To Arrive and Not Depart

Photo by Jon Rou

Like other Los Angeles landmarks — Hollywood, the freeways — LAX is a symbol of transience.

 

Like other Los Angeles landmarks — Hollywood, the freeways — LAX is a symbol of transience. The airport is unceasing motion, with constant departures and arrivals, where millions go and come. Even in morning’s early hours — 3 a.m., 4 a.m. — the din of idling engines is in the air. It seems a massive human hive, one where there is no rest.

Wallace Stegner, the great American novelist of the West, once wrote that the literature of the West is one of motion. Ever a greener pasture, or a paradise, California, the most West of all, was the Golden State of redemption — the redeeming not of souls but lives. Its riches, fame, comfort and reward, many hoped, just might compensate for a life of obscurity, neglect and, perhaps, sins.

Stegner understood this. In a 1992 essay titled “The Sense of Place,” he lauded the virtue of belonging, not traversing: “… a place is not a place until people have been born in it, have grown up in it, lived in it, known it, died in it — have both experienced and shaped it, as individuals, families, neighborhoods, and communities, over more than one generation.” Stegner was paying tribute to Wendell Berry, a writer himself who, like Henry Thoreau, William Faulkner and John Steinbeck, is a “placed,” not a displaced or unplaced, writer.

LMU sits at the edge of the American West, where both desperate and hopeful sojourns come to an end. If California was once thought the final destination of continental human drift, today we know it as one of the world’s hubs of migration. The people who come here now, their eyes filled with dreams, leave lives behind in China, Mexico, Russia, Ethiopia and Iran. In an afternoon at Tom Bradley International Terminal, you can meet them by the hundreds.

A little more than a century ago, Jesuits, too, were angling to reach Southern California. Unlike many, they were fleeing nowhere; like many, their dreams led them. They wanted to start a university and parishes, to arrive and not depart. Their university moved from Highland Park to Westchester, but only to plant more permanent roots. In the course of a century, LMU has become a placed university.

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