My husband and I made a pact when we got married. We’d live in Houston for five years; then, we’d move. Somewhere beautiful with good weather that we could take for granted. Somewhere with hikeable spaces, mountains perhaps. Somewhere that didn’t morph into a lethal body of water every time it rained for days on end. Once, my car almost drowned in that rain with me in it. I spent the night outside a gas station, shaking and crying, waiting for the flood to subside.
Like all married couples, we made lots of promises early on. We wouldn’t go to bed mad. (We did.) We’d embrace each other every day. (We didn’t.) We’d move somewhere new in five years. (It’s been eight.) That last broken promise was way easier on me than him. Even though I hated many things about Texas, I loved many things about Texas. Aside from queso, my roots there were deep. It’s where I was born. It’s where I was raised. It’s where I became a functioning adult. He moved there for me.
I secretly assumed he’d put down roots eventually, too, and the pact would be rendered moot. But I also understood the longing. Houston is neither beautiful nor charming. The land is flat and sprawling, crisscrossed by a multi-layered web of freeways and built on a swamp. The mosquitos are tiny vampires, and it’s so fucking hot. But it contained the very best humans. Friends who fed us for months after we buried my brother. Teachers who cared so deeply about our children. Artists of every discipline, many of whom I worked with at our performance space downtown; many of whom I taught at the performing arts high school. We had a solid community there.
But in March — as we all know — everything changed. My daughter’s school shut down for two weeks, which turned into four, which turned into eight, which turned into summer. Science camp was cancelled. So were parks and playdates. It was a suffocating new world of “no.”
All the things that were once so charming about where we lived had suddenly lost their luster. We were now untethered to my kid’s school, where we walked hand in hand most mornings except when it rained. Some days, she opted to ride her tiny pink scooter; other days, the bike. We were always greeted warmly at the corner by Ms. Angela, the neighborhood crossing guard. Once there was no school, there was no Ms. Angela. We could no longer do our impromptu playground hangouts at afternoon pick up, which were always more enjoyable for the grown-ups than the kids. Our favorite neighborhood restaurant that made the world’s best homemade pasta (fact) and giant, iced shortbread cookies could no longer be our fun Friday outing.
We were trapped in a centrally-located townhouse with a tiny shoebox yard in the middle of a muggy city under lockdown.
In May, we started doing what we always do when we feel stuck or bored: scouring the internet for beautiful, remote properties on AirBnB. Mike and I both worked from home. We could do that anywhere.
“Let’s just rent a place for a couple of months this summer.”
Mike started texting me AirBnB rentals in New Mexico. He’s from the desert and has a genuine affinity for it. That turned into listings of small houses to buy in New Mexico that we could turn into our own AirBnB. And that turned into a listing in central California: one-of-a-kind mid-century modern relic on a quiet mountainside. 2.5 acres. Redwood everything. Hardwood ceilings.
“I’ve always wanted hardwood ceilings.”
I scrolled passively through the 26 photos on Zillow. None of it seemed real. I was surely looking at a magazine. Also, the price wasn’t insane. Why wasn’t the price insane? I’d been looking at places with bigger yards in our neighborhood that were far more expensive. And, AND: It was zoned to a school that had a Deaf/hard of hearing program, which was a cool thing because both of our children have varying degrees of hearing loss and these integrated public school programs are hard to find. It’s what our current school offered. It’s why we chose it. I mean, I don’t believe that things are meant to be, but if I did, I’d add this to the top of the list.
“WHY AREN’T WE LIVING HERE?!”
Within hours (maybe minutes?), there was a back and forth with Mike’s dad, who’s a realtor in L.A. Then a back and forth between him and the seller’s agent. Then a cycle of “Wait, are we really doing this? We can’t do this. We have to do this!” Then a heartstrings letter, signed in crayon by our children. Then an accepted offer. Then a massive RV rental that we drove 2,000 miles. Then an inspection with a professional inspector who literally said, “This is a good fucking house.” Then 2000 miles back home. Then packing up the house where our children learned to crawl and walk and throw their bodies on the ground and play hide and seek in the kitchen cabinets and draw hundreds of pictures and snuggle thousands of times.
By early August, we were officially Californians.
But three weeks after moving in, we were uprooted again. This time, for wildfires. They were still a few miles from us when we were evacuated, but spreading fast and quick, and only 5% contained.
I’d played this game dozens of times before, but it’s fascinating what you actually grab when you think you might never see any of your shit again. My brother’s paintings and guitar, my grandmother’s jewelry, some sacred photos of my babies, irreplaceable artwork, a file of keepsakes, essential documents in a Ziploc bag, my new audio equipment, dog food, and a shit ton of diapers and snacks. We camped out in a tiny motel room for seven days with two dogs and two kids, refreshing the CalFire maps and daily video briefings and neighborhood Facebook pages every two minutes.
Everyone was like: “How shocking! This has never happened here before!”
I thought: It’s because we’re here now.
This is not a new sensation. Every first session I’ve ever had with a new therapist begins with some explanation of how there’s a big black cloud hanging over my head that follows me everywhere I go, and while my rational brain understands that I am but a blip and everything in the universe is truly random, it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like: Well, here we are, and now there’s fire.
Much to our relief, the Zillow house was still standing seven days and 27 panic attacks later — covered in ash, but still standing — so we moved back in; this time, determined to settle.
Once the smoke had cleared, I took a trip to the closest nursery. The Zillow house is basically made of windows and bathed in sunlight. And yes, historically, I’ve killed most living green things and felt in my heart like I just wasn’t a plant person. But 2020 was completely fucking upside down, so maybe this was my moment! Maybe I could finally become the green goddess I’d always wanted to be!
I walked around outdoors, touching various leaves, admiring colorful blooms, putting a few things on the cart that I wanted to look at every day. I made a joke to the guy who worked there: “I need low-maintenance plants I can neglect.” He didn’t find it funny.
I left with a giant ficus that I planned to put in the corner of the dining room, a Pilea with perfectly rounded leaves for the bedroom, and several succulents to create a little succulent garden. I also got a bag of cactus soil, a bag of potting soil, and a few terra cotta pots and saucers.
I wasn’t totally sure how to pot a plant but watched a YouTube video and dove right in. Gloves, shovel, soil, being gentle, keeping roots in tact. Surprisingly, there was something sort of intuitive about it. It’s hard to even articulate the sensation because I’m wired high-strung, and it’s largely unfamiliar to me, but it felt calming, soothing, centering. I mean, when someone asked me why I wanted to move to California, I would say: “I want my kids to dig in the dirt.” Alas, here I was.
Once I’d placed the green things in their respective places, I looked around and wanted more. I don’t have any tattoos but imagine the sensation is the same. Once you’ve got one, you want them all.
I went back to the nursery the next day. And the following weekend. I even snuck away a few times throughout the week. I bought various planters and plant stands online, started reading garden blogs, following plant accounts, cataloging plant-care pro-tips.
By September, I had several plants in every room plus a number of outdoor plants that I put in these tall, slender yellow pots we got from this pot shop an hour north. These trips provided something to do outdoors during the pandemic — they provided something to do, period. You put a living thing in soil, water it regularly, give it sunlight, and watch it grow. Scroll Twitter. Feel crippling sorrow and doom. Get a new plant. Wallow in loneliness and despair. Get a new plant. Experience suffocating anxiety about every single unanswerable question. Get a new fucking plant.
Meanwhile, my daughter started first grade at a new school in the living room. On top of the general drain of going to school online, she was now the new kid, which sucks in normal times but really sucks over Zoom.
“If she could find one friend,” I told Mike, “she’d feel like she belonged. One friend is all she needs.”
I posted a cute photo of her on a local Facebook moms’ group. It was essentially a dating profile for my 6 yr old, listing all of her positive attributes and character traits, seeking a safe family who was interested in meeting up outdoors for a socially-distanced, masked play date.
Fortunately, my daughter’s very best friend (my mother) and her husband (my father) arrived mid-September. Decked out in full head-to-toe PPE, they looked like surgeons or astronauts. We broke the news of the move earlier in the summer, bringing Oreo McFlurries to soften the blow, which proved to be an ineffective strategy. A lot of messiness came up using very loud voices, most of it tethered to the loss of my brother. He died nearly six years ago from a heroin overdose, but it takes very little to poke that wound and breathe those feelings out like fire. My mom didn’t want to lose her only son, and yet, here she was without him. Now, she felt like she was losing the rest of us, and the sheer threat of that sorrow presented like rage.
Here’s the thing. While I was fairly certain my husband would crumble into a mound of dust if we stayed in Texas very much longer, I couldn’t help but feel like my parents would benefit from getting the fuck out also. First off, the place we were headed had a massive retirement community for a reason. It was categorically beautiful, and the weather was perfect year-round. Since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s and retiring from a 40-year career, my dad spent roughly 90% of his time laying in bed. He could do that anywhere! And while my mom had an active social life, much of it was built around card games — bridge, mahjong, pan. Good news is that cards are portable and the older Jewish lady demo was robust where we were headed.
Plus, neither of my parents were native Houstonians. My dad was originally from Oklahoma. He moved to Houston after visiting a roommate one New Year's Eve and having a grand ole time. My mom grew up in Mississippi. After leaving home at 18, she lived in dozens of places: Miami, Atlanta, New Orleans, Dallas. Her mom (my Ganny) told her she’d heard there was a good singles scene in Houston, so my mom packed her bags. A few weeks after she arrived, she went to an exercise class at the JCC and met a couple of gals who introduced her to my dad.
Houston’s where my parents laid down their roots. And we’d shown up with bulldozers.
But once the dust settled, they decided it would be far more painful to be separated by 2000 miles than to retire to an idyllic part of the country. So they followed in our footsteps, packed up their lives, and headed out west.
It’s been a few months since they arrived. I still have to turn on Google maps to get anywhere except the plant store. Although even in End Times, things are happening…slowly. The dating profile I posted on Facebook led us to a wonderful family who we see safely and regularly. They have a little girl who may very well be my daughter’s soul mate, and they go to this lovely little school that will be absolutely glorious once they’re able to meet in person. My parents’ place is slowly but surely resembling something habitable. And my 2 yr old, still oblivious to all of this, happily spends the bulk of his time outdoors, building construction sites and running around without pants.
In July, right before we moved, I signed up for daily COVID alerts in our soon-to-be-new-area. At the time, the case count was around 4,000. I felt good about moving to a state where the numbers were trending in the right direction, where masks were an irrefutable form of public safety, and where the governor believed in science.
However, according to today’s text, the current case count is 34,482. A follow-up text read: “COVID cases are increasing. ICU beds in short supply. Stay home & Stay safe. #StopTheSurge.” Every map has California coded the deepest shade of red.
Early one morning last week, I woke up to rain, which is rare around here. My first thought was: Oooh, I can plant my wildflower seeds today! (Please note: This is not a thought I would have had 9 months ago.) A few minutes later, I was outside in my bathrobe with the rake in one hand and my little envelope of seeds in the other. It was cold and crisp, very quiet. Our street only has 5 houses on it, and we’re all pretty spread out. We recently built a retaining wall to keep my toddler from tumbling down the hill. He likes to play at the top of it with all of his construction wee-hicles (vehicles). Just to the right of his 20 or 30 little orange trucks that he lines up very carefully, there’s a fresh patch of dirt where I planned to sprinkle the seeds, As I raked the area, I noticed this perfect little green thing peeking out through the soil. It made me think of that last scene in Wall-E. Civilization is destroyed; human life, unsustainable. The world is garbage. But boom — a green thing. A seedling. New life.
I’m up to 32 plants now. Several varieties of fern, pilea, ivy, a fig, a ficus, a sprawling monstera, countless succulents, philodendron, a spider plant, a peace lily, a jade plant, a ponytail palm, and a bunny ears cactus that we inherited from the previous owner.
My mom says they’re thriving because I talk to them. My daughter talks to Alexa on the kitchen counter. My son plays chase with the Roomba. We do what we have to do.
I have no idea what this place will look like once the world opens back up. It still sorta feels like we’re staying at a really cool AirbBnb, that we’ll head back home when all of this is over. In the meantime, we’re planting seeds, and patiently waiting for them to take root.