Armchair Peregrinations

June 26, 2001

My sister and niece and nephew are here from Seattle for their summer vacation at the beach, and so we were all there at Folly late yesterday afternoon. My brother and sister took a long, long walk with K__ down past the lighthouse since it was low tide.

It was a perfect beach day in June. I sat in my chair with a light seabreeze fanning me gently, the sky a perfect shade of blue with distinct white clouds. There were lots of people out. The water is just the right temperature for swimming. I continue to read "The Last Prairie," a wonderful book about the physical and social ecology of the Sandhills region of north central and western Nebraska, where I long to return for a visit. It has been 14 years since I was there, and it is a place I think about often. Out of all my many travels around the country, that area stands out. If I do manage to get there this year, I will write about it here and share my experiences.

After supper my mother, brother, sister and I sat on the deck overlooking the huge expanse of salt marsh that stretches for miles off to the south, past the island with the untouched maritime forest, and toward James Island. The sun was setting and the marsh grass and tidal creeks were turning various shades of pastel green and light brown, with hints of other colors. The sky itself was blue high above and turning shades of orange and pink near the setting sun. Big, billowy clouds formed a horizontal bank on the horizon. It was about as perfect a sight one could see. Astonishing how mellow and muted the light is around dusk at the beach. We waited until the sun disappeared and darkness began edging over the marsh, then went inside reluctantly, grateful for the experience. Out over the ocean, rain sqalls were moving our way. Thunder and lightning. A nightly occurrence now.

June 23, 2001

I had to take a walk late yesterday afternoon. It was too confining being indoors. I felt bad much of the day and so slept for two hours in the afternoon (I was off from work), which is rare for me. There are just too many things to do to let sleep interfere. That is why I get so little sleep at night. I may not be alert, and I may be fighting sleep, but, you know, I can always read some more or stay on the Web at bit longer. It's a fool's game, as they say. What a difference it makes to get a decent night's sleep when I manage to do that.

The time just before sunset in summer is very special. This is when I am usually out on the beach with my books and spiral notebook, reading or writing journal entries. Yesterday, it was the neighborhood where I walk in back of the apartment. The big sweetgum trees I pass underneath never seemed so fresh and green. The heavy rains of late have restored every living plant and blade of grass. When I came to the first street on my walk, I immediately felt that peaceful feeling of utter familiarity with a scene, a setting, a place -- whatever you want to call it. Maybe it's more realistically a suburban landscape, but it's a quiet neighborhood of tidy houses and trim gardens and lawns. An older subdivision on James Island with some quite tall trees, again something you don't see everywhere around here. A lone bird sang from one tree and I listened for some time to this sweetest of sounds. No-one seemed to be stirring outside. The streets were empty. Not even any cars passing. It was about 8:30. The air was vaguely warm, not overbearingly humid and hot, again thanks to all the earlier rain and clouds.

I had to laugh when I thought about all the lawns that were now growing rapidly, and the fact that the lawmmowers of suburbanites would be busy this weekend. Not something I have to worry about where I live. I passed one house with lights on, so I knew someone lived there, and noticed a front yard getting out of control. No grass cutting here in awhile, and all around the carefully manicured lawns of neighbors. It was kind of funny. I wondered how high the grass would get before it was cut, thinking the owners were just sick of the whole grass cutting business and didn't much care anymore. That's the price you pay for homeownership in the typical subdivision. You have to have a yard that is neat and trimmed, or the neighbors start getting real nervous. Or so I imagine.

I'm so accustomed to these streets, houses, and yards after six years of walks in the area that I enjoy the place immensely. It is the longest I have ever lived anywhere, and it is really like being home that not so imagined spot on earth where I am putting down roots, this incorporated area of Charleston on the big island across the river. I just feel content here. People at work are always making comments about how renting is a waste, no equity building up, no interest payments to write off in taxes, etc., etc. But when you like a place, you hate to leave it. Period. I just feel at home here, I guess is the best way to describe it.

June 21, 2001

I stood on the pier the past two nights, listening to the ocean crash ashore beneath me, gazing up at the stars, and, above all, keeping my face to the strong sea breeze, blowing at 15 or so knots, steady, buffeting me with the freshest, most wonderful winds. It is said that this sea wind off the coast of Folly is some of the purest air along the whole Eastern seaboard, and in fact, the cleanest air anywhere. I believe it. I have always relished the smell of that fresh air and the cool comfort it brings me, even on the hottest summer days.

I also go to the pier because there are people there, and I am curiously drawn to that place because of the ocean and that passing parade of strollers and walkers, anglers, families, teenagers, old folks, solitary bystanders such as myself -- every age and type of person seems to want to take that brief walk out over the ocean.

The sensation of the wind on my face was so pleasant and enjoyable that I kept staying longer and longer until it was nearly time for the pier to close. I just didn't want to leave. Lonely out there as I was, I still felt a sense of comfort and peace. No matter what part of the beach I go to, I get this profound sense of familiarity with the place. As the years pass, and I continue to go to the beach often all during the year, I have a stronger and stronger feeling of attachment to Folly and to Charleston itself. I am finding it difficult now to ever imagine being gone on vacation for more than a week. I just want to stay home and not wander, whereas years ago, that was all I could see myself doing.

June 19, 2001

It seems as if every day I want to go to the beach after work and sit in my chair with a book and read and watch the people go by, and listen to the ocean, and look at the sunsets each evening about 8:30. Last night the cloud formations were subtle and let the early pastel pinks of the sunset wash into them with fine detail.

This is vacation time at Folly, and there are many people out on the beach, so unlike winter when I have it all to myself, practically. You see families of all sorts. People walking, romping in the surf, playing with their dogs, flying kites, surfboarding, making sand castles. As I made my way down the public access walkway to the beach, I noticed the car under the beach rental house to my right and it had Michigan license plates. It's a neat little beach house, small, been there forever, unpretentious and just right for a nice week's vacation by the ocean. I saw brightly colored beach towels flapping in the wind, and a woman sitting in a rocker on the front porch, head down in a book.

But the walks along the beach -- I think that is what people enjoy most these late afternoons and early evenings. Mostly couples -- middle aged and older-- but teenagers, too, and the occasional solitary stroller, walking toward the lighthouse, bare feet in the water, taking his time. I could see myself so clearly in one young man last night. He seemed to be more deeply in thought and slightly distracted than savoring the walk, but that is just what I imagined. He didn't seem like the lonely beachcomber type, as I certainly have pictured myself. But naturally, I can always relate to these solitary figures on the beach, who I glance at and wonder about, for over the years I have been there and back, more often than I care to remember.

Lately at the beach, I seem to be growing weary of my own company. The solitude I enjoy has edged over into loneliness, and I am at a loss for inspiration to write or enjoy things when I am in that mood. I found myself walking along that border that separates isolation and solitude yesterday evening, and when I crossed over to one and then the other, I was uncomfortable in both places.

June 17, 2001

What a difference rain makes! Parts of Sumter County had up to six inches of rain the other day and everything is green and verdant once again. Things seem to be returning to normalcy this summer. The creeks and swamps are flowing, and the trees and woods look healthier. Everything seems to have new life. The corn crop in the countryside seems to have been revived. It was written off a few weeks ago, but it looks good now.

This morning it's cool and cloudy; feels like a day in April or May. We had a nice visit with my aunt whose 89th birthday is tomorrow. This is the aunt who over the years has offered me a place to stay when I was out of work and job hunting, down on my luck, to say the least. She has always been there for me. I don't know what I would have done without her. She's been through the worst and the best times with me.

When we were children, she and my grandmother would greet us when we pulled in the driveway on vacation after our long drive from New Orlenas. We were tired and exhausted, but how we'd perk up and get excited when we'd cross the overpass with the sign welcoming us to Sumter. We were at our other "home."

I remember at the end of those vacations dreading to have to go back to New Orleans. Vacation was always such a golden interlude in our lives, even if we always went to the same places every year.

"Do I have to go back?" I would ask my aunt plaintively. That 9-year-old boy had an active imagination, and those trips to Sumter were like travels to exotic and faraway lands. He felt so loved and secure in the embrace of his aunt and grandmother, and he knew that departing was just as hard on them. It was always a wrenching experience emotionally. I remember those leavetakings very well. It allcomes back to me.

June 16, 2001

Went to the beach rather late yesterday evening since these are the longest days of the year , and it doesn't get dark until almost 9. I like being out there as the daylight hours end and night gradually descends. Venus was the only object visible in the sky for long moments of twilight, and at first I thought it was a plane in the distance. Gradually the stars began to shine in between the clouds. The wind was nice and brisk, slightly warm, just right. I read a few pages of Elizabeth Spencer's memoir, which I have been savoring lately at the beach. Such wonderful, luminous writing.

After leaving the beach and walking back to the car through the dunes by flashlight, I decided to visit the Folly Pier, as I have been doing of late. It evokes memories, that long fishing pier at the head of Center Street. I like to walk past the tide line and into the night on that gateway to the ocean. Last night, there was a big, private dance and party at the end of the pier, and I have never seen the place so crowded. Hundreds of people walking back and forth. I don't know what the eparty was for, but a live band was playing Top 40 songs, dance and beach music. Of course, the old shagging hits were offered to the middle-aged partygoers. They all looked about my age or slightly younger, but I couldn't imagine myself at such an event. I went as close as I could get and listened awhile to some songs by the Platters and Drifters. The music must have seemed quaint to the teenagers who hang out at the pier and who occasionally came by to see what was going on. I had to laugh a bit at the thought. But everyone seemed to be in a pretty festive mood. A summer night at Folly Beach.


Wednesday night I was also at the beach, but a bit earlier. I was sitting in my chair, reading, daydreaming, and watching a group of people playing a volleyball game and wishing I could have played a bit of it myself. Haven't done that in a very long time. To the south were beautiful cloud formations and a sunset that was stunning, as so many at Folly are.

After a while, I turned to look north up the beach and saw a wall of black clouds moving east and north. It was literally the southern edge of the remnants of Tropical Storm Alison, and it was causing the whole night to dramatically change, but only at the north end of the beach. One minute that sky was calm and quiet, the next there is this dramatic transformation. It was moving rapidly, and the skies were so ominous that my brother, who was out running, and I packed up and headed for the house. The wind was by now whipping the palmetto fronds with gusto. I expected to see great sheets of rain and bolts of lightning, but nothing but a cool, strong wind came of this storm's passage. It was exhilarating to see this mighty display of Nature's power.

After only about 10 minutes, the storm passed on up the coast, and the skies were calm. It was as if nothing had happened.

June 13, 2001

Being in a rather pensive mood last night, I took out an old photo album that had pictures of people and places I treasure from the mid-70s to the early 80s. The first picture is an 8X10 black and white photo of my old, and now long lost, friends, Ralph and Eddie. It was taken on one of our trips through the South Carolina countryside looking for old abandoned houses and farm structures. They are standing in front of a magnificcent old barn, weathered and slightly tilting from age, but regal still. Ralph, the former hippie and Vietnam war protester and activist, still with long hair when the picture was taken in 1974, and Eddie, his roommate and the friend who got me my first full-time job after I moved to Columbia in the summer of 1973, are gazing around, not looking at the camera. It is just as I want to remember them .

There are pictures of Carl and Cathy and their children, the State Fair, a couple of self portraits of me, and an portrait of me that Carl took in my apartment in Columbia the summer of 1979 when I was 28. How very young I appear. It is startling every time I see that visage. I always look kind of hard at that photo because it was taken at the beginning of the period when I had recovered from the major depression I have written about and was really enjoying life again, enjoying just being alive.

That photo album evokes so many memories of the good friends I have been privileged to have. Now I only hear from one of them, and the past seems very much that -- the past. I miss them. I miss those good times. There are no friends like that now. Life as it was then is practically unrecognizable, and if I didn't have the photo album to continually remind me of those times, I really think I'd start forgetting a lot more of it than I already have.

June 11, 2001

The clouds have rolled in with the rain, light rain much of Saturday. It was nice to sit on the porch and feel the raindrops on my face and the moisture in the air while rocking and half-daydreaming. Cool and nice. Sophie the cat was under the sofa, curled up in a cozy ball of fur. She always looks so relaxed and peaceful.

The afternoon wore on, it was not typical of summer here in recent years. I was in a rather strange mood. Everything is okay and not okay. There is nothing much resolved as far as the conflicts and problems that are always there in the background of life, until they bubble up in the foreground and plague me. But they plague me in a rather cold, intellectual way. When I was young, the emotion and depression were much more transparent and real. Now is is semi-real. There and not there. Even if I try hard, I still can't feel like the person I once was.

Life is normal, yet life life is quiet obliviousness, emotionless and empty when I feel like I do now. I am caught in a twilight world of living one way, and being another. Or, pretending to be one way and hiding the other side. I can live with these contradiction, for I have all my life.

June 7, 2001

For the first time in many months -- since last fall, actually -- I noticed a change at the beach. The cool edge in the air off the ocean was finally gone. It was a summer sea breeze that blew strong off the coast, and I knew that at last I could start spending long and comfortable stretches of time in my chair reading, writing and listening to the surf.

The moon was full each of the previous two nights. Last night there were heavy and dark clouds, and it was obscured from view, but when I walked along the very windy fishing pier out into the ocean, I paused at the rail and saw that old moon appear underneath a bank of clouds, yellowish orange and unusual looking, surrounded by all the cloud cover. I stayed about 45 minutes on the pier, until about 10 o'clock, in a kind of lonely, moody funk, despite the carefree, nostalgic setting. Everyone was in groups or pairs. The lone visitors such as myself seemed curiously out of place, interlopers, strangers, loners. It's not that it bothered me enough to feel too self-conscious. I'm way past that stage of insecurity, but I felt again the sense of disconnection I so often feel with people.

For instance, earlier while sitting on the beach, a large group of vacationers, a whole family, small kids included, walked slowly by enjoying and savoring an after dinner stroll on the beach. It was high tide and so there was little space between them and me. I tried not to look up. I wasn't feeling social. I just wanted to be left to my thoughts, undisturbed. It is one of the hazards of high tide that this is never possible when there's only a few feet of sand to walk on. The one time I did look up, a small boy waved at me from about ten feet away. I waved back. The grip of isolation was broken for that one moment, and it is often the uninhibited innocence of children who do it. They aren't aware of the serious adult nature of aloneness and solitude, bordering on isolation and depression. There is very little comprehensive of htat, or else it is just a confusing thing for them to see on people's faces. It was there last night, that unsettled, unhappy feeling. A runner passed by a few feet away with his dog. He looked up and smiled faintly, but we said nothing. Two teenagers went by about 20 minutes later, again only feet away from me. One gave a gesture of greeting to me, a bit awkwardly, for what is one to do in situations like that. It is hard to feign complete indifference or ignore the reality of others so close by.

When they were gone, the beach was empty. I was alone, and the wind was picking up. I was in one of those weary, lonely, dazed interludes at the end of the day, which are not that common now, but which from time to time are felt keenly. I was just in a rather down mood, thinking about certain things that were quite troubling to me. The beach was starting to work its magic however, so that by the time I left, I was thinking to myself that it would not be difficult to stay out another hour just listening to the ocean. It has an indefinable, almost inexplicable, calming effect.

I didn't get home unitl nearly 10:30, and the rest of the night was a blur, I was so tired.

June 4, 2001

I was over at the house in Charleston this afternoon. The main room is like a large den. It's a long room, and the side facing the garden is almost all tall windows, floor to ceiling. On late afternoons like today, when the air is clean and clear after rains have washed away the impurities, the light fairly sparkles.

Beams of sunlight played across the big white sofa. My mother sat in front of me with a slight smile lingering on her face. She seemed lost in thought, as she often is. Her smile reveals such love and tenderness. Ginger, one of her cats, was comfortably resting and grooming herself next to her on the sofa. The room was perfectly illumined by that warm afternoon sunlight. I found myself watching them both closely for several moments. A sense of peace and calm came over me, a feeling of timelessness as real asany shock of recognition I've ever had. I knew that what I had apprehended and felt just then was a tiny, flickering glimpse of eternity.

June 2, 2001

Allons! the road is before us!

It is safe -- I have tried it -- my own feet have tried it well -- be not detain'd!
Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopend'd!...

Comrado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

The Road Before Us
Walt Whitman

The above comes from a collection of Whitman poems and quotations in a book published in 1973, that most propitious of years for me, and discovered in the stacks at the used books place I frequent. "A Most Jubilant Song" it is titled. On the inside of the book is an inscription, for it was given as a gift. It says: "Twenty-fifth year re-union of Clay High Class of '52' awarded for having traveled the farthest to attend. Signed, Alan B__, July 16, 1977.

It is a curious little book, and I bought it because I don't read much Whitman, never have, but find him always perplexing, baffling, a beautiful writer, but a strange and troubled man. I am projecting. I guess I am seeing some of myself in him. This is just the impression I have of the great poet, so great that his mere name belongs at the top of the pantheon of American writers of the 19th or any century. Always after reading portions of "Leaves of Grass," my sense is that he is a man supremely in love with the physicality of life, his fellow man and Nature, "jubilant," as the title of the book ascribes, in love with himself and the world.

I find it difficult to keep up such appearances. To feel so exuburant given my rather secluded life away from the "comradeship" of others in my own physical surroundings here on James Island in Charleston County South Carolina.

I think I must learn more of the life of this poet of earthly mysticism, he who writes such lines as, "Earth of the limpid gray of clouds brighter and clearer for my sake!/Far-swooping elbow'd earth -- rich apple-blossom'd earth!/Smile, for your love comes."
The road is before me. I have traveled it before. But there is no one's hand to grasp and say, "Come with me, to a special place I know. I want you to see what I see, feel the wind, smell the salt air, watch the waves lap ashore gently at low tide at the cove." I think if I should have a companion to go with me, I would start to venture again to the far end of the beach by the lighthouse where I never go anymore because I am becoming lazy and content with short strolls along the beach. I have my companions in the birds that skim for fish offshore, the gulls who fly right above my head, the sandpipers who scurry along the high tide mark on little fast feet. I have my books and my notepad, so I don't have to leave any writing behind on my desk, but rather I take it with me. I usually never know what I am going to write when I am there. But now is the season to begin my summer essays and journal entries at the beach. When I am alone there, as is invariably the case, I have only my thoughts to communicate with, and perhaps, a willing hand will write some of it down.

Two together!
Winds blow south, or winds blow north,
Day come white or night ocme black,
Home, or rivers and mountains from home,
Singing all time, minding no time,
While we two keep together.

Two Together
Walt Whitman

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