I touch the Earth because there are so many things I do not see.
(quoted in Red by Terry Tempest Williams)
A few months ago, I wrote about how capturing the essence of a city is best done through snapshots- brief views of a place that each capture its character. At the time, I liked this approach because it allowed me to quickly capture many varying scenes of the same place. I have found Portland to have many different characters that I captured in this previous post: the serene parks contrasted to busy downtown public squares. The same has been true of my many experiences in San Francisco over the years. I hold my memories of the city and my favorite places in it as snapshots, glittering pieces of memory, which have placed their ragged edges together in my mind, reminders of beauty and meaning in the midst of the urban life I led there.
For instance: viewing South San Francisco from the top of Bernal Hill, a big ball of flame lowering behind the sloping hills of Diamond Heights. Climbing hidden stairways with Sam to reach Twin Peaks, hair whipping out of our control at this exposed peak. Strolling along Noe Street alone, shaded by the overhanging mall of trees leading to Duboce Park. Walking Ocean Beach with Ann countless times, always accompanied with disbelief at the ocean so close by. And hikes of Mt. Tam, just across the Golden Gate Channel. Late nights drinking and dancing among the grunge of the Mission, hoping to catch the J with the rest of them at midnight, always climbing the stairs onto a raucous, cheerful post-party hubub. Walking and running countless times beneath the strong fragrance of eucalyptus trees at Glen Park Canyon, a deep ravine cut dramatically down from O’Shaughnessy Boulevard. These memories of places go on and on, creating a tapestry of mosaics in my mind, glittering shards.
One of my favorite authors, Terry Tempest Williams, uses the metaphor of mosaics as well, in her book Finding Beauty in a Broken World. A meditation on fragmentation, justice, and connection, Williams always finds meaningful ways to describe how the human and natural worlds collide. I love this concept of finding beauty in a broken world. And I am reassured that despite the hate and despair that we live in, despite the stress of uncertainty and fear I sometimes feel in my own life, that there are always gems of beauty, colorful shards of magnificence that we can hold onto in our palms as we travel through our everyday.
And my most recent trip to San Francisco was no exception. A week removed, the sunny five days I spent there are a tapestry of glittering mosaics, pieces of beauty that fit together into a larger picture. I arrived in the beginning of 4th of July week, beginning my visit with an epic walking and transit tour of the city, visiting Dubose Park for quick moment to sit in the grass and read, then off on the N line for fish tacos on the Embarcadero, then the bus to Fisherman’s Wharf to walk the bay again and stop for a sundae at Ghiradelli Square.
Eventually, when the sun was low in the sky and the shadows were growing long, I bid farewell to Paige and continued my journey, arriving at the far West location in the city, the end of the world, at a place where Wildness and peace meet. A place of great spiritual depth and energy. Land’s End. Alison and I brought a picnic dinner and sat on a flat rock next to Eduardo Aguilera’s labyrinth, our hair dancing violently in the wind as we dipped bread in hummus and layered it with tomatoes and pesto. We filled our bellies and filled our souls with conversation.
The ocean stretched out before us, a place of unbelievable Wildness that would have spoken directly to Terry Tempest Williams’ pen. Gulls balanced in the air, tightrope walking their way across the thermals, wings outstretched. Sometimes they dipped left or right, body turned horizontally to the water. And over our head flew a dozen Brown Pelicans, big beaks outstretched, dipping, flying. The wind tempted us to jump off the jagged rocks, forceful hands of propelled air- Go! Go! Go! Off the edge of the world! The sun began to use its strength, sinking inch by inch, lower and lower. Was it aching to be burned out by the coolness of the ocean, to squelch its scorching heat? The fog rolled in, under the red bridge to our right, sending its whispy tendrils over the landscape, making the light dusky and calm. We walked the labyrinth, feeling ourselves as two humans, part of the Wildness. We left quotes in honor of our favorite author. In Wildness, in Peace.
A couple days later, on my last night in the city, I ventured to a stairway I had first glimpsed in picture form, posted by my friend on Facebook. Ever since seeing the ascending steps with their glittering mosaics, I knew I had to make my own journey there. The stairway is called the Barr-Crutcher Staircase, named after the two San Francisco artists (Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher) who were commissioned in 2003 to place the mosaics on the existing staircase in the Inner Sunset. This piece of community art spans 163 steps located on Moraga Street between 15th and 16th avenues.
Ann and I spotted it from a block away when we were driving along a parallel street, a swath of rainbow reaching up to the sky. In the light of the sun setting over the ocean to the very near West, each stair sparkled its bright color. We walked up to the stairway in awe, amazed at the craftsmanship that had been exerted for such a community art project. Stair by stair, we examined the details- first ocean and land with their creatures; then far at the top La Luna; and shining at the top, mirroring the glow behind us, El Sol. Step by step, muscles straining, ascending into the air. At the top, we turned around, breath caught in our throats, our lungs heaving just a little bit, the whole Sunset district and the ocean laid before us. At the street above, we were able to turn right and just a ways down the street ascend another stairway which led to the top of a large conical sand dune, Grand View Park (or Turtle Hill). A remnant of the days when the Sunset neighborhood was built on sand dunes, this park truly lives up to its name. With a whole 360 degree view that puts Twin Peaks and Bernal Hill to shame, we soaked in the city. As is the same at other San Francisco hill parks, the wind whipped our hair into our eyes and we struggled to stay upright as we circled the wooden fence surrounding the I pinnacle.
San Francisco sparkled this time. Maybe it was the insistent sun, reminding us that July 4th officially marks summer North of the Bay Area. Maybe it was the smiles of my friends, welcoming me back to a city I love. Maybe it was the comforting familiarity enmeshed with the novelty of the new that sparkled. Or maybe it was the shards of glass on the Barr-Crutcher staircase. But regardless, I found beauty on this trip. Some was laid out before me, as obvious as the expanse of a medieval tapestry. But some was made of shards, sharp pieces of amorphous glass that, after they’re laid next to each other, reveal the most stunning of pictures.