September 30, 2000
I'm going back to another one of those strange times in my past, a period when I was in complete limbo and found myself in a job which was so hideously boring and mind-bendingly vacuous that I thought at times I was going to lose it completely.
It was the fall of 1984, and I had just returned from my first around-the-country road trip, having spent the summer of that year as a temp in a law firm in Seattle trying to earn enough money to return to New Orleans. The drive from Seattle to New Orleans in August was so wonderful and grand an experience that I was completely diverted from the messy realities that awaited me back in New Orleans, namely, no job and no place to live other than with my brother.
When I came back, I tried to settle into a room in the rear apartment on Louisiana Avenue where my brother and his roommate lived and where they generously agreed to let me stay for awhile.
For the first few weeks, I was still off on that trip somewhere, crossing the high plains of eastern Colorado, following mountain rivers past historic sites and natural wonders, in awe over the vast, open-sky world of the West. I spent days typing the journal entries from the trip on my battered Smith-Corona typewriter, oblivious to whatever cares and anxieties were soon to beset me.
A short time later, I was starting work at a large downtown law firm, a paralegal job obtained through the connections of my attorney father, whose connections were many and powerful in that city. I didn't want to do it, and I didn't like the idea of being set up in something, but I felt I had no choice. I had no idea what to do otherwise, and I had just spent the summer summarizing depositions at another large law firm across the country. Needless to say, people tend to want to know how you come upon a job such as that on such short notice, and, being naturally suspicious and resentful, some of them set out to either ignore me or make life difficult for me, or humiliate me, which happened auspiciously during the first week. And my father happened to see the perpetration of that noxious little stunt. I'm not a person who hates, but I came close with that one individual at that law firm. I never had any more trouble from him, however.
Here I was, two careers behind me in newspaper work and teaching, shuffling papers and given busy work that seemed to me further punishment for my having had so many weeks of carefree travel and road adventures. It was like some leavening force sent to flatten me into submission, into the knowledge that I could not get away with such things as freedom from responsibility, jobs, rent, obligations, etc., even if for a short time.
I remember a temp worker who had it worse than I did, and she went about her tasks uncomplainingly. I can see her now, a middle-aged woman, from a typical New Orleans neighborhood, stuck in a small, windowless storage room in that high-rise, with a photo-copy machine, and surrounded by dozens of boxes of documents from the discovery proceedings of a large and seemingly endless litigation involving big oil companies, towing companies and the like. And this brave woman, in order to make her $3.75 an hour, had to systematically take those documents apart for eight hours a day and make copies of them. It was staggering to me. I just couldn't imagine having the coping skills to do that day in and day out, with no break in the routine.
My co-workers were several other paralegals, all in their early to mid-twenties, so I was the elder of the group at 33. One of them was a truly obnoxious person, not long out of college, in her first big job and full of every conceit to which a person of her uptown and privileged background was susceptible. I couldn't believe that I was working with her. It was almost unbearable, but the whole place was almost unbearable -- joyless, souless lawyers driven by the fierce need to obtain billable hours. My state of mind did not exactly endear me to them, but I was so completely out of place there that it didn't really matter. It is painful to this day to even think about the whole situation.
I had one acquaintance there I'd occasionally go to lunch with, a young man in his mid-twenties, impeccably dressed compared to my more casual style, and very serious and intent about making some kind of mark in that very epitome of an establishment law firm. We'd occasonally eat poboy sandwiches and French fries at some restaurant on St. Charles Ave. or in the French Quarter, a few blocks over from where we worked.
But most of the time I had lunch by myself, walking around the downtown area and absorbing the sights, sounds, and shocks of that frenetic city at lunch hour.
Most often I'd walk down Canal Street to a huge B. Dalton Bookstore (I don't know if it's still there), and spend the remainder of my lunch hour browsing among all the titles, stretching out time as much as I could before heading back to that dreaded office.
This was in the dead center of the most turbulent, confused and utterly directionless decade of my life. I had drifted away from whatever moorings I had in the Catholic Church, intermittently attending services, but sensing I could not stay much longer. I was just aimless, there is no other word to describe it. In the prime of life. A castaway marooned in some spiritual desert. I kept trying to understand why I couldn't settle down, why my previous teaching career had come apart, why, why, why?
At that Dalton bookstore, I spent a lot of time in the psychology and religion sections, looking for anything that would take me out of the present and stimuate my mind and mental capacity. The paralegal job was a trial, a continuing punishment. This was my escape.
I've always been interested in other religions, beliefs, spiritual practices, religio-philosophical teachings and the like, but never have studied them in any systematic or determined way. I just accepted that I would always find myself drawn back to the mainstream, mainline churches of Christianity.
I kept picking up rather esoteric books at the library and reading them, or thumbing through the pages of titles that piqued my interest at the bookstore.
To this day, I remember one of them, a strangely compelling and mystical account of human evolution and spiritual development by Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, titled "Cosmic Consciousness." What an outlandish name for a work, I thought, so grandiose and bizarre. I opened the book, I recall, and read these words, which I quote here. They describe the experience Bucke went through, and which he later discovered, or thought he had discerned, were similar to experiences recorded in the works of such disparate figures throughout history as Dante, Paul the Apostle, Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Jacob Boehm, and Francis Bacon. There were others. Here is how Bucke described his experience. He was in a carriage, at midnight in London. The year was 1872. He had left a gathering of friends in which works by Shelley, Keats, Browning, Wordsworth, and especially, Whitman were read. He wrote:
All at once without warning of any kind, I found myself wrapped in a flame-colored cloud. For an instant I thought of fire, an immense conflagration somewhere close by in that great city; the next thing I knew the fire was within myself. Directly afterward there came upon me a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness acocompanied or immediately followed by intellectual illumination impossible to describe. Among other things, I did not merely come to believe, but I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence; I became conscious in myself of eternal life. It was not a conviction that I would have eternal life, but a consciousness that I possessed eternal life then; I saw that all men are immortal; that the cosmic order is such that without any peradventure, all things work together for the good for each and all; that the foundation principle of the world, of all the worlds, is what we call love, and that the happiness of each [person] is in the long run absolutely certain."
Bucke believed that during the course of humanity's evolutionary development, there are three forms of consciousness: 1) simple consciousness -- our instinctual consciousness; 2) Self-consciousness, that self-awareness that allows a person to see himself or herself as a distinct entity; and 3) cosmic consciousness, a new and developing faculty at the pinnacle of our evolution.
I was intrigued by the book and bought it and read further. Bucke also believed that few attain such experiences of illumination, but that certain figures in history have, and their works serve as guides to other humans seeking enlightenment.
Bucke's book "Cosmic Consciousness" was not written until the turn of the century, and is considered one of the classics of mystical experience. It is the only book I remember from that troubled period in my life 16 years ago. Out of a nine-month period of time in which the indignities of a job stand out in bold relief in my memory, there was that curious discovery of a book that, at least for a short time, made me think beyond the bounds of all the prior religious instruction I had obtained, all the creeds and teachings, the authority and structure of organized religions such as Christianity.
Lately, I've been thinking about that book, for some reason, and about that almost lost period in my life. For a long time afterward, I never could read Whitman the same way as before reading Bucke . Nor Wordsworth. But I came to realize once again, in subsequent years, how strange and mysterious the human mind is, and how fallible the mortals who attempt to serve as guides and explicators of the secrets of the universe, which they claim continue to be revealed to a select few persons.
What do these incidents, such as my stumbling on that book years ago at B. Dalton, tell us? How does one incorporate into one's thinking about Bucke the fact that for 25 years he was superintendent of the Asylum for the Insane in London, Ontario? Was his revelation perhaps merely an episode of psychosis? Was he able to detach himself from the prevailing beliefs about mental illness at that time during the 19th century? Was he an enlightened humanitarian?
I am open to illumination from the teachings and writings of others, and I want to think my consciousness is evolving, as are my moral and spiritual selves. But who are we to believe, and, can any mere human serve as a trusted guide? Yes, but they have to speak to us first. We can return to the words of saints, mystics, teachers, guides, and spiritual leaders later in life, or we can continue to search, beyond the scope of what we already claim to know and believe. I don't believe the process ever ends. And I have no way of accounting for, or fully comprehending, the experience of a man like Bucke in that carriage in London 128 years ago. I can marvel at what he claimed happened to him. I can try to read the works of those he said had attained the level of cosmic consciousness. Or I can think that I am fortunate that my life has not been so drastically altered by a mystical experience, and that I am relatively ordinary human being, struggling each day to find and achieve his place in the world -- one day at a time, and incrementlally, with much assistance from all the people I encounter daily, and from whatever I "chance" to read on any given day.
I can only remember certain bit and pieces of what occurred in my life in 1984, but I can never forget those significant incidents, for they are essential pieces of the puzzle. Perhaps one day I will understand.
September 28, 2000
I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene betwen a man and his fellows.
by Henry David Thoreau
Some months ago, I came across a small book published in 1968 (a telling year) titled, "Reflections at Walden Pond," and it contains excerpts from a number of Thoreau's works, including, in addition to Walden,selections from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, theJournals, andCivil Disobedience. The little book contains photographs taken at Walden Pond those many years after Thoreau spent so much time there. I never know what I am going to come across at the used books place where I get all these treasures, but it's always a surprise.
Of course, in 1968 the Vietnam War protests were beginning in earnest, some of the youth in my high school were going off to that most terrible of wars, and there was a growing anti-establishment movement for which the 60s is now known. It was a decade of civil unrest, racial upheaveal in the major cities of the country, as well as the decade in which the assasinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy occurred.
I mention all this by way of introduction because, while the times were ripe for organizing and student protest, they also engendered a profound need and desire among many people to try to leave behind industrial society and return to simpler means of living that were more in tune with Nature and the land. Thoreau actually tried to live the simpler life in that cabin by the woods at Walden, and he inspired many an idealistic youth to seek saner ways of being in the world than what confronted us in that decade.
It was in many ways a very unhappy period of time for me, as my youth and adolescence took place in those years of the sixties, and I was naturally inclined to stay to myself and retreat from people. I spent a lot of time dreaming of being in the country. I wrote my first major English research paper on Thoreau and Emerson in 11th grade in 1968.
By the time I got to college, I was prepared to endure all it took to get my degree because I "knew" I had to in order to "succeed" in the world that lay beyond my limited realm of experience.
But, as in high school, I spent an inordinate amount of my time alone with my thoughts and irrational fears, sometime subdued and dominated by them, other times merely hemmed in by them. I had enough social contact with my roommates in the dorm to keep me marginally involved in others' lives, but my most persistent memories of those first years of college were of going off by myself to the lake with a book or taking long walks and bike rides by myself.
I cultivated solitude from an early age, not because I was anti-social, but because I was more comfortable in my own company than in the company of others. I never had any close friends all those years, so I depended on my owns wits and lonely sojourns in my imagination to keep my sanity, although it was a very perilous crossing those first few years.
And today, 30 years later, I still find myself turning to the words of Thoreau, for he at least had the courage to be an individual in a society to which he wouldn't or couldn't conform. He lived alone all his life. I have done likewise. I have sought solace in the outdoors, in Nature, ever since I acquired the means to really know that world outside the environs of my upbringing once I became independent enough to travel and see it.
The other day a co-worker and I were marveling at how different our lives were at home and at work. At work we each metamorphose daily into lively, animated, chatting, joking and radiant people needing and enjoying the company of others. At home, we withdraw into our own worlds. I sometimes don't even recognize myself when I think of how I am at work and when I consider the solitude, quiet, and privacy which envelop me now as I write this at my computer. There are rarely any phone calls, and rarely any sounds or noises to intrude on my thoughts. And, if I didn't venture out, I could have this solitude for days on end, if it weren't for the weekends ending and work starting up again each Monday, and if I didn't have family here with whom I am in daily contact.
Sometimes I can agree with Thoreau when he says, "I love to be alone," but more often it is a matter of not having any choice in the matter. It is the way things are and always have been. And the longer I live, the more I realize how many other people have similar lives of solitude and living alone. It's how I choose to use this time that counts, and I am often very unhappy with my choices.
Someone recently wrote to me saying, "...you appear to be at peace with yourself regarding your life and past." Yes, I hope to convey that image of myself to people, but it is more that this is the way I hope to be than the way I really am. It is a never-ending process, this casting off the ego and looking beyond the self.
Unfortunately, when you live alone, it becomes much more difficult to think of others as much as, or more than, yourself because your immediate obligation is only to that person you look at in the mirror each morning when you wake up and stumble into the bathroom. There will be no one else running water for oatmeal and coffee, no one else putting on the TV or music to listen to. It's just myself, and I. I'm not making a judgment about myself here. I am stating the facts as clearly as I know how. And I live with that reality, and I accept it.
September 25, 2000
Sign at the entrance to Folly Beach: Welcome to the Edge of America
...What is the draw of the edge? When I come to face the sea, the great bulk of the land at my back falls away. It is the measurable and the known; before me is all unfathomed magnitude and mystery...
As I was sitting by the ocean yesterday afternoon, I found myself continually looking up from my book to the line of the horizon, unobstructed miles in the distance. For 180 degrees -- nothing, just ocean and that far off line, so manifestly level and straight. This is where the land ends.
I am at that narrow place between land and sea, and yesterday it was high tide, and there was only a tiny sliver of sand upon which to set up my chair. I wasn't really aware of anything in back of me, that land mass upon which Charleston and the surrounding counties reside. I was aware, instead, of the ocean right in front of me.
There really was hardly any room for anyone else to pass. So when people would walk by with their dogs, usually, they were practically in my face. I'd look up and there they were, right under my nose, so to speak. I didn't like it. I didn't want to share that sliver of land with anyone. Why couldn't they have walked in the water instead of invading my space? I get kind of selfish like that when I'm at the beach and lost in my thoughts. I don't like them to be interrupted or disturbed, but disturbed they continually are. A woman was about three feet in front of me picking up shells, and her small daughter was about 3 or 4 feet in back of me. They ignored me. I ignored them.
This is how the beach affects me sometimes. It is not a place where I feel like embracing humanity. I want to be alone with the wind, and birds and the elements. People seem so insignificant out there, and they all seem to be caught up in their own little worlds, like me.
Thus, I don't feel too bad about ignoring them. The beach these late afternoons and evenings is private. That's the way it should be. I want to be alone, facing "the unfathamable magnitude and mystery."
September 23, 2000
Caw Caw Interpretive Park
Charleston County, SC
What an incredible day! Just beautiful. I'm sitting overlooking a grove of oak trees in a clearing here at Caw Caw. There's a good wind blowing. The end-of-summer crickets are chirping away in some high grass to my right. It's such a pleasant, steady, soothing sound. The sky is very blue with clouds moving briskly overhead. It's rained a lot lately, so the air is sweet and clean-smelling. I love the way the sunlight and shadows merge in the grass. A lonely cicada is droning its song in a tree. Another reminder that summer is still with us, but fading
At the conclusion of a 1 1/2 mile walk, I am resting in a nice breeze on the observation deck overlooking Waterfowl Pond. I have been watching red-shouldered hawks and great blue herons, ospreys, and other birds through my binoculars as they soar and pick up speed on air currents several hundred feet above me.
This breeze off the former rice fields, whose canals still are filled with water, feels wonderful. I could sit out here the whole afternoon.
There's a six-foot long alligator sunning on an exposed mud bank about a hundred feet from where I'm sitting. Big, fat dragonflies dart about gobbling up mosquitoes. I hear the hawks in the distance with their familiar and eternal call. Some of them are soaring gracefully over the tops of trees in the woods off in the distance. An osprey just flew off to my right. I hear the crickets again. Summer seems very much alive now. The only hint of fall is the slightly cooler air that is blowing in gentle gusts over the marsh grass, but that is partly due to the cooling rains we've had lately.
The gator has just silently and smoothly slipped off the mud bank into the water. I see only the tops of his eyes and his head through my binoculars. In a little while he will be gone.
September 22, 2000
The familiar comforts of home don't seem to comfort me too much tonight. I'm glad it's the weekend. I'll be off from work, but it's supposed to rain tomorrow with that tropical system that came up from the Gulf, so I'm not sure if I can get out for the drive in the country I had been counting on all week.
I really need to get away from Charleston for awhile. I feel restless. Uptight. I want to just roll the windows down in the car and let the wind blow in and the countryside roll by as if in some pleasant dream of another world or place.
As I think about things now, I realize I am overwhelmed with things to read. New books. Magazines piling up unread. Really good used books that I've bought lately. They're all waiting for me to unearth their treasures. I have CDs to listen to. A novel to read. I want to do so much, but I am here sitting in front of this computer screen writing, as if my very existence depends on posting an entry at this journal. In a way it does. It's like food and air -- take it away and I suffer. When I'm at work, I'm okay because I can't think as much about myself and how little real, ernest, close, comforting -- anything, actually -- contact I have with someone else. Only this man alone in his private world at home.
I feel anxious, and I don't really know why. Nothing is that different for me than a day or a week or a month ago, but I feel a change. I feel more intensely than usual that numbness to sensation and experience that lingers at times in back of my consciousness -- as I'm driving to and from work, as I pull into the parking lot at the grocery store, as I walk the aisles of Barnes and Noble, looking, for yes, more books that I can't possibly read, but which I still want. This compulsion to acquire I think has become a cliche for the emptiness I must feel deep down so often. Such as tonight. I want so much. I have so much. And yet I have so little, too. I cast about ready to burst out of my skin tonight so badly do I want something I don't have and maybe cannot have.
It was a long day at work, and that didn't help. I was anxious to be out of there. Now I'm out of there and so what? What difference does it make?
I'll likely be in tomorrow all day staying out of the rain and staring at the bad weather, but if it clears up some, I will get in the car and just GO, anywhere, away from here. Caw Caw Park would be nice. Beidler Forest would be better, but I will save that pleasure for a cooler day in October.
Right now it's nearing the end of the first day of fall, and I am trying to pull myself out of this lonely little hole I've dug for myself. I think I will just have to hunker down with a stack of books and magazines and read well into the early hours of the morning. That will take me somewhere, I feel sure.
September 20, 2000
Sept. 19, 7:20 pm
There is a beautiful sky in front of me over the ocean. Pinkish-orange sunset streaks color all the layers. The air is cool, for we are having a noticeable preview of autumn. There is a steady seabreeze which I love. A contingent of 20 or so pelicans just flew by low over the water just offshore.
The sky is changing every minute now as I observe it. The pink of a fading sunset is deeper and richer, lovely to look at. Each sunset is so different from all that have come before. I want to just put my head back and savor it while it lasts.
Gone. The colors have departed. The sky is a dark slate blue. Just a few flecks of faded pink hues. The beach is mostly empty except for a few people walking their dogs and jogging in the gathering darkness.
I am becoming more relaxed. Night advances as the light retreats altogether from the sky. It is easy to breathe deeply and close my eyes to the day that is ending.
Words leave me. My mind was about to become quite empty of thoughts until I heard a voice just now -- my brother coming out to the beach for a little while. He wasn't home when I first arrived. He has alerted me to the sight of two motorized parachutes heading for us from the marshes in back of the beach. It is a strange sight. I think I have only seen this once or twice before. They were about 300-400 feet above us. I thought they were coming down for a landing, but they turned around right when they were directly above us and headed down the beach with the wind in back of them. They were going much faster than before. It was almost dark. Surely they were going to land soon. But they disappeared from view.
What people won't do to fly.
Later: It seemed rather absurd and preposterous to me, those little contraptions they appeared to be sitting in non-chalantly as they tooled around the beach, motors sounding like little airplanes. I suppose they sensed some sort of freedom from their earthly tethers for awhile. I just wanted to look up into the night sky and see the stars that later came out in abundance.
September 17, 2000
Flashback: It's the fall of 1989 (why are all these visits to the past taking place in the fall, I wonder?). There's a two-block stretch of Magazine Street in the uptown section of New Orleans that is very special and unique. All of that ribbon-of-life street, so quintessentially New Orleans, is unique, actually, but this section is near where I lived with my brother on Laurel Street, in a renovated shotgun house which was one-room wide on a narrow lot with no side yard to speak of. It had a small porch and yard at the back. Typical of New Orleans. I stayed there while I was unemployed and finishing up my master's thesis in journalism. I worked part-time at the front desk of his architeture firm, answering the phone and doing other odd jobs, but there was not a lot to do. It was only a small firm, and the four architects did most everything themselves. I answered the phone. This office in a converted house was also on Magazine Street, but many blocks closer ot downtown.
Now the little shotgun house where I lived temporarily was on a modest street in a very mixed neighborhood of incomes, races and family types. It was a refuge for me during some very bad times. My brother was not there often as he worked incredibly long hours and had other interests, shall we say, and so I had the house pretty much to myself. I took long walks in the surrounding neighborhoods and would occasionally ride a bicycle to the levee along the Mississippi River, which was only a few blocks away across Tchopitoulas St.
Now this small strip of stores and businesses that I frequented on Magazine Street had a really nice independent bookseller, a florist, an eclectic newstand for awhile, a pet shop, a health food store and sandwich shop, and also, at one time, one of the outstanding fine photography galleries in the Southeast. (It has since moved to Royal Street in the French Quarter and is still there, as far as I know).
I'd visit all of these places when I had to get out for awhile. Oh, the bank was there on that block, too. And it was like a little miniature downtown. There were other places like that in New Orleans, small business districts in old, historic suburbs connected in decades past by streetcars which traveled to and from the bustling big city of New Orleans, five miles or more downriver. The area I lived in was called the "Carrollton" suburb in the 19th century, or maybe it was the "town of Carrollton," I don't remember, and Jefferson Avenue and Magazine Street were two of its hub thoroughfares, one residential, the other commercial. Not too far away was Carrollton Avenue. The last remaining streetcar line in New Orleans still runs down St. Charles Avenue to Carrollton Avenue. I have taken it many times since I was a youth growing up in East Jefferson and Algiers. It was always fun, like riding a train.
But those days during the fall of 1989 and spring of 1990, folded into long months with not very much to do, since being out of work involves a lot of time spent in a kind of numbed daze, dreading the beginning of each day, but finding peace of sorts at night.
I recall that during the nadir of that long night of joblessness, there were always the bookstore and shops to visit, as well as the nearby library at Loyola University. I didn't feel so lost when I was out and about, appearing to be an employed, productive citizen of that fair city, when in reality, I was a 38-year-old unemployed former newspaper reporter, editor and teacher who quite simply had no idea what was going to happen next.
And I remember one day, I was in the small laundromat on that block (yes, a laundromat was located there, too), watching a load of clothes spin around in a kind of soothing, rhythmic manner, and feeling that I had nothing much left to look forward to. Where was I going to escape to this time? Laundromats are wonderful places for confronting the existential "now." There will always be clothes to wash, and you are helpless to do anything much but wait around and read a newspaper or sit and stare at the walls, or, in the case of that particular laundromat, look out the window at the passing parade on Magazine Street. I always felt I had accomplished something when I was done there. The grim burden of my condition was eased for a while. Normalcy prevailed. My brother's washer and dryer were not always working, so that's why I had to repair to that laundromat on Magazine Street occasionally.
Magazine is a busy, vibrant and noisy street, filled with a steady stream of cars, buses, and pedestrians. It's the first street I will want to drive down again when I next visit New Orleans. I remember my mother for many years regularly visited all the antique shops up and down the length of the street. Every kind of business and restaurant, as well as New Orleans-style houses, accents, and typical street scenes abounded on that fantastic two-lane street, particularly at major intersections where other grand New Orleans avenues ran north and south and perpendicular to Magazine.
I miss New Orleans.
September 15, 2000
If you live in one place long enough, you begin to lose the defenses you've erected in order to survive in industrial civilization, and you fall into the rhythm of the land. You develop a different sense of the natural world and no longer have to think of things in the abstract. You think, instead, of how the land looks and what it's telling you...you have an ongong experiential context. If you don't, your life is limited to little disconnected experiences.
Flashback: Hattiesburg, in southern Mississippi, fall 1986, in a small one-bedroom apartment, shabby furniture, low-rent, lying on my bed listening to a cassette tape of guitar music by Gabriel Lee called "Impressions;" dazed, weary, wondering why I am there. I am marking time. In the wrong place. Negative emotions and some truly life-draining and awful people combine with a very rewarding teaching experience and mistaken choices (which I didn't know ahead of time would be so disastrous) -- all this makes me only too aware that I am a casual visitor to this place, and yet to survive emotionally amid the intense loneliness (I have never in my life felt so lonely), I have to take the measure of the PLACE where I am and live there each day and forget about the days just past. I have to make something of each present day, for I cannot just pack up and leave. I have obligations.
Minus any sustained or meaningful human contact, I take drives in the country to let the road carry me out of my numbness for awhile. But then I must return. I take walks in the neighborhood, a really beautiful area of nice homes and tall, tall pine trees and azaleas that bloomed magnificently in the two springs I was there.
Because of the depression and isolation I was feeling, those walks amid the towering pine trees, and those drives in the countryside to hike along Black Creek for short distances and then walk down the bank to the water's edge and sit out on a sandbar, gave me a tiny inkling of what it must be like to really live in that part of the country, to know it familiarly as home. I was never to have that knowledge in the fullest and most meaningful sense.
As soon as my final semester teaching was over, I sold my bed, packed a few boxes with books and kitchen utensils, and left. For good. Never to return.
Until now, my life has consisted of many such brief encounters with places and the land those places are intimately attached to. I came to know each of them just well enough to long for something deeper than words can express, but my experiences were always short-lived, and my longings always unfulfilled and thwarted by circumstances I seemed both helpless to alter but which I was always aware I had chosen of my own free will. I came to know the consquences, but I endured for as long as I had to.
September 14, 2000
We went to the seafood store on the way to the beach yesterday afternoon to pick up some fresh shrimp and scallops which my brother fried for us for dinner. Delicious. It was about 7:15 when we had supper, and afterwards, I was back by the ocean in my favorite chair to sit in a mellow daze watching the last of the day turn into night, as I've done so often this summer.
As I was watching the horizon to the northeast, I saw a faint, orange orb begin to rise up out of the ocean. Stunning. One is never quite prepared to see a moonrise over the water. I just wasn't expecting it.
So I sat that there in awe and gratitude as the moon gradually ascended over the water, glowing more fiery orange, then pink-orange, then, as it rose higher, turning into the more familiar white, incandescent glowing ball that's so comforting, and yet so absolutely glorious in its majesty and beauty that one gazes at it as if for the first time.
That's the way I felt last night. I watched the moon rise and illumine a path over the water, and as it did, I was not as lonely as I was minutes earlier, though I was the only person on the beach, and night had arrived. The moon banished the darkest of that evening and gave it a faint, but warm and cheery, light from above, a full-moon lantern to keep me company on a night that would otherwise have been unusually empty and sad.
September 12, 2000
College of Charleston
12 noon, Sept. 11
I haven't been here in awhile. The summer heat has abated. It's quite pleasant in the garden in back of the student center. I'm under my favorite pecan tree, listening to birds in the distance. The sounds of traffic are muted.
It feels very much like early, early autumn, when the first hints of the season are more than just visible. It's something you feel emotionally. It's something that comes over you, a recognition, an acknowledgement that summer has seen better days. There's that first real wistfulness in the air, the stirring of moods from many past Septembers that have been slumbering in memory, lost to consciousness, until now.
I think back to Saturday's drive through the countryside to Sumter along the old Charleston Highway. It was like being in a dream where you are in the midst of such a beautiful setting that it doesn't seem quite real. I couldn't keep my eyes off the skies where every imaginable type of cloud formation filled the upper horizon. I've never seen anything like it. It was a day to look at those clouds and be awed by their beauty, mystery and variety.
September 9, 2000
I've been thinking a lot tonight about the last trip west I made to Seattle in late fall 1991, almost 9 years ago now, but light years in terms of the psychic distance hehind me as the past has receded deeper into my memories. I recall that trip especially in light of words I have written recently here that seem to come from another state of being entirely. Whereas now I am settled in a routine and job and "place" that have become as familiar and unvarying and as much a "home" in this life as any physical setting has ever been, back then in those rather dark and unsettled years, I was still in the process of trying to find some place where I could settle down, some job to which I could at last tether my energies and abilities, if not my hopes for the future.
I left New Orleans in early November of 1991, leaving behind some very unpleasant and mystifying recent experiences, and fleeing then-present realities, painful and disturbing to an extreme, which I will not go into here. I wondered if, at age 40, I would ever know something even resembling stability or security in my personal life or job situation.
I had planned a number of stops along the way at various towns, natural areas, parks, historic sites, and the like, as I had done on previous trips, but in the back of my mind as I contemplated making the most out of the rather dire prospects of having nothing ahead of me in the future, I wondered if I should turn back to New Orleans immediately or continue on, hoping I was making the right decision.
So, for hundreds of miles through Louisiana and Texas I thought of turning back. Never before had I felt this way on a trip. Finally, things began to ease a bit as I came to the splendid and magnificent Hill Country of south central Texas. What a beguiling land of beauty and enchantment. I can't even describe how that place makes me feel.
I visited first the Lost Maples State Natural Area, an unusual place where big tooth maples reside out of their normal range and where autumn colors along the small creek flowing through the area are said to rival New England's blaze of color. Very uncharacteristic for this part of the country.
But the color had been scant that autumn, and when I visited it was all but gone. The skies were very gray and dismal. The place had a haunting beauty, nevertheless, even on that bleak and cold day. I hiked and took pictures and tried to get into the spirit of travel and adventure, despite the grave doubts I was having about the wisdom of this whole trip and plan of action.
When I left the park, I had a couple of hundred miles to go before spending the night along I-10 somewhere in those vast empty spaces of Texas that would become sage and grassland, and eventually, mountain and desert as I approached Van Horn. But that was later.
As I made my way toward the interstate about 40 miles to the north after leaving Lost Maples, I decided to take a farm road along what I thought would be a scenic and winding route beside the Frio River. I miscalculated and soon realized the road did not follow the river, but instead veered off into some of the most mind-numbingly monotonous terrain and scenery I have ever encountered. I found myself on a winding and empty road, undulating over hills, with nothing but clumps of pinon pine and little cedar trees for miles in every direction. And the strange thing was, this road seemed to never end. I rarely miscalulate the lenth of time it will take to get someone on a particular road, but I did on this one. After about an hour, a sense of panic started to creep in, for there were no road signs, no landmarks, no houses, no nothing. Just range and grassland and an occasonal dirt or gravel road. I then considered the possibility I had turned off on some back road not on my map and thought I would be lost, night would fall, and I wouldn't know where I was. It was a terrible feeling and lasted for many miles until I finally came to the end of that road and found my bearings.
By that time, a drizzling rain was further deepening the feelings of depression that were taking hold. I thought again about turning back, back over the past 800 miles I had driven. But something kept me from doing so, and after several more hours of driving I at last came to Fort Stockton where I spent the night in a cheap motel and found a Burger King that sent waves of comfort and familiarity through me and for some reason gave me a needed psychological lift.
I returned with my take-out burger and fries and Coke to the motel, let the events of the day unfold in an attempt to understand what had happened, and then fell asleep knowing somewhere deep down that I would continue on West as planned.
And I did. The skies cleared the next day and I knew that Pecos and the extraordinary secrets and beauty of Guadalupe Mountains National park lay ahead over the next two days. Yes, I was going to continue my journey that fall. What else could I do?
September 6, 2000
But it must be remembered that life consists not of a series of of illustrious actions, or elegant enjoyments; the greater part of our time passes in compliance with necessities, in the performance of daily duties, in the removal of small inconveniences, in the procurement of petty pleasures; and we are well or ill at ease, as the main stream of life glides on smoothly, or is ruffled by small obstacles and frequent interruptions.
I love to read the words of Samuel Johnson. Boswell's "Life of Johnson" is one of my favorite books. He is a warm, sensible and humane man of letters, a thoroughly civilized Englishman who made a permanent and indelible mark on literature and culture. And Boswell's book made a permanent impression on me years ago.
Every now and then I read quotes by him, and I have much to think about. Here I feel I know what he is saying because I have been settled in one apartment and one job for going on six years now. Never in my life have I known such relative stability. With that comes a diminishing sense of fear for the future and uncertainty about what I will be doing or will become, and in its place is a sense of what Johnson calls "the state of common life." No extraordinary puzzles to figure out, no really major changes always looming on the horizon. Many of the answers to questions about myself are now known, not necessarily accepted, but thankfully, no longer the mysterious and agonizing self-polarizing forces that have driven me to despair and depression in the past.
Work and duties, my routines and life outside of work, which are still very much private and isolated, but not in a bad way, as they used to be, and also, and most importantly, a sense of deep commitment and responsbility to my elderly mother and my aunt in Sumter -- these things ARE my life now.
There are duties and obligations I never had before. I am older, much older in many ways, than I was when I moved to Charleston in 1994. But my life is good in many ways. I have wonderful friends at work. My brother lives here now. I am near some of the most beautiful natural areas in the state -- all within an hour's drive. The mainstream of my life glides smoothly, and the obstacles are mostly what I let them be. Self-knowledge -- at least for me at this time in my life -- has been the stabilizing factor. I hope that as I get older, I can always be this self-sufficient, but who knows? For now, I know the forces I have to contend with, and I am more tolerant of myself. But that doesn't mean I don't still have a lot to overcome. It's just that now I have no mere set of circumstances to blame, nor do I have youth to blame anymore either, nor my father. That is in the past. I am on my own now, and yet that is also why I feel those powerful obligations and sense of duty to my family. They have helped me arrive at where I am today. And I can never forget that.
September 4, 2000
Yesterday I happened to observe a young couple briefly while at a stop light. They were perhaps 19 or 20, maybe younger, and they were joking with each other and laughing. She pushed him to the side. He said something else which was very amusing to her, and they both broke into gales of laughter. Happy to be together. Young. It was one of the quick moments when you just know things are going right for people, and I wondered, why was I not sharing laughter and conversation with someone at that moment? Of course I knew the answer -- I wasn't at work.
**********Last night at the beach, I stayed out by the ocean until well past dark again. I'm doing this a lot now, and will continue to do so until the winds are too cool and the days too short with the coming of autumn.
Quite alone. Rather content because I don't seem to know much else lately, it seems, than to be satisfied with my own company. I had my small notebook, and I was writing poetry in it, and the wind was fresh with that ever-present sea-salt smell.
As darkness fell, I continued to stay where I was. Everyone else had left the beach for brightly lit houses or cars parked nearby. But as I got up to leave and was walking down the beach, I stopped before the path through the dunes and turned around to breathe in some more of that air. I spread my arms. I hated to leave. But there always comes that point where I have to, reluctantly.
Again, I was impressed mightily with the fact of my aloneness. There is never any one else here on the beach with me. Occasionally my brother will come out and talk to me before taking a short walk, but mostly it is myself, alone to commune with the elements there.
Many years ago in similar circumstances as I walked this same stretch of beach, I might have been overcome with the most melancholy feelings, and I often was. I imagined walking down the beach with someone, but there never was anyone. It was just a fantasy. I tried to visualize the situation and create a conversation. But it always vanished just as suddenly as it had appeared.
Now, hardened emotionally with the passage of years, calmer and less judgmental about the person I am and have always known myself to be, I proceed with the simple fact that I must go it alone. Deeper feelings about this are suspended, or just lost in time. I am untroubled because this is me. It's the way I am.
The ocean and far horizon, empty in the distance, can accentuate the sense of isolation if I let it. I don't.
September 1, 2000
One senses it immediately when August is over -- not only that change from one calendar month to another, but an indefinable change in perceptions, too. Usually, it's a stronger feeling in me, this shift from summer to fall, and that's because I always look forward to the cooler weather and doing things I don't usually consider because it's so hot in summer.
But since our summers extend through September here in Charleston, it's more of a psychological passage. Not as much this year, though, and it's strange because I usually live by the seasons. I change with them. I put on their colors and moods. Summer is often carefree, hot and filled with late afternoons and evenings sitting beside the ocean. This year it was that, particularly in August, but in June and July I was preoccuped with finishing grad school.
July seemed to be frozen in place for the longest time because I normally quickly change my wall calendar months. When I went to change them to September yesterday, I discovered that two of them were still stuck in July. True, I liked the scenes very much on the calender, but this is not like me at all. It was like I was not even noticing the days going by past a certain point. The August scene on one of them of a country farm house, surrounded by fields of crops, woods, bales of hay and a road going off into a white cloud distance, was hidden for all of August beneath the old month. It was a perfectly realized summer scene, too, and a kite arched up into the blue sky. It would have helped eased my way into fall.
But on my walk through the neighborhood night before last, I was at last cognizant of the end of summer. I just felt it. Not only did the few cicadas humming their long, fading drone off in the oak trees seem weary of it all, but that feeling of summer's end just hung heavy in the noticeably cooler air. I think cool weather more than anything made me aware of the approach of autumn because the trees and grass are still very green and the flowers continue to bloom, as they will for weeks to come. But I noticed the first yellow leaves in the sweet gums, and before long the little round prickly balls from those trees will be littering the ground.
We are enduring another hurricane season with its awful wait-and-see-what-will-happen period of yearly anxiety -- always at its worst in September.
So, September is back-to-school for all the youth, hurricane season, and still-hot days full of mixed emotions. The year is hurrying toward its conclusion. The new millennium seems old and familiar now, and 2001, with or without a space odyssey, will soon be here.