Written by James Brown
1. I Went to LA
Yesterday I flew back home to Calvert County, Maryland from a short trip to Los Angeles, California.
Calvert County is where I grew up and it’s where my family is from and this is where a lot of us all live. I live here now again, too, after living in Los Angeles for 15 years. LA is where I endeavored to be successful and make a positive mark in the world as a yoga teacher. But what happened to me, going away and coming back home and seeing it all differently, could happen to anybody.
LA is where, in those last years, I lived in a constant state of high-key stress, literally nauseated by the artifice permeating the professional culture that I worked in. As a result of not wanting to give my all to dredging through the increasingly deeper bullshit being ladled to the masses and being called yoga, I sort of stopped working and went broke.
That’s what happens when you stop working. I should have thought that through a bit more perhaps, because it led to an unstable housing situation and then everything fell apart. In the end, my energy became so dispersed and so far from the center, so far from the reason I was doing it, that everything imploded and I collapsed. I am all better now, way better than I was in LA ever, for one reason. It’s because I came home.
Calvert County is a peninsula that was all woods and farmland until a few decades ago, and hasn’t changed a whole lot since then. The first years I spent here were on my uncle’s tobacco farm, where my whole family lived, where everybody worked together and got a lot done. I ate bologna sandwiches and watched my stepfather and cousins and uncle strip and bundle tobacco all day long when it was ready to go to the market. They sat on stools drinking beer and laughing in orange light that came from the open door of a cracked potbelly woodstove in a little room off one of the barns where the tobacco had hung since harvest. Calvert County is country.
There is one highway in Calvert County, Maryland, so everything is either up the road or it’s down the road. Everybody who has been here as long as my family knows each other and they’ve known each other a long time.
This recent trip back to LA, my first time teaching yoga again, was also the first time that I had been away from my family and my new home here post-meltdown. I loved my new place here in the woods near my family before the trip and I knew what it had done for me but I didn’t know how.
Now, having gone and come back, I am starting to get a better understanding of the specific thing that makes this place my place. Having been stable long enough now to have the time to be reflective, and having a longstanding and robust interest in the hows and whys of patterns of actions in my life, I have become very inquisitive lately about the following question:
What specifically exists here, in the place where I was raised, with the support of my family, that, if you don’t mind, healed a wretch like me?
I write this now because I know the answer and I want to tell you what I have come up with. But, first, a little background.
2. A Little Background
To say that I’m interested in energy is an understatement. And most of the things you are interested in, whether you know it or not, are complex patterns of energy. Everything, when you get right down to it, is a collection of different organizations of energy held together in different ways, all interacting with each other, all changing each other all the time. In fact, one way to look at a human life is simply as a series of energy exchanges all interconnected as they play themselves out in this universal matrix.
We have learned enough from quantum physics to know that we don’t know why it all happens, but that mindwarping feats of interconnectivity are happening all the time on that deepest visible level of our physical world, that level that is our common foundation with all other. It is real and, since literally every thing is composed of it, if you look for it, you see it everywhere all the time in everything. All is connected to all. We are always experiencing interconnectivity. It is there.
Now, I don’t want to brag, but I have known this for years and it is kind of ho hum. And a lot of you already know it, too. Old hat. But my recent endeavor to figure out what makes home in a rural place energetically different from living in a big city away from family has revealed something about the world that was heretofore unbeknownst to me, and that is this:
There is a more accessible and useful matrix of supportive power on all levels when the source and the recipient of ones’ energies are nearby.
There is a very different kind of energy exchange here. It is circular. It is self-nourishing. It is locally grown and harvested. For me, a person who lacked grounding in his life of career, travel, and excitement; this is exactly what I needed. This is why I broke down- so I would have to come back here.
As examples of the literal supportive power of proximal energy exchange I will put forth two things: my fireplace and my family. Neither of these things existed in the life I had in LA and they both have a lot to do with why I am better.
3. What I Learned From My Fireplace
I live in a log cabin in Maryland and it is winter time. My place has electric baseboard heaters but they are no match, in any way, for a fireplace in this lofty structure. So my fireplace roars whenever the temperature dips, which is all winter long.
In the first moments after I got home from LA, I sat by my fire because it was cold elsewhere in the cabin. It was the first time I had ever been in my house on a winter day when the temperature inside and outside were exactly the same. So I started a fire right away and I sat there with my dogs on my lap warming up.
Before any single piece of firewood is repurposed for warmth and consumed in my fireplace, it will have been in my hands at least four times. After it’s dumped by a local professional woodsman into my driveway, I throw it, piece by perfectly seasoned piece, onto a concrete paved area under a big roof overhang that extends from my shed. Then I stack it into tall parallel piles, where it will stay dry until I need it. Each day I bring in about four armloads of it through day and night. Then, finally, it goes into the fire when a piece of such a size and shape is needed. It makes my home warm. There, in my little brick fireplace, hard wood strong enough to hold up a whole oak tree is reduced to a teaspoon of delicate gray ash that will make its way to my compost pile, then into the food I grow next summer, then into me. And so on.
The warmth that I need comes from the breakdown of the bonds that hold the wood together. Each tree grew wild locally in forests that have existed, right here, forever. They were propagated and nurtured, without man’s hand or help, in local soils, made rich by hundreds of centuries of trees growing, standing, and dying before these, in the same place. This stuff that burns for me has fueled a million lives before me and, changed as it emerges from my fireplace, will reform and continue to contribute for as long as it’s allowed to.
That is what I think about sometimes as I sit by the fire. Whether I am thinking of it or not, it’s happening.
4. On Being Near Family
When you are near your family, your life is shaped, in part, around and within theirs. I am interacting with my family now because we are geographically close. And I have a big family. Siblings and cousins and aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews strewn all over the place but a lot of them are still right here.
Things are dropped off, rides are given, groceries picked up, holidays happen and games are played. In my time away, I had forgotten about all of this.
One of my four sisters lives two doors down with her family. I see them a lot. She came over a couple of days ago to get two potatoes. In the summer, I would sit with them late into the night at bonfires in front of their huge backyard vegetable garden as they played old songs from their iPhones. When I didn’t have a place to stay they opened their home to me. When my new brother-in-law, who I had only met once before, was asked by my sister, before she asked me to stay, whether I could bring my dogs, he said, “A man’s down on his luck and you want to take his damn dogs away?” The dogs came along with me and we all stayed there until I had a house of my own.
I stopped at another sister’s house upon my return recently from LA to pick up my dogs. They’d stayed with her while I was away. While I was there, I had a couple happy surprises.
First, my brother-in-law had fixed my broken fireplace tongs. Hallay Fucking Lu Ya. They were part of a set and, LA idiot that I have become, I tried to lift a log that was way too heavy and they bent and broke. The replacement pair cost almost as much as a new set and they are really kind of beautiful but I thought they were dead. However, they were fixed and functional. I know I’m not in LA when one of the stops on the way from the airport is to pick up my freshly repaired fireplace tongs, which were welded back to use by my brother in law with the intricacy of a jeweler. And they function still.
The other surprise when I picked up my dogs and tongs was that my Mother sent me, via my sister, some pie crust cutter things for cutting out fancy holes in pie crust. She was returning a pie plate to me, emptied of leftovers from something I made at Christmas. She’d put it in a bag and added another pie plate for me. She knows I like pie. Nobody in LA knew I liked pie.
I like pie and I like bread and anybody that knows me knows it.
I make sourdough bread from a starter that rises from yeast it found in the air in its bowl. Every bit of every bite of bread gets kneaded a thousand times by my hands in my kitchen over and over from the same mother starter that you can’t feed and grow if you aren’t ever home. When I see my family, a lot of times I take some of the bread to them and they give me things and we talk to each other.
I took some to my aunt and uncle on the way to the store the other day and they gave me a jar of the secret to her incredible cooking: a jar of home canned tomato sauce that she made from tomatoes grown by my uncle. They live on the other side of the river, on another peninsula, in the house that my Granddaddy built before I was born and where he lived with Grandma until they died. It’s the house where I and my huge family spent dozens of holidays before I headed west.
I dropped off a couple loaves of frozen sourdough and they sat me down and handed me a glass of Pinot Noir and we started talking about the old times and I was transfixed. I love it here. Some of the best tomatoes I have ever tasted were tasted by me in this house, where my grandfather had special wire-bottomed wood framed boxes for ripening his hundreds and hundreds of tomatoes every summer under a sprawling and bountiful fig tree.
It feels good to be home.
A couple weeks ago, when I was low on food and money to buy it, I sent one text to my sisters and within a few minutes they got together and had a plan. Later that night I didn’t have any more space in my freezer for anything else, and my refrigerator and cabinets were more full than they have ever been, as was my gas tank. Then a couple days later, more bags of groceries, including a turkey, were delivered to me by yet another sister, with a latte. A latte!
5. Why It’s Best to Live in the Country Near Your Family After a Breakdown
Home in the country is powerfully healing. There is greater proximity here to those things to which I connect in any moment. And because it is all here right in front of me, I see it. I see the world as it is here, connected. I would have to be blind to miss it here.
There is a value to closeness that I can only tell you about because I have lived far away for so long. The people who have never left it can’t define it as well as those who have left and come back.
I have made a very good new friend here. He has never left Calvert County and he doesn’t intend to. When I tell him of my wonderment about proximity and interconnectivity- when I talk to him about how perfect this ancient home is and how the firewood and the bonfires make us whole, he looks at me like I’m insane. And if I continue, he puts on headphones. This feels oddly healthy to me as a person who used to have rooms of people listen to him talk about this very kind of thing.
But he didn’t live in LA. Talk about insane. He didn’t live in a place where I had no idea where the power that cooled my home came from, where I hadn’t known anybody for more than ten years, where my groceries came from Amazon Fresh, where I could sit in my apartment for weeks and hide, where I wrecked myself and got lost.
Home is what healed me. I knew that it would but I didn’t know how. What I needed was this: to be in the land of long, lazy turn lanes and people who know each other … where there is really no hurry and where much of what I see and everything I need is here and has been here just like it is now for almost forever.