Home by Adria Bregani
A few major mountain ranges, several Köppen-Geiger climate zones, and roughly 3,000 miles of federal and state highways stand between my childhood home in southern New Hampshire and my current city in southern California, a city beloved for its small-town charm in a sea of development of different kinds. The 2000 census records for my New England hometown indicate that precisely 1,190 people lived within its boundaries at the approximate time I entered high school, matching my memories of a scarcely populated place: swimming in the lake, hiking through stream-banded mountainsides, and continually exploring the woods, private property be damned. These are the activities I sometimes cite when describing what New Hampshire is like (or, more accurately, what it was like for me) to my Californian friends, neighbors, or whomever might ask. Because it is a place so commonly alien to many on the opposite edge of the continent, I try to paint a pleasant picture, but of course, it is trickier than that.
A love of nature was almost required of me as a child. The trailing whine of “Mom, I’m bored…” was typically responded to with either “Go outside and play,” or a slight frown while glancing over the day’s mail (always bills, it seemed), “You’re going to have to make your own fun.” My three siblings and I fulfilled that directive with a variety of invented games and projects, including raising a few generations of colorful bantam chickens, thousands of rounds of hide-and-go-seek tag, and, later, an annual Dr. Mario party with dozens of guests and joke prizes for the champions.
Some of our failures stand out as the most hilarious, resulting in abdomen-building fits of laughter. We collectively invented the Monocake, a special pancake creation challenge, consisting of an entire batch of Bisquick pancake mix poured into a single 10-inch cast iron pan. Of course, it was too thick to ever be a successful stovetop flapjack, no matter how slow and low the heat and cook time were adjusted. All of the three or so attempts resulted in a burned bottom and a gooey middle, impossible to flip, but damn it, we tried. And we were permitted to try: our parents let us pursue whatever we wanted, within reason, as long as no one got hurt and it wasn’t prohibitively expensive, or, in some cases, they simply didn’t know about it. The older I got, the more I tended to suspect that some of my peer’s home lives may have been more rigid, controlled; I could not picture the worst ones cooking up their own version of a Monocake, or even considering doing anything outside of their normal boundaries, whatever they were.
New England is a special kind of cute; it’s a kind that seems to claim a prideful timelessness without acknowledging the possibility of occasionally being dated. There’s a reason that the word “quaint” often appears in tourism media, and quaintness seems to be a primary export: iconic images of lighthouses, crisp autumn days made complete with brightly colored leaves whirling around, and aging, yet somehow operational, covered bridges have graced many a screensaver around the world. “What does this ‘quaint’ quality really mean?” is a question I often asked myself, though usually in the context of, “Is what I have (and where I am) considered good enough or desirable?”, or, “Is there a better lifestyle or place somewhere else?”
At the heart of my hometown there is a blinking four-way traffic light, dangling above a four-way intersection between the church, the library, the former penny candy store (now a restaurant, which seems to be open approximately half of the week, presumably for economic reasons), and a pay phone with a miniature brick telecommunications building. I think the pay phone is gone now. The light blinks red on two sides and yellow on the others, and it’s certainly not a feature I would point out to a visitor. Sometime around the year I entered high school, a new student appeared from a decidedly “cooler” place; a city, and a coastal Western one at that, and this trivial piece of infrastructure became her primary target, at least for two minutes one afternoon. For her, it represented the whole area, criticizing, “There’s nothing here! Absolutely nothing is happening downtown, unless you count that dumb blinking light,” and then mocked it by flicking her fingers outward from her palm slowly, “blink-blink, blink-blink.” I laughed because it was an unexpectedly well-crafted, original description; no one in my memory had made a joke about that light, but, later that evening, the idea behind it began to irritate me. Simply because a place was not extensively commercially developed didn’t necessarily mean that “nothing” was happening there. Did we not invent the Monocake? Did she just want to shop? To buy clothes and increasingly cheap electronics? To revel in materialism? After this, the thread began to unravel a bit; I started to see that I may have conflated a sense of place with the people that I loved. Why was I so defensive of this place?
Years ago now, an artist friend moved to Somerville, Massachusetts from California to be with her then-partner. She called me, struggling, “It’s so hard for me to make friends in this place. I don’t fit in here. Explain. Is it that they love tradition? Is it that they prefer science to art? I’m starting to think this is very masculine place.” I didn’t want to agree, but eventually, after hours on the phone, had to make some concessions: it was one of the conversations that allowed me to begin to reconcile my own experiences with larger ideas. We strung New England-themed words and phrases together, hoping to find answers with a Gestalt method: stoic, hard-working, traditional, hardy, practical, frugal, stubborn, fearful of appearing inconsistent or weak, afraid to issue apologies, fans of private property, devotees of craftsmanship, lovers of This Old House, and on and on. I connected some pieces, loosely, merely testing the waters in this private space. I decided to try to suss out the thread even more, errors be damned. I started tracing lines; how did these qualities shape real-world events? And then, the paranoia: if I made any connection, was I “blaming,” refusing to personally be held accountable for my actions? Who might point a finger? More importantly, why? I grew up semi-resentful of politics; suddenly I understood why they were necessary.
I allowed myself to think back on my teens and early twenties, which was mostly spent in New Hampshire, but also in Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, northern Connecticut, and New York (New York isn’t part of New England, just for the record). Some darker things stood out. At one point, I was threatened with brutal violence because I had no interest in having sex with a young man. The injuries he promised to inflict were specific and awful. That changed things, as I imagined it would for anyone. At another point, someone I had believed to be a friend sexually assaulted me. That changed things, as I imagined it would for anyone. At yet another point, I was secretly filmed during a sexual act and the video was shared with select persons in a social circle I left for good. That changed things, as I imagined it would for anyone; as did having a series of mostly false rumors injected into the community I was a part of (“the community” and not “my community”), and having my little sister cornered by the primary perpetrator, asking for solidifying, true dirt on me, and being told by yet another person that women had no place in a topic I was interested in—all of this, too, changed things, as I imagined it would for any woman. I never received an apology for any of the above-listed events. I never told my family about much of this; I feared they would feel like they had failed me in some way, which is the opposite way I feel about them. Was I stoic? Some of the time. Did that help? Not really. My regrets involve not being more vocal in spite of the values of some of those communities. With the passing of time, I came to know better, to blame myself less. I gradually learned not to internalize such occurrences. These events left me asking what I had lost, and what I could do next. These things made me think about the comfort and safety of my home.
Spending time in untouched land allows for a unique kind of peacefulness that simply cannot be replicated.
Why was I defensive of the place? Oh yeah, because it’s beautiful. The hills are mostly rounded, low-slung, and speckled with glacial erratics, which are giant boulders transplanted by ice sheets that crawled southward thousands of years before our lives began. One can scramble up to the top of one and feel small, silly. Mountains are more rare, but they provide such a pleasant view of the hills that the low quantity and globally unimpressive peak elevations don’t matter. Spending time in untouched land allows for a unique kind of peacefulness that simply cannot be replicated. It’s a place that’s easy to defend when one notes that each afternoon walk is different, every thunderstorm unlike the previous one, each snowfall somehow dissimilar from the one before. Nature is endlessly reconfiguring itself, including your very human body, your very human mind.
Not long after that phone call, I made an embarrassing admission to a different friend while at a restaurant in Los Angeles. “I had this feeling for a good part of my childhood that I might end up living in some other under-populated place, maybe out West. I thought I would go somewhere and ‘find myself;’ I had this specific vision of me sitting or standing alone, 360 degrees of nature surrounding me, trees, desert, whatever, mirroring my own silence, during which I would discover some truth that would ultimately lead, at worst, to some sort of almost-tangible contentedness, or, at best, sudden knowledge of some kind of Ultimate Lifestyle." Where the hell did this idea originate? My friend laughed, of course, but what she told me next immediately washed away my embarrassment. Growing up in the Southwest, she had a parallel experience: she dreamed of attending college back East, which she did, and fantasized about becoming an intellectual.
There’s the temptation to jump up on a boulder, rooftop, something much taller than a soapbox and scream, “You don’t know me!” or “You don’t know [insert any place I love]!”
It probably baffled some acquaintances from my East Coast life that I ended up in California, southern California, no less. How could a New Englander convert to that life? Southern California’s reputation isn’t universally spectacular where I’m from, but, in some circles, neither is mine. Because of that, I tried to find a kinship with this place, and I succeeded. Like the Eastern woods, there is always another pocket to explore, whether urban or wild, something overlooked from a previous venture, another hot tip from a friend of a friend, co-worker, whomever. People have the tendency to want believe that what they have is better than what you have, and, when they can’t make that leap, things can get pretty scary if the conditions are right. There’s the temptation to jump up on a boulder, rooftop, something much taller than a soapbox and scream, “You don’t know me!” or “You don’t know [insert any place I love]!” and I have to remember that they don’t, and likely never will, which always causes that urge to rapidly deflate.
I’m approaching another anniversary of my move out West and the comparisons still run in the back of mind. I’m reminded of another phone call. A die-hard outdoorsman I met a number of years ago, a certified city-hater, dialed me up one day to catch up a bit. I had to laugh when he told me, “Quality of life seems to depend on ease of access to things a person loves,” and made sure to convey that he no longer scoffed at city dwellers. “If you love museums, you should live in a city. If you love mountains, you should live next to them, or in them, if you can.” It was an unexpected relief to hear his voice say those words; I suppose I (very) unreasonably feared finger wagging for choosing, and sticking with, California, and I have to say that I’m still very glad that I did. In spite of past bullshit, in spite of half of the state being on fire, I am still pursuing the activities I love, with the people I love, in the same spirit of the Monocake.
Adria Bregani is a California-based scientist and artist.
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