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Berkeley becomings

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AUGUST 03, 2020

Sonnet: I’m “back home” now, whatever that means. On Friday, after a week of trips to SFO, sending wave after wave of my friends back to their respective elsewheres, I packed up the minivan and made the hourlong jaunt back to my parents in Los Altos.

Madeleine: I was one of Sonnet’s last goodbyes. We hugged outside of our beloved purple home, in our homey neighborhood, tearing up. “How do we leave?” we asked, looking up at the windows of our old bedrooms. This place made us. 

But we did leave. Now, I’m somewhere in the middle of the country, driving back to my parents’ house in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts. 

Sonnet: Aside from a first year in São Paulo and, later, five years in Bavaria, I was raised in Los Altos. I suppose you could say I’m “from” there — and actually, I do (say that, often). Brazil was before I started remembering, and the memory of Germany, encased in the mind of a daydreamy 9-year-old, is probably fuller of nostalgia than fact. 

But I include the caveats because of the unease I feel about Los Altos, which has always seemed false, one-dimensional, with fancy homes and social veneers like card houses threatening to topple. 

At my local high school, I felt split into two irreconcilable halves: one bookish and wistful, imagining herself a square peg doomed not to fit in with the kids who’d grown up barbecuing and rec-leaguing together; the other pragmatic, ambitious, willing to bend herself into the shape of the hole she’d found herself in, if that meant getting somewhere else.

Madeleine: We both had childhoods in motion. I lived in maybe a dozen houses, strewn in a handful of states: Massachusetts, California, Rhode Island, Idaho. I moved schools, moved towns, spent summer weeks across the country with my dad.

I got good at leaving, proudly extricating who I was from where I was. The places felt familiar, and familial, but I didn’t feel shaped by that slow, lapping ocean, or by that flat, marshy land. It must have shaped me, I know, but it felt like Massachusetts just was and I was just there.

Sonnet: Against the stifling conformity — whether self-imposed or external, I’m not sure — of Los Altos, Berkeley opened into permissiveness. It was a place where I could bring all of me, wherever I went. Where I could trail my sentimentality along passageways with poems nailed to their overgrown fences, paw through the Little Free Library on every corner. Where I could bend my brain into various productive shapes all day in Main Stacks and then emerge to find someone playing “Mystery of Love” on the Sproul piano in the middle of the night, and let my nostalgic self sit down on the steps and cry. 

Berkeley was where I began to put my halves together, or rather where, in its colorful light, I began to recognize that they were actually two sides of an already-complete whole. 

Madeleine: For me, too, Berkeley was the first place I felt like I belonged. After an adolescence resisting the small communities of insular New England, I came looking to expand, to reinvent. 

Instead, I was reinvented. Berkeley taught me how I liked to live, and how to love living. I walked everywhere. Home from parties or friends’ apartments or libraries or concerts at the Greek or movies on Shattuck. Walked hours through ruffled, sun-dried trails to the ridge, where the whole Bay stretched out beneath me. On the way back down the hill, I discovered which routes would take me past the exploding bougainvillea or the fig tree brimming with fruit or my friend’s little blue-and-white house. I’ve always felt accompanied by Berkeley, even when I was by myself.

Sonnet: Geographically, Berkeley and Los Altos are not that different: hills on one side, the Bay on the other. Both lie on a stretch of unceded Ohlone land. 

Neither city is without insidious problems: the failure to provide affordable housing, the gentrifying creep of Silicon Valley, white people like us acting like they own the place.

But while Los Altos feels like it’s trying to paper over the ugly parts, Berkeley is frank about what needs to change. In the ’60s and ’70s, while Berkeley was roiling in free speech and then free love, Los Altos was still mostly orchard, its residents fighting only to keep streets wide, buildings view-preservingly squat. 

Madeleine: We leave Berkeley thinking we can change the world, or so the cliche about the school tells us. I don’t know if I feel that way, but I do feel like Berkeley has shown me some of the things that need changing. I used to leave those grand, shiny buildings and walk home down Telegraph, stepping past neon-rimmed weed dispensaries and unhoused people huddled under awnings, past shuttering family-owned restaurants and emerging luxury condos. For a few months of the year, the air gets unbreathable, thick with smoke from another record wildfire season. The rents keep getting higher and the neighborhoods whiter, and all the scientific advances haven’t seemed to touch the inequality on our doorstep. 

I worry, sometimes, about telling people that I went to UC Berkeley, as if it will undermine anything I say with its reputation of radical liberalism. But what a testament to the power of this place, that it can teach generations to humanize and to complicate. That doesn’t exist in Massachusetts, not in the same way. The state is deeply progressive, but in my little seaside town, it all feels less urgent. Everyone is happily walking their golden retrievers, zipped into practical L.L.Bean vests, their “Warren 2020” signs folding over from the summer rain. 

Sonnet: On Friday, nearing home, I took the “long” way through our tiny, two-street downtown. The streets are newly blocked off like they are for the farmers market, restaurants spilling outward onto the pavement, sommeliers wafting among spaced-apart tables.

It looked sweet, familiar, but not like home. It made me ache for the mask-wearing neighborhood I’d just left, so recently full of so many humans I love. But it’s quickly dissolving into memory, the purple house about to be reinhabited. We will never recreate that life we built together, the one we chose. 

But Berkeley’s in me, still. And though Los Altos might not change that much, finding home in Berkeley has let me exchange my antipathy for Los Altos with rueful fondness. The person it has sent back home is more able to look past the duplicity, to ask questions that penetrate insincerity, to catch flashes of truth.

Madeleine: I had planned to stay after graduating. We were committed, Berkeley and I, in sickness and in health. Our lease ended Friday, and I was all set to move into the house of one of my best friends, as her old roommate left when the pandemic hit.

Then, last Tuesday, her landlord said I couldn’t move in, that there was no subletting. Three days to find another plan. I scrambled, testing every option in my head. Then my roommate offered to cancel her flight home to the East Coast, suggesting we drive together. Within 24 hours, three different members of our Berkeley community offered to let us pitch a tent in their backyards along the way, so we could cover most of the country without having to navigate hotels or late-night campsite-searching.

And so I left Berkeley, which doesn’t feel real yet, even as the mountains of Colorado flatten into the plains of Kansas. I won’t feel the full weight of it, probably, until I make a huge pot of coffee in the morning and have no one to help me drink it. Until I step outside my family home to face crowded conifers and the smell of the Atlantic, not the lemon trees and overgrown succulent gardens of Elmwood. Until I run miles without the slightest incline.

Then I’ll cry. I’ll call my friends. We’ll come back.

Sonnet Phelps and Madeleine Gregory co-write the Monday column on kinds of love. Contact them at [email protected]

AUGUST 04, 2020

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