Armchair Peregrinations

February 27, 2000

When you're out of work for months at a time and you don't have an illness or disability that prevents you from getting out, something as simple as a afternoon walk can make the difference between plunging deeper into depression on a day when there seems not much promise of a future, or getting on with life by being out among people. Just seeing that life goes on as normal is sometimes all I needed to feel some sense of hope and optimism. I could pretend that I was not facing, day after the day, the very perilous void of having no immediate prospects for employment and supporting myself.

I was reminded of this the other day when I ventured out from work during a break to walk a familiar route of six or seven blocks in an old and quite beautiful neighborhood of Charleston in the Wraggborough area. It was a beautiful late afternoon, and I didn't feel winter a bit. Spring was on the way, if not here already. The live oak trees, just like I remember in New Orleans on similar walks, were still holding on to the previous season's leaves in preparation for shedding them in March and April, as they do every year. Shortly after that, the new growth starts its subtle leafing out. On the sidewalk were last year's remaining live oak leaves, so distinctively small, crisp and hard, but so potent a reminder of New Orleans to me, a city that is filled with live oaks. They surrounded my house in suburban Algiers. They were everywhere.

So on this walk, I recalled similar walks I had taken from my brother's house on Laurel Street, only a few blocks from the Mississippi River, up Valmont and over to Pitt Street, thence left across Jefferson Avenue and down Octavia Street. I had to look this route up on a map because it's been ten years since I've walked it, but it was a daily uptown New Orleans routine for me, week after week, and month after month.

Sometimes I'd ride my bike over to Loyola and Tulane universities and enjoy being on the campus, visiting the bookstores, etc., and this also gave me a temporary lift, although the busy and preoccupied students and faculty contrasted with how little I had to do, and with the amount of time I had to leisurely walk and bike and read and think. As if I were retired or something, and I was only 38 years old.

It was absolutely essential for me to get out like this every day, even if the weather was less than congenial, for to stay in the house and look at classified job ads and try to find some kind of part-time job was very depressing. Nothing seemed to be working out for me. All I knew was that sooner or later, I would probably go back to South Carolina.

On those walks, as I headed toward St. Charles Avenue, I made a special effort to notice as many things as I could about my surroundings. In certain states of mind you tend to look at things differently. You don't take as much for granted. Ordinary objects and things you've seen a hundred times before have new meaning and depth, simple because you are aware of them, once again, and your surroundings have something to say to you as you pass by. But you can't say anything back. You are an observer. No one notices you. Your walk continues. It's like you were on a movie set watching the scenes being filmed, take after take, the same action, but a slightly different outcome.

I almost dreaded coming home sometimes because those walks were highlights of the day, focal points. I returned to an empty house, but I liked to time it so that it was near supper time and I could go about that comforting ritual of fixing something to eat, maybe turning on the TV for the first time that day.

The end of the day in those dismal times was a great relief. I could relax most completely then, for I could temporarily forget about the effort it took to feel that I was still a part of this throbbing world of busy, engaged people, and just curl up with a jbook, take a nap and watch the night descend, the crickets begin their song, and the neighborhood became a softer, easier place to be in the darkness and quiet of evening. Sanctuary, until I awoke at sunrise with the same mockingbird singing his song, and it once again dawned on me.

February 25, 2000

A lifeboat ran aground in a big storm in 1989 at Folly Beach, and a little spot by the side of the main highway, next to a vast marsh, has never been the same.

It was Hurricane Hugo that propelled the 20-foot boat from some unknown location, through marsh and tidal creeks, to a final resting place beside Folly Road. It survived somehow intact and became a symbol of sorts -- man's creation versus nature and the elements. That mighty storm couldn't do away with the little boat. No one knew who it belonged to, and no one claimed it.

And then, not long after the storm, someone began painting murals and community messages on the side of the boat facing the highway, and a tradition was born that continues to this day.

Groups of people come to the boat and paint over what was there with birthday and wedding greetings, various announcements and pronouncements, farewells, births, graduations and an assortment of other strange, even perhaps a bit cryptic, messages.

Every time I drive by that spot on the way to the beach, I, and I'm sure many others, quickly look to the right to see if there's a new message or mural spray painted on the side of the boat.

The other week the beach community was in a jam debating the merits of whether to leave one artist's work up for a while longer than usual. You see, a "real" artist had painted a beautiful scene on the boat and many worried about just how long it would remain on display.

Not too long, apparently, because that community bulletin board boat is a very democratic place, and there's no time limit for a work of art or a catchy jingle.

This beloved local tradition was about to be swept out to sea recently and was the subject of a front-page story in the paper. The state health department said the severe littering problem at the site, and the rather unfortunate habit of some people to leave their empty paint cans behind in the boat as if it was some kind of trash receptacle, endangered the marsh because of potential toxic waste polluting the fragile environment there. The boat would have to be removed.

But the bad news turned to good when a Folly Beach man offered to voluntarily maintain the site and clean it up. A large trash can was put in place, and the health department gave it's okay, for now.

I can't imagine that boat not being there. It would be like not seeing the Morris Island Lighthouse. It's amazing how comforting and familiar certain landmarks become. So, it was unthinkable that the boat would be lost to the carelessness and ignorance of a few people who've had others clean up behind them all their lives.

The boat remains. It's a part of Folly Beach. I hope it stays there a long time.


College of Charleston, 12:30 pm, Feb. 24:

It's a beautiful day that has all the markings of spring here at last in all its glory, except for the still-bare trees. I'm sitting at lunch hour in the garden in back of the College of Charleston student center writing. I haven't done this in awhile. But today, the sun feels so warm and good on my face. I can smell the aroma of hamburgers from the student center snack bar, reminding me that I haven't had any lunch yet. It's so good to sit here and relax a while while writing. There's a nice breeze. The skies are deep blue. It feels like mid-April instead of late February.

February 22, 2000

The past two days the skies have been particularly interesting. Interesting in that they are truly winter skies, unblemished aquarmarine blue stretching from horizon to horizon. I noticed this especially when I was driving back to Charleston along the country highway I always take to avoid the Interstate. The woods, the fields, the barns and houses seemed bathed in the warm and mellow late winter light that sharply defines everything under these skies. It has been cold, but not too cold, the kind of weather you really embrace and don't mind lingering in for awhile. It just feels right. I'm comfortable out in it.

This kind of sky and sunshine in February is good for me and my state of mind, for everything seems to be in right order. The landscape is illumined, and the shadows are more pronounced. I like to look into the woods alongside the road and see the trees and the forest floor and imagine I am walking deep into those woods, clear and unobstructed.

I don't know, the past few days have been made for enjoying, being outside, and appreciating the beauty of the world, in this season of winter austerity. I love the woods and trees at this time of year, for I know that they are on the cusp of change and that before long they will be transformed, subtly, and then spectacularly, by the arrival of spring, so close now I can feel it waiting behind the cold air.

February 20, 2000

Heart and soul

Blood courses through the body from the heart,
a pump that works so well for some
far into the last years of life,

What a thought to sear consciousness,
this miracle of a fleshly mechanism,
that I cannot bear to look at;
so imbued with the pulse of the body electric
and body spirit.
It shocks me that it exists at all,
with its rudimentary purpose and yet exquisite design.

This pivotal center of human life
and warmth and heat,
the essential portal through which
biological fact transmutes into mind,
not destiny
and becomes sustenance for my soul.


He presides over an empty space in his heart,
where, in lavish loneliness, he fashions
dreams of longing,
and doesn't dare contemplate
the dreadful end of youth
(although it has long since ended).
Youth, which is rendered harmless
and disfigured by time,
on the one hand, or
ennobled by it, on the other. It depends.
Time was nothing, really,
when I was young,
But now, older, (I think about it), and
I can't deny it any longer.

February 19, 2000

It was a very busy and tiring week. And, I was ready for the end of it yesterday afternoon. I sat at the desk in my cubicle around 4:30, a half hour to go, and I could barely keep my eyes open. I don't know why, but I jotted down some notes and started to write an entry. I didn't feel like doing anything else. Work was over for the week. Here's what I recorded on my notepad starting at 4:20, a little glimpse, with some trifling minutia, of my life on a workday Friday in February:

My desk is cluttered and things keep piling up. Before me are an empty juice carton and Pepsi can, a newspaper waiting to be indexed, a scene of an autumn waterfall, and a bag of toasted soy nuts. I am listening to a CD I just bought a couple of days ago, "Native Tapestry," by Carlos Nakai and James DeMars. I'm about to fall asleep. The music is very relaxing, and I usually listen to something while I am doing a relatively mindless task like indexing the paper. I could to it in my sleep I've done it so long

I am also looking at the grad school and professional reading I must do soon -- an article on constructing a thesaurus, and the special Millennium issue of Searcher Magazine (the magazine of database professionals, it calls itself).

I'm too tired and worn out from a busy and hectic week to do much. I want to go home and fall asleep on the bed as soon as I get in the door and put down my stuff. But I'll probably eat some supper and sit at the computer awhile.

But there is no rest, for tomorrow morning I have to get up at 5 and throw my things together for the 2-hour trip to Columbia for an all-day on-site for my grad class. At least I'll be able to travel down my favorite country highway and then I'll have some time later in the afternoon to explore around Columbia a bit. But it will be very difficult gaining momentum and enthusiasm tomorrow morning, a Saturday, when I'll want to stay in bed more than anything else.

February 17, 2000

I didn't get in from work until about 8 last night. I got off later than usual because I ended up talking about search engines with two co-workers. I hadn't planned to, and I really do try to get away from that place as soon as I can.

I then made my usual trip the house in Charleston to visit my mother and her two cats. It's become a kind of ritual, those visits, everyday after work. I talk a bit and catch up on her day, watch whatever's on TV for a few minutes, observe the peaceful expressions of Sophie and Ginger, usually curled up on the most indescribably comfortable looking positions, fast asleep as cats are wont to do much of the day, it seems. Those mysterious cats don't pay too much attention to me, but I am very fond of them anyway. They really are fascinating with their strange little feline ways.

I then went out on the porch to my favorite rocking chair where I always like to sit awhile and pick up on the sounds of the neighborhood in late afternoon or early evening. The trees are still quite bare, of course, but I can begin to detect the first indications that the leaves are getting ready to come out. It's very subtle on these days in late February, and sometimes I think it's just my imagination, but I believe the trees are starting to come to life after their winter sleep. Rocking out on the porch always gives me a chance to unwind and relax, oftentimes for the first time that whole day. Just 10 or 15 minutes out there, and what a difference it makes.

After leaving, I went out to the West Ashley area to get my hair cut and buy a couple of things at Barnes & Noble and Office Depot. By the time I got in, fixed something to eat, and checked e-mail and various sites on the Internet, I was feeling tired. Next to the computer on the stand where I keep my papers, I have a picture clipped from a magazine of a bedroom in an old house in the country. Books and a pot of flowers are on one bedstand, an old metal fan and more books are on the other. The beams of the ceiling come down at an angle, as this is an attic or top-floor room, and against the wall on a shelf are old family portraits, from perhaps the early 1900s. There's a nice quilt at the foot of the bed, and a white cotton bedspread, the only kind I'd want if I could retire to such a room for the night. It's utterly tranquil and peaceful, everything about this picture, which I look at daily. As restful as it is, it doesn't always inspire me to turn off the computer and go to bed when the hour gets too late for my own good. But last night, I was so tired that I lay down on my bed for awhile, let the remaining tensions ease out of my body, and fell asleep to the music of Autumn Dreams by Danny Wright. Winter Dreams, I guess you could have also called it.

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