18 November 2018

Disappeared (Part 15)

“Seeker knelt at the edge of the prairie, retching his guts out with volcanic intensity. Slow poison and spiritual exhaustion had taken their toll. His arms trembling with the violence of the possessed, sheer force of will kept his head from dipping forward into the foulness polluting the ground. Behind him, roiling smoke besmirched the horizon of the sea of grass that once held his heart. Seeker could feel the heat even at the miles he had put between he and it. He spat. Pain radiated from the stone behind his breastbone.”

Those words were written over a year past, chronicled here in a grim story of an interior movie playing in a weary head. It was not a movie suitable for children. Censor and critic that I am to myself, my daughter would not be viewing it now, perhaps never. She was not quite ready, in my estimation, to know the Seeker. Ah, no. That is not quite correct. In my estimation I was not quite ready to reveal myself as the Seeker. The journey east would begin in hope, not despair.

Daddy and daughter a reverse Lewis and Clark. We loaded up our wheeled canoe on a warm July morning with St. Louis, Missouri as the destination on the first leg of this expedition. Our cat, King Pepe, served as the bobcat analogue to me as the Seeker. He was in much better shape than the cat in the movie and was not long for his carrier once we hit the highway. He would have made a good figurehead for our vessel if high velocity wind and common sense had not dictated that we not speed down the road with a cat strapped to the hood.

Off we went in a curious mix of trepidation, curiosity, and (in my case) melancholic relief.

In the rear view is a horizon smudged with smoke. The sun merges with the orange line of the horizon, liquefying itself among the flames consuming the grass. The city is a hologram of fading light as the wheels find their lead on the river of asphalt leading out of town. My daughter does not see the flames. I am grateful we will not discuss the burn.

Our first wicket is St. Louis, Missouri. Gateway to the West, as it fancies itself. The gateway will now operate in reverse, a door is swinging the other way. The road rolls up behind us across the state. Upon arrival, the city greets us with indifference and humidity. King Pepe awoke in a nervous state. Saucer-eyed, he struggled a bit during the effort to get him into the cat carrier. There was no such angst upon opening the hatch. The cat quickly sized up the hotel room, finding a perch on the windowsill looking out over the St. Louis night. I felt some kinship with the animal. I realized I had been shallow breathing, almost sipping the air, on the entire drive across Missouri. Setting down my suitcase loosened something in my torso, and my breath came out all in a rush. Shaking, dizzy, my shoulders rose. I gulped the air. For the first time in days, it did not smell of smoke. If anything, I detected a faint mineral aroma that spoke of cool water rushing over stones.

In the east the river carried on as befitted its nature. Or should I say rivers? Duality was present. A river existing in my mind and the river existing in the corporeal world. The vision was in my head, this movie of double exposures, simultaneously playing, but slightly off congruency. I heard things, too. Water over stones, leaf litter rustling in the breeze. Bird calls. In the spaces between burbles and trills I could hear the faint susurrus of my heartbeat. This is the earth reminding us that we are alive, and gratefully so. The comfort to be had in such moments is amplified in its power to sustain.

The Mississippi River lies not far from the hotel. Its presence can be felt even when out of eyesight. It may be that the river’s voice could be heard without the noise of the city constantly talking over it. Also, there is the arch. The Gateway Arch looms over downtown, a silver parabola etched against a sky of purplish anthracite. My daughter wishes to see it up close, as do I. This may be the last time either of us will be here. Timing and history are not lost on us. There must be a way to carry a positive parting memory of this time in the heartland.

We trekked through the streets and across a frenetic major arterial road. It was surprising amount of traffic for being later in the evening. Overhead across the way loomed the arch. An alien obelisk of stark light on metal. I looked forward to garnering some good pictures once we arrived at the base. The riparian aroma, fecund and earthy, wafted off the Mississippi, filling the night and our lungs. The knot in my diaphragm loosened up, I think in anticipation. But it was not to be.

Construction and renovation were underway at the base of the monument. Fencing stood between us and getting within Frisbee tossing distance, never mind actually touching the arch. My progeny huffed a sigh of disappointment. So did I. The metallic taste of sly irony spread across my tongue to coat the back of my throat. We had come far with open hearts and earnest hopes that would not be fulfilled. This was a familiar feeling. To my credit I took it in stride. My daughter did the same. This was minor. This was a trifle. The road still lay open, with promise of its own. The brilliance of the arch convinced me of it. We took some pictures, my daughter and I, then turned our backs to the river to make for room and sleep. The river before us would be crossed in the morning, and the gateway would fulfill its legacy.

11 November 2018

Disappeared (Part 14)

Morning light fills the erstwhile cryosleep chamber otherwise known as the bedroom. I contemplate the Newtonian physics of a life in motion, and how for the longest time I preferred my body at rest to remain in that condition. Inertia made things simpler, less strenuous than it would have been to overcome depression, fear, and cowardice. To stay at rest is the soul’s insulation against facing the realization that it has no self-esteem, no self-belief. In turn this paves the road to personal hell, accepting estrangement and isolation rather than facing fear to assume command of life. In the cool pearly light of that summer morning after returning from the east coast, I decided to face fear and shine light on my unknown. I took the job. The portage over the mountains would begin whether or not I was ready.

A low murmur becomes a muffled rasp. The muffled rasp becomes a loud rush and gurgle. It is the unmistakable voice of the rapids, out of view but not far off. Riverbank views bend through the parallax induced by the acceleration of the current. What changes in the sound of life! A mild Doppler effect, side effect of speed, provides anxiety and amusement. Holding in place on the shore is less of an option now that change has taken hold. The river will tell me what to do. Whispers among the eddies and rocks cajole me to have faith, hold tight, this is in your blood and bones. There is a new future unfolding here on this silver ribbon under the star-speckled dome of the sky. It will bloom as it should if I am patient and careful.

This current life is not all poetry and speculation. Obligations beget pragmatics. Sliding down the slope of summer brings me to a grand visit from my daughter. It is her long summer break. She will be spending a big chunk of that with me. In my new place where I am alone. I will not tell her of the loneliness and desperation to which I succumbed in this funeral palace. Instead we will live in the moment. We shall make plans. We will spend time enjoying the company of the other. Most importantly, we will make this life change a golden opportunity for adventure. It is rare in my experience to take slack time and turn it into a cross-country road trip with someone you love. But this is exactly what we shall do. Come the right time, and we will point the car eastward, following the highway and urging my possessions to catch up. While waiting for that to happen we will see something of the world between the middle of the country and the coast upon which we both were born. It is for the road, and life.

Meanwhile, the sparks that had flown had nestled themselves in the Sea of Grass, a fulfillment of wind and combustible nature. Tiny djinns attired in robes of pale gold and orange danced among the parched stalks, sending plumes of thin smoke up into the desiccating air. I could taste it in my many dreams of escape.

So it began. Fire on the prairie makes the animals run fast. I awoke one morning from a fever dream with my legs already in motion. My kid was coming for a visit. I was trying to catch the boomerang, get things under control, and have the bow pointed to the east.

04 November 2018

Disappeared (Part 13)

Flashback. It is summer. My first one alone after twenty-plus years of being in a relationship. I am on a footbridge that crosses a stream adjacent to the apartment complex into which I had recently moved. Beside me is my daughter, who is gazing intently into the water below the bridge. Water bugs dimple a surface reminiscent of quicksilver where the argentine sky is reflected through gaps between the crowns of trees lining the banks. My progeny is casting twigs and leaves into the stream, playing a game of “Pooh Sticks” while we pass the time on a lazy day. The uncomplicated smile on her face engraves itself in my memory. It will come back to me years later as I stand on a different bridge, watching a faster current in a stolen moment between adult obligations. It will, in turn, make me smile.

Spending money I possessed momentarily for a shot at money I was currently without. Standing on the edge of the ledge, rappelling rope in hand, nothing but air below was what I dreamed. Flying into Baltimore was the reality, a blitz trip of a visit with less than two days on the ground. I ate well that night of my arrival, with good friends. A full belly does wonders for the outlook. Later that night, in the warm submarine light of a neighborhood bar, the bartender tempted me with the possibility of another fine drink. But recent history and prudence made the right decision. I contented myself with chewing a lonely ice cube sheathed in the memory of gin and lime. Clear head and a calm stomach for the morning, I said. There would be time for another drink later, whether in commiseration or celebration remained to be seen.

Good fortune was in the house. Rain dampened the day but the interview went well. It was shortly thereafter that I was offered the job. I nearly fainted with relief and gratitude. A sizable chunk of the future snapped into focus.

The river flowed on, a calm path into an arboreal canyon. This quicksilver thread stitched onward to the ocean, lit by the soft torch of promise. Sparks flew, carried far away to land among the sere undulations of the Sea of Grass. The terrain there had been sliding into aggressive desiccation for months. Lawns, trees, prairie grass had all assumed a cloak of dull brown that could not be unseen by my heart. There was rain, occasionally, that the ground seemed too weak to absorb. Perhaps spirits were at work, supernatural guides working overtime to convince my battered soul that to uproot was to return to life.

What is the proper name for the plate tectonics of one’s life? How to measure the drift of one’s continent of the soul? Can these things be quantified? I found myself lying awake in the small hours of the morning with those questions ringing in my head. The pent-up energies of frustration and helplessness slipping the leash as the possibility of positive, profound change materialized for me. I was nearly hollowed out by the breakneck rush of metaphorical air from my mental lungs, gasping with relief. It was clear that the ground was moving. With the ground on the move, at such pace, surely that meant the river would soon change its course.

I have often wondered if green, growing things worry about their roots. When the ground is drowning or it quakes in the grip of seismic nightmares, no tree can sleep easy in its bed. A loosening of the grip trembles its way from the tips to the crown, the heaviest of which is usually the first to fall. If my life had an advantage it was that it was not a tree. It was something smaller. Something closer to the ground. Any roots I had in the Sea of Grass were not thick and deep. These roots were sunk just enough to anchor me against the small floods and heavy winds of life. Thus, I kept on station just enough to buy some time. And now that time was in the bank.


28 October 2018

Disappeared (Part 12)

“Too thick to drink, too thin to plow”. So Mark Twain supposedly said about the Missouri River. I cannot attest to Big Mo’s drinkability, never having attempted such a foolish feat. I can say, having dipped my hands in it, that it is definitely too thin to plow. In all my crossings of that river I cannot recall a single instance where the water ran clear. Clarity is not in its nature. Turbidity as a feature of swift moving water served as template and metaphor for my state of mind before arranging my uprooting.

The scramble began to navigate out of the figurative hole in which I found myself while finding a literal place in which to live. Slim resources, low energy, heavy obligations: a perfect storm. No longer welcome it what had been my home, the circumstances had me on the rack. Confusion and hurt became the order of the day. The river seemed to be all rapids and no calm water. The year dragged on, finally turning as I shivered my way through life.

There was nothing left to do but treat this river the same way one survives a rip current in the ocean. Don’t struggle against it. Go with it. Keep yourself parallel to the shore. Survival is predicated on waiting it out while keeping the head above the water. Much of the ensuing months are blurry to me. Thinking became a luxury, indulged in rarely. Survival in a practical sense, fulfilling the obligations of food and shelter, absorbed my existence. Work was meager, but treasured for its ability to distract. I moved into an apartment that was too big. It was there that I began to make my way back to shore.

It should be said that my float trip down this river was not in total isolation. There were life preservers in the form of good friends, in the heartland and on the coast, who bucked me up. Offers of material support, advice, and companionship were gratefully accepted. Without them the journey would have been truly unbearable. One of the best pieces of guidance I received as I was sorting through the wreckage was the observation that “You know where you need to be.” This was offered at a time where my heart was deciding where my home really existed. The answer was to back on the coast, closer to my daughter and to the waters that flowed in my veins.

Where to be? A simple problem statement illuminating a complicated, seemingly impossible solution. The days were haunted by the specter of the lack of money. Photography was barely getting me by but the burn rate was not slowing down. The situation was unstable. The coast was calling me, infiltrating my dreams, but most mornings were a slow awakening in front of a stone wall at the back of a dead end tunnel. My imagination was failing.

Current flows ever on. A ceaseless advance of muddy, roiling water throughout the day and night. Once the hapless swimmer learns enough to avoid drowning the mind turns to thoughts of endurance. Swim, swim, long enough to find some solid ground in whatever form it presents itself. This river is known for its formation of sandbars. Even a patch of that tremulous ground would be welcome to an exhausted soul. To the extent I could keep my head above the waterline I kept a lookout as far out as possible. Nothing could be done to rectify the lack of a crow’s nest from which to scout the water ahead. I had my fingers crossed my life would not end up like the steamboat Arabia in 1856, pierced through by a tree snag on the Missouri River, sunk, and buried in the mud for over a hundred years plus thirty two more. The metaphor was full of savor, though: fully loaded ship traveling at speed rams something lurking below the surface and goes down fast. Bitter laughter is its own meat.

If you try hard enough you might succeed at growing gills. Learn to breathe underwater, perhaps. Breathing to survive and searching for anything to halt the slow sinking to the bottom. I wondered if there might be a patron saint of Neutral Buoyancy. Even if no such being existed I prayed to it, as a salve for hopelessness on nights where the ceiling pressed down like the an inverted ocean canyon. This bought precious time. Time to sleep, when I could not act.

Opportunity knocked in one of those peaceful interludes. A good friend back east brought to my attention a possibility of employment. A chance to reenter a career edifice I had very nearly abandoned. All I had to do was consign myself to moving a thousand miles again and accepting a commission to Captain an office chair. This of course hinged on getting an offer, but the decision to fly out for a chat took no time to make. Some good friends offered up a room in their house so I would have a place to stay on the trip.

Flood water dropped below its crest with this slackening of the current. The river advertised new openings for those in the business of riverine cartography. New ground revealed itself as the meniscus shroud of water dropped from the shoulders of sand bars that did not exist before the storms. What this receding of the waters lacked in the red-hot drama that might be evinced by a submarine volcanic eruption, it made up for in with the formidable certitude of inevitable sedimentation. To the exhausted swimmer even a small convexity of drier land is gratefully received. I crawled. I grew new legs. Trembling they were, but grateful to stand on solid ground. I flew back east with something akin to hope flickering in my heart.