Armchair Peregrinations

December 29, 2000

Without stirring abroad
One can know the whole world;
Without looking out of the window
One can see the way of heaven.
The further one goes
The less one knows.
Therefore the sage knows without having to stir,
Identifies without having to see,
Accomplishes without having to act.

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

It is very cold again tonight. Night after night. Day after day. Is this Charleston? It seems I am in some different clime altogether from the one I am used to. It is warm inside where I write this, but I think I will go outside in a little bit to breathe in that cold air. Down to 27 tonight. 24 tomorrow night.

I am now listening to "Water Nursery." Very tranquil music. All is still. The city has disappeared from my consciousness, and only this room and the music and the tapping of the keys on the keyboard are present to me now, and the ephemeral thoughts which wander in and out of my mind concerning what I am writing. Those thoughts are barely present because I have been trying off and on for days to comprehend the Taoist saying I quoted above. I have been reading two books of Taoism, and I am beginning see into some of the wisdom and mystery of the words, but just a tiny glimmer of light appears. It is always this way.

I think as I get older, I have acquired more facts and knowledge, but I know less and less, as Lao Tzu seems to be saying. It seems that the more voracious my appettite for knowledge, the more inquisitive I am, the less willing I am to put in the necessary effort to really know what it is I am seeking to know. The danger in this is having merely passing familiarity with the world of ideas, people, and events.

I have my books. What good does it do if I am incessantly acquiring more with only the intent to read them in the future? What if I owned only two or five books? Would I then, by reading those carefully, know more than I could by imagining what is in my entire personal library of hundreds of books?

So I put off the hard questions, the difficult reading. Instead I want to write, and I want to glance at magazines and lean back in my chair and listen to music. What can I learn from doing this? I seldom talk to anyone about anything of great substance or depth. Do I need to do that? I want to, but those are only words spoken to another person. Are they, like most of my thoughts, lost also? Passing knowledge. Where is the wisdom I want to acquire?

It is perfectly quiet except for the music I am listening to: "Walking in the Air," from the George Winston CD "Forest." Is it perhaps true that I need nothing more than what I have at this moment? That I can travel a road deep within myself, get lost there, and only then find my way to God? Or, only out of myself and the self-centered world I inhabit because I live alone? I am asking, really, whether what I know now is what I have known all along. Is it sufficient? I haven't exactly been asleep. But I haven't been fully awake, either. Not very awake at all, actually.

December 26, 2000

I spent a quiet Christmas in Sumter, that town in central South Carolina that holds so many, if not most, of my childhood holiday memories. Now, so many years later, vestiges of the old days linger, especially when we drive down Main Street to see the stores we once shopped in until the last minute on the day before Christmas. Now, it's all gone, those department stores and 5&10 emporiums -- all vanished with the coming of the mall. But at least we can see the store fronts, the buildings where they were once located.

Those happy times spent walking up and down Main Street, in and out of one store after another, seem like very distant history now. But the other night, we relived just a bit of it after seeing the lights at Swan Lake Gardens. Slowly, we drove up Main Stree toward the overpass above the railroad tracks that was our first glimse of downtown when we were at the end of the long drive from New Orleans. We sleepy children would stir from our slumber in the back seat of my parents' '56 Chevy Bel-Air, and a huge sign, lit up at night, would greet us: "Welcome to Sumter, the Gamecock City." I'llnever forget it.

As is traditional now, I took my walks around Memorial Park, bundled up good in the cold weather, which decidedly felt like Christmas. I looked at the 100-year old oak trees in the park, now bare of leaves, but whose branches are growing fuller each year, 10 years after Hurricane Hugo tore out the tops of all of them. A huge tulip poplar is as graceful and unscathed as ever. Magnolias and camellias line the sandy path.

On one outing to the park, I walked over one block to see my favorite old house, the one I have admired and enjoyed looking at for 27 years now. It is the house that I would buy if I could. I imagine it as my dream house -- two stories, large porch for rocking chairs, big trees in the yard -- I love to pass the house and imagine how things might have been. If...

December 23, 2000

Going up the hill through Stow's young oak woodland, I listen to the sharp, dry rustle of the withered oak leaves. This is the voice of the wood now. It would be comparatively still and more dreary here in other respects, if it were not for those leaves that hold on. It sounds like the roar of the sea, and is enlivening and inspiriting like that, suggesting how all the land is sea-coast to the aerial ocean...The earth is our ship, and this is the sound of the wind in her rigging as we sail...

Henry David Thoreau,
Journals, January 2, 1859

Thoreau always has such wonderfully resonating words for me when I pick up a book with his wisdom contained within. This quotation came from one of my favorites books, "In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World," with photographs by Eliot Porter.

I know exactly what he is talking about. Outside my window is the oak tree that has become a companion to me over the past few years. Most all the other trees in the surrounding area -- the oaks and sweetgums, pear trees and dogwoods -- have shed all their leaves and are bare for the winter duration. But that oak I am looking at as I write is still cloaked in its autumn-colored leaves.

Strong, cold winds that have raced south to us this past week have rustled the leaves of this oak mightily, but they have held on, and they will continue to do so. The oak is a sturdy and durable tree, the tree I love most of all tree species. We have live oaks, willow oaks and white oaks in Charleston, and the one outside my window is a tall white oak. On how many occasions has one this tree comforted me with its presence. It is stirring slightly in a gentle breeze now.

Before long it will be bare, too, and I will greatly miss its sweet, rustling sound. But in spring, it will wear a new garment of first pastel, then dark green, and I will happily welcome it back.

My wishes to all of you for peace and happiness this Christmas!

December 20, 2000

Last night was very special. It is frigid here, and we were all gathered around a fire in the living room, where the flames flickered and danced as the log burned. It was so relaxing to look at. Music of Chopin filled the air, and we just sat back in our chairs dreamily watching the fire and casting glances at each other every now and then to see the smiles of contentment. It really was a perfect evening in winter right before Christmas.

At one point my brother announced that he saw a group of carolers coming in the front yard and past the garden gate where they stood outside our porch in that cold air and sang the most beautiful Christmas carols as we all gathered to listen. My niece and nephew, my mother, sister and myself. The carolers were from a neighbor's church, and she was there with the other young people, waving at us as she sang. I really can't describe how I felt. A wave of emotion came over me, very rare indeed, and I was almost in tears. It was such nice thing for them to do. It revealed the true spirit of the season. How simply can I say it?

A short while later, another neighbor and her daughter appeared with a large basket of fruit. They came in and visited for awhile, and then afterward, as the fire burned down, and the last of the CD played, I almost felt asleep on the sofa, but too many thoughts and emotions were playing across my mind for that to happen.

I left about 10 pm, walked out into the cold air, and headed back to my apartment, cozy also, but as usual empty except for what life and energy I could bring to it.

Tonight, we had a supper of spaghetti and meatballs and again gathered in the living room before a nice fire. It was even colder than the night before. My niece read a book, my nephew was drawing a picture. My sister finished preparing Christmas gifts, and my mother just relaxed, a look of peace and happiness on her face. "Isn't it wonderful to have the children here," she said. I couldn't have agreed more.

December 18, 2000

I spent a very enjoyable and peaceful evening last night at the house in Charleston with my sister, mother, niece and nephew. The Christmas decorations were beautiful, and it was warm and cozy on a cold December night.

We watched "The Sound of Music," and my sister made popcorn and oatmeal cookies, very rich and buttery. It was just a very mellow, pleasant night. I was relaxed and savored the comfortable and familiar sounds, sights and smells. I remember lying on the sofa in the living room and wishing it wouldn't end.

It has been so good being with my family this Christmas season, although my sister and the children will be going back to Seattle later this week. I am thankful I am able to be with them this week. There are some good memories to hold on to.

December 16, 2000

Folly Beach, 3 p.m.

The winter beach is cool this afternoon, and I'm resting, reading and reflecting, snuggled up in a hooded parka and jacket, listening the the steady, rhythmic sounds of the waves. So peaceful.

The tide has been going out since I got here, and the ocean is fairly calm. There is not much wind. There are breaks in the clouds, but the sun is mostly obscured. Still, it is enough to let in a considerable amount of hazy light.

The beach is pleasantly empty, for the most part. A few people are walking their dogs, jogging or looking for shells. It is conducive to solitude and letting your thoughts drift off.

I'm reading a book, "The Last Prarie: A Sandhills Journal," about that vast 200-mile wide prairie of grassy hills in the middle of Nebraska that I made two memorable visits to in the 1980s. The author writes,"The road winds past abandoned farmhouses with tumbleweeds stacked three-deep on their front porches, over sparsely vegetated knolls where curlews and horned larks scatter in the wind, and down into luxuriant valleys flected with shallow lakes and ponds... As the high cirrus clouds drift slowly eastward and Swainson's hawks circle overhead, the sky stretches out and the hills roll away toward infinity..."

Looking back many years to my travels there in the spring of 1984, I remember well that all-encompassing emptiness of prairie and sky and the stillness and stark beauty of isolated lakes and wetlands.

This afternoon, half a continent to the east, the sun is shining stronger now, and the angle of the rays is such that they reflect as silvery ripples of light, continually forming and disappearing. There is some haze and fog in the distance over the ocean, but to the south it is clear, and the sunlight on the waves continues to sparkle and illuminate the surf far down the beach. It is a cheering sight to behold after days of overcast. And, there is warmth in the glorious sunshine which I feel in between puffs of cool sea breeze. It is December, but the beeach is as lovely a place to be now as at any other time of the year.

December 15, 2000

It is amazing how quickly fall subsides into winter. The other day I was walking over to get my mail, and I looked down and saw that the pear trees were suddenly devoid of the richly-colored, red leaves they wore just the previous day. At my feet, was a carpet of those lustrous leaves. Yesterday, they were fading away on the ground, and the tree was almost completely bare. But when I drove by last night, it was lit up with encircling strings of white Christmas lights, as it is every year. Beautiful.


This morning I woke and heard a bird sing briefly, just enough to make me smile. Later, I heard geese honking in the near distance. Just for a few minutes. It is silent now. There up blizzards forecast up north, and the winged creatures are fleeing, those that haven't already done so.

It's been gray and cloudy for days now, very unusual for Charleston. I am ready for the dreary skies to be dispelled by the warmth and friendliness of sunshine, which cannot come our way soon enough.

December 14, 2000

I took my brother out to a Chinese restaurant last night for his birthday. It was nice to be together. On occasions like that we always end up talking about New Orleans, and last night we reminisced about his wonderful dog, Boomer, who died about 10 years ago.

That was one smart, unforgettable street mutt. He had a sharp, inquisitive face, full of the richest expressions and nuances of feeling and knowing. That dog knew a lot. He had a bad tendency to run away for days at atime and we were worried sick about him, but he always came home, sometimes injured and hurt. I would take him for long walks around the neighborhood in the vicinity of Louisiana Ave. and Magazine street, and how he loved those walks, straining at the leash in his excitement, seeming to have the world ahead of him to explore, to know. He could pull out all the tops with his charm to get you to take him for a walk.

That dog was full of life, an exuberant, smart, great dog. He was affectionate and loyal. You couldn't help love ole Boomer. I miss him whenever I think about. I'm glad there's a picture of him looking up at me that I still have. Memories.

December 12, 2000

Today at lunch I took a long-needed walk to the garden in back of the student center at the college, my inner-city sanctuary, my enclosed fortress and safe haven. How wonderful it was to sit in mild December sunshine beside the goldfish pond with water cascading gently over steps that makes it sound exactly like a little stream flowing over rocks in the woods.

I had a bit of lunch, read the newspaper, and glanced about taking in the familiar and always comforting sights and sounds of this very special place. I was the only one there until a mother and her young son, about 2, I guess, came by to look at the goldfish. What a look of intense interest on the face of that child. They were still exploring together and looking into the waters of the pond when I left.

The wind would pick up every now and then, there was occasional birdsong, and, as always, I could hear the sounds of scurrying squirrels darting from limb to limb. One fell flat on the ground with a kind of slapping sound. They are quite funny at times, these industrious and ubiquitous creatures. I enjoy them.

The sky was blue, washed clear of the dark, gray clouds that were with us for several days. The clearing weather and walk did wonders. I was so happy to be out and enjoying this really pleasant day. Temps were in the low 60s.

The college is just about deserted as exams and the fall semester are about concluded. Over the Christmas break it will be quite empty. But the students will be back in mid-January, and life will return to normal downtown. They fill the area with their energy and youth. And besides, when I'm down there I recall some pleasant memories of my own college days.

December 11, 2000

I am looking at three winter scenes on the wall calendars in my bedroom. They are very comforting and peaceful. I have needed that lately. I need to look into those others worlds. I need their serenity.

One scene shows a house decorated for winter, with a Christmas tree visible in one window and warm, golden light coming out of the others. Three snowmen greet a visitor to the cleared path that leads to the front door. All the snowmen are bundled up in scarves and hats. They have coal for eyes and carrots for noses. Like every good snowman. Their arms are extended in greeting and they have mittens on each hand. They have big, happy snowmen smiles, just like I remember.

Another calendar shows a house from the side, windows lit up, deep snow on the ground dusting spruce and fir trees, and a full moon, with a round halo of light illumiating the foreground.

Finally, the last one I will mention is an absolutely beautiful photo of a snowy scene along the Sandy River at Enchanted Rock State Park in texas. I've been there, 13 years ago, and it is a mystical, enchanted place. The photograph is wonderful to look at. A feast for the eyes.

I am very tired now and will conclude this brief entry with good thoughts and peaceful, quiet winter scenes. Wall calendars let me visit others place all month as the seasons come and go.

December 8, 2000

Like water which can clearly mirror the sky and the trees only so long as its surface is undisturbed, the mind can only reflect the true image of the Self when it is tranquil and wholly relaxed.

Indra Devi

There are times when I am stopped in my tracks by a photograph of a landscape that is largely reflection. The photographer has come to a stream or lake on a perfectly still morning, and captures a mirror image of the trees that surround it on a little piece of plastic and chemicals called film. I like to think that when the photographer has been able to find and photograph such a perfect reflection, he has similarly found a place calm enough to allow his soul an extension through the camera.

When I go to Beidler Forest and see the barely percepible current in the swamp, I see nearly perfect, but slightly altered, images of the cypress and tupelo gum trees. I have one of those scenes of reflections in water in a photograph on my wall directly in front of me. It is a peaceful reminder of the one place where I know I will find a quietness and stillness that cannot found anywhere for miles surrounding the city where I live. There are planes overhead constantly, and interstates and trucks, and the general hum and energy of the city which extends for many miles. All this interferes with finding that deep quiet I seek, but seldom experience. Forty miles away at Four Holes Swamp, I look constantly at the reflections in the water, as if I were searching for something that didn't exist, and which, with the merest breeze dissolves into disorganized ripples, abstract shapes, and undecipherable patterns. Meanwhile, my mind is even calmer in the breeze and the clear vision of the reflections remain.

December 6, 2000

It has snowed, and the land is transformed into a purely white and quiet spectacle of night. Snow hangs heavy from the spruce trees as I make my way toward the house along a path cleared through drifts of the miraculous white stuff . A full moon shines through a thin layer of gauzy, star-speckled clouds. Lights burn sheets of gold into the window. I pass the picket fence and the gas lamp flinging shadows on the snow. I reach the porch and enter a warm house. The delighted cries of children sound through the house, as I drop my bags and let each jump into my arms. The door closes, the fire in the fireplace crackles, and the holly on the mantle looks as lustrously green as the day it was cut. I am home. And I am dreaming.

December 2, 2000

It stood in a little clearing made by its own claiming of light. It was disproportionately massive; like the oak of my childhood, it had somehow escaped th fate of its contemproaries. There were no branches for forty feet, and the trunk rose in a muscled twist, fluid winds graven in wood. All its branches spread above the forest ceiling, an intricate network that we could have seen from the house, had we known to look, the crown of a forest elder making a living link between this moment and the instant of the seeds sprouting, and proclaiming the simple and wondrous fact of endurance, of deep-rooted being.

From Home: Chronicle of a North Country Life
by Beth Powning

It is a cool, cloud and windy Saturday. The wind is whistling and making its unmistakeable noises in the eaves outside my apartment, or maybe it is in the cracks between the window panes -- I can never be sure. As I read the above passage in Beth Powning's book, I thought immediately of the great and massive white oak tree, the lone, large tree in the entire area of subdivisions and peacefully conquered land where I live, that is left to tell the story of the original forest that was here probably a couple of hundred years ago.

I don't see it very often because it is a ways off on a walk through suburbia outside my apartment complex enclave. It remains standing, miraculously, on a small uncut piece of woodland, maybe a couple of acres, that somehow endures and triumphs over the slavering real estate developers who would love nothing better than to clear that lot and build two or three more houses there. Someone, some mysterious tree benefactor, or prudent landowner, I don't know which, is holding out, not yielding to what must be enormous pressures to sell.

When I do walk out to that place, I round a bend on a pretty street, the prettiest in the whole area, as a matter of fact, and to my right, especailly in winter when the tree is bare of leaves, I can always spot it: a grand specimen of a tree, the kind of giant we can only dream existed in greater numbers in non-existent open spaces in our sprawling cities. Alas, our shortsighted precursors on this land in modern times, have been selfish stewards of the land. Uncaring of future generations who will not know what the forests of this area looked like.

In summer, fully cloaked in green, it is more difficult to spot, but it is there, surrounded by its wooded brethren, keeping its secrets and holding on to its place in this overgrown corner of the world. I would think, as I walk by, that it senses my presence, so dear to me is that great tree.

December 1, 2000

Yesterday morning, hurrying to get to work, I stepped outside to a world tranformed suddenly into autumn light. The tree in front of me was a burnished, golden yellow, startling in its intensity. Next, I saw that the Bradford pear trees had reached their peak of fall flaming red, real red that takes the sunshine to heart when it's time to have their final, showy moments before the bare, stark reality of winter sets in.

I don't know what it was, but for some reason we were getting the season's color changes all at once, the color that most inland regions have long since seen pass by. I wanted to look all around as I drove to work and admire that sudden gift, savor those transcendent moments, because tomorrow, I felt sure, nothing would be as it was then. It would almost be gone, or at least I would not be able to imagine the finery and splendor I witnessed directly that morning of Nov. 30.

The day past became the parting shadow of autumn, and I did not miss it as it fled across the land with the short, hurrying hours of winter, now in ascendance.

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