Ah! Bright Wings

September 5, 2009 | 3 min read

Hung-over from an improbably over-indulgent Monday night—wild Flemish red ale, the Duchesse de Bourgogne, tangerine witbeir, Floris apple beer—I felt strangely attuned to the perpetually alien world outside: Pasadena, Los Angeles, Southern California.  The Almighty is torching the place again, as he does with what seems increasing regularity.  White flecks of ash fall on my potted nasturtiums and our hop vine, the mountains to the east are invisible, screened by grayish brown smoke; looking down the block, the view is grainy, dull, grayish—like a washed out sun-faded film photograph. Pedestrians wear surgical masks, my soccer match is canceled due to poor air quality. This new apocalyptic cast suits me, overeducated and apparently unemployable, as it suits California’s less than golden state: massive unemployment, slashed education and social social services budgets, skyrocketing temperatures apparently caused by global warming. This is HelLA and here I am, feeling more at home than ever.

Driving into Pasadena from the South a few days ago we saw a mountain on fire.  The whole Western ridge fringed with flames leaping up into the black.  It is odd to watch people buying lunch, picking up prescriptions, gazing into the windows of Macy’s and Anthropologie while Armaggedon encroaches from the hills above.  I am one of them, I suppose, buying sunflowers at Trader Joe’s, soap at Walgreens, making salad for lunch, watching back episodes of Charlie Rose, filling out my California unemployment insurance form (Was there any reason (other than sickness or injury) that you could not have accepted full-time work each workday? Did you look for work?  Did you refuse any work?).  I am going about my business, my lack of business, as fire takes LA, or at least bits of Sunland, La Crescenta, La Cañada, and Altadena.  Dancing while Rome burns—not exactly dancing, not exactly Rome—but you know what I mean.

While I would start with Southern California too if I were in charge of end of days planning, I also feel like LA is unworthy of the grandeur of encroaching hellfire. Its Cheesecake Factories, Souplantations, LA Fitness gyms, spray tan and Oriental massage parlors, its pseudo-Spanish tract homes seem such a bloodless reincarnation of Gomorrah. The fire is so awesome—not awesome in the diminished sense that American slang sense gives the word, but in the true sense: inspiring awe and profound reverence.  Riding the gold line into downtown yesterday, most of the passengers in my car looked out the window at what appeared to be a mushroom cloud rising from the mountains.  I remembered riding the subway into Manhattan from Brooklyn for the first time after 9/11. As the train emerged from the tunnel on the Brooklyn side and went over the river, conversations stopped, everyone looked at the blank spaces where the towers had been.

In seventeenth-century England, the outbreak of plague meant the shutting of theaters and taverns and public days of prayer and fasting in hopes of appeasing God’s wrath. In fourteenth-century Italy as well. Boccaccio writes:

I say, then, that the years of the fruitful Incarnation of the Son of God had attained to the number of one thousand three hundred and forty-eight, when into the notable city of Florence, fair over every other of Italy, there came to death-dealing pestilence, which, through the operation of the heavenly bodies or of our own iniquitous doings, being sent down upon mankind for our correction by the just wrath of God, had some years before appeared in the parts of the East and after having bereft these latter of an innumerable number of inhabitants, extending without cease from one place to another, had now unhappily spread towards the West.

Here in Pasadena, the fire is coming in from the north and the west—not the East (the inevitable source of plague to the Renaissance European). The movie theaters and bars are open. Life scuttles along, impervious to the sublimity, the wrath of God raging on the hillsides above. Overwhelming grandeur is not for us.  We will put it out. The tract homes will be rebuilt. I will live to collect another $266 dollars from the state of California.  Put out the grandeur and the wrath, pretend it does not exist. Ah! Bright wings. Some of us will miss you.

God’s Grandeur, Gerard Manley Hopkins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Virginia. She is a winner of the Virginia Quarterly's Young Reviewers Contest and has a doctorate from Stanford. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Times, In Character, VQR, Arts & Letters Daily, and The Daily Dish.

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