I left Southern California at eighteen. You could say it was my reverse gold rush. Folks had been pouring into that state for as long as I could remember and before that, looking for adventure. Fame and fortune. To move away from winter. To get out of Dodge.
Yearning to escape the crowded cities of the east, frontier fever got folks thinking of wide open spaces. And so they came to Southern California in droves, developing tracts of desert land that extended from the mountains to the sea. Irrigated it. (Swimming pools, movie stars.) The orange groves lining the streets of my youth were chopped down to accommodate wider and bigger and newer boulevards and freeways. The land of milk and honey became choked with smog, traffic, and the same or worse crowded conditions many fled from not too many years before. The streets paved with gold were paved instead with the detritus of living, Caligula-like, satis superque. In excess.
Imagining the easy life in the land of surf and sun and seersucker instead of worsted wool, they came – looking for Mr. Goodbar, for the perpetually tanned George Hamilton, Jayne Mansfield, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe – figures more iconic than human. Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning for maps to the mansions of the stars, give us Disneyland, Hollywood, the Beverly Wilshire. Give me fantasy or give me death. Such was the world I was raised in, by mothers fascinated with Modern Screen, precursor to today’s Us or People. Alongside the rich and famous that dotted our mountainside neighborhood. Forget Winter of Artifice, Anais Nin – it was all artifice, all the time.
Image consciousness became the pinnacle to which many aspired. To attain it, women only had to become blonde, buxom and most importantly thin. From kindergarten on up, too many girls measured themselves against the yardstick of an ideal. Thanks to a strong infusion of northern European blood, many attained it, too, quite without effort. The rest of us maturing women were left only to wonder what further betrayals nature had in store. Though there were ways in which we could adapt … bleach, silicone and sun could cure most of nature’s obvious mistakes. What the sun couldn’t accomplish, a good dentist and a plastic surgeon might. Some suffered silently, horrified as our beautiful girlfriends hacked at their lovely Patrician noses before graduating junior high. Others of us were prescribed diet pills at thirteen to beat back impending curves. Years of tetracycline and cortisone were de rigeur for a few pimples. The word diet did not reflect balance at all, rather it stuck in the craw as penance for every woman who did not aspire to be a cookie-cutter Twiggy. To this day, save for the brave indie film movement, Hollywood yet lacks imagination.
Seeking solace in forests, in streams, in wild places and creatures drew me to northern New England, where I was to spend a significant portion of my life. Bit by bit the granite and icy winters ground me down, forced me to don flannel and wool and large insulated boots. Slowly I began to realize if I cared too much about how I looked, I would freeze to death six months out of twelve. (A good dose of reality is boon to the soul.) It took thirty-two years to undo what eighteen had wrought, and if I had to do it over again, if the gods whispered to me in the interstices between cosmos and conception, I would say, Grant me, oh lords, the gifts of birdsong and the singing stream. Fill me with the bounty of freshly-picked peas and the depths of star-pocked heavens. Trust that I will find my way in enough time to pass along something of value to my fellow human beings, and add to the bounty which is Creation. This I ask in the name of all that is sacred within me, Amen.