I once wanted to write a short story about a man who moved to a town like Bisbee and bought a blue house. In the story, the man didn't truly understand why he came to that town and bought such a colorful house. He only knew that the life that was now behind him, a life of striving, was finished. What he wants now is a life lived differently. While the man cannot live his life over, he can at least live the rest of his life, long or short, awakening his heart to another world.
I didn't know how the story would end, but I knew what I wanted to name it: "The Blue House." I never finished the story but I knew it was important. And then I saw a painting in a gallery in Jerome, AZ titled, "The Blue House." The house was on the side of a mountain, like so many in Bisbee. And the gallery itself looked out over the vast valley that lay stretched out below another town that housed a Phelps Dodge mine. Seeing the picture began to open me up to the mysteries of the story and why I wanted to write it.
photo of Old Bisbee by Ted Weller
For nearly all of our lives we live in a kind of flat, horizontal dimension, the dimension of efficiency, of having and of getting, and of achieving. We live mostly in our heads. Our hearts are asleep. Cities on the plain surrounded by endless suburbs stretching mile after mile to the horizon are the perfect symbol for this way of life.
When we see Bisbee for the first time, we sense the possibility for living another way. This is in no small part because Old Bisbee is built on the walls of two canyons. Life here is lived more in the vertical than the horizontal dimension. Philosophers have long used the vertical as the symbol of relationship and belonging, of love, of art, of our connectedness to the world and others. It's not just philosophers who grasp this difference.
Why do kids love houses up in the air, tree houses above the ground? Isn't this their way of creating a special community, a magical world governed by the mysteries of love and the imagination perched above the boring flatland down on the ground? Aren't our myriad of Bisbee stairs another sign that life here is lived in another dimension, that the mysticism of everyday life lays closer to the surface here?
In the vertical dimension, the nature of having can be transformed, softened. We must have shelter for protection and ease, but all too often houses in the wider world of getting and having become our masters, symbols more of success and status rather than places for companionship and affection.
In the wider world, houses have people rather than the other way around.Relationship and love can be evoked by special places. The physical world can symbolize the movement of the unseen. There is something about a canyon that suggests being cradled, held, a vessel for the work of emptying ourselves to be filled with the mystery of our belonging.
I promised myself that when I went back to Jerome again I would look for the painting and buy it. Well, I was in Jerome yesterday and the painting was nowhere to be found. And besides Sam Woolcott a new artist in town from San Francisco produced a painting of a blue house in Bisbee and it now hangs on our bedroom wall.
painting of Old Bisbee scene by Sam Woolcott
But wait a minute. What’s wrong with this picture?
As I see it now, I had this whole image of the vertical and the horizontal wrong. I was borrowing from the writings of Paul Tillich and Erich Fromm, and their metaphors of the vertical and the horizontal as mapping the different worlds of having and being.
For example, in The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, this imagery is accepted but stood on its head. Howard Roark, the architect-hero of the novel designs buildings that seem to hug the earth, to cling to the mundane, human world, buildings that constitute a rebuke the building up in the sky as if to reach God.
I don't buy into Ayn Rand's political philosophy but with Roark she got it right. How many of us would like to work in one of those huge skyscrapers, reaching far up into the vertical dimension? Roark's architecture was earth-bound, not reaching for the heavens.
And wasn’t Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous buildings famous for hugging the earth? Okay, I think I remember that Wright wanted once to build the world's tallest building but the houses I love hug the earth. We had one in San Antonio on Vance Jackson Road and I always drove by slowly, in homage.
The image I think we are reaching for, in thinking about Bisbee, is "earthy", "funky", and to use a dressier word, "contingent." People in Bisbee live in a part of the world where you are reminded every day how fleeting it all is, and somehow it wakes us up.
Relationship and love can be evoked by special places. The physical world can symbolize the movement of the unseen. There is something about a canyon that suggests being cradled, held, a vessel for the work of emptying ourselves to be filled with the mystery of our belonging.
Sam Woolcott's pictures have a special quality, one that reminds me of the movie, “Popeye.” Her houses have a kind of helter-skelter, tilted character that seem to hug the earth, to be part of the earth more like flowers and weeds that structures that seal us off from the earth and the world around us.
So I’m beginning to see that the vertical-horizontal dichotomy is not the fundamental one.
The more important dichotomy is the contingent/permanent one.
So much of architecture strives to achieve a kind of solidity and permanence that defies the effects of time, that seeks to seal us off from our transient, contingent existence.
Bisbee has buildings and permanence; after all it was the Mother Ship of the Phelps Dodge corporation. But Bisbee was a mining town and before that a mining company, surrounded by mining camps, and mining towns have a precarious, contingent existence, dependent on distant bosses and market fluctuations shaped by global events.
The dominant metaphor here is nee of the precariousness, impermanence, and general funkiness of our existence and of the world itself and the need for intimacy that this can bring.
Wallace Stegner wrote of the “geography of hope,” to describe the West, but I don’t think Stegner had Phoenix or Los Angeles or the "Bay Area" in mind.
Tucson reminds me of the first night I spent in a motel in San Antonio, in 1949, after we had moved there, waiting for the moving van to bring our stuff from east Texas. We stayed in a motel designed like a wigwam, out on the highway. We highway. We have art cars here, old automobiles that are garishly painted and decorated in ways the rebuke the promise of eternal blessing conferred in the New Car.
What is more in the “cities of the plain” people actually live in the vertical worlds of status and achievement. Climbing the ladder, building bigger and bigger houses, buying more expensive cars and other toys are the signs and tokens of this world.
The dominant image depicted in Western movies is that of the lonely cowboy out on a cattle drive or riding toward a small town and destiny, with the town populated by cowering shopkeepers and ministers.
And years later I would jump in a car, abandon a lucrative fellowship and drive with a friend to southern California, where the cities stretching to the horizon were actually defined, and I loved it, adored it: the freeways, the jazz spots on Hollywood Boulevard, the new Dodger stadium when Dad and I watched Drysdale and Koufax pitch on successive nights and found all those batters striking out, in the end, boring.
A metaphor is a picture we live in, and the metaphors change throughout our lives, but in the end it is the people who count, not the metaphors, and in the end, it is gradually coming to terms with the contingency of it all, and the precious quality of ordinary existence found in ordinary, everyday times in a desert mining town, hugging the Mule mountains, not growing very much, changing slower, with all of us knowing that someday it will all very likely be gone.
As we surely will be. The desert itself is the rebuke to the dreams of permanence that are constantly in human hearts.
The desert beckons and the desert laughs.