May 21st. I move into a new apartment, at the Richmond District. It’s my birthday. In that privileged enclave of San Francisco, somewhere between Ocean Beach and Sea Cliff, the fog rolls in religiously every evening as if the Pacific was trying to cover the peninsula with its vapors. Once I’ve brought all my belongings into the studio, I feel the need to go for a run. Only one block away from my new place Lincoln Park awaits, full of majestic pine trees hardened by the sea salt. I run through a golf course not really knowing where I will end up, and with the suspicion that I’m probably not allowed to do that. But I keep jogging until I hit a sign that reads “Land’s End”. There, I stop.
Already covered in sweat, my lungs start to feel the release of oxygenation. The temperature is ideal. I can hear the wind slide through the leaves, the birds singing in Dolby surround and the distant sound of the waves breaking against the rocks. The smell of saltpeter reaches my pituitary gland magnifying my awe when I suddenly see the sun being swallowed by the vast ocean. I then look to my right and see the Golden Gate Bridge presiding the estuary in all its majesty, with its unique bright red popping out of the blue waters stained by little segments of white foam.
After a few minutes of ecstatic admiration, I continue with my run up hill, in the middle of which I come across a monument dedicated to the world. To the world itself? Yes, just a big black stone with an engraved inscription expressing gratefulness to Nature and the elements. No gods, no religion, no country, no nothing; just “thank you”. I agree. That place feels like being thankful to something. Nature is rough but beautiful there, aggressive but condescending: “We are grateful, as we stand facing this monument, for the infinite gifts of heaven and earth, we recognize once again the true fundamental of the human soul that pursues the truth, implements the good, creates beauty and renews his will to step forward … It was in this spirit that this monument was built.” Such non-religious approach acknowledges the mystery of the “being by itself”, without further thingification. The inscription is bilingual: English and Japanese. Zen.
I have no idea where I am, so I keep running until I hit the golf course again, and decide to run across it, again. Sprinting in the middle of that unsullied green field, I feel like a scot-free pureblood, loaded with infinite horsepower. My body expands and I even have the impression of growing an inch taller.
At the top of the hill I come across the Legion of Honor, a neoclassical building flanked by a statue of the Cid Campeador and another of Jean of Arc, both historic figures that gave everything for their respective countries. They represent a universal condition; they are saviors of an identity, of a whole nation… but not necessarily American. Once again, I’m surprised by how generic those monuments are. The key factor is what they are acknowledging, in abstract, like the black stone dedicated to the world. Their universality contributes to the ideal that we are basically all the same, sharing a multifaceted human condition no matter how opposed we may be.
I keep running between the two bronze sculptures and towards the neoclassical building of the Legion of Honor, which has the motto “Honeur et Patrie” on its frieze. In the middle of the cloister, one of the 17 reproductions of Rodin’s Thinker remains alone, serene, in permanent concentration. I run towards it, accelerating the pace until a fence stops me. No one else is there. The wind blows and the sweat refreshes my forehead. I try to think. His position looks forced, the bronze man doesn’t seem too comfortable. I really want to think hard, like him. Life is much better with reason, not only with awareness and existential awareness, but also with intelligence, foresight, and the ability of solving problems. Amid of the capacity for identifying one’s genuine preferences, so that there’s a possibility of being true to oneself… It is intelligent to understand that there are different kinds of intelligence, and that a life is more fulfilled when they are all working in coordination.
However, rationality doesn’t necessarily bring success; it can also bring about much confusion, especially when there’s a lack of intuition, or not enough self-confidence to follow it. Rousseau considered that reason left by itself can be pernicious, since it is too removed from our natural state. On the same track, in one of his paintings Goya wrote: “los sueños de la razón producen monstruos”. The dreams of reason produce monsters. Anxiety. Delirium. Depression. It is true; we should try to be friends with our irrational side. However, that’s not the impression we get from Rodin’s creature. He is compact and very fit; ready to tame any monsters his reason may produce. I think of the parallelism E.R. Dodds drew of the “irrational” as a horse without rider, and how Ancient Greece, with all its uncanny rituals and surrealist myths, could be regarded as an example of symmetric alignment of the rational and the irrational facets of our psyche…
I leave The Thinker all happy and inspired by my own thoughts. The sensation of running on grass is so smooth that it feels as if my head was being held with a steady cam. Suddenly, a Holocaust Memorial hits me in the eye. The birds sing in harmony, the thin leaves of the pine trees sway delicately with the breeze, and the sun shines gently through the branches… but none of that is beautiful anymore. George Segal’s installation attracts and attacks my attention with the immaculately white corpses lying on the ground, one on top of the other. The only survivor from the killing is standing in front of a fence and looks hopelessly through the wires of thorn. The pine leaves fall on the bodies and confer them a certain texture that defines their silhouettes… I stand there for a few minutes, in silence, and end up placing my hand on the man’s cold and inert arm, that is hanging on the wire. At that moment my whole body freezes and I feel more like a Chihuahua than a pureblood. I walk a few steps away and come across an eloquent inscription that ties the whole installation together: “Remembrance is the secret of redemption”.
Thinking about the past is a way of honoring it. But how can humanity be redeemed for something like the Holocaust? How can that be part of our history? How could that happen? Where are the origins of such immeasurable craziness? Nietzsche? Wagner? Weimar? The Romanticism? The Enlightenment? Rome? Greece? … I then remember the Japanese inscription about the world itself, no religion, no country, no race, no nothing, just recognizing existence; being grateful. Mankind tends to value anything that is freely given to it, always in sight of how wrong things can go. In perspective of the tragic dimension of life, when we feel that things miraculously work for a while we become devout of whatever credo we have around. As we get old, this tends to accentuate, since we become more and more aware of how much our destiny is at the mercy of a completely irrational fate.
Such perspective brings light to Weber’s idea that wealthy Protestants fed back their own faith as they believed that it was the Lord who helped them get rich, so the more faith they’d have, the wealthier they’d be. Calvinists had a strong faith in predestination and divine grace, without which it would be impossible to succeed in life. As a result, capitalism developed rapidly because everybody worked hard to prove that they had been chosen by God. That is why in tragedy we protest against the gods, and the gratuitous cruelty of the fortune they have often set up for us. The world can be celebrated or regretted, depending on which Lincoln Park sculpture we look at… But where was God during the Shoah? Such an uncomfortable commonplace question tips the balance.
I can hear the noise of a sea horn from afar. I try to reach it but realize it’s in the middle of the sea. I keep walking till I reach Sutro Baths, with the moon rising from behind the waters. Standing on the ruins of that old spa, I look at the endless ocean. A thin layer of fog floats above the horizon. Blue. Yellow. Blue. With the humid breeze on my face I feel the emptiness of thousands of miles ahead of my belittled body, and the Pacific awakens a deep serenity within me that is accentuated by the infinite echoing of the sea horn. The micro landscapes of the coastal line and the endless marine overture I can sense from afar remind me of the rings of Saturn. The harmony of the spheres connects each particle of the universe.
Every year, during my birthday, I think about the meaning of my name. I recall the figure of Saint Paul, and the legend of his falling from a horse that led him to a sudden conversion into Christianity. He saw the light. Since I discovered Saint Paul’s story in 2007 I’ve been trying to find an inner peace that seems more and more elusive every year. I’m starting to suspect that such peace will probably have to do with forgetting about myself and trying to make it germinate around me. Step by step. Peace by peace.
I get to the place I’ve called home for the last two months and see a “Happy Birthday” above the entrance door. Inside, they hand me a Mexican hat, a fake mustache, and start calling me “birthday boy”. I have a succulent dinner with the Vella family and Linda. Afterwards comes Malia, the person who made San Francisco possible for me.
I expected a lonely and reflective birthday, one in which I would have gone into a church, sit on a bench and thought about Saint Paul for hours… But I’m eating delicious food instead, thanks to my lovely Medicis. At the end of each course I try to leave a little portion for the gods to show gratitude, as usual, but in this occasion I hesitate, I leave very little, because I wouldn’t want to offend my benefactors. When I finish the third course I can’t hold it anymore and end up telling them about that superstitious habit of mine. They understand. They even find it funny. By this time they already start to know me quite well… In ancient Greece there was the belief that, in order to keep people happy one had to lie, but in order to keep the gods happy one had to tell the truth. This year I’ll try to keep both the gods and people happy, so I guess I’ll just keep myself unhappy…
And there I am, seeing a little cake with nine candles being brought to me as the people who have practically become my family sing a birthday song. The tune finishes and they ask me to make a wish. The candles are melting quickly and I need to wish! I didn’t think about anything. I never do. Every time this has happened to me I end up wishing generic stuff: “I want everybody to be happy” or “I want peace in the world” or the paradoxical mindfuck “I want my wishes not to be fulfilled”. I have these thoughts, but I skip them; there’s always this feeling that if a wish is not accurate enough, it won’t be considered by the cake genius. They are all waiting for me to blow the candles. I’m going to blow it up. I know it. In the last millisecond I make a wish: “I want these people to be happy on my 29th year”. Then I blow the candles. At first I have the feeling of bad sex, but in the successive moments a smile is drawn on my face. I feel content for my wish, and I hope it is an omen for a new version of myself.
A little tipsy, I find it hard to open the street door of my new building. The key doesn’t work. It takes me almost 15 minutes to realize I’m just doing it wrong. It was the other way around… I lie down in bed, take a deep breath, and turn my head to the right. “Purity of heart is to wish one thing”, I read. That is the title of the book I bought in LA the day before leaving, the book standing in front of my face right now. Kierkegaard and his obsession with faith… I belong to the same club, I admit. I’ve been faith starving since adolescence. My problem, I think, has been my omnivorous condition. I want to eat everything; try everything; live everything. Therefore, faith eludes me. Being too curious has been a blessing and a curse at the same time. Now I could say that it is difficult to deal with myself, that I’m my worst enemy and all those worn-out topics… I know this path; it’s always the same old story for my birthday: always trying to bite my tail.