Armchair Peregrinations


April 28, 2000

Wednesday I worked only half a day and had the afternoon to myself. It was another of those glorious spring days we've had lately, one after another in succession -- perfect. The nice temperatures, breezes, clouds and sun all came together to make just the simple fact of being outside the purest of pleasures to savor for awhile.

I sat on the porch and rocked for hours -- relaxed, enjoying the air and the new and lush greenery of trees, shrubs and plants everywhere. Verdant, I guess would be an appropriate word. The afternoon rolled away in gentle, undulating segments of time, measured by the slightest variations in light, but generally, it's passage was imperceptible.

After a while I took a walk to the little corner grocery store, three blocks from the house in Charleston, to buy a quart of homemade okra-tomato soup and some French bread. They also sell Zapp's potato chips -- my favorite -- which are made at the "Little Chippery in Grammercy" on the Mississippi River about 20 miles from New Orleans. That New Orleans-style French bread and the Zapp's chips always bring my hometown a little bit closer here in Charleston. In addition, there's a small restaurant that serves nothing by New Orleans food, and there I usually have more than a twinge of homesickness as I eat my shrimp po-boy sandwiches or crayfish etoufee.

The corner grocery store I walked to the other afternoon is a throwback to another era -- a quieter more personal time where the scale was much smaller and people took the trouble to know you and speak to you when you shopped in their stores. I bantered on pleasantly for a moment or two with Mr. B___ whose picture is on the wall from when he was starting out in the grocery business 40 or 50 years ago. The photo looks like it's from the 1940s. What a wonderful little store. Everything you'd want is there (not the variety, of course), but all the essentials. Two generations of the family that started the business work in the store today.

On the way back I was aware of the perfumed air, fragrant with the odor of legustrum, in full bloom all over our city now. Such a sweet and powerfully memory-inducing little flower on this rather large shrub! We had a huge legustrum bush in front of our porch in Jefferson Parish when I was a boy of 7 and 8, and it was about 10 feet high and hollow in the center so we children had access to the cool interior of the bush and could set up our play store and saloons there. You see, we all watched Westerns in those pre-video game, pre-Star Wars days. We imagined the sidewalk out front to be a stagecoach road through the Western deserts, and our small business in the legustrum bush was set up to slake the thirsts of those weary passengers who disembarked from the red wagon we rigged up to resemble a stage of sorts, with several kids seated on it, and me or some other slightly older kid, pulling it along. We used shiny leaves from the legustrum bush for our play money and had juice dispensers which we pretended were beer taps (and worse) in our Wild West saloon, based on the Gunsmoke or Palladin TV series. (This was around 1959 and 1960 -- a very long time ago, it seems now).

Everytime I pass a legustrum in bloom in April, I have to come up close and smell the flowers which immedately transports me to those days of my childhood. I'll never forget that big, hollow legustrum bush and all the fun we had playing in and around it. In childhood, it doesn't take a fancy set of props for imaginations to run wild. Something as simple as a bush will do.


April 26, 2000

More days of cloud watching, yesterday and the day before that. The types of skies we are seeing here in Charleston of late are to be seen only at this time of year in April, I believe. There is so much mixing in the atmosphere, such turbulence of wind and water vapor that the resulting cloud formations are fascinating to watch as they scoot across the sky, or tumble against each other, opening and closing and letting in great shafts of light.

Monday, for instance, I was again at the grocery story, and it had been a rather cloudy day, but not heavily overcast. Just gray clouds, and breaks in the clouds, and general confusion about where they were going and what they were to be doing in their brief, fluid, springtime existences. I stared, as I often do, at an opening in a jumble of dark clouds where the late afternnon sunlight was beaming up into the sky at oblique angles, creating a most beautiful spectable. Usually, the light is beaming down from the clouds through the openings, but that afternoon it was beaming up and away from the opening.

These grand gestures in Nature always hold special significance for me because I see in all this great natural beauty glimpses of the eternal and the divine. There can be no question about it, in my mind.

So, I found myself in the parking lot just staring up into the sky, not wanting to go in and perform the mundane chore of grocery shopping. People might have been wondering what I was looking at. Why, all of you out there, I was tempted to say, open your eyes and behold that glorious sight, right above you and to which you seem oblivious. It's free and awesome and miraculous.

Then yesterday, at the same spot, more clouds had parted, but this time the beam were directed down toward the ground at 45 degree angles, as I usually see them doing. Again, it was as if some spotlight were shining from the heavens and illuminating paths for more light to follow.

More staring in wonder and admiration. I was grateful.


April 23, 2000

All day yesterday, whenever I had the opportunity to be outside, I was sky and cloud-gazing. It was one of those days when the air was pristine, the landscape in the distance seemingly washed clear (although was have had no rain for days), the crispness, details, colors -- everything out there in front of me in the natural world seemed perfect. A gentle wind, clearly defined clouds scuttling across the sky.

At Folly Beach, a flawless palate of colors in the marsh and martime forests, the sky and across the dunes and sea oats. Yellow day-blooming wildflowers in the sand. Again, perfection. A delight for the senses.

I went to the grocery store late in the day, around sunset, and kept looking at the clouds, changing colors before my eys -- purples, pinks, mauves, rose-tinted edges. Just before that, as I was crossing the Connector, I kept turning my head to the side to look out over the marsh and the Ashley River at its confluence with Charleston Harbor and the Atlantic.

It was a day of seeing deeply and smelling the air deliberately, using as much of my powers of sense as possible to experience each moment in its precious and fleeting brevity. That I can still do this with wonder and awe, as if sometimes I were seeing these things for the first time, gives me great comfort as I get older. I don't want to ever have this capacity diminish, although I may be wearied by the ceaseless struggles with some people and with keeping a positive frame of mind in the face of a thankless, and at times demeaning, job. I try to persevere, and when my mind seems dulled from the effort that has been necessary to survive the traumas that have afflicted me, and when their lengthy aftermaths are revisited in my memory, I take heart from ceaseless observation of Nature and its quiet and steady inevitability, its reassuring beauty, bounty and steadfastness. The trail through the oak woods, and the wind in pines and palmettos, never let me down, never fail to buoy me up when my spirits become listless for a time as I tread cautiously across this long plateau my life seems to have become.

Oh, mockingbird, your joyful and eternally youthful song has been missed of late. I hope it returns soon in the morning to cheer me because there is no birdsong quite so sweet and ebullient, to me at least.

April 21, 2000

The other day I was reading one of my favorite online journals, Observations, written by a delightful woman in Portland, Oregon, who talks about her wonderful family, her job, her life in general -- along with philosophical observations that cut to the quick of what really matters -- in such as way as to make the reader feel truly involved and part of the family. A generous and wise spirit is she, and I feel privileged to have found out about the journal.

She recently wrote these words about the new and glorious season in that part of the country, an area I am much acquainted with. I could relate to the description not just because of that, but because I have felt the same way about Spring here in Charleston. She has a way of capturing in words some of the same thoughts and feelings that are going through my mind:

...it was absolutely perfect weather today, all should be jealous of me. It was the light on the way to work, and a lovely temperature. There was a certain indescribable sparkle in the air. I can't exactly say it was fairyland or anything, but there was a mild, euphoric undercurrent to the atmosphere, very subtle....I noticed that the wood railing on our porch gave off a happy odor that I do not usually detect. I know it sounds a little odd. But all I can say is that today the subtler good smells of life seemed to reach farther in the dry golden sun, and the decaying smells that are also a part of the cycle seemed to blend into the backgound.


Exactly. I seemed to notice this at times all during this week, especially late in the afternoon or early evening when everything is settling down for the night and the crickets begin their song, only faint winds are stirring, the moon is shining bright, and you have a few moments to stand back and breathe in the fragile essence of a day on the wane, and notice what has escaped your attention all during that rushed and hurried day just past. The mild light and air of Spring encourages this, and always makes me feel more alive and open to life.


April 18, 2000

I wonder if Prozac can help with this: Carl Jung believed that the loss of spiritual moorings was at the root of the mental illness among all his patients over the age of 35. Is depression as much a profound spiritual crisis as it as a depletion of the neurotransmitter serotonin (which is boosted in the brain, supposedly, by Prozac?

*****

If we live with the myth that we always have time remaining to accomplish what we believe to be important in our lives, then we will never acomplish those things.

*****

I recently wrote this note to someone: "The essential questions after awhile become the only questions, for they are the ones that have to be lived, and, ultimately, answered."

*****

I found this used book for a couple of dollars last week: "The Inner World of the Middle-aged Man: Meeting and Facing the Greatest Challenge of Your Life." This will give a hint as to what I've been thinking about the past few days, with very little emotion or interest, actually. Something I just feel I should be struggling with more assiduously. Besides, the book came out in the mid-70s, that endlessly me-oriented decade and my formative decade.

*****


It has been a windy and cool day, overcast but not unpleasantly so. Tonight I am very tired. At work about 3:30, I was drifting off at my desk and was about to fall asleep with my head in my arms (something I NEVER do), when I heard a voice calling my name. It was my co-worker in the next cubicle. I snapped into consciousness and immediately assumed "alert, nothing had happened" mode. He apologized for disturbing me. "Maybe I should n't have said anything," he said. "No, no. It's alright. I'm glad you did," I responded, sharply and with renewed alertness.

I am trying to think too much, and nothing is resulting from my aimless mental wandering. I feel out of sorts over the most trifling things: A little while ago I knocked over a glass of iced tea and it spilled on and ruined a video I had bought this past weekend. It spilled into a box where I kept books and magazines that are next on my reading list. This upset me a great deal, as I sopped up the mess with paper towels. My stupidity and carelessness. How could I knock something over like that? Why? Whe me?

Insignificant. But enough to set in motion sour and regressive thoughts..

I feel a little better now. But nevertheless, my goal of writing a brief jounal entry/meditation on the middle of life has fallen by the wayside. Barry Levinson's words I just read seem a bit underwhelming, whereas a little while ago they seemed more insightful.

What am I writing tonight? I don't know. There are some kernels of truth and meaning hidden in here somewhere, out of context though they may be. Maybe you can think about the first lines I wrote here tonight, and try to imagine what I was trying to think about.

But I feel only a sort of sad listlessness now as I wrap this up. No great willingness to confront those "essential" things I try not to think about most of the time.


April 15, 2000

Folly Beach,
6:30 p.m.


There's a good, brisk wind on the beach now, coming from the south. Cool! Still a touch of winter in the air. It's only the middle of April, after all, and we do get some cold weather about this time of year.

There's almost a full moon in a turquoise sky over the surf now, which is rough and breaking heavily against the shore. It's high tide, too, and the waves are coming up about 20 feet from where I'm sitting. I can see my profile in a shadow across the dark sand, in the last, mellow rays of light on this most delightful Spring day. It's been a day full of summerlike, billowy clouds, the kind I love best. I worked all morning on a class project and finished up an hour or so before I had to take my sister, niece and nephew to the airport for the return trip to Edmonds. My nephew had a new book of card trick instructions and two decks of cards, and he had to try out at least a couple of them on me. His eyes lit up at the prospect of playing magician for awhile. It was fun to observe his enthusiasm, although I must say card tricks have never much interested me, even when I was younger.

It's always difficult on my mother when the children have to leave after being here for a week or so. She gets really sad. She's been used to a houseful of people for the past week, and it can be lonely once the goodbyes are said and they are gone.

After dropping them off at the airport, I decided to go to the mall since I was out that way. I was feeling pretty good and found that I was able to tolerate the noise and crowds; the children wailing and crying from time to time; parents with children in tow; gangs of teenagers trying to be seen and having nothing better to do; the gaudy, gold chain and jewelry kiosks that I can't stand; the GAP, the $79 shirts in Belks, and, in general, the restless hordes of shoppers, most of whom certainly don't *need* to be there, myself included.

I noticed this sign in the entryway to a Waldenbooks: "Help wanted. Stimulating work environment where you'll meet other book lovers." I had to laugh at that. (Translation: "It's a step up from working at a hamburger fast food place like McDonald's. It may pay $5.15 an hour, but you'll have the satisfaction of helping others in a civilized bookish environment.") Ever wonder why you never see the same two people on any two different occasions at those stores?

It's gotten rather cool out here on the beach as sunset approaches. I'll not be out much longer. But I've been lulled into a state of calm by the steady, gentle roar of the waves, braking just offshore. I'd like to stay out longer, but that too-cool air...Soon enough this won't be a problem. The warm days of summer will be here, and there's no better place to be than right where I am now, when summer arrives at last.


April 13, 2000

Today, looking out the window on this day off from work, I see nothing but total overcast. Gray skies. Everything seems to have a different cast and hue about it, compared to yesterday. Dreary.

Yesterday was a glorious Spring day, the antithesis of today. The sun and clouds and blue skies were almost summerlike. The countryside was lit up by the new season. The woods were still that shiny, new-green that epitomizes this time of year. You want it never to diminish, this feeling of newness. You wish it could stay like this, and you recall those many other Springs in the past when that new mantle of life conferred hope and possibility. The air, the winds, the warmth, the smell of the earth after a winter that left the earth inert, fallow -- all are wonderful and gratefully taken in by the senses.

My sister, niece, nephew and I drove to Sumter yesterday to visit our Aunt R___, and have dinner with her. The kids were good in the car, but as with any 11 and 7-year-olds, they were at times impatient to get there. How much longer? A universal refrain. Finally, it began to wear on me a bit. 30 minutes, 15 minuties. Exactly how long, Mom? Oh, I would say 8 minutes. She was right. After a two-hour drive, I was ready to be there too, and in just a couple of more hours we would begin the trip back to Charleston. A lot of driving for one day.

I thought about how children are not reluctant to express their thoughts and feelings, whereas I sit there in the driver's seat, silently wishing the miles away. It's not that it wasn't a nice drive through the country. I love the old Charleston Highway route that parallels the Interstate for 50 miles. The stretch from Summerton to Sumter, however, always seems like another 50 miles instead of 23. I try to observe new things about the countryside, but it's hard when you driven this same stretch all your life.

But when we took a side trip to the Santee National Wildlife Refuge on the way back to Charleston and drove along Lake Marion beneath a canopy of trees, almost enveloped by the woods, it became the perfect diversion. We drove to the end of the paved road, and got out to stetch a bit. I wanted to show the children the 40-foot high Indian mound that was used as a fort during the Revolutionary War. We climbed the steps to the top and had a nice view out into the distance. When you're beside a freshwater lake, the air is nice and seems, well... fresh, like the water over which it travels. It was just a perfect day, as I mentioned earlier.

The observation deck at the top has a small ciruclar rail around it, so you're not supposed to venture beyond and roam around on the top of the mound -- for safety reasons and because the mound would erode much faster if people did that.

I tried to explain this to my nephew who immediately wanted to venture out onto the mound, which is rather steep and presents a sheer drop to the ground below. He seemed to understand that this could be dangerous if he should slip and fall down the side of the mound. Children instinctively want to test their limits, whereas we older people know from experience what those limits are and can speak with some authority, at least, to the dangers of going too near the edge. Always that danger of falling. But to a child atop an Indian mound, that didn't occur to him, of course.


April 9, 2000

My niece and nephew are here from Edmonds, WA, and their visits always make me happy, and yet a little sad, too. We only see them twice a year, which I suppose is pretty good considering they live 3,000 miles away. The Northwest is their home, now. They've lived there for so many years, I hardly think they'll seriously consider moving to South Carolina as we keep hoping they might. So, when I greet my sister and J__ and K__ as they emerge from the plane at the airport, I at once feel like no time has elapsed, and yet at the same time I can see the changes that have taken place in the children that have occurred over the past five or six months, and which I, of course, am not witness to.

Prior to their arrival, I make a trip to store and buy gift bags for the children and have a good time going up and down the aisles in the candy and snack food section picking out goodies for them that also appeal to the kid in me. The other night, I was in Wal-Mart and, of course, they had two huge aisles full of Easter candy and toys and stuffed rabbits and assorted, unbelievable junk, and I went up and down plopping chocolate eggs and Lifesavers candy books, and bubble gum, and bags of Doritos, and foil-wrapped chocolate coins, etc. in the cart for their "Goody Bags." It was fun. In the check out lane, a young father gave me kind of an odd look as he saw me empty out the contents of the shopping cart on the counter. (There wasn't really that much) He probably thought I was hopelessly indulging a child of my own, which obviously I haven't, and was saying to himself how much trouble I was going to have later with spoiled kids. But I could only smile inwardly, looking forward to the expressionon on J___'s face when he saw that bag. Sure enough, they had (and are having) a good time with the stuff I bought. It's kind of a ritual now, anyway, and they have come to expect this bag of snacks, candy and toys to be there when they walk in their grandmother's door.

The next day we went out to Folly Beach where my brother and sister-in-law grilled hamburgers and we ate lunch out on the back porch overlooking the marsh on a really cool and windy day. But it was invigorating, and it's always so nice to eat outside, as on a picnic.

Not long after that, we were all out on the beach. And believe me, it's a rare thing indeed when my brother, sister and I are all together at the same time and can take a walk on the beach with J__ and K___. Although it wasn't great beach weather, and the surf was really choppy from the wind, it was delightful. That strong wind blowing from the south was preceding a big low pressure system that would soon cloud up the once-clear, blue skies and bring much cooler temperatures and rain with it. So we enjoyed out short time out there by the ocean. I was running around feeling a bit too energetic, as the sea breezes often makes me feel, chasing after my nephew who is almost 7, and at one point twirling him around in circles until I was just about dizzy. Naturally, he wanted me to do it again, but I was already imagining I was slightly sore from the effort (gotta watch the back; don't want to pull anything the wrong way). But it was nice to join in his enthusiasm and pretend to be a child again, if only for a few minutes.


April 6, 2000

Another birthday has come and gone, and it's nice to know it's gone. I don't care for them, although I really appreciated the nice things my family and friends at work did for me. It made me feel good. But as I approach 50, age is beginning to seem slightly unreal. It seems to have less and less meaning as I get older. I don't think of myself as any age anymore. Just who I am.

It's funny because what made me think of this was a comment a co-worker made to another co-worker, who then told me today. She said L___ said, "Well, I know John's approaching 50, but I know how sensitive he is about his age, so I won't say anything." Or something to that effect. I had to laugh with some merriment at hearing that because the last thing I am is sensitive about my age. I just don't care anymore. I like the gray hair more all the time. I don't have but a few wrinkles. I'm glad about that, but, again, it doesn't matter. The only thing that concerns me is the invisible aging that is going on, the silent wear and tear and deterioration that I don't notice but is inevitable and which subtly causes the overall quality and vigor of life to diminish. It's very subtle, though. Almost unnoticeable. And lately, I've been feeling pretty good and more energetic than I can remember feeling in quite some time. Of course this beautiful time of year brings out the youthful feelings in all of us over a certain age. But still, I think it's possible to forget about aging when you realize you don't have that much to prove to yourself anymore. I've done so many things since college that I've already had a very full life. I have many memories. I have recorded a lot about my life here in this journal over the past two years (two years in June, to be exact), and this record, Armchair Peregrination, is very, very important to me.

And now, I'm in grad school trying to get the final degree that will enable me to be a librarian, and I can, hopefully, do that kind of work for the rest of my working days because I can't think of anything else I'd rather be or do.

As far as getting old, and I mean *old*, I just don't think about that.


April 2, 2000

I don't know what it is, but for some strange reason I've been missing New Orleans. Perhaps it has something to do with the time of year. That old city of my birth, where I lived for the first 21 years of my life, always puts on a magnificent show in March and April. I remember the huge azaleas blooming in my backyard, and all the live oaks along St. Charles and elsewhere quickly shedding their leaves and putting on the new mantle of green, suddenly, almost overnight, it seemed, and soon the whole avenue was a verdant canopy of leaves, beneath which the streetcars traveled from Uptown to Canal Street.

I got to thinking some more today about my favorite store in New Orleans, the Maple Street Book Shop. Owned by Rhoda Faust, venerable and longtime friend of the writer Walker Percy before he died a few years ago, this place was everything I had always dreamed and imagined a bookstore should be. It was spread out over five or six rooms in a small New Orleans single, or half a shotgun house, as they are called. Each room was so filled with books in every available space where shelves or counters could be placed that it was difficult to walk in there. You were surrounded by literature and non-fiction, coffee-table books, psychology, poetry, novels in the first room as you came in from Maple Street, photograpy books in the second room. Literary criticism, travel books, essays, education, philosophy -- each tiny room had a section of it own, or maybe two.

Faust was, to an easily impressed 21-year-old student, the arbiter of all things bookish and literary. She seemed like some mysterious intellectual who spent all her waking hours glued to novels and books, her eyes penetrating and wise, but inscrutable. How I wanted to take my place behind that counter and spend my days presiding over a quaint and literary bookstore, frequented by all kinds of fascinating eccentrics and booklovers, as well as the usual assortment of students from Tulane and Loyola, and residents from the nearby Uptown neighborhoods.

I first came to know this place in the early fall of 1972, my last year in college. It was that time of my life, as I've written about before here, where I had my goal in sight. Graduation was just two semesters away. I was accustomed to college by this time, used to the quantities of reading I had to do for my English literature classes and papers I had to write for all six of my classes each semester that last school year. The Maple Street Book Shop became a refuge, a beacon of civilization and erudition in the City That Care Forgot.

How many times did I make the trek from the Gentilly neighborhood where I lived to Maple Street all the way across town. I couldn't say. But whenever I entered the front door, I knew I was coming into a very rare and special place. There was just this aura. I can't explain it too well other than to say I felt safe and happy there. I would sometimes spend an hour or more browsing. Not buying to much. I did purchase a number of Penguin edition novels of Balzac and Zola, which I was very interested in at the time, especially the Balzac masterpiece, Cousin Pons, which I never forgot. But I associate that book and the experience of literature outside what was required for my courses with the Maple Street Book Shop.

I haven't been there in quite some years now, and I hope it is still there. I believe it must be, for it is a refuge and a landmark, a home, so to speak, for too many New Orleanians who love books and everything they represent.



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