Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Change in Vision

As I revisit some of my old college papers, I decided this one needed to go up on my blog too. It's one of my favorite pieces I wrote in college, and again, it's about Steinbeck. I hope you all enjoy it.
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When I was in Cannery Row, I decided to reflect on my experiences through my journal. Journaling is an honest form of communication for me, and through it I hoped to draw out the emotions that the trip inspired in me. I have included two journal entries: one written the night we were there, and one written the day after we got back. I edited them for clarity, and in some areas for content, but the heart of what they say comes from the actual entries.

April 10, 2011

Imagination. It is a word I have discussed, wrote papers about, and stored in the back of my mind to pull out cleverly in conversation. When I arrived at Cannery Row, however, I had to make that word come alive. It had to regain its simple, yet ponderous value that it had when I was a child, when the word imagination meant no boundaries on the dreams I created in my mind. For the Row we saw was filled with tourists and candy shops, and seemed far away from the setting of Cannery Row.

I had come back to my room after dinner and finally succeeded in brewing a cup of decaf coffee. I planned to go outside, sit and write or read, and watch as the coastal lights and stars shone out. I didn’t know that the patio of the Intercontinental lead to Ed Ricketts’ lab. But as I explored my way around the winding patio, there it was – Ed’s backyard. His house is set on a large foundation of concrete, from which stretches a tiny beach and large rocks. I had not known any of this.

From the moment I set foot on Ocean View Avenue, I had wanted to touch the old wood of the lab. Somehow through it I expected some kind of mystical connection to Ed and John. I don’t know if we would have liked each other in person, but I respect the depth of their thought and their contemplation of things that matter. To my delight, I found that I could indeed reach the lab after walking past the chain link fence. I threw my hand out toward the past. No jolts of energy or flashes of lightning struck my senses, yet as I stood and looked out towards the modernized street, my vision seemed to change. The same tourist shop was ever before me, but it was a “quality of light” (Steinbeck 1), some strange new way of seeing, that took hold. I saw the tourist shop and yet I didn’t; I saw some opening into what had been. I was moved by the simple link to the past, the link to the real feeling that was found in both of those men.

I walked back to the patio, looked out at the blue world, and sipped my coffee, thinking of Tom Joad dumping coffee grounds out of the dregs of his cup. I listened to the waves underneath me. At times intermittent they would crash rather loudly, unlike the consistent dull roar of the gray ocean at Butterfly Beach in Santa Barbara that I’d listened to the day before. And the world became one dark blue shade. I looked over to the building on my left, the one just past Ed’s lab, that was probably a cannery once, and the shade of seeing changed again. It was as if I was looking into a window of the 1930’s. The light was a grayish brown often experienced in old photographs, and the lamps had an old feel to them as well. I could almost picture working men going up and down the stairs in the corner of the window.

The world was now the navy blue oft confused with black, and the waves crashed louder, and I wished I could write as well as John Steinbeck and create a picture out of the blueness with words. These scenes that I was witnessing at that moment had stirred something in Steinbeck’s soul years before. Here was a place where his soul could settle into being known, good conversation, and a good community, even if it was at times romanticized. Here was a home place, and indeed I felt at home there too.

I too romanticize the places that have stirred my soul. I am all by myself with the whole world nearby, and I know I will romanticize Cannery Row as Steinbeck did. I almost expect to see his mischievous face show up around the corner. I feel as though we are friends even though we will never meet in this life. Maybe this feeling of connectedness is what he would call the world soul, even though I don’t really believe in that. I expect him to join me at this little fire and strike up a conversation probing into the heart of the earth. While it’s strange to think I’ll never know him since I feel like I do know him from his books, I also know that I have invented a picture of him in my head, and my image is not a full man. I can surmise some from his books, but the in-person quirks are lost on me. I’m not sure why it matters so much that I know him. There would be no reason at all for him to care about me. I’m not sure if I would say anything to him about what I appreciate and question in his writing if I were to meet him.

I think mostly I just want to hear his voice roll over some topic of deep, crucial interest or longing with Ricketts, and to be invited to share in that conversation. I want to sit in the upstairs of the lab and sip Burgermeister, although I don’t know if I would even be allowed to join, being a woman. Maybe for one of their parties.

The coffee’s growing cold and the world is black and the waves keep going.

There is something that has attracted me to Steinbeck. I think it is the mystical connection, the unbreakable tie, to the earth so clearly expressed in To a God Unknown. So much of that lust for land has been lost in our culture and lifestyle, but I feel most like a human in the fullest expression of the word first when I am with those I love, and second when I am in nature. It is best if those two are in combination. My soul is at rest in the air by an ocean, or in the mountains, and if my feet can get involved, it is even better. A man whom I met in a coffee shop yesterday noticed my bare feet and said it is healthy to do that because it connects us to the earth, and bad energies leave us and good energies come up to us. I don’t believe in energies, but something about the connection to the earth appeals to me.

Steinbeck’s ideas about human symbiosis and the interconnectedness of all things must have some truth to them. We have ignored and trampled on our deep connection to the earth, and with the willful disregard we have lost a piece of our own souls.

Continued on April 12, 2011

We went to Ed’s lab yesterday, and as I sat in that visible connection to the past, I thought to myself, “This is why it matters.” Although as I sit here in my room, four hours away at Westmont College, I’m still trying to decide what I meant by that. I love history, and for that reason it mattered. To think that Frank Wright once sat in that same room and talked to Ed Ricketts moved that part deep inside of me which is strongly attracted to those pieces of the past that I know I will never fully experience. History is fascinating to me.

The other part of why it mattered, however, can be found in Steinbeck’s own words. As I read The Log from the Sea of Cortez, I stumbled upon something that took hold of me:

“And we wondered why so much of the Gulf was familiar to us, why this town had a ‘home’ feeling. We had never seen a town which even looked like La Paz, and yet coming to it was like returning rather than visiting. Some quality there is in the Gulf that trips a trigger of recognition so that in fantastic and exotic scenery one finds oneself nodding and saying inwardly, ‘Yes, I know.’ And on the shore the wild doves [seagulls in my case] mourn in the evening and then there comes a pang, some kind of emotional jar, and a longing…Trying to remember the Gulf is like trying to re-create a dream” (Steinbeck 105).

These are the words of what I feel.

Entering the lab was like going home. As I sat in the then lab, now clubhouse, and thought of all the things that had gone on in the room, I too found myself thinking, “Yes, I know,” and maybe part of the heartbreak is that I don’t really know, not at all, but I say it anyway because I felt at home in the lab. I felt at home in the musty memories. I felt at home in those rooms where so much life had happened.

Magic at first seemed too cheesy a word to describe all of the feelings rushing in, but when I heard it from the mouth of Mr. Wright, I decided I could use it, too. There was a kind of magic that settled over Doc’s lab the entire time we were there, and it stayed with me as we drove away. Maybe it was my romantic historical imagination, and maybe it was something deeper. For whatever the lab is or will be, life has happened there that cannot be done away with. Always on that spot will rest a “pang, some kind of emotional jar, and a longing.” I hope that the words of Wing Chong’s son come true: “No change.” Whatever happens, though, those feelings that I experienced will stay with me all my life. There is not really a way for me to make anyone understand it in words.


Works Cited:

Steinbeck, John. Cannery Row. 1992 ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1945.
Steinbeck, John. The Log from the Sea of Cortez. 1995 ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1951.

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