A rant on place. I am grateful for life, even in its stupid detail.
I stood last night at the door of my family’s home, feeling a pressure against my temples like fingers pressing hard, like a magnetic oppression. This is either normal, or this is stress, or this is both, or something else. And so I walked inside, went to my room, and lay in bed counting slowly to five, on repeat, while feeling my mind hover over my body.
Today, I drove to Big Bear, and I’m doing a reflection on place. Because to me, the mountains are like a large exhale, a sigh of relief, or a place where you cannot dare to focus on anything less beautiful than the trees, than the clear sky, than the intense and pleasant smell. But you know, the feeling from home lingers, and I drive fast toward a place to go (not, now, a place to be but a place to go).
Of course, I sat at a mountain coffee shop and read a bit about fundamentalism and religious studies scholarship, then planned to hook up with a married man who was putting his kids to sleep for a nap (this did not pan out), and so I hooked up with another guy above Lake Arrowhead, and he suggested that I go to Blue Jay, so I drove to a small mountain strip mall with a few stores.
I pulled up to a taco shop and sat to eat tacos. And, I walked to a thrift store—closed, then to a gastropub with a pride flag flying outside of it—closed. I drove out of the parking lot, almost, because I saw that the thrift store entrance was underground, and so I walked inside, past a cloister of older women among dense and dim racks of clothes. Three of them stood close by, with what I imagine were there husbands scattered around the corners of the store stuffed with clothes. I scanned the bookshelf, finding a bunch of classics, two James Joyce books that I didn’t exactly want (I want Ulysses, and one day I will find it), and suddenly the lights halfway shut off. And, the three women near me all turned around immediately, and ran towards the check out, saying “it’s time to go!” repeating “it’s time to go!” to each other because it, apparently, was time to go. And the woman who owned the shop told me “seven more minutes!” and I said, “oh I’ll be quick then” and scanned through some photo books, remembering when I used to all-but live in my car and collect photo books of places to go, while living in the mountains (these mountains); a warm nostalgia crept up and I nodded to the (now) three women behind the cash register, and they said “have a good day!” and I said “you too,” and walked outside, back above ground, thinking, “what does it mean to be in such a strange and cheerful place, and where has that pressure in my head gone?”
And now, I am in the same coffee shop, but a different location, writing this next to a married couple from the Soviet Union who is chatting with a man from Vietnam, both from Orange County and trying to describe a map of an area that they both already know. The man says, “where are you from,” to which the older woman, in a heavy accent, calmly replies “California,” and he asks again, “no where are you from?” and she responds “Irvine,” and the man looks at her knowingly, along with her husband who is relaxed and passive in his chair, when finally the woman, with snark, interjects, “you mean to say, where are we originally from?, and we are from the Soviet Union,” and then the man, well, only replies, “Vietnam,” and they give each other mumbled directions of the area around Huntington Beach (I am from there), Santa Ana, Westminster, and maybe Irvine. And the married couple left, and the man is reading in the coffee shop now, in silence.
And now, the Vietnamese man talks to me, about writing and silence and God and Buddhism and Zen and Bodhidharma ("didn't Huike cut his arm off to be his disciple?" I ask) and becoming a professor (he was a math professor). And I quote some philosophy and ask about the self, and he looks at me blankly, but he wants to start a tea house, and he tells me about focusing and nature and philosophy—the Dao, Tai Chi, China and Japan, travelling. And I tell him about Daoism and Chan Buddhism and religious syncretism, and the syncretism is new to him. The coffee shop, now, is closed. So, I grab my stuff and we walk around the lake. It is golden hour and he talks about the God within, that the world needs spirituality and quotes Schopenhauer and Nietzsche at me. We walk around the shopping center, onto the roof, and look over the parking lot onto the lake, while he tells me about Jesus and Alan Watts and professorship and authenticity, and I tell him about the problem of historicity in the historical Jesus studies, and he tells me that I can solve the world's spiritual problems. Those three hours passed intellectually. I did not come here for intellect, but I will entertain it. And I tell him about living life, about counting to five and experiencing the silence between numbers, and he gives me a slip of paper that says “AUM” and emphasizes the silence after the speech.
I drove to an arboretum—I had been there before—and thought of how I would hate to be a soulless academic (and what’s the point of reducing experience to knowledge, anyways?). And I drove to a fire watchtower—these are some of the most accessible places to watch the sunset—and sat in silence as the sun went down. I’ve shot this scene before, and I think of how dumb it is to require “AUM” before experiencing silence; that if you’re so used to the world being loud and demanding, full of expectation and anticipation, then you need no declaration of “AUM” to focus the silence: it sits there, all around, like a thick benevolent fog, welcoming me to be in a place. And so I sit, wondering how it will be when I drive home tonight, and know that I will feel the pressure as I approach my home, and wonder again how many times I will count to five to keep my body from just running away.
So, this writing is like counting to five. Because in bed, my mind runs and runs and runs. It tries to be anywhere but where it is; my body lays charged with an anxious energy, and counting very slowly is like slamming the brakes on my mind, to feel the silences between numbers and to feel present in the room. The numbers are the details of experience, or those tangible things, the bridge to a tangible reality. And the writing, here, is that tangible reality. But last night, my mind ran downhill, and the brakes slowly stopped working. And the room stood there unreal, because I was not in it.
I write of the mountains, instead, because there is an abundance of detail that proclaims presence; it proclaims that life is here and now, that life is not found in some abstract meaning but that it is only meaningful (whatever that means) to a person who lives it. My mind comes down from its placelessness in the clouds, and there is a felt life full of happenings, no pressure, a real world to escape to—it is more expansive than five numbers. And so sure, whatever happened with these thrift store people and the coffee shop professor might be purposeless, this writing might be an effort in fruitlessness, it may not mean, but here is a profound testament to the fact that things happened and I, for once, experienced them. Or, it proclaims that the world is, somehow benevolent (although sometimes it is not) in its silent austerity, worthy of experience. I do not know; I do not want to know; I only want to experience it.