Devil Winds

standing on roof

Maybe you remember Elliot Rodger. He committed a mass shooting in Santa Barbara in twenty fourteen. Before heading out the door that evening, he emailed his parents a 141-page statement about his life, all of whose pages I have read more than once. I read it when the newspeople put it online (which they did very promptly)—Rodger and I had lived in the same neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley and must have visited the same shops and walked the same routes. On some day before the spring of 2014, we must have sat in the same Barnes and Noble at the same time. I lived in San Francisco in the spring of 2014 and I was very cold and tired, and I wanted to go home to the south.

I read Rodger’s statement again this November when a man committed a mass shooting near here. These days I live in the Valley. Rodger refers to places I see each week and a land I am surrounded by. Let me tell you about this land, in November, in twenty eighteen.

November has the Santa Ana winds. They are hot and dry. You’ve read about them. This year they come in the night. I am awake in Woodland Hills when they arrive. Woodland Hills and Calabasas are side-by-side in the Valley below the Santa Monica mountains. In the night the mountains are silent and black and heaving with sage and lemon sage and other wild herbs. Distant homes stand in light on the far hills like the Northern Corona (clear as a bracelet from Calabasas where you and I stand now).

Look at the soft immense curtain of the Santa Monicas. Inside it, there is a canyon called Topanga which leads to the Pacific Coast Highway and the water. At night Topanga is a cold alley. The library is black under its folkloric eaves. The cantilvered homes are black and their rubbish, their discarded kayaks, dented paper lanterns, knotted strings of Tibetan flags, red and blue and yellow but black in the dark, shape themseves around the deep feet of the houses’ stilts. Rubbish growing in shapes with the hairlike roots of the white alder and the breathing sagebrush.

The Santa Ana winds are pushing through all of this like surf.

The Top o’ Topanga Overlook is a slant into the lids of green mountain trees and, beyond, the bright system of lights of the Valley. People go here after dark to have sex or to see the stars. Raccoons climb straight up the torsos of the live oaks to emerge suddenly from the manzanita blossoms and terrify.

Some years ago I jogged each night in Calabasas, up and down the hills. The sprinklers screamed on and lit my legs. Houses expelled their dryers’ steam. On the tops of hills the whole sky doubled and touched me, closed over me like a sheet when I was a child and my parents would make the bed over me. Coyotes chanted.

Dry at night in Calabasas. The smell of rocks in the desert. The homes’ skylights glow from inside. The pine’s hot trunk at the foot of the hill—pine above me like a kind silent god, immediate father of sheep and weird knowledge. A father who births sheep and letters.

In the day in November in the Valley the Anas grab the orange trees in the gardens beside the pools. The scent of the orange trees is in your head, as far back as your sinuses. Come down my old neighborhood to the grocery and the houses on Mulholland—the foothills haired like boars or yellow horses. This is the border between Calabasas, where there is money, and Woodland Hills, where there is less. Look up there. The gigantic tarps hanging from the houses on the cliffs. Construction was stopped in 2008. Ozymandian tarps, rolling blue in the airs.

The front yards of the ranch houses of Woodland Hills—the gradiant birds-of-paradise flowers and the two billion hummingbirds and the cereus cacti standing on the high shoulder between roads. In November some bougainvillea remain on the branch and some are dry on the ground, still very pink. The dry bougainvillea jump in the Anas, and the white petals from the blooming trees too and the purple twists from the jacarandas and the toasted pink roses and the green leaves the gardeners cut.

The sidewalks are not so accessible in Southern California. The city planners did not expect you or I or Elliot Rodger to travel on foot. Some hills break off in rocks and dust, and below the sheer hillsides and jutting prickly pear there are white blocks of stone the size of legs in the center of the path, there as if they’ve never been elsewhere. Go toward Ventura, the main street of the Valley. The palm trees glitter like car-dealer bunting in the winds.

The land is calico with autumn. The gingko is green and yellow. CVS, Coffee Bean, sex shop, brow threading. Lizards teleport onto the sidewalk as you walk. Huge banks of lavender. Lantana and butterfly weed. Wind goes up the cypresses. Diamond-cut grit all the way from the Mojave sinks into the corner of your eye.

The flashing egg-shaped leaves of the olive trees. The children deep down in the field at Taft, below the road. The girl-eye of the hawk. The meat-red skins of the palms drop into traffic. The blue-gum eucalyptuses are peeling, too; their bark is sliding down amid the fennel on the angled verge beside surface streets like men on ice. 

Shadows swell around the stones of the San Gabriel hills and you are surprised that the evening has come so early. In the heat you had forgotten it is November.

I read Rodger’s henlike account of his life this November and then the wildfires start. Taft fills up with fire refugees. The college in Woodland Hills shelters the horses from Topanga. Calabasas evacuates. I wipe the green matter from the windowsills and it smears black. At Starbucks a woman moves the dust mask from her mouth and tells us that road signs on the 101 are twisted and the power lines are down.

Burned trees look strange in the months post-fire. They have the shape of trees without leaves, but they are absolutely black. You can drive through them in the hundreds before you recognize what it is you are driving amongst. They look like winter trees, and it is January; even in Southern California, some trees are bare before springtime. It is only that they are so black. There is new chapparal on the ground around them, a roll of chapparal like the wave which passes over a mammal’s fur in a breeze or stretch. It rains generously this January, and the garbage cans are knocked down the flooding streets, and the winter jasmine blossoms.

Osiris

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Image: Seated Osiris-Anedjty, 285-246 B.C., the Metropolitan Museum of Art

My mother read to me each night of my childhood. I think this is how I learned to read—certainly I don’t remember being taught. I can’t remember a time before I could read, just as I can’t remember a time before I could speak. No one taught my mother, either, and no one read to her, and yet like me she can’t remember ever having been without her letters.

When she read to me, she read to me books that I chose and books that she chose. She read her old favorites and she read faddish things and she read children’s books and books for adults. She read Wind in the Willows and Animorphs and Ramona Quimby and A Christmas Carol and Little Women until Beth died, and every word of The Lord of the Rings.

My mother worked at a magazine and we didn’t get to see each other during the day or immediately after school; maybe this is why the language of stories has affected me so phenomenally—maybe this intensely happy association of stories and she-is-now-here has taught me that stories are my mother and that I am stories, because of course I am my mother. Maybe instead the same thing which cosseted me up to literacy, and my mother before me—this tendency toward words? Or toward the signs of letters? Or toward sound?—is the reason I am as I am. Whatever the case, I am fundamentally a story person.

Recently I’ve had cause to consider what this means. Story people are not alike. That we read gives us very little in common, less than if we were theater people or gallery people. I’m not prepared to describe the substantial differences between story people, but I’ve begun to develop an idea of how I was experiencing stories as a child, and how this differs from the experience of other story children.

At the moment, I identify three different methods of experiencing story. In my view, any of these may be applied to any form of story, and children typically read favoring one method strongly over the others. That is to say, children who read using the method of Novel tend to read all stories using the method of Novel.

Novel: involvement / escape / participation in alternate humanity in the lived world

Fairy Tale: a re-experience of the lived world with new, poetic terminology

Myth: a first / prime / original experience of the lived world as poetry

The child who reads using the method of Novel may, as far as I can understand it, be performing many actions with the lived world as she reads—she may be learning or refining feelings relating to lived events. She may be adopting a new habitat, rejecting her lived world. She may be experiencing others’ lived worlds with the intimacy unique to writing. The novel is a tremendous category of experience which I don’t fully understand and don’t wish to fully understand—I didn’t use Novel as a child and I don’t use Novel now as an artist of novels and stories. Altogether, I would term Novel a human action, something which has to do with a person’s experience of the lived world and the implications those experiences have had and will have on the person’s life in the world (this can refer to much more than her actual choices in and decisions about the lived world, of course; a person’s experience of the lived world may be one of transcendental human empathy).

The child who uses Fairy Tale re-experiences the lived world in new, poetic terms. “Poetic”, in my use, is that which uses language to divide the real thing from its appearance, historical actions, function or role in order to represent the thing or its meaning more accurately. The child who uses Fairy Tale re-experiences her own life and comes to understand the lived world as 1. a space which can be articulated and named 2. a place in which the identity of a thing may be understood both as its appearance in the lived world and as a translated thing in hypothetical events 3. as a place full of things which can be re-created (referred-to, if you like) and remain themselves. The Fairy Tale is a codifying action (the naming of things, research into things) and a mystical action (the thing becomes other than itself and remains itself; the thing can be considered outside the lived world although it is without doubt a thing inside the lived world). Tangentially, it is my opinion that codification is inherently mystical.

The child who uses Myth experiences the act of poetry before she experiences the lived world, or as a ground for her experience of the lived world. To use Myth is to experience the lived world as a story; to assume that every thing and sensation and event in the lived world must be interpreted in the moment of experience as being both real and unreal, literal and symbolic, bound in time and immortal.

To use Myth honestly—to use it as the Mythological Child uses it—you must believe that all things simulate and repeat themselves and that the act of simulation is a real thing being described by its inability to describe itself. That the thing cannot exist fully in any single state of being, and that it tries to remember itself and assert itself impossibly, that in fact the thing appears impossible, is the state of reality for the Mythological Child. Essentially, for the Mythological Child this state is both impossible and true. In a legitimately Mythological myth, we are meant to fully believe that a mummy dressing resurrected the literally real and literally dead Osiris, and also that these things did not happen and there is no such person. In the legitimate myth and in the method of Myth, reality cannot be described using the shapes of the lived world. The action of Myth is religious—it is reverential and reflexive. It admires the thing and rediscovers the thing.

Minotaur One

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Picasso, Minotaur Caressing the Hand of a Sleeping Girl with his Snout, 1933

Its vegetarian mouth is open. In films little diamonds tilt from velvet pouches. Fingers manicured for close-ups raise the little diamonds and light shows the diamonds’ white grids. Light makes each facet oblique. Diamonds seem to sparkle because they are serially made blank by light, and their relief into transparency as they wheel out of light seems like glitter.

The minotaur weighs over the woman. The hairs of the hide along the bridge of its nose meet at the center. The bull’s head is larger than a man’s but the bull’s head is full of round and flat teeth made for pulling the white-rooted, wet-rooted stalks from the field and mashing them in the mouth like a warm grinding mill.

The minotaur has hands like a man. The head of a man, the head of a bull, the hands of a man, the minotaur’s hands … the ridiculous size of masculine bodies, their hardness packed in flesh and hair, like a truck engine wrapped in a sweater …

The minotaur’s curled head is made of edgy shapes, trapezoids and rough hair which at the limits of the head can be seen-through as the minotaur moves: between the black point or black curve and the slope of the animal head is the wallpaper, the moonlight on the wallpaper, the minotaur’s shoulder.

Lynx

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I taught English and History to the girl in the mountains. Her devoted parents had constructed a dreamhouse schoolroom in the high attic. The house stood along the bouncing heights of the canyon, topped and shouldered by live oaks and chaparral and lavender and sage and olive trees and horned cactus and cactus whose paddle-leaves were the texture of expensive bags.

Out the northern windows the far heights, houses and community buildings, small and infrequent. Throughout the day the land around the buildings would rise from blue to green like a happy face flushing.

The schoolroom was painted teal and sneaker-white. The big-lipped, sloe-eyed fashion doll on its stand beside the computer. The precious saddle, huge as an octopus, on its rack in the alcove.

Out the west-facing windows the staircase, the oak leaves level with our eyes, the wall of land and the slope of the hill which had been partially cleared and leveled for the chicken coops. The corner of land where the wall, its balancing trees and thick herbs, met the slope. When the drought broke that spring, a little waterfall stood there like a melting gray candle.

The portion of the hill which had been customized was a series of blonde, fence-straitened grades, dusty, flat to build on and simpler to climb than the natural hill. At breaktime the girl let herself down the ladderish staircase and took out her goose, carefully embraced it, and filled its kiddie-pool. It splashed and smacked as we learnt about Julius crossing the Rubicon.

One day I came in and the girl took me to the western windows and lifted her phone. She showed me a video she had taken from this vantage the afternoon prior: there was a lynx, its baroque sleeves crossed at the wrist, relaxing on the grade above the chicken coops. The lynx was an easy downward jump from their roofs but made no gesture toward them.

“My God,” I said. “Are the animals okay?”

“Yes. The cages were locked.”

The lynx’s muscular body, dog-sized but weighty and fat as a chain of train cars.

“She’s so calm.”

“She knows I’m filming.”

The lynx turned its face without anxiety, its pronounced, human nose, its black lips.

“Did she even try to get into the chicken coops?”

“No. She just left after a while.” The girl hesitated. “I kind of wanted to see her jump. Just to see it. Just to see what would happen.”

The girl and I looked up from the phone, into each other’s faces, and met there in a moment of perfect understanding.