Friday, March 23, 2018

The Spring

March 19th

Just a few days ago we were floating in a hot spring, rusty, opaque, iron-rich, tasting of blood, flowing from deep in the earth. I felt buoyant, safe. I carried Ash, the baby in the womb between us. We, its parents, curled around it, felt we were in turn held in a kind of womb, the warm water sanguine and close, an echo of when we were yet to be born. In this place where my ancestors were born and were parents and died.

For humanity to exist there has been our unbroken chain of life, the blending of sex, sperm and egg, the child growing in the living mother. In our culture we think of each person as separate and distinct, but there is this unbreakable link between us and the life we grew from, what created us, and the future, the life we create. Jeffers’ ever-returning waves of grass, equaling the life of a mountain. One conscious note in the sweep of the perdurable. What John Berger calls the dead, not absent but surrounding everything we do, our most basic context.

So on that small wild island, outcrop of volcanic rock thrusting out of the Atlantic, I felt both foreign and native. The land I have grown from, that made me, by food, air, scent and sight, is the California coast, and in my blood, my genes, this wave of life through time that is my ancestry, is this volcanic soil, this ocean wind, these island forests thick with bird song. The blood of beef cattle, the thick pasture grass.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

As We Pass

March 13th

Even here there is the frenetic scurry of rush hour, everyone moving somewhere else all at once. We are in the only metropolis of these islands, if it can even be called that, a small city of only sixty thousand at its greater borders. Anywhere else, a quaint little community. Here the center of all commerce, tourism, government. The greatest concentration of people, and beyond that, of people with greater wealth and power. So this ambivalent business, a city of two minds, both urban and rural, hundreds of miles distant from the mainland on a rugged island, and also the central point of human exchange.

The entire island seems to feel this ambivalence, one foot in the place of the peasant, one in the urban. Internet and smart phones pervade, much food and clothing and other necessities are imported, to say nothing of all the vehicles, appliances, vestiges of the industrial. Meanwhile, farmers ride their horse carts, people work their little potato plots beside the hand-built lava stone walls, that have probably stood for generations.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Nine Views of São Miguel

March 12th, 2017

We are in Ponta Delgada, in a guesthouse. A warm, cloudless day. We have the windows open on our second-story room. An old woman is yelling into her phone below. Yapping dogs, songbirds, traffic. Buzz of scooters in the narrow alleys.

The guesthouse is old creaky stairs and floors, bright windows, a little courtyard with laundry on the line. When we go out we sit in small cafes, eat local beef and fried potatoes, drink strong coffee.

Today we walked the city, narrow sidewalks in mosaics of black lava and white lime, moss in the shade of the walls. Everywhere these tall white walls, or sometimes a bright yellow or blue. Cobbled streets rubbed dome smooth. It is a Sunday, and we saw the pilgrims on their walk to church, heard them singing. They bear staffs and cloaks for their circumnavigation of the island during Lent.

This place is a modern European outpost, has been since its inception, a place on the way to everywhere. All these tall church towers, the old square buildings with their green gates and tile roofs and arched windows, their waving flags, these are remnants of what was once modern, now interlaced with the contemporary.

Looking out over the Avenide Infante Dom Henrique, named for Henry the Navigator, which runs beside the sea, there you see the marina with aluminum spars waving and beyond them the great cement sea wall lined with titanic freighters and cranes. This is also the place of the blank-faced modern hotel, its thousand rooms, and the cruise liners that dock here. A place peddling itself to foreigners like us.

There are these many views of these islands. A rugged eruption of volcanic stone resisting the endless battering from the relentless Atlantic, wild as the Big Sur coast, maybe wilder in its mid-ocean isolation.

A lush, semi-tropical woodland, songbird paradise, warm and humid, thick with lilies and wild ginger.

A place long inhabited by people and their endemic culture, their adaptive peasant ways, still riding horse carts through their little towns, which are hand-built of stone, or herding their cattle on the headland.

Or a place inhabited by people for a mere five hundred years (hardly anything), those people having partitioned in that time nearly every available acre for their buildings or pasture or mono-crops. Forests confined to the steepest ravines, songbirds to the hedgerows of cane between the fields.

Or a contemporary citified place, where the quaint charm of the peasantry and the more startling natural features are peddled as tourist attractions. Great honeycomb edifices lining the shore to house the itinerant banknotes.

Or the helpful man with the stylish clothes and salt-and-pepper beard and easy English, who helps us find a pharmacy that’s open and then wishes that we’ll enjoy our time on these islands, his home.

Another view: I as part of the diaspora of this place, my great-grandparents having departed her as teenagers. Who might well have walked in these very streets, laid eyes on these old church towers. We, like pilgrims on our Lenten journey, returning to pay homage to them. And straining our imagination to think what life must have been like for them, what they must have felt looking on the church tower, or the breakers rolling in from the vastness of the sea that separated them from all other land, or the ship at the pier that would carry them away from all they’d known. Connected by blood, they are the silent dead that nevertheless draw us here, exert their pull on us, our empathy gifting us a ghost of their longing.

And this: We two, on our honeymoon, carrying with us a child, twenty weeks in the womb, already making itself known by its swimming movements.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

On A Wild Island

March 5th, 2017

The first night we land in the deep dark, our thinking scraped away, the fortieth hour of travel. We leave the airport for a pell-mell taxi ride through cobbled streets, island breeze, falling into two hostel beds pushed together.

We wake to birds, traffic, passersby, light slanting in through broken clouds and the tall window. Smell of the sea, everything humid and damp to the touch.

At last we wrest ourselves from bed though we want to lie there inert forever. Step out onto the cobbled alley. Around us the white lime walls, lichen-eaten terracotta tile. Pigeons ducking and turning on the sway-back roof ridges. The older buildings have black lava rock for corners and pillars, porous and rough. This contrast everywhere, black stone, white lime.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Across the Earth

March 2nd, 2017

We sit in chairs among all the other travelers, this long, odd tube. Waiting to be propelled. The engines power up, the rumble of vast energy, as if from deep in the earth. Each one of these machines large as some ancient earthwork, monumental architecture made for motion, a tomb for the living to flee the sun.

The engines rev, we taxi to the runway, the incredible power beneath us. We are strapped to a rocket. We all sit denying this to some extent, not to be lost in hysteria. The engines roar, we are pressed back in our seats, the ground speeds by, the feeling of wheels leaving tarmac, the rough friction turns to powered glide. We are airborne.

Almost immediately the ground is distant, everything becoming miniature as if seen from a mountaintop. Then the mountains themselves grow small, the bay is a brown pond with its strings of model ships, its wire bridges. We are breaking away in some sense, from the gravity that has held us all our lives in that narrow space, the earth’s surface no more than a few feet away, at most.

We are out of that band, the thin film of life and dense air. Soon everything is flattened by distance. The steep hills become mere knolls, the neighborhoods where I used to live are encrustations, like barnacles on an inverted hull, or aphids hunkered on a kale leaf.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Raised In Captivity

We turn off the lights. Someone locks the door. We lie down. Everyone is weeping or stunned white with fear. Through the door we can hear screaming. The popping coming in bursts. We lie in a prison of darkness waiting for our lives to end.

America’s nightmare, America’s fever dream. America, at war with itself.


I feel duty bound to imagine it. Not to turn away. To see the faces in the paper, know they were real. This is it’s own end: to respect the suffering, the lost lives, the anguish of the bereaved. That respect is also the basis from which we can decide what is to be done.