Drawing by Denise Chasin
Anywhere but Here, Like Nowhere Else
by E.Coletta June 1, 2018
I imagine raising kids with you in the Swiss Alps. Somewhere with: a green hillside, a house with a curl of smoke and a petit village where those kids would go to school. They'd walk there on the coldest mornings with funny hats and thick socks, speaking in accents better than our own. They'd play cruel, children's games until we'd make them apologize to the wronged parties, like the old woman whose cat they'd set sailing down a fast snow melt creek. The kids would be ashamed and the cat would be fine, though forever after wary and in its later years gaining stress weight and bearing a resemblance to Garfield. We'd call it such and no one would understand or even be able to pronounce the name, much less grasp the particularity of his sardonic character. Poor Garfield, we'd say, speaking happily into one another's ears English Alphabet Soup, each letter distinct and far from the village's slippery, pureed carrot language soupe.
Foggy mornings on the California coast invite the imagination, the wondering of other worlds. And it would have to be another world because having those kids here in reality is untenable. For one, I'd never be able to afford a full (full!) cart of New Leaf groceries while my little pumpkin sipped green juice out of compostable plastic. Later, covered in zinc oxide and probably obnoxious, the little pumpkin would surely demand to skateboard down marine terraces made dangerous and agreeable to gravity by the rise and recession of ancient seas. Independent of imagined offspring and emergency room nightmares, these terraces do in actuality provide a cozy backdrop of barbered, beige hills in the summer. We describe these summers as what they are like, rather than what they are. That is, these summers are part of our “Mediterranean” climate. It cannot really be Mediterranean because 1. it isn't and 2. it lacks the blinding heat and the white wine and olives in the afternoon.
It is temperate, here, in a word. A friend once said that weather builds character, and that Santa Cruz doesn't have any weather. He is from the Northeast and has a lot of character. It is true that this region lacks qualities such as clear, cold mountain air and the lively, difficult breathing associated with altitude. All we've got really is wind which in late spring just makes you feel ruffled and stupid in the head with histamine (if this is character, then I have it). We've also got fog (another muffled sort of sensation) which makes barking sea lions seem closer than they are, which is not charming, but reminds you of the snaggle-toothed, wet, haggish roaring head of the sea which is again not charming, but perhaps more accurate.
While it may not build character, Santa Cruz does invite characters who imagine. Wallace Stegner, in Angle of Repose, his opus on the West, presents to us Susan B. Ward and her mining husband Oliver Ward as they sit against yellow cliffs and look at the glimmering Monterey Bay. Susan imagines a future in which the wealth of the then-nonexistent lime industry would buy her a house on the cliffs where she may raise her son. She asks, in speaking of her son, “Can't you see him on this beach, chasing sandpipers and getting his big feet wet?” I imagine her imaginary house looking like the one just south of Pescadero on the ocean side of Hwy 1, the A-frame with big windows: somewhere she can look poetically in the distance. In another scene, Susan and Oliver look out into the thick fog at the dark shapes that appear out of nothing: “Everything's still to do, the word isn't yet spoken. It's like standing in front of a whited block that you have to make into a picture.”
This is not to say that Santa Cruz is only a world of imaginings. Consider the redwoods, our claim to fame. The old growth is solid enough a picture: a spacious understory, impressive fallen logs reminding of giants, carpets of sorrel, height that invites the head up and keeps it there longer than most necks are comfortable with. Then there is second growth, a rather messy and repetitive affair. The adolescent trees have the air of being tended by a gardener whose lopers were just not quite long enough. The ground bears the evidence of this pruning, heaped with duff that the lazy gardener has left for 75 years. The logs on the ground are small enough to flip. The salamanders you find underneath are rather uninteresting (but Slender! They protest). Crunching above the salamanders are University students wide eyed and perhaps stoned, discovering barefootedness and convinced the forest is benefiting their blood pressure, the sight of them in outfits the same as your own a decade ago making you wonder- was that me? Was I ever here? I was so unique. Shoot.
Pines, though, now there is an agreeable tree at any life stage and if you go to the sandhills up the San Lorenzo Valley you can breathe in the Ponderosa pines and be calm and not wonder when 500 years will pass already so you can walk without the feeling that some time, long ago, someone made some bad choices. Nice whistle to the pines, too. And below them, a sandy, sparse, clean Scandinavian design: the orange pop of the monkey flower and the wash of lilac bleached lupin like little throw pillows on brushed wool. It reminisces cozily of Copenhagen apartments while smelling like bigger mountains and the sun stretched skin of the Sierra.
Like, like, like: summers like the Mediterranean, like bigger mountains, ocean sounding like a sea-lion hag. What is Santa Cruz anyway if it is just like other stuff? Why can't it just be here and what about originality and uniqueness, for God's sake? Theorist and writer William Gass defends metaphor in saying “...by means of the metaphor, the artist is able to organize whole areas of human thought and feeling, and to organize them concretely, giving to this model the quality of sensuous display.” He holds this organization is not for something as shiny as “truth”, or to display “insights”, but rather offers a “new ordering”. I would add that, in this new ordering, there is opportunity for appreciation. Even if you tried to abandon the shores of simile and metaphor by saying, sparkle-eyed and moon-beamed, “Santa Cruz is like nowhere else”, I'd first ask you to reflect on the word that rhymes with bike in your statement, then ask you what is this “nowhere” to which you compare Santa Cruz, then, finally, I'd put my hands on my hips and ask: okay, but what is it like? I'd also ask these questions to the lover who says his lover is “like nobody else.”
These phrases “like nobody else” and “like nowhere else” are stop-gap funding measures of speech: they buy us time while while we attempt to get to the root of the matter. Typically, when we say these phrases, we are overwhelmed by the vastness of feeling. What we are trying to say is: I am baffled and lack the vocabulary and images to express X completely. To answer it, is to answer in image.
Trees, sands, oceans, wetness, kelp stuck against your calf squeezed there by wetsuit as if for preservation in an herbarium, imagined things, olives, white wine, Garfield in a snow melt swollen creek, children born in the Alps: these are some answers in image. You've got to sometimes go far away, or anywhere but here, and dreamily, to get at what is just in front of you.
It was precisely here though, in the shaggy redwoods, above the fog and just after dawn, the sun coming up over the last mountain on its way to the sea, that the sunlight streamed through the window and onto the bed so that it moved in the light as if underwater. I woke wondering how the Northern Mockingbird managed the Steller's Jay so well and why it was imitating the Steller's and not the Scrub Jay who regularly beats me with one eyeball as it hangs from the gutter outside, only to realize I was waking next to you in the mountains and not on my suburban street and that it was in fact a real Steller's Jay singing its own song and I told you my mistake while we were both half asleep. Later, half awake again, I asked you if you remembered, you said, “yes, I remember.” You said it like nobody else.