When people ask where I’m from, my default answer is always the name of the state that once stole my heart: California. When someone is more familiar with the West Coast or wants to pare it down more, we discuss geography. Southern California, I’ll say, San Diego, or to those who want a smaller region, “the Orange County area.” That’s usually where one of two reactions happens: eyes either drift elsewhere due to indifference or light up with a knowing smile, and then I know what’s coming next. “Like the TV show?”
No, not quite.
Or more appropriately, yes, the area that I’m from has the misfortune of sharing its name and location with the show. But that’s not what it is, truly. To me, it’s where my family is. Sister, brothers, nephews, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins – every branch of the family tree is located in the lower half of that state, save for one. And I love my family. They’re crazy, to a certain extent, but then again, aren’t we all? It doesn’t matter what they say or do, what they don’t do or what they think – they’re my family, and for that, a piece of my heart will always be where it’s sixty-five degrees and sunny 360 days a year.
Some days, it’s harder than others to accept that we’re on opposite sides of the continent and that thousands of miles separate us. Opening a Christmas card and seeing a picture of Peyton proudly clutching his soccer trophy, for instance. Hearing whispers of someone in the family thinking about having kids sometime soon. Receiving a picture text of a few of the siblings together for dinner, for no particular occasion. Yeah, it’s tough. And sometimes, it makes me think, why? Why did I leave? Or more accurately: I know why I left, but why haven’t I gone back? Everything and everyone is there, right?
While it’s true that so many of the most important people in my life are in southern California, my life itself isn’t there. My life is here. When I think about the fact that three short (long?) years ago, I didn’t know a soul in the South, and didn’t actually know anything about this state except that the capital was mentioned in the song “Wagon Wheel,” it seems surreal. Yet here I am, working towards my dreams, building communities, and finding family. Growing more into who I want to be. Realizing that I’m happy, in a truly authentic and meaningful way. And on the days that I realize that, it makes me stop and send up a silent prayer of thanksgiving.
Sometimes, as hard as it may be, we have to leave home. We can’t always stay in our bubbles, as warm and nice and perfect as they may seem. Although we need people to fall back on, sometimes we need to leave the comforts of home. After all, the biggest growth happens through discomfort, and the greatest rewards come from facing our hardest challenges. In conquering the mountain, we simultaneously conquer ourselves.
And in doing so, definitions change. Perceptions shift. Our idea of “home” may move, or perhaps it actually expands instead. I’ve left parts of my heart in a number of places, and I’ve brought the rest of it with me here. I’ve learned that paradoxically, the more we sow pieces of our heart around us, the bigger and more full it grows back. Like the starfish, who regenerates its limbs, our hearts are meant to be given away because only then can they truly fulfill their purpose. That may make life difficult, it may make the word “home” a bit murkier, but it ultimately makes our lives much more rich.
There are a surprising number of songs that mention Carolina, California, or both. Unsurprisingly, most of them include a nice little country twang. Something about country and love go so well together – whether that’s love for a woman, a truck, beer, or a place. One of them talks about flipping a coin. If it lands on heads, the singer will go towards Carolina; tails will take her to California. There’s no telling what the future may hold, but one thing is certain: at the moment, if that coin were flipped in my life, heads it is.