Being asked to name my favorite city reminds me of trying to pick my favorite color. And it is about as impossible and subject to the answer changing according to mood.
In my teenage years my favorite color was burgundy, deep rich dark red, a color of intensity and mystery. It’s not a surprise that I spent my sophomore year in a college overseas program, living on the outskirts of Florence, Italy. A life changing experience that has everything to do with my writing a book called NOTES ON THE NEED FOR BEAUTY. And with the fact that for my 49th birthday I bought myself an olive tree though it took me a few years to accept between my beautiful native oak in the northwestern corner and my neighbor’s redwood along the eastern border, I had no place for it. (The olive now lives in friends’ backyard in West Berkeley.) In Florence, I continued the habit of visiting art regularly and briefly I began when I attended an urban high school across the street from the local museum. I loved stopping by the convent of San Marco on my way downtown. At the top of the steps Beato Angelico had painted a stunning fresco of the Annunciation, the conversation between Mary and the Angel set in the garden of a Italian courtyard. The young woman leans inward and toward the angel, and the air in the garden shimmers.
Northern California is as close to Tuscany as anywhere I know in the United States. By the end of my twenties, I had been living in Berkeley a few years and my favorite color was turqouise. My small upstairs bedroom faced East toward the Berkeley hills punctuated with blue green trees, a bit like the view toward Fiesole out my casement window when I was nineteen. At the end of my twenties I named my fledgling publishing company TURQUOISE MOUNTAIN PUBLICATIONS. At that point I had no plans to spend the next 30 years in North Berkeley. I imagined at some point I might try Santa Fe or Seattle, Portland, Maine or Asheville, North Carolina.
In my forties my parents moved to Seattle. After 44 years in Omaha, my New York mother persuaded my Midwestern father to leave his hometown; my father as well as my mother made a happy adjustment to this city where many people seemed as interesting as Californians but more grounded. My mother, ever the New Yorker, settled them in a tall apartment building between Capitol Hill and First Hill with wonderful views of Lake Union and Elliott Bay. They often walked downtown to the symphony or the museum or Pike Place market, and if the climb up hill seemed too steep, grabbed a bus or cab for the return trip. I am in love with the subtle silver pine light of Seattle, the greys and forest greens, the late summer evenings, the early winter nights, the rain that seems so much softer than anywhere else.
I can’t write about favorite cities without mentioning New York. My New York isn’t so much the New York of aggressive business people, hip theater waiters, and young artists from the hinterlands but a New York of family, friends, and deep culture. Growing up while my grandfather was alive we went East almost every year. Our trips included the usual outings, ice skating at Rockefeller Center at Christmas, seeing my first Broadway Plays, (Peter Pan with Mary Martin when I was 6 and Oliver at 9.) The more unusual and formative outings were visits to the family courts in each of the boroughs with my beloved grandfather, a family court judge who told great stories, had a generous and humanitarian nature, and the patience to have serious conversations about art, ecology and justice with his oldest grandchild at 9 and 11 and 13.
In my thirties visiting New York “to see my editor” I began to feel like I was walking around inside an immense brain or nervous system. Although I usually crave quiet, there is something about New York that is so full of soul, I temporarily accept the noise as part of the price of being there. I'd come home inspired and animated but not rested, almost as if snippets of others' dreams had floated through mine as I slept on the 28th floor in my grandfather's sister's apartment.
In recent years as I was researching NOTES ON THE NEED FOR BEAUTY, I used to love to ask the New York cab drivers what beauty meant to them, and if they were from another country what were some of the words for beauty in their languages. An old black cab driver assured me that prime numbers are the most beautiful thing in the world. Another cab driver turned off the meter and sat in front of my friends’ apartment in Chelsea talking about how in his language the word for beauty had different prefixes depending on whether you were referring to a beautiful person, tree, or car.
I love New York for the unexpected and rich casual conversations, the way I never feel too intense or too short or Jewish, the opportunity to balance all the visual and verbal intensity by walking. In New York I walk much more than I do at home, and I walk so much more at night. I often return from New York feeling smarter, much more appreciative of the beauty of the Bay Area, and more committed to walking to Solano and Shattuck and San Pablo.
For someone who lives there New York must contain many colors; for me it is often black and white, the black and white of elegant photos of city landscapes yes, but also the black and white portrait of my grandfather in his judge’s robe on my fireplace mantle, the black and white snapshots of my mother’s childhood. On my most recent trip to New York last month, I discovered the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City and now my New York also is infused with the powerful textures and grey tones of Noguchi’s beautiful stones.
As I circle back closer to home, connecting a city and color breaks down. Perhaps the more one lives in a place and knows its many moods, the more difficult it is to limit it with a single color. Berkeley, full of silver mornings when the fog plays hide-and- seek up and down the hills whispers of Seattle. The golden afternoons of summer hint of the the good life of the Tuscan hills. I am fascinated by the greens here, not the verdant greens of the Midwest where rain is plentiful through the summer. The browned out greens of the shrubs in the hills, the grey sage of manzanita and eucalyptus, lavender, the dark black greens of spruce and cypress and redwood at night. Yet even as I struggle with my limited ability to describe Berkeley’s greens, a deeper tone of turquoise, a teal stream runs under my feet toward San Francisco Bay.
About J. Ruth
Causes J. Ruth Gendler Supports
Poets in the Schools
River of Words
Friends of the Earth
Doctors Withour Borders