California on a Winter's Day
We watched the Holiday one evening last week during the strange period that is the hiatus between Christmas and New Year. I’d seen this movie at least twice before but was spurred to watch it again after a conversation with my sister who commented that she had particularly liked the character of Arthur, the octogenarian screenwriter, played by Eli Wallach. So, when I settled down with my husband and teenage son for an evening viewing, it was to Arthur’s story that I paid particular attention. As I watched his character unfold and listened to the sharply witty dialogue, I felt very close to the spirit of Hollywood of time past. The spirit of an age where time moved more slowly, movies were fewer and grander somehow and lives were lived with scandalous style. It’s a spirit that I am reminded of, in fact, every time I drive on Sunset Boulevard. With its long and winding trajectory, secretive greenery and mysterious mansions it whispers of secret glory days gone by; I am always slightly surprised when I don’t see Bette Davis, Clark Gable or Eva Gardener in my rearview mirror.
While I love this Tinseltown face of Los Angeles and any movie theatre is a place I am happy to be, it isn’t the facet of the city that truly holds my heart. I fell in love with California a long time ago; back as a teenager I think growing up in Manchester in the North of England. Exactly why or how this happened escapes me now but as I look back I remember that I felt an immensely strong pull towards the light and the life that California represented. As I grew older and discovered that cities were where I had to live to feel truly present in the world my gaze sharpened and Los Angeles became the focus of my attention.
Ah Los Angeles! The very name itself gives me the shivers. I think I’ve mentioned already that I must always get to the heart of the matter; particularly when it comes to places where we are living. Now this is somewhat peculiar, as for me it has more to do with feeling an essence with which I can connect than understanding the precise history. So for example when I am spending summers in London I will sit by the Tazza Fountain goddesses in the Italian Gardens and listen to the air murmuring. Or in when in Manhattan I visit the NYC Reservoir and gaze at the water and the skyline simultaneously. When I feel the need to breathe and be surrounded by the warmth that I firmly believe is at the root of the city of Los Angeles, I drive east on the 10 to the Avila Adobe.
The Avila Adobe, built by Francisco Avila a Californio and wealthy cattle rancher in 1818, is the oldest standing residence in Los Angeles. It was part of the town known as El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles (The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels) which of course today is simply known as the city of LA . I visited this house first with a friend who used to guide tours all around the area and I knew immediately that this was the place that I would haunt whenever it was necessary to feel the beating heart of this city. The house has been reconstructed and each room is furnished with original artifacts. As soon as I enter, the present quite simply melts away and I see Francisco working at his desk in the study while his wife Maria sings softly in the bedroom. Other times the dishes are being cleared after a large meal in the family room and the guitar and violins are tuning up for an evening of music, singing and dancing. Such incredible warmth of spirit surrounds you in this house that you know joy, sorrow and well, life itself, were felt deeply here. And I think in this, Los Angeles is extraordinarily different from anywhere else that I know, somehow there is a beating power, a positive force and a warmth here that enables one to feel one’s humanity and the best and strongest elements of it incredibly deeply- if such is one’s wish.
Yesterday, with my daughter in tow, I strolled across the square to the church La Placita after leaving the adobe and photographed the beautiful annunciation mosaic on the facade. Standing in the courtyard we were surrounded by parishioners dressed up in their finery bringing their children, clothed in white, to baptism. As I sensed true spiritual humility and earthiness I was moved beyond words and I smiled at my daughter as tears of happiness slipped out amidst the city filth, tents and hotdog stands.
As we drove back West to our Buddhist center under the grey skies and threatening rain I felt at home. Despite all the noise and crazy of this place at the edge of the world there is a space for the age old simplicity of spiritual tradition. Tough and gentle men and women have followed the path and kept the faith; been born, loved, lived, grown old and died here and the echoes of that reality are all around us. We need but listen.