for Pacifica and for La Mirada
I grew up in what is easily one of the most beautiful places on earth. It does not, perhaps, have the grandest of beauties. Nor is it, except at moments, dramatic or startling. Its beauty is sometimes a beauty at which one’s breath is caught, but it is often a beauty in which one can simply be, forgetting it, and being affected by it, sigh. It is an exhaling beauty: a beauty that quietly invites humanity into it.
A generation of Pacificans–in a fit of thrilling philopolicism and marching-band American solidity–once ran about composing hymns to Pacifica, writing poems to Pacifica, making parades for Pacifica, and, in their severely-cut dresses or simple American suits, doing everything they could to put the town on a path toward shining eminence. One artifact of that stampede of optimistic, pragmatic artistry is the city’s official epithet: ‘Scenic Pacifica.’ It appears on all the city’s welcome signs, and, to my experience, on none of its inhabitants’ lips.
The townspeople seem staler now–or maybe just bored. We’ve swelled up from a bite given by that horrible ennui that comes from a sense of tired, generational inevitability. Efforts to improve the beaches or build new hotels seem more like weak attempts at decorum than like natural growth or appropriate self-adornment. As with Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley, our hardworking, insular progressivism has degraded into a weak despair.
But our land is lush. And our ocean air is fresh.
You can see the stars.
Springtime, you can walk on ocean cliffs composed of adobe clay, shale, and granite and covered with gentle pink flowers and yellow-blooming iceplant. When you lie belly-down, you will see the sun set over waves, gold through the petals.
The summer doesn’t beat on us like it does north, south, and east nearby. We do still get the golden grasses on cypress-dotted hills like those places do, but you can see them with a summer sweater on. Not that you need one. Pacifica’s temperateness doesn’t mean coldness; it allows for it. It’s weather for beach biking and for hiking in the back of the valley park.
Fall is the warmest time of the year, sometimes breaking (oh, horror!) into the nineties. Even deciduous trees tend to keep a reserve of green leaves, but you can always find colored ones on the floor. The light is best in the fall, best through downy early-morning fog and on the edge of a eucalyptus grove.
We do have a winter. The joke, inspired by school-time pictures of the seasons obviously drawn by a high-minded lady in Boston, is that we have no seasons, and the three descriptions above are indicative of it; I had, you might say, to stretch to make distinctions. But we do have a winter. The joke is always followed by, “But we do have a winter.” El Niño hits us hard when it cranks up the coast. We can measure the size of our waves by the twenties of feet. Trees fall on roofs. Power lines go down. Cliffs erode, sending the more brazenly-placed houses and roads into the ocean. Frost hardly happens, and snow almost never, but it rains and rains. Rain breaks, however, mean trips to the beach; in El Niño weather, the water is warmer.
And then, again, come the flowers.
Kay Ryan lives just north of us, in Marin County, so if you read a poem insisting on her hills’ anatomy–their flanks, fingers, bosoms, and thighs–you can take her quite seriously. Our body’s forms and parts might just as well have been named after the hills as those hills might have been named after our bodies. What else would you call their graceful, sinewy shapes? Ridges? The words aren’t there for analogy’s sake. They’re there for precision’s.
In the center of the city’s southernmost valley is a hill–to me, the Hill. Really, I suppose, it’s a spur of one of the surrounding minor mounts in the coastal range. Excepting a few first months in the downstairs of a downtown San Francisco house and my last five years in L.A., I’ve lived all my life there: was housed there, schooled there, and churched there. My parents work at the Christian school on the Hill. My family attends the church–a ‘sister ministry’–that meets on campus. We lived and live in one of the houses made for the pastors and teachers. It’s also the house my dad grew up in. My grandparents moved there fifty years ago to be house parents to the boys at the then-boarding school. For one part of my life there, I slept in the room my dad did when he was my age. For the other, I was in his five sisters’. Sometimes he would come in, absent-mindedly, and start taking his shoes off by my bed. I was called ‘Joe,’ his older brother’s (and father’s and youngest son’s) name fairly regularly. I loved it. It didn’t help that, by happenstance, I took to reading voluminous books while eating entire packages of saltines and wandering around the house, just like Joe had. –Can that sort of thing be genetic?
My backyard was acres of eucalyptus. My front yard, a school building built in the California Mission style and a playground. We filled the forest with tree forts and trunk forts and brush forts and ground forts, catching cases of poison oak along the way. We tied sheets around our necks and climbed trees to feel the wind beneath them and strike a heroic pose. We swung out over hillsides on rope swings and from branch to branch on thick cords tied a hundred feet high. We kept goats for a little while, and it’s due to them that my sister learned to love reading. What else was she supposed to do while letting them graze early mornings?
I always knew that it was beautiful there. I always said it was beautiful. I was affected, deeply, by its beauty. But while I lived there, I was picky. Maybe it was because of the airborne ennui, but I rather think it wasn’t. To me then, Pacifica was life on the Hill and the surrounding beauty. I acknowledged that there was a larger human population and political system, but it was muddied, gray, and Below the Hill. It wasn’t until much later that I cared to look into its history–though it was available to me all the time. Looking into history, after all, is a remedialactivity when it isn’t scholarly, and so only interesting to a uniquely few children. We look backward when we’ve lost something.
I was picky. When I took conscious note of my surroundings, it was with discontented recognition of aesthetic imperfections: everything from trash on a pathside to a patch of over-unruly brush. An awkwardly beached jellyfish. Seagull poop before it’s in large enough quantities to coat things. Badly laid asphalt. Unkempt garage façades. I was constantly thinking of how much better things would look if not for this, that, the other. I planted marigolds.
I don’t think I talked about it much. But I thought it. Made note. Counted imperfections.
After I left for college, it seemed absurd. –How could I have? –Now I never will!
I would travel homeward, feeling like Pacifica had laid a line for me, hooked it into the bottom of my left-side lung, and was hauling me–willingly–up north. When I left home, I would leave home, not crying, but with a tight chest.
Inspired by Dante, my sister and I later labeled the drive. Heading north, the Grapevine marked the end of the Inferno. Purgatory lasted through those long, dry, straight sections of Highway 5, where we waited for gas stations and marked half-way at the only In-N-Out for hundreds of miles. Pacheco Pass lifted us, like Beatrice did Dante, into the Bay Area and Paradise, the center of which was Home. We still play Holst’s Jupiter when we finally drive over that last hill and see Pacifica’s ocean for the first time. The piece ends (lights permitting) as we turn into the driveway home.
Those visits were characterized by an almost Inquisitorial affirmation of Pacifica’s beatitude on my part. Negativity was heretical and anathema. What had formerly been repudiated in my search for the ideally beautiful world was now limned with nostalgia. Anything I imagined had been part of my childhood (whether correctly imagined or not) was Good. –Ergo beautiful. I didn’t think or say so, I suppose, but I acted on it with all the vitality of a creedal belief.
And it was good. I broke past a good bit of prudery–of arrogance about my aesthetic opinions–by insisting on seeing the things I had formerly disliked as beautiful. –You just need to look at it properly. That garage: it’s endearing. And when the light hits it at evening, the peeling bits of paint make rather excellent shadows. ‘Glory be to God for dappled things–‘ like bird-spotted streetlights.
But every once in a while something–shunned at first and contemplated later– would happen. I would be driving along an old familiar road, look left, and oh! remember a thought I had at six or seven–a critique of the place’s prettiness. It always caught me off-guard, in my euphoria. It always interrupted my euphoria. It challenged it.
Sometimes I couldn’t shun the memory. I was forced to see, detail-clearly, that I had reacted to the same thing in very different–perhaps opposite–ways. I was asked either to choose between them, or in a surge of systematizing energy, to find a way to affirm them both.
–Let your laughter be turned to mourning. –Let your mourning be turned to joy.
I grew up in what is easily one of the most beautiful places on earth.
My sister and I looked for deer and red-tailed hawks in the forest, up a tree. My father planted roses, cosmos, columbines. My mother collected costumes, and allowed us into the attic. She read to us before bed. Glenn made things, and more things. Dad gave us wagon rides like Calvin and Hobbes’. Grandma played the piano. Grandpa beat me at Scrabble.
Allow an elementary insight: I didn’t pick it, my home, though I loved it and was picky with it. I might as well have been carved out of the adobe on the hill, and baked in the sun to dry. I screamed my way in, like every baby, but, unlike every baby, I did it to a world that is–really is–partway between Eden and the New Jerusalem: beautiful and with good company.
Surely my early-on pickiness was misplaced! Surely–the children in slums, for goodness sake!–I was lacking in gratitude. Pacifica is beautiful! The beautification of beauty: is it inescapably absurd? or classist? or arrogant? at the very least redundant?
Does contentment imply satiation?
I saw things–I did–that could really bear improvement. I saw unadorned highways slashed with utilitarian unconcern through those fleshy hills. I saw uncared-for buildings rotting and uncared-for buildings being built. I saw mass-produced fashion smashed on top of un-mass-produced figures. I saw them, usually, at the same time I saw Pacifica’s gentle, inviting beauties.
I have said that when I took conscious note of my surroundings, early on, it was to critique them. I also said that I loved and was affected by their beauty.
When I left Pacifica, the consciousness of its beauty rushed me. I had too few words for it. It crowded in at my skull. It poked at my chest. Any beauty I saw was compared to it; I carried the consciousness of it everywhere.
I saw–I vividly remember–a swallowtail butterfly on the way from my dormitory to the center of campus. There were purple flowers on the ground next to me when it happened–a variety that grows on the hill. I suddenly realized that I–only I!–had seen it. That it was a completely superfluous sight. That it was for me in as personal way as I could conceive and was simultaneously as unconcerned with me as a dirt clod on another continent. That it was an absurdity. I went to lunch with a friend later, and told him about the swallowtail, about my enthusiasms, and, unable to stop, proceeded to talk about Pacifica for more than an hour. I had my computer with me. I showed him pictures. Beautiful pictures.
The early consciousnesses, the early critiques: were they of nothing? of something? –Of something, surely, Socrates. I had a desire, a deep desire, for a perfectly beautiful world, and the things of which I was conscious showed me what I lacked or that I lacked. And the later state–my swallowtail mind–was made by lack, too: I left Pacifica, so I loved Pacifica. My mind’s first Pacifica, I found, had certainly been too small. But my then-time inability to account for myself, younger, meant that my new one wasn’t very big either.
I want to stretch out my mind, to match the world. I want my consciousness to form, ocean-like, to fit the shape of reality. I want to lap its beaches and agitate in its reefs. To drag it, pebble by pebble, rolling, into myself. To push against it and slap against it with a pressure heavy enough to, sometimes, shape it. I want my mind’s darkest parts to be dark because they dive to touch it at its lowest points. I want to mourn and laugh. To love and critique. To cherish and release.
To be content and to be unsatisfied.
God put Adam in perfection. Thumbed his features out of dirt and breathed.
–Adam, he said, –stick your thumbs in this dirt. –Adam, he said, –Name.
—Let us make man in our image. —Fill thou the earth.
God thrusts fingers into our chests, impressing, leaving our chests furrowed. —Be holy, for I am holy. —Subdue the earth. He pointed to perfection when he said that. When he said, —Subdue. Subdue perfection. Fill perfection. And with what?
It’s odd now: having home in two places, and seeing the one in which I belong and which I love more–seeing it less. It’s odd now. It’s enough to make me want to thrust out the thought of here, the place in which I’m typing. Or the thought, sometimes, of there, I suppose. To thrust out. To choose the vision instead of the view. I won’t.
My father, in Pacifica, loves hammocks and my mom loves birds, so there’s a hammock in our yard close to the suet where I can lie and read. Dad’ll come out with a pillow and with talk. He’ll give me both of them. Joey and I will trade back rubs. Mom will try to get me to read novels written in England between the World Wars. We’ll trade ideas about teaching and thinking. We’ll take walks and photos. We’ll talk in nowhere-on-earth accents. Make references no one else knows, nor wants to.
The side of the house–next to where the cars are parked–it needs some new plants in.