Writers and where they live…  Part One

Writers and where they live…  Part One

The Santa Ana Winds of California


I’ve written a memoir of my early years in Chicago. I’ve written about PLACE (the house, the streets, the vegetation, the traffic, the people on the streets) because it colors so much of who we are. (You can reread my first post about PLACE here.)

No one can write fiction, a memoir, a biography without PLACE becoming a major character. Think of the wonderful selection of memoirs that have become best-sellers: Black Boy, All Creatures Great and Small, Born a Crime, Becoming, When Breath Becomes Air, The Glass Castle….all are filled with references to the place the author has lived, the streets he or she has walked.

And if you have moved during your life (I’ve lived in three different states) or even if you have remained in the same place your entire life (New York City, Colorado Springs, Huntsville Alabama, only to name a few) HOW DIFFERENT your life has been from the lives of others and from mine.


Illinois is flat, flat. Even as a child, I knew that was in some way a detriment, as if flatness could be the butt of jokes. Then, after fourth grade, my amazing mother took me and my brothers to California! My uncle and cousins lived there, so why not! We traveled on the California Zephyr that runs from Chicago to San Francisco. WOW! Our train revealed parts of the country I had never seen: the plains of Nebraska, the Rocky Mountains (real mountains not hills), Salt Lake City (they washed our train there) and on to San Francisco: the trolley cars, the harbor, the steep streets.

Weeks later, after seeing the Grand Canyon and Albuquerque, New Mexico, we headed home on another train, the El Caspitan that runs between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Chicago. I met a girl my age on the train. I can’t remember where she lived, but it was a more glamorous place than what I was going home to. So when she asked me where I lived (flat flat Illinois) I said we lived near the “hills and the flats.” (a truly fourth grade answer) But it wasn’t a total lie. Beverly Hills, Chicago, is called “hills” for the following reason:

High bedrock under the retreating glaciers left the most prominent feature in the area, the Blue Island Ridge in South Chicago, a 6-mile-by-1-mile table of land that sits 25 to 50 feet above the adjacent flatland. Residents often identify their community as “Beverly Hills,” a reference to that glacial ridge just west of Longwood Drive, the highest point in Chicago. Wow, the highest point in Chicago …Even as a fourth grader, I knew that was something, and I lived two blocks from that RIDGE, which we called, “the hill.”


But after Illinois, there was Iowa (some hills) and then for the last seven years, California, I could see the bottom of a mountain out my window. But how does one, how does family gravitate to a place?

Again, the Uncle that moved there, his family, my cousins. We kept up the visits, weddings, touring. My brother moved there, and then one of my daughters did; grandchildren were born, and so yes, we did our California time and it was wonderful. I’ve written about California on this blog.

But I’m not alone, some of our most treasured authors have written about California, Joan Didion being one of them. Her works include: Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Play It As It Lays, The White Album, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. The last two volumes are diary-like, Didion trying to come to grips with the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and then the death of her daughter, Quintana Roo.


If you have ever been in California when the Santa Anas blow, then you will feel them blowing in Didion’s passage:  

There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension. What it means is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon and San Gorgonio Passes, blowing up sand storms out along Route 66, drying the hills and the nerves to flash point. For a few days now we will see smoke back in the canyons, and hear sirens in the night. I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I have seen today knows it too. We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever it is in the air. To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.


What did I love about California? Besides being near my grandchildren…sunshine is ever present. It lifts your spirits, though there is something called June gloom, but that is infrequent. The blue sky is full of dry soft winds, now and then a jet stream (at least where I lived). There are pepper trees and jacaranda trees, roses everywhere. Some people say they help hold back the fires.

Because yes, there are fires. (And earthquakes, though in the 7 years we lived there, we had only two experiences: one when my desk kinda rolled; the other hardly felt. But we bolted our TV to the wall, used museum glue behind art hangings. We also had two large emergency canisters in our garage which we never needed.

Wherever people live, they adjust. Joan Didion writes:

Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.      

For instead of “fire and rain”, California has fire and wind–“It never rains in California, but Girl don’t they warn ya…


As Edward Albee wrote: There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California. 

Next Week: Part 2

Weather and How Life is Lived

Pepper trees blowing…

“Let’s start packing now. Last year we weren’t ready, but this year we will be,” my husband said.

We were packing our car with clothing, jewelry, computers and memories. We were packing our car because we live in Southern California, and it was October, and the Santa Ana winds were blowing. In past years, we didn’t think too much about it. In fact, one of the years we lived here some people were saying the drought was over.


The drought is not over. This is global warming. And though there might be snow in our mountains and come January the rainy season might cause the arroyo behind our house to fill with water, so that you can hear it rushing as it seeks Malibu Creek and the Pacific Ocean, it’s not enough. And it sets up a vicious cycle, causing the wild mustard and lupine that spreads through the hills around us—to grow six feet high. It’s gorgeous, but when it dries, and it always does, it’s fuel for a spark that starts and then spreads as the Santa Anas blow and blow.

Joan Didion wrote in Slouching Toward Bethlehem: “Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”


What’s amazing is modern technology. No, it can’t stop the fires, but under the weather icon on our phones, it listed the hours that winds would be blowing—from 4:00pm on Tuesday through noon on Thursday. Blend that with weather predictions of 50 mph winds with gusts up to 70mph and you start to worry. You remember the dried-up lupine and mustard in the hills nearby just waiting to combust. Add the wind prediction and you pack your car.

Tuesday night it blew and blew. Wednesday morning it had settled somewhat, but then around nine we turned on the TV and a fire was raging near the Reagan Library in Simi Valley. The crow has to fly to make a connection to our little community, but what if that crow flew on a 70mph gust. We were packed. We waited. One good thing—we couldn’t smell smoke. The winds were blowing in another direction. I called my nearest neighbors, California natives. One was going to yoga. The other was packing a few things. The winds kept blowing.


Because last year when driving back from a lunch near the LA airport we could see billows of smoke to the north and to the east. I couldn’t forget the words of many neighbors that very evening that fires never came our way. What? Do you believe in some kind of magic? Yes, in Sleeping Beauty the rose bushes grew tall and gnarled and kept everyone away from the castle. But fire can cut through anything. And that night the smell of smoke was strong and the wind was strong and soon phones were ringing and everyone had to GET OUT.

Last year we were not prepared, hurriedly packed, forgot things. Last year we were damn lucky and able within 18 hours to return home. No home in our little community burned, but just a few Chicago blocks away, houses burned and the park and duck pond about a mile away was scorched.

Last year we drove home to see firefighters smashing grasses and hosing down the hills near us. Last year five firetrucks were parked in the grocery parking lot near our home when we ventured out to buy food. Last year, there were banners across the 101 Freeway proclaiming our gratitude and love of our public servants—our firefighters and police, our paramedics and ambulance drivers. Last year people made signs and secured them to fences and house-fronts. THANKS THANKS THANKS.

AND SOMEONE WHO KNOWS NOTHING ALWAYS HAS A SAY… the political fallout. Someone drops in for a few hours and proclaims that we need to RAKE OUR FORESTS. That person didn’t offer any help. 


California is not dead yet. Neither is the rest of our country, though others deal with hurricanes, tornadoes, also drought and don’t forget earthquakes. Oklahoma now has many earthquakes because of fracking. California has earthquakes because it’s California, it grew up on major fault lines. Global warming is affecting everyone. Don’t kid yourself.

And after the fires were controlled, in the LA TIMES, Steve Lopez took up the criticism of nationwide publications calling doom and gloom on this amazing state. He listed what keeps 40 million people here. “The beaches, the mountains, the deserts, the sunsets, the rural, the urban, the red, the blue, the people, the wildlife, the languages, the history, the diversity, the endless curiosities, the energy, the universities, the music, the art, the food, the culture, the climate, the risks that work, the experiments that failed, the long tradition of break-away politics and the collective agreement that you can say or think of us what you will–we don’t really care one way or another-just shelter in place (unless you’re a firefighter) and please don’t move.” 

When Joan Didion wrote about the Santa Anas…”To live with the Santa Anas is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deep mechanistic view of human behavior,” she might have been the foreteller of California truths. As Lynell George writes in the TIMES today: “We come to Didion for dusty palms, pepper trees, eucalyptus, the soft ‘westerlies off the Pacific,’ but also the concrete overpasses, cyclone fencing and deadly oleander. It’s home.” 

Californians as a people love to dream. One of those dreams is that the fires don’t come your way.

Photo: Pepper Trees are Pretty Much My Favorite from PINTEREST