For as long as I can remember, I knew that growing up in the rugged beauty of Cape Town, at the tip of Africa, was something special and unique. And I also longed to leave South Africa. I was raised under Apartheid and it’s mostly unspoken trauma. I felt guilty and stained as a privileged white South African for the crimes of a repressive government. And I didn’t know how to process or deal with that. I felt the collective pain, even if I couldn’t name it at the time.
At the age of 27, I fell in love and moved to Atlanta, Georgia to be with my man. My drop into life in the deep south was uncomfortable. The city was huge and I was ill equipped to navigate it.
Whilst I loved the crazy electric rain storms that would light up the Atlanta skyline, from our Midtown apartment, I felt unanchored overall. I didn’t belong and I wanted to move from that city. After 5 years, a Master’s degree, marriage and a son, we moved to Cleveland, Ohio. We had family there. In my mind the agreement was that it was a temporary move - 2 years at most, before an ultimate move back to South Africa, with US Citizenship in hand. But moving back to South Africa didn’t feel right either and so we stayed in Cleveland and built a life.
It was a rational decision. We had a ready community, a business and some immediate family. It was affordable and there were other ex-South Africans also building their lives and families. We eventually bought an enormous house on a lovely street where a few friends lived and tried to emulate their happy lives. But the hard truth was that Cleveland and our lifestyle was not a fit, and neither of us were cut out for suburban life in the mid-west.
The seemingly endless cold months, grey skies, the ugliness of the melting snow, and the dull light - it all suffocated me. I sat under my bright UV lamp and dealt with anxiety as the first snow fell, wondering how I was going to make it through another winter.
A family member suggested that I go see a psychiatrist and take medication “just to take the edge off”. But sitting in the waiting room I realised that I didn’t want to feel less. I needed to feel more. I was craving to feel something beyond the sterility of my domestic life and my passive aggressive polite marriage. I wanted to see weeds growing wild instead of manicured lawns; scream loudly instead of worrying about hurt feelings; shave my head instead of having a blow-out; be the farmer with dirt under my fingernails instead of the manicured lady buying vegetables at the farmer’s market. I needed to feel alive and connected to something that mattered to me.
I didn’t understand the depth of that need yet. So I worried that there was something wrong with me. Maybe I was destined be unhappy wherever I lived. And that maybe I just had to “try harder”. The life-coach I had hired advised that “it was just a city and if someone wanted to be happy they could be happy anywhere.” She was dead wrong.
Over the next three years our broken family reached a point where it seemed viable for myself and the kids to try living on the west coast, whilst their dad commuted each month. He cared deeply and understood my need for change and how integral place was in that equation, something that I will always be grateful for. So after 10 years of living in Ohio, I locked the front door to our freshly sold home, put the 2 kids and a golden retriever in a cab to catch a flight to LAX, with final destination Ojai, CA.
But we are living in Ojai, a small rustic valley that I had fallen in love with. I felt my body and spirit reawaken. The air, the quality of the light, the food on the trees, the vastness of blue sky, wildness of the place, and the slow pace was like a vitality tincture. Between the mountains, I made a home for the healing and re-crafting of our lives. Previously, I had unconsciously let my life get so far off-track and now I was happy to be home. But I was also aware how each of those departures has served me in so many ways and led me right to this point.
After living in Ojai for 18 months, I finally found a house to buy. It represented what Ojai felt like to me - beautifully simple, small, grounded, and natural. So here I am almost 2 years after moving in to the house. Standing in our kitchen.
Crafting …. Making it my own. Like whittling a piece of wood into something that one will use and value – like a spoon or a bowl. Something that fits one’s hand and needs. Or ‘Composing a Life’, like the title of Mary Catherine Bateson’s book. It hasn’t all been smooth …. In fact far from it. It was been a wild, intense and often messy journey. The kids’ dad also has a home here now but his travel schedule is unrelenting and they miss him. We are raising teenagers and I often feel alone in that task because I am the one on the ground, despite all best efforts. Dating … hasn’t really happened yet. But I haven’t regretted one day of my decision to up end everything. I return to Cape Town fairly often, and periodically to Cleveland and sometimes to Atlanta, and visit my family and close friends in their beautiful lives in those cities.
And I hope that the bright morning light, the smell of citrus blossoms, the joy of watching hummingbirds feed and play, dusty mountain walks, and a knowing to stay on the paths in summer so not to disturb a rattlesnake, is imprinting my kids with a similar desire for a deep and wild kind of life that connects them to this planet and themselves. Whatever their adult lives may look like.