Neatly folding my gauzy swimsuit coverup, I tucked it into the corner of the suitcase and sighed. I had done it. Every square inch of the oversized cheetah print rolling case was occupied by a perfectly coordinated sandal, blouse or handbag.
The notion that I was overpacking briefly crossed my mind before fading away. Sure, I would only be in San Diego for a handful of days, but as I saw it, I had to be prepared for anything. After all, this was the trip I’d been pining for— a relaxing respite by the ocean. If I felt it necessary to cram every item I could think of into a suitcase that would consequently become too heavy to lug down the stairs, why not just go with it?
I laughed to myself as I riffled through the muck and mess of my desk drawer in search of a luggage lock. All this fuss over a trip I had not too long ago felt lukewarm about! It’s true; when the opportunity to travel to the all too familiar beach town was initially presented to me, I had accepted it, but not without strong apprehension. It was certainly no coincidence to be offered a free trip to California right on the heels of being instructed to “go home”, but this was also a trip I’d wished to avoid— permanently.
My relationship with my home state has been rocky for many years. Though it is the land of my birth, a physical manifestation of all that I hold dear, and the primary backdrop to my most treasured memories in life, it is also the final resting place of my naivety. It was during my last visit to the Golden State that I had my rose-colored glasses slapped clean off my face. My friends were not my friends. My family was not my family. My life, as I knew it, had been exposed as a well orchestrated lie. It hurt to finally see the truth about the people I loved, so I left, vowing to never return.
Everything and everyone was gone. I was emotionally homeless.
I had felt God speaking to me about returning home for over a year. Each time He said it, I’d feign total ignorance, claiming that outside of my four walls of residence, I had no home to go to. The phrase “Home is where your heart is” often came to mind, but it did nothing to soothe my despondency. If anything, it made me feel worse. My heart had always been with my family, friends and associates. It had been in the things I’d do for them, the experiences we’d share, and the places we’d go. They were my heart.
I haven’t been the same since.
Growing up in California afforded me the most idyllic childhood I could have dreamed of. From a very early age, I was a true blue So. Cal girl, complete with the valley girl accent to match. Even still, I have palm trees, surfboards and sand running through my veins (there’s probably a little smog and In N Out thrown in there too lol). My home state was who I was. Even as a kid, I was proud to be a Cali girl. It seemed like the most amazing place a person could ever live. It was completely out of the realm of possibility that I should ever leave.
And then I left.
I was about seven years old when my parents decided to move to the sticks of Ohio (the town was so small, I think it’s more like one stick opposed to several). Nothing in the world could have prepared me for the culture shock. Everything was slow paced, barren, and countrified. People talked funny. Many folks wore peculiar shirts called “plaid”, and many more of them smelled of livestock feed and manure (no lie). The summers were intolerably humid. The winters were harsh and frigid (During our first winter, there was a snowstorm that produced three feet— I repeat, three feet of snow. School was closed for an entire month).
Being from California, I became an overnight celebrity with the kids at school. Most of them had never been outside the county, let alone across the country, so they found me to be a curiosity (who coincidentally, “talked funny” to them too). It’s rather humorous to reflect upon my first impressions of the place now that I’m older, but I actually came to love the little cow town.
Friday night high school football games. Swamping. Four-wheeling. Playing in corn fields. Lots and lots… and lots of country music. Plaid in every color. I even adopted a country accent that I still haven’t completely gotten rid of. A love and appreciation for rural life sprouted within me and never truly left. All the same, it wasn’t home, and there were reminders of it sprinkled throughout my time living there.
Let it be known that there is zero chance of exaggeration when I tell you that I was the only brown face in my school or town. My family was the only minority household in the entire district. No Asians. No Latinos/Hispanics. No African-Americans. No Native Americans. Unlike any of the places I had lived in California, there was zero diversity in that small town. And while my parents and I were quite accepting and comfortable living around people of all racial backgrounds, many people in the town did not share this same sentiment.
Things could have been worse. Much worse. As bad as it may sound, I am grateful for having only having been called the N-word twice. Well, to my face, at least. Though I didn’t start off feeling any “different” than anyone else, the longer I lived there, the more aware I became of all the ways I didn’t belong. While the girls in my class were starting to date the boys they liked, I would often get rejected by my crushes due to their parents not wanting them to date “a black girl”. The boys —who had, by that point, grown to be very good friends of mine— would always apologize, and while I knew the problem didn’t lie with them, but with their parents, it hurt.
Still young, I found it hard to understand and cope with the concept of loving a place that couldn’t fully accept or love me back. And whether or not anyone called me names or brashly pointed out my differences, I could start to feel the subtleties of prejudice. For those who do not understand what I am talking about and are fortunate enough to not have to, this may not make much sense. But for anyone who has ever been routinely and unfairly judged for something they had no say in, you may understand how important it was for me to find a place to belong— a safe haven, where people weren’t making up ridiculous excuses for why I couldn’t be friends with their child or poking at my hair like I was an animal at the petting zoo.
California was my safe place. My home. I belonged there.
I cannot begin to tell you how grateful I am that my parents had the means to travel as much as they did back then. All throughout the school year, I would feverishly await three critical times of the year: winter, spring, and summer break. It was during these times that we would pack up our suitcases and board a plane to spend several weeks in California. We did this every year, for five years. And even though we would often venture to other locales during these trips, my real joy was being in California with my grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles and friends.
Spending my vacations in California gave me a chance to recharge and let my guard down. Never did I have to worry about who was looking at me strangely or how different I was. I could simply smile, laugh and be a kid. Most importantly, I could spend extended amounts of time with the people I loved, but couldn’t see during the active school periods. Looking back, I now realize that these moments were equally important to my parents as well. We all were fish out of water in our place of residence; coming home was like jumping back in the bowl.
Even when we left Ohio to move to another state, we always could return to our family, to our home state, in order to fill up on love and a sense of belonging. It was only once I moved back to California and away again that I began to lose my support system… my home. As family turmoil boiled over and long-held friendships began to deteriorate, my visits became less and less uplifting. The tighter I held on, the more it crumbled. Before I knew it, all I was holding on to was dust.
Looking at the clock display on my phone, I huffed. It was already 1 in the morning and I was still fumbling around trying to get myself ready for my departure. Already deeply regretting the decision to drive instead of fly, I threw my pajamas on and crawled into bed. Amidst my concern over not being able to stay awake during the several hour long drive across the desert, my stomach was a’flutter with unexpected excitement.
It was a very familiar feeling, one I had not experienced in quite a long while. It was the feeling I would have the night before my flight from Dayton to Los Angeles; the same anticipatory feeling that hinted at the possibility of me being able to feel at home again. My mind continued to whir around, flashing words, scenes and faces across the void behind my closed eyes. It was then that I remembered what God had said as I was showering earlier that day, “After this trip, your life will never be the same again. Everything you know is about to change.”
I’d been quite surprised to hear such a thing, and I didn’t understand what He could have meant by it. All the same, I had this strong sense that I was going to meet someone while I was away. I didn’t know who, how or exactly when, but there simply had to be someone He wanted me to meet. I could feel it.
Deep in my heart, I knew with an unwavering certainty that God had called me to take this trip. I’d asked to go to the sea to clear my head, and here it was. He told me to go home, and there I was. It may not have been the trip I wanted, but I could sense that it was the one I needed. Pressing my hot face deeper into the cool folds of my down comforter, I whispered a drowsy prayer. If He was ready to change something about my life, I was ready to let Him.
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