Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Christmas Stroll in Chilly San Francisco

A new tradition has taken root in my experience over the last three years--the solitary Christmas walk in San Francisco.

The holidays and a cold have slowed me down on writing this column. Also there's work to do on my latest blog, "Trans-Canada, Trans America," so I may take a temporary hiatus on Flaneur columns presently. I thought perhaps the best way to to fulfill this one now would be to transcribe the fairly raw notes from my notebook for Christmas day. They were written late, late at night and don't pretend to poetry or prose. Make of them what you may.

The first section concerns a walk on campus after midnight Christmas morning; the second was a midnight musing; and the third section describes my sojourn in San Francisco the following afternoon.

Christmas Quietude

not one person
until an umbrella man
in a black suit
white shirt black tie
newsprint photograph
rain water rushing under
the footbridge
I think I spooked him
praying at a sundial in the rain
under a black umbrella myself
a few mesmerized cars venture past
storm clouds from over the sea
the Gate still has its teeth
blurred Xmas lights on Telegraph
no insight, no key
just rain sounds in drain pipes
all else even the hard luck cases
are still tonight, are not at all
flags snap furiously
high over a vacant facade
no explanation
a night of rain

poetry is incense smoke wafting
over broken glass

poetry is the incense
is the wind
is the broken glass

the key is the Christ we seek in ourselves
and find in others
across railway expanses
the enlightened clouds
cold sunlight delineates all
the wind awaits in hollowed streets
clang clang clang went brittle sound-scapes
almost hysteria hand claps
"I'll fly away O Lord"
every few feet a hustle
my head's up on buildings
so sharply printed
Union square aflutter
with shutterbugs
can't avoid my picture taken
last shaft of sunlight between
Christmas tree and skating rink
the kids go 'round and 'round
to Enya's "silent night"
blow into St Francis hotel
a golden castle encircled by a train
big teddy bears over the desk
open seating in the warm lobby
rested braced by brandy
and back into the wind
life-size iron lions
on Grant street sidewalk
new euro-kitsch emporia
at the dragon gate
the impending bells of St Mary's
totem tower of a monk
in the frigid square
too cold for the lonely few
who dart across the pavement
today no children play
in the spongiform playground
only lonely Chinese windows
gazing out of red brick buildings
for a hundred years
the black clock face strikes four
but St Mary's is locked
in the Christmas cold
so it's the film noir tunnel
through fun-house Chinatown
toward the shrine of Saint Francis
to kneel a while and pray
in his Porziuncola
a painted chapel
transported from his mind
before our eyes
the docent is one Redwood Mary
from Berkeley a kindred soul
from this highpoint
I start to descend again
through ages past
Columbus Avenue City Lights
"No Money for Bankers"
scrawled on wrapping paper
in upstairs windows
approaching the underground
entrance somewhere
behind the pyramid through
the prehistoric redwood grove
trunks studded with bulbous light
cryptozoa in rainwater blobs
on a great glass slide
over Sansome street
and down all the way
to the submarine trains
to the lights and the decorations
of a crepuscular world

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Walk Up On Holy Hill

On the second Sunday of Advent I take my archetypal restorative hike up to the theological library and environs...

At last the seasonal crispness seems to have set in; maybe now we'll see rain. Folk music and beyond on the radio helps comb the sleepiness out of my eyebrows in early afternoon. Outdoors, streamlined gray clouds dominate the dry sky. I note that a dog at one of the sidewalk cafe tables is wearing a sweater today.
The campus ceremonial assembly line has another yet graduation going on at Zellerbach hall. Black gowns and bright bouquets dot the concrete landscape. It is after all good for local business--Telegraph opens its maw wide, a tunnel of Christmas lights and consumptive traffic.
I walk rapidly along the central campus path, doing some upper body exercises like the somewhat oblivious person that I am--I behave the same way here at 1AM during vacations when there is not another person to be seen. I have had to reinsert my ear plugs due sensitivity and someone pulling a metal hand truck alongside me. So I'm in my own world as usual, the inner life always close at hand.
In no time I am cresting on the North side of campus, passing the cool geological sample slabs and I'm not out of breath. Friday at a doctor's appointment I learned that I weighed 143 pounds--a personal best for my mature years and nearly 40 pounds less than four years ago right after Thanksgiving. My new doctor viewing a recent blood test marveled at how low my cholesterol was--yeah baby. I mention all this not to flaunt it, but in the hope of inspiring others. You feel so much more in tune with life when you are not dragged by excess weight.
The key to shaping up for me was primarily a return to the vegetarianism of my young adulthood, but with greater understanding and cooking skills; and secondly, a determination not to eat more than I need. Another big help was my decision, after a lifetime of indulging a sweet tooth, to eliminate cookies, pies, cakes, pastries, ice cream and candy except in rather infrequent social settings. When I was a child I ate from the candy-booze food group and now I am an adult. I even like my coffee black.

In previous decades, the North side of campus seemed to be a more lively place. There was a cool record store here back in the day, Rather Ripped Records on the western corner of Euclid. It was a great place for underground platters--the Clash's "White Man in Hammersmith Palais" 45 was my first cop there. Among the many underground musicians who passed through it, Patti Smith and Jim Carrol had once made the scene.
There was an atrociously small cinema then, the Northside I believe it was called. Despite its dimensions, it showed hip stuff and could be fun. These days mainly various eateries seem to thrive on the business end of Euclid. One place looked crowded, a cafe that kept up the time-honored tradition of campus-side establishments everywhere by having a "clever" punning name, the "Brewed Awakening."
And the Seven Thieves variety store still held its corner; whether it is still called that I know not. A ridge of the Berkeley hills looms precipitously over this part of town. Autumnal reds highlight the deep green of the trees that shelter a latticework of the wooden buildings, homes and residence halls of this slightly nervous version of Hobbiton.
Christmastide hereabouts seems a little slow in coming on this year. But there is a fragrant green wreath welcoming me at the door of the Graduate Theological Union library. The population of soulful scholars today is sparse. I glance again at vitrines and gallery walls which displaying abstract paintings comprised of woven colors that themselves represent walls. I had already taken a close look at them on my last visit in October.
My object, quickly located, is a 1992 English language edition of The Gospel of Thomas, The Hidden Sayings of Jesus. It has en face facsimiles of the original scrolls, legendary papyri uncovered at Nag Hamadi in Egypt. That is to say, they are not in the canon of the New Testament. It is entirely comprised of quotations of words of Jesus without any of the back-story or on-going narrative. It offers a Jesus who is the enigmatic, proverbial teacher of the Gospels but without making a claim of His divine identity as the Son of God who was crucified and rose again from the dead to redeem mankind. One can if one wishes not involve oneself with the divine Jesus. Here one encounters Jesus solely as a mystical teacher, offering one hundred or so maxims on to how to gain God's kingdom and how to recognize the chosen of God. In a commentary to the edition I read, Harold Bloom, a rather pompous Shakespeare professor from Yale, describes this gospel of hidden sayings as "creedless, proto-gnostic, Orphic, and post-Christian." He sort of tips his hand on the last term--he wishes.
The Gospel of Thomas is held by tradition to have been written by Judas Thomas the Twin who was Jesus identical twin brother. It's prologue begins with his words:
"And he said , 'Whoever discovers the interpretation of these saying will not taste death.'" This great but apocryphal document affords the intrigue of discovering an esoteric teacher in Jesus almost as if He was outside one's own more orthodox faith background--like reading Ramakrishna, or maybe more like Kahlil Gibran. The goatherd found the scrolls in a cave at Nag Hamadi housed in a large jar. When he broke it open, he later swore, a numinous golden spirit, a guardian djin, emerged from it and rose up into the air. The archaeologists later insisted it was merely tiny fragments of the scroll stirred up into the sunlight by breaking the vessel. By way of stating my approach to this Gospel, I will say that I prefer the former explanation.

49. "Fortunate are those who are alone and chosen, for you will find the kingdom. For you have come from it, and you will return there again."

That sort of thing can make a stoned loner, mystical and contemplative, feel quite a bit better in one's overcast Sunday afternoon solitude. For folks like myself, it is one of the original self-help books of affirmation. With this visit I begin to incarnate my spirit of Advent--tonight the manger goes up. Recalling the words of Arthur Rimbaud, I ask,"When will it be Christmas on earth?"

Lifted up and back out of doors into the last muted daylight. I follow the crisscross sidewalks to go out to the end of the plateau of sanctity, enveloped by divinity and by school. I note the symbols of various religions carved into the stone wall outside a chapel--signs in stone planted for the amusement of the archaeologists of the future.
At the view spot, another stands silently gazing out at the distant sky over the sea beyond the Gate. An unseen sun forms an intense gold dish on the waters. Leviathan cloud continents have fissured enough for a celestial curtain of sunlight to fall for miles and miles across the middle distance. It is the picture that inspired the idea of heaven, the darkening world and the light that saves us.

Postscript: Reading this a week later I observe that I had, as usual, made myself into more of a loner than I actually was. I left out a pleasant meeting and conversation that took place at the view spot at the western end of the divinity school courtyard. When I arrived I found that the view of the emergent sunlight on the Bay was best from a spot off to the right of the walkway--so far south does the sun set around the solstice. From one spot alone, one could see the direct light of the sun's reflection on the water. While above one could look straight at the clouds where the sunlight poured through, this body of reflected light, gold and miraculous, was too bright to look at for very long.
As I contemplated this quantification of the spiritual in the physical, an older woman came climbing with the support of a cane the substantial concrete stairway from the street below. Past the age of eighty, she seemed frail yet noble in her determination to reach the higher level of the lawn. There she turned with satisfaction to see the Western sky. I greeted her in a neighborly way, and shuffled over to encourage her to see the vista from the optimal standing point. She had glimpsed that light on the Bay and came right over to see it. We struck up a conversation--she was from Chicago, lived a long time in Hawaii, and now lived here. We chatted about the weather in these places and my native New England, our experiences of them, and how for me Hawaii remained terra incognito. I told her that when I confessed to my doctor that I thought I was burned out, she told me I wouldn't be if I lived on a beach in Hawaii. Sometimes I ponder how I could manage to switch to that life--a sustaining myth, I suppose.
This kind of talk arises among locals hereabouts as soon as the weather brushes forty degrees.
I append it here to defeat easy diagnosis of this columnists apparent self-isolation. Many more such encounters occur on walks that I later write up but I tend to leave them out. One neither wants to appear to be vainly painting an over-nice portrait of oneself, nor do one want to blow the concept of a deliberately uninvolved observer that a flaneur is rightfully assumed to embody.