Photo: Nan Palmero

Dear California,

I’ve always liked you. Even when I was small, I felt a kinship with you. I learned how to dive below waves on your beaches, learned how to dig for sand crabs on your shores, and how to tread lightly in your tide pools. I learned to snowboard and ski on your mountain slopes. I learned to surf in your ocean. I fell in love with running on your dusty mountain trails and clean suburban sidewalks. You taught me the value of a good burrito and a sturdy pair of year-round sandals. I learned how to drive on your crowning achievement — the 101. I loved your bright, sunny weather and your curving highways that took me to see the desert and the redwoods and miles and miles of soft yellow farmland.

I stuck with you through college in SLO, where I made friends with your people from the north and first discovered my love of hiking. I took road trips to Big Sur to explore your rocky beaches and pine forests. I watched elephant seals loll about on algae-strewn sand and stood quietly as the sun’s shrinking colored the sky pink.

So, yes, I’ve always liked you, but I haven’t always loved you. Our love affair has been confusing and tumultuous — It’s been bland and stale at times and wild, carefree, and bursting with joy at others.

I’ve fallen in and out of love with you too many times. When I left your silky beaches and fish tacos for tiny cobblestoned streets and galettes in France, I returned totally disenchanted with everything I fell so hard for before.

Suddenly, it seemed you had no culture or diversity, no people with interesting stories and backgrounds. Compared to Paris, you seemed lethargic and dull. I felt bored with your Mexican food and your fancy car culture and your oppressively perfect weather. I was tired of hearing the same accents everywhere, was tired of your frothy chatter about weather and traffic and meaningless trivialities.

So I left. I went away for a full year — long enough to begin to miss you and ache for you — but when I returned home again I felt exactly the same as before: disappointed and disillusioned.

This time, though, I stuck around to see if my feelings could change. You were like a romantic partner who seemed ideal on paper, but whose actual appeal was long lost to me, so I wanted to know if I could rekindle the spark between us. I wanted to know if I could salvage the love I had for you once before.

So I embraced you wholeheartedly. I did all the things that made me happiest with you. I spent long days frolicking in the water at your beaches, swimming to secret coves and diving to the ocean floor to grab fistfuls of sand. I took long walks on your shores, breathing in the damp, salty air and scanning the sand for tiny Venus clams.

I had picnics in your grassy parks overlooking the ocean. I ran outside in the middle of February because it was warm and because I could. I took road trips along your coast to visit the Golden Gate Bridge and stop at vineyards for wine tasting. I ate tacos every week, but I ate other things, too — spicy pasta, Thai noodles, sushi.

Gradually, I learned to love you again. First, for all the reasons I loved you before, then second, for all the reasons I never gave you enough credit. I learned to appreciate your focus on the environment, your insistence on protecting the wildlife and natural beauty I enjoyed every day. I learned to love your melting pot of cultures and religions and ethnicities, something I never saw before because I didn’t look hard enough.

I saw the freedom of expression you gave to everyone who chose to live with you — and I loved that. I learned to embrace your casual style and laid-back pace of life again. I learned to respect your people for their kindness, ambition, curiosity, positivity, and dedication to self-growth. I learned to look closely for the genuine joy that was bubbling everywhere — the smile in a young surfer shaking out his wet hair, the giggles of a group of girls drinking smoothies on a restaurant patio. I learned to take cues from others whose love for you was loud and untainted.

But mostly, I learned to love you for exactly who you are. Our relationship now isn’t the stale affair it once was, nor is it the passionate romance of ignorant bliss. Rather, it’s a steady, calm current of deep and generous love — the kind of love that develops when you accept someone’s beauty and flaws in equal measure.

I don’t want you to change, California. What’s more, I don’t need you to change. It took me a while to realize it, but you are lovely just as you are. In a world full of tragedy and difficulty and selfishness, you are a bright light that offers people a chance to live with freedom, to cultivate their individuality, and to be close to mother earth. You are a literal and figurative place of eternal sunshine.

And maybe the things you can offer me — your natural beauty, comfort, warmth, cleanliness, and adventure — won’t be enough someday. Maybe your magic will fade.

But for now, what you have is plenty. I’ll take my chances.

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