The Map of Her World

The Glorious Happenstance of Destiny in All Place and Time The Art of Mapping Real Life in Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City:  A San Francisco Atlas and Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker’s Unfathomable City:  A New Orleans Atlas    

Originally published 16 October 2014

In the great flux and flow of life, the western mind since the time of Aristotle has divided each and every thing into categories and given permanent labels from a language which itself is divided. From its “religion of exile” that began in a moment of great split, the Fall from the Garden,¹ intention became separate from knowing, good became an opposite of evil, light separate from dark instead of a natural cycle of it, judgments of right from wrong, life distinct from death. In that moment eternity itself, a natural dimension of being, was lost and time had to be measured out, an arc of the passing sun, humans left divided and waiting. The planet was to be measured, too, into boundaries of opposing forces. It began a millenniums battle of opposites, mostly fought in the mind, but also in the separation of people, animals, plant life, the sun and moon and stars. All became separation, man apart from woman. Not just separate, but controllable, extraneous, expendable. Cities built up separate from nature, wars waged apart from human needs. In this great battle of divisions, the female is herself separated into parts. She became a measurable, two-dimensional object of desire or a stripped-of-intelligence and purpose virgin, viewed as “improper art,” containable and patronized as pornographic or didactic. A whore or a patron saint. Deemed ugly or beautiful. A muse, but rarely an artist, for, divided, her creation is restricted. Her greatest images, that of Isis with Osiris or Hera with Zeus became frozen in time in the cathedral in the prescribed role of opposites: mother and virgin, limiting the rest of her power, even though she is cloaked in a symbolic blanket of stars and often holds the globe. She became a perpetual lady of sorrow, unable to ease the pain despite the billions of protestations and pleadings for her help. She looks down with pain on her face and holds protectively in her arms the savior of the world, her limited way to give pure love and to show him what he is. She has no mate. She can wage no war of her own divided and frozen. She has forgotten. She is made to believe in opposites as armies stand against each other. Standing in the cathedral, the brilliant, continuous sun and moon lights shining through the millions of colors of glass inside the resplendent architecture representative of the inner female body and the very dynamics of the soul, she, century after century, contemplates. And there is her power. In front of her there is intention to start yet another war with her directly, to further decimate life. It is the moment of her realization. This war is not separate from her, but hers alone. It is the moment of wholeness. She finally sees it: it is not a war outside herself.


There is an exclusive, deciding difference in waging a war out of emotion and self-interest, as one divided, impetuous and egotistic, separate from all other beings, and a war wherein the disciplined, trained warrior is made ready both in unsurpassable skill and unequivocal psychological balance, one with all the universe, for the execution of a studied and precise battle with a view to eliminate the exceptions and divisions, having had time to become aware of what they are and to have practiced, nay, become the ultimate art of seeing clearly. As ancient samurais know, killing as vengeful is small and self-serving, an infinitesimal, bodily battle with no spiritual realm, continuous knots of emotion still to be lived, tied with no release: an empty being bent out of shape, unnatural and unable to heal, locked up on the inside. But in a battle from the center core of all being wherein the guilty dies for a just cause, the exactness of the warrior’s sword is of great precision and assuredness enacted solely for a higher cause. One is broken by divide and discord; the other is done in balance and complete harmony. This is the spiritual realm. Those who are self-serving are self-excluded. Only the ready and able are invited to this battle.


In the cathedral, right in front of her have been the stories of humanity. In her hours she has heard the literature, the story of the depths of being human--ultimate truths discovered and delivered by the masters from Dante and Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf and Adrienne Rich. They knew that in being human, there are natural, universal rules that move towards realization, and roles, truths and archetypes that play out, offering priceless insight, and along with the characters of our own true natures, show how to go towards liberation and celebration of the human spirit, even in participation with the losses and sorrows of life. This spirit of art, the brilliance, the stunning realizations reflected out of the words of endless, priceless wisdom is life: the sun and moon and stars above us, the people in front us and surrounding us, the glorious phenomenon of being here and now. She knows the greatest gift is to be aware but is also aware of the irony that it is free in every library across the globe. Unaware, as Campbell writes of the ancient teachings, is to be in poverty (xvii), impoverished as to what life itself holds. And still: wars, rapes, mutilations, robberies, assumed identities, lives torn apart or put on hold or blindly traded in the hopes of a heaven somewhere or sometime else as if the opportune thing is to ask for more or other instead of being gorgeously blown apart psychologically by the astounding miracle of life and beyond grateful for what is; or, to give up this miracle of being to be daily, arbitrarily controlled by fears through the imposition of a hell we ourselves create over and over by selfish means or fear of living: to live shrunken and contained within fears of “no self” or “loss” that controls and darkens the already present experience in the here and now.

She thinks, “There is no self; nothing real can ever be lost.”²

“We’re in God’s hands, brother, not theirs,” she whispers.³ 


“City of Light, city of art, city of community and dining places, of being together, to lose oneself in one another, the joy and healing that only comes with that . . . They come here to feel it. The soul is locked inside museum walls, the heart and message of life . . . waiting for embodiment of life. Waiting for the message . . .”


But she also knows they don’t know what to do with their sorrows, having been given the bodies and minds, but in the soul, life shrunken and depleted, demanding, sorrowful and not sustained, invigorated, enlivened by the wonder at work. She knows the goal is to participate in harmony and accord as part of the natural vibrant workings of a great force of being that includes all and that speaks delicately and quietly, urging humans to become. The ultimate joy is to participate as one with humanity, to let being alive be a celebration, the map to creation.

The spirit of art, of place, of life, of her, stands dormant, waiting, articulating its being, breaking out of its protective and sheltering walls and coming to life.


The stories in front of her are wild, glorious and tumultuous, as life is: To act too quickly--as Romeo and Juliet do--doomed by their own impetuous, un-insightful youth--or the refusal of their elders to let go of long-standing grudges, or to be indecisive in turmoil as Hamlet, to be overly ambitious and manipulative as Lady Macbeth, or to act out of place is to be disciplined by the natural forces of the gods, as Arachne had to be stopped, as it was not her place to take on the firmament. All of these demonstrate inward battles enacted to see the crushing or freeing results. Psyche’s battle was to sort the disorder, to reclaim the waters of life, to find out how to seize the golden fleece and to discover true beauty from the underworld. She does all of this, despite at times in her isolation not wanting to live or be separated from Eros, by having to listen to Pan, to nature, to the natural flow incarnate in place and time. Her task is to give a reason for love to transform from its static, vengeful, jealous, hapless, childish ways into an unrestricted force given as a gift to all humanity and to animate the universe with its own embodied soul and unite it with love. Both Eros’ and Odysseus battles were to become men instead of boys, complete, whole beings, not governed into adulthood by mothers, temptresses, or sirens who willingly call men to their deaths, but to become warriors whose souls knew home. Eros, to do the impossible, unite heaven with earth. Prometheus, despite the torture, to steal fire for humanity. Penelope’s is a situation that tries her personhood and character: is she a goddess or is she merely human? (The ambiguity is important in that she is not divided or classified.)  How true can she be to Odysseus, to their lives, to their home during what feels like the walls caving in? Does she have the power of knowing, remembering and wholeness to keep creating from her heart? The wonder revealed in the story now told is that she is the material of original poetry itself, the celestial song of the universe. Not only does the real endure, survive and triumph, but it is also what creation itself is made of. It is a story about how to write poetry, how to create, how to live in the fullest sense. Penelope and Athena are the songs sung by Homer over the ages. The transformations are the poem, life lived as the living dynamics of a poem, life lived towards wholeness, freedom and realization, as Walt Whitman wrote, “Come with me and you will know the origin of all poems.” Penelope is its content, structuring, continuity, its muse, the embodiment of character and in some ways, because of the trials of being human, along with Odysseus, is called to demonstrate more endurance than even seems humanly possible. She is a reason to live; she is life itself. She ignites the fire in Odysseus’ heart and mind, as he does in hers, sustaining her. Without each compelling the other, the poem can’t happen; they would also not become the people they are each capable of and are meant to be, are destined to be. Their combination, the coming together is what makes a new world. At the end of a contemporary book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges, a shell-shocked, war-torn journalist on the front lines writes that the only solace, the only place he could find sleep, was in a place of quiet peace where the love between a couple is present in a simple home with a simple meal. And yet we hardly know of Penelope because of her centuries of silence. As Keats realized, Psyche, a human, came too late for the Greek pantheon to offer a reason for love to transform the world. And so Venus/Aphrodite, locked away and unable to transform naturally through time and to answer the needs of humanity, was forgotten. Athena’s immense display of creativity and guidance throughout the Odyssey, the spirit guiding the entire story, making sure it is told--an immensely powerful creative act--is quieted in the centuries after, her spirit of art, creation and power of life less and less felt and known, leaving an emptiness sorely lacking, an unbalanced society relying solely on the masculine for inspiration and solace, half fallen away, missing. Full creation, life, doesn’t happen for a split half. Creation occurs in a combining, a coming together--both in the inspiration of combined, naturally occurring instances in an open, lighted mind (Campbell xvii) and in the awaiting culture, and on the map when the miracle of measured time and spirit of place come together. Awareness is all. Without it, a map is a piece of paper of seemingly arbitrary points and lines, as is place, disenchanted, its soul forgotten, its spirit still waiting--until one learns how to see what it actually holds--wonder of place and time, the past reverberating unseen and the present alive on every street corner, opposing forces coming together into an ignited, revealing moment and location that was always in the making, always playing out its memories, its struggles and its freedoms, joys and sorrows, its future hopes--and can be known as actually magical as both place and time are literally, scientifically based merely upon perception. Light moving "at the speed limit of the universe" creating mass (Lamm 459).  A city is mechanistic until you feel and know its spirit, which is feminine; and, for the female: when the spirit and expression of its art (life) is embodied, encapsulated, guiding its creation, giving it a reason to be, celebrating its unity and life. She is the city’s reason for being.  She is also its protector, its symbol, its liberator. It is the spirit of her: her love, her smile, her movement, her laughter, her embodiment of life itself. (She is not the social order—that is his realm (Obson 221).  She depends on men becoming men.  She has the capability of giving life soul, but she cannot unite with love by herself.)


This lack of which we speak so far is the silence of the feminine, her words yet to be spoken and written moving always towards further realization. She contemplates in her isolation, in the silence of the centuries old cathedral. She vaguely remembers being Aphrodite, the waves crashing around her, arising from the depths of consciousness. She remembers power and life and natural forces at work. These are stories that tell us of the challenges of being alive, the battles within ourselves that bring us to fully realized existences or doom us to our own fatal flaws. This is not morality, judged from a seat of artificially assumed superiority deciding what is righteously good or bad, bringing focus solely to endless finger-pointing division. This is towards truth and freedom. This is the spirit of America, what men longed and died for for ages. This is the rapturous story of existence on an incredible, alive planet, even of realms existing, operating, but not yet fully perceived. It is the story of an entire synergetic system, always in operation, never missing a step, a beat, or the rhythm, a complete universal whole that includes the spiritual and natural worlds as well as the phenomenon of being in the body.


Instead of divided energies, working apart and against, it is made up of a whole of which some forces propel and others compel, light and dark, but the parts not to be seen as separate as they alone cannot and do not predict the totality. Seeing the whole gives all hope, shows the movements of all things toward the center.  Separation divides the mind and makes it small and limited. It threatens it, makes it feel weak and daunted.  All is a portion of the hard process of becoming and creating leading to new ways of being. What has been judged as good or bad is not better or worse: together, through hard processes like birth itself, shapes into existence the becoming of the fullness of the human spirit. Circles are the most powerful form in action (Campbell quoting Black Elk xviii). What is given out goes around again to itself. Character is fate--not arbitrary, life and energy-wasting judgment. The whole self, keeping to its creative processes towards truth and enlightenment is how to come to see the beauty in its fullness and entirety. Then, when the globe as a whole is studied it can be seen that it was/is always coming together: each and every moment and place a glorious happenstance of destiny occurring. To see the complete history of humanity, its literature and thought and wars and hopes all work ceaselessly, tirelessly--the tension of black and white, propelling and compelling--towards oneness on a map is to be flabbergasted, gobsmacked. (One can hear its combined creation in a blues or jazz performance.)  Joseph Campbell spent his life showing the commonality of all the world’s myths and religions and finally concluded that they, too, were moving together. Add to it that when all the history of humankind and the forces of the universe are clearly in agreement and movement, a perfect alignment, the sublime awaits.

“You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life.”  Walt Whitman

The realization happens in a solitary room without having to step a foot outside. Franz Kafka, the Austrian-Hungarian, wrote, “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” And the Chinese ancient philosopher, Lao Tzu who wrote, “There is no need to run outside for better seeing / Nor to peer from a window / Rather abide at the center of your being / The more you leave it / the less you learn / Search your heart and see / For if she is wise who takes each turn / the way to do is to be.” And of the quintessential essence of knowing: “To a mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.” This is the story of becoming, of transforming: of changing and being changed and seeing the beauty of the unfolding of what is emerge into a new freedom, experienceable now, in this moment, which is eternity. Most elementary and evident to realize: the story of being human is not new nor were the artistic masters for all these centuries blind to its truths. They are the seers: the writers, the painters, the sculptors, the troubadours relating to life, all wondering why she, life, has remained silent in the bloodbath.  It is because she is spirit; she is soul. It was an always coming together, a combining moving towards--never away from--a new transformation and creation, making its way towards the light, recognition and love.


And yet she knows that art and beauty, inside and out, cannot even be experienced by a locked and divided mind. Truths and beauty require the mind to be filterless, in the words of the poet William Blake, when “the doors of perception are cleansed.” No demands, intentions, emotions or judgments work. The experience of wonder requires one to step outside one’s own concerns and participate as one with all that is, with the totality of life--crushing and real, devastating and joyous, fleeting and ever-present, and as the metaphysical poet John Donne and Ernest Hemingway showed--no man exempt as an island. With its expression through art beauty speaks of the completeness of each moment, the wholeness in every place and time and points towards truths--whether it is about longing for love or dying on a battlefield, masterfully captured in a painting, hanging quietly, the totality always encircling again and again in the wheel of being, wonder, its core, the planets, the lives, the expression moving with it all pointing towards, “just be.” Beauty--the totality, the light coming through all things, the harmony of and with nature--is perceived in stillness of the mind and openness of the heart. It is a different experience of being, both on the inside while also surprisingly visible on the outside. Because of what she sees, and hearing this song of the universe, her face radiates. This kind of experience cannot be mimicked, it illuminates from the seer’s face and shines from the countenance. To those who know it, it emanates. It is perfectly gorgeous, observable, clear and undeniable. Those who are blind to it assume no one knows or notices a darkened visage, eyes closed with self-interest like a crab repelling back into its shell because of the fear of loss of self. In a culture of surfaces realness remains a je ne sais quoi, as do the spiritual, natural and artistic worlds waiting to be revealed. She thinks of Audrey Hepburn who as a child lived through the brutality, hunger, daily struggle and turmoil of World War II and without the safety, security and comfort of a father, lived for years in danger for her life and the lives around her. She was a changed being, open to the value of each and every human, especially the neglected ones who were seemingly disposable, as she had been. Taken out of her childhood self through the experience, she could feel love for human beings she didn’t know, could ever after radiate without the filter of self, her beauty shining through a vessel, indescribable because it came through her with no intention, no walls to block or shadow it. Throwing off the shackles of what society demands (with its limited offer of youth, attention, money and so-called power) and its perceived requirements, beauty is experienced as a child experiences wonder, and yet with wisdom hard won through experience transformed back into healthy, grown-up perception. To comprehend it again in this new way is to have fought past divisions already into the open, free light, reclaiming the right to be. It is to realize that life and love are not contained as we think they are and have no straight line from point a to point b, a beginning to an end, but always are totality, sublimity, eternity--every moment--oneness in the here and now.


In this cathedral, the light shining through the window becomes animated, full of wonder again, and is seen alive in the creation, speaking to something more of ourselves, pieces not partitioned out. How could it be just parts and survive? The complete picture of the animation alive . . . the complete comprehension: there is true beauty to be beheld in the whole. It’s in her countenance, in that candle, in that cracked sidewalk telling of the millions of people who have walked over it seeking the same things, it’s in the shadow from the cathedral wall offering a cove of respite or delight, it is in the laughter, animated, alive, and well: fully in participation, all one, even with the sun, moon, and stars. The story of humanity is not locked, but real as expressed in the books and paintings of prime moments captured to exhort their illuminated truths: breathing, loving, surrendering, holding, beholding, crashing, dying, loving, real.


Standing in the cathedral there can be no rush to consciousness. She cannot create if she does not know her own true nature. She knows her own creation will bring her to life. How will she do it? What does she love? What ignites her soul? What makes her feel alive and peaceful and real? What delights her inner being? She thinks to her child, of creating the kind of world she wants him to have. She wants it to be full of wonder, she wants it to dance and be full of joy, to have communion even in the hardest times, humans who look at each other and know they are wondrously alike, and yet, in their differentiation and movement in life are bound for their own enunciated, profound expressions: soulful or scientific, learned or strikingly in motion or all of it: DNA with talents and gifts and personality and hopes and dreams and fortitude to see it through and to learn and grow and become towards realization. She wants it to be experienced as America, the Beautiful, the spirit alive. She wants to animate the world, let others see the ultimate display of miracles right in front of them. She wants his heart to be delighted. She wants to feel alive through her own expression. She wants to feel what it is like to have the freedom coursing through her veins, life giving life.


There above an altar where meaningful prayers, hopes and loves are spoken, she begins to see the whole beauty--the totality of the entire thing, the wonder radiating through it, the natural movement of it all. Comprehending the beauty is magnificent and it takes her breath away. Loss, joy and surrender! But what of her own sorrow, frozen in this place? What can she do? Life is outside these walls! In here, it is still and somber.

She thinks, “I am a part of the whole; I am the whole.”

There are still people in front of her pleading.

“They are looking at me. I must speak.” She cannot even create her own self until she sees it. She wants to say it. She repeats to herself, “How to see the beauty, how to see the beauty . . .” Closing her eyes, pushed to the edge, in the darkness, it is there:

It isn’t outside. It is her. Life and being and beauty is her. She is the stars.


She isn’t separated into her brain, a face, her hair, her arms, her posture, her lips, her place; she is total being. Animated by the wonder she sees, the light coming in the window is her light, too; she isn’t just a part of this, piecemealed out, she is totality, the complete pronunciation of beauty, of being alive, of smiling, laughing, kissing, loving, holding, creating, participating that everyone else could see about her when she speaks, if they saw her living, but she has not seen it because she thought she was only limited to this body, in this particular role, with these certain imposed requirements. She is a complete oneness with everything, the radiance of her smile is the radiance she sees on all the faces in front of her wanting out but they can’t see it. She touches her skin, it doesn’t matter if it is indented by time or events, it houses a magnificent her. She cannot be these fingers, they are borrowed for a time, but what a wonder of expression! She speaks and moves and there is creation. She isn’t these feet but there are hers for the moment. She laughs. How will she create beauty for the world to be in? She knows. She is the beauty. She can only see it if she sees the complete picture, the totality of all things: the wonder, the universe, the natural world, and not apart from it. It is the totality of her: her heat, her laughter, movement, wonder, sound, and light. She is alive. This is the one and only true state in which she can create--the way in which the spirit of being alive will be felt, through expression. This is the state of mind--openness--where powerful creation can come from. This is the state wherein true creation happens--where a coming together of ideas, of people, of being can happen spontaneously. This is what has stopped her for centuries. The walls of division she thought were there crumble; Her powers are her own because she can now see what It is: not parts, not divided, but whole. She closes her eyes, she knows her place, she is all at once consciousness and the whole universe.


Creation occurs at a combining, a coming together of unforeseen things, unpredicted and with no intention, a delight held in the mind and ignited first inside the imagination (Campbell xvii) before it is given special labor and birth. It occurs within a mind that is whole, that can be open to the nature around it phenomenally happening in every moment, a mind that is able to comprehend and contemplate and experience wonder and one that is in tune with its own true nature, not hampered or filtered by desires or fears. It is, as Campbell quotes of the Upanishads, “inwardly cognitive, experienced in 'exquisite solitude' of 'luminous enjoyments'” (xvii). This is how creation occurs naturally and carries across the ages. This is where the song of the universe comes from. A true song can come from no other place or instance besides this coming together. Liberated from the self is fertile ground and the joy of being can burst forth instantaneously into a song, ignited from its surroundings (xvii) and happenings and conceived in the soul and brought to life with the skill of a master. It is a powerful expression, it is an alive expression, it is united with the universe and it, enacted, itself then unites all that hear it. Campbell also quotes Plato who wrote, “If we are ever to have pure knowledge of anything, we must get rid of the body and contemplate things by themselves with the soul by itself” (xiii). Life felt hostile to her before, like living dishonestly, nothing feeling real. 4  It felt disposable. It felt like disorder, always something wrong, having to search too hard, fight too much, something unspoken out of place. Working out of her own true nature--where her heart is, work becomes effortless and the path reverberates with realness beyond what she imagined, even past the walls of time and space.


Her creation can be alive now and her words on the page can be animated with wholeness, able to speak themselves with a life of their own. She tells of cities, not of the broken history, but of the human spirit: Alexandria, a place of great learning where humanity moved itself from warring factions into a metropolis of books and learning; Athens with Ovid’s eternal transformations in his Metamorphosis, Socrates, Plato and the poetry of Sappho, The Vatican holding captured truths of the great works of art. She tells of the magic of time and place in Florence when in the Renaissance commerce was able to give new abundance to the artistic world in moment and opportunity and allow it to flourish exponentially. She thinks of her place in the city--not in its structures or in titles or deeds, but her presence, in the spirit of the expression of the city, in its art, its cafes, its parades and dances and music halls, in its poetry, its music. She is its spirit, its embodiment. She is its consciousness.  

It cannot come to life, be realized without her.  Only she can explain its energy because it is her energy.  She must write it, create it, bring it to life.

"The goddess alone knew of the all-moving, secret world energy which had helped the gods to victory; it was the power within them, of which they were unaware.  They believed they were strong in themselves, but without this force, or against it, they could not so much as harm a blade of grass.  The goddess knew of the universal force, which the Vedic priests called brahmin and which the Hindus call sakti, for sakti, i.e. energy, is the essence and name of the Great Goddess herself, hence she could explain the mysterious being to the gods, she could teach them its secret—for it was her own secret."    Heinrich Zimmer from The Indian World Mother




She writes of certain American cities that have remained boundless.  Like her,  in her expression, the cities are dynamic wholes coming to life, wanting for more articulation, still emerging, parallel with her own awakening.  Her dynamism is its life also.  A city doesn't know completely what it is until it can see the movement in the past, its qualities, the dynamism that has continually emerged from the swirl of energies that have formed it.  The dynamism  requires both wholeness and expression to live, to become, to emerge, for the spirit of place to be visible, tangible, viable, and finally, understood.  It is she who gives it life and guides its creation.  Each city moves toward that expression even as it is transformed by change, by natural disasters, redevelopment, and economic and industrial shifts. As Paul La Farge writes, "Now construction happens in artists' studios" (Infinite City 132).  The metamorphosis is to community and to full articulation of what before was only surmised about her and about the future of place.  This is how The Odyssey will be told, how America came to be.  This is how poetry will be born, how new creation will come to life.

In her atlases Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas and Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, author Rebecca Solnit begins to unveil unexpected worlds in these American cities by the creative act of combining elements that before are perceived as operating merely separately or even aspects working to the disadvantage of another: from cities of parts to whole, differently powerful entities.  The possibilities created are actually of greater dimension than Solnit herself anticipates during the compilation of the maps and words of the books—the experience with place and people deepened as the "fragments" become atlases (Infinite City 154) and the cities revealed themselves to be deeper and more resilient than separated aspects or events. Her combining of sometimes contrary and unexpected elements of each city accomplishes her stated intention: to open the cities to more possibilities of imaginative exploration in an infinite variety of ways of experiencing a city, to show how there are endless configurations of maps, to encourage those of the readers’ own making, and to deepen and enliven the experience of the city. Additionally, however, her combinations also bring light to something more than the sum of the parts of each city. While the possibilities are indeed boundless, in her act, she, along with Rebecca Snedeker who joins her in creating her second atlas,  Unfathomable City, and a community of cartographers, artists, and contributors, actually unbinds the spirits of the cities themselves.  Taken as a whole, not just as a ‘this’ and also a ‘that’, an intensity of swirling energies are shown at work as only a true creation can reveal, and it is done after the fact that the books are created, evident in the effect of the whole, complete creation that now can move on to new creation. Not just light and not just dark, and actually neither operating alone, the spirit of the cities are revealed, and thus, more opportunity for them to be brought to life. In other words, instead of a more linear experience of a place, for example, one point where many things happen, the combining shows energies not to be viewed separately, and the life this gives is an actual added dimension--an energetic, alive creation, a knowable and celebratory spirit of place where new creation flourishes.


The whole picture is made up of all the moments that have ever been or ever will be, all the people who have ever lived, are living, or who have yet to live.  No book or song is separate, but a participation, an intertextuality reaching from one person to the next, skipping no one, skipping no time.  When Rebecca Solnit looks at her city, San Francisco,  she doesn't hide the battle of queens to dance or the eradication of certain butterflies forever, nor that San Francisco is the home of military think tanks, endless planning and funding of war, and of corporations guilty of continuing global human rights abuses.  Yet it is also the place where the United Nations was founded and where movies were born.  She writes that it is the place "where America invents itself" (Infinite City vii). It is where Save the Bay and the Sierra Club began, becoming "the center of global conservation through most of the twentieth century" (21) and is also the "greenest urban greenbelt in the United States.  Out of 4.5 million acres in the nine-county region, more than 3.5 million are open spaces" (20).  It is the place where violent riots against Chinese workers were staged in a historic moment of strange revolution in 1877 (when San Francisco was not yet able to fully understand its unifying, liberating spirit).  In her essay "Truth to Power" Solnit writes:

The rest of the country was being convulsed by the closest thing to a revolution the United States had seen since its founding, a revolution against capital, against wealth, and most particularly against the railroads.  But in San Francisco, the outrage at the wealth of the railroad barons and the poverty of the workers in that recession was misdirected at the Chinese, and a hysterical rage was whipped up by the demagogue Dennis Kearney, speaking at the Sand Lot and demanding the expulsion of Chinese laborers.  Chinese people, homes, and businesses were attacked, and buildings and wharves were set ablaze . . . (40).

In her map "Poison/Palate"  with cartography by Ben Pease and artwork by Sunaura Taylor, Solnit demonstrates an ultimate dichotomy:  the unfathomable amounts of poisons being put into the ground, air and water by refineries, old mercury mines,  shipyards, military bases and stations, labs, paint factories, and semiconductors juxtaposed with the pristine image, yet massive user of chemicals, of Napa and Sonoma Counties where that elixir and celebrant of life, American wine is grown, harvested and produced.  To touch it all off, it is also a map of world-renowned culinary places to delight the senses with incredible chocolates, coffees, and cheeses.

Indeed, what can be deemed "wrong" in some perspectives looks insurmountable and what looks "right" on the map appears to be insignificant or possibly trivial compared.  What would create, bring out an indomitable spirit, challenge the heart, draw to life, not with a wishy-washy maybe, but with a fervent realization, an ecstasy, a brave poet’s heart in full release but a challenge such as this? Life doesn’t create half-assed nor does it require to tame darker forces so that birth and creation is easier. It lets black holes pull at the very universe, eating all light, devouring, sucking, with an event horizon beyond all magnitude that swallows time, light, mass and space leaving not even a shadow, not even a burp. It also makes intricate designs of flowers in infinite color and variety, scoffing at the cowardly words “it can’t be done.” Is the human spirit ready for the challenge? Ready to become what it is destined to be?  Can she speak and say, “This is my city. These are my people.  This is my earth, my body, my heart, and my mind” and there IS "enough beauty to stop a war" 5.  Think of the glass of wine one could share with another in that moment!  If she is life, she must be it.  She may have appeared powerless and daunted before, but what is astounding is that she has the power to create the new.  Rebecca Solnit's spirit shines in this way--without her ever having to say so.  What she does is create the atlases.  She shows her cities in all their ill-repute and glory, and that is what opens creation.  It is also how to know and experience the vast workings of what is already astounding and beautiful.

So what we are to look for in the combinations is to what it will create of us and what we will, in turn, create from it.  The opposing directions within the whole are clear:  towards the creation of the new, a becoming of its own. Of San Francisco, Solnit writes that it is:

both the great laboratory for new military technologies and the capital of opposition to militarism, being both Tuscany and the starship Enterprise, making both delights for the palate and poison for the body.  Behind the latter conundrum lies its constant tension between being more sensual and engaged with place, substance, and pleasure, on the one hand, and more sped-up, technological, profitable, and disembodied, on the other (56).

By creating with others the maps, artwork and essays, Solnit gives back depth and dimension to limited perspective for what is both individually experienced in a city and collectively shared in an effort to open the boundaries, and as an after-effect, strengthen the heart.  Her encouragement is for her audience to know and feel the limitlessness in what looks like an impossibility given the appearance that history and place (and maps) are static and isolated, and given the state of affairs and the brutal and self-concerned nature of the history of humanity.  Her new creation is to be freed from this linear, isolated perception that a map, a history, a path, or an experience is in any way definitive, over, or limited when its far-reaches are actually radiating with a "prismatic nature" (17).  She is demonstrating the opportunity to alter both perception and experience.  She is practically putting the city and a pencil in the reader's hand.  She is giving it life and the opportunity for new creation.  One can almost see her smiling as her city becomes.

What is phenomenal to watch is what the masters do with that.  Alongside the map "Shipyards and Sounds" contributor, geographer and musicologist Joshua Jelly-Schapiro in his article "High Tide, Low Ebb" discusses the path by which African Americans were both brought in slave ships to the South and in uncanny similarity came from there to the Bay Area to build ships for World War II.  One's jaw drops at the audacity in this realization, but Jelly-Schapiro goes further.  Not only did they turn out more than a "Liberty Ship" a day, being assigned the most dangerous jobs with a large number being blown apart while loading munitions, they were also banned from housing and had what housing they did find demolished to make way for post offices and other segregated projects in the new "prosperity and hubris" following the war.  As is well known, the phenomenon, is not this (although looking back now at history one can see an excruciating yet phenomenal shaping).  It is that within a life-crushing setting the spiritual nature added together with a capacity for expression, and both pushed to an edge of new birth—psychologically, physically and on the edge of a shore, and all of this now most evident in the art of African-Americans, emerges and what can be seen is the phenomenon of the beautiful, alive and spiritual nature of not only what it bears, but also what it makes possible—without limitation.   The very nature of jazz and blues is that it is the expression of life and also lends itself to a blossoming continuum where the limits are no longer linear or static.  Likely, this is the actual birth of the nation.  It is certainly an expression of the spirit of the nation that would need to come to more fullness.  Like her and place, art and race were looking for their wholeness.  The metamorphosis would take time.

To deepen the collective story Jelly-Schapiro writes of San Francisco's Fillmore District:

which had long been home to the majority of the city's black citizens . . . that black population grew by nearly 700 percent during the war . . . was able to do so, moreover without the racial riots that followed the wartime influx of southern blacks in cities such as Los Angeles and Detroit—in part because the government had forcibly removed and sent to internment camps several thousand Japanese residents from an area of the Fillmore known, until 1941, as Japantown.  In the Victorians and storefronts left behind by the Japanese, black immigrants opened dozens of nightclubs and bars that would play host, from the early 1940s to the 1960s, to all the major figures in jazz, making the Fillmore perhaps the key West Coast hub for the evolution of that music (61).

Jelly-Schapiro also writes of West Oakland and the performances of Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Bobby "Blue" Bland, and "a young Ray Charles."  He writes, "In 1942, West Oakland legend Saunders King (birthplace:  Staple, Louisiana) scored a nationwide hit with 'S. K. Blues,' one of the first blues songs to feature electric guitar" and that "the scene was nurtured and shaped by figures such as Lowell Fulson (birthplace: Tulsa, Oklahoma), who learned to play guitar on Seventh Street . . . " and who "became an influence on B. B. King . . . "(62).

Jelly-Shapiro describes the combining nature of the West Coast blues as:

joining the feel and structure of Texas blues to the propulsive harmonies of swing jazz, the groups who played this style employed full horn sections rather than a lone harmonica, forging a music that at once recalled the rural past of ancestors brought to America in wooden slave boats and spoke to the urbane life ways of people building steel warships in modern cities.  The West Coast blues became, during the 1940s and early 1950s, one of the key forerunners of rock 'n' roll (62).

The complete circle also includes extreme poverty that still continues in these areas, the government having pulled the jobs after the war and in the 1960s further razing what was barely hanging on.  According to Jelly-Schapiro "San Francisco's political classes nurtured a self-image of their city—fed by its having officially desegregated its public transit and schools as early as the 1860s—as a racially progressive place" (63) while it is also the place that felt enough dire need to begin the "Black Panther Party for Self Defense" in 1966.


Jelly-Schapiro later makes note of San Francisco still being, despite the extreme hardships, the place recognized as different and opens the possibilities inherent in the important question of place we examine in looking at Solnit's Atlas:

Since the end of the Great War—and before—what has always drawn many black migrants to the Bay Area is the same promise vested in San Francisco by all its newcomers:  the possibility of imagining a world different from the one left behind (perhaps, for instance, a world—it bears mentioning here—in which black people are no longer associated solely with music and woe)" (65).

There are important empowering realizations here that come with a combining of the whole. What was painful birth was not an end. While what existed physically of the Fillmore District has mostly been erased now—leaving the impression that it is simply divided out and gone—it did indeed alter life and our own worlds as San Francisco is known to do.  It brought permanent hope and the voices that were there will prove to speak further yet.

It is important then, to show that the halls of the Fillmore District and the clubs of West Oakland were indeed birthing the change—not what appears to be further limitation.  Both time and spirit of place are still in play, arriving now.  The divisions and limitations can now be removed. Whereas black women musicians and singers such as Billie Holiday were able to forge a path with incredible presence and talent that resonates and calls attention to its power to this day (the image of her entire presence along with her unforgettable voice comes to mind at the mention of her name), the limitations in place at that time were still to be removed and what was begun would forge the ultimate difference across place and time.

The limitations for a prescribed role, age, race, gender, economic class, for example, are still segregations, divisions in the cultural imagination still being unfolded.  For Billie Holiday, for example, these limitations were not naturally a part of her being, but are arbitrary culturally imaginative limitations that told her she was separated out by walls of gender, music, voice, blackness, whiteness, religion, community, politics, business, image, statues, iconography, and even separated out as the experience of one person instead of the common ground we all share in being just like her—evident when we all hear her voice and the divisions naturally fall away.  In fact, instead of being a victim of each of those things—as her place and time imposed upon her, keeping her locked inside—with the walls down she is a complete picture of all of these things.  What is more, she is also pure potentiality.  Even to judge the past as over is a segregation.  This force upon her in her time was part of her becoming.  It cannot be judged as wrong and an end point because it helped to shape something important, powerful and real.  It is readily evident that in our time she can remove the divisions.

Additionally, the fact that she is African-American (or Latino or Lebanese) and female is the difference that makes the completed, different perspective possible by showing that what role we limited it to in our minds limited our own worlds.  In that she is black, female and an artist, she completes the whole of what was missing.  For if she could break out within herself from that limited perspective (that she and her time and place had yet to become), we would see that she is the full expression of what has been divided from our own minds for centuries—being all at once femininity, humanity, spirituality, creator, nurturer, protector, unifier, the ender of wars, the embodiment of the boundary-less qualities of feminine expressions from centuries past and capable of creating different worlds.  The capabilities of her body, her mind and her art are representative of that newly unleashed power of humanity and creation.  Her shift in consciousness brings a completeness of immense magnitude and capability.

She creates new atlases and hands you the pencil.

She takes down the walls and says, "I'm limitless, this city is limitless, what about you?"

You might have your street razed or a hurricane might blow it apart, almost wiping it from the map.  What remains?

The spirit of place of which she is the embodiment.

Billie Holiday's offering is a combination of powerful magnitude—soulfulness, talent, presence, delivery in an art that unifies across boundaries, across time, across religion, across politics, and across social boundaries.  By being herself, she melts the limitations applied of being labeled as performing merely "music by black people" and "woe" and shows in brilliant form the unlimited inherent qualities and individual characteristics that African-Americans can add to—and is missing from—a divided and spiritually, mythologically, and foundationally-bereft culture at large.  In other words, she, the image of her, completes a picture that was evolving and that was sorely missing not only in music, but in the feminine, artistic, spiritual, and human roles—within a culture separated and weakened.  It is a culture that didn't see at the time that its full becoming would take another seventy years in transformation and would require the feminine to complete the broken half.  She is the image that proves she was more than the limitations we thought she was and that we also desperately need her.  The image of the female has been locked inside her own mind and also within the cultural cathedral walls--limited to silent, not creating, Anglo-American (who have tended to struggle with cultural expression of being female, soulful and spiritual), limited to religion, to perspective, to assigned identity and role.  Even music itself has been limited to perspective as it is actually culturally foundational,  unifying, necessary and transformative. The role of herthe frozen image of half of the population, becoming is what is necessary to take down the boundaries, as she has remained closed off, limited in our minds.  Her emergence is required.  In this way, she is not limited to any one role or definition—and her creation is unlimited.  

In her development, the cities have also been in evolution, have depended on her emanation to make the change visible and livable; she is the expression of that different world. The difference now between Billie Holiday and an artist imagining and creating new worlds in our own time is both the arrival of time and place. The city, through its tumultuous becoming also, and her expression and embodiment of its life, will find that it likewise has strength and beauty that abounds personified in her and therefore opening the cultural mindset from being divided.  The expression of the spirit of the city and therefore the possibilities of its inhabitants depends upon her realization.  Place and time have come to her.

The cultural transformation is both enlivened and nurtured of this.  The dimensions of a city reach from its history in the abilities, dignity and homes of every person who has lived there, their "ancestral origins, immigration routes and lost homelands, social ties, and cultural work," the nature thriving in the sunlight, the route of the coffee beans and the hands that grew it, the rising shoreline and the disappearing marshes, and every "memory, flesh, and passion."  Often, a reason to visit or live in a city is to experience the vivacity and impression of that city with a desire to get at the heart of it, to encounter the draw of what the locals live, and to get a closer comprehension of the enchantment of it and to have that be tangible—both its past to its present. San Francisco remains known as the place world-renown for openness, change and possibility not as mere idea, but as the place that comes to this expression over and over through all of its shaping energies.  This may now be seen as a spiritual nature, but not just limited to that realization because it actually plays out in the culture of place and also of time.

The spiritual aspect even becomes realized as having already traversed the barriers of thought.  In an NPR special about John Coltrane, the commentator states:

"writhing forces of nature take on a religious function. Coltrane's hymn like pieces with titles like 'Offering' and 'Peace on Earth' make plain how spiritual concerns are central to his art. There's a church named for him after all. For Coltrane, literally or metaphorically, playing saxophone was a religious act, a communion with powerful but invisible forces was the heart of his spiritual practice” (NPR).

Likewise, an elderly tenant in San Francisco being removed from his community South of Market in a redevelopment stated, "We enjoy life . . . Most of all there is something spiritual about all of this . . . We have something that couldn't be replaced with all the money our federal government could put in here" (90). 

Infinite City shows that while a city, specifically here, San Francisco, economically and culturally shifts with eras of capitalist development leaving in its wake the environment, the identity of a city, its history, humans and communities, there is a shift towards once again creating and caring for local culture.   There is a building atmosphere that not only values the integral elements that are the life of place including each individual, but also demonstrates that the spirit of place that reverberates in its history, presence and expression is elemental, not peripheral or expendable. There is a realization that life and quality of life depends on place being cared for.  It is coming to understand that the spirit of place is an expression of that vitality that actually emanates from a city—it is what becomes known of a city.  Even atmosphere gives inherent value for those who live their lives there.   It is how life is experienced and community is created and how more expression comes to life.  It is how nature gets protected.  It is why people seek to know and be a part of its vitality.  It is an expression of the recognition, honoring and celebration of life.  It is why a person visits San Francisco.

"More than anything, this is a map home . . . This is a map that locates what was never lost . . . This is a map of here." Genine Lentine "A Way Home" in Infinite City

In his essay, "The Smell of Ten Thousand Gallons of Mayonnaise and a Hundred Tons of Coffee," Chris Carlsson examines how:

San Francisco is a quintessential example of what happened to the cities in the United States and, to some extent, Europe in the later half of the twentieth century" "the United States sent most of its manufacturing to new locations . . . while building a 'new economy' based on information and tourism.  Using a combination of debt and strangely hollow but widely distributed abundance, the U.S. working class was reconfigured . . . (82).

Carlsson also looks at how "urban renewal" and "redevelopment" was guilty of devastating many homes, neighborhoods and livelihoods—but more essentially well-beings--by "gutting the economic and cultural heart" of communities.  Rebecca Solnit takes this further in her essay "Piled Up, Scraped Away" where she looks at the demolition of an entire way of life that was erased South of Market Street.  Not only was it a removal, but the lives that were moved were of "seniors, disabled, the formerly homeless" in a "class war, a war to move the wealthy and the middle class across the line that Market Street had been . . . " (90).  Those who were being forced out formed "TOOR, Tenants and Owners in Opposition to Redevelopment, and they fought one of the bloodiest battles in American redevelopment history.  The tenants of the area were evicted, threatened, beaten, driven out by arson, and forced to live in buildings that the city took over and turned into slums.  But they were tenacious" (90).  Importantly, she also shows how the photography of Ira Nowinski captured the faces and lives that were displaced, an artist never letting humanity be erased.

As Solnit points out, San Francisco is a seven square mile peninsula known for its Summer of Love, the place to come "with flowers in your hair," where Otis Redding sat "On the Dock of the Bay," and where Richard Pryor altered comedy.  It is known as the place of origination and cultivation of music in the 40s and 50s and the radical counter-culture movements of the 60s.   It is continually viewed as being progressive and open.  Solnit points out that it is home to almost every nationality on the planet.  She explores facets of it ranging from Latino gangs in the Mission that emanate out from the prisons and of the many Mexican immigrants who trace paths to the city and who work as day laborers, and of the Latinos whose origination there outdates almost everyone else besides the Ohlone.  She shows groves of Monterey cypress trees found throughout the city and the growth of Vedanta "as founded by the Indian mystic Ramakrishna" (70).  While Solnit also examines the full facets that make the dynamics of the city one in which radical is equally met with an often times opposing aspect, the spirit that is perceived as San Francisco and the Bay Area remains intact and continually speaks to the imagination and to the vitality of life.  The daily struggle to live in the city and the radical changes it has experienced from natural disasters to redevelopment has not altered the spirit that is known as San Francisco, one of "eros and liberation" (145).


While New Orleans does not ordinarily fall under the purview of books about the Southwest, in keeping with the power inherent in taking down boundaries and also in providing the fullness of combinations of creations as evidenced in the effect of Rebecca Solnit's atlases, New Orleans, shown along with the victorious spirit of San Francisco, offers a look at an American city that is situated right on American boundaries in many senses of the word.  It is the cultural gateway to the Catholic and Carnival worlds of Latin America that offer liberation from Puritanical stoicism, the part of the world where unity and celebration is a way of life, where symbols still reverberate with meaning and experience and where the magical realism and spiritual realms are not only accepted, they are incorporated into living.  Solnit describes how New Orleans is also the northernmost point of the African-Caribbean worlds with its vivacious and sensuous spirituality, traditions and expressions of its own that remain integral to New Orleans culture, adding to the French, Spanish, Native America and formerly "enslaved African" presences that create the whole.   It is also where everything, including nitrates and toxins, comes down from the Mississippi.  She describes how its physical boundaries are constantly in fluctuation mostly due to the oil and shipping industries that cut into its coastlines and erode its already tenuous structural balance. It is the meeting place of all of these things that are the question of America, but what still stands out is its "warmth and cordiality and the capacity for joy and celebration" (7).   She writes:

 . . . in New Orleans people live in public:  they love their city, their neighborhood, the rites of the calendar, the clubs or krewes they belong to, the legends and stories, being in public among the crowd.  People talked to strangers, told stories, spoke with directness and sweetness, greeted me with endearments, knew where they were . . . " (7).

She states, "New Orleans has a kind of centripetal or magnetic or hypnotic force:  when you're in it, you're absorbed, and other places cease to occupy much territory in your mind."  She writes of its long-standing sense of community and how after Katrina, "New Orleans's exiles had lost things most of us hadn't had for generations" and that they "had the deep sense of belonging that comes from extended family, long memory, customs and rites, a sense of history, and the stability of life lived in one place" (7).

Throughout the atlas, Solnit and Snedeker show the vitality, life and presence of New Orleans that resists delineations:

even how 'past' is not the right word to describe how the old sins and rites are still alive here; how the city remains a French city, a Spanish city, a Catholic city (with strong Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, and voodoo traditions), a port city; how the dead never go away, but remain as an ancestral population.  You could say that death lives as it does in Mexico, where it's celebrated and contemplated (11).

And of it's alive nature:

. . . this is a city of music and dance, of art coming directly out of the body, of those things that invite audiences to become participants, that unfold in time.  Before recording technologies, these arts were entirely of the moment.  Music here is still live; people dance to bands more than to recorded music . . .

This life in the moment is described as "improvisations that sail out on the night air never to be recaptured but always to be renewed and succeeded.  This is not the immortality of dry endless life but of continual regeneration and reincarnation" (12).  As Donald Harrison Jr. states in an interview in the book, "New Orleans music has a whole breath of life in it.  It's music for the mind, body and soul" (102).  Harrison shows how his experience took him all the way from listening to Barbra Streisand to seeing Hip-Hop become the dominant protest music and how he learned the connection between "culture, tradition, education, artistic expression, and altruism" (103).  Most profoundly he states: "It enriches my spirit to be linked to such a deep and far-reaching piece of what this universe is" (104).  Indeed, the writers show how New Orleans "has shaped much of the music now listened to around the world" (4) and its profound and powerful reaches and effects. 

Both Solnit and Snedeker, along with now editor-at-large Jelly Schapiro, show how their creation, this art in the form of maps opens place as technological maps do not do.  It is an invitation to "learn your way around," to have a place shaped "by sense and by memories." The map is a work of art that stimulates a consideration of beauty, "provokes the wonder or craving," and "inspire contemplation" (5).  It is a work that speaks across ages, Solnit describing it as having "an edge on immortality."  This form of expression ignites the imagination and opens experience showing "cemeteries, bird migrations, histories, economies, ethnic groups, parade routes, and the thousand other things that can be mapped and have been mapped in old atlases . . . " (6).  

In other words, we are given all the parts together for contemplation that bring an unfathomable whole world into our own hands.


The combining, the coming together happens through a work of continuing creation of no longer perceived separate parts, but an entire universe sharing in its becoming.  It requires an awakening of a combination of the heart, mind, body and soul and a reciprocal combining with love and an ignited warrior's brave poet heart.  What is alive and creating, deeply influential, imaginative, and leading the way is the art of the seers who know as Arundhati Roy wrote:

"Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.  On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."

Welcome to the beginning.


1.  "The trouble that began was the discovery of duality.  That was the Fall."  Joseph Campbell quoted in Diane Osbon,    A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living. New York, NY: Harper Collins, P. 29.
2.  Jed McKenna.
3.  Jed McKenna quoting Shakespeare, Henry IV Part II.
4.  “Tension, a lack of honesty, and a sense of unreality come from following the wrong force in your life.”  Joseph Campbell quoted in Diane Obson’s A Joseph Campbell Companion:  Reflections on the Art of Living, P. 182.
5. In his enlightenment books Jed McKenna describes an experience of listening to music as "enough beauty to stop a war."
Works Cited
Campbell, Joseph. Historical Atlas of World Mythology:  Volume I:  The Way of the Animal Powers, Part II Mythologies of the Great Hunt. "Art as a Revelation". New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Print.
Lamm, Robert Carson. The Humanities in Western Culture: A Search for Human Values. 4th Edition Brief ed. Madison: Brown & Benchmark, 1996. Print.
McKenna, Jed. Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing. Fairfield, Iowa: Wisefool, 2002. Print.
McKenna, Jed. Spiritual Warfare. IA City, IA: Wisefool, 2007. Print.
McKenna, Jed. Spiritually Incorrect Enlightenment. IA City, IA: Wisefool, 2004. Print.
Osbon, Diane and Joseph Campbell. A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1991. Print.
Solnit, Rebecca, Ben Pease, and Shizue Siegel. Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas. Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2010. Print.
Solnit, Rebecca, and Rebecca Snedeker. Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas. Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2013. Print.