Armchair Peregrinations


May 29, 2001

The rains came again last night about 9:30 with thunder, lightning and on and off showers that I could almost literally see soaking into the parched ground outside my window. How the earth must have been smiling a sigh of relief! The rain was wonderful. The lightning and thunder continued on for a solid hour. Such a rare event nowadays. I can't even remember the last time we had rain in any appreciable amount.

Maybe it will clear the air of the smoke and humidity. The smoke is from the terrible forest fires they are battling now in Florida and southern Georgia. On Friday they left a pall of heavy haze in the air all day as I drove from Charleston to Sumter. No let up. The smell of smoke in the air was very noticeable, and we kept wondering where it was coming from and how close it was. It seemed like it might be coming from just miles away. The usually clear skies in the countryside 40 miles from Charleston were brown and hazy and it looked like a bank of smog was hugging the ground. It was a strange sensation, not knowing where it was coming from. Things seemed out of balance, weird, as the yellow/brown funk covered the land with its moodiness. The lighting was not right. It seemed artificial and as we drove, I kept anxiously waiting for it to change back to normal and for the air to clear. Only when we actually got into Sumter did the haze dissipate and for the first time in two hours we saw normal blue skies.


May 25, 2001

College of Charleston,
4:25 pm, May 24


The wind is blowing in the pecan tree, blue jays are sqawking, the grass in green, and the air smells sweet here in the garden at the college where I'm taking a dinner break from work. On Thursdays, I am often here around 4 bewcause I work til 9 at night.

I can faintly smell the big, white flowers now blooming on the magnolia trees a little ways off. Orange daylillies are in bloom. It's a delightful afternoon here in the shade of the garden. I just finished a Coke and a snack and have read the paper. The skies are perfectly clear and blue with no clouds. It's a cool respite from hot hot weather we've been having lately.

I like the feeling of a prolonged Spring. It's as if the season has been extended by popular demand. This is the time of year I like to see linger. Let it tarry and take its time leaving. I never tire of Spring as I do the other seasons. Fall is nice, too. They all are, but this time of year always stands out.


May 23, 2001

Last night about midnight, thunder rumbled in the distance. Could I actually be hearing that sound, so lost almost to fond mememory in the never-ending drought we have been experiencing? Yes, it was real, I wasn't dreaming, and the sound was sweet. Maybe we will get some rain.

As I got in bed about an hour later, I heard brief, gusty showers on the roof and rain was indeed falling, but just for a little while and just enough to tantalize me into thinking there might be some serious moisture in the air. But no such luck. I looked out the window this morning hoping maybe to see puddles in the grass and hoping the ground might be saturated and that it had rained hard all night while I slept, but no, the brown grass looked like it had not even been wet. The street outside the apartment was dry, and the sky is once again clear blue and still, portending another beautiful late spring day, for which I am grateful, but which is no consolation for the grass and flowers and shrubs. I fear the beautiful oleander which is in full bloom with its bright pink and white blooms all over Charleston will not continue blooming all summer as they do in normal years when there is rainfall. They reach a point where they just withdraw into themselves and the flowers drop off the branches and there is just a rather drab big bush to look at. Oleanders create magic in our city for months when they are in bloom. I will enjoy them now.


May 18, 2001

I believe it was on May 10, 1973, a little over 28 years ago, that I graduated from college in New Orleans with my B.A. in English. I always look back on that month and that summer of '73 as a pivotal time in my life, a true crossroads. After four years of lectures, essay exams, papers, and constant reading and studying, I saw the light at the end of the tunnel during that month so long ago. I was truly ready to leave New Orleans and move to South Carolina at last. In many ways, that time seems as fresh in my memory as more recent watershed periods of upheaval and change. I keep it alive in my mind as much as possible because I want to recall how I felt then, on the cusp of such great changes, moving to another state, getting my first real job, meeting lifelong friends. All of those things opened up to me in the succeeding years of the 70s. That was really the decade I came of age, so to speak, considering I had been a pretty isolated and keep-to-myself teenager all during the years growing up and attending junior and senior high school in Algiers.

After graduation, flush with the feeling of great accomplishment, I spent a couple more weeks at the apartment on Wisteria Street, basking in my freedom and doing not much of anything. I had tentative plans to go to Folly Beach, look for some sort of summer job, maybe, and then move to Columbia and begin taking journalism courses at the university in the fall. After all, what kind of job was I going to get as an English major? That was just an excuse, really, because I didn't know what I was going to do with myself.

I spent about a month or so at the beach, lying in the sun, reading novels, and taking long walks down to the lighthouse. I pored over the classified ads in the newspaper, looking for some half-way relevant job opening and also scanning the apartment-for-rent ads. Mostly it was an exercise in futility, and I became more and more anxious and worried about this ever-lengthening period of drifting and lack of a firm plan to get a job. I guess in the back of my mind I knew I would be going back to school, although it was the last thing I had wanted to do in May right after I graduated.

I recall one day walking by myself, as always, toward the lighthouse and the cove, and seeing a kid about my age riding his bike past me in the same direction with a knapsack and bedroll. When I returned from the far end of the beach, he had set up a tent and was evidently going to camp out there, although it was not permitted, I'm sure. I just remember from glancing at him that he seemed like a free spirit. I came very close to saying a few words to him as I passed, but my timidity got the best of me, as usual, and I walked past him on my lonely way. At least, I thought, I was not the only one. There were other people who sought out their own company and the solitude that came with it. And this was a person about my age, too.

A few days later, I walked that way again, and of course all trace of his campsite was gone. I was thinking what-if kinds of thoughts when I looked down in the sand and saw a crumpled piece of newspaper where the tent had been. I picked it up and looked at it, and saw that it was a section of the paper's classified ads, the apartments-for-rent section.

A couple of week later, in mid or late July, I thought I better nix my plans for South Carolina and head back to the "known" -- New Orleans. My brother still had the apartment, and I would at least have a place to stay. I loaded up my car and put my Royce Union 10-speed on the back and drove home to Lousiana in a funk and feeling like a bit of a failure, even though it had only been two months since finishing college.

When I got back to Wisteria Street and the long, hot and empty summer afternoons in New Orleans that seemed to stretch out forever without end, I had the shocking realization that, no, this was not the right thing for me. What on earth was I doing? My sole objective for the summer had been to get away from New Orleans, and here I was right back where I had started.

Incredibly, but with a sense that it was now or never, and with the harsh determination that goes with such an attitude, I put my boxes of books and clothes back in my tiny car, loaded the bike on the back again, and set out for Sumter, where I would stay at my aunt's house, our favorite place to go as children, and get into USC as a special student, find a room for rent in Columbia, and stick it out. No matter what.

It was a hectic six weeks lining everything up and moving from first one furnished room, to a damp basement apartment on a busy street, to at last finding my temporary Shangri-La on a tree-lined street in the old Shandon neighborhood. That was the upstairs room in the wonderful old house owned by the elderly lady I became quite fond of, and whom I have written about previously, who treated her roomers almost like family. What a sheltering place to have found after that stormy summer of uncertainty. A huge oak tree was ouside my windown, I had a large double bed with a wonderfully comfortable, white cotton bedspread, the old-fashioned chenille kind. Also, there were antique furnishings in the room. I just had a very comfortable and secure feeling being there, as if I had arrived at some long hoped-for place I was somehow destined to find.


May 15, 2001

The days are long now. It was almost 8:30 when it got dark last night. I took a walk around the neighborhood adjacent to the apartment complex. Dusk is about my favorite time to do so. It is still, so still that a car going by on the street sounds like a truck. The trees have a wonderfully kind and sweet appearance, late in the day, as they rest from their labors. The mailboxes are surrounded by little square flower beds. The neighbors seem to have gotten together to do this to make the street more attractive. The grass is dry and brown in a lot of places where the suburbanites have given up trying to defeat the longstanding drought. Others still maintain their precious little patches of green, setting out sprinklers and fighting the tide of climate change. We are turning into a more arid land here in South Carolina. Years of drought prove this. Drier and hotter than ever before in recorded weather history. I can feel it. It's getting warmer but not so fast that we can't still enjoy spring for a few more days. As I concluded my walk, I was happy briefly for the sweet smell of young summer in the air. The last of the jasmine are in bloom, the magnolias are starting to flower, and the birds put on their nightly symphony. A wonderful time to be out. And then, night settles in and I find myself hunched over my computer screen in the artificial light of the monitor's glow. Another day ended.


May 12, 2001

I debated, just for a moment, taking a different route to work yesterday morning. That would have meant taking Folly Road over the old Ashley River bridges and into town slightly south of where I normally enter. But I ended up taking the faster and more scenic, but more harried rouute -- the James Island Connector -- which is an elevated expressway over marsh and tidal creeks at the mouth of the Ashley. This is my usual commute, and if you have to trael in the fast lane, it is at least a beautifully scenic way to drive into work.

But it's still fast and like an interstate and you have to merge into traffic going by at a pretty good clip. It always gets me revved up, by necessity, when I have to join this rush of morning commuters. Most days everyone is part of a finely orchestrated traffic routine. This can only come from doing it day after day for years on end. I don't like it, but what can you do? It's better than sitting in traffic.

One's senses are alert, and the impatience level is high during this mad dash into work every morning. There's always some poor driver to get hot-tempered about, foolishly, of couurse, because it does no good, even if the person can't drive competently.

However, I couldn't help but notice one car in the right lane as I was passing on the left in my usual nervous haste to "get there." An older man was driving just about the 55 mph speed limit, and looking out over the marshes, enjoying the view and taking life easy. Right next to him, sitting upright, face gazing ahead, was his faithful companion, what appeared to be a somewhat shaggy, white Scots terrier. It was one of those homey, pleasant vignettes that left me with a smile and a bit of peace knowing there are alternate ways to cross over on that expressway which lets you look far out beyond the harbor to the mighty Atlantic Ocean. A man and his dog sitting together. Nice.


May 10, 2001

Only simple and quiet words will ripen of themselves.
For a whirlwind does not last a whole morning,
Nor does a sudden shower last a whole day.

Lao Tzu


Lao Tzu also said, "The greatest perfection seems imperfect,
And yet its use is inexhaustible.
The greatest fullness seems empty,
And yet its use is endless."

In addition to a profound understanding of the nature of paradox, the Tao Teh Ching is a book of wisdom for daily living, whose random words I have focused on make me think deeply this evening, even if I do not always comprehend what the Chinese philosopher is saying. I keep trying to make sense of them.

During the day at work, I feel like I am in a whirlwind sometimes. I am caught up in the march of events and people and talk -- lots of talk and conversation. Much of it is meaningless and superficial banter that is lost to the eddies of time almost as soon as the words are uttered. So, what does last? What words make a difference, if any? I'm not sure. Many words and boisterous talk stave off the quiet words that need to be spoken deliberately and pointedly. But I am often in a hurry for no particular reason, or too self-preoccupied to really talk or listen to some of my co-workers. But they are the same as I am. Casual talk is inexhaustible, and yet it is crucial. I am drawn to others as if there is some real need to be away from myself for awhile. At home, I talk to no one for hours on end. At work, I am talking all the time, to the public we serve, and to my co-workers. I have a curiously satisfied feeling about it all. It's like, this is what I was meant to do, and yet, as stable as things are now, I sense an emptiness that is always crying out for acknowledgement.


May 8, 2001

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase
each other
doesn't make sense.

Rumi


Will there come a point when I can be so at one with another that I can begin to comprehend what these words are really saying? Or do I have any idea what they are saying to me. I struggle with them this morning. I feel at one only with the quiet wooods and creatures of the forest and air. As absurd as this may sound. I am most at peace when I am alone. Or, does this thought exist merely because I have deluded myself so successfully for so long?


May 6, 2001

Summer is approaching. The countryside on the drive to Sumter yesterday reveals the deepset new green of trees and woods. It's been quite warm with the temperature getting up to 88 degrees. It's also very dry, and this drought that won't ease up is continuing. We passed mile after mile of corn and soyboean fields, dusty and fallow. There's never enough rain to grow corn now without irrigation. The climate is changing. I'm convinced of that. Never when I was younger and drove past these same fields with 10-foot tall corn in June, did I remember seeing such arid conditions. Dried stalks from last year's failed crops, clods of sun-baked dirt, and row after row of turned over soil with nothing much planted -- that's the picture out the car window. I think sometimes this whole area of the South will, in the not-too-distant future, be a land of pine trees, pastures and abandoned fields, with the hardwoods eventually dying out, and the swamps disappearing and filling in. I wonder.

**********

This morning after breakfast I took a walk to Memorial Park, past the Bed and Breakfast on the corner. Along the fence was a huge cluster of honeysuckle vines and flowers, so I had to stop and smell that wonderful summer fragrance. This yard also has some huge magnolia trees which bloom in the summer. The park is surrounded by houses all more than 100 years old. In the park itself are the largest and oldest oak trees in the city. They are truly massive and beautiful black and pin oaks, which are still recovering from the tremendous tree limb loss and damage from Hurricane Hugo 11 years ago.

I sat awhile yesterday in the park near dusk, under the tall hornbeam tree, shedding its yellow and gold, cup-like flowers, all over the ground in front of me. I listened to the birds and watched the sky, and noticed that the light of the day passing into memory was steady but waning. Late afternoons in early May tend to feel like pleasant and indefinite interludes between spring and summer. I wish they'd last because the weather is so perfect, but it always comes to an end.


May 4, 2001

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.

Wu-men (1183-1260)


Yesterday (today, too) was one of those days in spring when everything comes together to make life's tapestry of beauty and abundance come alive in every way to the senses. We're in that period before the steamy humidity of summer sets in. The skies are clear and blue without a trace of haze. Small clouds appear in the afternoon. The jasmine and legustrum are in full bloom. The landscape becomes has become perfectly etched work of crystal clarity. As I walked to my apartment yesterday, and as I was driving home, I noticed and felt all this beauty. It felt good to be alive and experiencing all that. The wind was pleasantly cool and strong in my face, and I could have just stood there and closed my eyes and remained in that position for a long time without moving.

At this moment, I am sitting in the garden at the college, enjoying another day like the ones that have preceded it. The wind is rustling the pecan tree, birds are wandering in flight overhead, and the sounds of people eating their lunch on tables set up around the fish pond can be heard. There couldn't be a much nicer day to be outdoors. I can't imagine a more perfect time than now.


May 1, 2001

Everywhere I walk in Charleston, the legustrums are in bloom. I find myself stopping to smell the small, white flowers in clusters all over this most familiar and memory-inducing shrub. Each time I imbibe that wondrous fragrance, I am, for the briefest moments, taken back to my childhood.

We had two huge legustrm bushes in front of the two-bedroom apartment I lived in at Azalea Gardens in Jefferson Parish, near New Orleans, from 1956-61. Joined together, they formed huge, hollow interiors that were cool and dark in summer. In April each year, the smell of the flowers was almost intoxicating. We had many enjoyable adventures as children in that front yard, and in and arond those tall bushes which we used as make-believe stores, houses, and forts. This place was one of our refuges against the outside world. Our little universe, that front yard, as well as the large backyard with its tall hackberry trees. We stripped ofs the shiny leaves from branches of the bushes and used them as currency. We could hide in there. We pretended we were in another time and place. We imitated what we saw on TV westerns. It was a magical place to us kids.

So today, each April around this time of year in Charleston, I take time to smell the legustrum flowers, and recall once again some of my earliest, but most distinct memories from the 1950s. Childhood -- what a time of innocence.


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