On a warm and lazy Saturday, my friend and I head east into the Sonoma Valley to enjoy an exhibit by local artists. We leave behind sprawling suburban development that has slowly tamed this wild and picturesque vale. As comforting landmarks roll into view, my body lets down from the demands of the long workweek. Mountain ranges jut in the distance. We pass farm houses, neat rows of vineyards, and a few surviving walnut groves as the country road winds into the hamlet of Glen Ellen, a place I once called home.
After the art show, we grab a bite in a chic, boldly painted cafe, formerly a pizza and beer joint, now reconstituted to serve the latest trend in food. We sip our complimentary sherry as a steady hum of luxury automobiles motor by on the narrow roadway that was once dusty and unassuming.
A new spirit has taken over the town. Where courtesy on the open road was once sufficient to control the flow of traffic, now stop signs and intrusive signal lights are the rule. Where ramshackle and rustic were once charm enough, now there is architectural rendering, remodeling, redecorating and expansion to exploit the changing demographics.
Returning as a visitor to a beloved former home can be dangerous. Unexpected feelings often lurk beneath the surface of seemingly calm emotional waters. Sometimes I feel excited to explore a new gallery or boutique that has popped up in my absence. Often I can’t wait to indulge in a gourmet meal prepared entirely from locally sourced ingredients at one of the upscale restaurants that are now ubiquitous. But at other times I find myself becoming melancholy and terribly homesick for a by-gone era. I begin resenting all the changes and all the interlopers for ruining my town.
After dinner, my friend and I stroll through the nearby regional park. The sun, a perfect orange orb, hangs just above the blue-grey mountainside. But the bucolic scene barely registers. Awash now with deep regret, I feel held back from any possibility of meaningful connection with the natural world. Why, I admonish myself, had I not used my time in this magical place more wisely? Why had I not spent each and every day in gratitude, recognizing that my Eden would one day be no more? Why wasn’t I mature enough to understand the ephemeral nature of life?
As my friend and I round the top of the ridge, I feel that orange globe mocking me, daring me to notice it—and the blazing blue sky beyond, and the aroma of ancient oaks mixed with the musty scents of herbs and native grasses, and the feel of the warm air on my bare skin, along with the memories of many walks with friends who have since scattered, as their lives have called them on unforeseen journeys.
Finally the dam breaks. Love and loss and beauty throw open my heart, dissolving into softness and the transparency of a single shimmering moment. All at once, I understand this place has never been truly mine, but we have been intertwined through time, and it has become a permanent part of who I am, now and forever. I am eternally grateful.
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