Maybe it was just something about being out west – but the first time I visited California I loved it right away. That was the year after I had graduated from high school. I had worked all summer in London painting houses, then in the fall, when all my friends were heading to college, I hitch-hiked through Europe – France, Italy, Germany, Greece – before winding up broke, alone, and depressed in Tunisia. I finagled a plane ticket back to London, where I worked for the winter washing dishes and prepping food in a Tony Roma’s restaurant. As soon as I had enough money I bought an air pass on TWA that gave me eight flights in the US for about a hundred bucks. A screaming deal. My plan was to fly around, see my friends, and stay with them in their college dorms.
So my destination was friends at UC Berkley when I first touched down in the Golden State. There was a great energy I felt right away – a positive, sunny mood – so in contrast with my years in England, and even the weeks recently spent on the East Coast. I wanted more. Eventually I ended up living and working in the Bay Area. My brother and sister also moved out there – my sister briefly but my brother stayed. He still lives there with my sister-in-law and their two little girls – my much missed nieces. Over the years I’ve been back many times. So it’s hardly surprising that for a family destination, to meet and celebrate my turning fifty, San Francisco was the logical choice.
My sister flew in from Australia, bringing my other much missed nieces back to me. My mom and step-dad came from Florida, my dad and step-mom from Michigan, and our son Sam joined us for his Spring Break from the U of I. So it was a family reunion, for me.
Sam has also grown fond of the Bay Area from our many visits. He likes to walk around and explore San Francisco – which is funny to me, because that’s what I used to, when I was young and first lived there, many years ago. Walking with him brings back memories of epic long wanderings through the streets and parks of the city – often at night, and even, sometimes, when the party was over, walking till after the sun rose and I was too tired to care about it all anymore. It’s so nice that Sam is still willing to let me come along on his explorations. It’s so much better than those nights, when I didn’t know Jesus, and I walked the city alone.
Over the years I’ve seen California change a lot. I was eighteen back then – when I first was there and thought the sky so brilliant blue and clear. It was a long road to fifty. In between, and early on, it seemed like heavy clouds rolled in and camped out. Everyone got so angry – hardened. But this year it seemed different to me. The sky brightened a bit – and there was more a sense of peace and contentment. Of course, I have to wonder how much of that was California changing, and how much of that was me. A part of both perhaps, as it often is.
There was something special about turning fifty. It was harder than I thought, but after I worked through the idea that my body was on a permanent downhill spiral, there was something good and unexpected too.
‘You shall thus consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim a release through the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, and each of you shall return to his own property, and each of you shall return to his family.” Leviticus 25:10
So it’s my Year of Jubilee. And even though I didn’t hear a trumpet, I did return to my family, and even in a land where I once lived (although it wasn’t actually mine). But there was something else. I also experienced an unanticipated sense of freedom, of liberty, and joy. After fifty years, all that I have left is gratitude.