Now that my shark class is winding down, now that we’ve discussed the threat of overfishing and the horrors of finning, now that we’ve explicated “The Shark” by Mary Oliver and written about how power pivots on the ability to speak, now that we’ve learned about the wondrous diversity of sharks, their hidden traditions (intrauterine cannibalism) and their supernatural senses, I’ve rounded out the semester with readings about the importance of awareness (David Foster Wallace’s brilliant Kenyon Commencement Address) and action (Derrick Jensen’s Loaded Words: Writing as a Combat Discipline).
I am hoping to plant seeds—something that might take root and grow beyond the boundaries of the classroom. Don’t forget about the natural world. Be present. Get out of yourself. Try to be of service.
I thought I had better follow my own advice and go walking in Los Angeles on an afternoon at the end of the year. The light looked almost stormy streaming from robust clouds, random in its distribution of illumination and shadow. I decided to walk toward a less-traveled neighborhood, near the newly converted Kadampa Meditation Center where I went to meditate the other night, remembering once how I’d almost rented an apartment near there in an old Spanish building with a ship for a weathervane, hallways full of antiques, and, the landlord revealed with a degree of pride, a ghost.
It’s so interesting that the same street can live multiple lives in the same city—Palmerston, Alexandria, Kenmore—to walk these streets north of Franklin is a different world than their southern extremities. I paused at the Kadampa Center; the formerly Christian church where the burning thorn pierced heart in the stained glass window has been replaced with a lotus flower, and then headed north on Palmerston. I love to look at architecture in Los Angeles. I love the curving, quiet streets where houses can’t make up their minds, yet the incongruities are somehow awkwardly resolved—the Spanish roof sheltering a porch of Corinthian columns. The green shingled house with the curving storybook path. My head felt like a camera that pans, reveals. All I wanted was to walk deeper into a place I did not know, past rambling brick houses with dark Tudor windows whose solemnity is relieved by the reflection of manicured grass.
Climbing a hill, I noticed Christmas lights emitting a steady, secret glow from a blasé hedge while above, on an overhead branch, a Halloween skeleton floated in the breeze—clearly articulated “life-like” skull, skinny mummy arms, and a body that ended abruptly in streaming burlap rags. The arms were wide and fleshless palms open. I’d seen pictures of Jesus in that same attitude of supplication. This skeleton, streaming like a flag in the sudden breeze, naked skull limned with golden light, appeared to be preaching, perhaps to the rosebushes.
I love California, but my early Northeastern life has structured and nurtured my deepest responses to nature. I find myself always drawn to those houses shrouded in tall, green trees because they remind me of the places (once real now memory) that I am afraid to return to, fearing that great undertow of memory will sweep me out to sea. Today I found one such place. The green trees (tall, tall-evergreen and deciduous) seemed less brooding than expectant. When I peered over the curved iron gate, I noticed a half-hidden house. A modest pale green turret with narrow windows, felt monastic, regal and I flashed on the uneven shards of colored glass on the cover of the St. Patrick’s missalette I left on an empty pew a thousand Christmas Eves ago.
But I couldn’t feel sad. I had no need for remembering when everything felt so generous and alive, the trees rising up from the ground dotted with eyeholes, and the sudden blue and white of a house like a bright postcard from Santorini. I thought: Everything keeps changing shape—the streets curve, the houses assume their forms and postures, the tree roots declare themselves busting through the concrete. The memories of all the places that we can never return to, grow like living things in the body, their roofs push at the ribs, their fields unfold, erasing thought.
I kept waiting for the spell to break. Surely all would dissolve into quotidian reality as the light changed. Yet even as I headed back toward Franklin, past all the apartments and vintage stores turned invisible from being endlessly seen, even as I cursed the errant plastic bag skittering across Vermont Avenue, there by the 7-11, in the rounded nest-shaped bush next to the bus stop, a dozen or more little brown and white birds popped out of the hollows between the branches, all chattering at once, all looking at me. Don’t just survive here, the birds told me sing, sing.