Armchair Peregrinations


August 31, 1999

Folly Beach, August 30, 7 p.m.

I can tell it's the end of summer and that September is about here. The first hurricane of the season has come and gone, menacing us and dragging us out of whatever summer doldrums we clung to. Although Hurricane Dennis is gone, it gave us one good scare in Charleston, and on Folly Beach where I'm writing this now. Once again we are sitting ducks as these storms form and head our way.

Last night for several hours we had strong, sustained winds of about 25-30 mph, gusts higher than that, plus a lot of rain. Forecasters had predicted much stronger winds, so we were lucky. It was a strange feeling to realize that a huge and very dangerous storm, only about 150 miles out at sea, was paralleling our coast, and that just in time it had, as forecast, started tracking north and northeast away from the Carolinas. We thought we were going to get hit for awhile there Friday night.

The beach has had some dune erosion from the high waves and surf, but mostly it looks pretty good. Tonight there's no trace of the wind, dark clouds, and rain that raced ashore yesterday. Just clear skies and a nice gentle surf.

*****

Cooler, drier air has come down south. For the first time in a couple of months, I could take a pleasant walk to the college and sit awhile at my favorite spot under a cluster of pecan trees, enjoy the shade, and just relax for the short time I had before returning to work. I could feel the tension and hurriedness of the morning ebbing away as I closed my eyes and felt the warmth of the sun on my face. The mood, the time of day, the sounds, the smells -- all stirred once again little flickerings of memories of other times and places where solitary musings occupied me then, as today.

From every pecan tree cicadas were buzzing until theirs was almost the only sound I could hear. I was so relaxed, I felt I could have dozed off in that chair, and that would have been a remarkable thing for me, so seldom can I sleep well anywhere. But if there had been a hammock stretched between those trees, and I was lying in it, I would have drifted off into some world of enchantment, I would hope, some faraway place during that lunchtime nap that I never had. But dreams are usually not like that anyway, are they?

*****

Although the woods are still deeply green, everything points to autumn. The land is spent and exhausted from the heat and drought of the past month. Schools are well underway now. The air out on the beach this evening is almost cool -- I could even be wearing a windbreaker. It's really nice to listen to the waves and feel that cooler air. I'm more likely to go walking in weather like this. I feel more energetic and alive to possibilities. Spring and fall will do that to you.

Although fall signals a retreat from the abundant life and growth of summer, it allows us to enjoy the transitiion between seasons. I welcome the lengthening shadows and sharper light of autumn. The bluer skies. I anticipate the new season's arrival, and I want to look ahead to the first crisply cool morning in October. But until then, September's song will prevail.


August 28, 1999

It's strange when a hurricane is threatening to head your way. A kind of gray area exists between apprehension and relief. One day the forecast says it's going to be off the coast a ways and will miss you. The next, it's curved back toward the coast. Back and forth. The waters are muddied. There's a very real aura of uncertainty and an unwillingness to believe these storms are so big and dangerous. But they are. And so, the waiting continues to see where it's going to go.

In these days of anxiety that we have to live through, the price we pay for living in this beautiful city by the sea, things seem to take on a slightly different hue and appearance. Something just isn't quite right, even though mostly the world seems to be going through its normal routines. There's just something different about the light, the skies, the wind. One watches children tagging along, trying to keep up with their mother as they walk down the street; traffic flows along; students just starting a new semester at the college throng the streets of downtown. People come and go as usual. But then you hear those reports of high surf and the shots of surfers at Folly Beach, drawn irresistibly to the rare, big waves that only come when there are huge storms out in the Atlantic -- weather systems such as hurricanes, for instance.

I can't help think it's literally the "calm before the storm." All day it felt slightly unreal to be outside looking at the scene before me and thinking about Hurricane Dennis gathering strength out in the ocean southeast of Florida. All around me was unfolding an utterly placid, typically hot, late summer day. Inconceivable that this scene of normalcy could soon be jarringly and brutally disrupted by howling winds, torrential rains, utility poles toppling, power out.

Yes, it's hard to even think about these things as I sit here now on the porch of the house in Charleston, listening to cicadas droning off and on in the trees, observing seagulls and swallows flying across a blue sky flecked with clouds just starting to light up as the sun goes down.

Suddenly, this sky I'm looking up into seems filled with birds. They seem so high up and far away, but they really aren't. The clouds, too, seem far away, slightly ethereal, turning orange in the fading light.

*****

At lunchtime today, I took a short walk to the bakery to get a pumpkin muffin. I didn't have any strong feelings of impending danger, just very vague, unsettling ones. Everything seemed to be in it proper place. All seemed right with the world for a day in August. It was hot and humid, and never have I seen such enormous cumulus clouds rolling up over the steeples and skyline of Charleston -- a scene to be painted or photographed. I walked back to work in a kind of pleasant, but sultry daze, clammy heat clinging to me like a warm and damp compress.

*****

The sunset of moments before is gone now. Night approaches. The cicadas perform the last of their musical numbers for the evening. Final curtain call. Sure enough, I now hear the first of the tiny frogs that peep, peep to each other with their own nighttime calls. The singing of the cacadas, which had brought me solace moments before, is now a fading memory in the background. This always saddens me a bit, for I love that sound with its rich and comforting associations. I reluctantly leave the porch and go inside the brightly lit, air-conditioned house.


August 26, 1999

Folly Beach, August 25, 7:30 p.m.:

What is solitude but the intentional keeping of one's own company. It is not loneliness, which is the temporary inability to feel comfort and solace apart from others. It is more akin to aloneness, that mysterious state of mind which allows me to feel free of obligations to others at those times when I must, or have no choice but to be, alone.

It seems I have spent perhaps too much time in this state. It has required me to communicate with myself more often than with others, to have more time for the internal monologs which go on in my head as I think to myself, or write, as I am doing now.

It has allowed me to write, because a writer seeks solitude, and solitude is the sustanance of writers.

I think that if I were a person who needed to be around people all the time, as so many people inexplicably do, I would feel like half a person: one half joined to this dependence on others, the other half struggling, even if unconsciously, to be free of those tethers.

In living alone, I have every opportunity to cultivate my own solitude, to inhabit whatever worlds I choose because no one is present to enter those worlds unexpectedly or obtrusively.

But in certain respects, I live apart from others only in the physical sense. My thoughts are often of other people, such as my work friends or family. And, I am extroverted to a very noticeable degree at work. But away from it, I find myself amid all the familiar objects and surroundings of my life at home. I am at most at ease there. It is my sanctuary.

Do I get lonely? I used to, quite a lot. When I was younger. Now I have become accepting enough of myself to know that I can be content with who I am. I have reached an understanding that some things are not necessarily going to change, and don't have to, either. What else can I be, in other words?

*****

It is now nearly sunset at the beach, where I sit alone looking out over the ocean, watching the incoming waves as high tide approaches. I am looking up every few seconds at a full moon, a glowing yellow orb that is keeping me company as I contemplate its beauty. I can see how it has stirred the souls and imaginations of poets and writers throughout the ages.

The ceaseless sounds of the waves, and a steady wind from the southeast, make me wish I could remain here well into the night. I don't feel hungry. I don't feel any compelling need to be anywhere else right now. Only the onset of night will cause me to pick up my things and leave.

Right now I am just about the only person on the beach. I see someone in the distance walking a dog. Moonlight is reflecting on the water now. The moon itself is bright yellow. Its reflections are orange and fiery, but they are like smoldering coals, not flames flickering across the surface of the ocean.

Two surfers have just come out of the water a short distance away, startling me slightly, sort of like Proteus coming up out of the sea. They are walking away down the beach and have disappeared into the night, which is drawing near quickly.

I am alone again. The solitude of the beach envelops me. I am in some kind of timeless place. The wind and waves are steady. It is very peaceful. One would hardly imagine that far out in that ocean to the south, a tropical storm is churning the seas in its fury and advancing in this general direction. I will not think of it anymore, for now.

The moon is so bright that it has become my lamp and will light the way back across the dunes to the car. It's not time to go yet, but just about.


August 23, 1999

It's official. Summer's over. That's what I read anyway in the apartment complex newsletter. I know this because it said that school starts today in Charleston County, and, therefore summer's over. Finis. For all of us, and let's all remember that.

Well, I guess for those who have children in school, the day could not come soon enough, or so I've been told so often in the past. You'd think all that quality time with the kids home for the summer would be so invigorating and stimulating that the dreaded approach of fall would bring only prospects of a quiet and empty house, since the kids would all be back at their studies. But no. There's a definite change in the sodden, humid summer air. Parents and kids alike get very excited about Back to School sales and shopping. Excitement builds. Cash registers at malls all over the country are ching-chinging with furious abandon now, as they have for the past few weeks. The economy is lifted out of the summer doldrums. The Gaps, Banana Republics, J.C. Penny's, Wal-Marts, Belk Department Stores -- all have been flush with the inrush of students and their money.

I remember it well myself. That feeling of anticipation that only builds. The tension of knowing that soon the "lazy, hazy crazy days of summer" would be the merest puffs of memory dissipating into the ever-shortening days.

I can see myself now walking with grim and ernest determination to the bus stop six LONG blocks from home and waiting for the noisy conveyance that would deliver me, gears crashing against each other, and door slamming shut, to the high school in old Agiers that I attended. I'd have that new button-down blue oxford shirt and slacks with maybe a new pair of penny loafers. I'm not sure if I wore those all the time. Can't really remember. But I do remember shopping for school supplies. Making sure I had the right kind of spiral-bound notebooks, and book covers, and pens and No. 2 pencils, etc.

As I stood at the bus stop, a few of my acquaintances from the past year straggled up to the corner to await with me the new school year that lay ahead. We'd always exchange a few nervous pleasantries. It was kind of awkward. How had we changed over the summer? Older but wiser? High school junior. No longer that bottom-of-the-rung sophomore. Or, best of all, SENIOR in high school. The final year. Better do well. College will be here before you know it.

I always think these and similar thoughts as September approaches. Late August is that turning point month. It might as well be a new year or a new decade turning over on the calendar, so fraught with meaning and possibility is this month, so full of impending drama and all the various cadences of youth on the move, growing up and growing older. Time marches on, especially now, in the August of our year.


August 19, 1999

More than 20 years ago I lived in a small college town in North Carolina, near a large city, but not too close. It felt like it was out a ways from everything. If it hadn't been a college town, I would have thought I really was way out in the country.

Now this little town was like some place you'd imagine in a dream. It was quite idyllic -- literally. It had a small, liberal arts college with an excellent reputation, nestled in a beautiful setting with enormous old trees. It had a Village Green where the local folks could have their picnics, band concerts, arts events and festivals. And they did.

The Green was directly across the street from the exceedingly quaint main street, named those exact words, with its two blocks of brick buildings housing a bank, gift shop, the M&M Soda Shop, some specialty stores, an old Rexall Drug Store, the post office, a real estate establishment, and an assortment of other businesses. These included the tiny newspaper office where I worked as editor of the local paper which came out weekly.

Whken I landed that job, the paper was about ready to collapse into nothing. It was 6-8 pages with few ads, and the local businesses had ceased to support it because, founded and owned locally for many years, it was now part of a grossly incompetent chain of weeklies based in South Carolina. Of course, when I took the job, I had no idea how bad an outfit that company was. I soon found out.

Into this situation an idalistic and somewhat naive 26-year-old editor came to make his mark, laden with the enthusiasm only someone so young could muster, giving the realities of the situation. I had new ideas, or so I thought. I even had a philosophy about community journalism which I posted in an earlier journal entry.

I couldn't believe my luck. I had an office on Main Street, and I was my own boss, basically. One good thing about the company -- they didn't care what I did and they never sent anyone from headquarters up that way except for one time when we instituted a futile circulation-building campaign. There were two other people to assist me in producing the paper each week.

I remember a flurry of activity those months I was there: interviews for feature stories, photographs to take, town council meetings to cover.

Each morning, I'd come into the office, put my stuff down, and head a couple of stores up Main Street to the soda shop for a fresh-squeezed orange drink and an egg salad sandwich on toast. This was a college hangout, and truly an institution around those parts, and the sandwich and drink were two of the specialities of the house which owners Mary and Murray whipped out all morning long. I can see Murray now slicing those oranges and placing them deftly under the squeezer. Very simple, very basic food, but good.

Next, I'd walk a block from the soda shop to the post office, collect the mail, including dozens of press releases, and come back to the office and begin editing them if I was planning to use any in that week's paper. Some gave me ideas for local stories.

As the day wore on, I'd be out taking pictures, doing interviews, and, in general, living the life of a small-town newspaper editor.

I was too young to know any better, but I really imagined myself to be some sort of prominent man in the town. Editor of the paper. I even imagined people passing me on the sidewalk on Main Street and saying to themselves, "There's the newspaper editor. I wonder what'll be on the front page this week." Of course, most people didn't know me from the merest stranger passing through town. I'd only been there a few months, didn't have any family or connections in the area, and so I wasn't vested in the community as are some family-owned papers and their editors.

Of course, I had my regular, favorite places to eat, including the Dogwood Motel Restaurant where I could get a fried pork chop, mashed potatoes and gravy, navy beans, collard greens, corn bread, and all the sweet tea I could drink for one low price. A meat and two vegetables and dessert. That was the lunch special each day.

In a way, I lived a kind of charmed, Mayberry type existence. There wasn't any crime to speak of. I recall the first week I was on the job, the first armed robbery in 20 years occurred when someone robbed the Rexall Drug Store of about $500. I wrote the story up on the front page, it was such an unusual thing to happen in that town.

I'd ride my bike through the college campus, visit its very nice library and sometimes eat lunch in the student center snack bar. I would on occasion go hear speakers and write stories for the paper on their presentations.

It was a great place to live. I got up each morning excited about going to work. I published a number of local writers who sent in contributions, including one delightful woman I'll never forget, and with whom I became good friends. She would turn in the most enchanting and evocative pieces reminiscing about her childhood. They were wonderful memory pieces written in a knowing and wise manner. She lived in the country outside of town and had me over to dinner a few times. She made some of the best fried chicken and potato salad I had ever tasted. She was a member of a writing class at the local community college, and when I left that job, they all held a going away party for me and wrote farewell poems. I was immensely moved, and touched deeply by their thoughfulness and friendship.

I was there only a short seven months, from December 1976 until June 1977. The paper just wasn't making any money, so it was sold. The new owner wanted to do everything himself, so I had to pack up and reluctantly leave that little spot on the map.

I still can picture those old houses near the college with their big front porches, and the big trees everywhere which gave the whole place a verdant, wooded appearance.

It had its problems. I don't mean to ignore that. It certainly had it's other side of the tracks, but it was essentially a college town, a place anchored by a seat of learning and culture that had a long and proud history.

To me, for a few short, but intensely lived months, it was a dream job in a little place that wasn't too far removed from what I imagined a Utopia to be like. It seemed to be a place in harmony with its surroundings, and it made me think, "This is a good place to be. I could live here a long, long time."


August 17, 1999

I am walking a trail along the west fork of a river high in the mountains of New Mexico. I have water and a small amount of food necessary for a day hike. It's about 9,000 feet elevation where I am (or would like to be), so it's pleasantly cool this early afternoon in late August.

Where I am now the stream is flowing through a small canyon, rock cliffs on one side, open on the other to let in the intense New Mexico blue of this summer sky. Big white clouds sail overhead slowly, above sycamores and cottonwoodds on the valley floor. I am looking at a picture of the scene I envision now, and it is drawing me in; it is almost three-dimensional. It is so beautiful, that I imagine this is what paradise could look like. Isn't heaven what we want it to be, fashioned out of our dreams of what eternal, created beauty and goodness are in their fullest manifestations?

Now I have never actually been to this place, but it has captured my imagination for years. Everytime I see pictures of it, there are meadows and flowing water -- cold, blue water from springs and snowmelt -- trees growing amid fissures in the cliffs; clouds; and that everlasting New Mexico sky that I have seen and marveled at on other occasions.

I have traveled to this place, up a curving mountain road, switchback after switchback, gradually leaving behind the flat desert and sage, the cacti and ocotillo, and journeying up the mountain to an island in the sky. I pass juniper and pine and then aspen as I go higher still, and finally enter the first of the great spruce-fir forests I will encounter. Light filters down through these trees to illumine open areas where I can sit in the sunlight and bask in the solitude and warmth, long since having shed the nervousness and anxiety of the land below, from whence I have come, and to which I must return.

I see no one. No cars. There is no sound other than the wind and the birds and the grasses and leaves rustling underfoot as I walk. Here, for a short time, I do not have to worry about what other people think of me, whether they care enough to communicate with me, or if I should care. Not that I forget about people up here. It's just that they assume their proper place in the grander and larger scheme of the universe where the entirety of creation takes over in my consciousness and I wonder what my true place is within this grand order of Nature.

Here I have true "intimations of immortality," as the poet says, and I have left behind my material possessions and have only my thoughts of now, the eternal now.



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