Saturday, February 18, 2017

Among the Angels

From the glass canyons of downtown L.A., with their sheer walls of windows reflecting the sky, we took Metro bus 487 fourteen stops through the tangle of freeways to San Gabriel, at the foot of hazy blue mountains, one capped / captivating with snow, and when the traffic signals allowed crossed two railway tracks to Mission San Gabriel Arcángel—one of the last two missions we hadn't seen.  In the city of angels, in this time of terror when we need angels more than ever (to paraphrase Rilke, below), this pilgrimage to visit the now suburban archangel was important.

Let not one god pass away.  We all need each of them now,
let each be valid for us, each image formed in the depths.
Don’t speak with the slightest disdain of whatever the heart
     can know.
(from The Sonnets to Orpheus, translated by Stephen Mitchell—who I met one year at BEA there in downtown Los Angeles)

We made our journey midmorning, after an appropriate Los Angeles breakfast of huevos rancheros, fried eggs with a corn tortilla, salsa, and pinto beans.  Not quite the chilaquiles I loved in Cancun years ago, but satisfying my sense of right-being.

It's not one of the lovelier missions, but it was a poem, inspirational in many ways.
. palms and bells and old adobe-covered stairs

. giant white clam shell basins in the courtyard, holding water with flower petals

. learning that in carpentry dovetailed means made without nails
. little blue tiles around the shrine

. colors in sacred paintings made from wildflowers, olive oil
. baked floor tiles
. cistern, millrace, aqueduct
. soap and tallow vats
. Our Lady of Sorrows
. many charming signs, as below. 

"No longer do caravans of traders come lumbering up to the gates of Mission San Gabriel as in the days of the Franciscans.  No longer are fiestas and siestas the order of the day.*  But Mission San Gabriel Arcángel continues to enlarge its niche in the hearts of all, be they casual visitors or members of the Parish, which it has served for these many years."

*(again, recalling Rilke's "When everything we create is far in spirit from the festive, / in the midst of our turbulent days let us think of what festivals were.")

"The five fire circles are original and once held large iron kettles, such as the one seen here, wherein daily 'Pozole' or popcorn soup was made over the fires.  Upon the sounding of the 'Angeles' bell at noon and the prayer which it commanded, the Indians came to be fed."

"One of the original church doors stands (retired) here.  Made of California redwood.  The bronze bosses were brought from New Spain, Mexico.  If the door is closely observed, it will be noticed that rain-storm and sun have worn the wood away from the bosses.  This door swung on the south side main church entrance.  Look . . . its mate is over yonder."

And more than anything, I loved hearing the native guide playing what he called the River Song on a flute in the mission church, for his small group of visitors.  Explaining that the notes trickled, as did the sacred river, water vital in that dry land, and the music perfect for the day.  (Tellingly, I've learned, the erosion of the San Gabriel mountains, into and along the river, provided gravel, sand, and rock for the construction of the modern city:  all those roads, freeways, and parking lots; coliseum and harbor.)

The visit was evocative, reminding me of
. visiting the mission in the desert south of Tucson, Tucumcacori, the winter after my father died; the mission and nearby spice shop
. visiting the San Diego mission other years, when I was selling books at the Asian Studies conference, and drinking genmai cha I'd brought along to ice, in afternoon sunlight, the luxurious warmth of a southern California early spring
. finding the paintings of our birthday saints (Eliseo, by Tintoretto; and an Annunciation by Titian), another February, in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice
. our class making a film in a canyon with a little private adobe church one rainy day in high school, before we went our separate ways
. coming across the father of the California missions again back in his home church in Palma de Mallorca one September, orange trees in the cloister
. the artist in my Bonnard novel, Charles San Gabriel Girard, named for the mountains his mother came to from Quebec—the beloved San Gabriels of Eugenie, matriarch of the reclusive Girards.

Gabriel was, as it happens, the angel of the Annunciation.  Clothed in blue or white, he carries variously a lily, a trumpet, a shining lantern, a branch from Paradise, a scroll, a scepter.  He is patron of telecommunication workers, radio broadcasters, messengers, postal workers, clerics, diplomats, stamp collectors, Portugal, ambassadors—so, clearly, much needed today. 

I hope we have made friends.  Though as Rilke (surely among the angels himself) writes at the beginning of the Duino Elegies:
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels'
hierarchies? and even if one of them pressed me
suddenly against his heart:  I would be consumed
in that overwhelming existence.  For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us.  Every angel is terrifying.

And, in the next:
But if the archangel now, perilous, from behind the stars
took even one step down toward us:  our own heart, beating
higher and higher, would beat us to death.  Who are you?

images:   Christie B. Cochrell, Mission San Gabriel

Archangel Gabriel, Hagia Sophia

Friday, February 10, 2017

Light in Winter

When your life looks back—
As it will, at itself, at you—what will it say?

Inch of colored ribbon cut from the spool.
Flame curl, blue-consuming the log it flares from.
Bay leaf.  Oak leaf.  Cricket.  One among many.

(from "When Your Life Looks Back," Jane Hirshfield)

image:  Christie B. Cochrell, January oak in the late afternoon sun, Los Altos Hills

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Turrets and Towers

Nostalgia always seems so grand a thing.  Nostalgia for turrets and towers, queens and knights of old, the mighty days of Camelot or of John Cheever's consequential castles.

Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot!

King Arthur:  "Ginny, Ginny, suppose we create a new order of chivalry?  A new order where might is only used for right!  To improve instead of to destroy.  Look, we'll invite all the knights, all the kings of all the kingdoms, to lay down their arms to come and join us.  Oh yes, Ginny.  I will take one of the large rooms in the castle, put a table in it, and all the knights will gather at it."

Our ideas of castles, formed in childhood, are inflexible, and why try to reform them?  Why point out that in a real castle thistles grow in the courtyard, and the threshold of the ruined throne room is guarded by a nest of green adders?  Here are the keep, the drawbridge, the battlements and towers that we took with our lead soldiers when we were down with the chicken pox.  The first castle was English, and this one was built by the King of Spain during an occupation of Tuscany, but the sense of imaginative supremacy—the heightened mystery of nobility—is the same.  Nothing is inconsequential here.  It is thrilling to drink Martinis on the battlements, it is thrilling to bathe in the fountain, it is even thrilling to climb down the stairs into the village after supper and buy a box of matches.  The drawbridge is down, the double doors are open, and early one morning we see a family crossing the moat, carrying the paraphernalia of a picnic.
(John Cheever, from "The Golden Age")

My own nostalgia, a key component of my writing and a significant part of me, is usually for ruined abbeys, far-away places scented with pine and casting shadows back many millennia, the still mysterious abandonment of Crete and silencing of all its temple complexes, the tomb scene of Aida—especially as sung by Jussi Björling.

But lately I've been achingly nostalgic for nothing more than those little paper frills that people in the 60s stuck on chicken drumsticks for parties.  Silly at the time, and so much sillier to think about—let alone miss so badly—fifty years after the greasy chicken bones went into the garbage, surely? 

Remember, though, the leg bone is connected to the thigh bone . . . and so on and on until the whole body is fitted back together, animated, rising to life again.

Those paper frills bring back a whole era, a way of living irremediably lost.  The life I'll never have, which was so beautifully created and sustained by my mother, for us.  Our family home, the many family friends who came to dinner several times a month, the perfectly ironed linen guest towels (one of the two or three things that hit me hardest when I had to clear and sell my childhood home five years ago), the spotless rolling pin, the good dishes and polished silver—no, gold—ware, the cupboards full of spotless tablecloths.  I marvel at how clean it all was, and how sure; how that immense enchanted realm of wellbeing continued on into my mother's eighties, right up to the end.  Her annual Norwegian Christmas bread.  My father's Heritage editions of the classics (English, Russian, French); the Met broadcast every Saturday at noon.  Every detail ordered, meticulous, carefully tended and preserved.

I, on the other hand, have been so haphazard.  So relatively careless with the things I love.  My future as a place of gracious living and a safe haven doesn't bear scrutiny.  I've been a traveler, the meaning of the word including all the worst connotations of gypsies in their feckless caravans.  I cook inelegant tagines and bake lopsided cakes; my plates are utterly mismatched and any dinner guests sporadic.  (So I'm nomadic and sporadic, both.)  My castles are in ruins, and I've preferred—often hotly defended—that.

But I'm sad now, aware of how much I have 
missed—and how much I will miss, projecting my nostalgia into the uneasy future.  The lovingly dusted vigas, carefully tended piñon fires, white gloves worn to church.  Several generations of family close at hand.  The wherewithal to drive down to La Fonda in the snow and borrow a couple of dozen paper frills from their Norwegian chef who'd come for dinner in the fall, complete with sandbakkels and aquavit, to fit onto the ends of chicken legs to jazz up this year's New Year's Eve buffet.

image:  Camelot, Gustave Dore