The eucalyptus tree sentinel still stands there on California Highway 29. It is the most northerly tree in a stand of siblings, notable for a big rounded scar that covers an old wound where a branch was removed.
I don’t know when it was planted, or how old it is. I just know that whenever I am lucky enough to find myself back in the valley, I look for it. Seeing it reassures me that some things are immutable, or at least, longer lasting than some of our lifetimes.
I was recently back there, in that magical valley, where so much emotion, tribulation, victory, elation and defeat were compressed into three short years. It doesn’t matter from which direction I approach the valley, which road I take in, my hands start to shake, my eyes well with tears and I feel my heart ache and jump with exultation at the same time. Every direction heads home.
When I left that valley in 2000, it took me a long time to come to grips with the rest of my life. That may sound strange but when you work with someone who cast such a big shadow in your life, someone who gets into your mind and reworks the way you think, someone who pushes you to discover just how far you can fly, life without that person seems strangely bereft.
It took me over a decade to realize that I was good enough on my own, that I had merit, and that my path was not a mistake, that I hadn’t FAILED. You see, I felt like I failed when I left that restaurant, that I had caved in and just couldn’t measure up.
When I first left that valley, I took a job in a coastal town. My greatest responsibility was to come up with a daily pasta and fish special, and that was as far as I wanted to think. I didn’t have to worry about making sure labels were straight on containers in the walk-in refrigerator, or scour the parking lot for errant cigarette butts or sit in terror of knowing something was out of place but not seeing it until it was pointed out to me by The Daily Big Shadow. I wasn’t getting up at two in the morning with stomach cramps and nausea because I was so worked up about a day that hadn’t even dawned yet. It was a blissful relief to just make sandwiches for tourists, to put up simple fare, to have no expectations put upon me, to not worry about finding my own errors before someone else did. It was a time to decompress, to discover what cooking meant for me in the absence of The Daily Big Shadow.
I struggled, boy did I struggle. I hated telling people where I had worked because all of sudden, their expectations of what I should cook became ridiculous. They wanted multi-course menus with all the nuances of that valley restaurant. But I felt I couldn’t do it. I was just one part of a complex dance, and being a “young “cook, I didn’t feel I had it in my repertoire to achieve such heights.
I also didn’t want my identity to be so tied up in that valley restaurant that all I would do with my future was reproduce a poor imitation of the real thing. I wanted to have my own voice, my own identity. Trouble was, I didn’t even know if I could sing. I wanted to be recognized for my own talents and I didn’t know if I could even carry an aria, much less sing background vocals.
The other part that I hated about people knowing for whom I had worked was their opinions. Everyone had to make some sort of judgment about The Daily Big Shadow, either dissing him or revering him as a culinary god. It was weird, like people had to make TDBS accessible in their minds by judging him. By attaching their assessments to his persona, they were able to grasp him, make him real, and get a handle on the phenomenon that TDBS had become.
Their expectations would translate to me, and I lived in such fear that I could not nor would not ever measure up. Of course I could not. No one can. And we shouldn’t. We should measure ourselves against ourselves. Common sense, but I wasn’t listening. I began to doubt my ability to cook at all.
I expressed those doubts by being demanding, by shouting, by pushing and by sheer arrogance. I walked around with a huge chip on my shoulder, justifying it by telling myself it made me taller. In reality, it was weighing me down. I carried that chip, which grew to a stump, which became a log, which evolved into a deep-rooted tree. People along the way tried to help me chop that tree down, for it was blocking the sunshine out of my life. But I was too comfortable hiding in its shadow, too afraid to be blinded by the pure sun to raise that ax myself.
It took a major heartbreak and several years of solitude to find the ax handle was in my grasp all along. I flung myself into foreign countries, hoping to escape in the clamor of new cities ,wanting the unfamiliar din to drown out the familiar prickly whisper telling me that my efforts were futile, that I needed to start looking within.
There’s nothing like loneliness to make one look inward, and those four years abroad were some of the loneliest ones in my adult days. I had to come to the end of myself to find the start of myself.
Since that time, I’ve learned to be comfortable in my own skin, to trust myself and to understand that the most important lesson I learned in that sunny California valley was more about self-confidence and respect than about cooking.
I am in a much happier place now. I realize that the disapproval I felt was not TDBS’s but mine. I know now that we each make our own road. Some roads are elegant boulevards, some of dusty country highways and some are rough trails in a forest. Some are just brief impressions in sand, gone by the morning. And that’s just the way it should be. That deep-rooted tree has turned into a solid plank of principles and philosophies that guide me. I stand taller because there is not a chip to weigh me down.
I am humbled that I had the chance to work in that magical valley, that I was given that chance to be a part of something so special. I also accept now that I earned my right to be there, that I was not a charity case and that my work counted for something. To admit that to myself was huge milestone for me. TDBS put much into my success, but only because I did.
I am glad the eucalyptus tree still stands guard as an anchor for the many souls that flit in and out of that valley. It is a visible reminder of the solid roots we developed so we could fly away and bloom. I hope it will be there to greet me, and you, for many years to come.
Look for it the next time you are rolling down California Highway 29, and shout out a hello to it for me. And then whisper a thank you.