Place names can be so rich and colorful, and so often taken for granted. In my youth I traveled countless times through the heart of West Virginia on I-79 from Morgantown to Charleston, and was always amused by the folksy names displayed on the exit signs, among which were: Strange Creek, Big Otter, and – my personal favorite – Salt Lick. I always wondered what kinds of places these were, and how they got their names (OK, Salt Lick is pretty obvious). When I moved out to California in my twenties, I was amazed at how the place names suddenly sounded like something out of a cowboy movie: Red Bluff, Dry Gulch (“Gulch” is such a cool-sounding Western word).
Every time someone says the name of a place, those vocal vibrations elicit its presence in the mind of the hearer, and those sounds and that place become more and more tightly linked. Nomen est omen. There have to be certain platonic laws of poetic harmony that govern how things get named. And the names of places must also be clues as to their true inner nature. They must be allusions to the spirit that indwells and guards a place, which the Romans called the genius loci. Watch your step when in Woodland, California while walking down Dead Cat Alley. This is obviously a place where serious shit goes down. There’s a street in Hanau, Germany that I walked many times in my childhood called Kastanienallee (Horse Chestnut Boulevard), and the vibe of that street, lined with well-tended horse chestnut trees, is like no other I know.
Now I live in a land where things are named in a strange Asian language transported to Europe in the middle ages (Hungarian), which possesses sounds that speakers of other European languages can’t even pronounce.
Among the place names of my daily existence are the name of an ancient river, the Danube, or Duna in Hungarian. A name so old, no one knows where it comes from. Perhaps it’s the name of an ancient goddess. And although most of Budapest’s 23 districts are known only by their number, a few are known by their own unique name. Three years ago, when we became members of the property-owning class (we bought an apartment), I moved my family to a district just outside the outer ring road of Budapest, a district called Angyalföld. I’ve known for seventeen years that the name translates as “Angel Land,” but as often happens with place names, I never really thought of its meaning, I just thought of its association with an area on the city map.
An area with a reputation for being sort of seedy, at that. It was an industrial sector, but the heavy industries it housed closed down over time, and the demise of state socialism stuck a fork in the last remaining factories, so the neighborhoods are either somewhat abandoned, full of crowded socialist-era apartment buildings, or in the process of being razed and gentrified. Seven new apartment blocks have been built within three blocks of us since we moved in three years ago.
But recently I started dwelling on the fact that I live in a place called Angel Land. I tried to do some research on why it bears this name, but beyond the fact that the name Engelfeld (German for Angel Field) appears on an 1830 map, I couldn’t locate any information I felt was more than apocryphal. So, it seems to be another name whose origin is lost to the mists of time.
Doesn’t matter, really. That’s what it’s called. I live in Angel land.
A few times recently my sons, who are in their early teens, have come to me to discuss some problem. I’ve taken them into my study/sanctum/temple and talked with them in the peace of that space. And once talk has accomplished all it can, I’ve lit a candle and turned out the lights. I tell them to imagine that the room is filled with a subtle light, and that there is a ball of light illuminating the room from above. The ball of light is surrounded by angels who are constantly coming and going up into the sky to God and back. When I recently saw the painting illustrating the beginning of this posting (Botticini’s Assumption of the Virgin), I was reminded of the way I visualize the scene I describe to my sons.
My visualization is also inspired by William Blake’s rendering of the Biblical story of Jacob’s Ladder (which in Blake’s vision is, interestingly enough, a spiral staircase).
I feel inspired by the fact that fate has led me to live in a place called Angel Land. I’m convinced it is man’s fate, once he has evolved to that point, to be the bridge between the divine realms and the denser worlds of manifestation that we occupy in our day-to-day consciousness. And I could easily see it being something as sublime and beautiful as Blake’s vision.
And where better for me to dedicate myself to the work of building that spiral bridge to the godhead, than right here in this rapidly changing seedy neighborhood known as Angel Land.