Friday, December 19, 2008

the Tower

At The Valve people are reading one of Dickens' lesser-known Christmas books, The Chimes. I'll be writing more about the book itself shortly, but first, Dickens really did get the atmospherics of ascending the inside of a church-tower right. They are odd, liminal spaces, human constructions that rarely have a human presence, yet (unlike the inside of a large machine) are supposed to be accessible. This post is a bit about my own trip up a church-tower, with some not very interesting pictures.

The Tower, as an archetypal symbol in tarot decks, generally shows a tower being struck by lightning, with people falling out of it. Dickens makes use of it in The Chimes in much the same way; his protagonist ascends in dream-voyage, and has his worldview shattered and remade. To quote wiki, " The Tower is struck by lightning when Reality does not conform to expectation."

Once, at a UU church in L.A. -- only in L.A. could a church built early 20th century seem reasonably old, but it did -- I decided to climb the church tower during the service. I can no longer remember why I did this. Perhaps I excused it on the basis that most of the church members were reasonably old, and someone should check out this space to see if anything was going wrong with it in some obscure way. But really, I think, it was a treasure hunt, a chance to see a space in the middle of a packed city that no one had been in in years. So I borrowed the key and started up. As the rest of the church sat through a service, I was going to climb.

This being L.A. in the daytime, the atmosphere was hardly the one Dickens' used, of wind and cold. Everything was drenched in sun. But I quickly realized that perhaps I shouldn't be making this climb in my good shoes. The first room featured rusty iron braces set into the cinderblock as a ladder, up through which one went through a hole in the floor of the room above:

Which led to a long, free-standing ladder:

It was at this point that I started to wonder what I was doing. I was neither especially athletic, nor young, nor fond of heights. If I fell down one of these 15-foot spaces onto concrete, I could easily break something, and I wasn't really sure if anyone knew where I'd gone. The top of the ladder had a hatch-cover that had to be pushed quite hard to get it to move, and I didn't know if I could shift it with one hand -- using two would require having none on the ladder, and bracing myself against something I was moving. But of course this was a self-test of sorts, now:

The space above that featured a bird's nest, one of the many details Dickens included that mark this kind of structure as an oddity. No one had even been bird-watching this bird, at least not on its nest. It had a sort of privacy, right in the middle of the city:

And the space above is where I stopped. I'd heard that if you kept going up, there were old, disused bells of some kind. But in the picture above you can see that there's another heavy hatch-cover. And to push up on it, I had to stand on a sort of platform, tacked across the top of the room with two thin steel beams. Pushing up on the hatch meant pushing down on the platform with equal force; I thought I could feel it creak a little. Also, I'd heard that years back, the last time anyone had been up here, the maintenance crew the church had hired had found the top room covered in inches of guano. I had visions of finally raising the hatch against the excess weight lying on top of it, only to be showered in bird poop -- surely the opposite of glory.

So I never exerted my full strength against that last hatch. In this parody of a vision quest, I'd found out who I was -- I was a person who would finally, sensibly give up. I made my way down the hatches and ladders and wall-set braces, returned to helping to raise my then one-year-old child, and bought life insurance.

The view from near the top, though, was good:

This risible adventure, though, did make me appreciate Dickens' use of the space. When Toby or Trotty in his story finds himself at the top of the dark tower, and wonders whether he's going to climb down or fall down, that's a realistic fear. Which makes them a particular kind of psychological place as well. These spaces are the closest many city-dwellers get to the inaccessible, to, if not the religiously numinous, at least the unobserved, the tower of one's own mind.


  1. "I was a person who would finally, sensibly give up."

    That's awesome! I can relate so very well to that. Though, I think it would be better stated to say that you are "the type of person who will explore exciting and possibly dangerous new things, then finally, sensibly, give up."