Sunday, October 24, 2010

Places

The list of physical and emotional places wherein you feel some sense of belonging, comfort, and orientation becomes an index of who you are and how you came to be as you are now; it is the closest thing you have to an existential atlas.

Even though you have not lived in Los Angeles for over thirty-five years, you have worked and visited there during that time, finding yourself on rare occasion in portions of its vast surge where you became disoriented but soon reestablished your location, thanks to an overwhelming muscle memory sense of place.  Growing up in a place has that effect of installing an inner compass of awareness.  To a lesser degree, you are not likely to lose your way in Santa Barbara although the jut of the coast line plays hob with your sense of true cardinal directions; San Francisco holds relatively few surprises, and you are often able to recover from lapses of attention to landmark in the Bay Area peninsula outreaches or, for that matter, in the imponderable grids of the San Fernando Valley.  A few years of lark with a traveling carnival made the Central Valley a knowable if foreign landscape.

When you are unsure of your surroundings, your first impulse is to look for landmarks, buildings or street signs or some physical anomaly, perhaps even proximate freeways or riverbeds--places you might have visited or used before.  You search for clues, some of which tell you as much about yourself as the place you seek to identify.

When you are unsure of your surroundings in a performance piece or written work, you similarly cast about for landmarks, guesses of the author, possible historical era, possible emotional thrust--all personal clues to what the work is and you are as a result of it.

The true certainty in life is the inevitability of taking the wrong turnoff somewhere, finding yourself lost, bewildered, directionless--uncertain.  You cast about for landmarks, clues pointing you to one or more of the cardinal directions, perhaps even a person to whom you can apply for some helpful clue.

The true certainty of the writing life you have chosen is the inevitability of having taken the wrong turnoff, stranding you emotionally, bewildering you, causing you once again to recognize that you are where you momentarily are because you took a risky side trip from a path you'd considered safe.  In real life, you search for the familiar.  You might have been taken as a child to this very locale; you may have driven past the site any number of times in the company of a parent who'd taken you this way for a purpose that did not seem at the time to have any meaning for you.

Now, because of your experiences in the writing and publishing and teaching lives, every journey is fraught with a rich brew of memory, invention, and purpose.  It would be so easy to question your reliability as a narrator because of the way revisitation and contemplation provide added layers of meaning to what you did in the past and what you did not do.

It comes down to feelings, doesn't it?  The feelings set free in the deconstruction of these fraught events are your familiar landmarks and points of orientation.  They cause you to feel as special as you were made to feel special when taken on birthdays to lunch at  Clifton's Cafeteria and then a double feature film with vaudeville acts at the Orpheum Theater; they cause you to ratify the sense of having emerged from a loving family when you sat at one of the gatherings at your sister's home or the homes of your nieces, watching your parents as each became such sturdy and loving landmarks, providing even then, at that remove from their home the emotional orientation that is their continuing gift to you.

The landscape changes as you change.  Old is retrofitted, torn down in entirety, moved away, bulldozed under.  61451/2 Orange Street, where you lived seemingly forever for about four years is no longer a four-plex apartment building; it is subsumed into a condominium.  But it and its people and the fears and dreams and adventures you experienced there as the youngest child of Jack and Ann, the younger brother of Pennee, are there for you.  So, too, is the Los Angeles of your birth, mysterious, adventurous, so filled with outrageous promise that you drank it in as you drank from the all-you-can-drink for ten cents freshly squeezed orange juice from the Hollywood Ranch Market on Vine just below Sunset.  You drank the outrageous promise as though it were orange juice, offered in a toast to the imagination and future.  The taste still lingers.

And so do you.

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