Monday, June 17, 2013

California 2013: Sense and Sensibility

Alaska is known for its beautiful and rugged landscape, a fierce (and sometimes violent) history of gold and lumber-pillaging and is still the choice setting for much fishing, hunting, and the famous Iditarod. It also boasts a compelling wildness tipping point that is more fluid than most other places in the United States: bears that wander through grocery parking lots and moose whose hulking bodies mist morning backyards. 

The natural environment offers challenges in weather, accessibility, fierce beauty and formidability. It might be one of the reasons why the people that I’ve met who have lived there are some of the most interesting individuals I have ever run into. I’ve met them on dance floors and midnight at a hotel hot tub, at motorcycle bars and video arcades. They are vibrant, friendly, and in the chorus of the universe their voices are probably the most bold (and possibly slightly off-key).  Perhaps this is why I would like to go to Alaska someday: to be away from the things of man, to be close to people who affably clash with expectation, and to encounter a place that is still a little wild. I’m jealous of my friends’ summer sojourn there.

But right now I live in California, which is perhaps at the opposite end of the spectrum. It is the land of Neptune High School, celebrity politicians, and people who have never even heard of salt damage to their cars. Flowers bloom year round here: Godetias, miniature hollyhocks, baby blue eyes. The bodies here are well-yoga'd, creative, vegan restaurants abound, and a motorcycle can be a practical commuter vehicle.  I admit that I read my friend’s warnings on Facebook about possible pipe freezes this winter with a certain degree of smugness, as though I, personally, had discovered this coastal paradise, like my arrival here was a badge of some sort of achievement that I had earned by clocking time over the past three decades in soggy or more gloomy climes.

But life has a way of straightening you out, reminding you that no matter how extravagant the sunset or how well-lit the highways are by banks of rippling, golden mustard flowers, that you are just as foolish as you have ever been. I will admit: this has been an unwieldy year for me so far.

I purchased a motorcycle: a red 2006 Kawasaki Vulcan, a great starter bike. It is like falling in love, it is like the first few months of college, I am having an undeniable romance with motorcycles: reading poems and books about them, listening to stories from older, more weathered motorcyclists at my coffeeshop as though they are handing down legend, smiling at the cheeky motorcycle quotes that I find:

“Four wheels move the body.  Two wheels move the soul.”

“The perfect man?  A poet on a motorcycle.”
Lucinda Williams

“Life may begin at 30, but it doesn't get interesting until about 150.”
note: I don’t think I’ve gone over 40 yet on my motorcycle yet. I haven’t even taken it on the freeway

A few weeks ago, I went on a short weekend motorcycle road trip with my boyfriend and another couple (not on my bike). It was so hot that my female counterpart wore a bright pink tank top while she was on the bike for that entire first day – no jacket required (note: Phil Collins reference intentional and would also like to acknowledge for my parents that this is not the safest choice – I won’t do that, Mom). We drove North through Anderson Valley, a less populated and less commercial wine country where the tastings are free and there are no corkage fees, we stayed overnight in Boonville (a remarkably small town, but with enough personality to merit its own language). Over the course of about 36 hours together we tasted more than five bottles of wine and ended the day in a garden drinking down cold hard cider from a nearby farm. We tramped through high-grassed meadows in our motorcycle gear only to strip down to our bikini bodies by the river. We traveled back
to the Bay area down the coast in the booming sunlight: the beaches of the Mendocino coast are an odd mix of West Coast and East coast: slightly gray and weathered, foggy bogs creating dunes of cherry brush and large rock outcroppings that offer dramatic coastal viewpoints. We parted ways after we broke up a chocolate chip cookie that we ate at the delta of the Russian River while an outdoor jazz band played covers of “We’ve Got the Funk.” It was a weekend full of stampeding herds of pleasures.

And yet, I had spent the better part of the Spring in distress, feeling stunted in many of my pursuits, incredibly cut-off (even left behind) from some of my best friends and most of my recent history, and a whole host of other unhelpful reflections.

No one tells you what a hard thing surviving your own mediocrity can be.

This was me in the Run For Your Lives
Zombie 5K Obstacle Course (but is
also a pretty good approximation
of my springtime
emotional state, too).
I asked my friends to forgive me: “forgive me if I am too glum, too concentrated on our inevitable self-destruction as a species, on talking about how we’re trampling the planet, or talking about my own failings and sadness.”

Suffice to say that I spent a few months under water, trying to convince the people close to me that “yeah, I was bummed, but things were manageable, that I was fine.” This, in some part, was a lie. For the most part, I’d be more comfortable being naked in public than I would be letting you see just how much I resemble a sobby, red-eyed, greasy sloth on a bad day. But stay with me here for a moment and you’ll see why I'm going to bother to mention it this time around.

I’ve spent a lot of time diagnosing that feeling when it’s cropped up throughout my life: the wrong blend of chemicals in my body, childhood experiences, new birth control, a need more exercise, less sugar, terrible jobs (past tense), terrible relationships (also past tense), maybe I needed to create a list of daily affirmations and say them to myself in the mirror, maybe I needed to get out and make some new friends, maybe I needed to get back in touch with old friends, too much TV, not enough TV. The list of things that you are doing wrong or could be doing better for your own good is seemingly endless, but there is one thing that has unswervingly paralleled with a better mood.

Tree tunnel near Point Reyes, CA

When I am writing. Even if it’s just in my journal or on this blog or a few lines of poetry, I realize that I am healthier when I am organizing my thoughts line by line progressively down a page. In the months in which my journal is full and my blog is updated and I’ve spent some time researching and typing, I spend less time at the bottom of my own well. It had not been happening enough.

Which is why I rebooted an old pledge that a friend and I had made to each other: one poem a week. Each week, I send a poem to a friend of mine and she sends one to me and (if nothing else). In this way, I’ve made some room for creative productivity in the middle of the rest of the business in my life. And the difference has been remarkable.

I also started doing yoga four time a week, drastically improved my diet, and bought a motorcycle and the change has been remarkable. 

That is the dramatic montage version of making all these choices: it does not show my grumpiness over giving up my morning coffee or the withering looks I’ve come to give scales, but I am happy to report that all of these things have set me up for a very promising summer where I am looking forward to motorcycle adventures, road trips and reunions with some of my favorite people back East.

On the eve of my birthday I took a ride through the rolling headlands that boulder right into the Pacific ocean. It is glorious to be at the edge of America with the surf that comes in threatening undertow to humans and their dogs alike: a bit tumultuous. It is also wondrous to be in the month of April and lie on a black sand beach in the 80 degree heat. Generally I associate my birthday with damp, cold mornings and sunshine threatening to break through the clouds, but not beaches and motorcycle rides. It’s a feeling that I could get used to.

They say that smell is one of the most powerful generators of memory and not just sense memory, but emotional memory. In April, I woke up on a Monday morning and rode through the streets of waking Oakland (men in blue overalls constructing yet another watchtower-like hospital building, an officer uncommonly casual and reading the paper in his car) and was overwhelmed by how much the heat of the streets and the coming day smelled like Rome in the throws of summer. Whatever pall had been on me slipped off just a little as my sense memory catapulted into hot weather and the perspective offered by history. 

It was the same thing hiking down the hill to the beach the day before my birthday, invited by Jason* whose talent are many. But surprise, recreational botany is such an underrated and unexpected talent that it takes a special prize in my heart. Down we go on perilously, ready-to-tip log steps laid into the cliffside and with each step, he reaches his hand back behind him, handing me small crumbles of leaves and ferns that he’s crushed between his thumb and forefinger and telling me to smell, illustrating the landscape not just with information, but with perfume:
“California sage,” he announces as my lungs bellow with a white, lemony fragrance, “it’s not a true sage, but it’s one of the natives that you find along the coast.” Another few steps, “Yarrow. Now that’s a magical plant,” the smell is rotund and almost floral, “it’s good for wounds and was once used to treat soldiers in battle.”

He invites me to reach out and touch a bud of orange bouncing in the hillside breeze and I pull back my hands to find them strangely tacky. He smiles and says “sticky monkey flower.”

I don’t identify much with my astrological sign, but one quality of Taurus that has always seemed embarrassingly accurate is their sensuality, an almost feline love of tactile pleasure. In this way, a ride down to the ocean is a riot of delight. It is ocean spray, citrusy perfume, the crash of waves, some hazy horn sound like a dial tone on the water in the distance, the hot sand in comedic avalanches under my bare feet – an unstoppable collision of sense after sense.

It is almost healing and I am convinced that this is part of what appeals to we Taureans – it makes the flinty, sparking neuroses of intellect go quiet for awhile. Of course, no great insight or philosophy is achieved in this time, but it is a welcome pause from a lifetime rooted in self (even selfishness). One is more a part of the slippery cave water coming down the bluffs, the roar of wind along the highway, or the rush of clean, sugared smell of opening fresia blossoms. Sometimes it is better this way.


*"Wait! What? Who's this Jason person?" you ask.
"Oh yeah," I reply, "I'm dating a man named Jason."