In January 2008 my family moved from Fort Worth, Texas, to Lancaster, California. My dad had gotten a new job, and my little brother and I—at the ripe ages of seven and nine—were in anguish. Our lives were over. We cried a lot, both before and after the move. We hated having to say goodbye to all the meaningful and life-changing friends we had made. Too much TV had taught us that children who switched schools in the middle of the year had trouble adjusting and never learned how to make new friends.
Our dad told us that the move would only last two years. After that, we could return to our developing Texas suburb which had rain and barbecue and all the things our new desert home did not have.
But as time passed, something happened. We made friends. We did well in school. We adjusted. And when our dad informed us that the family would have to stay a little bit longer, my brother and I silently breathed a sigh of relief.
It is now January 2019, and my parents are at last moving back to Texas. They have sent their two sons off to prestigious universities and they are ready to live their lives (mostly) unshackled by their offspring. They are cashing in on a promise they made in 2008, nine years later. I am left to wonder at how bizarre it is that more than half my life ago all I wanted was for my parents to say that we would go back to Texas, but now I am filled with a deeper version of the feeling that my third-grade self felt: a kind of nostalgic mourning. It is even more bizarre to consider that I feel this way given that I have already left home — I left home a year and a half ago when I started college. The only difference this time is that when I tell my friends goodbye, I won’t know when I will see them next. Unlike the first, see-you-in-the-summer farewell, this is a goodbye without the promise of tomorrow.
I remember applying to colleges far from home. Like Christine McPherson at the beginning of “Lady Bird,” I wanted to escape California and go to the East Coast “where culture is.” I yearned for a place where I could feel “colossal and swallowed up all at once.” (This is a direct quote from my rejected application to Columbia University). But in coming to UC Berkeley, like Lady Bird, I became more enamored with the place I have called home for most of my life. I became obsessed with the question of how a place makes a person, and I learned that there is value and—dare I say?—beauty in coming from my unique pocket of the universe and knowing her in a way that only I could.
Unlike the first, see-you-in-the-summer farewell, this is a goodbye without the promise of tomorrow.
So how do I even begin to describe Lancaster, California? The books will tell you that it is situated in the Antelope Valley of the Mojave Desert, which is to say that it is hot and windy in the summer, and cold and windy in the winter. We are a rarity among Southern Californians in that we have a passing familiarity with snow as it blankets the mountains surrounding us. Judy Garland lived there, and Donald Glover was born on Edwards Air Force Base not too far from Lancaster. Popular attractions include the California Poppy Reserve, and the first Musical Road in the United States. The avenues that run east to west are cleverly named after letters and the streets running north to south are named after multiples of ten.
What the books won’t tell you is that the sky changes color throughout the day from pink to blue to orange-gold to black pricked with starlight. The books won’t tell you the best view of the Antelope Valley is from the aqueduct where 60th Street West morphs into Godde Hill Road because you can see where the city ends and the desert begins. The books won’t tell you that we have the most unassuming, humbling sunsets in the world because the sun only amplifies the ever present orange-brown glow of the dirt and the Joshua trees. In the summer, it gets so dry that even the weeds die of thirst. The people here are kind, and they are funny too, even if they don’t know it.
I consider it a privilege to have come of age in a place so mundane. Any young person you encounter will bitch about how boring it is here and they are not objectively wrong. But their cynicism is a symptom of lacking imagination. I know because I was once one of those bitchy young people who craved a busy urban life where I could be stimulated endlessly by intellectuals and concerts and “experiences.” But when school gets difficult, as it so often does, I miss the sluggish rhythm of my desert. It feels like time itself neglects to touch us here in Lancaster (except on the freeway where you can be going 80 mph and someone will still pass you on the right). The quiet is calming and intimate, a kind of sacred silence. It keeps you hypnotized, focused on nothing in particular. It doesn’t fight to keep you inundated the way the rest of Los Angeles does. It doesn’t demand your attention. It doesn’t feed off your worship. It is self containing. Independent. Whole.
The quiet is calming and intimate, a kind of sacred silence. It keeps you hypnotized, focused on nothing in particular.
All the perpendicular streets, all the cookie cutter neighborhoods, all the boring brown buildings—I love it. I love being from a place so empty. It’s only a sliver of what the world has to offer, but it’s enough. Being in the Antelope Valley is like hearing the first few lines of a new song and not needing to hear the rest because the conclusion of the story is contained in its inception.
And so it is sad that time has finally touched my family. It is sad that I must now say goodbye with more finality than I am used to. No more biannual Guys’ Nights, no more crappy Korean barbecue from Love BBQ, no more simping in parking lots. I don’t know when I’ll see my best friends again. I don’t know when I’ll kiss my girlfriend again. And I don’t know when I’ll be wrapped in that sacred silence again. But I suppose this is what it is to mature — to lose some part of me in every person and place I encounter, to scatter myself across the globe.
I remember getting coffee for the first time with a friend last year in Berkeley. He asked me where I was from. I gave my standard reply: “I am from Lancaster, California. It’s about an hour and a half north of LA in the middle of the desert, in the middle of nowhere.” In response, he told me not to talk about my home like that because it is possible that it is in fact “the center of everywhere.”
I think he’s right about that.