Armchair Peregrinations

July 30, 2000

I was late leaving the apartment for the beach yesterday. In fact, I didn't get off with my themos cup of iced tea, book and notebook until about 8:15, and I knew it would be dark in 45 minutes. I took a flashlight with me and prepared to spend time on the beach after dark, alone with my thoughts.

There were still a lot of people out at dusk, right before it got dark. They were mostly vacationing families and their guests, some large groups who were walking noisily, all ages getting in every last bit of day on the beach they could. I can't blame them. But I wanted that stretch of beach to myself. There was only a narrow stretch of sand anyway because the tide was so high.

One group parked themselves not 10 feet from where I was sitting and just stood there, oblivious to me, of course, but I wasn't unaware of them. One of the kids had an illuminted football that glowed like an orange lamp on the beach. Bizarre. I had never seen one of those before. I tried to imagine what made it light up like that -- radiation?

When all the people left the beach immediately when it was finally dark, I lay back and had the wind and ocean to myself. Peace. Gradually, as the minutes passed after 9 pm and the last of the sunset disappeared, the stars began to shine and I looked up to see if I could find the Big and Little Dippers, of course. Such a sophisticated stargazer I am. But it was an awesome sight to look up in to that wide, immense sky from where I sat on the beach. Like being in an amphitheater with the whole of the horizon and sky for 180 degrees in front of me and just above my level gaze out over the ocean.

I remained fixed in that position for a while. The stars got brighter, but the deserted beach felt very lonely all of a sudden, and the wind not as warm and comforting. After about a half hour, I turned on my flashlight which illuminated the path through the dunes to my car. I will do it again the next chance I get, only I will stay longer and I will be better prepared.

July 29, 2000

The day before yesterday, I stayed out on the beach past dark, lulled into the most profound state of indifference to the world behind me across the dunes and over the marsh toward the lit-up subdivisions and city of Charleston. The evening descended after a beautiful sunset. The winds were cool and calming. Rhythmic with their gentle force. I said to myself that I really should bring a flashlight with me so that I can stay longer on the beach after dark and see what kinds of sensations that produces, for it is something I have never done. Maybe a short walk at night on the beach years ago, but never staying out there and just listening to the ocean on a moonless night, which is what we had Thursday.

Of course, I had to pause awhile from wandering down the beach earlier in the evening to inspect another sand castle. This one was different. The builders had constructed a square structure with feeble turrets. Their main efforts had gone into digging a deep moat in front of the castle to take in as much water from the advancing tide as possible before the whole front wall collapsed into the sea. But a curious thing: they built the sand castle as high up on the beach as they could in hopes the water would not come up that far. And, they succeeded, The tide went out, leaving their little fortress safe and dry. Until tomorrow. It is very unusual for people to be so cautious in contructing these ephemeral objects. Mostly, they are built right in harm's way, the laborers and the king defying the elements, daring the ocean to do its dirty work. The trick is to pack the walls tight enough to withstand the initial onslaughts. The inhabitants can then buy time to make their retreat. Or so I imagine.

July 27, 2000

Happiness is as a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

I have been thinking lately about how I am in pursuit of things I have wanted all my life and which I wonder if I will ever have. And, I am half distraught with longing and hope and imaginings and fantasies about these things I want (perhaps something as near and yet so far off as the closeness of another human being). And my desires and longings are frustrated and so I keep longing and hoping and it never comes to me, that which I think I want. And so I start all over again, and so on.

I wonder when I will just stop running after these things I cannot seem to possess, experience, and know, and instead let desire be emptied as liquid is from a vessel. Thoughts of the present and what I am doing now will concern me only. And I think I can imagine that if I do this, the agony of unfulfilled wants and presumed needs will go away, some lifelong sickness will at last heal, and I will get what I truly want and desire after all.

July 25, 2000

The rains have come, finally, for real this time, each day, afternoon and evening, thunderstorms and heavy rain have drenched the earth and finally begun to heal the wounds in the cracked, dry ground we saw for months. Now, the grass is lush and green, the frogs are all weepy-sentimenal and happy for these sudden flush times of wetness and joy. Other creatures, and life itself, embrace the rain and the wind that has driven it over our part of the earth. Welcome, rain. We are grateful.

For two consecutive nights at the beach recently I saw the harbingers of this change in the weather. The skies would get black around sunset and I'd watch lightning flash far off over the marsh. An astounding sight to see in the distance like that. Then, on the beach itself, the winds were extra strong, the surf rough, and the overall effect was quite atmospheric, stimulating, mood-changing. I sat out on the beach until it was literally dark, and the air was cool with rain in the air somewhere not far off.

And back at the house, I stood on the back deck and looked out over miles of marsh and could feel the dramatic change in temperature. It was the kind of night where you could sit out there and enjoy that stiff breeze and linger for hours. The marsh itself is particularly beautiful each year about this time when rains have come and they are a fresh green color which contrasts so vividly with the chocolate-brown pluff muds, teeming with tiny marine life. The muck seems to be primoridal -- the soup of life. The marsh is alive. It teems with its own fecundity -- although you can't see it, all that life that abounds there.

The dark and dense skies of late tell of rain and summer storms, a relief from the endless days of blue skies and drought.

July 21, 2000

Folly Beach
8 pm

I've just gotten comfortable in my chair on the beach. I came from the dock at the back of the house where I watched the sun inexorably settting, patches of blue and white lighting up as clouds passed, signfiying the last of the day's illumination. The salt marsh grasses are green and healthy-looking. The creek is shallow and meandering, pulled by tidal forces toward the inlet at the north end of the beach.

Now I'm listening to the ocean and watching the light in the clouds change perceptibly as I look up from time to time. Each moment that passes, the day is becoming slightly less visible than it was just moments before.

I like the way only the tips of the clouds I'm watching now are lit up, suffused with pinish-orange colors. The sky over the marsh in back of me is filled with these end-of-day clouds, and some of them are outlined in light, just around the edges, so you can see the clouds in perfect outline, almost like silhouettes. It is a beautiful sight to behold.

The steady salt air breezes are cool and calming after a day in the inland furnace where the old city of Charleston seemed to be doing its best to brave the heat wave.

I was in town for a short while this afternoon in that heat, and the strange thing is, I'm starting to take a more balanced view of it. Air-conditioning makes life comfortable here in summer, so I can step out in this July weather and really experience it, rather than just dread it and pretend it doesn't exist. (Of course, I don't have to be out in it for long periods of time, either).

So lately, I've been trying to go out and sample the heat, so to speak, feeling it, smelling the air, heavy with summer smells. And this helps me retrieve memories and feel those deep down summer sensations. This helped me the other day to remember just why summer has always seemed like such a carefree time in the past.

The heat is gone now, and I'm not even aware of it anymore. The sun is setting quickly, and the sky is utterly different than it was only 10 minutes ago. Evening is descending. I'll be out here just a little while longer. It is very difficult to leave as always, and I think maybe I should just stay out after dark some time with my flashlight to guide me back over the dunes on a moonless night.

July 19, 2000

Yesterday, I had that strange sensation I get every now and then when I'm coming home from work, and for some reason, it's usually when I'm leaving a day on the job. I was driving down George Street toward the College of Charleston, and it was about 7 pm, the day winding down, the light lower, a hazy, gauzy look about the air and my surroundings. And I thought, once again, "I've always been doing this, going this same route, making the same turns, feeling tired and slightly numb, the same way each time, and I will be doing this for the foreseeable future with no changes likely."

At least that's the way it seems. This, despite the fact, that I may be in for big job changes before long, I may be buying a house and moving -- all kinds of things are pending, hanging in the air, waiting for the march of time and events to nudge them into being and reality. But meantime, I'm going through the same daily motions as I have for several years now, as if nothing big or momentous hangs over the horizon, and the strange thing is that I really don't want any of this to change. It's become all-too-familiar and comfortable. But what I'm really afraid of, I guess, is that the outward circumstances and environment will change without accompanying changes interiorly -- that I will continue to drift spirtitually until I find an anchor, until I stop and shake myself loose and do what I know I have to do. In the meantime, there's rationalizing, muttering about fate and destiny, the "unchanging" way things are, and how they got to be this way, and of course, "why I am the way I am." But something has to change, and it's not going to depend on a new job and a move from the place I now know I must leave, sooner or later. And soon is what I'm thinking now. As settled as I am here, in this apartment, looing out over the adjacent roofs to the tall oak tree, in this place which is the longest I've ever been in one place since I was a teenager living at home in New Orleans.

This is the way I feel this morning. I don't know how I'll feel a month from now, but I know that things are already changing, and recent events have done a lot to make me see things differently. Jarringly, and not gentle. It's been one thing after another. Is someone telling me something?

July 17, 2000

There are just a few places I know of where you can see 100-150 year-old oak trees of many varieties, and that is The Horseshoe on the University of South Carolina campus. I was there Saturday, revisiting a place I have been coming to since I first arrived in Columbia in 1973. I sat on a bench and savored a not-too-hot, summer-perfect July day. All around me were huge pin oaks, live oaks, water and white oaks -- in a beautiful, open, park-like setting. It was quiet. There were only a few people around. The clouds and sky were beautiful, as they tend to be some mid-summer days when the air is clear.

I watched the comings and goings for a little while, content to linger on, but a restlessness to be off to my next destination took hold, and I left. But every time I'm there, I look around and marvel at the old trees, and realize how much we've lost in our cities and elsewhere by not sparing and saving green spaces with trees, and allowing them to reach full maturity so that new generations can behold those wonders of Nature and creation.

July 16, 2000

I was reading the Sunday paper in Sumter this morning, and I came across an article about a beach community in the Charleston area that made me splutter in disbelief. It only confirmed my feelings about a class of the wealthy for whom more and bigger is always better, and now, it seems, necessary, to maintain their current levels of prosperity and lifestyles.

I am referring, in particular, to people who get rich on real estate speculation and ownership of rental property. Our beaches attract a lot of tourists and vacationers, and it once was the norm that modest beach houses with two or three bedrooms were rented to vacationing families -- you know, mom, dad, a couple of kids, maybe another relative or two. But in 1989, after Hurricane Hugo destroyed many houses on Sullivan's Island, and on Folly Beach as well, greed set in. In many cases, insurance money paid for replacement houses that were two and three times the size of the previous ones, many of them with 5-10 bedrooms, becoming in effect, small inns and hotels when they were really zoned to be single occupancy houses.

All this new building and prosperity in Charleston over the past ten years resulted in higher beach property values so that lots on Sullivan's are going for $800,000 to $1.5 million, in some cases. A bit less, to be sure, on Folly Beach, but still grossly inflated by our "market will bear anything" economic system.

Naturally, according to the article, someone who purchases a half-acre lot for that amount is not going to build a little two-bedroom bungalow, so they build these ridiculous three and four-story monstrosities that hold entire extended families, their guests, and beyond. And these summer renters pay $8,000 per week to the owners, and this inspires other greedy types to do the same. And so, the entire character of Sullivan's, a community of 1,700, is in danger of being destroyed, and the town council wants to set limits on these rental houses. They may or may not succeed.

That many people in rented houses and you have noise and disurbances that ruin life for the residents of the island. Meanwhile, the owner/landlords rake in the money. Other hurricanes will come to this fragile coast, and the megahouses will be wiped away again, and our insurance premiums will all go up so other wealthy real estate speculators and assorted rich people will be able to rebuild bigger than before. The cycle continues until the beach community is utterly destroyed, and the place become another Myrtle Beach with 12-18 story condos and hordes of people.

I see it slowly happening at Folly Beach, too. Land is worth too much, and there are always people who have to have more of everything, and buy up more real estate, and on and on it goes. And there seems to be no stopping it.

Yes, I'm angry. It disgusts me when I think of having to pay more than half my monthly take-home pay in rent. That doesn't leave a lot left for the other necessities. Not much at all. Greed. It's all greed, and the rich sure can't take it with them, as they say.

July 13, 2000

One of the all-time best shows I ever watched on television was the PBS series "Nature," still running. I remember looking forward to Sunday nights when I lived in Mississippi years ago because at 8 pm that remarkable program, narrated by George Page, would come on and I'd be trasnported into literal realms of wonder in the natural world that no other show even approached as far as content and quality.

Page has one of those voices that you just never forget. Soothing, knowledgeable, articulate, engaged -- hearing him each Sunday night and seeing the fantastic nature footage on that show was like being on an island of civilization amid all the confusion and bad times I was going through.

I always remember, of course, and veteran Nature watchers will, too, that famous episode that follows the course of a year through the wet and dry seasons on plain in Africa. The wildlife have learned to time their migrations and wait for the inevitable coming of the rains when it looks like the earth is about to bake into a crust and the last drop of water left behind from the last monsoon-like floods disappears. The whole landscape is seared by the heat. Exhausted animals wait beside the last water holes, crowded into a watchful and anxious vigils. It seems as if life is being sucked out of the earth and everything must soon perish.

But at last, the skies darken on the horizon, the winds pick up, and the first heavy raindrops soak into the cracked soil. Soon, sheets of rain are covering the ground, and the earth is almost instanteously revived.

On a lesser scale, I've felt that way here in Charleston for the past few months, where our drought has been unending. Plants dying, grass gone. Rivers drying up. Endless sun and blue skies. No sign of rain. Until the past week. Last night it was almost like in that final scene of the Nature documentary just described. I looked out the window about 8 and the skies had gone from clear and hazy to black, amost purple. I heard thunder in the distance. About 15 minutes later, the rains started and they continued on like that for the next two hours, off and on, with thunder and lightning the whole time. I had such a feeling of hopefulness and relief. This was the best rain we've had in months. The drought cycle has been broken. For now, at least.

July 11, 2000

It's a strange thing, but it seems as if all I want to do late every afternoon, during the weekdays or on weekends, is go to the beach and sit by the ocean with a book and my thoughts. It's becoming quite habituating, this need and desire to be near the water and hear the surf and feel that seabreeze. Oh, how I love that word, "seabreeze." It conjures up thoughts of distant places, Atlantic tradewinds, travel, vacation, and ocean-going ships.

I remember as a kid driving to the farm in Sumter County on Highway 15 North, passing through typical rural countryside that was then so exotic to me, a cityboy from New Orleans. And we'd always pass this motel on the left, about 3 miles out of town and it was called "The Tradewinds Motel." Those were the days when family-owned motels dotted the roadsides, each a unique and individualistic creation. And then at Myrtle Beach farther up the coast, I recall visiting there as a youth and being fascinated by all the motels we'd pass along Ocean Boulevard, with names like Sand Castle, Seahorse, "Tradewinds", of course, Sand Dollar, Windjammer, etc. Why I remember these places so vividly, I don't know. It's just that from an early age I guess the lure of the sea has tugged at me, and I came back to New Orleans with such wonderful associations and memories..

I like to go, as I said in my last entry, about 7 in the evening when most of the vacationers are off the beach and there's that softer light and cooler mood that prevail as the sun starts setting. I like midday, too, on the beach, for that offers the true summer experience, being out in the blistering sun. But in my case, because of bad sunburn memories when I was young, it means sitting under a beach umbrella in the shade while everyone else seems content to bake and turn brown in the raw light/heat of that broiling July sun. It's funny, but sad, to occasionally see the novice with a pink/red back walking along down the beach, unconcerned that his indescretion will cost him dearly as he tries to sleep that night. Most people slather on the 15+ sunscreen and think that protects them, but it's a delusion. The sun is not something to fool around with. Although I have to say, I always enjoyed it when I was fashionably bronzed by the sun as a youth and returned from summer vacation to admiring comments. Of course, it's the opposite of healthy to look that way, but I don't know, there's something very appealing about it. It made me feel good and younger, even. Not that I seek after that or anything. But I have to say I didn't mind that, when traveling those long days and distances in years past cross country with my arm out the window, it got brown and tanned -- well, this was a sure sign that I was letting the wind blow in from the road and was not insulated in an air-conditioned car, windows rolled up. The road tan, I used to call it.

So, I want to go to the ocean because not only is there nowhere else to go beyond that beach, beyond the edge, so to speak, but I feel both freer and more burdened there, a strange sort of paradoxical feeling. Anxieties always seem to dissipate a bit out there in those seabreezes and salt-fresh air, but I also seem to think more deeply and feel the tug of a kind of needed sadness or wistfulness that comes over me as I sit alone in my chair with my book. After all, I have been doing this for as long as I can remember, in the exact same spot with precisely the same 180 degree view of ocean and beach. I'm talking since the mid 60s.

There are a lot of memories to call forth. And every time I'm out there, whether conscious of them or not, those memories are having their effect on me. Only a few times have I actually sat out there talking and sharing my thoughts with someone. Mostly, and exlusively, I reall, it's been an intensely private and solitary experience that I have occasionally written about in journals going back to my years in college, but which only now are coming to light as thoughts to be shared with others in cyberspace. Somehow, the loneliness I do feel out there is dispelled knowing I will be writing about it, or at least knowing there's the possibility that I will, and that someone will read what I have to say.

July 8, 2000

I drove out to Folly Beach after work yesterday (or, I should say, an hour and a half after work), leisurely taking my time because I like to get to the beach around 7 or 7:30 in the evening on these long summer days. I was mistaken in thinking my brother and sister-in-law and one of my cousins, who I see only every few years, and her husband and 18-month-old son, would be there waiting for me to show up so we could all go out on the beach or maybe out to eat again. (We all did this Wednesday night, the first night they were here from D.C.).

I was hoping to see them again before they left today, but the beach house was empty. All had apparently lost patience with me arriving in a timely manner, and had gone off to dinner and whatever else. (This is only conjecture. They may have not even thought I was coming at all)

This is quite typical. I wanted to be around people, and yet I didn't. I was secretly hoping they wouldn't be there, but I was planning for them to be there.

Well, I didn't know quite how to feel. I was mildly disappointed, but not too much (for the story of my relatives on my father's side is a long and strange one, and I can never be really comfortable around any of them). It's something I have to get over, but don't know when that'll ever be possible. So, I took the lounge chair out of the trunk, my book and notebook under my arm, and headed for the beach where I set up my chair in a stiff wind under a slowly darkening sky.

As I was settling down to read or daydream, I looked over to my right and say a rather large cone of sand, maybe three feet high. I walked over to inspect and on the other side, as if propped up by this artificial mound of sand, was a quite nicely fashioned, life-sized mermaid, looking at me with a fixed and sandy gaze, a hint of a smile on her very temporary face. I have never seen such a piece of painstakingly artistic sand scupture on that beach before. A few crude mermaid likenesses, maybe, and some rather inventive sand castles, etc., but nothing quite this arresting. The tide was held up in a pool of water, but would sooner or later make its way across the beach and lap at the feet of this sphinx-like creature, the product of someone's idle, and not very original fancy, but nevertheless impressive for the work and effort that went into it. I know I wouldn't have the patience to construct such a thing.

I spent about an hour on the beach. The wind was steady. The skies quite beautiful. I didn't miss being with the group that had left earlier, but I would have had a good time, I'm sure, just as I did when we went to the Crab Shack for seafood Wednesday night.

As the sunset came and departed over the marsh in back of me, the air and wind became noticeably cooler. It wasn't too pleasant anymore. My time on the beach was up. I packed up my things and headed back across the dunes to my car. An hour spent in solitude. Not lonely. Just alone.

July 6, 2000

The other morning I got up at my usual time, as is my custom, and stared in the face another day that was beginning like so many countless others before it. I walked down the carpeted hallway to the kitchen, turned on the light and tried to remember whether it was a cereal or oatmeal morning. Cereal it was. A relief. I didn't feel like cooking the oatmeal, and the cereal was so easy. Just add some milk and cut-up peaches and bananas.

Stumble back to the computer to read the New York Times while eating breakfast. Drink orange juice. Take vitamins. Heat up a slice of breakfast bread in the microwave to have with my one cup of coffee of the day.

Relentless. Unbelievable that routines can be so rigid and follow such perfectly duplicated paths each morning. Is there no end?

What comfort, and yet what indescribable monotony. Check e-mail (nothing), other Web sites, finish coffee. Read a few diaries and journals. Scramble to take shower and get dressed by 8:15 to leave the house to get to work at 8:30. Slightly late, as usual. The exact amount of time late, in fact. Even that is seemingly programmed to a very exquisitely set pattern and predictability of its own.

I stumble into work, as expected, slightly, but exactly and consistently, late, and when there begin the another set of routines and duties that are as equally unvarying as the ones that preceded them earlier that morning.

Repartee and banter with co-workers for a good long while begins the day, for without this, I think we would all just about go crazy. This is the focal point of the day at work, this interaction and joking, harmless putdowns, laughing at foibles and bad jokes (and then, of course, there is the discussion of work-related matters). Wonderful timing. Wonderful people to be around. It amazes me that the same types of jokes and kidding around seem fresh and funny, day after day. I think it is because I like them so much, and from this genuine good will comes genuine humor and affabilty.

Tomorrow morning the routines will begin again. I'll cook oatmeal to vary things a bit and maybe, just maybe, sit in the living room and listen to some music and relax a while before heading in to work. That is my goal, but it seldom happens. There is too much news to read on the Interent. The diaries of online friends to catch up with. Busy. Busy.

Life stirs mightily in that first hour, and those routines anchor me in a safe harbor. No matter how upended life may become, routines assert themselves quickly and take over. One becomes quite aware that this is how to function on a day-to-day basis. Without them, there is the chasm of uncertainly. The shifting sands of unpredictability. Fear of the abyss.

We accidentally happen upon totally out-of-character paths once in awhile to force us into other ways of dealing with the world. But only once in a while, for daily I am swept up into the known rituals of my earthly existence, and I go downstream with them, peacefully and without much thought of doing anything differently for the foreseable and only future I see ahead -- the rest of today and tomorrow. (I am only projecting what tomorrow will be like, based on the near certainty of it being like the preceding day in all its outward appearances, but capable of being different, based on the way I choose to comprehend and make use of it).

I am thankful for each day, but sometimes I wish I could wake up and be somewhere else, doing some other job. Anything different from what I do day after day, month after month, even year after year these days. But right now, I cannot even conceive of it. So I must be content where I am for awhile longer.

July 4, 2000

It's July 4 and quite late, late at night/early morning after the teenagers had their fireworks displays a couple of hours ago, creating a feeble show of sound and fury that dissipated into the evening air, leaving things peaceful again. I've never cared for July 4 or loud fireworks. I can't stand them, in fact. In New Orleans, it was never possible to enjoy being outside on this day in the blanketing heat and humidity of July, so everyone pretty much wanted to stay inside in the air conditioning. I remember maybe a few late afternoon, early evening get-togethers in the suburban backyards of my parents' friends, but that was probably just on a weekend instead of the 4th. I do recall visiting one of those Louisiana antebellum mansions and grounds during the 4th one year with a friend from high school and his family. We had a picnic lunch outside on the grounds of the famous old home/Southern magnolia/dripping moss tourist site. But that's about all I remember doing on the 4th. No patriotic parades, etc. Not that I don't enjoy parades. I really do.

I am a nostalgic person who sometimes lives in imagined and not at all real pasts that must have been better than now. So, often in summer, or on the 4th, what I really think about are pleasant associations of a sentimental sort, associations with this time of year: picnics; swimming in a cool lake with summer-white clouds filling the sky; grist mills and country stores; the sounds of crickets and cicadas; little towns where you feel like you are part of a community and where there would be no ostracism because of who you are; watermelon and fresh-churned peach ice cream; sitting out on the porch on a hot afternoon and cooling off with a glass of lemonade. I could go on and on. Summer has all those associations and connotations because I have done all those things, or at least dreamed about them when they are not a reality.

I like summer for those things and yet I live such an unconventional life that denies me the opportunity for family rituals and activities that make these pleasant things possible. It is a tremendous strain on me, and so I tend to have my imagined memories and fantasies of some imagined "good life." Much of it is illusory, but pleasant to contemplate.

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