Soft Focus • 6 October 2009

Funny, apart from the hippie reclamation project that is Venice’s Church at Ocean Park, last week in Santa Barbara was my first practice in an actual church.

Sunday morning I drove down the mesa at five in a cloud. The way the ocean is shaped up there, it presses close in to the land, and heavy mists cover the earth’s whole surface, land and sea, dense with the smell and feeling of both. Since, like the rest of the state, SB is not big on streetlights, a visitor could get lost in that morning fog. But when it burns off the whole town still feels blurred at the edges and soft lit, like Santa Barbara the soap opera, filmed in earth tones and pastels under a romantic 1980s filter.

The yoga center—bold and colonial—was originally a Methodist church, and for that it’s on the National Historic Register. But in the meantime it was a beauty salon and spa—for which I suppose all the luxury detailing, private recesses and lofts, discreet staircases, and curtained side-entries with good feng shui were installed. The old sanctuary, with its beautiful scarred floors—including a bizarre, repeating burn pattern in the shape of a small 8-pointed star, and skylights that must go 30 feet up—is bifurcated in to the ashtanga space and the hatha space.

I started early-early, in a darkness and silence that drives the brainwaves down in to theta, and pretty well blurs the boundary between waking and sleeping dreams. When the flow kids trickled in next door at eight, they playd new age spiritual music more gospel than kirtan. Long time sun, Ain’t gonna study war no more… melodies I recognize from the car stereos of kundalini junkies and the marketplace around Ammachi. Church music. At nine, the surviving neighborhood church rang its bells and the sound of it filtered in over everything else.

Four years ago, I decided to sanctify (i.e. secularize), for myself, the sanctuary where my dad preaches back home. It’s a huge dark echoey cavity, made to feel like the hull of a ship tossed upside-down and cracked across the top with a line of high windows to the enormous white Montana sky. I sort of associate it with the set of Goonies as seen by eight year old eyes. What I cared about then were simply its excellent floors—hard on the surface and soft underneath—sitting on an enormous diamond-shaped foundation poured down in to a slow bend in the creek and fortified with scalloped layers of rosy sandstone than my dad helped lay in when he was 22.

I walked in to the chapel that afternoon and I guess I lost consciousness from the weight of the trauma. God. What was I thinking? All I remember is that no practice happened, and for days after the belly and heart had no possibility of softening open.

But I feel a little bit confident that eventually I’ll be wrung out and awake enough to take advantage of those floors. Hell, they’re just floors.

Last time, I could not perceive the difference between the physical church, and my own pain tracers, and the big pet rock of resentment I like to lead around. It was just a solid knot of awful. And there was also the emotional piece: at ground zero, equanimity is a high stakes game. I means diving straight in to the philosophy and hilarity of the specific personal history I’m tempted to take so brutally to heart.

The old church is just an object sealed off in distant time and space: a hard, scary thing preserved from the meaning-decaying banalaties of actual life. If I regularly took meals inside, let my dog piss in its gardens, filed my nails on its sidewalk, gossiped in its foyer, took calls from the pews, all its sharp edges would get blurred. Not in to shadow I hope, but in to mist. For me now, mundane life seems to want to tease apart all that “meaningful” stuff into wispy bits—soften them up with everyday static of TV commercials, toenails, hairspray, throw-away lines and dead-end plots. Lived experience wants to fracture the narrative and let the characters grow silly and inconsistent. For now it feels like everyday routine is a force of purification, not of tranquilization.

And unlike the old drama queen, who was complexly, grindingly unconscious and loved to stay closed in certain small rooms of emotional hell, I want this too. Playing my fierce, edgy old drama straight—as if it’s still good theatre—has become so much kitsch. You know?

I want the soft filter of practical life to take the edges off my monuments, and decay building after building on my Personal Historic Register. Eventually, maybe no old monument will be so overwhelming that I can’t see its potential as a day spa.