My French teachers used to have us practice the passé composé and the imparfait by having us begin every sentence with “Quand j’était petite…” or “When I was little…” What was I doing, what did I do, and so on. The times Madam called my name, I would stand up and tell the class the story about how I used to believe trees were unnecessary because they blocked my view. I would go on and on about their ugliness through my five-year-old eyes, and extend the irony by failing to describe the view it was I was missing.
Throughout my childhood, our family had to hire arborist after arborist to chop down the invasive acacias expected to tip in the next storm. And they too blocked my view of Homestead Valley, just inland of Muir Beach, California.
I wasn’t a tree-climber, like my friend Sami who had broken nine bones just climbing Douglas firs. The acacia bark would tear off and get caught in my fingernails on my first few attempts, so I gave up and decided whatever view I could find between the leaves would be enough: the summer evening fog obscured by green, and the little sunlight left making freckles on my cheeks.
I did not keep those freckles, give or take a few scratches from running barefoot in my backyard. Perhaps I did retain the memory of them, along with the views that now are peppered with suburbia and slowly departing from the rural, country vibes.
As I grew older, I would drag my parents to San Francisco to find the best dance classes, the best food, the best views. I even convinced my father to begin a project, taking pictures of all the narrow, unappreciated streets in the city: Raycliff Terrace, Pixley Street, Potomac Street in the Lower Haight. We pictured the Norwegian Embassy, and then a sign that read, “Clothing optional beyond this point.” Yet beyond the city’s grid of cafés and museum stores, there are only corners, no curves.
On the way to my house, you must be more than seasoned driver, with hairpin turns and pitch-black one-way driveways under the redwoods. Tourists used to come into our valley asking directions to Muir Woods. One time I suggested we charge admission to Stolte Grove, the campground and public garden established in the early 1900s. But it wouldn’t be the same for us with the footprints of outsiders tainting our Secret Garden, as my brother and I would call it. A historian lives next door, and has published articles about the creek-turned-swimming pool at Stolte Grove, and journalist Lillian Furguson’s house in the three acres she named “Three Groves” after the large number of oaks, redwoods, and buckeye trees in the area. My brother and I would play tag in her garden during those lazy Fourth of July picnics, caught around the scruff of the neck once or twice by the new owners, claiming we were trespassing on private property.
I even began writing poetry to express the confusion I felt surrounding my ideal place to live, because I did not prefer to have the city-mouse country-mouse argument again. In my poem titled, “Love is a thing” in the first edition of the Bay Area’s Youth Poetry Anthology, I allowed the natural landscape to shape if not define the heart of the relationship:
Two friends at the headlands,
One dodging waves,
The other curling his lips
like rubber bands.
One wears herself,
The other wears a t-shirt and jeans,
And they experience
without a predetermined caress
by the water’s edge.
They climb a hill
and watch the sunset
While being blown away
Maybe I will never know exactly what brings charm to a place of residence until I experience the opposite—in my case what will soon become college life on Washington Square in New York City. It’s like when people who have curly hair want straight hair…until they have straight hair and want curls again, like when I traveled to Bordeaux on a foreign exchange and discovered my obsession with cigarette smoke, the way it sunk into my coat and hair and refused to wash away. Yet in my younger years when my parents would take my brother and I to Fisherman’s Wharf, I’d scoff at the stuff, hold my nose, the thought of my grandmother’s cancer close by. I do not know which is better, which quality of character, or taste in appearance; I only know that each is different.
When I’m scrambling pay-check to pay-check as a dancer and a teacher and a writer, I will always be aware of the nostalgia that nature conjures up in my mind. Every image of home will pierce my hippocampus, the forested landscapes that forever exceed those in Central Park. I might never grasp what it is that makes me feel at home until the feeling wraps around me.
Our street has experienced many power outages this summer, with the replacement of telephone poles and electrical circuits, and suddenly I feel so functional without the lights on: the wind carrying a barely traceable Pacific air, and the eucalyptus forests somehow bringing our continent closer to the Australian outback where they belong. I started making short dance films out on my deck, but do not know what to do or make of them. They certainly bring about where I am from, the overcast lighting and my windswept hair coming along for the ride. I am from a neighborhood that speaks organically, that captures the old artistry of the valley, when Jack Kerouac and other refugees from American consumerism lived nearby, contributing to what would be his novel, The Dharma Bums.
Homestead Valley’s Open Space Land now houses two young goats, and the ghosts of sheep once attacked by a local coyote pack. The walk to Goat Hill is five minutes. I often sit at the bench and watch the evening fog roll in from the West. I feed the goats a stalk of lettuce and try to discourage them from following me home, their bells clanging with a hope that they can claim me as their new owner. It’s rumored that under a plum tree on Goat Hill is where playwright Sam Shepard wrote the beginnings of his Pulitzer Prize Winner, Buried Child.
I do not expect my surroundings to be the sole factor in my success, but I do enjoy relying on the off-blue skies to write half-baked poems and improvise dances that will never become a score. I played Iron & Wine’s “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” the other day, and sat on my deck chair exploring choreographic possibilities as the lyrics played, “Now I’m a fat house cat/ Cursing my sore blunt tongue.” The subpar Photo Booth film will probably sit in a desktop folder on my laptop for months before I can decide what to do with it.
Where I live, there are so many places to dance or imagine moving within the frame of an antique camera. My father and I hiked up to Cowboy Rock earlier this summer, dipping Pillsbury Doughboy croissants in a jar of honey, our legs swinging over fields of yellow grass and coyote brush. Although it wasn’t eerie, it still made me think of Peter Weir’s mystery/drama film Picnic at Hanging Rock. If we stayed long enough, listening to the wind, could we perhaps become what we imagine is invisible? I told my father that day that I would rather embody a mystery than attempt to solve one, because from living in this valley all my life, I’ve learned that nature likes to leave itself unsolved.
There is an outdoor dance retreat in Kentfield, California that my mother and I just visited, once a West-Coast home to dance pioneers Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti, and Anna Halprin. Here, the deck spans three large sections, shaded by redwoods and faced by a small amphitheater. Here, a sign reads “Entry score: walk slowly, pause periodically, look, listen, breathe, smell, touch.” Here, I feel at home. Where there is silence, there is space to make art. Where there are branches, the existing art must weave in and out to experience the full view. Yet still, every vista of mine will be freckled with foregrounds and backgrounds of varying hues. One day, I will share my home with fellow artists so they all can experience the wonders of a valley tousled with sea air and crowded with woods.
My parents told me never to go hiking alone. I bet they don’t fear the strange figures, but whether I’ll become invisible in-between the trailheads or on the way ‘round a corner. There is nothing more special than the mezzo piano in my brain that follows the swishes of the bay leaves on those narrow trails. There’s a dreamy conductor in his pajamas, drifting in the forest with his baton. There’s an abandoned clubhouse: crumpled coke cans and boards arranged around a cold fire pit. And then there’s me, just breathing.