Armchair Peregrinations


December 30, 1999


Communication

Every day begins somewhat the same
in this waking dream called "the day begins:"
I eat my breakfast
read journals and news
in front of the computer,
quite content and oblivious
to all that is going on
in the world outside my window.

It's very quiet now
I don't want to go far
from where I am
mentally, at least
and do something different
such as read a book
in the living room and turn on the CD.

No, I want to be here
enveloped in the stable environment
of this room
wherein the computer?Internet
is nestled comfortably and contentedly,
and becomes the extension of me to the world
or the world's extension cord to me, at any rate.

Here, I can communicate
I can think my thoughts
and write my words
and see them zip off to someone/where else
and with anticipation
and hope continually renewed
hear back.

I'm a communication theorist's dream come true:
I send my messages through the feedback loops
with a minimum of interference
or cognitive dissonance, as they say
and I stay within the rational system of it all
At least that's what I think.
I'm pretty mild and nice, and rational and orderly, after all.
Not seeing you, not hearing you,
but communicating with you
through words which remind me of letters
in the old days
and essays in the form
of journal entries.
I can imagine many things
But I can't see the smile of understanding on your face
Or the furrowed brow of impatience
or silent criticism or disbelief.
Or the gentle forebearance, of you.

I am secure.
I am happily isolated.
I am hopeful
perhaps naive,
that one day, perhaps,
you will see the furrowed brow
the knowing smile
the all-out, sudden boisterous laugh
That points the way
to that mischievous and gleeful
child in me
that is still there, trust me.




Stars


When I look up into a cold
winter's night sky
and manage somehow to see past
the city's lighted interference
I can see a few dots of light
little circles of symbolic infinitude
that are called stars, a nice word.

I see them
But I am told that the light that reaches me
originated many eons before,
light years ago, they say
Whatever that means.
All I know is that the sky
is sprinkled with star/suns
both larger and smaller than our own
the astronomers tell us
and existing in such
prodigiously vast,
self-contained universes
of galaxies and constellations
as to defy comprehension.
But our learned scientists with their
ingenious Hubble
keep on sending us pictures
of a universe
we'll one day understand
But not now.

Each day, I go to work.
I follow the same path.
I do variations of the same
mental tricks
and sleight-of- mind.
I could go on and on.
Why, I sometimes think my daily life
Must be what it's like
to try to reach a distant star.
I feel as if I can go on like this forever.
Living my life, that is.
Since I don't want it to ever end,
(At least now that's the way I feel),
I must have some grasp
of what infinity is.
Could it be so?
Could it be that I already know the secrets of the universe?
That I am stardust
gathered into a soul who thinks and dreams
and loves, when he can.
Am I endowed with a concept of eternity
only because I can formulate the word?
It must have come from somewhere.
The thought behind that word.
And the word.
Oh, my.
I shouldn't be so optimistic.
But see,
that towering, cumulus cluster of pink/purple stars --
I'm there.


December 28, 1999

The beach is really special in winter. I was out there yesterday for only a short while because it was so cold with the wind off the ocean, but it was glorious. There were barely any waves, so it was calmer and quieter than normal. And, the winter beach was practically empty. I saw just a couple of other people as I looked up and down, a mile or so in either direction. No beachcombers. No one walking kind of idly, as I was. Just the usual jogger or two.

It seems like every time I'm out there on the beach, I have different feelings about the place. That's partly because of the mood I'm in, or the circumstances of my life at that moment, which are constantly changing. But also, the ocean and sky are always so different each time I'm there, plus I try to look at things differently, whether it's broken shells or the way the light reflects in tidal pools, or else the sand itself -- its patterns, shapes and textures. Something so seemingly ordinary. I like the way it's so fresh, clean, and firm after the tide has gone out and the beach itself is left glistening and wet.

Over at my brother's house, I watched the sunset over the marsh along with the advent of night, but I suddenly felt colder and more alone. Just two weeks ago, N__ was cooking a big pot of red beans with ham and asusage for us to eat, the inaugural meal in his newly renovated beach house. There was a warm and cozy feeling -- mellow light and nice music and good smells coming from the kitchen. But yesterday, it took a while to get the house heated up. My stack of articles and magazines sat unread on a table. I just wanted to lie on the bed and think to myself about a lot of things, something I really don't take the time to do much anymore. My notebook also remained unopened as I could not write a journal entry.

I stayed there for about an hour, then got my stuff together and left. It was rather lonely actually. It's very different from being by yourself in the city. There are enough distractions to keep me busy, and I never feel too isolated in town.

But out on that beach, I realize now, it was just like it has been on so many occasions over the years -- there was only myself, the wind, the ocean and the far horizon beyond where ships enter and leave Charleston Harbor.

The solitary life at the beach...I'm not sure I could rejoice in that isolation for too long -- too many associations and too many memories from the past, a lot of them not too happy at all, tied up in that place.

But one day soon, I'll come out to that empty house and get comfortable with a book or magazine, put on some music, read, write some, and feel comfortable there alone -- as well as good about things in general, and good about myself. That's what I hope. Overcoming some obstacles first.


December 26, 1999

Sumter, S.C., Dec. 25, afternoon:

(This entry was written in the new leather-bound journal I was given this Christmas by my sister-in-law, and I am typing it now into my online journal. I write a lot of my entries in longhand first. I don't know. Something about doing it this way that I really like and don't want to lose touch with).


A cold Christmas day, as it should be this time of year. I'm glad, too, because I've just returned from a walk in the park. I was double-layered and warm with my head and ears covered. It's usually about 8 degrees colder here than in Charleston, so I really can feel winter, for sure. We don't get too much real winter weather in Charleston. But today, I could look up into the bare oak trees at that clear sky and breathe in the air, still quite frigid and bracing as of late this afternoon.

About 7 am, I stepped outside on the porch to take in the stillness of Christmas morning and stand there for just a short while and gaze at the three-quarter moon still brightly illuminated in the dawn sky.

I really love being in Sumter for Christmas. This small city in central South Carolina, where my mother grew up and went to school, holds many Christmas and vacation memories for me, as I've written about before. I always like to drive down Main Street and look at the Christmas decorations and reminisce about those childhood Christmases when I would go shopping on that once-bustling thoroughfare with its gift shops, department stores, 5 & 10 cent emporiums, Knight Bros. Office Supples where I'd occasionally find a book I liked, and the old drug stores with their soda fountains and distinctive smells and pressed tin ceilings. Today, all the main shopping activity is out at the mall. But a drive down Main Street recalls some of those deep memories from the past.

This coming January, the Historical Society is putting on a day of special events at the county museum to commemorate Sumter's Bicentennial. There's a lot of history here, and I love to read about it.

*****

For years I've taken walks in Memorial Park in Sumter, an old, tree-filled public space that is the archetype of what you would imagine a small-town municipal park to look like. I can picture the community band giving concerts there on late summer afternoons as people sat on the grass or in chairs and listened with pensive, faraway expressions on their faces as the heat gradually gave way to the softer and cooler moods of night.

In that park are two of the oldest trees in Sumter, great oaks that are 12-14 feet around at the base, but whose crowns were lost during Hurricane Hugo ten years ago. In the intervening years, however, the trees have branched out and rejuvenated at the stumps where the great limbs and branches were torn off in that terrible storm that brought 100 mile-per-hour winds 200 miles inland from the coast, up as far as Charlotte, N.C. Those two oaks, each about 150 years old, have held on despite the devastation wrought by the hurricane. The great, gnarly trunks are still there, and although only about a third of their former canopies remain, they are still splendid specimens to look at, particularly on a summer day when they are in full leaf and cast their still-abundant shade on sandy pathways winding through the park.

*****

I was startled to notice on my walk that an old, two-story Victorian house, abandoned for decades, was totally restored and renovated, its lot cleared of undergrowth. The large porches, extending along the entire front of the house on both floors, were once again clearly visible. This is the sort of house that seemed to be merging with the elements in its abandoned state. As long as I can remember, it stood there forlorn and rather scary looking, actually, a wild profusion of vines, creepers and undergrowth nearly obscuring the house and making it seem even more mysterious and strange, especially to a boy who long years ago tried to imagine if perhaps someone still lived htere. It looked like the kind of house Carson McCullers or some other Southern writer would describe in a novel or short story with a very Southern setting and atmosphere.

Today, it is a new house, the old ruin transformed. I'm happy, and yet sort of sad, too, for the character of that old neighborhood is now forever changed. No more impenetrable jungle hiding an abandoned house whose past was such a distant memory, and still is.

*****

As I continued my walk in the park, a teenage couple very much in love, or whatever else you want to call it, crossed my path headed for the swing sets and playground equipment, talking quietly to themselves and holding on to each other. What struck me as unusual, though, was the boy, or man -- he may have been 25 for all I know. It was about 36 degrees, quite cold, and he was wearing only a short-sleeved T-shirt, no coat or even a sweater. He was seemingly unfazed by the fact that it was Christmas and just a few degrees above freezing. You would have thought it was a spring day in May. I couldn't believe it. There was a brisk wind from the north, and I had on plenty of warm clothes, as I've already noted, including my best insulated jacket.

Was it just his youth, the warm and intoxicating inner heat of young love making him oblivious to his external circumstances? I don't have the answer to that, but I can guess.

As they walked past, I zipped my jacket tighter. My ears were cold. I was late December, after all.


December 22, 1999

It was 20 years ago almost to the week. I was in New Orleans for Christmas, and I had my camera and for some reason there was this creative urge to take pictures, black and white, and record and document certain places in that city where I grew up.

I went to the French Quarter and photographed a number of street scenes of people in and around Jackson Square, including an accordian player with an audience across from Cafe DuMonde. It was the fall and winter after my recovery from the depression I suffered earlier that year. And, having been granted what to me at the time was definitely a new life and a new start, I wanted to revisit many places in New Orleans and photograph some of them. I was, in a sense, seeing it with new eyes, as familiar as everything was to me on the surface.

Looking back now from the perspective of two decades, it's difficult to explain this metamorphosis that I have alluded to in other entries. I was both sad and wistful that Christmas, but also very happy and excited about life. I was still young after all, at age 28, and still had my future before me. I had been back to New Orleans a few times in the preceding five or six years, but this time I felt especially drawn to the place, an attraction so strong I was, and still am, unable to account for it's magnitude.

As I walked down St. Charles Avenue across from Tulane University, I remember crossing over the streetcar tracks and entering Audubon Park, and walking down the bike path and trail by one of the lagoons where ducks congregate and people navigate little peddle boats up and down as if they were on a small lake or something. But I have an enduring image of photographing the great live oak trees there, many of them hundreds of years old, that populate that grand old park, which was the site of a former plantation and of the cotton exposition and fair alongside the Mississippi at the turn of the century.

Those trees are as much a part of New Orleans as anything living or manmade. They line every major thoroughfare, and they provide the dense, green canopy in City Park, on the opposite side of the city from Audubon Park. They were the trees I always remember from my childhood, with their profusion of acorns falling to the ground during certain years, and leaves which shed in early spring and required much raking and gathering in piles to be put out on the street to be picked up. That was a ritual every year at my house in Algiers. We had live oaks in our back yard and throughout the neighborhood. That was "our" tree in New Orleans, those live oaks. While they are often take for granted, no one can even imagine New Orleans without them.

I took a picture one day in Audbubon Park during that Christmas visit of a man lying on the ground with his face in his arms underneath one of the park's big oak trees. He is not too noticeable in the picture. The picture was not about him, but he was in it. I don't know why I took it, but it was kind of a sad picture because when I look at it now, I see this lone figure sleeping on the ground and realize he was not part of a nice Sunday afternoon picnic out there or a student at one of the nearby universities, but in all likelihood one of the homeless men who used to migrate to the park from downtown. So, there was this moody picture of a late afternoon sun coming through the trees on what was probably a mild, late December day right after Christmas. The trees in the photo frame the lagoon and, like I said, have a rather ambivalent effect on me when I look at it. I like the pictures I took in the park and enlarged and printed myself in a darkroom back in Columbia, but I also see in them something of my past that haunts me. Loneliness. Isolation. I experienced a lot of that when I was growing up.

Not long ago, I bought a small book of photographs which includes some of those same live oaks in New Orleans and in other parts of south Louisiana. It's called "Heartwood: Meditations on Southern Oaks." It is a wonderful and evocative little book and takes me back to my home state every time I look at it. In particular, it reminds me of New Orleans and the one feature of that city I'll always associate with it -- those ubiquitous live oaks. In the book are several pictures of those trees on some of the strange, foggy days we used to have in New Orleans on mild winter mornings. In some of the best photographs in the collection, William Guion has captured with his camera scenes of the trees almost silhouetted against the fog. In other scenes, he has shafts of sunlight filtering through the trees and casting long shadows on the ground.

As I flip through the pages now, I feel that sense of longing to be back in New Orleans again, to re-establish contact after years away. I'm trying to imagine what it would be like. I think it will be a very pleasant and long-awaited experience filled with surprises and revelations. New Orleans is that kind of place. And the years have mellowed me a lot. Once again, I want to be there. And the past that I want to forget doesn't have the same claim on me anymore.


December 18, 1999

There was a rather large feature story in the paper recently that immediately drew my attention, mainly because what happened in the story could easily have happened to me a number of years ago. The story and how it related to me are of no great consequence or import, other than to say it provides an interesting and revealing insight into these times we live in. A little vignette of life, so to speak. It is, therefore, a story about our belongings and possesions ("stuff") and how we value or devalue them, storage of these belongings, auctions, greed, and our capitalist system at work.

You probably know people who are true packrats. They can't part with anything. I'm sort of this way. There are also times when people are moving and need a place to temporarily store furniture or belongings while they look for a new house or apartment. Or, you are at wits end, have quit a job, and have to move out of your apartment and head west to try to start all over again. You have to store your "stuff" somewhere.

That was me back in 1983. I had accumulated a fair amount of used furniture, boxes of books, papers, magazines, useless utensils and appliances, clothes, etc.

To assist in the quandary of what to do in situations such as the above, some business genius, about 20 or 25 years ago, got the ball moving on the idea of building concentrations of small storage spaces people could rent by the month. I don't remember any of these until the late 1970s when suddenly they started going up everywhere. Here was a way to make money charging rent with practically no upkeep or tenants to destroy the property. There wasnt' much to destroy anyway. Just storage sheds, basically..

In Charleston there are approximately 72 listings in the Yellow Pages for these mini-storage facilities, with an average of 400 units in each. They range in size from around 6x10 or smaller, to 10x30 feet, these largest units renting for a whopping $210 a month. Sixteen years ago, my unit in Columbia was a 10x10 and it went for $44 a month. No telling what they rent for today. At any rate, if you have to use one for a month or so, then there is some benefit and some good to come from it. But beyond that, it's a no-win situation. Imagine the profits to be made filling up these storage apartment complexes. Suffice it to say, they must be making a few people plenty rich, or there wouldn't be 72 of the facilities in Charleston.

Now it so happened that I had no choice but to get one of those units. I couldn't keep my things, accumulated over the previous ten years, anywhere else. They ended up filling the 10x10, which is a pretty good bit of space for storage, if you think about it. In there were these items, among others: all my vinyl record albums; boxes and boxes of books and magazines; a double bed with a really tacky, but comfortable, upholstered headboard; my first desk and hutch, purchased in 1979 for a great price at Unclaimed Freight; a rickety, round, glass-topped kitchen table with chairs, the table always tilting at about 10 degrees so that my dinner was forever in danger of sliding off the table; a really beat-up sofa and upholstered armchair purchased for $40 from one of my former employers; a nearly useless record player and assorted radios; and, saving the best for last, my beloved corduroy-covered rocker/ recliner chair that for four years provided me with a blissfully comfortable place to lean back and read or doze by the window in the bedroom of the apartment in Columbia I loved so much. It was unthinkable to even consider parting with that chair. (I have a similar one today that is every bit as comfortable, and I'll probably always have one).

All of these belongings of mine stayed in that storage unit for almost three years, I'm embarrassed to say, collecting dust and acquiring an odor of mothballs from the unit next door. During those years, I was living in Seattle, New Orleans, and Hattiesburg, Miss., purchasing a bed or piece of furniture here and there, or renting furnished apartments. I toted all my books with me, and never bought too many of them in those transient years anyway. Most of the books were in that storage unit in Columbia, for which I dutifully sent in a $44 check each month from whereever in the country I was living.

Finally, during Christmas 1986 when I was visiting in Sumter, I decided I had had enough and decided to do something with all that stuff. To my shock I discovered the management had apparently lost or not recorded my last rent payment, and my unit was double bolted to prevent my entering. I couldn't believe it. I had to sort out that mess, a very distasteful matter indeed considering how much money I had shoveled into those greedy entrepreneurs' hands over three years.

What made me remember all this, of course, was that article in the paper. And it was about something I didn't realize occurred, but which doesn't surprise me. If a unit gets two months behind in rent, the contents can be put up for auction and sold to the highest bidder, most often someone who goes around bidding for the contents and risking $50 or $100 or more in hopes of finding something of value he can sell later elswhere, or at flea markets. Often, only the front contents of the unit that are visible are all the bidders see. The piles of stuff are not inventoried or even opened. The joke among bidders is that there's always a large-screen TV or camcorder squirreled away somewhere among the piles of boxes. One time a motorcycle was found covered over with other items in a unit.

So, my whole ten years worth of belongings could have gone the way of the auction block those years ago if I hadn't decided to clear out the stuff when I did. They probably would have made some feeble attempt to contact me. That would have been really painful, losing everything in that unit, all due to some bookkeeping error.

I remember vividly the afternoon I went to that shed, opened it up, smelled the moth ball odor, and begin going through the boxes. I donated a lot of the books to the county library, some I kept for myself. Almost everything elese was carted away in a truck, including my recliner chair, by a two-man crew from the Salvation Army. I don't even think they do that anymore, but they did then. I remember them loading up all my records, my bed, desk, the unbelievably ugly combination framed landscape print and battery-powered clock. To this day I have no idea why I bought it.

I was sad, of course, but relieved, too. I just didn't want any of it anymore. I could start all over again and keep moving, free and light. Turns out my wandering ways would continue for some years after that, and it's only now that I have more than accumulated enough to fill two or three of those 10x10 units.

Occasionally, when I pass one of those storage facilities on Folly Road, I just happen to think about the dust and dirt and other matter on the floor, the moth ball smell that permeated everything, including my recliner chair, and I just hope I never have to store anything like that again, or for that long.


December 16, 1999

College of Charleston, 4:15 pm:

Why do I write? I write because at the edge of all my joy is the creeping agony that this will pass...I write because I am alone and move through the world alone. No one will know what has passed through me, and even more amazing, I don't know...Writing might be all that I have and that isn't enough. I can never get it all down, and besides, there are times when I have to step away from the table, notebooks, and turn to face my own life. Then there are times when it's only coming to the notebook that I truly do face my own life...

Natalie Goldberg, 1984



Why do I write? I told someone the other day that I write because sometimes that seems to be the only way I can express how I truly feel. It's not good enough to merely sit and ponder the mysteries of my life and existence and the lives of those around me. For one thing, they will continue to mystify me, but I should not be such a mystery to myself, should I? I should be able to attain higher and higher levels of self-knowlege and therefore maturity and wisdom, right?

Maybe I can't feel some things intensely anymore because the melancholic moods I used to endure, those "black dog" bouts of depression, are gone. But in that misery, paradoxically, I felt not numb, but the deepest and most shatteringly powerful negative emotions, the kind that cause your emotional state to go haywire in a downward spiral of loss, fear and paranoia. But you feel something. Oh, yes, you are so in touch with your feeling that you are locked in some kind of titanic struggle to escape them and yourself. How you *feel* dominates your life.

So now, by writing about the episodes of depression that were the defining moments of great personal trial and tribulation in my life, the great battles of and for my life, I hope to detoxify and demystify them, make them somehow less horrible by naming and describing the events and states of mind. I hope this will help me *feel* things as the words come out of my pen, as now, and appear in the notebook I'm writing in.

I am trying to convince myself that I am not estranged from strong emotion, and that by writing this now, I will remember things from my past that I can at least hint at and acknowledge, if not fully describe. I can believe that feeling and emotion are merely waiting beneath the surface to come forth once again.

What better place to write this than the garden in back of the Student Center at the College of Charleston, a temporary refuge on this cool and partly cloudy late afternoon just a week before Christmas. There's not another person anywhere around. The pecan and sycamore trees are barren now. A squirrel is chattering away on a tree branch. It's actually rather cold, but I don't notice it too much because of the warm jacket I have on. Still, I have a dull headache and I am wishing there was someone in front of me, looking right at me as I talk, at just this moment. Someone who has experienced depression, someone I can confide in, face-to-face, and who knows, or at least, has a real idea of what I am talking about, how I was forever changed by those terrifying episodes and how they caused me to withdraw deep into myself and retreat from others. I worry about what the anti-depressant drugs have done to me, besides lifting the depression. Only people who've been through it can know.

Someone wrote to me recently saying that he wrote for himself and that this was as it should be, and yet, he was starting an online journal. So, it's no longer enough to merely write for himself alone. He is hoping the writing, the story of his life and struggles, will speak directly to someone else, and it does, quite powerfully and unforgettably. I find myself hanging on every word, and I don't say that often.

For me, I can honestly say I don't know whether I'm writing this more for myself or the people who read it. Enough people read my journal to keep me going with it, to instill a sense of obligation to them for being so faithful, interested, and concerned. I value that very highly. I am motivated to keep doing something I should have been doing in paper journals all along, instead of every few months or years, or otherwise just sporadically.

Writing makes me think in a more disciplined way and yields something tangible as a result of the mere act of writing. Words sit in some kind of semi-permanence, at least, on paper or on a screen that can be read by others, or re-read by me later.

Whenever I'd write my sporadic journal entries over the past 30 years, I seemed to do so only on impulse or whim, or in such a state of dejection and confusion that I *had* to write something, anything. Now I am in the habit or discipline of writing several times a week in this journal and having others read it has made the difference.

But I'm not sure how writing this has made me feel.



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