Monday, July 1, 2013

The Search for Place

Every December, instead of writing resolutions that I know I will break, I come up with a guiding theme for the new year. That way, when I get confused or lost or bored during the year, I invoke my personal theme to find my grounding again. The theme for 2013 is "The Search for Place."

Actually, it's a little fancier sounding than that. The real theme is "The Search for Terroir." Terroir is a French word, one of my very favorite words in any language, and it's a shibboleth into elitist-sounding conversations about wine. But its literal definition is very pedestrian: "soil" or "dirt" or "earth." The French idea of growing grapes and making wine is that a wine is an expression of a place, a place that has a climate, soil type, exposure to the sun, and access to water. That is why most French (and Italian and Spanish) wine bottles do not include the types of grapes contained in the bottle, to the chagrin of American consumers, but describe the place from which the wine originates. The French would say that the grapes - Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Grenache, etc. - are just the paint that the winemaker-artist uses to create the masterpiece.

Broadened out, terroir means a sense of somewhereness, of locatedness, of grounding. And that is what I am searching for. I am looking for a plot of dirt that feels like home. I want a place that is my somewhere. That is what my grand wine country experiment is truly about. It's not simply about changing careers. It's about my search for home.

I have written before how the Santa Ynez Valley, on California's central coast, has been my promised land for many years. A lot of people dream about moving to their vacation spot, but I actually did it. Here is what I have discovered: it's a very different to visit a place than it is to live there.

What happens when a pilgrim decides to settle in the holy place? He discovers that though the place may be holy, he is not. When you go up to the temple for a high holiday, or drive up the hill for a church retreat, you may have that mountaintop experience in which God is near and you are healed and all is set right. But when you move into the the temple, your spiritual and emotional life settle and you learn that you are still the same person. In the holy place, I bring with me my same issues, my same relationship tendencies, my same biases, my same loneliness, my same fears.  

The pilgrim also discovers the holes in the holiness of the place itself. When you live in the temple, you start finding the spiderwebs in the corners and noticing the dirty baseboards. And you begin to notice that the people there don't all smell pleasant. The verdant hills in the winter months become very brown in the summer. I miss having a Target and a Starbucks 2 minutes away, the way God designed the world to be. And I have been greeted with some suspicion by the locals because I didn't grow up in the valley. I have encountered significant cultural and political differences with some of them. I have already changed jobs, and I chose the second winery in large part because it is owned by non-locals. I have been subject to some misunderstanding because my personality and beliefs have been largely shaped by Seattle and New York and Los Angeles. I miss my friends from LA terribly, which is why I visit so often. I get bored a lot. 

I have also encountered some of the friendliest, warmest people I have ever met. The farm-to-table restaurants and wineries are so good that they can turn an atheist into a believer. Bartenders and baristas and checkout clerks know my name and my usual order. The thousands of wine pilgrims from Los Angeles and Orange County and San Francisco who come in every weekend help me feel more at home. The green vineyards stitched across the brown hills are works of art. The cows and the horses and the donkeys (my favorite animal) seem to counsel everyone to slow down and chew the cud for a while. It's hard not to spend even a few hours in the valley and feel more at peace, more rested, more yourself.

My conclusion thus far, and it's largely inconclusive, is that the journey toward a sense of place does not stop when the moving truck drops off your furniture. It is much harder and more exhausting than a physical move. The pilgrimage must continue after you set foot on the holy site. Less like a straight path and more like a labyrinth, the journey spirals in and out, going deeper with each circuit. I do not know what is ahead of me on each circle, and sometimes it feels like I am just going around and around. I have been tempted to turn back many times, but I compelled inwardly and outwardly to keep going. There is something, or someone, at the center that I must visit.