Layers of land and sky

I have to admit: I'm a little bit in love with California.

Los Angeles (to my midwestern eyes) is bright and clear, and so much wider and greener than I expected. Everything stands in crisply stacked layers, foreground to background, through the window of my northeast neighborhood: succulents and sidewalks and houses and lemon trees backed by lines of palm and cypress, and the green-gray foothills, and then the pale rising blue. It smells like sage and citrus and pine in the early morning, when the mountains are still dark and blended into the sky, and my breath comes out faintly visible as dawn shakes off the night chill.

I’ve been kind of spoiled; the El Niño storms followed me here the first week of January and brought once-in-a-decade rains that scrubbed the air clean and made rivers reappear in their long-dry channels. Even on smoggy days, though, there seems to be a kind of crystalline clarity to the light that traces the edges of things nearer to view, and throws them into a sharp focus.

I took the long road here: looped from Michigan up to northern Wisconsin for Christmas, then on to Missouri (where I picked up my copilot Christina and backseat rockstar Cora), and on down through Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle. We drove under the jaw-dropping skies of New Mexico, through the red and gray rocks and timberline peaks of Arizona, and finally into the borderlands of southern California, tall and dry and studded with Joshua trees.

There's something mesmerizing about crossing that much terrain in a short period of time. Feeling the ground pass underneath you; seeing the familiar fields and forests blur by and — as the hours pass — turning almost magically into compact desert and low calico hills, which then grow into mountains that change and shift on the horizon like the colors of the sun.

I keep thinking of a line from a Rainer Maria Rilke poem: Now you must go out into your heart as onto a vast plain. There is a wide-open wildness to this kind of travel, this kind of pilgrimage, that is daring me to look both further into the distance and closer at the ground I'm standing on than I am comfortable with. I'm glad for it, though. I want to keep my heart awake and alive to change, to new and strange lands; both within and beyond the borders I know. I want to be okay with opening up questions I thought I'd already answered, and giving them space to be unknown again.

That's all I've got, for now. Here's something that I wrote recently, a reflection on travel and land and — mostly — the miracle of being alive, today, and here.

I could weep for the beauty of the earth,
the green blur and wide pools of light
I need to feel the land move beneath me,
to know the world I’m passing through
see the colors melt and turn like leaves,
staccato poplars marking time

I pay a debt to the fields and pasture
acknowledge the lines where borders meet
and gallantly bow, clover
and goldenrod tracing each other’s curves

When the world gives way
and all we know begins to shift and shine
breaking a surface that we cannot see
it will bear a shocking glory,

brilliant and strange
but now, this moment — 

this is ours
the land among us
breathing, grieving, dying, leaping
a body like our own
even more lovely for its age
and fallow places,
stunning because it is ours
to see and know,
to break and bless

And this, love
this is all we have.

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