Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Shape of It

"Nothing less than the infinite and the miraculous is necessary..."

Vincent Van Gogh

If I don’t know the shape of something—either it’s too big or too unknown, my mind comes to the rescue and gives whatever that thing is is a particular shape. Of course, my given shape may not correspond whatsoever with the actual shape. My mind does this with things that actually have a shape as well as with those that don’t like my love for someone, which is always round.

Round is the shape of wholeness, the form of most integrity and what pizza dough becomes when it rises in the bowl dusted with flour, after the dish towel is removed and my father smiles. That dough is on its way to becoming dinner. And on the days my Pop made pizza we were a happy family, after the pizza came out of the oven, anyway. (He was never the happiest of men after the dough rose and he punched it down and spread it out thinly, southern Italian style, though the sweat-beads of frustration that dropped into the dough only made it better.) My father always baked enough pizza for the next day’s breakfast. That “enough” had its own shape: the smile on my face covered with sauce as far as my cheeks or maybe my eyebrows when I stood at the kitchen counter the next morning enjoying breakfast. A little pepperoni, a lot of mozzarella.

Hunger has one shape—long, dank and hollow. I’m sure for the too-many people who know hunger intimately every day, its shape is entirely different. Large, and not attractive in the slightest, far worse than dank. Maybe if you’re really hungry your mind hasn’t the energy to give a shape to that feeling. Or could giving shape to things just be what some children do?

When I first came to Jacks Peak I rode my bike up the monster hill to the west parking lot without any idea that what I was doing would later be beyond doing. Briefly, I looked around, noticed the clarity of the air up there, came to an absurd conclusion—that the trail ahead went a short way up, made a tight little turn, and arrived neatly back at the parking lot. I could see a rough outline of trees extending beyond the trail and imagined a vague square that quickly petered out into nothing.

I wrote the park off as being no bigger than a ham sandwich. A ham sandwich with the best mustard, but just a ham sandwich. (I don’t care for ham, no matter the mustard, no matter the rye bread. Even in the days when I purchased apples one at a time, I’ve had the luxury to never be so hungry that I had to.)

I think I convert things in mind to a size and shape it can manage. I’m from New York City and though that town may be chock-a-block with everybody and her sister, it’s a pretty small place, really—13.4 miles long. At its widest point it’s a mere 2.3 miles and at its narrowest a wee 0.8 miles. Which, of course, doesn’t count the vertical space rising up and up that is also densely populated. Jacks Peak is over 500 acres and that isn’t inclusive of its verticality either. Not the treetops, not the daring hawks, not the hovering, tree-kissing, whether foggy or clear, sky.

When I was little we had a small one bedroom apartment in upper Manhattan, near Ft. Tryon Park, until my sister came along and then we moved upstairs and had two. I feel best in small spaces. The house where Michael and I live has just 900 square feet. That’s a closet to some but to us it’s home.

This all brings me, circuitously as a wooded trail, to the walk Roxane and I took the other day. That walk is causing me trouble. My brain hurts. I can’t hold the park in my head anymore. It’s gotten really big. Especially having walked three times past its actual boundary and onto private land, past the sign that says my very own walking privileges could be revoked according to the civil code.

Said code reads, “No use by any person or persons, no matter how long continued, of any land, shall ever ripen into an easement by prescription, if the owner of such property posts at each entrance to the property or at intervals of not more than 200 feet along the boundary a sign reading substantially as follows: ‘Right to pass by permission, and subject to control, of owner: Section 1008, Civil Code.’"

For whatever I may ripen into, it shall not, apparently, be into “an easement by prescription.” Not that I’ve ever wished my easement to come about that way. In other words, the owners can kick my sweet ass off their land any ole time they choose. I walk assentingly. And gratefully.

Roxane and I went down a skinny trail for such a long way I began biting my fingernails in trepidation over the return climb, in bafflement over the size of the place that once I thought was too small to bother getting off my bike for.

At long last, after slipping more than once on strewn oak leaves and dried pine needles, we got to the very bottom of the trail. Like magic, nature spread her skirts wide, transformed herself from a long, canopied tunnel, into a meadow. Then one meadow narrowed, the bushes coming close, just in time to open onto another meadow and the earth did the same thing one more time until the trail zipped itself back up into a thin line again and the clock said we’d better quickly enjoy our lunch on the one bench provided for us by who-knows-who and then hightail it home.

I was too happy to bite my fingernails. I didn’t give a hoot about the awaiting difficulty of the return walk. Open sky was above, shedding its fog and becoming the bluest blue. Birds were everywhere. Each one calling our names.


  1. There is finally a lull from a hectic few days. First on the list for "my time" is to read and enjoy your writing on Jacks Peak. Today, everything seems okay, and I will read on.
    Thanks, Patrice.

  2. Oh yes, Ollie and I have walked that trail with our little dogs and were also suckered into thinking it would be a short loop.During the wet season, beware of leaf surfing down the declines and keep an eye out for red and yellow mushrooms erupting from the loam.

  3. I go on such walks infrequently. The day is too much with me, there is a dog to walk through the neighborhood, and I feel like Hoffer's man, yapped at by his responsibilities.
    But I do remember those quite walks, especially to the bench overlooking the bay, when I actually had time to notice the light on leaves, the pine whispers and shadow scuttles of the world around me. The shape of my world is smaller these days, more rectangular, and at this time of year, rarely clear.

  4. Hunger was a knotted rope I had the good fortune of seldom experiencing growing up. My Mexican godmother taught me how to make flour tortillas, and we made them three times a day for the meals she prepared for her family. Counting my voracious-bird appetite, there were three other generations of appetites living under the roof of a large, rambling ranch-style home on the edge of a golf course. Sometimes we had scrambled eggs and refried beans for breakfast. Sprinkled with a little freshly shredded cheese, this was a hearty eye-opener when combined with the tortillas. I was proud of not having to use a fork or spoon to get the food into my mouth. The tortillas I helped to make were perfect for scooping and grabbing once they were torn into smaller pieces. At home, my parents were puzzled at how I treated ordinary bread. Instead of using regular utensils to eat my food, I tore loaf bread into pieces and used it to eat my food like I did with tortillas. Eventually Mom and Dad figured out where I'd learned my peculiar habit, but they never did anything about it. Years later, I appreciated my parent's tolerance. They'd seen no need to correct my table manners, so I was able to enjoy my godmother's customs and those of my parents. Both worlds kept the rope unknotted and smooth, a good shape for contentment.