I grew up in Whittier in the house my great grandfather built. On hot summer nights when the windows slept wide open you could hear the rumble of traffic from the boulevard to the south and the howl of coyotes in the foothills to the north. The stench of skunk often drowned it all out.
On clear days you could see the L.A. skyline west. The jagged silhouette of skyscrapers like a geometric mountain ridge, majestic even through the vellum of smoggy distance. Coming down the big Colima hill you could spy all the way to the salty shores of Catalina Island. There was no such view from Ocean View Elementary where I attended grade school. But squawking seagulls circled overhead, searching for a discarded crust, tempting to drop white goopey bombs on unsuspecting heads while we ate peanut butter sandwiches out of brown paper bags.
It still took an hour of 605 traffic or stop and go lights on Beach Boulevard before we could sink our toes into the hot gritty sand of Huntington Beach. My best friend’s brother surfed. Emily and I pretended we might like to try; instead we turned our hair brassy orange with endless squirts of Sun-In and baked our bodies on bright colored beach towels—golden brown for Emily, splotchy pink for me. Nothing beat evening bonfires eating smoky hot dogs and gooey s’mores, kissing junior high boys in the shadows of vacant lifeguard towers.
Growing up in Whittier made me a California girl, an L.A. girl, and a Mayberry girl all at once, but really not at all. It was small-town living in one of Los Angeles County’s most sprawling outer suburbs. I never talked like a valley girl, shopped Rodeo drive, or ran into movie stars, but going to Ralphs on a Sunday afternoon to grocery shop for my single mom meant undoubtedly running into familiar teachers or preachers or Mrs. G.—the welcoming arms of my second family.
After high school I planned to escape the southern smog and echoes of divorce for northern green Ivy League dreams of Palo Alto. When a thin envelope came back from Stanford, my valedictorian striving for life in the spotlight dimmed dark. I accepted a full ride to California State University Long Beach—another city within the wide L.A. County embrace I had only been to once in my 16 years of Angeleno living.
Long Beach Sate, CSULB, The Beach—the number of nicknames matched the university’s mixed-up identity. The massive blue pyramid stood tall on one corner of campus, the delicately tended Japanese gardens tucked away in leafy shade across the asphalt parking lot, and Prospector Pete was the official school mascot as 49ers—an ode to California’s gold rush days. Hard to imagine this concrete jungle once flowing rich with untouched rivers. Like my fellow collegians, I guess mining is what I was there to do. Digging for my worth. Pining hard for my purpose. Hoping to strike it rich with life’s direction, connections, value. Unearth confirmation for the thing I’m made to do.
Long Beach changed everything.
L.A. sand and surf were closer than ever now, but a trip to 2nd Street for incredible crepes—sweet with strawberries and Nutella, or savory with cheesy chicken and artichoke hearts—usually trumped trekking to the beach. Twice my roommates convinced me to go salsa dancing in downtown where swank and poverty rubbed shoulders on dark corners. Heels and rhythm and sweaty strangers weren’t really my thing; watching Friends in my pajamas was. But when I wasn’t studying, most of my free time was spent in the fluorescent-lit rec room of the small YMCA through the public park behind my dorm. I didn’t go there for Yoga or Pilates. I went for praise and worship, to listen to the Word in a whole new way.
I graduated summa cum laude in three and a half years but more than nuggets of knowledge I discovered the gold of spiritual growth. I learned that the Quaker town and my parent’s divorce and the good girl image with the matching perfect grades and the deflated dream of prestige had nothing to do with who I really was or who I could grow to be.
I had accepted Jesus as my Savior as a freckle-nosed five-year-old in the upstairs bathroom of my historic Whittier home—counting vinyl tiles and reciting John 3:16. I prayed right there on the porcelain throne. Even at five I had a sense that asking Jesus into my heart meant all the crap I did or would yet do got to be flushed away. So I flushed. And washed my hands and went downstairs to tell my mom that Jesus lived in me.
In Long Beach Jesus took that early prayer and re-answered it. Gone were the flannel graphs and pat answers and living-right-in-the-eyes-of-others rules and lonely shame. Instead there was a musty YMCA with a bunch of bright-eyed, world-worn college students, and Jesus showed up as the Way, the Truth, and the Life I craved.
L.A. made me. Jesus undid me.