The phrase “the Napa Valley” holds a kind of magic. I first learned this when I moved to Italy in 1985 at age 19. I had been hired to work on a small farm near Parma as ditch-digger /stall-mucker in the mornings and kitchen help in the afternoons. When I mentioned where I came from to my new boss — a grizzled farmer with leathery hands and curious, twinkling eyes — broke out into a friendly grin that appeared full of interest, intrigue and familiarity.
Later I would come to understand that he wasn’t the only one who had a visceral reaction to those three small words. They often conjure up a romanticized appreciation for country living, a reverence for good food and wine, and a belief that a tiny rural enclave can represent some of the best America has to offer.
I grew up in the valley and always found comfort in being nestled between two nearly pristine mountain ranges, surrounded by gnarled old vineyards and mesmerized by the recurring patterns of living in an agricultural community — the distinct light, sights, sounds and aromas of spring, summer, fall and winter.
Later in life, as I studied, moved, traveled, worked and explored the world, I came to rely on my origins as a sort of shorthand to help signify a collection of shifting ideals to nearly anyone I’d meet. Sometimes my intentions at such moments were to signal my love of wine, food and the beauty of agriculture. However, as I aged and grew more entrenched in the world of business my use of the magic phrase shifted, and I often used it as a stand-in for petty competition, sussing out who might have come from the “better” place.
I had unconsciously started to use the Napa Valley as a means to “equal” those whom I thought might be smarter, wealthier or “higher class,” or provide me leverage with those whom I deemed coming from a lesser place. It was an awful transition. Not only had I forsaken the place where I’d grown up as a means of separation and superficial smugness, I’d also started to lose my memory of why I had loved the valley in the first place. My memories of peaceful vineyard strolls in the evenings or the sweet sound of a lone goose honking mournfully on frosty spring mornings faded.
In contrast, my wife had also grown up in the Napa Valley, but I’d never heard her use where she came from as leverage. She rarely mentioned growing up on a vineyard in the tiny village of Rutherford, only sharing such information with those she’d come to know deeply, perhaps months or years after their first meeting.
At first I didn’t recognize this difference between us, but as time went on I grew increasingly aware. Eventually I came to realize that I had transformed the one thing I had loved longer and more deeply than nearly anything else in my life — the Napa Valley — into a trivial and often transparent way to shield my insecurities. It had become inseparable from my ever-changing definition of the meaning of my life.
When I was a child I believed my meaning came from being “good.” I would thrill when my parents praised me or anyone older than 50 called me a “good boy.” Their praise seemed heaven-sent, and the Napa Valley symbolized that idealized place.
By the time I was a teenager my meaning became linked to whether I was accepted by my peers and I spent a lot of time and effort — sometimes at great harm to my future self — achieving that goal. The Napa Valley, with all its wealth and pockets of growing opulence, provided an entity against which to rally, solidifying the connection with my peers. We sensed that unfairness and racial injustice were the very scaffolding that had produced and maintained the valley, and we came to mistrust and see as corrupt any who accepted or benefited from the status quo.
In my 20s my view of meaning shifted to whether I was respected, and I’d lash out when I felt even a modest or unintentional slight. At that time I used the Napa Valley as both my punching bag and my security blanket.
By my 30s meaning had shifted into whether I was being appreciated for all the work and sacrifices I’d done for others. I often imagined myself a sort of martyr, forgoing my own desires for the greater good of my family and friends — albeit a little grudgingly — and always keeping a kind of score card or tally sheet in my mind. During this time I began to feel the first twinges of defensiveness about the Napa Valley. The area was being under-appreciated and exploited by selfish individuals who had come to see it as the goose that laid golden eggs. They thought that if they just squeezed a bit harder or force-fed the animal a bit more they could get more and more, even if the process killed the fowl for anyone else in the future.
In my 40s meaning shifted again and centered around whether I was being heard. A growing helplessness haunted me and was echoed by what I saw as a growing disregard for the valley’s natural resources, an oversupply of mono-agriculture businesses, the growing plight of working people and a deliberate deafness and active opposition to any voice that might dare to provide another perspective.
Now in my 50s meaning seems to have shifted again, and it seems to me for the better. No longer does my purpose seem tightly linked to something from the outside — being good, accepted, respected, appreciated or heard. Instead, I now see meaning being merged with my own ability to listen deeply — to hear and see what is going on, both inside and outside. This change is altering how I interact with the world as well as how I view the valley and even myself.
When I listen and observe closely I often come away with a host of questions, a curiosity coupled with an unfamiliar sense of peace. In this experience, the Napa Valley has taken on another role in my life. I no longer want much from this beautiful spot on the planet, unless you count my pleasure at documenting through photos and words what I am witnessing.
Or, as Kahlil Gibran wrote in one stanza of his wonderful poem, “On Love”:
But if in your fear you would seek only / love’s peace and love’s pleasure, / Then it is better for you that you cover / your nakedness and pass out of love’s / threshing-floor, / Into the seasonless / world where you / shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, / and weep, but not all of your tears.
I’ve come to believe that such knowledge was the origin of the sparkle in my Italian boss’s eyes and also a factor in my wife’s reluctance to immediately share where she comes from with strangers. Maybe her pause is because she treasures and reveres this small valley in a manner I am only just now coming to understand. It’s not a grasping, wringing and selfish love but instead a quiet, gentle and patient love, open to observation as an honest witness yet not seeking much in return.