One of the great pleasures of my life to date was having access, for a period of several years, to a dingy little studio by the sea in Ocean Beach. It was so small that when you rolled out the futon, it took up the entire room. The kitchen was too tiny for a dinner table, the hot water frequently didn’t work in the bathroom, and the constant noise and pot smoke from the neighbors streamed through the cracked, paper-thin walls.
It was paradise.
The saving grace, no, the miracle, of this claustrophobic hovel was that you opened the door to the ocean and within a few steps you arrived at a disheveled patio full of rusty tables and moldy plastic chairs overlooking the cliffs and the pounding surf below. As with the dramatic difference between the cell-like studio and the big blue sea, on the patio, the juxtaposition of grit and grandeur was striking, and somehow perfect.
Having grown up in Southern California with lots of time at the beach, it was not so much proximity to the sea that was extraordinary; it was the striking contrast between the inside and outside space. Something about the womblike quality of the studio emphasized the vastness of the ocean and sky outside. As Gaston Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Space:
One might say that immensity is a philosophical category of daydream. Daydream undoubtedly feeds on all kinds of sights, but through a sort of natural inclination, it contemplates grandeur. And this contemplation produces an attitude that is so special, an inner state that is so unlike any other, that the daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity.
Thus the precious days I spent in my secret retreat were dates with the infinite. At times it was a challenge to steal a solitary moment between shifts in Party Nation, but there was always a purloined hour or two to sit and breathe with the ocean and trace the sun’s slow movement across the sky and the fluctuations of the clouds on or offshore.
In the midst of it was time outside of time or a sense of being inside of Big Time. The experience was, as Bachelard writes, sublime:
Far from the immensities of sea and land, merely through memory, we can recapture, by means of meditation, the resonances of this contemplation of grandeur. But is this really memory? Isn’t imagination alone able to enlarge indefinitely the images of immensity? In point of fact, daydreaming, from the very first second, is an entirely constituted state. We do not see it start, and yet it always starts the same way, that is, it flees the object nearby and right away it is far off, elsewhere, in the space of elsewhere.
When this elsewhere is in natural surroundings, that is, when it is not lodged in the houses of the past, it is immense. And one might say that daydream is original contemplation.
Even at day’s end when the residents came together to drink, smoke, and watch the sunset, there was a kind of collective contemplation. In the twilight as the red sun dropped below the horizon, people became pensive. Voices hushed, lovers kissed, sometimes a glass was silently raised to the impending night sky.
Through it all the sound of the waves crashing and receding went on and on like the heart of the universe beating, no matter what happened or to who.