I’m a Sacramentan. Actually, I’m technically not even a Sacramentan, but a Folsomite (Folsomer? Folsomess?), having grown up in a smaller suburb 20 miles northeast of the city proper, known principally for the prison once visited and sung about by Johnny Cash (a fitting representation, if you ask me). Upon hearing the news of Joan Didion’s death, I was surprised to find out such a prolific and well-respected writer had hailed from the very area I had. Admittedly, I had only read a handful of her essays at this point, so I was ignorant to her complicated relationship with Sacramento until I incessantly devoured tributes to the literary legend over the past few weeks. In learning more about her relationship to the city and the state of California as a whole, I was inspired to reflect upon my own relationship with my hometown.
Objectively speaking, Sacramento and Folsom really aren’t that bad. Sacramento is admittedly the type of city I’d like to live in one day – not too crowded, spacious, walkable, lots of trees. Didion herself wrote of Sacramento’s virtues, describing childhood memories of floating down the American River. To Didion, Sacramento represented classic Americana, “old California” before it gained its reputation as a land of vapid, self-centered socialites and ditzy, drugged-out hippies, and long before its current reputation as a state filled with deluded, ignorant city folk arrogantly claiming to care oh-so-much about the plights of the less fortunate as they callously step over the body of a sleeping homeless man on the front porch of a multi-million dollar condo. As Didion famously said of the city, “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento,” hinting at the quaint charm the city exudes. The innocence of Didion’s Sacramento, represents the comfort the city offers to its inhabitants as if swaddled by the serenity, familiarity, and humbleness of it all.
When I return to the city proper from San Francisco or LA, I am pleasantly surprised by how quiet it is, how wide the streets are, the crisp air, and the trees spilling leaves onto the sidewalk. Folsom, while certainly more boring than the actual urban area, is safe, pleasantly still, and has above average public schools (at least it did before the pandemic…), making it a top choice for many people raising families. The promise of both the benefits of the city and a more peaceful life is what has driven many ex-Silicon Valley residents to the Sacramento area, particularly over the last two years.
However, I can’t help but feel a sense of existential dread upon each hometown return. My experience of the city is tainted, biased by the underlying fear I have of settling for a life I do not want: a life where I am trapped in a feckless existence, falling into a loveless marriage after settling for someone “just good enough,” stumbling into a mindless and uninspiring daily routine, and completely let myself – gym habits, ambitions, dreams, and all – go as I slowly gorge myself to death on Gunther’s Ice Cream. And this is wholly unfair to the current residents of the Sacramento area, but the utter banality of the suburban sprawl evokes images of my personal hell – being stuck within the same 5-mile radius of my hometown, leading a mediocre and overall unremarkable life that fills me with regret for never having ventured out beyond I always knew.
Undoubtedly, my own internal anxieties and complex relationship with my childhood have contributed to my mixed feelings about the city, of “growing out of it” once I myself grew up. Maybe the sense of growing out of Sacramento comes with having desperate aspirations. Maybe Didion, like myself, hoped to etch her marking on the world in order to assign meaning to her life, to fill a longing desire for contentment, peace, and self-assuredness. After all, if you can do something meaningful in the world, doesn’t that make you yourself meaningful? But maybe that iteration of “more” isn’t necessarily better. I’d imagine many residents of Sacramento are actually perfectly content with their quiet lives of anonymity, and look to those striving for whatever “more” they desire with a sense of pity. How sad that they can’t just be content. What are they trying to prove?
In relation to my fear of leading a boring life I do not want, the “nice idea” is just the opposite side of the coin. Although I still thoroughly dread my time in Folsom, I do find my excursions to the Golden State’s capital, however infrequent, to offer a sense of calmness. This is what your life could be like – a nice husband, a warm home, no pressure to perform. It presents a nice idea, an alternative to the bustling and often stressful urban life experienced in LA and San Francisco. Sure, I could live a nice, unassuming life in a sleepy city where the legacy of my childhood looms over me, but that may also mean feeling restless, listless, stagnant. The very quietness and simpleness that is attractive about Sacramento is also something that averses me. In my eyes, Sacramento (and to a similar extent, Folsom) fancies itself a modicum of change, a great jewel to represent the prowess of California on the world stage, when in reality, Sacramento seems more like the youngest sister trying to live up to the spotless reputation of the more renowned and beloved San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Sacramento is decidedly mediocre by comparison, vying to keep up with the repertoire of an otherwise effortlessly sparkling state filled with mighty redwoods, breathtaking ocean views, snow capped mountains, and arid desert landscapes.
At the same time, the alternative of working so hard to “achieve more,” only to find myself lonely empty inside, longing for real meaning, also scares me. Just as I fear settling in a boring life, I fear getting so caught up in hustling and clawing my way to becoming an uber-independent Big Corporate Girl Boss, the very mascot of feminism, only to wake up in a cold penthouse apartment at age 45, unmarried with no children and a sense that my life has no true meaning.
And cue the internal existential crisis.
I suppose anyone’s hometown could elicit such internal strife, particularly for those, like myself, who felt they had “escaped,” yet are still trying to find a true home for themselves in adulthood. I don’t want to speak for Didion, but I imagine her complex affection for the city as similar to my own. It’s like the crush you had in middle school who you were absolutely sure you were desperately in love with, before you find out what love actually is. And while the idea of going back to the one you infatuated at 13 may seem like an intriguing proposition, the reality is never as good as the daydream. The same can be said for reaching either of the dual realities I hold in my head; just as a life of quietude could spur feelings of being utterly stuck, actually achieving “more,” getting a Big City Girl Job of Notoriety and Making Big Bucks can also produce feelings of emptiness.
It’s as though whichever dual reality manifests itself in my life, I will always be longing for the other. For once you’ve achieved that “more,” what else is left? And if you’ve “settled down” per se, won’t you always be wondering what it would have been like to have achieved “more”? I’ve often heard actor Dax Shepherd discuss on his podcast Armchair Expert that he felt completely miserable after achieving his version of “more,” as he realized that the external pleasure of achieving his life’s goal didn’t actually quiet his inner demons. That’s what makes all this so complicated. The image of a pleasantly mediocre life in Sacramento that I hold in my mind has its own appeal, but so does the promise of and desire for “more,” that far off and fuzzy destination.
I don’t blame Sacramento; I likely would have had these anxieties if I had grown up in another city or state (as I wrote this, I considered how I so viscerally relate to the line in Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin” that says, “It’s a long day living in Reseda.”). But the city itself just so perfectly encapsulates the two paths I fear for myself: escaping the hometown to become a Big City Girl Boss, only to find myself burnt out and lonely, or settling for what I think is a quieter life, only to be filled with regret and live in quiet desperation. The duality and complexity of my relationship to Sacramento is perhaps just a sign of the times for me as a 23 year old who really doesn’t know where she’s going in life, despite appearing to be successful by most measures (essentially having “achieved more” in the way I envisioned when I was 15). I graduated from UCLA, I have a great job, I’m able to support myself in a big city; but even still, I continually worry about where I am going, terrified of both paths I’ve laid out here. Maybe there’s a third, more balanced path that is perfect for me.
I suppose only time will tell.