On this day (well, a Wednesday, rather than a Saturday), a year short of two dozen decades ago, some three dozen Spanish soldiers clad in leather jackets dismounted their new-fangled horses in the parking lot of La Playita Seafood Restaurant, at the southern edge of Lincoln Heights; and seven or eight Tongva “heathen” crossed North Broadway Boulevard to greet them.
Because La Playita was not due to open for another two hundred years, the welcoming party brought the visitors refreshments – hand-woven baskets of pinole and carved-out gourds filled with water mixed with acorn powder – which they exchanged for Spanish thank-you gifts of tobacco and costume jewelry.
All along the Spaniards’ march north from Baja, their spiritual guide and chief diarist, Franciscan friar Juan Crespi, had christened practically every significant piece of Alta California geography with the names of God’s elect – a pond for St. Elmo, a river for San Dionisio, a marsh for St. Isabel of Hungary – creating a map of spiritual guideposts for those who would follow. And now, here, facing the Tongva settlement north of Yang-Na, beside its free-flowing river sheltered by, and nourishing, the large stands of willow trees, cottonwood, sycamore, and oak that stood just downhill from the newcomers’ camp in La Playita’s parking lot, Fray Crespi’s next baptismal name inched to the tip of his tongue.
As space was demarcated by the saints, so also were the Spaniards’ days, framing a sacred time-space continuum. The calendar began, on January first, with the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus (a clean cut), and moved reverently forward, saint by saint, through the year. And now, today, one of the most holy days of the Franciscan calendar was to be celebrated – at this spot, which Fray Crespi would describe in his journal as perhaps the most lovely garden the men had yet to encounter; wild roses and grapevines as far as the pleased eye could see.
Today was – this is – the Feast Day of Our Lady of the Angels, named for the poor hovel in which the founder of the Franciscan order, Saint Francis of Assisi, lived out his days on land bequeathed him by Dominican brethren.
Here Francis entered enduring myth and legend; receiving the stigmata, speaking with animals and birds – in a place so famed and sacred that a visit there could relieve the pilgrim of days to be spent in Purgatory. And, as Francis’ sanctity grew across the centuries, prayerful observance of this day set aside to celebrate his meager little chapel would reap similar benefit.
So it was that time and space truly came together for Fray Crespi, mystical Franciscan poet of the California landscape, today.
Here, in this green lush valley, at the fork of two crystal rivers, as quail and antelope ambled unafraid and thrush and turtledove sang in the near distance, Crespi’s calendar reminded him it was time to commemorate his Founder’s holy life.
And now – awash in the silver music of willow branches dancing along the river’s surface, cooled by the live oak’s ample shade, refreshed by the natives’ welcoming beverage, drinking in the pleasing colors of the native plants, and smiling into the heartwarming faces of his Tongva hosts – Fray Crespi invokes Saint Francis, who called the Sun his Brother and the Stars and Moon his Sisters.
Today is Eternity; Today is Forever. Today is Purgatory, poised between Heaven and Hell.
Here we float – together with Saint Francis, together with Fray Crespi, with untold hundreds perhaps thousands of Tongva elders and Chumash brethren. Brother Coyote and Sister Antelope, Brother Live Oak and Sister Yarrow float among us, with birds whose names we never learned and insects we never knew as friends.
If we can only recall what this day was meant to mean we could cut our stay here short; our time in this imbalanced purgatory might end.
Francis’ chapel and hovel were named Our Lady of the Angels because, ancient rumor has it, angel songs had often been heard in the valley below. They must be here, too, still, if only we can cleanse our hearts and listen.
j michael walker, 02 august 08.