also means cultivating gratitude. My life here holds much joy! There is nothing like a California strawberry. In my decade here, I have become blind to the flowers lining the freeways, but I remember them in spring when the scent of jasmine permeates the air. We have deep soul-friends in California, friends who are starting to look a lot like family. I make joy-lists, reminding myself of all I love about this place.
On hard days, I give in to grief. On good days, I live in gratitude. On my best days, I hold both in tension, acknowledging my sadness while running toward joy.
Today I bought a “California Love” cap, because I do—I love it more every day. That love is complex, holding both joy and unmet longing, like most of my deep loves. My love for my children is colored by the knowledge that to raise them well means to teach them how to leave me. My love for my husband is richer for the reality that one of us is destined to outlive the other.
There is no love without loss, no gratitude without grief. We live better when we live both.