I have always loved San Francisco. I say this without shame or passion. It is a statement of fact, something unalterable like the sun rising or the smell of coffee in the morning. This is the city where I spent my childhood and as a boy would walk the streets for hours at night with nothing but the song of the wind whistling in my ears and the city and the stars about me. This is the place where I imagined that perfect love could be found and instead discovered something entirely different. There is something about this city that beckons you inward and something that carries you further into the future than you would have ever thought possible. They say that the waves end when they wash against the shores of the western beaches. This is not so. The waves do not end at the beach—instead their energy washes up the shores, through the streets and into the hearts of men and women.
One day, as I stood on Grandview Peak facing the cold brilliance of the Pacific, I asked the city to speak to me and listened intently to the sounds rushing up from the land below.
“Tell them that my name is wind and water.” A barely female voice passed through my soul. I stood waiting for more.
“Can you feel the waves?” she whispered.
I looked across at the full length of a tree-tossed Golden Gate Park and over to my right, to the Sutro forest and the colossal red and white broadcasting tower where Sutro’s mansion used to be. I could see the bridge and the bay and above all else, the city of gray and pastel that was founded with Franciscan faith and gold rush dollars. The riches are still here I thought, as the waves of energy washed over me. There were no other voices that day but I came down from the hill as satisfied as a man can be–the clear, nereid light of the city in my soul and eyes.
San Francisco has been added to and changed by every generation that comes to inhabit the peculiar geometry of space, time and nature that constitutes its nearly universal appeal. Most historians will agree that the city that arose after the destruction of 1906 was not the San Francisco of the glory days of gold and greed. This was a city where bare-breasted woman lounged in gaudy parlors and live sex-acts were performed before the turn of the century. Banquets were served for the price of a drink in hotels that would today be impressive. The city of the nineteen thirties, forties and fifties was in turn, quietly fashioned by successive waves of Irish, Italian and Chinese immigrants that gave the city the style of a well-dressed lady. She was named after a man but that was merely an accident.
I am reminded of an old legend concerning the devil and California. The Wind asks the Devil why so many places along the coast are named after Catholic saints. The devil responds, “Strategy. I sent the Jesuits before I came with instructions to take all the best places. As I would have the people, the saints might have the names and so I have lived in friendly intercourse with the church ever since.” Indeed, the potential closing of a number of lovely old parishes based on merely economic concerns shows that this friendly intercourse with the clergy has both continued and prospered.
My first memories of the city are of its parks. I spent many happy hours as a child fishing on Pine Lake, building tree forts and exploring the nasturtium scented trails of Sigmund Stern Grove. Sigmund Stern Grove is a chasm, a wound in the flesh of the city. There is something mournful and dark about it, even on the sunniest days. This is a place that lends itself to contemplation and brooding. There are seldom many people in the Grove at any given time, so be watchful. In this day and age, the homeless, and the morally disordered make it less safe than it was in olden days. Nonetheless, a morning visit and walk through the Grove, on a clear day will leave you with a sense of that unusual fusion between mankind and nature that is part of San Francisco.
“Can you feel the waves?” she whispered.
I used to jog through Golden Gate Park as a teenager at a time when you wore tennis shoes instead of good jogging shoes because they were still a novelty. There was no harder run than the sprint up Strawberry Hill in the center of Stow Lake and there was no finer run than the one from Stanyan Street at the top of the park, all the way to the ocean and back. Jogging through Golden Gate was a natural sacrament, a unification of man and nature in the center of the city. Half-naked flower children only added to the excitement.
I grew up on the Avenues, on the western side of the city, south of Golden Gate Park. This was an area built by the Irish and the Italians and up to the early nineteen seventies was full of wonderful old family neighborhoods. My brother James once evacuated his bowels on a neighbor’s skylight and nearly exploded with laughter when the same Italian neighbor confided to him that the “damn cats” had crapped on his roof. There was a richness to being able to look out a back window or stand on the roof and see the ocean reflecting a bright light that looked mysterious even to a twelve year old. You saw cargo ships surging past the Farallonnes into the future, while immersed in the memories of distant shores. You still see them.
The Avenues were a neighborhood rooted in a sense of belonging to the City of San Francisco. You lived in a city dreaming of its own future but entangled in a past too colorful to ever quite forget. The dead are about you in San Francisco, close by. The achievements of past generations hold the present like an open palm. Past, present and future communicate in San Francisco. It is not without reason that spiritualists in this city communicate with the dead as readily with the living. “Walk-ins” or individuals who have stepped aside to let the dead speak are commonplace. Gurus and other spiritual leaders talk about multidimensional universes as if they were next door. This is why the city is on the edge of the continent, the edge of the universe. San Francisco is never content to live in just three dimensions.
The waves of the past mingle with those of the present. This was brought home to me last week as I walked at dusk in Golden Gate Park ambling, as is my wont towards the Conservatory. A golden light was just catching the tops of the Monterey Pines and suddenly, I knew what it was all about. San Francisco is the home of the light. Nothing could be more lovely than that illumination of the trees at sunset. If such a light is not in Paradise, then I do not want to go there. Time and gold lives in this brightness as do men, women and children. We need little else—except maybe God when this light dwells in the waves of energy that come to us from the sea.
My father used to take us to the Presidio as children. I can always remember being happy at the thought of going there. The hilly open space of the place, the stunning views of ocean and eucalyptus intertwined with the scent of wild flowers was an intoxicating mix. There is a bluff towards the end of Washington St., some call the Washington Bluffs, others Rob Hill but it really has no name. There you will find one of the finest views of the Golden Gate and the Pacific to be had anywhere. I always come back to this place carried by the waves of sun and water that extend far beyond the boundaries of the eye and reminisce about times long gone, dreams unfulfilled and visions to be explored. An ancient Chinese couplet haunts me here:
The moon in the water resembles
the moon in the sky;
The person in the heart is
the person in front of you.
The eucalyptus and pine scented air fills my soul with hope and the belief that all men and women are made better by a visit to this place. The dream of San Francisco is that humanity might live in harmony with nature but at the same time, enjoy all the benefits of civilization. I can think of no better way of both reaching out to the past and making San Francisco the city of the future, than by turning the Presidio into a center of spiritual and ecological transformation.
Call to yourself down the centuries and see if it is not here that you will return. San Francisco isn’t just a city, it is a jumping off point to eternity. In an ocean of light, this is the place.
About Sean O’Reilly:
Sean Joseph O’Reilly is the editor of many award-winning travel books, including The Road Within, Testosterone Planet, The Ultimate Journey, Pilgrimage, and The Spiritual Gifts of Travel. An active member of the Society of American Travel Writers, he is also the author of the shocking and controversial new book How to Manage Your DICK: Redirect Sexual Energy and Discover Your More Spiritually Enlightened, Evolved Self. He lives with his wife, Brenda, and their six children in Arizona.