JUST A VISITOR Today, for the first time, I enter St. Paul's , the 110 year old neighborhood church which I have admired from the outside for over a year but never stepped inside of -- either because I was driving and there was nowhere to park, or pushing a stroller and hurrying home, or carrying something heavy and in too much pain to stop. The interior is a study in restrained gothicism: the graceful ribbed arch vaults and sparsely illustrated stations of the cross, each with its narrative label, "Jesus falls down the first time" and so on. A desire seizes me to come here every Sunday, without even having to decide to do it, to walk matter of factly through the stained glass doors and sit in this harmonious space participating in a meaningful ritual. This is a yearning not so much to believe as to belong to a community of belief. But this is not likely to happen. A part of me is usually observing the scene (any scene) from the perspective of an "outsider." I always feel like a visitor.=20 As I continue along Church Street to 24th, pale winter sunlight slants across the sidewalk. I ponder how contingent identity can be -- worn, in my case, as lightly as a cape; easily shrugged off: Italian American liberal critic, anarchist proletarian artist, mother, wife, aesthete, consumer, aristocratic invalid, bisexual bourgeois intellectual truant, apathetic parasite, citizen ... each of these imperfect labels may adhere to me briefly but flutters loose like a post-it sticker at the first sign of a breeze. Is this fluidity a benign and playful form of post-modern morphing? True detachment or profound irresponsibility? If I woke up tomorrow somewhere else -- in another city or country, in jungle or desert or mountains, in a different family or occupation -- I would, without batting an eye, set about adapting and find a way to function in the new context, if only as some sort of guest.=20 Every few years, in fact, I do enter some new arena -- geographical, professional, social -- carrying with me a set of luggage: unmatched, but complex and well packed. With each new job or neighborhood, each new activity or event, I am struck by a sense of impermanence so overwhelming it's almost comical. And this feeling persists, even increases, the longer I stay with something, as though the probability of my moving or finishing or exhausting it increases with time and with how much I have to lose in the process. This forms a part of the larger pattern of my life. My childhood was a series of departures, disjunctures and adaptations, and I seem to have reproduced that as a mode of adult life. That's one kind of explanation,= anyway. Five years old in Boston, newly arrived from Italy, I stood watching through a fence the other kids on the playground, completely absorbed in mutual Being, with no sense of my own presence or appearance ... until one of them called out the taunt that snapped me into this separate existence, that of a visitor yearning to fit in, take root, belong. Somehow, during high school I began understand how the shackles of "difference" could be eased off and re-fashioned ... into something more like a stylish leather jacket one could put on and take off at will. Hooking up with various other misfits, I learned some of the names of our condition: bohemian beatnik hippy radical artist intellectual; we recognized one another, re-naming ourselves as the cool ones, the ones in the know. Thus was formed the archeological layer of my personality that produces, like a reflex, a distrust of authority and power no matter who is holding it, and an affinity with the outcast -- as refugee, immigrant, gypsy, exile, emigr= =E9, or homosexual of whatever gender. A kind of bodhisattva-complex. In the words of Amos Oz, "to be a jew means to feel that wherever a jew is persecuted for being a jew -- that means you." In 1967 I was at the beginning of life at college in Berkeley. Almost daily, there would creep up on me a kind of cold dread; I oscillated between twin tortures I called "screaming white emptiness" and "the gloom of eternal twilight." In the wake of my parents' divorce, my sister's suicide, my initial journeys of exploration into psychedelic territory, I found myself trapped in an endless present -- horrible because it was fixed and unchanging. Time seemed to be a closed and static system in which I was doomed to suffer like one of Dante's characters. I was eighteen. Now, after a battle with a life-threatening illness (and in a grueling daily struggle with a chronic one), on the far side of the death of my mother and other heavy losses, there's been a kind of reversal. My sorrow takes as its object the inexorable movement of time, the knowledge that everything passes, everything changes, nothing can be kept from slipping away. Maybe it's just middle age. Perhaps I have simply traded one kind of unhappiness for another. But this one at least is shared and thus bearable, and it has its complementary joys: some of the time I succeed in living each fleeting moment as a precious singularity. Sometimes I go to Quaker Meeting to sit among Friends in silent listening and bathe in the light, hoping to enlarge its sphere and stave off the darkness that threatens to engulf our world at every turn. Sometimes for similar reasons I sit with the buddhists -- Tibetan or Theravadan or at the Zen Center on Page Street. I like how Buddhism takes "the mind" very seriously, recognizing its immense power while, at the same time, viewing it as part of the Illusion. How human birth is seen not as a mere vale of tears but as a stroke of sheer good fortune -- holding out as it does the chance, however slim, of enlightenment. (while at its center beats that same pulse as at the center of the christian statement "do unto others as you would have others do unto you" -- in other words, compassion.) For a long time I viewed most rituals -- dressing up to go to church, baptisms, weddings, holidays, family gatherings, graduations -- as hollow and somehow pointless. Then I collected, over the decades, a handful of instances when it struck me how we are the weavers of our lives as much as we are woven into it; how we choose and produce our reality by our perception of the world's amazing flux. As I shape or acknowledge my own rituals, deciding what to adopt, re-invent or create for myself and those I love, I see that what we affirm with our rituals are the cycles of life, its continuity, and our connection with one another. Like the stone cathedrals we build, these moments are precious islands where we can imagine that we have halted temporarily the ceaseless fugue. Even though, like the grizzled edifice of St. Paul's (condemned for not being earthquake-proof in a trembling land) we are simply relying on our luck to hold for a little while longer. Since each of us really is, in the words of my favorite bumper sticker, "Just Visiting This Planet."=20 Marina de Bellagente LaPalma Marina deBellagente LaPalma 491 Jersey St. San Francisco CA 94114 (415) 824-6187