Blue Bowl of Sky
How we feel about where we are, what our mental image is of the weather and landscape of our days, depends on where we were before, and how we arrived.
I first saw the West of small towns and desert spaces when, very young, and only a few months married, my husband and I drove from the East Coast to start graduate school in Northern California which we approached circuitously, via the Southwest, where he had already been, and where there were ruins he wanted me to see and friends he wanted me to meet. New York City, the densest, most highly urban landscape in the U.S., had been the seemingly infinite center of my childhood and young adult world; when we drove West I left behind my entire family—parents, aunts, uncles and cousins—in the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan and “the Island.” Though the generation above me were almost all immigrants from Europe, only one of them or their children had been as far as Michigan; most hadn’t been west of Pennsylvania.
My husband and I were in that stage of life when buying Melmac plates in beige and aqua at a drugstore—our first dinner service!—was exciting. An only child, marrying and venturing to the edge of the continent, I was shaking off the yoke and protection of my loving but intensely close mother and father (which I had begun to loosen when I chose to go to college in Massachusetts, though my mother had preferred that I stay in “the city.”) All that first year of graduate school, my dad—in those pre-email, pre-cell phone days, when long distance calls (considered too expensive for everyday talk) meant someone had died—sent tapes for me to play on a cheap tape recorder, lugubrious tapes about how much he and mom missed me, his voice thick with incipient tears.
On that first trip to the far West, it was both strange and exhilarating to see towns whose beginnings and endings were visible—compared to the seeming endlessness of building-crowded New York avenues—towns whose dusty streets dropped off into the desert, vulnerable, unprotected, yet brave towns, rubbing up on vast silences. I first saw forests with solitary, articulate pines in receding rows, no fuzzy, obscuring understory—only pine needles—on the ground between them; I liked that independence and clarity. And most of all in that September, once we’d crossed the Rockies, I saw an unobscured horizon; even the suburban and rural parts of the Northeast were so much less panascopic than Western vistas; I saw sky. This was a sky no longer white, close, and hovering; it was as if a great gauze bandage had been lifted from my sight. This sky was an enormous bowl of blue turned over, drenching us in light, dropping out a bit of horizontal detritus: a town, a gas station on an empty road, a collection of rocks.
Of course there had been days in New York when the ocean breezes cleansed the air and it was brisk and crystalline. And, of course, every kind of New York weather was the weather of my childhood and therefore, in my childhood, weather as weather should be. But the horizon in Manhattan (where I went to high school) is devoured by and textured with buildings; the eye is drawn to detail opening onto more detail: walls of glass reflecting sky and cloud, windows capturing and throwing the discus sun. Even outside Manhattan, in the provincial Bronx where I was raised, apartment houses crowd the sky; the eye alights on their crenellated tops, on the aerials stuck like haphazard pins in the pincushions of their tarry roofs. The buildings hold one in like the walls of slot canyons; vistas plunge down them. The sky may be infinitely melancholy at dusk, but it seems to be made that way by the lights coming on in innumerable apartment windows. It is juxtaposed, always, for me, to the mass and might of human architecture, to the vast collection of human souls buzzing tightly in one place. My young husband and I had driven out under a sky that was boss, or god, under an enormous blue bowl where the wind blows without restriction. And after that first trip across the United States, I lived in a new mental space, a new psychological weather, even though the Northern California town near our University, where we rented an apartment during our first year, looked surprisingly seedy for blue and golden California. That unconfined wind seemed to sweep even the slightly cloying familiarity of my natal family from me. I was new when I stepped off the plane on the next summer visit East, into the white haze of air, air palpable on my shoulders as my mother’s hand—which I would now tolerate—brushing some lint from my jacket that I hadn’t asked to be brushed.
I lived in that space, even if—when my husband got a job in Riverside—I was shocked by the aridity and heat of September in Southern California, the sky- and mountain-obscuring smog, especially because he had given me an idyllic verbal scratch ’n sniff with greenery and orange blossoms after his visit the previous May. And I continued to live in that psychological weather system, a blue-gold near desert sparkle, during all the years I drove weekly on the 215 between Iowa Avenue and Mill Street to do my shopping at Fedco—that nude expanse of dusty freeway blowing with trash, unsoftened by trees or grassy median, and, like many Southern California freeways, much uglier than many Eastern highways.
Now I have lived here for decades; my parents have grown old and died; my children have grown up and flown. And even now, when there are more and wider freeways—certainly no prettier—there are days of sky, perhaps especially in the early spring when it is not yet too hot and orange blossom is in the air (at least on the UCR campus), when my mental weather, that Platonic ideal, is realized in the actual, sublunary world. I feel exalted, unleashed, grateful, lost in that cloudless blue that makes me crane my head back to take it in, as if I could never get tired of it, never want argosies of cumulus, or sky-texturing cirrus. It has depth and no depth at the same time. It is a blue so profound it seems to burn, so pure it seems the archetype of the celestial. My head so far back I am dizzy, I look at and into the sky, feeling unadulterated joy, however briefly feeling free.