When I think of where I grew up, I mostly think of a then-small town in Southern California called San Juan Capistrano. Thinking back on it, it feels small, but only in comparison to the suburban sprawl which has now metastasized into the majority of Orange County. These days it seems like there is no end, no noticeable barrier between cities. Los Angeles slides into Long Beach which then engulfs Garden Grove etc., etc. The point is that my understanding of what it’s like to live in a small, isolated town is extremely limited. I’ve never lived anywhere surrounded by country, nor had such an intimate relationship with my neighbors that I was privy to the goings on in everyone else’s lives. I have known no Middlemarch. And yet, the idea of stagnation that I discussed in the last entry is one with which I feel some familiarity. Orange County has never been my favorite place. Parts of it are breathtakingly beautiful, the weather is nigh on unbeatable, and the presence of my family is not to be overlooked, but I’ve always felt thwarted by it. To a large degree, Orange County is a place where affluent people go to become more like one another. It’s like a devolution into a specific and unimaginative mold, and I’ve never felt the pull to join the herd. Instead, I remember spending my adolescent years feeling contained, thinking that if I could only get some space, meet some people who felt like I did, that I would be able to grow. Then, I graduated high school and moved to San Francisco, a place that resists inertness like an opposing magnet. San Francisco, overflowing with fecundity, the absolute antithesis to stagnation. Thank god.
What I love about San Francisco is that there is never a lack of new things to do or see or, and this is important, eat. All of the “regular” cultural cuisines are represented, from Chinese to Mexican to Italian, but there are also many lesser known ones like Eritrean, Burmese, and Senegalese. Almost anything you’re craving, you can find, even something that will connect you to 19th century England. In Middlemarch, George Eliot was much more concerned with the inner turmoil of each of her characters than she was with what they were eating. In fact, she mentions food no more than a few times in the whole clunking thing, and nothing sounded like a good entry for this blog. So instead I fell back on some assumptions: Middlemarch is a town in England, and the characters are all very English, so they must drink lots of tea and I bet they eat finger sandwiches and scones with Devonshire cream. You with me?
Well, once again, San Francisco came through, this time in the form of Leland’s Tea in the Tenderloin. I believe that the feeling of stagnation is one we all experience, but I also believe that most of its power comes from our own isolation. The problem is that feelings like this, or depression, make us abhor our solitude and yet sap our motivation to seek the company of others, perhaps because it is exactly the presence of friends and loved ones which is the best remedy to stagnation. They bring that breath of fresh air that smells of a world outside our sordid little self-made island and remind us that it is within our own power to free ourselves, once again giving ourselves the freedom to grow. I think this may be one of the reasons why tea time was such an important custom in England. If people outside of one’s normal sphere of domestic existence were present, this social event alleviated both boredom and restlessness, at least for a time. Perhaps that’s why Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon seemed so unable to overcome their individual and mutual stagnation: they very rarely, especially Mr. Casaubon, sought the company of others. Even Dorothea, who was social and friendly by nature, felt that her place was by her husband’s side, and so rarely left her home without him. It wasn’t until his death that she began to feel the enlivening currents of fresh air entering to disperse the stale air of her confinement.
I am exceedingly grateful for the people I have in my life at this point. The friends that accompanied me on this book-nerd inspired outing are just the kind of people that everyone should have around them whenever they find themselves stuck, whether it be emotionally or intellectually and especially physically, like Artax in The Neverending Story. It is in large part thanks to my friends and family that I have had the motivation to get even this far on this blog and it will be largely with their help that I continue on.