I am back in Tucson, after a two-week triathalon of a road trip to the great city of Los Angeles and then up the Central Coast of California to Big Sur, Monterey, back down through Santa Maria, a night in Palm Springs, the last long leg of an action-packed journey, and at last–my own coffeemaker, birdfeeders and bed.
Where to begin? The drive into LA the Tuesday morning before Thanksgiving with NO TRAFFIC? Cruising into downtown around 9:30 was like the parting of the Red Sea–Welcome back, sang the 101 as I exited at Alameda, zoomed over to my favorite parking lot on Judge John Aiso Street, gathered some of the insane bits and bobs of gear, snacks and drinks I carry when on the road, and walked, no soared, up Temple and cut over toward the Starbucks in Grand Park. En route every person nodded, smiled, or said hi! The very trees whispered, Where have you been?
I paused to salute City Hall where my friend Ellen works or used to pre-COVID and that I now forever associate with this altogther splendid human being.
The Superior Courthouse bike messengers were milling about, giving each other the high sign and looking vaguely like drug dealers. A couple of tents were set up–literally against the wall of the courthouse (that was new). As always, the unhoused, Eurotrash, hipsters, nannies, tourists, lashionistas, and people just out…walking, looking around, sniffing the air–seamlessly mingled.
And when I walked into Starbucks, I swear–as if I’d never left California, or had never come in the first place–The Beach Boys were singing “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”
Also if on cue, the weather, in late November was perfect. Cofffe in hand, I settled in on “my” bench, turned my face to the sun, and basked. Up on Grand, a sharp-looking female lawyer stilettoed along, phone to ear. An old Asian guy rode slowly alongn his bike, plastic bag dangling from the handlebars. A tall and gloriously trashy silver tinsel tree stood sentinel before the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. I can’t remember the last time I felt so thoroughly, deliriously happy.
I know I’ve already (briefly) written about this little interlude but it was as if, for a couple of hours, I was given the grace to see the world through God’s eyes. I wasn’t hallucinating but it was kind of like when I used to drop acid back in high school–an altered state except not dark, not delusional. If only I could see through those eyes and feel that way all the time!
Grand Park is itself a kind of garden, and as soon as I finished my coffee, I made a beeline for another garden: the one at the top of Disney Hall. You can reach it by outside but unmarked stairwells to the west, north and east of the building (that I know of). It’s three or four stories up with a nice view to the west over downtown and just about any photo you take up there comes out great.
Then I walked around the Dorothy Chandler and the Ahmanson Theater, also dotted with some nice plantings, and then I made my way over to Our Lady of the Angels, the LA Cathedral, for noon Mass.
Utterly, utterly familiar; utterly dear. Utterly home.
From there I walked to the Geffen Contemporary, then drove to the Autry Museum in Griffith Park for an exhibit called “Dress Codes” (column ahead) with my dear friend Julia, and then back to Julia and her husband Aaron’s manse in the Hollywood Hills. This, too, was utterly familiar. I’ve attended countless Thanksgivings, gatherings of other kinds, teas, and dinners here. I’ve house-sat. I held my own birthday party here one year–60 maybe?
Over the course of the next week we had many adventures, tons of unbelievably delicious food (Julia’s an incredible cook and Aaron is no slouch either), hours of hilarious conversation, and deep discussions over the state of the world. Julia and Aaron have a garden front and back, and during the week I also visited my landscape designer friend Judy in Beachwood Canyon (STUNNING garden); my friends Donald and Alan, who also have a fantastically unique garden that includes a grape arbor, fig and lemon trees, a couple of raised vegtable beds, tons of succulents, roses, and chickens; and my friend Erik who not only has his own California native plant garden but WORKS at Theodore Payne Nursery.
I spent my last night in LA at my friend Lori’s also lavishly-appointed and recently-renovated house up in Altadena near the San Gabriel foothills. (Landscaping already charming and in progress, including an arbor of white crepe myrtles).
Everyone was so thoughtful and so kind. I couldn’t really take it in and the whole time was inwardly kind of wailing, Wait. Wait! I am the type who takes three hours to “process” one hour of actual happening/reality. So it was a lot. Also I was obviously way out of “my routine” which now that I’m home I realize in a whole new way actually involves a lot of “work” or what is work to me. Keeping up with people, responding to communications of various kinds, reading, taking notes, bookmarking. copying down quotes, making lists and files, pondering. Not to mention actual writing.
Meanwhile I may have mentioned I’m doing a 9-month Ignatian Exercises which requires at least an hour of prayer and writing each morning (that’s not even counting the Office, that day’s liturgy etc.) So my internal alarm clock woke me at 4 or even earlier each morning.
Anyway Lori sent me off with a huge ham and cheese sub from the Italian place off Lake in Pasadena, and a bar of dark chocolate, and a bunch of snacks, and off I went north up the 101 past Santa Barbar and San Luis Obispo to Pismo Beach, Route 1 and Big Sur! A five or six-hour drive, after which I washed up on the shores of New Camaldoli, a Cistercian hermitage that sits up a two-mile drive at the top of a bluff. The rooms overlook the Pacific and SILENCE IS KEPT, which was extra nice as by this time, having done more talking in a week than I usually do in about two months, I was thoroughly sick of the sound of my own voice.
There was no wifi and no cell reception up there, which I didn’t really mind except it would have been nice to know the weather. There is no other way to get from the monastery to my next stop, Monterey, except Route 1 which is one lane each way, hugs the coast, is extremely windy in places, goes on for 50 miles or so, and most troubling, is prone to rock slides from the towering bluffs above, many of which have gigantic boulders sort of hanging off, a situation that was exacerbated by the fact that almost the minute I left, the skies opened and began deluging rain. Every quarter mile was a big orange sign with a picture on it in black of giant rocks splattering down on some haples motorist. I gripped the wheel of my tiny Fiat, prayed the Luminous Mysteries, and all was well!
Monterey is another old haunt. Here I stayed, as I have many times before, at the San Carlos Mission Cathedral rectory. The highlight here was attending a private evening Mass at the Carmelite Monastery down the coast a bit with my friend Fr. Pat, then 8 am Mass there again the next morning. The convent is all wrought iron gates, rose-covered white stucco walls, a charming sanctuary with Colonial art, again, a beautiful garden, and the ocean (or I guess it’s a bay) literally acrross the street.
I had a nice walk around downtown Monterey and along the coast a bit to look at the seals (I forgot to say that wherever I was, I also took a long walk each day), and then I headed down, in heavy rain, to Santa Maria. Here, I visited with my beloved comadre, Tensie. Her husband Dennis was on retreat, her charming and beautiful daughter Rozella cooked scrumptious meals and the next day, Tens and I had a long walk along Pismo Beach in the Central California coast mist. I picked up sand dollars while Tensie explained how to tell a curlew (beak turns down) from a godwit (beak turns up).
That’s just a bare outline and I didn’t even get to the good Fr. Tom Hall in Palm Springs, and his crazy hospitality, nor to Msgr. Terry Richey who I was graced to visit at the Silverado Memory Care Assisted Living Home in LA’s Fairfax District. We said the Serenity Prayer together, or rather I said it, and I know absolutely that he followed along. And let’s not forget my side trip to Victorville, CA, where I got to see my beloved brother Roscoe, his wife Edilia, his son and my nephew Allen, and Edilia’s daughter Laura and husband Rob! SO MUCH FUN. I nabbed a succulent cutting from Ross’s garden, ferried it around for a week, and potted when I returned home.
Tensie sent me off with a little bag that held a persimmon from the tree in their back yard, a California avocado, a mason jar of the MOST delicious rhubarb-raspberry preserves, a bar of home-made lavendar soap and a hunk of cheese from the Redwoods Monastery with which she’s long been connected (and where Dennis was making his retreat, and collecting a Christmas tree with which he was about to drive 10 hours south). And a lovely conical, brown-and-white striped sea shell.
This all puts me in mind of one of my favorite essays of all time: E.B. White’s “What Do Our Hearts Treasure?”
Here’s what I treasured: Every cup of coffee, vase of flowers by my bed, fresh towel. The early pink camellias. The sea breeze wafting the smell of wild fennel. The magic-hour California light–surely more magical than just about anywhere on earth. Every second. Mass. The faces of my friends.
Christmas, Christmas, everywhere.