April 15, 1999
One of the things I liked most about teaching English was preparing and thinking about ways to get creative writing flowing, to help the students prepare to write on whatever topic or idea we were going to consider.
I felt it was necessary to instill the importance of concrete detail, the telling little example that could speak volumes through brevity and specificity. This detail would stand for something very powerful in the mind and imagination of the writer, even if he or she didn't realize it at the time.
My first year teaching, I was very new at this, of course, but I was also willing to try all kinds of things to see what worked. I didn't have any tried and true formulas. Some things worked, some didn't.
One day, I had them explore some of finer details of perception through the everyday reality of the senses. In a quiet period of about 15 minutes, they were to write down everything they were experiencing: what they smelled, heard, saw, touched, felt, anything. The results were revealing, and as I read their observations, I think I was more surprised than they were about what they had discovered. It's not that they produced poetry or little literary gems, or truly startling insights that day, but they had to become absorbed in what was around them and they wrote about it. Here are some examples. I've had a good time re-reading some of these papers from back in 1981. I also realize how naive I was about some of my teaching objectives and how easily I could forget that not all the students sensed the larger goal I was after. Some were, quite frankly, bored by the assignment.
Some of the responses were literal, some intuitively grasping at the meaning behind the assignment, but the authors were not really sure they understood what it was about. I knew, too, that they were gradually becoming more adept at abstract thinking, these new 8th graders, whereas earlier the thought processes are much more concrete and literal. Still, I did get just what I was literally asking for on more than one paper.
I am sitting in a very hard desk. In a bright classroom. I hear the teacher's voice, and traffic outside because the windows are open. I smell paper, ink, and a faint smell of lunch brewing.
I'm experiencing a stopped-up nose, a sore foot, seeing this paper, hearing Mr.__. I'm not smelling anything. I taste nothing.
I hear silence right now.
And this from one of my most frustrating students, trouble waiting to happen. A born conspirator who I had to watch closely, but who for some inexplicable reason liked me, probably because despite this juvenile delinquent in the making, I liked him. He also had a good sense of humor. He was a bit critical of the assignment, and didn't want to put his name on the paper. I think it was his way of kidding me because surely he knew I'd recognize the writing. Anyway, he was a terrible speller. Where his name should have been on the paper was the word, "annamous". He titled the paper, "Senses in the Classroom." I have to laugh. Here is what he wrote:
Right now people are coming in and out from break. I'm kind of bored writing this, but it's for a grade. My neck hurts from sitting in this chair. I can smell the fresh air coming in through the window. I can see the cars and trucks going by and see the light blue sky.
I smell A__'s perfume. She puts on a different scent everyday. I feel like I'm about to starve to death.
It is warm in our classroom right now. Every now and then a breeze comes in through the window. If I look directly in front of me I see a blackboard with eights words and some homework on it. I hear people writing, erasing, whispering, and closing books. Every now and then I will hear Mr.__ give directions to someone.
Well, right now I'm feeling sleepy, kind of like you feel when yo have to do your homework. I really didn't get much sleep...Mr.__ is my teacher and right now we are having our break. And sometimes I can just look at my classmates and laugh sometimes because whether they notice it or not, they have some funny ways.
I'm sitting in the classroom doing English. It looks hard. The teacher is rushing us to finish up so he can check it. I'm thinking about lunch. I wish I could stop. Just thinking about it makes me sick. Feeling the pencil hurting my fingers is murder. The sight of English makes me sick. I can also hear poeple moving around and cars outside.
So much for a humbling and learning experience for the teacher.
Later that year, I tried an exercise in which I had the students brainstorm about their favorite things, but with this catch. It had to be things they really enjoyed, really found meaningful, things they would like to be doing and experience RIGHT NOW. In short, things they loved. It was a poetry lesson in a way, and the title for each piece of writing was "These Have I Loved," followed by those experiences they literally did love.
These Have I Loved
White seagulls gliding over the ocean
Children running through fields flying kites;
White, fluffy snow;
Children bundled up building snowmen;
People praying and opening their hearts to God;
Birds singing cheerful songs;
Children shouting with joy;
Rain falling down;
Different perfume smells;
Soft breezes blowing through my hair
And through bedroom curtains;
Soft baby skin;
A seventh grade student.
Finally, you can see how it begins to come together in their minds when they are writing poetry. I was really just mesmerized at times by their thoughts and the feelings conveyed, and how profound they could be, coming from those so young.
Dreams I like the most
Are dreams that are so close.
But when I try to grab them,
They turn into clouds
And blow away.
If you ever looked at a cloud
It looks like you can grab it like my dreams
But when you reach up
They are so far away.
An 8th grade student
Follow the wind to where it may go. Across the world or across the yard.
An 8th grade student, the one I wrote about in a previous entry.
April 13, 1999
About a year ago I was in the process of changing Internet Service Providers, switching to BellSouth.net. Of course, I had the usual snafus with installation from the CD, and so had to call the tech support number and get online by phone.
I was talking to the representative, going through the set up, writing down a few instructions for some of the configurations, etc. when he asked me to come up with an id name for my e-mail and for the purposes of logging in.
I hadn't thought about what it would be beforehand, as I did with the previous ISP, so had to come up with something quick. I just didn't know what to say in response until I just happened to look down at an open page in Arizona Highways magazine, next to the recliner chair I was sitting in. The first word I saw on the page was "camas", and that's what I gave for an id.
People would occaionally ask about the meaning of the word, and I knew it was probably Spanish, but I just didn't bother finding out until I did some searching on the Internet. What I discovered is that Camas is a wildflower of the lily family, with purple flowers. It ranges as far north as southern British Columbia, and as far south as California. I wrote down a description of it in the small notebook I keep by the computer, noting that it grows in rainshadow climates on grassy slopes and meadows.
In Idaho, it is abundant, and is a common place name with five different streams named Camas Creek, grasslands known as Camas Prairie, Camas Butte, Camas County, and Camas National Wildlife Refuge. It has a quite edible root with a sweet taste that resembles certain onions and is known to have helped early Pacfic Northwest explorers avoid extreme hunger and starvation.
I also discovered that there is a small town on the Washington side of the Columbia River, east of Vancouver, called Camas. It's at the gateway to one of the most spectacularly scenic drives I've ever taken, the Columbia Gorge Scenic Highway, the most notable section of which is across the river from Camas on the Oregon side. Huge trees cover the winding road as it rises up above the river. It passes half a dozen magnificent waterfalls, including the 600-foot-high Multnomah Falls, which is just an awe-inspiring sight, and Wahkeena Falls, which means "most beautiful." I've seen both waterfalls on more than one occasion, including my first trip across the country. Imagine a flatlander from New Orleans in this kind of terrain and geography.
If you want to know what this area is like, the best book I know for sheer beauty is "Columbia River Gorge", with photographs by James Holloway. If you ever get a chance to see this book, you will want to visit that place, I promise. Words fail utterly to describe what you see there in that realm of rocks, waterfalls, big tooth maples, alders, and moisture laden clouds rolling in from the Pacific. It is ethereal.
So my id name has real significance for me now. It is not a mystery, although how I came upon the word is somewhat mysterious. I have a feeling the story does not end here. It is interesting to ponder that this was not just a random selection with no meaning. I think it was very meaningful.
The world is now transformed. Out walking this afternoon just before sunset, I hardly recognized the familiar landscape. The trees are now about fully leaved, but still new and fresh and forming into their final shapes. In just a little over two weeks, the bare trees of winter have the lush, green cloak of spring about them. I noticed with some alarm one sweet gum tree that still seemed bare of leaves while everything around it was green. At first I thought maybe the tree had died, but as I passed, I noticed green tips of leaves emerging from their buds on several of the lower branches, and I was relieved. The tree would soon be as green and alive as the others all around it. In this state of their development, too, you can really notice the shapes of the trees while the leaves are still small and coming out.
The temperature was perfect, just slightly cool. I've felt so energetic lately, and have wanted to do nothing but get out and walk. Three times today I was out in this glorious weather.
On my way home from the evening walk, I made a point of stopping at a patch of honeysuckle covering a mailbox in front of a house along the route I walk. I bent down to smell one of the small yellow flowers, and, as always with this flower, a brief flood of memories and emotions take hold and then just as quickly disappear. But of all the flowers, I think this is the most sweet and refreshing scent in nature. I can smell it now wafting in the car window on my first trip west, as I was riding down a near empty country road on an April morning 15 years ago in southern Mississippi. The roadside for miles was filled with it. I became almost woozy from its fragrance.
Thousands of miles of road and unknown adventures lay ahead of me, but that honeysuckle road, south of Crystal Springs, quelled the apprehension I was feeling at having finally embarked on that great quest, the first long trip I had ever taken. Any thoughts I might have had about turning back while there was still time were left behind on that backcountry highway, leading north and west, mostly west.
April 11, 1999
Yesterday, a Saturday, was a merciful relief from the clamor of the work week. Phones ringing. Rushing here and there. Doing chores. Not having to think too much. I'm also continually amazed at how defensive some people are, locked within their ego drums and beating loudly from within to get out.
The week started out well. I had a really good birthday Monday, but it just sort of went downhill starting Thursday. "Slip, sliding away," as they say.
So, all day yesterday I spent inside, from the moment I got up about 9:30 until about 5 in the afternoon when the pull of all that fresh air and sunshine outside my window became irresistible.
I read, worked on the computer, listened to music. I had a nice lunch. It was perfect except for one telemarketing call, a pleasant-sounding young man on the other end. I tried to remind myself that, yes, this was a fellow human being, stupidly and callously invading my privacy. I was polite. I try to be, and manage to mask my anger.
Basically, it was a day of solitude, and I relished it. I guess I'm meant to be this way, at least while I have my health. I have no trouble at all being by myself. A large part of my life has been spent cultivating this aloneness, mostly out of necessity, because it is how I tend to the needs of my interior life amid the clanging, jangling world outside.
So, about 5 yesterday, I filled my thermos cup with iced tea, grabbed a couple of books and drove out to Folly Beach. I waited until late so the crowds would be largely gone, but there was still a large gathering at the Washout for a surfing competition. Here at this special spot where the waves are good for surfing, you can catch the essence of that "endless summer" feeling these youth inspire as they wait out in the surf on their boards for the perfect waves.
The rituals of this surprisingly insular sport have been carried on at this spot for decades. I remember in the early sixties coming to the beach for vacation and they'd be out there with their long boards. On the radio, of course, would be Jan and Dean singing that classic "Surf City," and the Beach Boys with their "Good Vibrations." I rather liked some of those songs at the time, although I never was a surfer. I was a pretty good swimmer and used to swim out a ways beyond the surfers to show off, doing my best backstroke and butterfly maneuvers (since I was on a swim team for three years). No one paid any attention to me, which was disappointing, because I thought I was such a sleek dolphin out there.
I drove on down to my usual parking space, took my lounge chair out of the trunk, and the two books, and headed for the edge of the surf.
Oh, but it was nice. It isn't summer yet, but that feeling was in the air. The wind was still cool, blowing out of the north from the direction of Morris Island, so a light jacket made me quite comfortable. I sat awhile and read an essay by Scott Russell Sanders about the sensations and emotions he felt on returining home with his family to Indiana after a year living in Boston.
Alone, again. Only a couple of people were on the beach near where I was. But the solitude was a tonic, an elixir. I got up and walked toward the water. The waves provided ceaseless background music, the gulls dipped and soared very close to me, as if perhaps coming to see who I was? I felt pleasantly adrift, sort of numb, not happy, not sad. Just there in a state of being, suspended in time, sheltered from the world, momentarily.
A few entries ago, I wrote about illness and recovery in the spring of 1979. There wasn't much context for that entry, so I will include, here, at least for now, maybe not for long, a poem I wrote in Folly Beach during the late summer or early fall of 1978, I'm not sure when, a few months before that illness. Writing it was the only way I could release what was roiling inside of me. I worked long and hard on that poem, one of the few I've ever written, and a few years later submitted it to a poetry publication. Unfortunately, they lost it, never returning it to me in the enclosed, stamped envelope. When I wrote them about it, they apologized and suggested I re-submit it. Needless to say I didn't, but it was a very naive choice of publication to send it to, anyway. So here it is, published on the Internet for you.
Before a winter storm at night, clouds passed,
Filtering the full moon's translucence,
Pushed by winds that touch the earth with chill,
Filling the night with expectancy.
I hear this wind's urgency.
It is the harried pulse of the elements
Purging itself of the old season,
Endeavoring to change the air and land and sea.
Mark these words I would throw at you, Wind.
But there are none.
Only stillness in me.
I seem to beckon you, Sorrow
To follow me across the dunes to the sea's edge.
And there, in semi-darkness of the moon's half light
I close my hands and feel the winds upon me,
Rushing past, buffeting me with their force
Until I want to run.
Behind the winds, voices follow.
They become one voice.
I want to hear it more clearly.
It poises on the edge of the din
Until drowned by the tumult.
Voice, if you know who I am
Strike the stillness
Breathe into the winds
Banish the moon into the night
Let this storm pass so that I may know of the calm.
Warm night yields to cold day.
Marsh crackles with russet-brown deadness
Alive with birds in migratory trance,
Aloft in azure skies
Their winged march defying winter's reproach.
Daylight, is what I see all that I know?
Night has told me otherwise.
Caught between seasons
I am their kin for awhile.
Warm and cold, my impulses are deadened
Then slowly rekindled, revived
In the heat of recognition
Of knowing what I must do.
At night I think I see beyond this realm,
But the moon's lantern become a burden.
And I fall back, down from the lighthouse.
A cat's eyes glow in the dark.
Palmetto trees rustle unseen.
The surf's distant murmur
Gently strikes muffled senses.
I felt the presence
I could not know then,
For it left me as I slept the deep sleep,
Not even able to recall my dreams.
How I needed to be reminded of You.
My worth dangles in a sling -- broken.
Imagined pain hardens resolve
But leaves it spinning like a compass askew.
What magnet is it who pulls this splintered being toward it?
Feigned pleasures dance sluggishly in brittle imaginings
Underpinings of unrealized desires
Bald entitlements, the world all around cries.
What have I done but think of illusion?
Fiery points of light skim the water --
Have lost their poignancy,
For they are as ephemeral as reflections.
I have taken in deep draughts of salt air,
Feeling calm preceding joy.
Not the gull's cry, but the Voice that came into me
Will shake the stasis
And reconcile night and day.
April 10, 1999
A co-worker and I like to head across the street to a bakery/restaurant to have dinner on days when we work at night. Generally, about this time of year, there are clumps of clover sprouting about here and there -- the green, three-leaf, common variety, plus the little white balls of flowers on a stem -- you know what I'm referring to. A routine enough sight in spring, and a sure sign of the season as well.
And, of course, most everyone likes to look for four-leaf clovers. I have since I was a kid, but rarely do it anymore, since it's kind of childish, but heh, that's what I really like about it.
So, as we were walking down the street, I stopped to look real quickly for the elusive four-leafers, never thinking I'd find one, and I usually don't, rather, most of the time I don't. But my friend, he has some kind of uncanny knack for spotting them. And he almost always can. I said, J__, can you spot me a couple of four-leaf clovers? He's a big guy with large hands, but when it comes to this he's an artist and a bit of a magician. To my amazement, once again, he reached over to an area of clovers by the curb and plucked not one, but two four-leaf clovers, just as nicely formed as they could be, and handed them to me. How do you do it? I ask in exasperation, having futilely searched for them moments earlier.
He says sometimes they come in little clusters in certain patches. Where there's one, there's usually another, or more after that. Okay. I'm convinced. Just let me find one of those lucky clusters.
I wouldn't think much of this except for the fact that he's always able to do it, or, am I only remembering the times he got lucky and found them?
It's not a momentous thing. I don't really know why I'm sitting here writing about it other than the fact that I started thinking about it after I'd checked out a Web site another co-worker had given me the url to this afternoon. What did it have on it? Lucky four-leaf clovers and good luck charms! I haven't been any luckier today, but it was a nice little Web site, and a nice thing for her to share. There are people who like to do things like that -- just little things to brighten up your day.
I got back from dinner and placed the clovers between the pages of a book on my desk titled, "Super Secrets of the Internet Searchers." That wasn't just an idle choice, either.
Now, aside from this good luck aspect of four-leaf clovers, there's just the simple, pretty, commmon, everyday enjoyment to be had from clovers in spring, as a sign of the new season. When I was a child I liked to pick the flowers and tie the stems together. Or, I'd chew on a stem for awhile or maybe just lie in the grass and smell the clover, so fresh and pleasing to winter-weary senses.
I don't know, I just like clover. It's not something I think about too often. It's just one of the simple little wonders of this bountiful earth.
April 9, 1999
Yesterday was the strangest kind of early April day. It was hot, I mean quite hot all day long. It started out early, and I noticed it when I went for a walk in the neighborhood before going into work. This was about 11 am. I felt for the first time that penetrating sun going right through my dark green, short-sleeve shirt. Uncomfortable. Walking back into the wind helped, but I was hot and sweaty when I returned to my apartment. This isn't April, I thought to myself. This is June.
All day it was like that. Balmy, windy. The ground is dry. We need rain.
About 7 pm I heard the rumbles of thunder outside the building where I work, and was greeted by rain as I walked out the door and headed to my car later that evening. It was then over to the house in Charleston for a short visit before heading home. I tried to find the cats to greet them, but they were being their usual standoffish selves, much more interested in bopping all over the house and chasing each other under beds and furniture than in seeing me.
Out on the porch, I let the day's few tensions ebb away as I sat in the rocking chair, buffeted by wind and stray drops of rain, which was still coming down, but diminishing. There was a severe thunderstorm warning out until 9:45, and a tornado warning in the western part of the county. Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled off and one for about a half hour as I sat there taking it all in. Gradually, by about 10 pm the storm had blown off to the south and the east, and it was quiet. It seemed just like a summer thunderstorm to me. Strange.
I always feel vaguely uncomfortable with the weather on days like yesterday. It's out of the norm, off the scales, atypical, strange, prematurely summer. It's not supposed to be summer yet. I'm not supposed to have to put on the A/C in the car yet. I liked being outside, but couldn't help but think what it was going to feel like in July if it was this much like summer in April.
Yes, the weather does affect my moods and outook, but not as much as it once did. It's just that one likes to see the season's behaving normally -- to know that nature is in balance and that humankind has not really altered the atmosphere and global weather patterns by creating the greenhouse effect. I like to think we have no major affect on the climate, that the earth and air and water can absorb whatever insults we continue to throw at it. Somehow it just rids itself of our noxious meddling.
But it looks like we do have a powerful impact. What's going to happen when it's too hot and dry to grow unirrigated crops in South Carolina? That's already started to happen the past few years as the corn crops have been all but wiped out. Every other crop just limped along in the fields last year. It was kind of depressing, too, because once again, one wants to see harmony in nature: cool and wet spring; land dries just right for spring planting; weather warms up just right to nurture the young crops; crops such as corn and soybeans grow nicely into the sunshine and get enough moisture; plentiful and abundant crop is harvested later in the year.
It just doesn't happen like that much anymore. Last summer was the hottest on record. July here in Charleston was unbearable. I remember many days being unable to walk to the college because the heat and humidity pressed you flat in their steamy embrace and wouldn't let go until you dragged yourself, slow-motion like, back into a cooled building.
I don't know. I guess I'm expecting too much harmony and balance, whereas nature is chaotic and unpredictable and man has tipped the balance toward uncertainty and climate change with all his carbon dioxide and polluting gases pumped into the atmosphere.
I think we can count on having a very strange summer. Hurricane expert William Gray's prediction of a bad tropical weather season in the Atlantic doesn't bode well either. Then there's the Millennium Bug to look forward to at the end of hurricane season. Where will it all end?
April 7, 1999
I just can't write enough about this time of year. I am literally in awe of all the changes taking place now, and today was reminded of that everywhere I looked.
Up the length of George Street, and all around the college, as I was walking there from work late this afternoon, I gazed up into the trees constantly, turning here and there, letting my eyes linger on the exquisite shades of green in the new leaves coming out, pastel-like, impressionistic. It's all so fresh and new and symbolic of the life cycle on earth -- the changing of the seasons, the renewal of life after the long sleep of winter.
On the college campus, moss hangs from oaks coming into their green finery. Dogwoods are all in bloom, as are the last, lingering azaleas or late-blooming varieties of that spectacular shrub. Wisteria, with it heavy purple blossoms, drapes a trellis in back of the student center where I sometimes like to sit and listen to a small waterfall in the lilly pond.
It was windy all day, but really a pleasant breeze. It felt good. I liked being outside and taking it all in. Where only a couple of weeks ago, bare, winter branches could be seen, today it's looking like another landscape and another place altogether. I want this beautiful season to linger, to stay just like it is -- so perfect in every way. But the green leaves are darkening, the flowers slowly fading. It will be spring for a while longer, but with us will be the familiar old friends of the latter part of the season, not the youthful newcomers who slowly emerge from buds and seeds and tranform the land.
April 6, 1999
I was walking around in circles, not knowing where I was going. Just then something stopped me. I was in a pitch black room. It turned me around. It explored my mind and pierced it with knowledge.
Written for me by one of my 8th grade students, 1983.
For three years during the early 80s, I had the privilege of teaching 7th and 8th grade students English and history. I say privilege because I can truly say I learned as much from them as they learned from me. I often think back to that period, receding now so quickly into the far reaches of the past, and I recall certain situations and certain students with great clarity.
I taught my last class at this school for two years, having them for 7th and 8th grade. I saw them emerge into adolescence and keenly anticipated the intellectual changes I knew were coming. We shared a lot. They wrote often -- poetry, short stories, essays, journal entries -- and we discussed many things. I read their work aloud, which they delighted in. For three years I produced a literary anthology in which examples of their writing appeared. I wanted to give them a chance to get published, to have a larger audience.
I am reading over some of their poetry now from two of those anthologies, compiled in 1982 and 1983. I am amazed and startled anew each time I reread their writing. They wrote about their fears, their hopes, their dreams, the seasons, the birds and animals they knew about -- anything that was meaningful and important to them.
A Windy Day
A child is out flying a kite,
A mother hanging clothes,
A teenager reading a book.
I look up in the sky
To see a dark cloud beginning to cry.
The child takes in the kite,
The mother her laundry,
A teenager, a book,
An eighth grade student
One student was especially baffling to me. Eager to be liked. Extremely sensitive. Popular, yet insecure. Brilliant, maddening. He looked up to me, as others looked up to him. I was the one who reached out to them with the richness and majesty of language. When I read to them, I'd pay special attention to metaphor and complex usages of words. He knew what I was getting at intuitively. Deeply. When he wanted to.
The words, the imagery, the symbols that flowed out of his pen had me holding my head in disbelief. This could not be from someone so young, I said to myself on more than one occasion. I told him of his talent. I encouraged him. He was modest. He was almost shy about this. And then, a couple of weeks later when we were doing creative writing, he'd look at me and say, "I'll write you a good poem, Mr.__. And I braced myself. Everything he wrote seemed to have been written for a purpose. His words crackled with intelligence.
The Four Days of My Life
The first day I see myself as a small
Grain in the ground
The second I enjoy what I have
The third I suffer and fight
The fourth I wilt up and die.
In a poem about autumn titled "Endings," he wrote, "the green slowly melts away into the land/To escape the giant frost./The leaves sing as they fall from towers in the sky/To rendezvous with death./The air is liquid thick with the wind/Pushing its hand against time."
I always wondered what happened to him. And I wonder, who or what, turned him around and "pierced him with knowledge?"
April 4, 1999
A beautiful day, warm and breezy. I was going to go to the beach, but realized there would be hordes of people there this first really warm weekend of the year. So instead, I went into town about 4 and walked to Waterfront Park.
Charleston is gearing up for the peak tourist season, April and May, with the Spoleto Festival coming in May. This afternoon was a prelude. King Street was filled with visitors, as was the marketplace and the waterfront. At the park, kids jumped in and out of a large fountain. The park has many benches and landacaped alcoves with azaleas in full bloom, and a promenade along the marsh and harbor. This is a wonderful park for people to congregate in and is one of the most popular places in town. It is part of an effort to open up the waterfront to the people of the city and its visitors.
I sat for awhile on a bench along the promenade overlooking the marsh at low tide. In the near distance was Castle Pinckney and Shute's Folly Island. Farther on the horizon was Fort Sumter at the mouth of the harbor.
I like to observe the passing parade. I don't know why exactly, but sometimes I just have to be out among all those people, those sounds of the gulls and grackles, children laughing and playing, people enjoying themselves, lying on blankets on the grass, doing nothing, letting the afternoon flow by. I enjoyed watching some college kids throwing frisbees, something I loved to do when I was younger.
I sat for a while longer, then got up and leaned against the railing and watched whole families of tourists walking by, cameras at the ready; dogs romping and tugging at their leashes; couples looking out over the water at the sailboats.
It's been a long time since I've been here. Too long, actually. I could have walked along the beach today, but I liked being near the water, nevertheless, even if it wasn't the ocean quite yet.
April 3, 1999
The past two days spring has seemingly gone, vanished in warm, humid weather that reached 86 or higher. I came home last night and turned on the air conditioner for the first time since last year.
Yesterday, as I was driving to the bookstore, I rolled down the window, all the way, and let the warm air in. The car had been hot. It was hard to get cool, but I just couldn't turn on the A/C in the car just yet. It's only early April.
The air felt good coming in the open window, and I had my arm outside to catch the wind. I remember when I was traveling how often I'd hold my arm straight out against the onrushing wind and feel the power of the air as it tried to force my hand back toward the car. I kept my hand outstretched in a kind of equilibrium. And then there was that exact pressure point where there was no more force, you turn your hand at a slight angle, and it tries to take off like an airplane. Simple aerodynamics. This works pretty well at lower elevations, but just try it sometimes near a place like Leadville, Colorado, one of the highest inhabited cities in the U.S. The air's pretty thin up there at 10,000 feet. It doesn't put up much resistance.
Today I saw the elderly couple downstairs from me getting out of their car as I was heading over to the laundry room. They are both in their 70s, I believe, but she is alert and the caregiver, he is in a more and more noticeable mental decline from Alzheimer's or some other dementia. When I first moved in, he was relatively coherent and could talk to you, and I made a point of talking to him when I could. But over the past few years, he started to get more withdrawn and edgy and no longer much in this world. Occasionally, if I tried to say something to him, he'd suddenly get belligerent or angry, and I couldn't figure out what I had said that could have set him off. So I stopped trying to talk to him. He asked me who I was and where I lived, sometimes in a hostile and threatening tone of voice. I tried to imagine the nice man he once seemed to be.
He and his wife used to sit out on lawn chairs in front of the apartment building when the weather was nice, but they rarely do any more. At least not since last summer. They stay inside a lot, except when she takes him on drives to Folly Beach.
Once in awhile when I'm driving out there to my favorite spot, I'll see their little metallic blue car going by in the opposite direction. They don't recognize me.
Today M- was stooped over and looked very old as he slowly got out of the car. I greeted F- as I usually do and immediately felt guilty because I didn't say hello to M-. It was as if he wasn't there, and I was ashamed. F- said, "Haven't seen you around lately." I didn't know what to say. It was awkward, to say the least, so I said something stupid like, "Oh, I've been around, just real busy." Then I walked briskly over to the laundry room.
April 2, 1999
It's funny how we become so attached to certain routines and places. Near the old location where I worked for three years in downtown Charleston, there used to be a small sandwich shop on a side street near the tourism information center. It specialized in homemade soups and baked goods. It wasn't what you'd call exceptional, just consistently good. A reliable place.
Every morning as part of my break, I'd walk the two blocks to the shop and get an iced tea and a brownie, usually still hot after coming out of the oven. There were always wonderful aromas from the small kitchen, and the place had the feel of a real "mom and pop" place. In fact, it was a family business, and the owner's mother often worked in there preparing for the lunch rush. I can see her now fixing stuffed baked potatoes.
After two years as a regular, frequently going there twice a day, morning and afternoon, I knew them pretty well. And they knew what I wanted and what my routines were. It was comforting to always see the same people, to know the brownies would be good and homemade, and to realize that amid all the clutter of tourism-oriented businesses downtown, this one stood out, even if it did cater to tourists.
On my birthday one year, someone at work paid them for a week's worth of iced tea, and each time I went in to get my tea, it was compliments of my "mystery" co-worker. At first I thought it might be the people at the shop, but they told me it was someone where I worked.I was pleased no end. It also made for a funny story at work.
In the small town where I last worked as a weekly newspaper editor, there was a small bakery next door to the newspaper offices on Main Street. It was run by the sheltered workshop of the local Disabilities Board, and a number of the mentally retarded clients at the workshop worked there. The supervisors and staff were great people. I really liked them, and I'd go in there two or three times a day, sometimes even more often, to get some tea or a cookie or muffin, sometimes a sandwich. As at the sandwich shop in Charleston, there'd always be a little small talk and banter, some good-natured kidding, perhaps, but always a nice word or two back and forth. The bakery in the small town was called the Hole-in-One Donut Shop. When I left the paper, I was given a going away party and presented with a cake decorated with a camera on top in honor of all the times I took pictures and publicized the activities of the workshop and the local disabilities board. I was also given a plaque in appreciation. I'll never forget that day. A photo of the presentation appeared in the paper the week after I left.
About a year and a half ago, I made my way to the sandwich shop in downtown Charleston, and immediately noticed something amiss. It was about 10 in the morning, right about opening time, but the door was locked and the shop dark. No lights and no people, just a sign on the door announcing they were closed for good.
I was so disappointed, hurt, even, because I'd come to feel very attached to that place, and they hadn't even given me any warning they were going to close. I guess that's the way Kim, the manager, wanted it ot be. I think her rent was going up because of the increasing gentrification of the area, and she just didn't want to keep the shop going. I could respect that and knew that her pride necessitated leaving the scene as quickly and unobtrusively as possible.
Both of those two places reminded me of what life was probably like in gentler and quieter times in countless small towns across the country. The malt shop and the drugstore, as well as the dimestore lunch counter on Main Street were gathering places and friendly fixtures for the people of the towns who came to depend on them generation after generation. No fast food standardization and uniformity.
I got to know two such places real well. Each was quirky and unique, a refuge from the modern world. I miss them and the people who worked there.
April 1, 1999
I'm looking at a picture in a magazine that lets me dream of country places. I have just been back and forth from my cluttered living room which has piles of books on the floor with no shelves to place them on, the present shelves having long since filled up. The bedroom is similarly cluttered. The pictures in this magazine often show nice old houses, comfortably furnished with flowers, soft light from the outdoors filtering in, or, most appealingly, porches. In this picture, a door has opened from the den onto a large porch overlooking a late spring or early summer patch of woods, dense and close to the porch, hugging it, so to speak. It is filled with oaks and maples. On the porch are three rocking chairs, a wicker chair, a bottle of what seems to be beer and some crackers and cheese. In the corner on a small footstool rests a magazine and on top of that a pair of binoculars. I imagine the people who own the house sit out there in the mornings with their coffee and watch the birds through those binoculars. Altogether, it's an inviting scene, probably at mid-morning. There's a certain casual, inviting languor about the whole atmosphere.
Now, I have a balcony that overlooks a parking lot. I look out my bedroom window and see the building next to mine, but above the roof, visible to me at all times are a very tall pine tree and a similarly tall oak tree, both of which I like to look at often and watch the wind swaying their branches, as it is doing now. I like where I live very much. But I dream of a place that has a big back porch open to the woods where I can come home from work, plop down in a rocking chair, get a good magazine or book, and read until the day draws to a close and the night sounds emerge.
When I'd return to my apartment in Hattiesburg, tired and depressed by the tension of a job I dreaded going to, but to which I somehow adapted because I knew it was only temporary, I'd often flop down on my bed and put on two relaxing and contemplative cassette tapes, "Impressions" by Gabriel Lee and "Country Airs" by Rick Wakeman. I also liked to listen to the Narada recordings of Michael Jones and David Lanz. That was in 1986 and 1987. Everytime I hear that guitar music of Gabriel Lee, I am brought back to a time and mood of longing and escape. I remember the bedroom in that run-down apartment, for which I paid virtually nothing in rent. (I thus was able to save a good bit of money for the travels, or should I say wanderings, I knew would be coming after that experience had ended). I recall that the bed in that furnished apartment must have been many decades old and so lumpy and useless as a bed that I took it out and bought another one so that I could at least sleep somewhat fitfully at night. I'd listen to Gabriel Lee, looking out the window at the pine trees (Hattiesburg was covered with them), and I'd drift off into other worlds. The music was both sad and happy. But most important to me today, it represents hope and better things to come. Often, after listening to those songs on a Saturday morning, I'd get in the car and take a long drive in the country, eventually walking down the woodland path beside Black Creek, or else lie down on a sandbar and listen to the water moving by over submerged logs and branches while birds sang in the forest.
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