At home, now a stranger among the familiar

Tucked away in a box of childhood mementos saved by proud and sentimental parents, presently a home for arachnids in a storage unit in Larkspur-Wikiup, rests a yellowed and brittle evaluation report from the Presbyterian preschool located at Pacific and McDonald in Santa Rosa, circa 1974.

Of its 4-year-old pupil, the report says: "Christian does not like the new. He prefers the familiar."

I write this 35 years later, on what seems like a strange and circuitous journey from point A to point A, in an apartment building just a block away from where that astute character assessment was made. After a decade in San Francisco and Los Angeles, I've returned to Santa Rosa only to find myself a stranger among the familiar.

It is the nature of talent to seek out the environment best suited for its cultivation, and that environment is typically urban. Like other writers and actors, doctors and lawyers I know, we left Sonoma County in our twenties for places like New York and L.A., only to return in our thirties full of conflicting emotions.

Sonoma County represents security, but does coming back to it burnt-out and disillusioned also represent failure? Is Sonoma County where dreams go to die?

For many of us, it's simply where new dreams are born. "I came back here to find real life," one friend told me. What did he mean by "real life?" A wife and kids. Another wanted to "thrive instead of just survive," to feel needed by someone or some place, not just another replaceable spoke in a wheel. All were changed by life in the big city, to the point of feeling at least partly a stranger in their own hometown, yet none had found what they were looking for.

While longtime locals see only the changes in Santa Rosa, those who've recently come back see how it's really just the same home town, and it's we who have changed. Our challenge is to see Sonoma County through fresh eyes, to appreciate what before we took for granted, to not compare our lives here to what our lives were like somewhere else.

That's not always easy when you've been spoiled by cultural amenities like all-you-can drink designer vodka-sponsored events and avant-garde chamber music on a Tuesday. A friend who's just returned from 16 years in New York went to her first Santa Rosa job interview. It took two and a half hours in what she said would've taken 20 minutes in get-to-the-point Manhattan. "If you're going to take that much of my time," she said, "you'd better buy me lunch."

But as soon as you turn up your nose at SoCo's provincial ways, something unexpected happens. The summer breeze fills your nostrils, carrying some magical blend of pollen, and buried recollections come bursting to the surface, like a geyser impacted for a decade, reminding you of a day that reminds you of another day that reminds you of another.

Damn, it's beautiful here.

Life is one of those waist-high shrubbery mazes in which you can see where you're supposed to go but not how to get there. At some point you find yourself in the same spot you were before, but while the maze is the same, you're not.

I've still got a big city or two left in me. But for now, it's good to be home where it's both familiar and foreign, like an old song in a new voice:

You can go to the east

Go to the west

But someday you'll come

Weary at heart

Back where you started from

Christian Chensvold is a writer who graduated from Santa Rosa High School, where he once got an F in English. He holds equal admiration for redwood trees and skyscrapers. He can be reached at

Christian Chensvold,

a writer, grew up

in Santa Rosa

and lived in

San Francisco

and Los Angeles

for 10 years.

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