Seeing the beauty in one’s own backyard

I may not be traveling at the moment, but I can certainly learn to appreciate “my own backyard,” so to speak. One of the things I learned while living in another country is that it’s so easy to take your hometown for granted. I live only forty-five minutes away from Los Angeles, one of the most vibrant cities in the world. Yet, having been raised in Southern California, I’ve always just assumed that there was “nothing to do” here. This was especially true when I was a teenager.  By contrast, I have a friend born and raised in Taiwan who is now living here in California. She’s always up to something – camping, river rafting, attending shows and art exhibitions, etc. I used to wonder how she kept herself so busy, and how she managed to find so many cool things to do, even in “boring” Southern California. What a silly girl, I was! Not to mention spoiled. I have now come back from spending a year in London, as well as a month on the East Coast, and it has enabled me to look at my hometown with new eyes. I now realize that there are many things – the rugged landscape, the warm weather, the beaches, the trendy city nightlife, the good food, the glitz and glamour of Hollywood – that make Southern California (or, as the locals would say, “SoCal”) unique and exciting. I think I’m going to take it upon myself to explore what’s in my own backyard. I’m beginning to develop a new appreciation for the place in which I grew up…and in the end, shouldn’t we all do the same?

Speaking of appreciating one’s own city – yesterday I did something that I’ve never done before. I went down to a local church and volunteered to help feed the homeless. It’s extraordinary to me that, despite my hometown’s rank as one of the safest cities in the nation, there is still such a large amount of homeless living here. I suppose I hardly need say that helping those less fortunate than yourself always makes you thankful for what you have. I admit that there are times when I’m too apt to be dissatisfied with my life. After living on my own in another country, especially in such an exciting city as was London, going back home can be kind of depressing. As explained in my last post, I moved back home to live with family after graduating from college in London, and I am now in the process of job searching. People keep telling me how bad the job market is out there. Here I am, a college graduate living with relatives, and apparently I’m entering the job market at a very difficult time. It’s no wonder that I sometimes feel anxious about my life and my situation.

My volunteer work, however, has given me a little more perspective. I arrived at the church in the evening and met with a girl named Liz, the supervisor of the food drive for which I was volunteering. She was a hip, attractive, red-headed young woman sporting an edgy, shoulder-length hair cut. She introduced herself, unloaded the blankets and bags of food from her car, and then led me inside. The room we were in was small and plain. Liz explained to me that it was used every Monday as a soup kitchen and sleeping place for the local homeless, and that we volunteers were there to help set up and prepare for their arrival. We placed mats, blankets and sleeping bags along the perimeter of the room and arranged the food – vegetables, fruit, and pizza – on a small table. It wasn’t long before the homeless began to show up. They arrived one after the other – ashen-faced, carrying all of their belongings in backpacks and satchels. There were men and women alike, most of them middle-aged or older. We served them food and coffee, and did our best to make them feel comfortable. One woman in particular caught my attention. She was tall and thin, with straight, sandy-colored hair and a long, narrow, care-worn face. Despite her somewhat ragged appearance, she didn’t look like the stereotypical vagrant. Had I passed her on the street during the day, I never would have guessed that she was homeless. I’ve often read that the majority of the nation’s homeless are either drug addicts or mentally ill.  This woman was neither. She was completely normal and quite intelligent. She was, in fact, a working-class adult who had hit hard times. When I spoke with her, she explained to me that she was “newly homeless”. She had originally made her living as a cab driver, and this occupation had sustained her for some years. The recession, however, had taken its toll. She explained to me that fewer and fewer people were paying for cabs, and that competition had become too harsh for her to handle. She had lost her job and, no longer able to pay her rent, she had lost her home. During the conversation, she asked me what I did for a living. I told her that I was a college graduate and aspiring writer.

“Oh,” she said, “I’d always wanted to write. Children’s novels, actually.”

“Really?” I said. “That’s great! You should do it!”

“Maybe,” she said. She shrugged her shoulders. “I never really had the time. I’m sure you’d be much better at it than me, though. You’re the one who’s educated.” She smiled.

“But that doesn’t matter,” I insisted. “I’m sure you’d have a lot of cool stories to tell.”

She shrugged her shoulders again. “Nah, that’s alright. You’re a sweet girl, though. Thanks for the food and blankets.”

I didn’t speak to her long enough to learn whether she had any friends or relations to help her. I guess she didn’t, given the circumstances. What a strange coincidence, I thought to myself. We were two people with the same dream, but with vastly different lives. And, if I’m being honest with myself, fate had presented us with vastly different opportunities – dealt us immensely different hands. Hearing her story made me much more grateful to be where I am. What right do I have to complain, really? Through the support of my family, I’ve had the opportunity to attend school and acquire two degrees – something many Americans have been unable to afford. I’ve also lived in another country for an extended period of time. How many people can say that? Right now, I’m living with my uncle and his family in a nice house, situated on top of a hill on a beautiful tree-lined street. It’s quiet and peaceful, especially in the early evenings, when the hazy yellow sun hits the craggy hills behind the house, and all you can hear is the faintest breath of wind. If you climb to the very top of the street, you can look out over the tips of the trees and see a spectacular view of the entire valley below. It’s not a boring place, not at all. My hometown is really quite beautiful, when I stop to look at it. Come to think of it…those are the key words. Stop. Look. Slow down and enjoy what you see around you, even if you’ve seen it a million times. It’s an almost meditative process, really. And in today’s fast-paced, tech-savvy world, I don’t think we slow down enough to appreciate our own lives.

Take the time to re-explore the familiar. Slow down and look with new eyes — with renewed vigor. You may be surprised by what you find.