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Serpent Blog - Treasure Island: A Pilgrimage to Portsmouth Square

Serpent Blog

Treasure Island: A Pilgrimage to Portsmouth Square 
"It is not much for its beauty that makes a claim upon men's hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanates from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit."

Robert Louis Stevenson


To be honest, to be kind,
To earn a little, to spend a little less,
To make upon the whole a family happier
for his presence,
To renounce when that shall be necessary
and not be embittered,
To keep a few friends, but those without
capitulation,
above all on some grim condition
to keep friends with himself,
Here is a task for all that man has of fortitude and delicacy.



My pilgrimage to Portsmouth Square began on a whim. It is close to my office and I walked to it with one of my small Moleskine notebooks and a pen. I had been to Portsmouth Square before, but had mot lingered, and had not known about the monument, which is hidden off in the northwest corner. The park at 1:30 in the afternoon was filled with Chinese men clustered into groups of five, seven, all playing some sort of raucous card game I had never seen before. There were hundreds of men, and some women, playing this card game, on benches, on tables, on the ground, on low walls and each on a flattened piece of cardboard. There was much laughter and shouting and endless conversation, all in Chinese, and the air was filled with these human vocalizations, these guttural sing-song sounds, mostly elderly, retired, happy, excited, living mouths, the very air a cacophony of voices, voices wavering in pitch and in tone, a chorus of the living, so close to dying, but in this moment full of their youth. I could see their joking and jibing, their inner personal, and inter-personal, knowledge of each other. Friendships, long held, playful rivalries, mock taunts, the Chinatown elders engaged in play, smiling their big-toothed smiles, smoking their long cigarettes, seated upon boxes and crates, their hands waving away the flies and the smoke, waving off bluffs, waving stretched hands with their stretched speckled skin.

And I was almost one of them. I sat cross-legged, my back against the Robert Louis Stevenson monument, and I watched them play and shout. I listened to their speech, I tried to recognized words, I tried to hear in them what I hear in all voices – song, a living music, hearts and minds rendered true in breath and throats and teeth and tongue. People speaking. Speech. A certain variety of speech, that is unaware of itself, unafraid, unguarded, free-flowing, unchecked. It was the easy cross-talk of a community of friends, and that it was in another language, a language wholly indecipherable to me, that allowed me to hear it as a whole body, like listening to the sound of a river moving fast over rocks of many different shapes and sizes.

I ooked around, to see them talking and to sometimes isolate the sound of one voice, to find the source of one particular laugh or shout, so that the soundscape shifted, and when I turned my head a little, changed in pitch. I would hear that voice, and see the old leather face where it came from, the laughing eyes and then another, not far away, another voice from some other man or woman, exclaiming some truth, some recollection, some expression of what they knew in that moment, without being aware that it would not be remembered years from now, for none here had years left. They were all unaware and unconcerned that what they voiced only lived for a few sputtering moments, like some sulfurous particle aglow on its fading arc, falling from a fireworks display.

And I was happy to be among them, and I was happy to be alive, and human, for this was not babble. We need not know the meaning of the sounds that come from us if we are aware of us, if we are watching us. We are endowed with a much greater gift than that of voice, or articulation. Long before words passed through our lips we could read faces like a dog reads faces. We could read the language of bodies, like any enduring species of beast. We could see. We are creatures of sight. We are observers. Long before we could write, speak, or communicate clear thought formed as words and birthed as strings of words, we would watch for other signs, cruder, but perhaps truer symbols for what we wanted or what we felt.

And it struck me that language is not necessary. I sat there among the ethnic Chinese and understood that sound transcends speech, as music does, which is why a great symphony can convey more than a great novel, why a river can speak louder than a missalette. Sound. Voices. The ambiance of Portsmouth Square on a pleasant Thursday afternoon. This place. This moment. This place in history. I imagined it the day the United States claimed Alta California as its own with the booming sound of the USS Portsmouth’s guns. I imagined it the day the cry of gold was first heard from the lips of Sam Brannan. I imagine Robert Louis Stevenson sitting here on this very spot. What did he hear here? I don’t know. I don’t even know why I came. What drew me to this place is not what I expected, or what I discovered. And that is what adventure is all about. This is the meaning of the word journey, of the concept of embarkation. The destination unknown. The mystery of the never-before-seen and the impossible to foresee. You go to be gone. You leave to be left. You visit to be visited. On a true journey you surrender all your expectations but never your hope, that you will find that which you never even knew you were looking for but always wanted. That ineffable connection to all things living, to all life, to all men, from which we draw life. For it is through close proximity to living, loving, laughing others that we rediscover ourselves.

All roads lead back home. The hero’s quest is circular. Wherever I go, there I am. And how fitting, that through Robert Louis Stevenson the adventure writer, I discover again the treasure of myself.








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Hey, Vincent, it's your non-spammer again.

I recently read Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and while I was disappointed by that story, "The Bottle Imp" (which was stuck in alongside a few other stories at the end) is now in my top-five short stories, period. That one seemed to nail what all his other morality tales were simply swiping at. I love the brutal fatalism of it, what cannot be escaped.

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