Armchair Peregrinations


May 30. 1999

I've had a cold all this week, and with any such illness, the body and soul are hit hard by the invading virus. It not only depletes your energy and leaves you feeling miserable, but chips away for a time at your optimism and general feeling that these bodies we inhabit are impervious to the ravages of outside intruders, time, age and impersonal fate. But mortal coils wrap around us tightly, even though when we feel good we are mostly oblivious to our bonds.

As I looked at my cluttered and book-filled living room through watery eyes, nose running and Kleenex box at hand, I couldn't help but reflect a bit on why I happened to get sick at this particular time, and even how I got sick. I take plenty of Vitamin C, I try to think healthy thoughts and eat right.

But then again, I don't exercise enough and don't get proper rest. Probably that last one is what really hurts me. I only require, or can only get, actually, a few hours of sleep a night, so it seems I'm awake and doing something most of the hours of the day. Last night I just happened to lie down for awhile in sheer exhaustion, but felt uncomfortable; it was like I had to be reading something, writing, checking Web sites, listening to music -- anything to keep the hounds of silence and true contemplation at bay. It used to be easier for me to do nothing. It's something I'll just have to cultivate -- times to just think and rest, and that's all.

So this morning I feel much better. I'm ready to go back out to Folly Beach and take a book and breathe in the salt air, and at least act like everything's back to normal.

The other day, before my cold was over, I went out there too soon. I was alternately hot and cold. The wind was too strong. I had to get out of there. I was still ill. I could not be outdoors that day, and I knew it.

However minor our illnesses, they exact their toll. They ratchet up the stakes a bit, reminding us of our tenuous grasp on health and even life itself. Any sickness is a reminder of our mortality, even if it's just below the surface of our consciousness. But when we feel good, we see the wind blowing in the trees, the sun is bright, the white clouds are almost translucent, and we feel there's no end to life.

May 27, 1999

As the years pass without a visit back to the city where I was born and lived for the first 21 years of my life, I tend to think of it a little less often, except for when I read something about New Orleans in the newspaper or hear about it on TV. Often it's not good news. But that mysterious old city on the Mississippi haunts my dreams of childhood and growing up. My formative years were spent there, for better or worse.

As I've written before, it is a city whose sights, sounds and smells can be frightening and appalling to those uniniatiated in the ways of the world, as I certainly was as a teenager. I'm not just talking about the infamous Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, but the whole of downtown New Orleans, with its misfits, miscreants, and other deluded and forgotten souls who wander in search of their place in the world, if, in fact, there is any place left for them. I'd come home and be depressed for days sometimes by what I saw and heard in midst of that chaotic stew that surrounded Canal Street on all sides. I'd hurry along the narrow streets of the Quarter, my inquisitive 16-year-old self trying to absorb the lessons of the street. I wondered how the Lucky Dog hot dog salemen could stand dragging those big, heavy and hot metal weiners all around the Quarter; why people went in those sleazy bars with the come-on barkers at the doors; why legless men were sitting on the street selling pencils.

I wondered who could be living up in those upper floors of the old wrought-iron balcony-festooned buildings that lined the streets of the Vieux Carre as if in some exotic European quarter. I always imagined that was what it would be like to be in a foreign country. New Orleans was very foreign in many ways, and I knew it even as a teenager.

At the same time, I was drawn downtown because of the excitement, the noise, the bustle, the stores, the endlessly fascinating architecture, the crowds of people. But, again, I remember being frightened and giving a wide berth to the raving, drunken and belligerent people you'd occasionally hear shouting at the top of the lungs into the sky, cursing their own darkness, but I didn't realize that then.

And then there were the chance encounters and mysterious people one almost always saw riding across the Mississippi on the Algiers-to-Canal-Street ferry. This was an adventure when I was young. The river was so wide that you really got the feeling of being away from the city for awhile, out there on that roiling, muddy water, watching big logs, driftwood, and other junk and detritis rapidly funneling downstream on the currents. Once, when I was in college, I rode that ferry and observed what was going on with one individual in particular, and was affected so strongly by what I saw and perceived that I wrote about it in my journal. I include that entry here:

From my journal, July 31, 1971, New Orleans, Age, 20:

Last Friday, my brother N-- and I were going to have dinner at a Chinese restaurant with some family friends, and we parked the car and took the Algiers ferry across the river. There were few people making the trip over on this particular run, but one of them was a hapless, rather elderly man about 60, although the hardships of life showing readily on his sad face could have aged him well beyond his actual years. He held a worn paper bag in his hands, carefully, almost reverently, clutching it at times as if it contained a priceless possession. His entire appearance, from clothes to mannerisms, could have personified skid-row. Something he did, though, struck me as strangely, but pridefully tragic.

I noticed that shortly after we had left the landing, this old man began walking slowly from one person to another, requesting, I surmised, small change. With a hestiant, but still apathetic feeling of disgust, I looked away, pretending to ignore his approach. He mumbled something to N-- and I, which I could not understand, in what must have been his slowest, saddest asking tone, perfected by years of mechanical inflection. When he looked at me, I instinctively said I had no change (which happened to be true in this particular case, though I probably would have said the same thing regardless), but N-- abruptly indicated that he wanted to know if we had a cigarette. We had none, of course, but I was caught in an unexpectedly embarrassing situation, and again had to refuse the man something I would have willingly given him. He passed on impassively and requested, I assume, a cigarette from someone about 18 holding a sleeping bag under his arm. No cigarette there, either.

When he sat down again, I could notice a look of frustration on his face. He was once again oblivious to everyone around him and seemed shrouded in the bitterly degrading search for a used butt on the floor around his feet. He picked one up and brushed it off, checking the amount of tobacco still left on the crushed out cigarette. The slightest glimmer of expectancy passed away to failure once again as he dropped the butt on the floor. I was staring right at him, and he suddenly looked up. I quickly averted my gaze and could only sit there opposite him thinking depressing thoughts of what utter loneliness must be like.

As the ferry approched Canal Street, he got up slowly and walked toward the exit gate, giving the illusion that some destination awaited him. The ferry jolted to a final stop and the gates were thrown open. The old man was one of the first out, but he trudged very slowly and despondently up the ramp. Everyone had soon passed him by, hurrying on their separate ways, and as N-- and I passed, I wondered how many people had given him a second thought.

Two hours later, we returned on the ferry at sunset, having enjoyed our delicious Chinese food. Getting off on the Algiers side, I spotted the same old man, slightly hurrying to the ferry landing to make yet another trip across the river.

How can these people survive? They are regarded as bums and subhuman, but I am sure they have cherished memories of carefree childhoods just like the rest of us. They are errant, unfortunate human beings, cast aside and spit upon by society beacuse they "don't find work." We are so ignorant of their real plight. I wonder whether behind their fascades of acceptance to a way of life in which they have grown accustomed to merely surviving, each in his own way longs for some chance of rebirth, if only the mere recognition of his basic humanity.

May 26, 1999

I can't help it. I still listen to that truly awful oldies station here in Charleston. It is exceptionally bad, and plays every hashed over standard oldie Top 40 from the 50s and 60s you could ever want to not hear again, and be happy if they never again were played henceforth.

What about all those songs we used to hear and like so much? They never see the light of air time. Every now and then, however, the computer-generated mix will hit upon a set that's really good, and when that happens I give the station my full attention.

Unfortunately, most of the good songs from that era never get played, so gradually I sort of forget about them until, fortuitously, they get played once in a great while.

There are some really familiar songs that are the exception, they're played a lot, and you know the ones I mean. For example, I've heard "It's a Beautiful Morning" a million times before, but mostly just for the music. It still can bring back some memories, but what I really like about it is the simple, and almost childlike innocence of the lyrics. A lot of songs were that way back then, just as now. They were happy songs, and when you take time to listen to the words, or read the lyrics, you see just how much this song, and others in a similar vein, went against the prevailing dark moods of the sixities and the drug-besotted lyricism of so many of the "artists" of that decade and the 70s.

It's a beautiful morning, and
I think I'll go outside for awhile
Just taking some clean fresh air
No sense in staying inside
If the weather's fine
And you've got the time
It's your chance to wake up and plan
Another brand new day
Lead the way
It's a beautiful morning
Each bird keeps singing its own song
(So long)
I've got to be on my way...
There will be children with robins and flowers
Sunshine caresses each new waking hour
Seems to me that people keep seeing more and more each day

It's A Beautiful Morning
Felix Cavaliere and Edward Bugati

I heard that song the other day and just decided to retrieve the words so I could see them there right in front of me.

Then there was 1972. A pivotal year for me. My last year of college. I had gone through some rough times earlier and now I seemed to be headed for the liberation of graduation and a future that was unfolding quickly before my eyes. I can see myself now in my little car, driving down St. Roch Boulevard heading for classes at the University of New Orleans, windows down on a nice fall day, and I needed to hear something that gave me a lift, that, well, simply made me feel good. And I'd hear that song by Johnny Nash that I've never forgotten:

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It's gonna be a bright (bright) bright (bright)
Sun-shiny day.

I think I can make it now, the pain is gone
All of the bad feelings have disappeared
Here is the rainbow I've been prayin' for
It's gonna be a bright (bright) bright (bright)
Sun-shiny day.

Look all around, there's nothin' but blue skies
Look straight ahead, nothin' but blue skies.

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone...

There's something about that song. There's nothing complicated about the lyrics. It's just a hopeful song, a good song. I hear it, and I'm positive things will not only be better, but that they are indeed better now.

May 23, 1999

Francis Beidler Forest, S.C., 3 pm, May 22:

I'm sitting overlooking Goodson Lake in Francis Beidler Forest in Four Holes Swamp, an hour from Charleston and light years away from the noise and traffic of the city. (See my journal entry of 12/15/98 here. All I hear is birdsong. There is virtually no breeze, but it is pleasantly cool despite the fact that it's late May in the South Carolina coastal plain.

I've been looking up at a bird's nest in a tree about 30 feet above where I'm sitting. It looks like it could be a fledling blue heron, from what little I can see of the birds poking their heads out above the nest.

Goodson Lake is about half way along the boardwalk trail, and curves around like an oxbow. It has no movement of water that I can see, and this is pretty much the way it is except in early spring when water levels are high. Levels today are about average for this time of year.

Water slowly makes its way across the muddy swamp bottomlands, where I have gazed in awe yet again at the 1,000-year-old bald cypress trees. They rise in some cases ten stories above the floor of the swamp. The water is tea-colored and quite clear, not what one might first expect in a swamp. Because of this, I can point my camera down at the water and see almost perfect reflections of the trees all around and the foliage above.

I've just spotted a magnificent hawk with at least a four-foot wingspan floating effortlessly above me on warm air thermals.

Earlier on the boardwalk I spotted a fat salamander -- must have been four inches long and looked just liked a wiggling stogie. He seemed to be trying to decide the best way to ingest the dragonfly he clutched in his mouth. As I approached, he tried to scurry away without losing his grip on his most recent meal. I felt bad for the dragonfly, knowing how it was probably scooping up mosquitoes right and left before being so rudely interrupted in its pursuits. I love dragonfles and have been fascinated by them ever since I was a child.

It is very still now, a half hour after I started writing this, and the sun has emerged from the drifting clouds overhead to illumine the summer-green leaves and to cast reflections over the brown waters of the lake, about 4-feet deep where I am now.

Right in back of where I'm sitting is a huge bald cypress surrounded by small sweet gum and tulip trees. Among the trees in the swamp I've spotted already, or expect to see farther down the boardwalk are: Red cedar, Water hickory, Beech, White oak, Overcup oak, Laurel oak, American elm, Sweet bay, and Tupelo gum.

The wind is picking up, and it's so pleasant a sensation on my skin.

A turtle is swimming toward me now, looking up for a piece of bread or something else to eat. They've learned, even way out here in this remote swamp. I can see its fat flipper legs lazily propelling him forward. He barely makes a ripple on the surface of the water. I don't see any alligators or snakes today as I did on my last visit. It's been a very peaceful afternoon.

May 22, 1999

What is this need to write that has become so compelling to me lately? I'm trying to make some sense of it because I've never written this much before, and never like this. My previous journal writings on paper and in longhand seem to me now the private, and merely occasional, musings of that introspective self who longed to have some means of outward expression. When I was busily interviewing people and writing newspaper stories in past years, that seemed to suffice. I was writing, although it was not really as much for me as it was for others and for my paycheck. I enjoyed doing it, but it was also my job.

Now I have the vast luxury, and imposed obligation, of writing frequently in this online journal, and there are times like tonight when I must evaluate where I'm going with it, what I want to write about, and how I want to do it. I have a list of topics now that may well sit unused and forgotten. But at least I wrote them down. I am grappling with some of the issues that must affect all journal writers in this new medium: how much of one's life to put out there for others to read, and how much to pull back and become less personal, more the essay writer than the writer attempting to enter the inner recesses of his being.

When I write about my past, it is easier, for those things I write about occurred many years ago, in most cases, and somehow I can excuse what I did or thought more easily. But to write similarly personally about what is going on now and what is troubling me or causing me great anxiety in the present...? That is a very different matter.

Then, too, there is the subject of method and means. I'm writing more frequently in my notebooks and then typing the entries into the computer. It's as if after almost a year of just sitting down at the keyboard and starting to type, and seeing where that took me, I am now pausing and wanting to be more deliberate in my writing. Someone had a very interesting comment on this in an e-mail when she wrote of the process of writing things out by hand: "It takes me to a different, even deeper place." I really had to think about that comment because it fit so well with my own writing experiences of late, the fact that I had been writing more personally. I responded that I thought part of the reason was because of all the past associations with the experience of pen and paper rather than typing at a machine. The word processing that goes on in the journal template is similar to typing at an electric typewriter, but different in that you know that when you are done, you can send it along to be read by potentially many others out there in cyberspace. It creates very different obligations and very definitely shapes the way I write and what I say.

And as far as figuring out what to write, I keep grappling with this constantly. There's so much to write about, and I could jot down dozens of things that are on my mind and about which I'd like to explore in this journal, but somehow that seems artificial -- pre-planning too much, as it were.

So I think what might be more productive is to take a small notebook with me and jot down ideas and details of concrete things I've read or seen, such as signs or words overhead, or just impressions of things. How would I remember them otherwise?

I received this inspiration from a very interesting, and to me, quite puzzling, co-worker back in 1992, who like me, was a temp in a law firm in Seattle. Now it often happens that good writing can flow from the most mundane sources, or, from the suddenly produced jottings that seem to spring up of nowhere. I would often see him sitting at his desk with that little 2x4 inch notebook, scribbling intensely. Perhaps he kept a diary or journal. I don't remember if I ever asked, but he always was prepared to pull that notebook out of his pocket to record his immediate thoughts. I used to think it was rather eccentric or even slightly charming, but now I see why he did it. I don't know if it will work for me, but I think I must at least try to carry a notebook with me to preserve the memory of things I know at the time are worth remembering, but which, as we all know, end up in the dustbins of our minds.

Finally, I grapple here in this entry with another conundrum of the online journal writer as I perceive it: Do these regular, but brief, outcroppings of writing satisfy in the long term, or would some more sustained writing about a particular subject or topic be more gratifying and rewarding? But then, who would read that? Would it become just a bulky manuscript that collects in the bottom of a drawer? What about all those many vignettes I've written in this space in the past year? How do they come together in a kind of narrative sense about me, the author? Also, for whom am I really writing all this?

I suppose this medium of Internet publication, being unique and unprecedented, has provided me with answers, of a sort, to those questions. And, for the time being, that is enough.

May 19, 1999

The twilight was blurred and soft. Supper was almost ready and the smell of cabbage floated to them from the open hall. All of them were together except Hazel, who had not come home from work, and Etta, who still lay sick in bed. Their Dad leaned back in a chair with his sock-feet on the bannisters. Bill was on the step with the kids. Their Mama sat on the swing fanning herself with the newspaper. Across the street a girl new in the neighborhood skated up and down the sidewalk on one roller skate. The lights on the block were just beginning to be turned on, and far away a man was calling someone.

from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

I could almost picture that scene yesterday afternoon. I was at the house in Charleston, and I sat and rocked for a long time out on the porch. The ceiling fan whirred soundlessly, Sophie the cat hopped by to take her usual place on the ledge just beyond the porch railing, and the fountain in the front yard garden watered the dolphins suspended above the pool of the fountain.

It had been a stressful day. Tensions had built up. They needed to be released. That old Charleston rocker was just the perfect elixir for the soul. I got more and more relaxed. I thought about things other than what had been preoccupying me. My thoughts started making more sense. They began to come into sharper focus, and a better perspective on life at that moment emerged in the world of little details around me.

I could hear voices of people coming from the little grocery store on the corner, the college kid next door walking up to his front door and calling out to his dog, Cooper, waiting for him on the upstairs balcony, teenagers roller blading down the street, two small boys laughing raucously and chasing each other down the sidewalk.

Meanwhile, I thought it would be nice to half doze for awhile as the sun was going down, for the heat and light at that time of day allowed for basking in a kind of mellow glow. But I was still not quite calm enough for that, although the sun felt good on my face as I closed my eyes.

The quote above comes from a very special little book, "Out on the Porch: An Evocation in Words and Pictures." It is filled with photographs of old houses and porches, mostly from several decades back and early in the century, and quotations from literature in which porch life is described. This was from a time, of course, before sprawling suburbs, fenced yards, bans on sidewalks, and strip shopping centers. Neighbors more than likely knew each other, with all the various ramifications of that, and people sat out on porches greeting their neighbors and talking long into the night as crickets sang in the shrubs and cicadas droned their summer song.

On the cover of that book is a picture from another of my favorite books, "The American South: Four Seasons of the Land." The photographs are by James Bake. The one on the cover is of the front porch of an old house in Vilas, North Carolina: weathered boards, screen door, pale sunlight reflected in one of the windows and a green rocking chair with two cats sitting side by side and looking out on the world. I can almost hear the screen door open and slam shut as kids rush back outside after supper and the adults make their way out to the porch to sit awhile, with nothing much to think about and the cares of the day about to be rocked away in those chairs.

May 17, 1999

Yesterday was one of those perfect days on the beach -- a gentle wind and nice temperatures, just right and pleasing to the skin. Not too much warmth, not too cool, either. It was the kind of afternoon where I could sit out there, gaze across the ocean, and feel my mixed-up and confused thoughts subside into calmer and more expansive ones, lifting me slowly and gently into a kind of reverie.

So it was this past Sunday. My brother was out there at the beach house, putting in insulation, sawing wood, and checking on shelves and paneling he had installed. He is practically rebuilding the inside of the house. He can build anything he wants to, basically. I look at him in wonder sometimes. He is so happy when he is doing this work, busy at what he likes to do best.

Occasionally, but not too often, my mother will come out to the beach from her home in Charleston. I had told her in the morning to call me and let me know if she wanted to drive out there with me. I didn't think she would, but it was such a beautiful day that she called about three and said, Yes, she thought it would do her good to go.

I drove over from James Island to pick her up. As we approached the beach town we've entered so many countless times over the past 40 years, the traffic came to a halt, and we drove the next two miles bumper to bumper. It turned out the annual Sea and Surf Festival was being held and Center Street was blocked off with traffic re-routed around side roads. I practiced calm and told myself to use the extra time to observe things I ordinarily would never notice.

The time passed, and the traffic inched forward, but soon we were past the surfers and crowds and into the home stretch. At the house, I parked in the driveway, got the lounge chair out of the trunk, and proceeded to the beach, down a sandy passagway between houses, past wild daisies and prickly pear cacti whose magnificent, milky yellow blooms have been so stunning to look at up close.

My mother sat out on the front porch, that gathering place on so many occasions where we'd come back from the beach and sit to cool off in the ocean breeezes. The sound of wind that constantly rustles the palmetto trees and the calling of the black grackles, are so enduring and familiar, such reassuring markers of time and place. .

After awhile, my brother persuaded her to come out to the beach, although she had been quite content to stay on the porch. The three of us were out there watching the surf and two pelicans that seemed to want to fly just overhead before soaring out over the ocean. We had one of those rare and special times together that don't last long.

I was crouching on a little ridge of shells that lined the beach at the high tide line. I looked over to observe my mother as she sat there. She had this really beautiful expression of happiness on her face as she breathed in salt air and told us how wonderful it was to be there. I wanted her smile to linger.

I could remember myself just a little while earlier doing the same thing. I was releasing some of the tension and worry I felt earlier. I wish now I could have seen what my face revealed in those moments when I think I actually could have seen into my soul.

I took a piece of driftwood and poked around, looking for one of those elusive little shells that are unbroken and so pretty to look at with their intricately sculpted forms and shapes. I couldn't find any yesterday, but it didn't matter. I was content with what I had.

This afternoon, as I relax and write this in my recliner chair in the living room, listening to classical guitar music, I think back to the pleasant walk I came in from only a short while ago. It was just about sunset, a bird was singing in a tree, the wind was still, not a leaf stirred. I was walking through the quiet of time. I detected the faint smell of honeysuckle.

Although I wasn't at the beach to look for some unbroken little shell to take home, I discovered something else. Earlier this evening I gained some precious wisdom from another person, and I am grateful.

May 16, 1999

It looks like condominiums are starting to come to Folly Beach, creeping condoism, and it's not a pleasant sight at the hitherto unscathed "Edge of America," as Folly is nicknamed. I hadn't really been aware of it happening at the beach until just the other evening when my brother and I had dinner at a seafood restaurant and were walking out over the ocean on the long pier at the foot of Center Street. Out a ways we could see what was going on, and it was startling. Several four or five-story buildings were going up in the vicinity of the center of town, including on the oceanfront itself.

This has been unheard of in the past. Condominiums just weren't part of the story. At first I wanted to pretend they weren't that big or unusual -- they weren't 10-12 story highrises, after all.. But they looked like condos, nevertheless, and, apparently, they are, so says my architect brother, and he should know.

And, I was reading in the paper where critics of these developments say there is a battle going on over a density ordinance that will impact future development even more. Developers are applying pressure on city council to approve the new ordinance so that larger buildings can be constructed. They are outside investors who want to make money, and they see an opening.

Residents of the beach who want to preserve Folly that way it's been in the past say "they're sick of seeing condominiums and large buildings where you used to see the Folly River or the Atlantic Ocean or even just the sky."

I don't live on the beach, so I don't notice a lot of the things until I have a good view of what's going on, or if suddenly there's a big building going up. It's hard to believe this is happening to a place I love so much. Folly Beach has always stood out from the other beaches in the area as a haven or oasis for a wide mixture of people whose houses and yards reflect that eclectic mix. You just don't see that at the other beaches. Folly Beach has character. Everyone around here knows and treasures that about Folly I just hope development won't change the way the town and beach have been for many decades. This is a very wrenching time there for longtime residents and visitors.

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