We all know the saying “home is where the heart is,” and it’s true. My home is with Alissa and Harry and Annie here in Washington. But home is also a sense of place, and when you live in a place for the first 23 years of your life, it will always be a part of you. It will, to some degree, always be home.
We woke up early, 5:30 AM on the last morning of the cruise. We were scheduled for 7:45 disembarkation, and if we were going to have an early breakfast we needed to get moving. With the ship preparing to disembark passengers, room service was not available, so I threw on some clothes and made my way up to the Horizon Court on the Lido Deck to get coffee for Alissa and I, a morning necessity made all the more critical by her cold and the resulting need for hot liquid.
I stepped off the elevator and exited to the pool area. The ship was still under way, generating a light breeze that cooled the mild air. Looking to the east in the pre-dawn darkness, I could see a string of lights on the horizon. Those lights were the Southern California coast, probably Malibu or Santa Monica. I was in familiar waters. Catalina Island was to the southwest. But those lights, definitely along PCH bore into my soul, awakening my dormant connection to this place.
I’d grown up in Eagle Rock; about 23 miles inland from Santa Monica, but these waters, and the adjacent shorelines, were an integral part of not only my childhood, but my parents’. My mom had talked about visits to Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier. My dad and his brothers had grown up in Santa Monica Canyon. A generation before the Beach Boys brought the California Surf Sound to the nation’s airwaves my uncle was surfing those very waves. For his part, my dad loved to swim out to the calm water past the shore break and swim parallel to the shore, both as exercise and for the sheer joy that he felt from that immersion, that intimate connection with nature.
As for myself, living inland prevented me from being a true beach bum. Still, my summers, particularly in my elementary school years were marked by YMCA day camp trips to the beach at least once a week. We’d pile into the bus and hit the road. We’d arrive at the beach in the mid-morning, the marine layer still blanketing the sky. That morning coolness kept the more timid (or sane) of our number on shore until the clouds burned off. But that’s not how I approached the beach. I’d make a cursory attempt to lay out my towel on the sand and apply sunscreen. Then, discarding shoes and shirt (I would wear my trunks from home), I’d strap on the leash to my orange Aussie II boogie board and charge into the water until I got tripped up in the soup and fell in. Gradually get used to the water? Dip a toe, then a foot, then an ankle and so on? That was for less adventurous souls than me. I knew…well I know…that the most efficient way to get used to the water, at least in Southern California, is to simply dive right in.
We’d ride the waves all morning, and if the waves were too small we’d shout taunts at the ocean, trying to raise Neptune’s ire in hopes that our insults would result in the perfect wave. We’d come ashore for lunch and grudgingly spend the requisite 30 minutes after eating down at the waterline making sand castles or digging in the wet sand for sand crabs before accepting the green light and charging again into the surf where we’d wile away the afternoon before making our way across the blistering expanse of sand and laying our towels on the seats to protect them from our wet trunks.
But it wasn’t just the beach. It was also the water and Catalina Island. I vividly recall my class taking whale watching cruises, seeking out the mighty California Gray’s migrating to their calving grounds in Baja, and Sea Education Afloat cruises, one of which was diverted from dragging a plankton jar to join a flotilla of boats chasing a whale as it breached eleven times in a row. I will never forget gallantly high-tailing it away from a bison on Catalina Island as it charged one of my oldest friends. (She managed to evade the beast, but not my teasing for years afterward.)
IMPORTANT SAFETY TIP: IF YOU ENCOUNTER A BISON AT TWILIGHT, DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, STAND DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF IT AND TAKE A FLASH PICTURE.
There were more serious memories as well. There were Intervarsity retreats on Catalina where I explored and deepened my faith and had conversations that led to unrequited love and meaningful friendships alike. There was the day that I stood on the beach with some of my closest friends, watching the sun set for the last time before we’d scatter to our various colleges and into adulthood.
Some memories of these waters were serious. Some were fun. Some were seriously funny. But they were all formative, and whether they were on, in or beside these waters, they were filled with a sense of boundless freedom, a sense of possibility, of infinity that comes from the ocean. Whether looking up at the stars over head or at an orange sun sinking into that distant horizon, there is no denying the vastness, the majesty of that vista of water and sky. It’s the essence of growing up in L.A., in California, on the coast, on the edge of our continent. You are constantly confronted with the vastness of the mighty Pacific and that blue sky. And when confronted by such vastness, one has a choice. One can cower before it feeling small, insignificant and lost, or one can embrace the vastness, embrace possibility, embrace the timelessness and the knowledge that as much as the world changes, as much as people grow and change, as much as places change, the past does not change. The memories remain, reaching across the years or decades or generations to fortify the soul with that sense of place, that grounding sense of home. And in that security, one can find the courage to risk, to be adventurous, to dream of possibilities and, more importantly to act on them.
I shook myself out of my musings and hurried to get Alissa’s coffee. Maybe, if we hurried, I’d be able to point out Angel’s Gate as we sailed into the Port of Los Angeles. Maybe we’d be able to wave at the California Sea Lions sleeping on the red harbor buoys. Maybe we’d be able to watch the underside of the Vincent Thomas Bridge to end our cruise, just as we’d watched the underside of the Lion’s Gate Bridge to start our journey. Maybe. It was a possibility.