Armchair Peregrinations

April 27, 2001

Caw Caw Park
3:15 pm

I'm sitting on the bench beneath one of the old live oaks this afternoon on my day off from work. As I started on the trail, I immediately noticed the fresh scent of the air. It was just slightly cool. No clouds in the sky. Everything is still in that unfinished, newly emergent state of spring growth. Not quite summer. The leaves still have a new-green sheen on them.

I decided not to put my wide-angle lens on the camera. I would come close to everything today and be attuned to the smaller details of the plants and objects along the trail. Thus, with my normal, 52 mm lens, I photographed two new leaves slightly moving in the breeze a few inches above the ground. I also took pictures of small yellow and purple wild flowers and tall grasses as the edge of the cypress swamp. It's a very different way of looking at the world, coming close to things, and I have to remind myself to do this.

I've been listening to a variety of sounds in the trees and woods surrounding the clearing where I'm sitting. A hawk just flew overhead. Dragonflies -- big ones -- are flying everywhere today, close to the ground and up into the air all around me. A woodpecker has, for the moment, halted his rhythmic tree thumping. Songbirds are singing to each other in back of me, and a rather insistent and regualar fluttering call of some bird I can't identify is the primary background sound. I am trying to discern all the sounds I hear. A lone cicada, the first one I have heard this year, piped up to play, and then was silent, perhaps realizing he was alone and it wasn't summer yet, or even dusk.

I love this particular spot because I am surrounded by oaks and sweet gums. There's plenty of moss hanging from these oaks to blow in the wind. That always creates a sort of moody, evocative effect, especially when it's overcast and cloudy.

April 24, 2001

Sunday I traveled out to Caw Caw Park. It was another near-perfect day, and so I was ready to brave the traffic, which wasn't too bad, and drive there. The rewards always justify the aggravation, and I don't know why I hesitate sometimes.

The first thing I saw on the trail was a red-cockaded woodpecker making its way up a tree, pulling insects out of soft spots in the dead wood. What a beautiful red cape it sported. There was lots of birdsong to listen to everywhere around me. It was as if many different species of birds, including the songbirds, were meeting up at the park and rejoicing in their spring reunion. The air was just filled with those songs.

I only walked a short distance, from the trail through the woods to the former rice fields and back to the swamp by way of the dike separating the ricefields from the brackish tidal creeks and marsh on the other side. At one point I could smell the earthy, swamp-water smell of the water in the impoundments which always reminds me of the fresh water pond at Second Mill we swam in as children in Sumter when there on vacation many years ago. The salt marsh area has a very different smell -- that of the marsh muds with a bit of the ocean air coming from the east.

It was very low tide, and the creeks were more exposed than I had ever seen them. All the mud flats along the creek beds were visible, and I looked over at one section and spotted a solitary Great Blue Heron, a truly magnificent bird. Very shy. It will always fly off if you approach too closely. I had my binoculars and stood watching him pluck small fish out of the water for long minutes at a time. He stepped slowly, deliberately in and out of the water. Such incredible grace and elegance, and perfect contentment alone, in the quiet of the shallows of that creek. It was a beautiful sight.

April 21, 2001

I just got back from a walk around the neighborhood. It was a very pleasant walk in the waning light of day, on an afternoon so perfect and beautiful that I am sorry I spent most of it inside. I had to get outside for awhile. I haven't felt like doing anything or seeing anybody today. I contemplated going to the nature preserve, but that would have meant 40 minutes of cars and traffic to get there. I just couldn't bear the thought. It was one of those days when staying home where it was quiet, and where solitude reigned, was all I seemed to want or care about. I've seen no-one today. I ran some errands about noon: post office, grocery store. So while I have enjoyed the peace and quiet, it was a lonely day, too, one that reinforced lifelong patterns of self-imposed isolation. And I was aware of that fact today, rather strongly, although it doesn't bother me nearly as much as it used to.

When I was walking, I just couldn't get over how perfect the temperature was. The air was just cool enough, right on the edge of being mild or warm. The wind was slight. The trees all are at that stage of glossy new-green, where everything appears bright, fresh and new. Shiny new. A hawk flew overhead. A father and his small daughter washed the family car. Two boys rode around on their bikes. People were coming and going from garages and parked cars. Life seemed normal. I walked through it all as if in some kind of half-way alert reverie, thinking about things that persistently trouble me, but letting some small ray of light in to provide some slight comfort and satisfaction that I was making at least something of this day. Most of it I could write off easily. I wish parts of it had never happened, but each segment of my life, filled with whatever action or inaction it contains, occurs, passes, and then I am left with the present moment and the desire to wipe the slate clean once again. On and on. The folly of trying to slake one's human desires. What slaves we allow ourselves to be to our ragged human natures.

It's almost 7 o'clock now, and the afternoon shadows are lengthening under the sycamore tree that I passed a short while ago. Each tree on my walk I know like an old friend. I recognize them all, and I always greet them silently. They are much comfort to me.

April 18, 2001

It's a strange thing that happens sometimes. I was walking toward King Street yesterday afternoon and overheard two women talking. I observed them. They were crossing the street almost in front of me. They seemed ordinary. Their words were ordinary. But I realized I had probably never seen them before. They spoke the same lanaguage as me. Probably had some very similar experiences. There was the human connection. For a brief moment, they seemed very familiar, comfortably so, and yet, it was also like they could have been aliens from another world. How is it that so many people can co-exist and be dependent on one another, and yet our paths, lives, words, never cross? It was just a strange feeling I get every now and then. It's like we are going about our business in parallel universes, and in some respects, I guess we are.

April 15, 2001

I was still feeling rather bad the other day and decided to stop in at the health food store and get lunch, something healthy to make me feel better about myself: tofu, salad, fruit, brown rice, veggies, etc. I brought my tray to the table and sat theire rather absently eating. I'm sure I looked like a weary and sad soul sitting there. The food was okay. I wasn't too hungry. And some of it, I didn't even know what it was.

My attention was diverted two tables in front of me, where, by the window, a mother and her 3-4-year-old son were sitting and finishing their lunch. The child, of course, could not sit still and was all over the seat, looking every which way and making little delighted comments to his mother. I was struck by the happiness this small child exuded, the perfect joy of being, and the innnocence. It shakes me up deeply sometimes to witness this. He was not an annoying, spoiled child, but a happy child. And the mother showed such obvious love and affection for him, and so delighted in all his little comments, that I couldn't help but smile once or twice, half to myself, once in their direction, I believe. It was a picture of a young mother and her child, a still-new life, enjoying the world as only one so young can.

Meanwhile, I was sitting at my booth, alone with my healthful tray of food, drawn back into myself and my problems, but momentarily lifted out of that mire of self-pity I find myself in from time to time. I found myself observing, from an outsider's perspective, this tableaux of life that had unfolded before me, quite extraordinary in its own way, and a reminder to me of all that I don't have and won't experience. This happens to me all the time of course. In the park, in the grocery store, walking down the street in my suburban neighborhood. I observe children, families, parents, young people and their friends.

It is such a paradox. Parents who have children are bringing them into a world that is full of the worst that human beings can do to themselves, others, and the environment, and yet, they also are creating new life and offering the world a chance of renewal and rebirth through that gift of life. There is much more beauty and goodness for the child to experience as he or she grows up than there is the opposite of that. It's just a very dangerous journey, despite the miracles of life to delight in. And, it is so critically important for parents to teach their children well. I don't know. It's jus such an awesome responsbility, one I am denied. And, probably for a reason. Who knows? I'm numb sometimes. I can't even feel sadness. But I try to feel happy for those who are so blessed as to have families and chilren, and who are good and responsible parents.

April 13, 2001

Happiness is reflective, like the light of Heaven.

Washington Irving

I try hard to understand, at times, what this word "happiness" means. Is it a heightened state of emotional awareness that comes from the knowledge of what is good and beautiful? And, is this state, in any real sense, lasting?

When I am recovering from a lingering illness, as I am now, feeling just bad enough to know I am still sick at some physical level, my soul also feels heavy and sick at heart. There is a weariness, a lassitude, a slight fear and resignation to the dire facts of mortality that we never give much pause to when we are well, and at least capable of moments of real "happiness."

No one wants to hear that you are not feeling well, or to even countenance much of your complaint. The healthy are happy in their momentary "wellness," just as at work I am upbeat and optimistic when I am that state of wellness, which is as much as I can usually hope for. Generally, I can cope with the vicissitudes of life, and I try to be a positive light for others. I encourage, I compliment, I inquire, I relate my concern, I try to listen, although not always too well. But when I am sick, there comes over me an altered state of consciousness. The sun is a bit too warm on my flushed and slightly hot skin; the colors of the trees and clouds, and sky are apparent and still beautiful, but slightly off-color, not as sharp, out of sync with how I normally perceive them.

The other day at work at the college, someone asked me how my cold was, and when I replied that it was lingering, but that I was somewhat better, he quickly moved on with a laugh and a moment of levity. No one wants to hear about sickness. No one wants to be around people who are sick.

One of the great tragedies of old age is the preoccupation so many elderly persons have with doctors, disease, one condition flaring up after another, hospitals, cancer, people dying. Of course it is understandable that all that is upfront in one's life as the years advance, but how appallingly depressing to hear people talk about it incessantly. How vexing and annoying to hear about all those things we pretend happen only to others.

As I age, I come to understand more fully why some people never want to get old, attain great age, or become debilitated by degree -- step by step, slowing down, mental alertness diminishing, feeling pains everywhere, losing the simples joys and pleasures of living. For the most part, the young, I have found, have no need or interest in any of this. Their lives are open, and yet indifferent, to paradox. They know and yet they don't care. They have health, vitality, youth, time on their side. I was like that once. And the days stretched out endlessly. There was no beginning and no perceivable end. Life just was. Now, I have to learn that all over again.

April 11, 2001

Last night I spent some time on the porch of the house in Charleston, in my favorite rocking chair, dozing off into the night as the chair gently rocked back and forth. Sophie the cat was asleep on the ledge bordering the gate which opens into the garden. It was quiet, except for the usual night sounds in a city neighborhood: a cough and a phone ringing in the next-door apartment rented by groups of kids attending the college; an occasional car passing by; a slight wind rustling the palmettos. It all put me in one of those very deep states of relaxation, and I needed it. Something about being on a porch in a rocking chair will always calm me and help put things in perspective. I can think more clearly, and, I always get up and leave with some reluctance, but with the knowledge that there are other days and nights ahead to spend out their with my thoughts. Summer nights with the ceiling fan turning are particularly nice. There's a good view of the sky, and nights out there are made for contemplation.

April 10, 2001

First real spring-bordering-on-summer day on the beach yesterday, and I was off from work to be there with my sister and her family who are here from Seattle. My nephew had his wetsuit on and spent most of the time on his short surf board in the shallow waves near shore. Everyone went for long walks. We sat out in the cool breeze off the ocean and watched the people and the waves. A youthful runner with his dog in tow made us yearn a bit for days long gone when we had that kind of tireless energy. There was a porpoise offshore for awhile. It was just a very pleasant experience being out there.

The beach was crowded all weekend and today. People are ready for summer and they acted like it today, a Monday, of all days. Seemed like a weekend in July.

When I came in from the beach, I heard the stereo CD-player automatically kick in and what was it playing? Vangelis' "Oceanus," of course. What a soaring score and it complemented the always elated and happy feeling one gets just being near the ocean. And we had been there only minutes before.

There was nothing too profound to comtemplate while sitting out in the sun. It was just a nice, relaxing afternoon before I had to go into work at 7 that night. And, it's great to see my niece and nephew having so much fun on this short spring vacation for them. Folly Beach looked great today. Very inviting on this perfect day.

April 6, 2001

I stepped outside this afternoon at lunch to take a walk to the college, and was greeted by the throngs of people and cars, buses, and traffic that are concentrated downtown the day before the big Cooper River Bridge Run. Never have you seen such an assemblage of fit-looking, middle-class-appearing, prosperous people, all in shorts and expensive running shoes, milling around being tourists before the big event tomorrow morning. I have never, ever been able to figure out the lure of these mass spectacle runs, where 30,000 people form a high-energy mob and run across a bridge and into town. It's unbelievable. I detest large crowds and this is the worst kind of crowd, all squeezed together, identifiable only by numbers, chomping at the bits to prove how physically fit they are. Ugh! A lot of people walk the distance, of course, and that is a bit more sane, but it's all part of the same crowd mentality.

So, I wasn't so happy to be reminded of that upcoming run and the folly of mass human assemblages. However, my attention was distracted by the sound of a lone mockingbird high on a telephone pole singing its heart out. Above the sounds of people, cars, loud trucks, and the like, this magnificent creature was announcing to the world its happiness, and you can't help but think that a large part of what that singing was about was happiness. That's what it sounded like. Pure joy. I just stood there on the corner and listened a while before starting my walk to the college. The mockingbird always has a different twist to his songs. They never seem the same. Yes, perhaps he is imitating other birds, but the result is his own sweet melody.

I was reading about the western meadowlark in a magazine the other day, and it brought back memories of a trip through Montana years ago. I was walking toward the Grant Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site when I heard the most striking and intensely beautiful birdsong. It came from a bird sitting on a fencepost. Someone has described the sound, truly the work of an avian virtuoso, as "an impressive, bubbling, flute-like melody." But words really can't capture it, however. It is an incomparable sound, and I remember it distinctly 15 years later. Intense, clear, beautiful...

I am happier, and the day is better, richer, when I can stop a moment and hear the birds singing, even if it's not a mockingbird. Birds are fascinating, alive to the moment, creatures of the air and wind and sky. Life is immeasurably better because of them.

April 5, 2001

On this my birthday, the 50-year mark, the half-century, I am glad to have made it this far along life's journey. I have not much more that is profound to say than that. It definitely is a symbolic milestone, and at work they have made much of it. Good-naturedly, of course. There was a surprise birthday party with food, cake and a gift bag. Wonderful cards, a lot of people stopped by. I was completely caught off guard. It completely changed the tenor of the day. I felt elated. Wonderful. It was so good to work with such great people, people who care, and who make me feel special. I think we all need that from time to time. When people do something nice for you, it makes life seem all that much better. The smiles, the little jokes, the laughter, the feeling of truly belonging in a place -- all that, and to think I had been so close to getting another job and leaving those people. After yesterday, I'm glad I didn't get the job. I am greatly relieved.

Today is another beautiful spring day. I feel a lot better, though tired after that grueling cold. But at 50, you start to look at things differently. Or is it just my imagination? Time for new beginnings. Can things change? Can I feel better about myself and the person I am? Yes, and time will prove it.

April 2, 2001

It's a beautiful spring day, but I've been inside with a bad cold. Home from work. Box of Kleenex by my side. No taste, no smell. Miserable, made even more so as I look outside and see the clearest blue sky.

The month of March roared out of here the past couple of days in a windy tempest that had gusts up to 50 miles per hour, off and on, all day yesterday. Today, it's oddly quiet and still. A few leaves are rustling in the oak tree. But I have never seen such winds for so long as occurred all day Sunday.

And, just a little while ago I finished listening to a tape that always brings back strange feelings of loneliness, but yet good feelings, too. Whenever I listen to the guitar music of Gabriel Lee in "Impressions," I am transported back in time 15 years ago to Hattiesburg, Miss., and a small, cheap, furnished apartment near campus where I teaching and going to graduate school. All around me in that neighborhood were tall pine trees, and that's what I saw as I lay on my bed and looked out the window. Often, Gabriel Lee's music would be softly playing in my tape player. It was an aweful situation I found myself in that year, and I was marking time until I could leave. I had never been as lonely in my life as the two years I spent in that town. What saved me were the weekend drives along backroads to Black Creek and other trips to remote places in the countryside of southern Mississippi. I did love the rural character of that land, and the beauty in those piney woods. That was my escape: the driving until I was forced to return at last, and, the music on that tape. Strange how I keep listening to it, all these years later.

In many ways, and despite everything, I had moments of happiness that second and final year in Hattiesburg because I was alone, but self-sufficient. It's hard to explain. I was making a good salary and saving my money for the trips I was planning in the summer of 1987. Also, since I had myself and no one else to depend on, I felt freer than I do now when I am settled in one place and have found the inevitable attachments and dependencies that come with delving too far afield in cyberspace. The Internet has become my escape.

There are times like now when friends on the Internet seem distant to me, and that might just be because I don't see or talk to them in person. Nor have I ever seen or met but one of them before. Yet, I feel they are a network of friends, nevertheless. I have greatly benefitted knowing them. However, we know each other through words on a screen, and most of the time I have been content with that. But then the reality dawns and I realize just how much is missing. It really does become a substitute for real contact, as trite and cliched as that might sound. Inevitably, you get hurt in these types of one-dimensional friendships, especially when your cherished illusions are quashed, yet again.

Yes, I am disappointed and disillusioned, and feeling kind of bewildered about the Internet now. About why I allowed myself to think I was becoming close to someone. It's easy to delude yourself into thinking you are special to someone. And when you have always lived by yourself, you are susceptible to the vagaries of loneliness, and you are capable of doing and saying some very foolish things. And it is all because you so badly want to connect to others, to be close to them, to feel like you matter in their lives.

So, on this rather dreary day interiorly, sick and inside on a beautiful April afternoon, I sort of envy the person I was those years ago in Mississippi, only because he hadn't given of himself too much. That sounds very selfish and sad, and I admit it. But at least I wasn't deluding myself as much then. Yes, once before I had been close to others, very close, and that had turned into a tragic situation. It's not easy running from yourself and avoiding confrontation with others about the person you really are, and always being afraid to acknowledge what that is because you fear rejection most of all.

One good thing about those winds yesterday -- they cleansed the atmosphere and everything is sparkling and bright outside. Time to move beyond self-pity regarding the stupid things I have done, and get my act together. Time to move on. It's never too late to put the past behind me. And when I listen to Gabriel Lee, I am reminded that circumstances change quickly enough, and you learn from your mistakes and mis-judgments -- not that they could have been avoided. There's a reason for everything, after all.

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