Every morning when I drive Finn and Fred to their school, there’s a turn we take down into the valley that houses it where we get a great view of the Cascade Mountains. (The mountains aren’t there every morning. Sometimes clouds hide them. Or maybe they
.) Seven mornings out of ten, I’m going to say, it’s a thrill to see the mountain/sun/cloud layout of that particular day. Sometimes there’s no haze and the mountains are dark and ultra crisp at the edges. Some mornings there’s a bright veil of clouds and the range goes pale blue on us. If they’re visible, they always give off some kind of epic vibe, like they’re a stop on the road to Mordor or Valhalla, and if you could zoom in close you’d find a dragon walking along a ridge, or a wizard/hermit and a knight emerging from a cave together deep in conversation. Whatever story I subconsciously attach to the view feels personal, like someday I’m going to make it over there and be part of it all myself.
When Dave was studying Social Ecology back at his university in Australia, he was taught that a child starts developing a real sense of place at around nine years of age. I find this entertaining since we moved from Port Chester, New York to Seattle just before I turned nine (we drove across country with a couple of cars and a moving van) and we landed in Seattle smack on my ninth birthday. Way to be on the nose, place.
We arrived in Seattle on a cloudy day, which is not hard to do here. Even though there had been plenty of overcast days in Port Chester, they didn’t seem as heavy as this one. The blanket of clouds was denser and darker than I was familiar with. I can’t say I was on board immediately, especially on my birthday. This was depressing. We were also moving to a neighborhood in Seattle called Lake City, which is depressing for real. Coming from the manicured, shipshape land of Westchester County, this mess of a place with its straggly lawns and chain link fences seemed like a long step down. My mom sighed and pursed her lips in the front seat as we got closer to our house, confirming it. But the merits of
place starting giving themselves up soon enough.
Right on top of the list is the topography. Seattle’s all hills and water and mountains
around. The city nestles into the landscape, the landscape allows for nestling. I am a fan of nestling, let me say right away. I love to nestle. Maybe this comes from some ingrained sense of danger/mistrust in the world, but I like me a cozy nook, a place from which to hide and peer out, and Seattle hooks a sister up. There’s something so loving about a landscape that rises up around you. It seems less impassive than a flat place. It’s like being on a gigantic mommy’s lap.
I google-imaged the Great Plains when I was thinking about this, just to confirm my feelings. Hot fucking dog, no way. All that flat, all that wide open, all that exposure. It gives me agoraphobia to contemplate it. I understand that you get open skies in trade, and hey, sky, sure. But surely we can agree that you’re far more vulnerable to stampeding hordes of invaders when you’re hanging out in plain view on a prairie. You’re fucked. They can see you from 500 miles away. There’s nowhere to hide. Also, all that sameness of topography makes me go insane from boredom. LOOK, LOOK AGAIN, WHAT DO YOU SEE, CORRECT, NOTHING, NOTHING AGAIN, NOTHING OVER HERE, OR OVER HERE, OR OVER HERE, FOREVER EVERYWHERE NEVER ANYTHING UNTIL THE GRAVE THE END GOODNIGHT.
Back to Seattle. I love the complex, in-between-y light here. You get the mild brightness of a barely overcast day in spring or summer, like the sun’s wearing a little negligee. An optimistic light. And then you can get hot slashes of orange sunset underneath storm clouds in autumn or winter, which, bear
me, reminds me of a scene with Patricia Arquette in the movie
. I don’t remember the scene perfectly but there’s a part where Patricia Arquette’s character is being terrorized by a bad guy in maybe a hotel room or an apartment or something. He’s relentless, and she’s bloodied up, but she’s a lionheart, a baller, and she keeps getting up and fighting back with this crazy ferocity. Like I say, I only saw it once, but her fierceness made me sob with the triumph of it all. Anyway, we get sky like that.
I might be projecting a little, but whatever.
So this is my place, which I’ll finish making out with a little later on in the post. But there are other places I’ve collected, and I want to give them shout-outs.
I’m thinking about Jasper National Park, up in the Canadian Rockies. It’s mine. (It belongs to lots of other people, too, and also of course to nobody, obviously.) I discovered it was mine when I was on tour with my old sketch comedy group, traveling from fringe festival to fringe festival. We stopped for lunch one day in a field with a few picnic benches, and I went off by myself for a while. I’d been going through a weird, sensitive time, and I was jumpy and frazzled on a regular basis. But this field was the exact medicine for my exact ailment. The Rockies loomed on all sides like big, jagged, black-and-white Orca whales, and the field was edged by wild rose bushes with intensely fragrant, deep pink blossoms. I lay down on the ground and looked up at the sky, which was blue-lavender with huge clouds easing across it, and the place hummed its deep bass cleanness right into my bones. Canada
so clean, and this felt
the cleanest bit. No doctor could have done better, no psychiatrist, no medicine man, nobody. This was all I needed.
Dave gave up his place to come and be with me here in my place, a sacrifice I never forget. (We settled here because I wanted my people near me while I was having babies, which he respected. He’s all right,
guy.) He hadn’t ever planned to leave Australia, he loved it so much, but whoops. Before we settled here, I went to be with Dave over there. I lived there with him for nine months, all told.
For a sensitive lighting princess, the shock of Australia was something else. It’s so bright down there it might as well be a whole planet closer to the sun. We lived in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, which were also nothing like mountains I knew. They were flat, like tabletops. Our first shared house was in a little town called Leura, and it sounded like Jurassic Park every afternoon at five when the cockatoos got off work and took off shrieking through the valley, and the holy-fuck-where-am-I feeling peaked.
The bird life was berserk. Tiny parrots called rosellas wheeled through the neighborhood like red and green and blue painted airplanes. There were magpies, too, which are like crows in tuxedoes, whose flutelike morning warble broke down into plain old crow-squawk over the course of the day. And then there were the galahs. A galah is a hot pink and gray cockatoo, absurd and flamboyant like a Maira Kalman drawing, and spotting one was like running into a movie star.
Then the insects. Omnipresent flies. You walk down the street and they land on you relentlessly. Everybody in Australia walks and flicks their arms in the same rhythm, shooing the flies away. And the spiders. The spiders. Dave warned me before I came about the white-tailed spider. If it bites you, the bite doesn’t heal but just keeps melting your flesh away forever. We had one in our house one night and Dave sent me into the bedroom while he faced off with the intruder in the living room. It felt like a tiny action movie.
I loved Australia and being with Dave in his beloved place, but it never became mine, except for one little corner. Balmoral Beach in Sydney is mine. Dave’s dad was a landscape artist, and he let me pick a painting of his for Christmas when I met him. I chose a painting of Balmoral Beach, not knowing at the time that my own grandparents had met a block away. Later, Dave proposed to me there. But it wasn’t just the sentimental value of the place that made it mine; it was just mine, like that field in Jasper. The beach there is small and tranquil, set into Sydney Harbor, and it has a very Seattle-ish cozy nook feeling. You can look out from there and see the entrance to the harbor from the Pacific Ocean, too, between two perfect-looking matching gateways of land mass. Cozy but also strategic. You can see invading ships the minute they enter the harbor.
I’ve always wanted New York to be mine—the city, I mean—but it just isn’t. As much as I love it, I’m not built to withstand it. The overwhelming manmade-ness of the place sucks the life out of me, even if I’m crazy about what got made. I pee myself with happiness when I get to visit, spend as much time as I can there in literature and film, but overall I have to leave it to the New Yorkers.
Culturally speaking, as well, I’m glad we got to Seattle in time for nine, for my sense of place to start digging in. In Westchester, everything was very pretty and just-so, a very suburban Mad Men kind of setting. Country club feelings. There was a whiff of social climbing in the air, a kind of covetousness and competitiveness. The right schools, the right religions, the right grades, the right clothes: so many marks to hit, none of which hit the real mark. Being different there was palpable. We were vegetarians, we were Theosophists—what was up with us? At best we were curiosities. I felt it as a kid, and as a teenager it would have squeezed me even harder. I was misdirected enough as a teenager in that self-imposed way, selling myself down the river to fit in. I didn’t need any more external cues to pile on.
Better to come of age in the cloudy land of introverts and tinkerers and angst-y musicians, where nobody gives a shit what you’re doing because they’re busy doing their own thing. Lucky to land in a place where the natural world dominates the conversation.
The greenery, the mountains every which way, it’s all instructive. You get reminded that you can aspire to something more real than climbing social and economic ladders
. You can go to a literal mountain and climb up it, or you can go inward and see what you feel like doing with your own mind, see what comes naturally, fuck what the neighbors are doing.