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In New York City, where space is at a premium, there are strict, unspoken codes of privacy and proximity: you can stand this close in a subway car and this close in an elevator and this close while waiting in line for an egg and cheese. An end seat on the subway becomes a private temple.
A pair of earphones offers a vital cocoon of sound. A corner of a closet becomes a consecrated shrine to high-top shoes. In Los Angeles, there is more room to spread out.
Aside from the strange liminal anomaly of downtown, Los Angeles is not a vertical city; it is a city of boulevards and interchanges, of foot palm trees and drive-through liquor stores. The quality of life is better. You can have fresh avocados every morning; the weather is like free Xanax; you can take meetings in the morning and be chased by a bobcat in the afternoon.
Given such a bounty of natural riches, do Angelenos even need spaces of retreat? Or was the entire city its own surreal sanctuary? Echo Park is a fairly unique locale in Los Angeles in that you can walk most places. I even saw other people walking on the sidewalk. We made the secret walker sign to one another.
I walked up the hill to Elysian Park and discovered secret, unnamed streets not on any map. Our Airbnb hosts had placed a couple of chairs and a table in the middle of a little dead end to nowhere. My friend Rains took me to the many stunning gardens of The Huntington in San Marino, where we wandered for hours getting our shinrin-yoku on. Each a complete universe unto itself.
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The Japanese Garden features the Zen Court and breathtaking bonsai collection. The miniature trees were like perfect haikus: the bald cypress, the Catlin elm, the Foemina juniper. My friend Dehn recommended that I go downtown to visit the Last Bookstore. To get downtown, I did what one normally does in a city: I took the subway.
It was, at least when I rode it, practically empty. And what about you? In recent years there has been a big effort to rejuvenate Downtown Los Angeles. In the past, Los Angeles had developed an unfair reputation for being anti-intellectual. In reality, the city is a vibrant, artistic, literary place; perhaps it is the sprawl that makes its various beacons of culture feel like stars in a distant constellation. Their ghosts haunt the Last Bookstore. When you enter, you are asked to hand over your backpack. This is ostensibly to prevent shoplifting but it felt more symbolic, as though you must leave any remnant of the outside world behind.
As soon as you pass through the front door, it is as if you have entered a different era, before the death of our collective attention. The Last Bookstore is truly a refuge, books literally form walls and windows, archways, tumble off shelves. The place feels like a living, breathing being, with various catacombs and vaults and catwalks that disobey the laws of gravity. I spent all afternoon there, stumbling upon books that I never knew I was missing. Even if Los Angeles crumbled around it—burned up in the wildfires, collapsed in an earthquake, dried up in a drought, was entombed in a mudslide— the Last Bookstore would still remain.
When my backpack was finally returned to me upon my exit, it took a moment to adjust to the idea that I would need such a bag again, that there was still a place outside where backpacks were useful. Not all places of retreat need be solitary or introspective. Some people recharge their life force surrounded by the cultural vibrancy of others.
While not exactly a spiritual sanctuary, perhaps there is no better symbol of the new DTLA than the resurgent Grand Central Market , which is the most exciting food court I have ever been to, buzzing with the electricity of a thousand cuisines. Is there a horror film where a man eats and eats in a food court without rest until he eventually explodes? Across town, far from the urban stage set of downtown, you will find two beautiful, divergent sites of reflection and retreat in the Pacific Palisades. The Self-Realization Lake Shrine , perched in a little hollow at the terminus of Sunset Boulevard just above the Pacific Ocean, is the bizarre, transportive sanctuary dreamed up by Paramahansa Yogananda and opened in Like many places in Los Angeles, the origin story of the Lake Shrine is the stuff of Hollywood movies.
The man-made lake was owned for a time in the s by the superintendent of construction for 20th Century Fox, who turned it into a strange film set, importing a two-story Mississippi houseboat and building a replica of a Dutch windmill.
Because obviously this is what one does when one owns a lake in Los Angeles. The property was in turn sold to an oil executive who planned on turning the lake into a resort. Except then he began having this recurring dream in which he had transformed the site into a Church of All Religions. Yogananda accepted the property and constructed a temple, a meditation garden and a peace memorial to Mahatma Gandhi.
The houseboat is still there. The windmill has been transformed into a meditation chapel. Somehow they fit perfectly within this hodgepodge of serene spirituality. I wandered the path of the lake, stumbling upon people in various states of contemplation. Two enlightened swans floated by. I wondered if they were paid actors. Just down Sunset Boulevard is an entirely different kind of refuge, the home of the legendary modernist designers Charles and Ray Eames.
Constructed in out of huge sheets of glass and prefabricated sections of steel, their house, like their work, is at once intensely utilitarian and intensely daring.
Joyous, even. The Eameses lived there for the duration of their lives. The house is actually two rectangular cubes of glass, quietly set into the hillside. The open, modular floor plans are filled with the delectable detritus of a lifetime of thinking and designing: African masks, bright Afghan textiles, little prototypes for toys never built. It is the urtext, what every midcentury modern space before and since aspires to be. Crucially, the attention of the house is not focused on itself but on its serene surrounds, a little wild meadow surrounded by a grove of eucalyptus trees, the ocean just visible beyond.
But it was also a place of work. One of the cubes functioned as their studio, a space of collaboration and experimentation where their colleagues would come and get messy. And it is this duality that I am most drawn to: that a private space of contemplation can also be a place of intense activation. A retreat is not so much a retreat but a re-turn, a re-think, a re-view, in its literal sense.
All my best ideas come when I have stepped away from my office, when I am in the shower or running or shinrin-yoku-ing and have a chance to view my work from a new angle. I have learned to keep little notebooks in strange places. Every car in Los Angeles should come equipped with a Dictaphone in the glovebox. The most profound retreat from the city remains actually retreating from the city.
So when the weekend rolled round we made like the locals and fled the City of Angels for the temptations of the high desert. The desert landscape plays strange tricks on your mind; like a Rorschach test, its deceptive minimalism brings whatever ails you into focus. Years later, a small band from Ireland would name an album after the same plant because they believed it represented the broken, beautiful s America about which they sang. If the high desert is a hot spot for seekers of transcendence, then the hot spot within the hot spot is the Integratron , a foot-tall wooden cupola in the tiny village of Landers, built in the s by aircraft mechanic and U.