By Tara K. Shepersky
The train has cut my moorings, and they trail behind in a long and lonely wake. Simi Valley Station is, to Amtrak’s tight schedule, the briefest of flirtations, and it’s been an hour. On the southeast horizon, the Santa Monica Mountains keep signalling home.
I am going a long way north on the line called the Coast Starlight, up this vast grand printing press we name (with a capitalized definite article) The American West. Two-days’ journey by some of the most flagrant grace of landscape the world offers. Great swaths of which I have tied some heartstrings to.
I am going to the place I live — have lived for over a dozen years. Picked it myself, in the wake of the long sneaker wave of being moved that was my life until age 21. A great life it was, I’m not complaining. My parents took imperfect circumstance and shaped it with love, and that was my tenth or ten thousandth gift.
It hasn’t kept me from desperately wanting a homeplace, since about the time I began to understand that individual people and plants and animals will die, and it’s forever, and sometimes it is beautiful and sometimes it’s bloody, and always it’s an important loss, to someone.
So I am going north to the Willamette Valley, a green and giving land where settlers have flocked since the 19th century, where people have thrived since long, long before. I chose it in a coin toss. (I really did. I know that’s also the story of how Portland, Oregon got its name. What is coincidence and what is fate and what is memory?)
I’ve found my corners of this valley, turned around in them three dozen times, tried very hard to love them. There are days when I succeed. This isn’t one.
Perhaps tomorrow, when I get there. Perhaps next year.
Today the afternoon sun sculpts the lines, the planes, the shadows that I have learned, indisputably, to love. Crests upon them in the shade and slant of heartbreak. I keep thinking of the journey here, how everything is going in reverse: blue-soaked ocean, riven thirsty hills, mustard lighting the twisting inland trail.
Everything, even this: my heart outside my self.
As a teenager, I felt my breath expand when we drove north from this same departure point. Caught it hard at the thought of further north, beyond my beloved Smith River, where we did not go.
Sighed and knew it shrinking when we left the fog-bound fastnesses of redwoods, then the egret-haunted estuaries, and eucalyptus groves all shaggy and fragrant.
Then the oak-drenched hills, a color beneath the summer sun that California’s moniker, “the golden state,” tries and almost does not fail to capture.
Then entering again the sun-washed southern lands, by slow degrees I acknowledged to be lovely enough, but not mine.
How is it I have turned and turned again? Are some people only content in retrospect?
I am looking for home, always, over my shoulder.
We lived in the oak-wrapped eastern hills of the San Francisco Bay Area for some six years that I think of as my childhood.
I had there the fortune of growing up surrounded by extended family. This included an aunt who understood me in an uncompromising way that is the first experience of grace I remember. When we left for the opposite coast, that aunt gave me, in hope, a gift.
Blue as clouds she is, and glittering with knowing her own desires. Eyes fixed front, as much as a bird’s can be. The house between her swept-back wings is quiet, kept with love.
I was 10. No one needed to explain her to me.
I named everything as a child. I did not name her.
She has a little loop of fishing wire attached to the tippy-top of the house’s roof. In hope, I place her every year on my Christmas tree.
Last year’s tree was very small, a “tabletop” size. I trimmed her as usual (trees in my family are always called Noel, and always “her,”) and placed her in the only spot that would hold a tree of any size: an odd deep alcove of my new apartment, meant for a television.
It took a long time to decorate that Noel, because my bird goes first, and making a nest in such a tree took some adjustment.
Every year so far is an adjustment.
Always I am climbing up and rolling down the long cool slope of this Being Westernness. I look back, and there’s so much joy in the struggle, there’s so much love. When my heart is breaking, that is because it is full.
I look forward, and cry because I want to be settled, I want one home that knows me. It is hard to accept that I should desire a happiness made of fragments.
Is there a happiness in this world that is not?
I understand enough of this to know that I do not yet understand.
What made me put that “yet” in there? The bird with a house on her back.
So what — I ask the full moon, as she’s blasting all our pale modern stars from even the rural sky of the Central Valley — what should my prayer be?
The moon is not looking down, as I imagined her in childhood. As I experienced her in the difficult beauty of my early teenage years, when she reached through the flittering, cut-edged leaves of the backyard elm, leaving me silvered with the pale edges of her glory, and her loneliness.
Train 14, less alive and more immediate, does the comforting tonight. It rocks exactly as I’d like a cradle to, and my sleeping compartment is large enough to swaddle only me.
We grow up, with any luck, and with a little more we remember we remain as vulnerable as children. It is alright to be afraid, to be uncertain.
The moon’s got nothing to say to me, though that’s not a fault in either of us. She’s still there, isn’t she? I’m still looking up.
And anyway I already know the answer.
But I like to talk to the moon.
The consolation prizes come with morning: sun leaps from the desert, clashing on the snowy shields of Shasta.
Pines stretch out their shadows, reaching to touch, with wistful gentleness, the family members long-since planed into some human’s mellowed barn. A few dozen black and brown cows shelter there, “in the middle of nowhere,” and their life seems to me a fine one. Though all I can know of that life is this moment from a moving train.
Everything that isn’t shadow glitters. Even the grasses, even the cows and the clumps of silver sagebrush. Especially the spangling altocumulus, the leaping cirrus high up toward the sun. Even the wild lilies elbowing upwards out of the grass.
Ibis with their black-tipped wings don’t ask for lift as they push off from the reedy marshes. (Which you should imagine also glittering, boundedly blue in a liminal way that’s nothing like the ocean.) They leap, ibises. They struggle, and the sun and soil and water reach to aid them.
It’s too early to speak, of this or anything else.
Of the observation car passengers, I am alone in this need. Families are starting card games and strangers are getting acquainted, at volume. Headphones and the armor of cool reserve — those green redwood rivers in my veins — are valiant allies. They guard my solitude as ancient temple dogs.
My heart, though. So infinitely permeable.
But it’s too early, even, to praise. Better not start until I’ve had my coffee. I’ll need to welcome all, sing all the names — and I lack defences against that particular calling.
And isn’t that also a gift?
So I hide my heart for a bit beneath the mountain, let the singing come to me. It always does. Washing, like the waves I’ve left behind. Again, and I will do it again.
In front of me.
Copyright Shepersky 2019