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Staying in L.A.; Choosing to Bloom Where You're Planted
Why don’t you move to Florida or Texas? My conservative friends ask me this often, wondering if I’m not fed up navigating my way past the homeless on the sidewalks, or driving the children past the scene of another drive-by shooting, or dealing with the painful and precious Wokeness of my children’s school curricula. These send me tempting notes about housing prices in places like Waco and Williston, noting that while rents are rising around the country, they are nothing compared to the sums we pay in Los Angeles County.
My friends who know me even better send me links to real estate websites, offering little cabins for sale or rent in remote parts of the Ozarks, or in the foothills of the Montana Rockies. “I remember you always said you want to live out your life somewhere you can see all the stars at night,” they remind me, and I concede that it is so. I should like to be able to see the Dipper without light pollution; I should like to hear cicadas every evening, I should like to walk for an hour and not see another human being.
Friends have heard that I’ve been doing better as a ghostwriter, and if ever there were a job that could be done from anywhere, surely that’s it. You’re 55, not getting any younger, why not move now?
Because I can’t. Because I should not. Because I am called to live in Los Angeles.
For decades, I blamed the women I married – all five, urbanites to their core, with jobs and interests and passions that made city living a necessity. Small town boy moving to a big city to please a woman is an old country music trope, and it’s an effective one because it flatters the sense that husbands always give up their dreams to please women who cannot be satisfied. Tompall Glaser wrote the canonical song on the subject, The Streets of Baltimore. It’s been covered by dozens of folks, but the best known version comes from Gram Parsons:
I sold the farm to take my woman where she longed to be
We left our kin and all our friends back there in Tennessee
Bought those one-way tickets she had often begged me for
And they took us to the streets of Baltimore
Her heart was filled with laughter when she saw those city lights
And she said, "The prettiest place on earth is Baltimore at night"
Well, a man feels proud to give his woman what she's longing for
And I kind of liked the streets of Baltimore
Got myself a factory job, I ran an old machine
Bought a little cottage in a neighborhood serene
Every night when I came home with every muscle sore
She would drag me through the streets of Baltimore
Well, I did my best to bring her back to what she used to be
But I soon learned she loved those bright lights more than she loved me
Now I'm a goin' back on that same train that brought me here before
While my baby walks the streets of Baltimore
It’s a satisfying payoff, except that as much as I love the song, I know damn well that unless the marriage is arranged, you ought to have some sense of what your future spouse’s deepest desires are before you wed. You can choose to play the henpecked, overworked victim card for years, but at some point, that self-pity becomes ridiculous. Either pick up and leave your wife and go where you want to go -- or shut up about it.
Besides abandoning his family or suffering in quiet and tedious resentment, there’s a third option for a small-town boy in the city. He can choose to love the hell out of the place that drives him mad. He can become, by sheer act of will, the city’s biggest booster, its most ardent defender. It’s not about faking an affection one does not feel – it’s about love as a choice. And one thing I’ve done this year is decide that I am here in Los Angeles because it is my calling to love L.A. I have put down roots here and to use the old evangelical admonition, I need to bloom where I’m planted. It doesn’t matter if my gently centrist politics are increasingly out of vogue, or the traffic is nightmarish, or the rents are crushing, or that homelessness and crime abound and threaten.
My job is to love Los Angeles even in the face of what makes it unlovable. My job is to know its streets, its neighborhoods, its strip malls, its potholes, its vulgarities and sublimities and disappointments. It doesn’t matter if I might theoretically be happier in a cabin in Brewster County, Texas, or Towns County, Georgia, just as it doesn’t matter if I’d theoretically be happier if I were married to someone else and possessed of different children. What matters is loving where I am, and giving up the seductive, self-flattering conception of myself as a hapless exile.
In Orthodoxy, G.K Chesterton writes:
Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing – say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne of the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico; in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico; for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico; to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles… If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honor to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.
Bold emphasis is mine.
I don’t know London all that well, but the last time I was there, Pimlico was a pretty swell neighborhood. It apparently was not so in Chesterton’s day, so maybe someone did arise who loved Pimlico so hard and so well and so fully that it became stopped being desperate, and became surpassingly fair.
I am not going to cut my throat and move to Chelsea, or to Marfa, Texas. Los Angeles might be surpassingly awful and growing worse, but it deserves to be loved without reason, and despite any and all human and geographic challenges. I love Chesterton’s reference to “the throne of the mystic and the arbitrary.” It may be an offense to my self-conception that I-who-think-of-myself-as-a-cowboy-in-exile should choose to love this unwieldy, messy, breaking-down county with my whole heart, but so what? If fate had put me in Valparaiso (either the Indiana or Chilean version), I’d need to fall in love with Valparaiso. But fate didn’t put me somewhere else, and I didn’t marry the rodeo cowgirl, and my children are children of concrete and sun, and we will love Los Angeles and make it great for our loving of it.
The Twitterati fret about the National Divorce, and they plan for the Great Reassignment, in which we shall all pick up and move to states where those in power have views that align with our own. Each side flatters itself that after such a Divorce, their half of the divided nation will be richer and happier; we do so like to imagine that history will vindicate us – and better still, chasten and humiliate the fools on the other side. Oh, how our cities in our red state shall gleam! Oh how, those in the blue states shall crumble! Oh, how the blue states shall be engines of innovation, while the red states will collapse, drained of discerning brains! King David himself could write another 140 psalms for each side and it wouldn’t be enough to encapsulate all the triumphalism, all the fear, all the smugness, and all the rage.
I am not a man of the left or the right, as I find plenty to bewilder and offend me in both camps. What I can be is a man of Los Angeles, regardless of whose views are ascendant, because to love the place regardless of either its shortcomings or its virtues, and regardless of whether it is redeemable, is apparently my purpose.
My closet is filled with the caps and shirts of local professional teams: the Rams, the Dodgers, the Galaxy, the Clippers, the Kings, and Angel City. Some of these teams win championships, others languish near the bottom of their respective league tables, but that’s not the point. I wear them because I like sports, but also because they are badges of identity and service, like the livery of an ordinary squire in service to his lord. They are not the teams I grew up loving, but so what? I do not live where I grew up. I wear my Dodgers hat and my Galaxy shirt and my Clippers hoodie not because I think these are the best teams but because they are now my teams, and they are my teams because I live in this city, and because I keep on living in this city in which I was not born, I am called to embrace this city and love this city and declare it, and all within it, to be beautiful and good.
Can you love where you are, the way you love your own children? Can you stop dreaming of getting on that train to Baltimore, or that midnight one to Georgia, and just… just stay and decide you love where you are, as mystical and arbitrary and utterly unjustified as that love might be?
That’s my challenge to me, and perhaps to you. Go Rams.
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