I miss the open sky of the Southwest. Growing up there, in Amarillo, TX, I learned to identify all the cloud shapes and to predict the weather based on my identifications. I flew through those clouds recently and had lots of time to think about the sky. Now, 17 years after moving far away to the Pacific Northwest, I realize that the gaze and interest turns skyward when the ground view leaves you with no choice. Yes, there is beauty in amber waves of grain. Cactuses, scrubby mesquite trees planted long ago by conquistadors’ horses, ponderosa pines- they have their own visual allure- like studying the faces of wizened people long exposed to the elements of life. But, the sky lays herself so open, so available in the Southwest that you can’t help but look. She’s practically a streaker in Times Square; you can’t look away until you get some idea of what exactly it is you’re seeing. The eyes are drawn skyward. For me, that led to dreaming.
“What else does this sky touch?” I used to wonder. I remember laying out in my backyard as a 15 or 16 year old. It was the middle of the day, so, tucked away in a corner made by fences while all the neighbors were at work, I lay on my stomach to get a perfect, evenly tanned back. I got excited and frightened all at the same time thinking about how my (mostly) naked body was touching the same air that was touching everyone else in the world. I felt as exposed as the robin’s egg dome that encased us all. The next day, my ballet teacher told me not to get any darker because “they’ll think you aren’t serious about what you do, too much time to lie around.”
“They” were the teachers at the School of American Ballet at Lincoln Center. Dreaming of other lands and cities covered by my wide, Texas sky, my thoughts almost exclusively turned to New York City. I can’t really remember which came first, the dream to be a dancer or the dream of leaving Texas. Either way, the two things easily went hand in hand. I did go and dance in New York for one Summer, and I learned many, many things, two of which were: no one cared about tans, and I was a PNB-type dancer.
The Pacific Northwest Ballet, PNB, had long boasted leggy, long ballerinas. I, at 17 years old and 5’8”, was a great fit for their professional training division. I think there was a phone call between New York and Seattle, but I can’t be certain. The teacher at SAB told me she’d call (hardly a guarantee). All that matters is that when I went a couple weeks later by myself to Seattle to audition, I got in. I even received a scholarship for their professional training division. It was the perfect program for me, and something I didn’t even know I could have. Suddenly, having never considered Seattle, I moved here to live in the attic of a friend I’d met in New York.
I fell in love with Seattle the moment I laid eyes on Mr. Rainier. “Mt. Fuji-like in appearance,” said my host as we drove across the 520 floating bridge. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I didn’t even know it was there, never had heard of it at all, and now I was literally in the middle of a giant (to me) lake staring at a giant (to everyone) mountain. Forests, water, and mountains. Trifecta. Coming from a land of nothing but sky, the gratuitousness of natural amazements hit me like a Vegas buffet. Can you really have all of this at once? In Seattle, you can.
I fell in love with Seattle, and I fell in love in Seattle. When I first laid eyes on Brendan, he wore a Nirvana t-shirt (always, for a while there, it seemed to be a Nirvana t-shirt), had blond tips to his wavy hair, and blinked the longest eyelashes I’d ever seen over intelligent blue eyes. Later, propped against a weeping willow in the shade of a bridge on the edges of his suburb, I first gazed long enough in the blue eyes to see little golden rings flare out from his pupils, suns in the skies of his eyes. I felt exposed again and began dreaming again. We had our first conversation about getting married when we were 17 (him) and 18 (me). Ours has always been a case of opposites attract, and once that magnetism brought us together neither of us has had eyes for anyone else.
At 22, he kissed me in a church, and we ran out to our busted Toyota Corolla station wagon as husband and wife. I want him still now, in my heart and next to my body, as badly as I did when we were teenagers. When I took off in an airplane last month to go for a weekend in New Mexico with a friend, he stayed home ready to be super-dad for our four children.
In spite of a mind filled with missing (already!) my kids, the sight of those Albuquerque clouds turned me back into a child. I got off the plane and made my way to the hotel with all the giddiness of a little girl going to Disneyland, only all I needed was some red wine from the grocery store and a bed to myself to really feel like I was in wonderland. My friend and I drove the next day to Santa Fe where I vacationed almost yearly as a child. The landscape spoke to me of good parents, mixed emotions, and growing pains. My girlfriend looked up the song “Santa Fe” from Newsies on YouTube and played it through the car’s stereo system. I’d never heard it before (shhh, don’t tell anyone), but I could identify with every word the boy sang; only, while he sang of leaving the big city to go to the Southwest, I had been a girl dreaming to leave the Southwest for the city.
A few days later, my parents came to meet me in Santa Fe, and we traversed the state line, passing wind farms and feedlots to return to my hometown of Amarillo. By the time one hits Amarillo, most of the magic that attracted Georgia O’Keefe has flattened out into miles and miles of Texas. My eye was drawn back to the sky, and all I could think about was getting back to my Brendan and my children. Touching the same air under the same blue atmosphere was not enough. Flying out in the morning, I marveled again at clouds and crazy-quilt patterns in the fields below. It looked a little different because of a bright green made by heavy rains, and I took pictures.
I learned long ago to begin looking for all the mountains as soon as the pilot announces the descent into Seattle. Adams, Hood, St. Helens, Rainier, and Baker off in the distance are landmarks of a wild place still presided over by volcanos. This time, a cloud cover kept me from seeing the first few, but when we finally dropped down through the typical layer of gray, wooly stratus clouds, my breath caught in my throat. The Columbia river delta was spreading out into the Pacific. The long, undulating tail reaching back toward its eastern origins shone brightly silver until we went a little further, and the glowing, filtered sun turned it all pink. The ocean was a shade of white, and I imagined all the whales, sharks, squid teeming beneath. I wondered for a minute if I was actually mermaid; I felt thirsty in my body for the ocean. Moving north, the sun getting lower and lower, the clouds reflected different shades of blue-grey, silver, and pink every time I looked out. The ocean was just out of view as the Puget Sound and its islands began to appear. The Olympic Mountains out on the peninsula hemmed it all in like a line of sentinels. “This is my place,” I thought. I felt like I was on the team, a partner to the mountains, to the sound. “We know what we have. We want all of this at once.”
I thought back to the shockingly flat golden spread I’d left behind with its squares, circles, half circles in different shades of dirt or grass. My young self deserves credit for wanting to leave even though I sometimes miss the big sky and eternal familiarity of places we are born and raised. I thought of my wonderful, consistent parents, of vacations in Santa Fe, of dreams to have a big life somewhere else. Then, the plane landed and turned. The airport coming into view, I practically salivated for my family, for my husband. The way I longed for my body to be in the ocean, in the forest, on the mountains, I ached to be held by chubby, sticky, two-year old arms around my neck and strong, bike-commuter-tan arms around my waist. “I chose this,” I said to myself, smiling. The Pacific Northwest romanced me. Coming home to it is a make-out session compared to the innocence, the sweetness, of warm, windy Southwest days under the watchful sky.
My Texas family can’t imagine why I’d want to live here in Seattle, but maybe that’s because it’s essentially a part of my womanhood. Sure, adults were children once. They know that even little girls turn into women, but I’m not sure parents can ever fully accept the otherness they become when romance sweeps them away. The Ring of Fire (earthquakes!) and waters (tsunamis!) that attract me are like the tattoos and motorcycle that make a girl swoon while her parents cringe. Or, maybe, my parents just really love Texas. I love it too and will kiss it’s cheeks when I go back for Christmas. But I want to sleep with the Pacific Northwest until the day I die.