Ah, September. Home to the fall equinox, Labor Day, the end of the baseball season. The gentle sunset to summer. The start of school. All things somewhat melancholic, now I think of it. Also the time the weather starts to shift, and for those of us who enjoy cooler temperatures and who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, September feels less melancholy and more like the cruelest month—and it’s more than the mundane cruelty of going back to school.
Fall in the San Francisco Bay Area in general feels like an inversion: the weather gets hotter and dry winds race out of the east as the region’s mascot, the coastal fog that moderates both heat and cold, takes its annual September-October vacation. There were still plenty of hot enough days from June to August to hit your friend’s pool or to play sports with loose muscles, but for the average kid there were never enough, and the sun was never as good or as hot as in those first few days of the new school year.
As an adult (or as someone who is the age of an adult), however, I lose a degree of comfort each year. I’m down to about 65 before I complain to my wife about being hot. (Boo hoo, she replies—when she replies.) I live in Seattle now, and until very recently the idea of living in California again—even in privileged, sheltered Marin County, where I grew up—appealed as much as the thought of living in Phoenix.
There is more to an area than its climate, of course, but given my increased and increasing sensitivity to heat, it would seem I have found the right place. But, surprise surprise, we change as we get older, and home calls louder than temperate days and nights.
Driving to San Francisco from the north bay, where I lived as a lad, my dad would tell me, on those rare days when you could see it, that the view of San Francisco from the Golden Gate Bridge was the most beautiful in the world. I was too busy growing up to question my dad, and even now, as I have been disabused of this narrowish view, I admit it is beautiful. But did I think it was beautiful then because of the quiet beauty of that specific scene? A young boy, safe and happy with his dad, probably on his way to a baseball game (the main reason we went into “The City”)? Do I now think it’s beautiful (above and beyond its intrinsic beauty) because it represents home, a feeling I’ve not had since I moved to Seattle almost 20 years ago?
This idea of home, of the one place where Wordsworth’s “great burthen of the mystery” feels tolerable, began to needle me not long after I went to Europe for the first time, in April 2002. I had always wanted to visit Europe, not from anything specific, but from a spring of desire that seemed to exist in the deepest part of me. Or maybe it was as simple as seeing the movie “Oxford Blues” with a girl I had a desperate crush on. Or maybe my Italian DNA yearned for a visit to the homeland.
Whatever the case, I ignored my guilt and took advantage of the cheap airfare in the aftermath of 9/11 and booked a ticket overseas. We had been living in Seattle for about three months when I started my “Grand Tour” in Paris, with eventual stops planned in Florence and Venice and Verona, Geneva and Zurich and Interlaken, Brussels and Bruges and a surprise place or two.
But first, Paris. I can honestly say the first thing that came to mind when I popped out of the RER/Metro station was, “Wow, Disneyland really nailed the French Quarter!” Fortunately that impression faded, into the general wonder of an innocent American experiencing his first trip outside the USA, and eventually, as each step I took proved my dad wrong, I experienced a feeling I couldn’t understand, and hadn’t felt in a while: that of belonging. No, it was deeper than that. It was home. Paris, a city I had been to for about an hour, felt like home.
Though I enjoyed every place we visited that first trip, none felt like Paris. I used to wonder if that feeling was simply because it was the first place I went to in Europe. Or that I had just moved to Seattle and hadn’t settled in yet. Or the inevitable feeling of freedom travelling offered. (It wasn’t until my wife joined me, two weeks later, that we did that most silly of traveler activities: investigated real estate prices.) Or some combination of all three.
Seventeen years later I know better. The feeling was genuine. Since that initial surprise in Paris I have had the same feeling in Amsterdam, Vancouver BC, and, to a lesser extent, London and New York. The Seattle area has never felt like home, even though we have started a family and purchased a house, lodged ourselves into the community, get called by our first names in grocery stores and coffee shops. Whatever “home” means to others, to me it means more than a family and a mortgage and a community.
So what was it? Was it that those places were aesthetically more pleasing? Were the people nicer? Was the food better? Were the cities more or less affordable? Was it the cultural diversity? With the exception of New York (which is like no other city I’ve been to in the US), was it the foreignness? The laid-back pace of a place like Amsterdam? I suppose those things do matter, but it’s not like San Francisco and its surrounding areas don’t offer most of that, and more. (There is, for example, far more easily accessible natural beauty in the San Francisco region than in any of those cities except Vancouver.) It wasn’t as simple as the place you were born, obviously, though that must play a large—perhaps the largest—role.
For me it comes down to the curse of the inexplicable “feeling”—or a collection of feelings, perhaps even a “series of seemings,” Thomas Hardy’s description of what a novel is. To use a crude example, it is similar to pornography: you know it when you see it.
It just so happens that I was lucky enough to be born into one of the most beautiful places in the world, which complicates things. If I wasn’t born in the SF Bay Area, would I still consider it home? Would I feel as I did after an hour in Paris? There is no way to answer the question, and I am not sure I would want to know. There is something appealing about not knowing.
For however a concatenation of feelings combusts to produce that “feeling of home,” the answers loom as inexplicable as ever. We have always needed to know, to root out the solutions to the mysteries of the universe, but nowadays when everyone from A to Z has an idea how to explain everything from A to Z and, worse, has an Internet forum or 20 to express those views, the sense that “feeling at home” is really just that—a feeling—is a blessing.
I have wondered lately how it must feel for the millions of world migrants who leave home, not on vacation but in search of more economic opportunity or simply a night’s sleep without gunfire or the fear of being abducted or worse. They too have left their homes, and while a better life might await them elsewhere, there is no guarantee except for that of a difficult journey.
And if they do arrive at their chosen destination? What will it feel like for them? No matter the hardships they faced in their homelands, those migrants all called those places “home.” Maybe they don’t miss it. Maybe they are so grateful for the chance to live in the west they are able to put their past away, in permanent hibernation.
But maybe they do miss their homes, the unknown fabric that knits our lives together. After all, many people who can leave their war-torn or impoverished countries don’t, even if staying means mortal danger. It has to be an unbearable situation, but, like the apocryphal character in a Beckett play, they bear it. They can’t go on, but they do, in search of home.
There is a concrete feeling I associate with home, however. It is not happiness, per se, which is fleeting, but bliss, which is even rarer. While I have felt great happiness in all the places above that feel like home, I have really only felt bliss in northern California, my first true home, and my real one. Paris and Vancouver and New York—and others I have not been to yet—might feel like home, but they aren’t.
What is this feeling of bliss? An emotion like bliss must be intensely personal, no? Well, no. In his poem “September, Inverness,” Hass, a former Poet Laureate and also from northern California, writes about Tomales Bay, an artist enclave about 30 minutes northwest of San Francisco. Unique to western Marin County, his description of bliss nonetheless resonates on a personal and universal level.
Tomales Bay is flat blue in the Indian summer heat. This is the time when hikers on Inverness Ridge Stand on tiptoe to pick ripe huckleberries That the deer can’t reach. This is the season of lulls — Egrets hunting in the tidal shallows, a ribbon Of sandpipers fluttering over mudflats, white, Then not. A drift of mist wisping off the bay. This is the moment when bliss is what you glimpse From the corner of your eye, as you drive past Running errands, and the wind comes up. And the surface of the water glitters hard against it.