The past week has been, as most people round these parts say, intense. For sure, nobody in San Francisco had their home burn up in front of their eyes, or behind them as they fled for their lives, but the smoke from the Camp Fire dwelled heavily over the area all week, and on Thursday and Friday, the air quality deteriorated further. People were tracking the numbers, and it had gone into the unhealthy zone. Here we are in the hub of one of the most powerful economies on the planet, and totally unable to do anything about the impacts of climate change.
I had a few engagements on Friday, and riding across the city- very slowly and noticing that I was not rushing to get through lights before they changed – I felt like a renegade for not wearing a mask. The city felt quieter than usual, with schools and other places closed for the day. I taught at my student’s company, for the first time not going to sit outside by the bay, but staying in an air-conditioned conference room, talking about presence, and staying with what is happening. I wondered if the quality would improve enough to make a roam possible on Sunday, as scheduled, and noticed that I had no enthusiasm for running or riding around the route, as I had planned to do ahead of time.
People wondered when it would get better. On Friday evening, sitting in the bath with the New Yorker, I read this passage, in an article about Anthony Powell, and his great work A Dance to the Music of Time, that describes a well-known aspect of the human condition: ‘A lingering sense that almost all experience is a little disappointing. It’s what his alter ego Jenkins, on that visit to Proust’s summer place, describes as “the eternal failure of human life to respond a hundred per cent.” It can never “rise to the greatest heights without allowing at the same time some suggestion, however slight, to take shape in indication that things could have been even better.”’
My internal response to that notion was, well, that’s what happens when you allow the thinking mind to dominate. I thought of a Zen Center friend (whom some of you will be able to identify from what follows) who signs off emails with ‘Never Been Better.’ My first reaction to seeing that, a couple of years ago, was a reflexive English annoyance, but then I came to appreciate how diligent and devoted practice could be aptly summed up in that way. I thought further of the song, ‘Things can Only Get Better’, which for anyone of my age and upbringing is inevitably associated with the election of 1997, when after eighteen years of Thatcherism and its aftermath, which had begun in our adolescence, suddenly there was a moment of optimism with a new Labour government. Of course things didn’t turn out much better really; the aftermath is still playing out these days with the government-led strictures of austerity, unfettered capitalism, privatisation, the crushing of the public sector, and most recently the collective delusion around Brexit.
The air did start to improve over the weekend, and a foggy, suitably autumnal morning on Sunday made me think a roam was not completely out of the question. In the end, a handful of people joined me as we climbed up to Grand View, and Golden Gate Heights, where we were rewarded with the rocky landscape, warm sunshine and a lack of wind more than actual views, but which did not provoke a headache in me such as my other recent exertions had. There is rain in the forecast for this week, which will be a welcome relief on so many levels. At least, I think it will be better.
Mission Bay can have an other-worldly feel to it at the best of times, but especially when people are not going out because of the unhealthy air. The Salesforce Tower, about a mile away from Mission Creek, in the second photo, is barely visible.