(Just in case you were curious about what sometimes happens to a blog post after it’s been a blog post for a little while)…
Math was always a problem. Fear of the protractor, the calculator, the quadratic equation. Fear of the x and of the y. The points on a graph mapped times, speeds, distances but to me, the granddaughter of a naval engineer, the niece of a mathematician, the daughter of a man who didn’t understand why I didn’t understand, they were random. What I really wanted was something to make me whole, to root me, not to slice me and square root me.
They say the world is made up of numbers, if you look at it the right way. But I’ll tell you this: when I stood at the crest of the tallest hill in the canyon and looked towards the horizon, there was no way it was made of numbers. Height gave me false perspective; I thought I could see the curve of the earth. The oil rigs like stationary pirate ships, the blue outline of an island against a blue sea and a blue sky. The grass beneath my feet; yellowing perhaps, if the season was nearing summer, starting to turn to gold dust.
Looking westward. Towards Point conception, the Western Gate, what the Chumash call Humqaq, “the raven comes”. Traditionally an opening into the celestial world. Now home to the light house, the railroad, the air force base. A quantum leap away from the mystical, into the physical and the engineered. We live on 14,500 acres of land divided into 136 parcels, 8 ½ miles of south-facing coastline (we learn at an early age that what they taught us in school is wrong, that the Pacific Ocean is not always to the west). The roads contained, sometimes washing away in rainy season, then rebuilt. This is where the northern California ecosystem meets the southern California ecosystem, an overlapping of flora and fauna. Rare species, intertidal areas, migrating birds. Signs up year-round that say, snowy plover nesting season, please be careful.
Have equations alone made this place?
(I read that while taking his first hot-air balloon ride, the mathematician Carl Gauss realized that all parallel lines meet and that space is curved. Gauss: known as the Princeps mathematicorum, the prince of mathematics. Presiding from a hot-air balloon, loving what he called the queen of the sciences. Saying space is curved.)
The space in my room curved at night when I didn’t want it to. My father told me that when he was a little boy, lying in the dark, the corners of his bedroom used to recede before his eyes.
–What did you do? I asked him.
–I listened to the radio.
–Is it the same thing?
–I don’t know.
I thought I could feel space swallowing me. So for years I lay half-asleep hoping the space wouldn’t swallow me, some nights, like the ones spent splayed beneath the Milky Way, tracing the trail of the stars across the sky, easier than others. This is how math makes me feel.
It was really a hunger for human contact, but I didn’t know it yet. Do you know how it is to go to sleep with wildfires raging? Ash in your eyes, the sky heavy with debris, and you think, what if the fire creeps too close, who will know, who will help me? And you realize you will just have to be ready to drive away as fast as you can. The next day, under the red sky, you drive to town and while you are there the fires do creep too close and the men from the Sheriff’s department won’t let you back home.
Yes, that was the night, the night I called a friend and said I’m coming over, even though the highways were closed and it would take me over an hour to detour. The night I tried to take a shortcut and found myself climbing a hill in my little car. The atmosphere so clouded by fog and ash that I could scarcely see a foot ahead of myself. I was suspended, myopic. To my right was a drop, of indeterminate height. The gas meter flickered low, my phone long out of range. The road too narrow for me to turn around. Hungry for human contact I had literally driven myself into the heart of nowhere. How I got through I don’t know. When I saw the lights of other cars skimming the midnight air I cried. Then, later, at the gas station finally, in an Edward Hopper painting, a woman in heels came out of a sports car, asked me questions about the town, the road closures. How far to Santa Barbara? she wanted to know. Human contact.
But space is curved and then there you are back again, in that horrible isolation, that wonderful isolation. You wake and wait all day, until the darkness closes in on you and to leave the house is suddenly an exercise in courage. All the night sounds, the coyotes close, the owls, once or twice the squeal of a wildcat. Cattle braying on hillsides. The opposite of city sounds. I thought the fear that ate me was self-induced, but then, anyone who has had to speak to their dog just to remember the sound of their own voice can be forgiven a certain hunger, a certain uneasiness.
How do you hate something and love it so much all at the same time? How do you yearn for it, dream of it, and yet know, when a drop of that old fear, that old craziness, spills into your heart, that it’s isolation that’s made you (at least in part) what you are? Is there an equation for this, a graph, a theorem?
Aerial maps make it look like crumpled parchment. Hills flattened by a bird’s eye view. The receding seawall, with dates of construction carved in concrete: 1916, 1925, 1930. Somebody built this wall. Somebody else will see it disappear completely into the sea.
This has been a working cattle ranch since 1791 when a grazing permit was awarded to Jose Francisco de Ortega; I didn’t know we had dates like that in California until I looked it up, thought everything was 20th century, thought art deco was ancient. The Hollisters bought the Rancho Nuestra Senora del Refugio in 1886, held it until 1964. The family, rootless now, fragmented, live in townhouses and nursing homes. One descendant lives in Prague. And I who am not related, but feel related, chase dreams and ghosts in Oxford. How we are scattered, the children of this ranch.
All parallel lines meet.