Armchair Peregrinations

August 29, 2000

Folly Beach,
Aug. 28, 7:30 pm

I sit by the ocean again at high tide. There's a bit of thunder off to the north. But it's clear mostly, with a few late afteroon clouds.

Yesterday I was also out here to take a brief walk. It was along a deserted beach that I strolled for a ways, and there was a light rain falling. There wasn't another person for a mile in either direction. The ocean was gray, but I was curiously unaffected. I didn't care if I got wet. I just liked being out there.

The endless sounds of the surf never cease to calm me. I feel a sense of needed rest and repose.

But now, all of a sudden, the sky is mostly black to my left, the thunder is increasing, the wind is dead calm, I'm being attacked by gnats -- it's time to get out of here.

August 26, 2000

I passed through Norway and Denmark yesterday afternoon. Not the countries, of course, nor did I take a virtual trip to Scandanavia by way of Web sites. Rather, they were two of the small towns in south central South Carolina I drove through on a day trip with some friends from work. They were named for obvious reasons by early settlers in the area who were no doubt very homesick. They are quaint little towns, and I wish I could have lingered awhile to walk down the small main streets and take pictures and look in store windows. But it wasn't to be. That will have to wait for another time, perhaps this fall.

The trip yesterday was a pleasant excursion with three good friends, and we traveled upstate to visit a former co-worker who now lives in the country and commutes to work in a larger city. It was a great visit. A sunny, but hot summer day. I walked around the back of her house, stood under a sycamore tree to catch the shade, my gaze taking in a big soybean field that stretched off to woods in the distance.

We went to a nearby barbecue buffet, which happens to be my favorite restaurant, and talked about and laughed over all kinds of work stories and anecdotes, some more bizarre than funny, really.

I just love going to that restaurant and have for more than 20 years. I've even written about it before in this journal. The barbecue, fried chicken, potato salad and much more -- all just too good and delicious to describe in words. Eating there always stirs many memories of past visits with other friends, or going there by myself on solitary backroad ramblings.

Back at H's house, we had fresh squeezed lemonade and talked some more in her living room before beginning the 2 1/2 hour drive back to Charleston. More delightful farmland, old houses, towns and rural crossroads to see out the window, but which I always wish I would take the time to explore more closely. I will. I was tired when I got home and could barely stay awake last night. But it was worth every minute.

August 22, 2000

The first cool spell of the summer arrived yesterday, and the air and skies reminded me so much of autumn that I thought I was already in late September. The clouds were striated, with blue bands of sky. It was the kind day where I felt ambitious enough plan to drive to Caw Caw Park and walk the nature trails by the flooded former rice fields, but I get tied up doing other things and let it go for now. I will head out there soon enough and sit on the bench under the live oak trees and watch the moss blowing in the wind and marsh and sea birds soar overhead. Soon enough.
When I got home late yesterday afternoon, I went about my usual activities and then took a walk in the neighborhood, thinking about some people I've come to know and feeling like I could walk long and far into that suburban wilderness that I know so well and yet where I still feel like an interloper, the merest visitor passing through.

However, the streets are tree-filled and peaceful, the mailboxes all have little flower beds around them, and the shade and shadows are deep and long. For better or worse, it has become the "terrain of my heart" for the past five years, and I would feel quite disoriented for awhile should I move elsewhere. Which is a real possibility, given enough motivation and desire for change and the will to pack up countless boxes of books and throw away a lot of the detritus of five years of endless collecting, storing away, shelving and stacking. I surround myself with the physical reminders of where I've been, what I've read, and what I've only casually and briefly savored.

August 20, 2000

Every night for the past three nights I've been staying out on the beach past dark. I carry a flashlight to guide me back to the house. It is something I've never done in all the years I have been coming to Folly Beach. I like it. And yet I don't. It's a rather strange sensation to be surrounded by darkness on a beach you associate with sunshine and light, even the waning late afternoon light I'm so accustomed to. It seems like an altogether different place.

Last night as I sat and looked out at the ocean, I could see the white foam of the waves breaking on shore, but nothing else except the outlines of the beach and a few lights on shrimp boats way off in the distance.

Then occasionally, I would look to my right or left and see a lone figure approaching and then passing in back of my chair. A dark shadow in the dark. Ghostly. This happened a couple of times. They carried no light with them. I don't see how they saw where they were going. I think if one of them had by any chance, or for whatever reason, spoken tome, I would have jumped out of my chair. But they passed on by. Their solitary presence only heightened, for me, the sense that there are people who appeared even lonlier than even I on that windswept, dark and moonless beach in late August.

I was calm, though, for the most part and quite relaxed. I was apprehensive only when these lone figures passed by. But I wouldn't really say anxious. Just this slight uneasiness.

August 17, 2000

It's nearing the end of August and I can't but recall sometimes the worry and rituals of the start of a new school year. It seems so long ago now since I was in high school, worried about Trigonometry and P.E., and success and failure, how soon it would take me to adjust to the new routines, and who I'd have in my classes. I remember hoping I'd be spared some of the more obnoxious students we were unfortunate enough to have in our school. I was in the "college prep" track and had basically the same classmates virtually all through school. So I knew most of them as acquaintances, but hardly any as friends. I didn't really have any "friends" in high school. My classmates were generally upper middle class achievers whose parents had very nice homes in the suburbs. They got good grades and were planning to go to college. So there weren't too many rude awakenings each September. Not too much in the way of discipline problems or culture shocks. Now in some of the other tracks, well, I heard a lot of stories....

Our high school, however, was in an area of New Orleans very different from suburbia, and often it seemed like an alien place to me. (I'm listening to some Zydeco music now so I'm getting into the New Orleans and Cajun spirit once again, although this is not necessarily relevant to what I am writing here).

I disliked school very much, and the days seemed to last forever. But I was one of those conscientious middle-class students who came from a good family where the critical value of education was a given. There was no quesition of not succeeding in school. It was unthinkable.

Years later, I was worried about the start of the school year for a very different reason -- I was a beginning English teacher preparing to go in front of my first class. Oh, the ironies of life! I had certainly not planned on being a teacher, but it was always something I thought I might end up doing.

How I sweated the days leading up to that momentous event: meeting and introducing myself to my first classes of seventh and eighth graders. How would I motivate them? Discipline them? Would they get out of control? Would they read the short stories and novels I assigned? Would I be a good teacher? What did it mean to be a "good teacher?"

In working on my master's in education, I poured over one particular journal because it was THE professional magazine for literature and English teachers in the U.S. -- English Journal. I subscribed to it, and I tried to use teaching ideas from it. It was comforting to read about teachers who were struggling with some of the same concerns that I faced.

Sixteen years after leaving the classroom, I once again found myself the other day picking up a copy of that journal in the library and thumbing through the latest issue. I find that not that much has changed. It seems that one of the central concerns then as now was the old relevancy or readability versus the classics debate. The author of one article wrote that a major goal of the English teacher was to try to instill in students a love of reading, and if that meant bypassing the standard classics, so be it. He wrote of the many "reluctant readers" (an understatement of staggering porportions), "It's as if they can read the notes but can't hear the music. It's these students who find no pleasure in books, who have forgotten -- or never learned -- the pleasure and magic of reading. Hitting these kids over the head with Great Expectations, Les Miserables, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn...or Silas Marner won't make them love reading or like it." It will, he wrote, convince them that books are their enemies.

Like I said, how times haven't changed.

August 13, 2000

Folly Beach, 7:15 pm

Every day, late in the afternoon, I'm drawn to the ocean. It has become as much a part of my routine as getting up in the morning and having breakfast. The days seem to want to end with the sound of the surf and cool sea breezes, which I'm enjoying now as I write.

Today is so different from yesterday. The waves were huge then: quick rising, curling fast, green, heavy-laden, thunderous -- continuous forward motion wave action and energy released from the ocean. The surfers loved it. When you have 7-foot waves at Folly beach, they are drawn here in great numbers to the fabled Washout where the waves are always bigger and taller than anywhere else in the area.
Cars lines both sides of the road for a half mile. The surfer youth and their sleek, sun-tanned bodies, surfboards by their sides, make us land-based and beach-bound observers somewhat envious. These dolphin-like teenage boys and college students are enjoying another "endless summer," lingering on their boards well past the last golden rays of the late sunsets we enjoy this time of year.

Those surfers -- they are young and healthy, free and alive. Laughing, talking, uninhibited. By comparison, I often feel old and tired, though I have time left to make what I will of the time that remains. They, of course, have a whole lifetime ahead of them, and they aren't even aware of it. Must be nice to be that young. I've forgotten what it's like because I sometimes think I never was young.

The other day I was watching people walk by on the beach. I was sitting in my chair with a book, as usual. I couldn't help but study an old couple, maybe late 70s or 80, walking barefoot in the sand where the water came up on the beach. I couldn't even imagine myself 30 years from now at that age. They had probably been married 50 years or more. Inseparable. As so often happens when I see much older people, I felt a mixture of sadness, respect, and resentment. Resentment that they seemed so happy and healthy, that they were beating time, something I may never be able to do.

Right in back of them, with that unmistakeably carefree and timeless gait of youth, walked two teenagers, lost in their conversation. They quickly passed the older couple and went on their way, oblivious.

Time keeps flowing like a river, to the sea, to the sea.

Alan Parsons Project


8:15 pm

I just came back from a visit to a veritable kingdom in the sand, a carefully constructed series of fortifications, with turrets and drawbridges, outlying sentry posts, and a road to connect them all. The main village was surrounded by a wall ornamented with sea oat straws, and out of this the drawbridges were also built and packed with sand. The whole complex stretched out over the beach. It was empty and deserted by now, but seemingly high up enough to be spared the onslaught of the waves, retreating with the tide.


A full moon is beginning to glow over the ocean. It's a faint, orange color, but ready to burn white and incandescent as the day disappears into night in a few minutes.

August 10, 2000

I sat out on the beach as the tide was going out last night, long after it had gotten dark, but to my surprise, a three-quarter moon over the ocean in front of me illuminated the beach with a faint, silver light, but enough to make things quite visible on the beach and for me to see my way clearly along the path through the dunes to the house. As the night descended, I kept gazing up at the moon as it became brighter and as the surrounding sky became dark by degrees. Soon, I could see the light the moon was casting over the ocean.

It was a perfect evening, listening to the sounds of the surf and enjoying a nice seabreeze. It was steady and comforting, just right for drifting into a relaxed state of mind. I felt so relaxed, in fact, that I didn't want to leave, as usual. When that state of mind takes over, I lose my incentive to rejoin the world. I remained there long after everyone else had gone in.

It was a curious thing, too, for I found myself contemplating the wind that was blowing across the ocean to me, thinking about what it actually was, why I could feel it, and how it felt. I'd never quite thought about it in that way before, but it became a very real and tangible force, energy really, that I could feel. The great oceans, the warmth of the sun, and the earth spinning on its axis create these winds, mysterious and fascinating. It seems I am more in harmony with life when the wind is blowing. It makes me feel the presence of Nature and realize how alive the universe with this abundant energy that is invisible to me, but very real. I feel its constant presence..

August 7, 2000

I came across this quote from a writer who quit his magazine editor's job in New York City to move to New Orleans. I read it back in January, and printed it out and saved it, as I am wont to do with things I read that strike me as interesting and worth saving. And I quote part of it here because I have been thinking about New Orleans lately and trying to keep in touch with my memories of the place. It has been years since I was last there. It seems as if I am avoiding going there and dealing with both the past and present. And I'm not sure why. I have my reasons, but still, such a sentimental and nostalgic person as myself, keeping a wary distance from the place I was born and where I grew up and went to school? It puzzles and troubles me. I've never done this before. I think two years has been about the longest previously since I returned home. And I still can call it home because there is no denying the place you came from.

I do miss the steamy, verdant, decaying, crumbling, live oak bedecked "city that care forgot." It is a place so apart from the mainstream in so many ways, so unique and so different. But I am beginning to discover that my specific memories of it are becoming as jet vapor trails in sky, noticeable, but wispy and disappearing before my very eyes.

I've been walking around our neighborhood a lot, just wandering back and forth to the grocery store or taking the dog out for a stroll. There's no logic to the architectual styles. But you notice two things. One is that the houses are sort of built high, and often there's a big, massive, marvelous staircase of some sort leading up to a porch and a front door that might be three feet or even six feet off the gound. This, of course, is because it can flood here in a really serious way. The second thing you notice is that the yards, the steps, the porches, the areas in front of the house, are often just covered with plants in big pots, and statues, and chairs, and things. Just strewn allover, as if they were indoors and protected, as if nothing could ever threaten them, not man or nature. These yards and porches are often incredibly beautiful. And in their way, they seem to me a pretty convincing manifestation of pure denial.

Rob Walker

Those words capture something very deep and viseral for me about New Orleans. How many times during my walks in uptown neighborhoods near where I lived when I was staying at my brother's have I passed the exact same thing he is writing about. And I have noticed this precise thing countless times before. It is true. Those porches and yards are visual reminders of places where life has gone on for generations of families. For New Orleans is a city of many diverse neighborhoods, all wonderfully complex and worth observing as you walk. My first apartment was in just such a neighborhood. I fell under its aura immediately. From the first week I lived there, I felt attached to it. But it's been many years since I've driven down Wisteria Street in old Gentilly, though I think it probably has not changed at all. I would recognize every detail, as if I was returning from class at UNO 30 years later.

August 5, 2000

It was deep and low, cloudy-dark and thunder-rumbly all day, and the windy coolness told me of the impending end of summer as surely as anything I know. I also thought of the tropical storm season we're in, for that is what the day reminded me of, and at work it was announced by someone who likes to announce these types of things that the first, named tropical storm of the season had formed ominously way out in the Atlantic off Africa. And I braced myself and told this person that she never should have told me. I didn't want to know. And now, the aura of a carefree summer is gone. Destroyed by that sobering news, that horrible news, in fact. Everything about hurricanes is terrible, awful, stupendously so.

So I went by the house in Charleston and sat for a long and quiet hour under the ceiling fan on the porch, nearly falling asleep. Sophie and Ginger, the cats, slept nearby on the floor of the porch, totally indifferent to me or anyone else, as usual. But they are cute and they are photogenic.

And as the cool winds from nearby rain storms blew onto that spacious porch where I was rocking gently, I thought about New Orleans briefly, and I seem to be doing more of that these days. I keep thinking that with this new freedom I have from grad school I might just go there for a brief visit, and then I realize there's nothing for me there but a collection of good and bad memories. Most of them I'd rather forget. Sometimes I think there's someone to see there, and then I realize there's not, just some misshapen and foolish idea in my head. I don't have any friends there from when I grew up and went to school in that city. I could drive around and hope I felt nostalgic. But this is all speculation which will probably end up in indifference, apathy, and inaction. Maybe some other time.

August 4, 2000

Earlier this evening, I at last got out for a walk as night was falling and the heat of the day dissipating. Heading down the pleasant suburban streets I have come to know so well these past five years, I saw the familiar big oak trees, the trunk of one of them illuminated by a lamp in someone's front yard. I heard the cicadas in the near distance and made sure to look for all the little circular flower beds of zinnias surrounding mailboxes on the street. The air smelled good. A kind of late summer smell.

I thought how nice it was to be alone with the trees my sole source of company. I never feel lonely in the presence of trees. Not a single person passed by as I was walking, and for this I was grateful. When I am out walking I don't want to see another person. I don't want to have to think about smiling and waving and saying hello as our paths cross on opposite sides of the street. That's just the way I am. I'm not an unsocial person. I just like some time outside by myself since it is impossible to really get away from everything when you're in the city. Let me have the briefest of illusions that I am in the country, for if I lived far from this city, I envision myself taking daily walks down dirt roads in the still of many late afternoons. Here, I don't like the forced awkwardness that seeing others out walking makes me feel. Each in his or her own little world for awhile. Let it be so.

August 3, 2000

I can't remember how long ago, but a long time ago, I read something about meditation and truly focusing the mind and concentrating on the PRESENT moment -- the here and now and all the exquisite possibilities that could be derived from this attentiveness to the moment. And the example was rather mundane, but I have remembered it for some reason. Maybe because it was so prosaic and simple. The author said to take a raisin next time you are eating one, and simply keep it in your mouth for awhile and actually taste it for the first time. Linger over the experience. Hold it close. Savor it.

How very odd. A raisin? Something as unordinary as that? Well, it's true. It works, but we hardly ever take time to put into practice this simple lesson. At least I know I don't.

But I got to thinkng about it again the other day when I was home for lunch, had prepared a bowl of fruit and a frozen turkey divan dinner. All very good, but to be eaten as quickly as possible so that I could get back to the computer, do what I was doing, and still have enough time to get back to work at least approximately when I was supposed to be back.

You know, South Carolina produces some of the most delicious, sweetest peaches grown on the face of this earth, I do believe. The California ones are just flavorless mush by comparison. So that afternoon at home briefly, I had a bowl of those cut-up peaches, and I slowed down just enough from my frantic busyness to actually experience the exquisite delights of that sweet and perfectly ripe peach. I took in the essence of peach, and I thought for those few brief moments I was enjoying it that I had never tasted anything so wonderful.

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