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The Air That Gave Us Life

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Native Americans believe that when you're sick, breathing your "native air" in the place of your origin will heal you. I think they're on to something: inhaling the essence of our roots is necessary sometimes.

I felt this last summer after a week in my Alabama hometown, 2,000 miles from California where I've spent the last three decades. It was my first time back in almost ten years.

I didn't go for healing; I felt fine. It just seemed like time to touch base. I had no agenda; I wanted to experience the place at my own pace, let it unfold. I went with some trepidation, a little afraid I might be sucked back into aspects of the South I'd been glad to leave.

After all, this was the place I fled after college, seeking breathing room, space to explore myself and the world and a wider choice of opportunities. I loved my family and friends and mentors, but the world there felt smothering to me, like the kudzu that consumes everything in its wake along Southern highways. As an adolescent, I dreamt of all that must be going on somewhere else.

I was embarrassed by the shenanigans of George Wallace and the KKK and by the redneck image of the South that seemed to prevail everywhere else, even though that was not the genteel place I knew. I didn't want to be painted with that brush. And some of the regional values didn't feel right to me.

So I headed to Los Angeles, where I found the larger world I'd imagined -- where the balmy air seemed to say anything was possible, and the nearness to the coast on one side and the desert on the other gave a sense of endless space. Gradually I took to my new town and, over the years, came to feel wedded to this City of Angels.

But I will never be a true Californian. Now I know that for sure. For on the roads of Alabama I found something I'd been missing -- a grounding, a connection, a visceral familiarity, a piece of myself that had been shoved too far down in my soul.

I drove along routes I'd traveled so many times with my preacher father to country churches. Seeing landmarks flooded me with memories of where we'd stopped for ice cream or to buy farm-fresh eggs; of music we heard on the radio from Nashville; and of conversations we had on lonesome dark roads as bugs smacked the windshield of our Dodge.

I cruised by my childhood home and the movie theater where I had my first date with my future husband. I put flowers on my parents' grave and, at the country club, sat near the daughter of the doctor who delivered me.

On a visit to my remarkable 85-year-old piano teacher, the most gracious person I know, I ate the brownies she still makes for recitals and sat at the baby grand where I learned to play.

At lunch in the century-old sandwich shop, I found my brother's initials where he scratched them on a tabletop in the 1950s. And the chicken salad sandwich tasted just as it always did; only now I wished for a bit more pizzazz.

Maybe the sandwich was an apt metaphor for why I left the South: I was just looking for a little something more. In the West I found it, but over time I also blocked out part of my own underpinning. Luckily, last summer it was still there for the taking and this time I brought it with me.

I didn't wish to stay longer in the red-dirt country but I did pack my bags with renewed love and respect for people and places left behind. I felt fortunate to have so much of the place of my past still intact.

I came back to L.A. more fully embracing who I am and where I'm from. I now know that I can treasure the parts of my Southernness that fit me and leave the rest behind, just as I shun aspects of California or any other place.

Joan Didion wrote, "We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget."

Clarence Brown, one of the original Blind Boys of Alabama, put it this way: "You can't get where you're going if you don't know where you've been."

I came back to California more content, and with a sharper view of the path ahead.