I awoke this morning to a sharp realization in which I compared my time in San Francisco this last year alongside the personal relationships in my life… of family, friends, and acquaintances. I mean, we’re all interconnected to some degree, and at different junctures, the severity and/or intimacy only depending on the particular person or relationship in question. If this weren’t the case, then how would we be related at all?
At any rate– I was struck by the recollection that even though I spent approximately 4 months in San Francisco, known by the locals as “the City”, I was dismayed for not having pursued the City’s identity sooner.
In fact, as it happened, I was preparing to leave a place that I scarcely knew at all. This on its own merit is not troubling; however, the fact that I could have spent time earlier, actually learning about and beginning to know the City, was an unavoidable and bothersome obstacle to overcome. In fact, such an absence of diligence became a glaring hallmark to myself of how little I had progressed in my mission while on this earth– which is simply to learn.
So, what does this have to do with me? What does this neglect of sightseeing have to do with personal relationships and the building and strengthening of those relationships? Consider Clay Street.
I came to become very fond of Clay Street, in part because it was one of the more narrow pathways through town; which was necessarily a by-product of the street’s (one of many I’m sure) claim to fame of being the “oldest” established street in San Francisco proper. The street began originally near the wharf, but at some point seemed to have been hemmed in by the Embarcadero. Now, the easternmost portion of that street began a few blocks from the water, just opposite a small park, and then ran due west, and up and over the huge mountain that resides in the middle of that portion of the peninsula.
But, if Clay was the oldest, it had been only from my reading that supposed fact on a reproduction map in the men’s room of Harrigan’s Bar, which was 2 blocks from Clay, and nearer to my downtown place of work. However it came to pass, Clay became my objective one Sunday morning, and I made my way from my apartment to where it crossed Van Ness, and then turned eastward, intending to walk to the wharf and eventually supper somewhere along the docks.
I could recount each block if I chose to do so, though most of them being residential, excepting China town and the “old town” areas, complete with the thick red brick 2-3 story structures that had replaced the ’06 quake and fire, would be repetitive to myself and the reader. It was simply an old street and the buildings which occupied the street make little difference… to anything really– they are only buildings, and someday they too will be replaced; either by necessity or convenience.
Instead, I quickly found that on Clay, and is also the case of every other street, the intriguing aspect are the individual San Franciscans, for they populate and define the City, in ways that change from each block to the next. From Nob Hill to Chinatown to Downtown… and then to the last vestiges before the waters of the Bay, each tenant, even if the row houses seemed very similar, was very different, and perhaps even each block and/or structure smelled and possibly “acted” differently. I passed from overly friendly quadrants into somewhat stifled and private areas. Each one offered an atmosphere all its own, and did so without explanation or justification. While some treated me as an acquaintance, as did one lady, who paused from beating the dust from her living room rugs to talk with me as an old friend whom she hadn’t met yet; others didn’t bother to look up from their checkers tournament which they were enjoying with an actual old friend, for fear that they might miss a moment of interaction which would never be replaced.
About halfway through the afternoon, I reached into my coat pocket, and turned off my cell phone, opting to focus on THESE moments, and attempting to listen in “real time” to the City that I barely knew. It quickly became obvious that I should have taken this walk, and many more I’m sure, during every week of my time spent there, as opposed to this now very hurried and extremely late attempt at recognition of my surroundings. Oh sure, I have a wonderful memory, and I’m writing this from notes that I recorded on that day in October. But, I am now writing from the somewhat chilly confines of an #Indiana office in February. Without doubt, there is something lost in that translation.
It now becomes clear that through my own arrogance, I thought that I knew, or at least was “getting to know” the City– however, I had neglected to know her at all. My knowledge, and even my need for knowledge of my surroundings, were cut short by my own selfishness, a form of preservation I would suppose, which rendered me unable or unwilling to go too far outside of my own neighborhood. As is the case in our dealings with people, even with our own families at times, we choose the comfort of familiarity (and the stagnancy and death of spirit which accompanies such an approach), instead of the bright light which is the discovery of one’s self, of self-improvement and betterment, which only occurs as we learn and grow– not only in knowledge in general; but more specifically, in the knowledge and acceptance of others. In so doing, when we learn of and accept others as our own, we must become bigger and better creatures… to engage in the opposite– to shut ourselves down, is to shrink as humans… we effectively refuse to live as we were intended to live.
Throughout my walk, which lasted nearly 4 hours, I realized how much smaller a person I had become since my arrival at the end of summer. Indeed, I had “shrunk” as a person. In my work, my “day job” as it were, I had allowed my time to become saturated with mundane duties. Now, through an exposure that was long overdue, as I walked, my shadow was being painted in the long light of the Pacific Fall as the smaller person that I had chosen to become.
If… if only I had chosen to walk the streets sooner, so that I might appreciate all that the City had to offer.
I, like so many others before me, had chosen to follow the course of “me”, leaving others to contend with their own pitfalls. If I knew of the troubles they faced, I didn’t bother to ask. If I didn’t know of their trials, much as I didn’t know of the individualism of Clay Street, it was only because I never bothered to look, to feel… I never bothered to venture outside of my neighborhood… to look outside of the window of the taxi as I traversed the lives of others, always on the way to the most important life– my life.
I had become ill– a sick human being– by strictly tending to only MY endeavors. This was perhaps a paradox of some kind, but by only worrying about me, I had in fact neglected me! It was now, albeit at a very late stage of my stay in the City, that I had become aware of all that was offered to me; a plethora of events and lessons, of culture and awareness– all free of charge except that I should seek it out, my effort in finding and experiencing it being the only payment due. And yet, I had chosen, due to plain ignorance or “what-have-you”, to remain without, and was now preparing to leave the City without ever knowing it (as if one could ever truly know the City at all), or of even making an honest effort to do so.
Perhaps worst of all, even more so than the eventual understanding our faults, of our weaknesses, is our lack of empathy and the complete absence of individual growth that goes along with any and all of these elements, and the reality of time. Time doesn’t give back the opportunity to have a “do-over”. The calendar which had been on a Sunday afternoon in August of 2015 is now firmly planted in February of 2016, and the days in between scarcely hold any intrinsic value at all, save for the fact that they are markers of what once was, and what now is not. Nevertheless, this neglect of duty creates a debt of sorts.
Our debt, is equal to the sum of what we didn’t bother to learn about our friends, family and neighbors. This debt is active and payable, with interest compounding daily… and then per annum. We could have paid it down by simply caring enough to find out, to ask a question, to at least pretend to care… but more often than not, we choose not to care, and so the debt increases; it lives in the soul and grows as an uncontrolled cancer. At some point, we will choose to point at it and hate it, blaming the existence on some circumstance. But, it is ours, and was planted and then nurtured by our own fixation upon the all-important inner self.
Even when the original people and places which were the causation of that debt, which is to say– those things in our lives which should have held much importance, but for whatever reason, did not; even when they are gone, the promise to pay is never forgiven, and because of the issuance and life of the debt, neither are we forgiven. We cannot be forgiven because in our haste in the practice of “today” we haven’t checked the balance of the amount owed, which are now in arrears, let alone have we bothered to make arrangements for such payment.
This is a story of myself, and some of my shortcomings. However, it is also a story of many people that I know and also of people that I have yet to meet. It is a story of OUR collective rush to serve what suits each of us best, and the hidden beauties of Clay Street is only an allegory of what we all miss by doing so. I believe that we will all die with some kind of debt hanging over the fresh earth of the grave, and this might linger for generations, for after our passing, there are very few pathways towards a redemption for the transgressions committed and then left in this world. Some of these are intentional, and although we hope that time consumes and forgets them… it does not. Whether the errors of our actions are purposed or not makes little difference. What does make a difference is if we choose to attempt some reconciliation, and if so– if we do so in time.
If, the always present word, a subordinate conjunctive that seems to dominate and define something as already accomplished, nearly always denotes the opposite: the UN-accomplished. If– represents the shortcomings, those things that are left unfinished, and the regrets piled as high as carnations on the grave, withering in time, but always remembered. If is a horrible excuse for why not, because it demonstrates a conscious intent to finish… which was never completed. If.
If– the most regrettable of terms to define actions not taken, and an abhorrent epitaph to define the end of a walk that was finally taken, much too late in the day.