Jar Watch


First Person

Photo: TheStarmon, Wikimedia Commons.

I first arrived in LA in the dark. On crutches. I’d been bitten by a dog the week before, that was the reason, but by the time we got from LAX to our temporary digs in Laurel Canyon, having almost thrown up in the car, I was definitely worse for wear, as if I’d walked the whole way. The next morning—though I felt like the sister from another planet (I’d never been to California)—I had to admit it was beautiful here: morning glory blooming up the side of the house in the middle of winter; all those flowering trees. But the rest of the city turned out to be ugly, so I thought: too much stucco; everything short and squat, brown or beige, bleached out and overexposed. I couldn’t see the forest for the palms, bearded and rootless, coming straight up from the pavement.

Anyway. Not so long after, within the year or so, a famous comet was scheduled to show up in our skies, a once-in-a-lifetime event—not to be missed—and the best place for us to get a glimpse? The Mojave. How astonishing if you hail from New England, to find yourself living on the lip of the Mojave. As recommended, we left after midnight and drove until ours was the only car on a two-lane road, nothing but sand and scrub as far as we could see. We pulled over, turned off the high beams, and stepped outside. It was freezing. And the Joshua trees—wizened, arthritic—seemed to fold in on themselves as if they disapproved of our being there; no moon in the sky that night, much less a comet, and not many stars. Cold, disappointed—a little scared of the quiet and the dark—I gave up. Sat hunched in the car, like one of those pissy little trees, while Fred (my boyfriend) shivered and scanned the sky. 

But at last he gave up, too, and got behind the wheel. We figured at eighty miles an hour we might catch a few hours’ sleep before dawn. It was halfway there along a six-lane highway, all kinds of traffic and neon on either side of us, when we saw it straight ahead: Hey, look, one of us said. What is that? said the other. It can’t be, we agreed. But it was. We could have picked it from the sky like an orange, big and round with a golden spray of tail. (It wasn’t a dream or a special effect. I’m not making this up, Fred will vouch for me—I married him; I’m married to him still.) We hooted—delighted with each other and the night—and followed it home.

By that time we’d found a place of our own, a rental in the flats; we’d realized we weren’t leaving LA, not any time soon—which grieved me. For two years (I’m not proud of this)—for two whole years I whined and complained; for ten years—twenty—I schemed my return to the other coast. (Where I thought I’d do what? Where I thought I’d live how?)

Eventually, we moved to Echo Park instead. Another pilgrimage involved or that’s how it seemed at the time. Having painfully fallen out of escrow in Mid-Wilshire (between Hollywood and Beverly Hills), Fred told me no more; he didn’t want to look at houses for a while, he had better things to do. But one day our realtor cajoled me into his Cadillac and drove me further east (within city limits) than I’d ever been before. “Silverlake-adjacent,” he said. “Please,” I told Fred, once I’d seen the view. “It’s Silverlake-adjacent,” I added, as if either of us knew what that meant. I was using the wall phone in the kitchen, while the realtor hovered, tapping one shiny shoe. “You have to come,” I hissed into the receiver. “Will you, please?” And he did. And we pretty much bought the house on the spot.

This was thirty years ago, when Cadillacs, the gas-guzzling kind, were hip; when you had to ask to borrow a landline; when the original neighbors in the valley below, who have long since moved away, kept chickens, just ordinary chickens with ordinary eggs, which wasn’t hip then, not at all. And I remember, too, goats and sheep hidden behind vines and chain-link in the lot across from what used to be Magic Gas, now a condominium complex catty-corner from Chango Coffee (very trendy), and newest store on the block, a juice bar, where you can buy a smoothie that might possibly change your life for a buck an ounce. But before all that? Before the neighborhood was known as up-and-coming—and actually came—it was called Red Hill; because the communists settled here in the forties, and also someone once told us, due to the light in the morning and the late afternoon.

And yet. In spite of that glow, I continued to pine. It’s hard—narrowing, limiting—to admit you might belong exactly where you are. I imagined a different landscape as if to conjure a parallel life. Except when visiting that other city, the one I thought I loved, I’d forget to look up or out. Night fell too quickly, it seemed, and the sky, when I remembered to notice, felt too close or too far away. A day or two, and I’d start to feel uneasy—like I couldn’t get enough air. At some point (though I can’t recall so much as the season), flying into LA, looking down on the giant sprawl that we are, allowed me to breathe again—to locate myself. As opposed to the other way around. Something—the balance of something—had shifted—but I wonder if I’d have noticed if not for another pilgrimage.

Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977. © The Estate of Walter de Maria. Photo: John Cliett, via

Two summers ago, we jumped at an invitation to visit The Lightning Field, Walter De Maria’s so-called land-art installation in New Mexico. But The Lightning Field is more than art—or, at least, it begs a redefining of what it is and what it’s for. At any rate, to get there: First, you fly to Albuquerque, then you drive to Quemado, at which point you’re shuttled to a cabin in the middle of nowhere—very spare, enchilada pie in a Tupperware container on the counter for dinner—and you stay overnight. At seven thousand feet above sea level, the air is undiluted, and the space between the desert and the sky is at once dizzying and barely perceptible, marked by aluminum poles, almost invisible midafternoon, but there turns out to be four hundred in all in a perfect grid, which nonetheless shifts and bends depending where you stand, near or far, inside or out.

But why—why are they there? To make us look? At them? Past them? Over and around them?

And what about the lightning part—that’s what everyone asks, Did you see lightning? The answer is yes. Yes, we did. There was lightning in all directions, soundless, startling, fracturing and chipping at the sky. Look! we gasped, giddy with collective purpose and awe. But lightning notwithstanding, most astonishing of all was the sunset—a pool of red in the west—which trickled, then lengthened and widened, lapping at the night and spilling over the edge of the world into day somewhere else. And all the while the poles gleamed and flickered as if their tips were on fire.

Home two days later, meant to be doing the dishes after dinner, I stood rapt at the window over the sink. Everything the same. Everything altered. Because of a bunch of aluminum poles? Because we’d made a pilgrimage? Because, perhaps, I was compelled to pay homage, if not justify (why justify?) the one and the other and my kitchen-view besides. A finch bounced on the air and disappeared in the dusk. The light changed and changed again.


There’s a poem— “Anecdote of the Jar” by Wallace Stevens. It starts like this:

I placed a jar in Tennessee.
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

I was thinking the other day, on my regular pilgrimage (my daily hike), that what I love about the park isn’t just the flora and fauna: it’s the path running through it, a man-made thing, like that jar on the hill, like those poles against the sky—the path, curving and cutting between the trees, making sense of the rest, showing it off, acknowledging that slovenly wilderness for what it is. The older I get, the more amazed I am, and comforted, too, by its indifference to us: the wild doesn’t care either way if we claim it, if we don’t; if we claim it in order to see it; if we actually see it—only to understand that it isn’t ours to claim.

Anecdote of the jar—
anecdote of the comet—
anecdote of the poles—
that’s all this is, right? An anecdote, a bunch of them strung together, having something to do with my coming to feel that this is the place; as if we’d actually chosen this house, this city, this state, this country, this earth; as if it makes a difference where we are, who we are—and it does. To us, it does. But to carry on as if it didn’t all just happen somehow; determined as we are to pretend we know what we’re doing (and to keep doing it with a measure of conviction or hope or whatever) no better spot in the world, we tell ourselves, to watch day turn to night.

Or, if we must, to get up in the middle of the night. Have I not demonstrated our willingness to go the distance? To make fools of ourselves? We continue to be willing—who wouldn’t be willing to get up in the dark for a meteor shower, say? So it was a few weeks back, when the Perseids came to town: the Perseids, an annual occurrence, which this year, for some reason, got a whole lot of press in advance. It will rival the stars in the sky, read the headline in the paper on the morning of. Where do we have to go? I asked. We don’t, said Fred. It’ll happen right here, right off the deck, we just have to get out of bed. Which task he took on himself—he’s like that: he’ll do the heavy lifting for whatever it is, and then, if whatever it is turns out to be good, he makes sure I don’t miss out. Between dreams, on the suddenly slippery passage from one to another that is, I heard his alarm. I heard him leave the room. I swerved into waking as the screen door slid open—and then he was back. Anything? I asked without opening my eyes. Nope, he answered. And what a relief to slide back to sleep. Not so very much at stake, after all—not with an annual event: there’s always next year, and the year after that, and ample opportunity, no doubt, to stargaze in the months between. Although. If I’m to believe what I hear, the stars are not only far away, but actually dead. Whereas—just this evening, as he does every evening, “Come look,” said Fred from the deck.

And I came. And I looked. And the sky went from violet to sapphire. And the houses on the opposite hill twinkled and shone.

Dinah Lenney wrote The Object Parade and Bigger Than Life, and, with Judith Kitchen, edited Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction. She teaches in the Bennington Writing Seminars and the Rainier Writing Workshop, and serves as a senior editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.