I realized on the ride to work on Friday morning that both time and journeys can be measured by a lot of different means—the way children collect license plates on long car trips. Not just abstract minutes, miles, but rhythms and associations inner and outer that mark off any time or space.
How long is your commute? Three early Mozart symphonies, the Sparrow Mass, and a chorus of Huns.
Or: six schools and two churches. Or: three black Labs, a couple of curious llaso apsos, and a squirrel.
The measuring can take place through a series of imagined groves, as you pass streets which have displaced the woods that name them. One by one, noting
Redwood . . .
and whatever comes next.
I’ve written that the way to Flagstaff, my grandparents’ house, was through the heart of Indian country. Between Zuni and Hopi, Navajo and Apache, counting off the reservations, pueblos, tribes—like a string of old turquoise beads, the running river-water strands of heishi, the prayer beads of a rosary. Santo Domingo, Cochiti, Jemez, San Felipe; Zia, Laguna, Santa Ana, Canoncito; Acoma, Zuni, Isleta. Jicarilla Apache, Ramah Navajo. The Navajo Nation, extending into three states.
In Virginia hunt country one autumn I took up the local reckoning, and made my way through the new land tracing the past (an 18th century gristmill on a slow old green river), following a map of physical geography: Aldie Mill, Champe Ford, James River—a history of the people and their occupations woven in, and the continual relationship with water. Signs were handwritten and slow (“Chesapeake rainbow trout”), and in that quiet purl of time on that St. Francis of Assissi Day (another way of measuring, through saints and their doings) I found the blessing of the animals in the small rural church across from the tavern where I ate trout.
Other distances are quite incalculable. On one stretch of road through Atherton each morning, with the light just right, I’m carried all the way to Italy, another fall, the length of long sun-dappled country roads around the villa outside Busseto where we spent one golden afternoon prowling the grounds of the composer’s home, the stately dwellingplace of Giuseppe Verdi and his music and loving second wife.
And then the corner that brings back my first trip into foreign parts, the train ride down to Mexico and Teotihuacan, the vast enchanted mercado that offered sides of beef ridden with flies, and graceful butterflies of silver filagree; embroidered cotton dresses, onyx chessmen, shrimp soup. This new one (Main and Middlefield) transports me like a single rub of a djinn’s lamp back to the thrill of my discovery. The length of just two sleepless nights could bring me to a world I’d never known. Its meat market contains again that beef; the joyeria facing it, my husband’s sure, sells joy; a big store one door down is full to the ceiling with shoes.
I see a whole journey in that one shop—a hundred miles of shoes if laid out end to end, a desert pilgrimage through sage and bones bleached paper white. Another way of measuring the travels of the soul or of the heart; charting a life.
image: She Who Is