I was in Kentucky last week and a woman asked, “Why do you love California?  Because I don’t really get it.”  And you know how you can feel rushed in small talk and you end up giving an answer that feels generic  — the ocean, the mountains, that it’s 70 and sunny everyday, I said right off — that’s not even remotely close to the truth, so it just hangs out there, in the air?

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I had 5 cousins who grew up in California.  2 girls, 3 boys.  The children of my mom’s oldest brother, these cousins were all older than me and I adored them, worshipped them really, and fell on the pictures enclosed in Christmas cards like I was looking for news from another, more forgiving, most interesting, planet.  My mother had 8 brothers and sisters, so back home in Missouri I was the oldest of so many little ones.  I hated being oldest — so many babies, 15 or so, to look after — and I often felt invisible.  I was the big kid everyone handed their babies to when they walked in the door, when they were tired from work and tired from life and tired of holding the weight of their newborns and their toddlers, but when the California cousins visited every other year or so I felt such a sense of wonder and relief.  And I had a huge crush on Arnie, the oldest boy.  So blonde and tan and relaxed.  Arnie embodied my dream-vision of California life.  Year-round sunshine.  Daily surfing.  Saltwater tans.  Sandy beaches for miles.  Hiking in the mountains in khaki shorts and roasting health-food on the campfire.  An open world.

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We moved to California when our kids were grown and gone.  I was 41.  We have been here 8 years.  To answer the “Why do you love California?” a little better, here’s a go.

I love that my native-born California neighbors treat us like we are part of their family.  We even have “family dinners” on Sunday nights  — usually on one of our patios — and we celebrate our birthdays and any and all holidays together.  I love that the smart gorgeous sassy wives, Bonnie and Cathy, have taught me how to slice an avocado, peel garlic, make lasagna with the sauce on the side, and make a good cheese/sausage plate.  And I love that their husbands are the first people I would call in any emergency.

Carmel Beach.  Gorgeous.  Peaceful.  Dogs off leash.  And that hidden unmarked beach on the drive through Big Sur.

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I love that, when I went to grad school for 3 years at San Jose State University, I saw diversity.  Every time I walked to class I thought, wow, how incredible that I’m a white woman and I feel so small, and yet so safe, and that nobody cares where I came from, what religion I do or do not practice, what my politics are, or what language I speak.

My plumber, Cosme, who always knows who I am — Hi!  How are you!! — when I call and is lovely and gracious and rarely charges me for a drop by.

I love that when my kids come for Christmas we can walk downtown with a light jacket and see the lights and have coffee or dinner or shop for last minute gifts, without ever getting into a car.  (well, except for that one year it poured rain!)

I love that a daily walk with my dogs turns up so much color and beauty I (sadly) don’t often even notice anymore.

I love Pizza My Heart, and their leash attachments outside their always-open door.  Pizza.  My.  Heart.

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The constant  over-abundance of fresh produce, which I credit to the undocumented worker and their willingness to come here to work hard and earn a living for their families.

All the neighbors who know and love my dogs even if they don’t know me.

I love the fact that no one has ever once, in a decade, asked my religious or political view.  And I love that when/if I get into a religious/political conversation, I feel respected.  Conservatives and liberals abound.

The crazy unexpected and taken-for-granted abundance of color.

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Good friends whom I would call in any emergency or just to have coffee:  Diane and Stacy and Megan and Sonja and Stacee and Jayne and Lindsey and Andrea and Cathy and Evy and Bonnie and Sharon and dear lord the list is so very,very, thankfully, long.

When I think about  California now, I see that it has become the place I finally, really, grew the fuck up.  The place I stopped worrying so much about what everyone expected and more about what I expect of myself.  I was in my early 40s when I arrived and had no idea what I would find  — what would they think of a little girl, much displaced, from Missouri?  And you know what?  I feel like, for the first time in my life, nobody cares where I came from.  I am not hindered.  I don’t feel judged.   I am about to turn 50, and I feel like I’ve grown up here, in California, in this last decade.  That I’ve figured out, and trusted, who I am.

“Why do you love California? Because I don’t really get it,” the person said.

I am, maybe for the first time in my life, not envying my California cousins.  I feel at home here, accepted for the real live me, a woman without a specific, augured in belief system.  I am a woman who believes in a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body; I believe in gun control and daily dog walks; I believe in not making fun of any religion or belief system or nationality; I believe in the fact that your extended family does not need blood to feel like a family.  I feel like, in my 40’s I am finally growing up.  And I’ve been lucky enough to grow up here.  I believe in California.

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