Helena Woods San Diego Cityscape Coronado Landscape California

Have you seen that film Lady Bird? That one starring the dazzling and refreshing Saoirse Ronan? Well, I was that girl when I was 17. While there are major differences between the character, Lady Bird, and me, I felt so much of what she was feeling when she was living in California as a teenager.

Growing up I absolutely loathed my hometown of San Diego. I know, right?


Who the hell doesn’t love San Diego?

At the time, I did.

I craved snow, frigid temperatures and Autumn leaves.  I hated that everyone surfed and that skateboarders would loudly cruise past my house everyday. I felt alone in my isolation – I never met anyone who matched my intense drive, ambition or determination to leave home and do something great. (note: I was young. Naive. Please forgive the child.) I hated that there weren’t lush green forests everywhere I looked, and the constant brown dirt and desert-vibes always got to me. And I never believed that I could chase my dreams living in my hometown. I dreamed of escaping my home life, and I prayed and longingly wrote in my journal every night that I would someday, by a chance of a miracle, that I would save enough money to afford that one-way ticket. I worked in the theatre and performed as princesses at children’s birthday parties on the weekends. Every dollar went into the bank. Soon, scholarships rolled in, and my dream was being realized – I was moving to the East Coast. For the next 5 years, I avoided San Diego at all costs. Except for a college Christmas break and my dad’s funeral, I never visited.

But now, at 24 years of age, my oh my have I changed since then. That seems to happen when you grow up, right? It’s been 6 years since I packed my two suitcases and left home. The journey has been long, the adventures and experiences have been vivid and wild. But when people ask me where home is, I always respond: “San Diego.”

I’ve seen so much of this world. But nothing truly compares to my old town. I realized I took many things for granted while living there, and the small beach town of O’side that I spent my long days taught me lessons that no place I’ve traveled to has been able to teach me.

Here are the 9 things I learned the most growing up in the heart of San Diego, California.

Where the livin’ truly is easy.

Car Payments Are Not Worth it

I grew up in a poor household. My single mom and I lived a very humble life, and the vast majority of the monthly earnings went to one thing: the car. From car payments to car insurance, the flat in the tire and annual checkup, the bills were constant. They literally never stopped coming in! I grew up chipping for gas to my theatre rehearsals and always needing to carpool because refilling the tank was so expensive for my mom. And I realized as a young kid that having a car, for me personally, didn’t align with my values, and spending all of my earnings on a cool ride was so not worth it. I’d rather spend that extra chunk of change of an extra vacation…..or 5. 

Treasure the Tacos

If there is one thing I miss most, besides my loved ones back home, it is for sure the tacos! Not to mention the guac! I’ve traveled extensively and lived in New York City, D.C., and France and the Mexican food everywhere else has got NOTHIN’ on good ol’ San Diego. I miss the little Alberto’s around the corner from my house where I would stop in and pick up my daily burrito – salsa, sour cream and extra guac always. You never realize what you have….til it’s gone.

Make the Most of the Situation

I spent hours stuck in traffic growing up. Whether it was an hour’s trek to an audition in Los Angeles (brutal) or a quick drive to the local beach town nearby where it ended up taking an hour to get off at the 3rd exit, I would have to say that most of my childhood was siting in traffic in a car. But when life gives you lemons…you make the most of it! Instead of wining or complaining like I might have a teenager, these days I would use that precious time intentionally. I would practice the invaluable art of patience. I’d enjoy listening to my favorite Avril Lavigne CD (are CDs still a thing these days?), an informative and educational podcast or practice some mindfulness. There is nothing a good 20 minutes of breathing and meditation can’t do for one’s health and spirit! Looking back, I’d find the good. I’d find the time. And I’d find a happy, more present place.

Sun Really Does Make People Happier

The sun truly is a beautiful gift. Feeling those rays and that warmth everyday was a treasure I definitely took for granted. Although I would never trade my cold winter months (I love frigid temps – ya I know, I’m crazy!), those golden glows can do much for one’s health and mind.

If You’re Homeless, Move to San Diego

Adding onto the above point, if one happened to become homeless, move to San Diegoooo! There are so many homeless people living in California, and I can understand why! If I were homeless (knocks on wood), I’d move to Swami’s Beach in a hot minute! Which brings us to the next point….

Community is Everything

There is this sense of community in San Diego that I will always appreciate. Sure, it can look isolating with everyone being inside cramped cars all day, but they are out there. The theatre scene is huge back in Southern California, especially San Diego, and when I look back on my days growing up in the theatre community, I always think of the people. I think of the friends I made, the people that inspired me, the ones that shed light and truth.  I think of the creative artists that are thriving in California – not just in a material way, but in this joyful, spiritual way. ( I’m telling ya, the sun is powerful. ) There is a true community of loving artists back home, and I miss their spirits.

You Are Not Alone

San Diego has it all: spiritual artists, musicians, surfers, Shakespearean actors, fitness coaches – that city has a piece of everything. And growing up, San Diego brought me community to myself and so many others, that it taught me the lesson that one is never alone. We, as humans, were not meant to do this life alone. From the Unity church community I grew up in, the friends I crossed paths with backstage and in rehearsals, my old friends in drama club, the neighbors I used to ask for a cup of sugar from, those people were what made that time in my life joyful. For relationships and community is what makes us come alive.


Make Time for the Sunset

These days when I visit San Diego again, which although are few but I’m workin’ on it, I make it my intention to experience the sunset every night. I’m lucky I grew up in Oceanside, a few blocks from the beach, and I never truly embraced those colorful planetary changes when I was a teenager. But when I come back now, I’m there – sitting barefoot, along the white sandy shores, quietly reflecting and watching the sun slowly dip down, sometimes catching that hint of a green flicker before the sun leaves for another night. I watch the hues magically transition to a glowing orange and then bleed into the various shades of purple. It is in these moments that I feel peace, that I feel presence, that I feel love. And I can only wish for anyone and everyone that visits or lives in San Diego now, to go make time for the sunset. 

Take it Easy, Bruh

Alas, the most important lesson I learned growing up in San Diego: I would take a hint from the surfers and skaters in my beach town and take it easy. Looking back, if I were in San Diego as a teenager, I’d take more time to listen. To be idle, to spend more time talking with my family, for afternoons of long, dreamy walks and time spent in a state of being, rather than a state of doing. A state of always hustling and running around, trying to fit all my passions in each day. I’d take some time to listen and truly appreciate what that beautiful town has to offer those who are lucky to call it home. For “a wild person with a calm mind can create anything.”

Have YOU ever been to San Diego (or do you live there now)? Do you share similar thoughts on it?

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San Diego: 9 Things I Learned Growing Up in Southern California

September 16, 2018


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I'm Helena! As a creative storyteller, I document magical moments through my lens and my pen. A lover of childhood, fairytales and natural light, I'm inspired to share the light around me. I'm the ultimate Disney nerd, and I'm obsessed with cats and expressing my love for the simple joys of slow, daily life.

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Helena Woods is a destination newborn and family photographer based in France and New England and travels worldwide. She is known for her natural light, modern classic, and emotive photography style.