More thoughts on place: Death Valley

Everyone's happy in California, or they're trying to be.  It's not just the weather, the people seem sunny.

I'm trying to adjust. Moving from Pennsylvania took only a day; yet after more than a year in San Francisco, I'm on shaky ground. The Pacific is mysterious, the people who lives along its shores more so.

I've just returned from Death Valley.  Not my first visit: my first was made in the mid-90s, after Death Valley had been declared a National Park (it had been a National Monument.)  It's a  classic American landscape: sand dunes, moon-like craters, and Borax-tipped hills and plains that look, to the untutored eye, snow-covered.  
Image result for death valley

I realized, with amusement, that my first na├»ve viewing of Death Valley's cliffs, my Eastern eyes had mistaken borax for snow.  I got it all wrong. Now, I rubbed my fingers in the glowing mineral dust, and thought, of course, that's why people came here: gold, silver, lead, chloride, and the desert's first source of wealth, Borax.  

The cliffs, shimmering with mineral light, are filled with abandoned miner's camps, each one of story of men (often Chinese immigrants) stranded in the inhospitable desert for what must have felt like a prison sentence.  The desert has no water to speak of, and burros carried whatever was needed for the solitary men—and now, the ghost camps have piles of rusty tin cans, eerily preserved by the National Park Service as an archaeological site. Ugly, but perhaps the miners were consoled by the dark starry skies that must have spoken of other glories, other worlds, other hopes.
Image result for death valley chloride cliff
So much of California's history is a gold rush. The first explosion in the mid-nineteenth century, then a silver boom a few years later that made more than a few San Francisco fortunes—and less than half a century later, equally glittering Hollywood, built in part by immigrant Jews who were barred from the East's wealth industries of banking and insurance.  And then, in our recent history, Silicon Valley whose saga is still unfolding.  Now, there are stock options instead of mine claims, but California is, as ever, a land of get-rich quick, fortunes that rise overnight.

No wonder Californians expect happiness as part of life's deal—whereas the rest of us settle for its pursuit.  


It's a meditative month for me.  This short memoir piece first appeared in 559 Quarterly, which was edited by  my late friend Alan Seeger.  

Carla Sarett
I was ten years old when I spent my first summer at "sleep-away" camp.  It was located in the heart of Maine's lake district, far from the rocky Atlantic coast and islands; although like most children, I lacked the curiosity to wonder what the rest of Maine looked like.  I was a collector of rocks and minerals; and mountains, islands, and the world's oceans had not yet become special.  In hindsight, I shudder at how much it cost my parents to send me there—we were not rich, and my mother and father must have swapped their vacation for mine.  I suppose that they were trying to bring me "out of my shell," as though there were another me, locked inside the shy one. 
The summer's highlight was an overnight camping trip.  The younger campers were assigned to climb one of the small mountains which, like dozens of mountains across the Eastern Seaboard, was named Mount Blue.  Next year, we were promised that we, too, could climb Mount Katahdin, Maine's highest peak—only if we mastered the basics, and only if we wanted to.   
The camp bus deposited us at the trailhead, and the counselors helped us load our gear – canteens, sleeping bags, heavy woolen socks, and so on.  The counselors (college kids, mostly) did the navigating —and we (girls, all of us) followed a single line up, down and around the switchbacks whose steepness surprised me.  I was a suburban kid, unfamiliar with trails, and I lacked real hiking shoes—an oversight of my mother's (who saw camping as a form of torture.)         
I'd never thought of myself as a much of a whiner, but from the get-go, I found the load of my backpack intolerable, and the steep ascent an ordeal.  I slogged along, behind the very last camp counselor, trying to bite back my tears.  My neck hurt, my skinny legs ached, and the other girls seemed to be scampering ahead, whistling, singing camp songs and joking with one another—and before I knew it, they were out of sight.  Finally, I gave up and sat down on a rock, defeated. 
“I can’t,” I told the strapping male counselor, “I just can’t go anymore.”
He laughed and removed my backpack, and lifted me up as if I were weightless.  Worse, he carried me on his shoulders for most of the hike.  Now everyone knew that I was weak—it was not news to me, but I'd been trying so hard to pretend all summer long.  I had failed to be, even for one day, someone else: a girl who was strong, who fit in, a girl who took life easily.
I wanted (but lacked the audacity to say it) to admire the dense green moss, plush as velvet, that covered the boulders; and the spidery lichen that dangled from the old trees, in fantastical fashion; the pine-covered surfaces, the tall lacy ferns that made miniature forests of their own. And the blue green of the trees, yes, it was a dark blue mountain with a dark blue lake. And there we were, rushing through it, faster than my legs could manage – and all so that we could end up at an ordinary ugly campfire, eat half-burnt hot dogs, toast marshmallows on sticks and fight off the invading armies of mosquitoes.  My arms and legs were covered with bites, everyone smelled of Deet, and after the fire died, the ground underneath felt cold and damp.   
I knew why we had hurried up the mountain.  We had to set up camp before sundown, and counselors were only being responsible and grown-up. I didn't blame them, but I felt vaguely cheated of unknown pleasures, of the sense of the unknown.
After we crawled into our tents, I was restless, wide-awake.  While it was still pitch black, I got up and wandered outside.  The night air smelled of pines, the sky was bright with a million twinkling stars—and I could make out the Big Dipper, Orion, and all the constellations I loved. There were sounds of wind and birds, and none of people.
I stood there, thrilled at the vastness, and then a huge brown moose approached.  He stood only inches from me, with his majestic antlers.  A real moose. The moose is the official state animal of Maine, but (so I had read) sightings were rare, and usually they occur from a great distance.  I was hardly a brave kid –terrified of loud noises, school bullies, even flying baseballs scared me – but I felt safe with the moose.  We eyed one another, like old friends who shared a secret. Both of us strangers at the campsite in different ways. 
And after a few seconds – it could not have been much more—the moose left me, and I felt unreasonably happy.  I knew that other girls were stronger, climbed faster, but I would never trade places with them:  only I had faced the moose. I saw him because I was alone. It could not have happened otherwise.
Strange how we get to know ourselves – in lightning quick flashes, shards of life.  I did not tell anyone about the moose, or the shining stars, or how very beautiful the night can be. I wanted to keep my joy to myself. Not out of shyness or loneliness, as my parents feared, or not exactly.  I knew then that I was miserly about my inner life – I had a stubborn, solitary streak, and it was not a shell, and I would never shed it.
I returned to my itchy sleeping bag and smiled all night long.  Next year, I thought, I'll climb Katahdin. 

A sense of place

(This post will be one of several about writing about place)

All cities have their mysteries, but it takes a while to find them. In Philadelphia's Washington Square, I know there's a soldier's ghost; in Queens Village, I can feel the slave graveyard, underground. In San Francisco, I'm figuring it out, one day at a time-- in search of what writer call "atmosphere."   

I first bought my condo in Mission Bay during the real estate fall-out. 

I think what sold me was the tiny bay or canal a few steps away. Especially the houseboats, which, to me, evoke the boat-dwellers of Dickens in Our Mutual Friend. Not many, but they glow at night, their inhabitants eschew shades; I can see them eating dinner.  A miniature city with a city, or a trace of what existed before Silicon Valley, before the antiseptic high-rises, before the coffee bars and power yoga, even before the dog-mania that seems to infect all of San Francisco. Not far, there's the South Beach Yacht Club, with its charming harbor, hundred of white boats.  

But truth is, I am living on landfill. It is all artificial, every bit of it, man-made.

My neighborhood is part of San Francisco's complicated history of filling up what were bays and lakes, to make room for shipbuilding, commerce. Two hundred years ago, South Beach was a warehousing district. The "real" Mission Bay was a body of water extending from the narrow creek that I walk along to over to Folsom Street.  Fresh water, yes, fresh, descended from nearby Potrero Hill. By the 1970s, the area had fallen into typical urban decay, ruined warehouses, open storage yards, unused streets—and only "development" rescued it.    

So, San Francisco was a city of water; and men made it what they wanted. Near Civic Center, where there was once was a lake, the seagulls hover: only they sense what's beneath San Francisco's inscrutable sidewalks. 

Why Write?

As a child, I rarely wrote.  I never had a diary.   

I made pictures out of numbers, I created different characters for all the digits. Poor 8 was pregnant, and 9 was a dandy. When I added or subtracted, I invented marriages, divorces, wars, babies. (No wonder I loved arithmetic.)

I created shoebox dioramas of the Seminoles, the Navajo, the Algonquin. Every box had its own little family.  I pasted gold stars on black paper to show the constellations against the night sky—I knew almost every constellation, I memorized every myth behind them. Oh, how I longed for a telescope!   

I stood on my mother's kitchen table and sang I'm No Fool to her astonished friends. I was a terrible ham. I played Puck in Midsummer's Nights Dream.

I collected rocks and minerals, testing each of my samples carefully on a hardness scale.  I labelled every index card. I was ecstatic when I found a piece of obsidian, the beautiful black volcanic glass.  I'd tell myself, this is part of the planet's history in my hands. Rocks were magical.

But words? They didn't have magic. Even now I don’t have one of those huge vocabularies that make writing easy.   

I never felt writing was my destiny, but I didn't believe in destiny.

Maybe it's because I was raised without religion: heaven is a kind of destiny, isn't it?  My dad mocked "morons" who prayed merely because their father or their grand-father or their great-grandfather had done the same. That's destiny, too, following the generations that came before you. You know where you're going, others have been there.  We were free to carve our own path.   

But where? I'd, somehow, become someone, maybe a housewife, maybe a doctor. It wasn't a dream, it was an obligation. Nothing pulled me in any direction.  When the time came, I didn't mind work, I ended up making good money.  It's not as if I'd sacrificed other talents, had I?

A few years ago, my brother-in-law showed me watercolors and pastels that he'd discovered inside a mahogany armoire that my sister had taken after my mother's death.  "A surprise," he called them.

"These are lovely," I said. "Who did them?"

"You did these," he said.

I couldn't imagine that I had painted them. Girls with balloons, lovely mountains, filled with joyful, explosive colors.

He pointed to my childish signature.  "You had talent. You should have them"

I began to remember. Hours alone in my bedroom, I painted, I drew; I lost all sense of time, I loved the feel of pastels, the fluidity of watercolors. I copied Art Nouveau drawings. I'd entered (and been a finalist in) a fashion illustration contest in my teens, so I must have sensed that I had talent.  Yet, I never felt I could be an artist.   Not once.   

But I don’t regret not painting. I don’t' regret not acting, not singing. They're all things I used to love, or things I never got to love. They're foreign places, they're dots on a map.
Yet writing, of all things, feels like home. Not a first love, but where I feel most myself, closest to my memories. Perhaps that is what destiny is, the thing that brings you full circle.

"The Wrong Time of Day" by Carla Sarett in Black Rabbit

A somewhat darker story, informed by darker times, but still set in Philadelphia.  "The Wrong Time of Day" appears in Black Rabbit.  Many thanks to the editorial staff for the wonderful illustrations -- such a pleasure to see in an online publication!

You can read it here:

"The Hidden Female Face of New York" published in The Inclusive Vision

Image result for emma stebbins
Emma Stebbins
Recently I have been delving into what I think of as the "lost and found" in American art, namely the public works created by American female artists.  Some of these works are lost in a metaphorical sense: they are actually in plain view, but oddly, ignored by scholars and critics as well as feminists.  Among these are two beautiful statues in Central Park, created by Emma Stebbins and Bessie Potter Vonoh)  as well as the stunning rondels of Radio City Hall (the last being the work of Art Deco's master, Hildreth Meiere.)  

Other works have a strange history of being applauded, then, in a subsequent generation, taken down and put into storage; this is true not only of paintings (New York's MOMA is a case in point, but there are others) but of important murals and mosaics as well.  It is only recently that these "lost" works are being "found" by a new audience.  For example, Hildreth Meiere's mosaics for the Prudential Building have been restored and can now be viewed (one at The Newark Museum.)  More on this issue, later-- it also affects female authors, whose "lost" works are not digitized, out of print and often unavailable at public libraries.

I discuss three female artists, Emma Stebbins, Bessie Potter-Vonoh, and Hildreth Meiere in "The Hidden Female Face of New York," published in The Inclusivion Vision:  Essays in Honor of Larry Gross.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...