Saturday, August 14, 2010

Walking the City of Angels

I was in Los Angeles this week, in between conferences. The Lutheran teaching theologians had just gathered up in Thousand Oaks, a place first noticed by airline pilots heading into the Los Angeles airports as a valley with no smog. That's distinctive in the LA area.

The pilots moved in on orchards and chicken coops to build retirement homes and McMansions. My tribe met at California Lutheran University, the new game in a town dedicated to golf, assisted living, and the few remaining chickens.

At the end of the week, I'd be part of a panel at the American Psychological Association (APA) in San Diego presenting a chapter I co-authored with colleague Sonny Manuel in a book on contemplative practices.

In between conferences, though, I had a "dead day" in Los Angeles, literally, "The City of Angels." For convenience, I was ensconced in one of the many hotels ringing the international airport there, LAX: Airport Siberia. What to do?

I thought of museums, and The City of Angels has an impressive collection, from the Getty to LACMA, the wonderful Los Angeles County Museum. But public transportation is not great and the exhibits didn't compel.

Sleep recommended itself, and I remembered that only two months before I'd been in Paris at the end of another pilgrimage, this time the ancient route from Toulouse into Santiago de Compostela, which we followed to Pamplona. Then only a month ago, I'd been about to embark on the Great Road Trip that took me to Minnesota. The trip had been luminous and long, clearly a pilgrimage that would lead to a new city, a new job, and another chapter in calling.

As I considered these precedents, I realized I wasn't simply looking for something to do, but weighing how to mark this time. How could I take account of the journeys that had brought me here? What would be fitting?

Framing the question in terms of pilgrimage, it didn't take long to come up with an answer: I'd figure out how to get to the ocean. I need an ocean of reference anyway, and a month in land-locked Minnesota -- even though the terrain was once the bottom of a great inland sea -- left me starved for salt air. The runways at LAX head due west, and planes take off out over the ocean, using the prevailing westerlies for lift.

Finding the Pacific shouldn't be hard: just follow the runways.

And so I did, walking down long, unbroken, tree-lined boulevards. As I walked, I watched the planes land, pulling up slightly and precisely just as their rear wheels touch the ground. They landed on the ground just like great birds on a branch, making the transition from air-borne to earth-bound seamless. Watching I gave thanks for the transitions I'd made over the last two months, if not seamless, at least smooth. As I played back all that had happened, I crested a hill -- and the blue Pacific spread out at my feet.

I could taste the salt, watch the surf, and get my feet wet. That's what I needed: the line of a vast horizon, invariant behind the waves' crashing. In times of transition, you need a few things that don't change.

I took a mental snapshot -- and headed home.

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