21 October 2018

Disappeared (Part 11)

T. S. Eliot posited in “The Waste Land” that April is the cruelest month. It is has taken many years for me to have an inkling of what he meant, but it has taken a back seat to July (with an overlap into August). Thirteen years before in the midst of what became a summer in Hell, I lost my first daughter then my son. Victims of premature birth into this world by horrible misfortune, circumstances which I believed would never repeat themselves. I was not completely wrong, but not right enough.

I sat at my workstation that day near the end of July 2016 engaged in the mundane and prosaic. Press the buttons. Make the changes. Register the fact that I heard a blood curdling scream rose from the basement bedroom. Register the fact that the scream was repeated. Time shifted into slow motion, get up from the chair, what was that, run for the door at the top of the stairs and she is sobbing and wailing, turn the corner at the foot of the stairs into the bedroom. The nightmare replays itself.

The baby is still. Pallid. Unmoving. The mother is sobbing. The father is stock still, staring. I’m staring, too, in iced disbelief. This cannot be happening. But it is, here and now. I touch the baby to feel, to show myself that she is only sleeping. Coolness under my fingers grabs that hope by the scruff of the neck and slams it into the walls. I come to realizing I am on the phone. Help. We need help. Ambulance is called. The police are called. The grandmother is called. The air fills with the sounds of sirens and clamors and choked voices trying say what happened. The day became a smear of tears and tragedy.

I loved someone once. I loved more than one someone once, in different ways for different reasons. It is a labor of a higher intensity to pretend a relationship is not different after succumbing to the multiple gravities of death as an obscenity. Our eyes saw too much, our feet stood on unrecognizable ground. The heart of Hell beckoned once again. Given the circumstances it surely surprised no one that I began to sink faster than I could swim.

Rivers flood when the snow melts in the spring. This is somewhat predictable. It is the random heavy storms that cause the most damage. Torrential rains dumping more water faster than the channels can handle until the banks are overflowing and the roads are underwater, this too is a feature of the natural world. Yet when it happens it seems unnatural. It is outside of everyday experience.

Back east a flood took over the historic part of a town in which I used to live. Torrential rains moved in and turned the Main Street into a destructive, deadly sluice as it claimed two lives and ruined numerous businesses. The street was shut down for close to two months as owners and residents worked to put their lives and livelihoods back together. Quantam entanglement of a morbid stripe used the threads of tragedy to stitch together the sundered halves of my lost soul. My head and heart could not take it.

The river of myself succumbed to a 500-year flood. The dam holding the reservoir of my relationship crumbled, cracked, turned to rubble under the onslaught of failed communications, emotional turmoil, and the selfish aggression of depression. My body finally realized alcohol was sinking hooks in me. I sought answers and knowledge only to discover the medication I was taking had a side effect of triggering deeply unhealthy urges to drink in some individuals, of which I was one. I fell into the gauzy morass without realizing it. I desperately wanted to get out of it. I sought help. While that help slowly began to get me back on the right path, it did no good in repairing the fractures in our hearts. The situation worsened to the point where I was given an ultimatum to move out of the house. No recourse, no exploration, no retrieval. I had been clinging to the sides of the chasm, but this was the emotional equivalent of fingers smashed by the striking of a colossal hammer.

Somewhere in that smear of time, the person I once had loved confessed to me the lie that had underpinned my life decisions. Months ago on that Mexican beach I had been told “Yes” to my marriage proposal, but the real answer was “No”. ‘Yes’ was a falsehood prompted by a spectacular failure of her emotional honesty and courage, in not telling me the truth because it would have hurt too much.

So much time wasted in months of living a lie. The skies opened up, torrents came down, the river became a monster washing me out to a faraway sea. With no other apparent options, I gave in to the current.

14 October 2018

Disappeared (Part 10)

The urgency in search of an anchor lowered the threshold of care I should have exercised for acceptance. Is it not obvious, the flaw in this servitude to a hole in the psyche? Grass is not water. Yet I chose to overlook that in my search for comfort, for meaning. For something to fill the gap in my blood memory of home. To be honest, it worked in the moment. It put the brakes on an accelerating slide into disquiet and depression.

It slowed. Not stopped. Just slowed.

Life in the heartland and on the coast continued on, like the rivers in my head and the ones I crossed on a near daily basis in the pursuit of my new budding photography career. The work suited me, especially when I was let go by my employer and I went out on my own. The marketing aspect sucked, but it was quite a pleasure to gain control of my time and work independently. Gadding about the region, driving higher and yon, that was gravy as we said back in the old neighborhood. Time on the road offered up a wealth of time to think. To meditate on the flow of rivers and tide, time and life. Trucker songs carry the truth in their talk of the world through a windshield and the sound of steel belts on the asphalt. Eventually all the roads led me back to the sea of grass. I succumbed to its anesthetic effects. Numbness insulated me from acknowledging the changing nature of the soil below the forest of my life.

A vignette. Thanksgiving holiday back east. I’m kneeling in wet sand at the ocean’s edge awaiting another wave to glide up the strand. An edge of Belgian lace kisses the toes of my shoes. I dip the fingertips of my right hand into the pale green water and raise them to my mouth. Drops of cool brine make their way across my tongue. Salt and iron, akin to the taste of blood, sends a bolt of energy to electrify my heart. In those beads of saltwater can be tasted the history of eons, a hint of creation, the possibility of rebirth. I have visions of myself wriggling from the breakers up onto the sand. It is from the sea, I think, that I was born. The land took me in and taught me to walk. Briefly, my eyes were clouded with double exposure of rolling hills of grass over the swell of ocean water. The confusion swayed me where I stood panting, tears leaking from the corners of my eyes. The water and the sky asked “Where, then, is home?” That questioned was not answered on the beach. Seeds were planted that day and the sprouts grew with a languid inexorability.

Errors replicated under cover of civility and in service to maintaining social fictions. Life maintained itself through inertia lubricated by fear of change. A false courage propped up the story I continued to tell myself. This artificial bravura provided enough impetus to my tottering ego to inspire me to ask a question that, in hindsight, turned out to be a most foolhardy request. With no small irony, it happened on a beach.

Good fortune visited us in the form of a vacation in Mexico. A lovely resort on the Caribbean Sea, with water blue enough to make a good soul weep. It was the kind of blue that could imbue a good soul with enough contented courage that he could ask for her hand in marriage. Which he did, at sunrise on the beach looking out over the water. She said yes. But even the bright orange-gold of the sun over Quintana Roo could illuminate for me the flaw in the information that would underpin much of my decision making in the months following that fateful question.

Chaos theory. Edge effects. Dependence on initial conditions. Life diffracted into clouds upon clouds of butterflies, swirling, enmeshing me in fractal puffs of emotional air self-amplifying into tornadoes spawning tornadoes. There were clouds. The water torture nature of never enough money and work combined with a slow disintegration of mental wellness, itself exacerbated by the glacial inroads of a burgeoning love affair with alcohol.

Still, the life I had imagined back in Mexico held promise. Numbness spiked with anxiety-based optimism shored up my convictions even as life was greatly and sweetly complicated by the pending arrival of a grandchild in the house. A wedding was planned and held, but not for the fiancé and myself. The mother, a daughter of my partner, moved into the house along with her new husband. As spring melded into summer we all began to look forward to the baby’s birth.

It did not happen without severe complications. Health scares. Hospitalizations. All was done to ensure the baby and mother would make it to term. There was much stress and agony all around. Thankfully mother and child made it.

My own wedding plans began to gather dust. Someday we would sit and do it. Someday a date would be picked, a setting obtained. But not just yet. Not just now. Outside the rivers flowed on. Seas of grass and oceans continued their respective slow rolls, patient, inexorable. Inside, the clouds of darkness gathered on my own horizon. I felt cut off, detached. Depression was ratcheting up its grip even as I told myself it was not a problem (yet my trips to the doctor told a different story). Up the medication. Up the alcohol. I was in new territory. One drink every other night had turned into three or four before dinner, multiple times in a week. Tension and arguments on a regular cycle. The worst was the feeling of loss of connection. Strangers in their own house, we were. I told myself it was retrievable. My actions worked at odds to that notion. Some beyond my control, as I discovered later that year.

The baby arrived to upend life as everyone knew it. No surprises there. A beautiful child she was, and no greater force existed that could make us all push our individual issues to the back burner.

Here’s the thing. The location of a burner on a stove has nothing to do with is current operational state. The flame can hurt you from the back just as well as from the front. It can bring a simmer to a boil that way as well. I went from staring into a pot of constant churn to peeking at it on the way past the stove. Life continued to crumble inside and out. This I knew, this I tried to ignore out of desperation and fear. That worked until the bottom fell out.

07 October 2018

Disappeared (Part 9)

This sudden depressurization of reality into memory supercooled the canister of my soul. The shivers finally faded upon arrival back to Kansas. The memories hung around a little longer.

Rivers flow ever onward regardless of the eyes upon them. Courses reroute by tiny increments never noticed, by small steps after storms to which we have borne quiet witness, by the violence of catastrophes that overwhelm. My river shifted course that day, I witnessed it, but there was no grasp of the aftereffects to come. It continued its flow, but where now was the mouth? Where was the water going, if not to the sea? Underground, that is where. Disappearing into caverns that would not see daylight until their ceilings collapsed due to the hard vacuum of depression in combination with a horrid tragedy and a crushing lie.

The river flowed on in a semblance of normality, in the meantime. Meals were shared, conversations had, vacations taken. The ebb and flow stayed relatively constant. If surfaces were the sole arbiter of happiness, an objective outside observer could be excused for thinking that all was fine. How different things would have been if that were true.

Latent in the blood lay memories of saltwater tides. They coursed through tired veins, occasionally escaping the confines of those tubiform vessels to manifest in fevered dreams of breakers along the strand. It seems no accident that seawater and blood should share salt as a major constituent of their respective makeups. No accident at least for those born within easy reach of the sea. Perhaps it is quantum entanglement of blood and ocean that drove me to search for a replacement amongst the grass and rivers and sky. A brief interlude in a cemetery one sunny morning temporarily conned me into believing a substitute had been found.

I had ventured out to the edges of the Flint Hills in search of actual unspoiled prairie, the remnants of which were a tiny fraction of what used to be. What I found was the Tallgrass Prairie Nature Preserve. On the way there I passed an old Catholic cemetery in Strong City, Kansas. Whispers from the grave sites lilted on the wind blowing through the windows of my car, and I found myself pulling off the highway through the gate announcing St. Anthony’s, straddling a gravel track looping through the site. I stepped out of the car and into a sacred silence disturbed only by the intermittent hum of traffic from Route 177.

Me. Cameras. Tombstones. A sky nearly cloudless held a sun shining white-gold, its warmth tempered by a steady breeze. The silence and starkness cradled me in meditative arms. This may have been the moment when clarity struck, and seawater became tallgrass. The prairie shimmied in the current of the wind. Its colors shimmered back and forth between light green and pale straw. My eyes did not miss the resemblance to breakers and foam. I swooned lightly from the resultant pang of recognition entwined with longing. If I could not have the ocean, I could have the sea of grass.

30 September 2018

Disappeared (Part 8)

If my life was California, the decision to move was the San Andreas fault letting go all at once. To call it merely disruptive would be a clear understatement of the case. It meant becoming the landlord and not the resident of the house I owned. It meant leaving behind the only friends and places I had known for over twenty years. The most profound upheaval would be inflicted on my daughter. I would no longer be geographically close, seeing her would no longer happen easily or on a frequent basis. I sweated myself to sleep many, many nights over this disruption to the blood of my blood. Meditations on leaving became knock down, drag out battles in my head. 

Ultimately it came down to a choice: remain in place with its attendant loneliness and unemployment, or venture into the heartland for a greater chance to be happier more often than not (and gamble on a job). Emotionally caught between the hammer and the anvil, the desire to not be alone and unloved won out. I resolved to relocate. Preparations for that rapidly became a time and energy sump. Less time meant fewer excursions to the river, with an accompanying lack of awareness of change in the ruins.

Meanwhile those ruins abided. The river flowed on, resolute in its near inscrutable ebb and surge. I would come to miss its green banks and polished stones. The river nearest my new home would not be as welcoming. Muddier. Wider. Stands of trees that seemed more afterthought than organic growth. I would not know much of this in full until late, when my time out on the edge of the Sea of Grass began to experience the falling of the curtain.

But that’s getting ahead of the story, this chapter of which began in an enormous outpouring of heat and light (as novas are wont to do). This light served initially to illuminate my initiation into a different way of life, one that was far from the waters, the only edges, I had ever known in life along the mid-Atlantic coast. The sky to some degree seemed bigger, the horizon much further away. These differences became a source of fascination and continuous low-grade unease. The effects were subtle, but far-reaching. I cannot say for certain they had no bearing on the troubles that came later.

Big sky. Grass. Long horizons interrupted only by the Paris of the Plains. That cornfields and soybeans could go on so far was revelatory. Revelatory but not sticky. The wonder and euphoria of new people and places flooded my senses. The flood pushed my anxieties far back into recesses that seemed so heavily insulated they would never again see the light of day. The insulation freed me up to enjoy simply existing.

The job search continued, but bore no architectural fruit. The malaise from the coast still had a grip on the middle. Necessity prompted searches in areas that never before had graced a resume. A tryout in a butcher shop provided interesting insight but no job. Interest in things culinary eventually led me to doing something I had never really wanted to do. I wound up working in a retail spice shop. Spices I adore. Working retail? Not so much. It did teach me a lot about dealing with people, nice and not so nice. A big benefit of this work was access to a plethora of spices, often free. I began to eat very well at home as a consequence. The biggest perk, crucially, was that I made some friends. Good people, as they say, whose presence, conversation, and advice I came to treasure. This would matter, later.

Back east, things were in flux. Hands invisible to me setting in motion profound changes to that which I used to know. These unseen changes as avatars of the plastic nature of memory, fluid and mutable as rivers themselves. It is what happens when you look away. The landscape alters itself out of the range of vision.

Back out on the edge of the Sea of Grass, the one constant was the search for money. As an architect I was still surplus to requirements. No call backs, no face time, no contacts. It was a small slice of good luck that my semi-pro interest and ability in photography, in combination with a friend’s recommendation, garnered me a gig doing real estate photos. An influx of revenue allowed me to push back some walls of anxiety and desperation. Not far enough, ultimately, but it bought some breathing space. I continued on, oblivious to the sinkholes forming around me.

The first big fracture: a trip back to Maryland to resolve a small legal matter. There was time between commitments for a trip back to the ruins, a brief visit during which the plan was to reconnect with a touchstone of my past life. There was eager anticipation to be grounded, to reconnect. There was hope I might even get a few photographs on my phone camera. Spirits were high as I drove out to the site.

Imagine my shock to arrive to flat ground with a smattering of rubble along the riverbank. The factory was gone. The boiler house was gone. Fish mural and storage tanks, all gone. The only visible remainder being a concrete retaining wall along the road, the fading graffiti on it visible through a scraggly scrim of weeds. Even the sluice channels farther up the watercourse had been demolished. I stared, disbelieving. Parking the car on the shoulder, I then trudged our into the middle of the site. Dust collected on my dress shoes, riming the pressed cuffs of my pants. The tie around my neck tightened without my doing. Standing alone and bereft in the hot August sunlight with only the insects as companions. Their buzz sounded overly loud in my ears. I could not believe so much history was gone. The ruins were no longer a reflection. My dislocation felt complete.

23 September 2018

Disappeared (Part 7)

Change is inevitable. The world holds still for no one. Reveries amongst the ruins were a great illuminator of that premise. Every visit revealed a new truth, a fresh perspective, a reshuffling of the rubble. From fires to flowers to walls no longer whole, time made clear it would have its due in the reclamation of that which was no longer maintained. Inevitability made for a plethora of photo opportunities, of which I took full advantage. There was comfort in routine with variety to keep things interesting.

But there is change. Always change. There came a day where the first new thing I saw was a set of signs erected adjacent to the site. Official looking and emblazoned with seals and logos from a variety of state and federal agencies. It appeared that the site had long been considered a “brownfield” and was designated to be cleaned up. How it was to be cleaned up was not made clear, making the signs an appropriate guide for the gnarled mess of my life.

Outside in the real world things were going to Hell on a bobsled. While I played Indiana Jones on the Patapsco, the mortgage crisis and big bank failures were metastasizing into a recession eating up the country. When the money dries up, people decide not to build buildings. As a consequence of not needing buildings, people don’t need architects to design things. As a consequence of that unfortunate circumstance, architects such as myself find themselves surplus to requirements. We are shown many doors, some of which do not hit us on the ass on the way out.

Two weeks before Christmas Day in 2008 was the beginning of my personal Great Recession. I was laid off. More precisely, management asked if I would voluntarily resign first. I knew full well that part of the reason they asked was so they could avoid an increase in the amount they would have to contribute to unemployment insurance. I am many things, but stupid is not one of them. No way was I going to agree to quit when the issue was strictly payroll driven and not performance. I told them I would not voluntarily quit, so they “let me go”. Off into the wilderness I went.

In the employment maelstrom of the next three years, that particular bit of black theater would be repeated twice more. I had months long blips of pure joblessness interrupted by slightly longer blips of jobs I was thankful to get, at places I thought would be long term. But the last ones on the ship are the first ones to go when the seas get violent. Good intentions, experience, and hard work don’t stand a chance against those in thrall to a balance sheet. The third time was not particularly charming. I was caught out when it hit in the fall of 2011 not long before Halloween.

There I was yet again sailing the heavy chop on the sea of unemployment. The currents were carrying me deeper into winter, with the prospect of a sparse Christmas to boot. Seeking a job can be a full time job in and of itself, and this episode was no different. My desk turned into a resume farm. Field trips began to taper off due to weather, time, and exhaustion. The ruins began to fade into the background while I concentrated on mastering the change taking over my life. Winter crept in to hold me hostage to cold and gloom.

Funny thing about change. It isn’t all chaos and stress. The light that kept me on the path was the burgeoning of a long-distance relationship courtesy of the miracle of the Internet. The epicenter of this heartquake was in the center of the country. Its shock waves upended the enforced complacency of my solitary life. The gravity of love began its mysterious action at a distance which, in conjunction with my increasingly dim job prospects at home, swiftly grew into an irresistible pull on my heart and mind. Following the exhortations of my soul, I hopped into the driver’s seat of my hot rod of change and put the pedal to the metal.

I decided to move to Kansas in pursuit of love and money.

16 September 2018

Disappeared (Part 6)

Those thoughts and more crowded my head during the short hike back to my car. Thoughts of a return visit lost some shine when juxtaposed against the experience of having a gun pointed at me on purpose. It was morbidly amusing that in all the time I had spent on site up to that day, the only human threat I ever faced came from someone whose job it was to protect the public. Ultimately the encounter was chalked up to random experience, one that would temper my approach to visiting the ruins but did not dissuade me from returning.

Another weekend, another visit. Destination was the upper floor of one of the older sections of the complex. The path would take me past the scene of the Gun Incident. From somewhere ahead could be heard intermittent banging noises, as if someone was striking metal with a hammer. As I crossed the floor heading for a back stairway, the noises grew louder. In between the bangs could be heard a faint hissing noise reminiscent of pressurized gas escaping from a pipe. Ahead could be seen a faint flicker of light, like fire. 

The scene upon walking into the next bay explained it all. If it was a painting it would have been titled Workman with Hammer and Torch. Silhouetted against the light streaming through a window in the back was a man with an acetylene torch in one hand and a small sledgehammer in the other. The torch was aimed at some metal bars jutting from the floor. The hammer he was using to strike the bars as he heated them up. He did not see me at first, as I stood watching.

After a minute or two, the fellow stops banging on the bars and shuts off the torch. He inspects his handiwork, then notices me standing there. He jumped a little then said “Hey, good morning!”. I noticed him glancing around behind me, like he was looking for someone. Like the policeman from earlier, he asked me why I was there. Surprisingly the camera and tripod I carried was not as obvious as one would expect. I explained that I was a photographer there to take pictures of the ruins. He explained to me that he was there “for salvage”. I wished him well, thinking that maybe I too was there for a kind of salvage. A salvage of place, memories, and perhaps myself.

Salvage was certainly possible amongst these ruins. Small tools. Industrial gas bottles. Tanks and machineries the purposes of which I could only hypothesize. Fascinating stuff, but the real attraction for me was less in the extractive value of things and more in the archaeology of things. The context elevated the things from mere debris and wreckage up to the status of artifacts. One of the earliest I encountered was a large tank sporting a wheel or valve on the side. Some long-ago urban artist had spray painted the phrase “Kill yourself” on the tank. It made for an intriguing photo op. 

One of my favorite artifacts was The Chair. It had pride of place on the top floor of one of the older buildings. A signature characteristic of The Chair was that it no longer was conducive to actual sitting. No fault of the original designers, though. Any hostility generated on the part of the chair could be laid solely at the feet of whoever had set the chair ablaze in the recent past. 

From what could be deduced from the remains, The Chair had once been a padded office chair with foam or plastic armrests and a set of wheels. The armrests were fixed, judging from the soot covered brackets on each side. A fairy ring of ashes encircled the base. Small amounts of blackened rubber and fabric clung to the frame in places, but the bulk of the covering had burned off, probably in significant amounts forming the aforementioned ashes.

That chair had me asking a lot of questions. Who brought it there, and when? Who was the last person to sit in it before the end came? What possessed someone to set it on fire? That last question I had a pretty good theory on: because it was there, because they were bored, because they could. No doubt that while the flames lasted they provided some captivating entertainment.

It was glorious. Perfect artifact to discover amongst these ruins of the modern age. Poignancy was thick in the air as amplified by volumes of soft light and empty space surrounding the chair. Its charred remains spoke of dashed hopes, despair, and life interrupted by random acts of vandalism. It was an artifact that by the laying on of eyes invoked an understanding of an intrinsic humanity. It was easy to envision a weary soul sitting down in expectation of rest or comfort only to have the whole shebang erupt in flames. Maybe they would survive it, maybe not. Either way, horrid discomfort would last until the flames burned themselves out.

One sunny day I gazed upon The Chair and saw in it the avatar of my life at that moment. Alone, burned, essentially useless. Incapable of giving comfort or receiving weight yet the frame clung to existence, its blackened bones a silent repudiation of a universe bent on destroying it. That sunny day I stood before The Chair awash in self-pity, bemused, and I laughed. The sound echoed off the stone walls to form a crowd laughing with me. It continued to the point of tears, dissolving into fits of giggling. Once I calmed down enough to stop shaking I took another picture of The Chair. The lesson learned was that even though it could not safely be sat upon, it certainly still had a purpose in the world. I meditated on that long and hard as I made my way off the site and back to home.

09 September 2018

Disappeared (Part 5)

The morning was wrapping up well. Almost three hours in the erstwhile hinterlands of the factory complex, a multi-story portion with old stone, corroded pipes and tanks, and old riveted trusses. Numerous windows and skylights created frequent instances of intriguing light events. The upper floor in particular, with its roof of high gabled trusses that opened up overhead, acquired the air of a cathedral when the sun was out.

The camera work was completed. Cameras put away, bag hoisted, tripod slung across the shoulders, I made my way down the crumbling stairs to the lower, darker level. Having shot there just minutes ago, with no others about, there was no expectation of meeting fellow explorers. Or anyone else. I was abruptly disabused of that notion as I rounded the end of the stair wall to angle across the open concrete floor back to the exposed area some yards away. I heard voices, low. A few steps on, then “Freeze!” 


It was then I noticed the large man standing about twenty feet away, arms outstretched and locked. An intense stare tracked me as I walked.

He was pointing a gun at me. I blinked. I kept walking. “Don’t move!” he shouted.

I kept walking, wondering why he was yelling and pointing a gun at me.

Pointing. A gun. At me.

Finally it sank in, what I was seeing. The gun. About ten feet away, I came to a halt. “Good morning!” I chirped, nervous as hell and acutely aware of the pistol in his hands and the enormous duffel bag at his feet over which he had been leaning when I first came around the corner. The dim light was just enough for me to see that the bag held some more weapons, most notably a shotgun and what appeared to be long rifles of the hunting and assault variety. My confidence that this was going to end well took a nosedive towards the low end of the scale.

“What are you doing here?” he barked at me. The pistol never wavered. I was still having trouble processing the whole mess. The smartass in my head wanted to point at the camera and tripod over my shoulder and say “What the fuck does it look like I’m doing here?”. Prudence won out, and I replied that I was out taking photographs.

It was about that time I heard a noise off to my left, and also noticed the other equipment boxes strewn about. And the camera with tripod near to the man. I looked to the left, at a spot along the wall where not forty or so minutes earlier I had taken a photo of crumbling masonry, broken pipes. Standing there on a brick pile, illuminated in bright light streaming through a hole in the concrete slab above, was a tallish woman. Long blonde hair and Miami Beach tan, and camo pants with combat boots. She was staring at me with what looked like mild concern. I stared back.

She was wearing a bikini top and toting an assault rifle. She said nothing.

I did a double take, then turned back to the man. By this time he had lowered the gun. In a slightly less hostile tone, he said “Oh, okay. Well, be very careful around here. Lots of homeless and vandals.”

I didn’t say “And strangers packing small arsenals?” only “I will” and then I resumed walking towards the open area. It was then I finally noticed a badge, looking remarkably like a police badge, attached to a body armor vest laying on the floor. It dawned on me that the guy might be an off-duty police officer out doing some photo work, with “props” borrowed from the workplace. Seemed a good theory, at least.

My back itched the entire time it took me to clear the area. I walked up and out past what could only have been a truck belonging to that erstwhile Dirty Harry back in the factory. Festooned with flags and stickers emblazoned with various police-related slogans. A quick peek into the back of the truck revealed more camera equipment and gun paraphernalia. My feeling at the time was that those guns in the duffel and carried by Madame Camo-kini were probably not officially cleared for use. To each his own. At least I was not the victim of an accidental shooting, although I suppose I could have photographed it as I fell to the floor.

Life as a wildlife documentary. See the deer out on the icy river. It trembles. Can we know what is in its heart when the ice splits behind, the floe drifts off in the current? Soft eyes behold the black water canyon fracturing the landscape. The forest of home recedes slowly into cottony mist as panic seeps in. The deer stares, perhaps with only an inkling of the trouble it is in and the trouble that awaits. A cold syrup of river water surrounds the floating island, offering nothing but discouragement and a brutal path back to the uncertain terrain of what used to be before winter came.

02 September 2018

Disappeared (Part 4)

Home life was no longer what it used to be. I was hunkering down in an apartment that felt like the architectural analog of a flannel shirt three sizes too large for the body. Roomy but stifling. The echoes of existence reverberated too heavily for it to be a true sanctuary. That would have to be found outside the walls that seemed to move closer in the night.

I remember an acetylene cylinder on its side. A few cast iron stanchion-like objects, on concrete pedestals, besmeared with the grime of decades. Surely they were part of a larger and more complex array of machineries, most of which were long gone. These stanchions shone in the sunlight that poured through the ruined roof high overhead, pearlescent in the manner of anthracite. The name of the manufacturer who made them plainly visible in the casting. To be the maker of things for those who made other things once seemed to be a laudable pursuit hereabouts, but you would not guess that from the surroundings of rubble and debris.

In this part of the complex, the high roof and the broad open space took on the solemn joy of a nave. A procession of columns along a broad axis leading up to an altar of fractured concrete blocks overlaid with roofing that had fallen due to a long-ago fire. Trenches parted the floor, the channels partially filled with debris and dirt. In places one could see that there appeared to be a basement below the machine area, something I later confirmed when I came upon a corroded and collapsing stair leading down into blackness. A few steps on the way down and I lost the urge to go any further. Silence and decay could not be overcome even when I did have a flashlight.

If this place was a post-apocalyptic church, then graffiti was its frescoes. It ranged from nearly illegible scribbling to full-fledged murals executed with raw power if lacking a bit in finesse. Many hours were dying and photographing the artwork in different lights, varied weathers. It amused me in my attempts to make art out of ostensible art. Sort of like sampling music, but with pictures. Meta-art. It was also in this space that I discovered what was perhaps the most edifying and delightful street art I have ever seen. And it was right there on four of the columns.

“HAPPY.” “SAD.” “ANGRY.” "INSPIRED.” Four words, one each to four columns, applied in white with the unmistakable roundness of spray can paint. The execution not particularly brilliant artistically, but charming in its simplicity and earnestness. Given the aggressive or hostile nature of much of the scrawls on the walls, those four words possessed abundant charm which pushed back against the melancholia of the rubble. Those four columns became a bit of an axis mundi in my life as an explorer. It was rare visit on future visits that I did not return to the columns, to this sanctuary that seemed of this world and outside of it.


Perhaps it is odd to think of industrial ruin as a refuge, a bulwark against a world bent on having its way with me. The oddity of it suited my life well. It offered a place of quiet, of study. Within its walls I could think and photograph to my heart's content. When things were shitty outside in the drab routine of the working world, the ruins offered a respite where the mind could retreat from itself.

This is not to say that people and the world never found a way to intrude on my sabbaticals. This was never more evident than on the day in which I found myself staring down the barrel of a pistol.

26 August 2018

Disappeared (Part 3)

Traipsing around the rooftops and decrepit, debris-laden concrete slabs of these industrial relics swiftly became a favorite pastime on weekends when the weak acid of involuntary solitude became too much to bear. Post-abandonment dilapidation birthed a fascinating scenery rich in opportunities for the eye and the lens. Therapy in an office setting has its benefits, but there is a wealth of prophylaxis in capturing broken beauty as it displays in sunlight or outlined in snow.

The plainness of that notion hit with the force of divine revelation one winter morning as I stood shivering on frosted grass. My fingers and toes were going numb after some hours of snapping pictures before the sun raced too high. The camera was behaving strangely. It was hesitating, as if critiquing my choice of composition through fits of mechanical petulance. Thoughts of getting back to the car with its heater crowded my brain. I was determined to get just one more shot. Angle was set, button was pushed, the shutter leaf unfurled. Then the camera buzzed, and died. It gave up. I took this as a sign it was time to go home, reckoning the final image of the day was in the can.

The camera was freezing. That much was obvious. It returned to life upon resting in the warmth of my apartment. As it turned out, that last frame revealed itself to be one of the best photographs of a building I have ever taken. Best by my personal reckoning, anyway. Tone. Mood. The marks of time plainly visible in the stone facade with its windows like empty eyes. The pathos and faded dignity of it, shot in black and white, touched my mind and my heart in ways catalytic to the appreciation of beauty in decay.

That slice of infinity pushed away the indecisiveness that kept me from taking a deep dive into the interior. An expedition was planned and executed.

My boots scraped across cracked concrete. A peculiar crunching sound arose, a byproduct of the rubble and debris strewn across the loading dock. A faint breeze wafted out of the black hole in the wall in front of me. The tang of machine oil and mildew stung my nostrils. To the left and straight ahead I could see almost nothing beyond the first ten feet, faintly lit by the background sunlight that seeped in under the dock roof. To my right the inside of the building glowed with soft luminescence, refulgency tinged with green. I had made up my mind that I would determine the source of that light. All I had to do was walk about seventy feet through dank, unlit space.

I had, on previous occasions, stood and stared into that blackness. That there were parallels in my life away from the ruins did not occur to me at the time. Seems obvious now. Gaping holes, darkness, surrounded by crumbling remains. My attraction to it perhaps driven by the familiarity of it. I felt at home amongst the corporeal reality of the factory. Mirrors. I stood before the black holes in the walls and gazed into mirrors. When I left the world I had known for nearly twenty years, expelled by life gone sour, I crossed the Rubicon into a new decade of despair and ecstasy, of wisdom and ignorance, of beauty and ugliness. All of which I was totally unprepared for, but there was no way to go but forward.

The basic problem was that, for all my planning, I neglected to bring a flashlight. Nor did I have a hard hat. More deference to prudence would have kept me out of the building, but curiosity was beating the daylights out of caution. I took off at a brisk walk across the concrete toward the light.

It didn’t take long before I nearly fell flat on my face. Protruding from the floor was an anchor bolt, unseen by me due to the gloom. It snagged the leading edge of my right boot. The hangup caused a stumble. I windmilled my way through the dark, in what I am sure was a hilarious parody of a bat as I flailed my arms in a desperate bid to maintain balance and avoid face-to-concrete contact. Curses echoed off the walls to be soaked up by the darkness.

I skidded to a halt not far from the edge of the glow that was my destination. I caught my breath, heartbeat pulsing in my ears as the surprise of the near-fall wore off. At this point it was laugh worthy, so I did. More echoes in the cavern of light which revealed itself to be a broad, deep space populated with wooden columns. The green tinged light emanated from above. A series of serrated vaults formed a sawtooth roof above, half of which was formed of translucent fiberglass panels. Age, neglect, and dirt had given the once white panels their green hue.

In that mausoleum light, time, pulse, and thought decelerated. I heard the susurrus of blood whispering to the vessels in my ears. As far as I could tell, I was the sole human being in the building. In a flight of fancy, I thought maybe I was the only human being on earth. There were no others, yet the traces of those had been were in abundant evidence. Industrial-era hieroglyphs patterned the walls, spray bomb celebrations of invective, insults, and crudity. I stepped forward to study them, puffs of glassy dust rising from beneath my boots. It was here in this temple that I began my rites of transformation. I was ignorant of that which waited for me in the ruined black.

19 August 2018

Disappeared (Part 2)

Chemical drums and plastic shards. Shattered glass and crumbling brick. The gloom in part alleviated by the acid brightness of graffiti. Anarchist artwork that ranged from the sophomoric to the sublime. A fish mural, glowing orange and blue, graced one section of wall. One had to admire the dedication it took to spend (presumably) personal time and resources to trespass on a closed brownfield site for the sake of creating (presumably) unsanctioned art. Especially art that had high probability of erasure or burial or demolition. Yes, it takes determination to enrich that which is demonstrated to be falling to pieces.

The full scope of the mural, I discovered later, could best be taken in from across the river, particularly when the leaves were off the trees. It was possible to stand on the far bank and see the fish in a better light. One that was less obscured by the unfocused scrawls of less talented artists. I would come to know this in future winters. There were icy days when I stood on that far bank with cold toes and stiff fingers clutching a camera. Memory has it that the fish were viewed through a cloud of breath escaping from weary lungs. Weary eyes, too, but relieved to see such color in the brown opalescence of January gloom.

But winter gets ahead of the story of how this collection of things that no longer exist came about. The genesis truly was, as perhaps it should be, in the morning of a spring where rebirth seemed impossible. Camera as filter and shield on a journey of sanity preservation.

Stygian days of the heart often lead the mind off the path of light. It steps into the shadows of belief that everything comes from muck and descends into muck despite our best intentions or actions. Refuting that view is difficult when standing in front of collapsed walls or shuffling through cast off machine parts begrimed by carbon and waste chemicals. Darkness comforts and deceives. The proof of this is in a pulling away from the gravity of decay to view the framework of nature that surrounds it.

The brownfield was between a road and a river, nestled in a valley of forested slopes. The last regular activity of industry occurred sometime in 1972 before a tropical storm created a catastrophic flood that virtually wiped out industry along the river. The marks of it could still be seen up close and from far away. Green things grew on the sagging roofs and creviced walls. The heart would leap at the sight of a bright yellow flower atop an emerald green stalk growing out of the muck collecting in the cavity of a half-shattered concrete block. Nature will take what it wants. Nature will reclaim its own.

Nature and its juxtaposition against the disintegration of the man-made struck the singing bowl of my soul. I was unaware of that in the early days of my infatuation with these ruins, blithely ignorant of the mirror into which I was staring. My marriage was all over but for the shouting. My exhausted heart fractured into jagged shards through which my mind staggered ripped and bleeding. Darkness called loud in the ears. The ruins offered strange, new familiarity. Comfort amongst the grime and contamination left behind, where things seemed no different than in the matrix of my life.

The paperboard factory, for that is what it used to be, was an accretion of structures over time. The shells of this leviathan were a mottled testament to old stone and brick, concrete and plywood, asphalt shingles and membrane roofing. Shifts in technology and funding could be read in the skin where it wasn’t hidden under a veil of graffiti. Many hours were spent perusing the outside before the nerve was worked up to enter any portion of the buildings.

Green things grew in abundance in, on, and around these monuments to disintegration. Many were presumably what many would call weeds, but what they lacked in pure aesthetic appeal they made up for in tenacity. I suppose my subconscious mind picked up on that vibration. It drew me in. In the cool spring and sodden summer, vines climbed the walls. Great leafy bunches sprouted from the ground, floppy green things suggesting the ears of aliens. Flowers, too, could be found. Some petite and understated while others were flamboyant in their colors and floral countenance. Yellow flowers in particular made a show of it at certain points in the year.

There is comfort to be found in the company of these growing things. The threads that channel poetry to a bruised heart are limned by the living evidence before it. The river calms the mind. The blossoms convince it that survival, even prosperity, are possible after disaster and collapse. The birds will tell you this, if you hold still and listen.

I listened to the birds for weeks. They were good company as I made my way around the perimeter of the factory grounds. Vistas abounded thanks to the positioning of the site, sandwiched as it was between the road and the river. The river side was low. The road, literally, was the high road. The buildings had been built at such an elevation that it was possible to step off a retaining wall and onto an upper floor or a rooftop. By such measures I eased my way onto the structures without completely entering them.

Entering them wholly came later, once familiarity banished apprehension. It happens when the urge to satisfy curiosity overcomes the fear of the unknown. It is something the broken heart knows also.

12 August 2018

Disappeared (Part 1)

I have in my possession a collection of places that no longer exist, except in the reservoir of memory, held to a bifurcated existence composed of pixels and neurochemicals. These outlines and shadows etched into silicon and grey matter were placed there during a series of life-saving (read: sanity-preserving) series of trips I began nearly a decade ago and which have continued in one form or another up until the present day. These trips collected a lot more of the no longer extant in the early years than they did in later ones. A function of the demolished, the broken down, and ultimately the hauled away. Not unlike the interior landscape that drove me to such measures, with camera in hand and fevered brain in skull.

The circumstances are grounded, as existence tends to be, in the placement of things in nature. This was unknown to me at the time. What was known was the need for nature, in some form. So it was to the river valley I went searching for solace, or at least a good walk in the company of trees. The mellifluous voice of water a siren call to ears sore from the arctic groans of hearts becoming ice. In a green place such as this I came upon ruins and abandonment and shock to my system. The river had once been witness to its own poisoning by careless hands that handled money like the bones of saints, and nature like slaves.

The river runs between two counties. The ruins straddled the river nearby to a road, which itself straddles the river by dint of a bridge, and is in turn straddled by a railroad line which crosses the road and the river via a trestle. The trestle is an early 20th century sculpture of wrought iron, rivets, and creosote timber. It is covered in chipped black paint, graffiti, and rust. It is beautiful. Rough, industrial, clearly the result of hard work and perseverance. To complete this compound skein of machinery and nature, the trestle abuts an escarpment punctured by a brick-lined tunnel boring its way through the hill overlooking the waterway. To rejuvenate ones’ self try contemplating silence while standing in the tunnel mouth in the early morning, as light begins to fill the valley. Do not fret about possible trains. They will announce their presence in plenty of time for you to move.

It was in that tunnel mouth one spring morning that I wept at the loss of a life I had known for over two decades. There was no trigger in particular with the possible exception of the water dripping from the begrimed brick arch looming overhead. The intent of that morning was to venture into the ruins with a complement of cameras, to photograph sunlight on dereliction and decay. And to search for green things amongst the rubble. My subconscious had other ideas up front. It steered me to climb the embankment up to the tracks. The tunnel beckoned. I crossed the river carefully, with boots scraping the ties, eyeing the river below through the gaps. Venturing a short way into the tunnel mouth felt like stepping into a nave. There were no trains nor people. I could worship alone.

It may be that the spirit of God reached into me for a brief moment. It could have been my soul adjusting to the new emotional vacuum manifesting itself where part of my heart used to be. The hollowness pulsing against my sternum like some broken bellows desperate to fan flames that would never propagate. In the damp dark of the tunnel the only light was far away skewered by the burnished rails converging behind me. The rails and a dank draft pushed me out of the tunnel mouth to retrace my steps over the trestle.

Brokenness. Collapse. A slow-motion lean into this box canyon of life. It was that state of mind that enveloped me as I approached the nearest building, one of several in the complex that stretched maybe a half mile along the riverbank. The end was a loading dock. The canopy over it sagged at one end, a drunken tip of the hat wrought in corroded corrugated sheeting. An overflowing dumpster sat in a puddle of rust-stained water nearby. The roll up doors appeared locked. A chain link fence with padlocked gates had been installed across the driveway between the building and the river. The gates hung slightly open, having been pulled just enough to allow a human body to slip between the posts. A well-worn path led through them, and another path took an end run around the fence post closest to the riverbank.

Ruins haunted my dreams. The pull of industrial decay in the real world was just too strong to resist. I laughed at the suggestion from the fence that it should keep me out. The paths beckoned, I listened. Around the fence I went.

05 August 2018

Highway of Diamonds

Pressure and heat under the earth’s crust are not the sole arbiter of gemstones. They can be seen on the surface of the sea. The ripples, the argentine scintillations as wind caresses the water. Diamonds are there for the taking, if we so choose. Still, there is no setting nearly as grand as that which is out there in nature. Beauty is in the beholding, not in the possession. Road trip the water and see.

In a harbor alive with boats one would not expect too many water bound intersections with nature, given the noise and crowding into the realm below the surface. While not expecting to walk across the water on the backs of teeming schools of fish, a sighting of fish or crab would still be appreciated. Patience is key. One’s legs may dangle over the water, but sit still. Breathe slowly. Keep your eyes on the surface. Sometimes, if the timing is right and fortune on the breeze fish breach the surface right where you look. Is that kismet? Sheer luck? Unknowable, but good fortune nonetheless.

What is the market value of the cry of an osprey, circling over the estuary, pirouetting with its mate? No one knows, and no one should ever try putting a number on such a gift. To hear it is to be enriched beyond the pale of crass commerce. Putting it in the prison of a bank would do the same thing to the soul. If you hear it, stop. Pay attention. Give thanks. Consider the wealth bestowed upon you. The account of your being will be far into the black.

Non-monotonous regularity is one of the most prominent attractions of the water. Surf, rapids, the tides. Their arrival can be predicted, their aspects cannot. At least not with narrow specificity to any individual manifestation. There will be waves, there will be ripples, no two exactly alike. The ebb and flow of them as a grand generator of serenity and connection to primordial forces without which humans would not exist. This is the fractal metronome setting the rhythm of existence.

Let us not forget the raspy music of crows in all this. Consider the murder swirling around the church steeple, birds in raucous congress as they perch on the weather vane. The inky feathers against an incipient storm sky may seem ominous to casual observance. But if the mind can hold still long enough to contemplate the ciphers formed by the fluttering of ebony, it will see that rain and crows are simply nature unfolding as it should. If crows have a reputation as harbingers of doom it is fair to say that is only because they have a curiosity about and are thereby drawn to the activities of mankind. It is fair to say that men are far more responsible for murder and mayhem than are those fine specimens of the corvid masses.

Consider the pilings along the water’s edge. Turned timber soaked in creosote or some other delayer of decay. At the tide line can be spotted barnacles or sometimes mussels. Ducks weave in and out amongst the industrial thicket of wood. They seem to enjoy the interplay of light, shadow, and water as they fulfill their duck nature. Here too we await the good luck, the grace of glimpsing Callinectes sapidus, the “beautiful savory swimmer” humans call the blue crab. A deserved reputation as delicious eating, but also fascinating and lovely swimmers. Occasionally they take it upon themselves to venture forth from the estuary bottom and bestow upon us the brief spectacle of their underwater aerobatics. If you do see such a thing, remember to bow your head in humble thanks.

Earth tangos with the Moon. The energy of that dance translates to the tides that burnish the shore. You will know this when you walk along its edge, breathing the scent of saltwater and pluff mud. No noisome vehicle is needed to make this trip. What is needed is a present mind and open heart, willing to take the gift of creation laid out before them. All you have seen and heard will reveal that to you, as the sunlight on the water makes clear. Life on this highway of diamonds is not measured in carats mined, it is measured in gratitude expressed.

29 July 2018

Still Life

For most of us, we don’t know much about art, beyond being able to say we like what we like. As a consequence it is puzzling to feel we know too much about still life. Not the painting type, unless it be that life imitates art. No, the still life I refer to is ours. Ours in all its inelegant, awkward, and erratically composed non-glory. That is the nutshell version. Luscious fruits in a golden bowl will not be confused with the thin broth of our daily existence.

Whose fault is it that the broth is thin? It can only be ours. It is a poor cook that blames only his pots and pans. Quality of ingredients bears some of the burden, but a thoughtful and careful cook makes the most of what they get. Arrangement is paramount. Whether we cook or paint or compose with our lives it is up to us to maximize the good in our circumstances. By such endeavors the stillness of a life can be made as a snapshot, a slice of time, and not the rule. Stillness can thereby be a temporary rest and not permanent stasis.

This is what we tell ourselves when stillness becomes stasis. Yes, yes, it is not necessarily stillness that should worry us, it is stasis. Stasis can be defined as “the state of equilibrium or inactivity caused by opposing equal forces” and “stagnation in the flow of any of the fluids of the body”. Certainly there are times in all of our lives where either description fits the measure of our days. Consider the pressures generated by the singular matrix of life in which each of us is embedded. The quest for love. Looking for the cure for pain. Freedom from debt , financial or otherwise. How we exhaust ourselves seeking to escape the “sheer hellishness of life”, a phrase so eloquently coined by Jim Harrison in his essay Meals of Peace and Restoration.

Yes, yes, pressures. The external world generates far more of them than any of us want to confront in our lives. Let us not be so hard on ourselves in the rush to keep up. By some lights, we only get one life. By others, we get other chances. Either path could use more kindness to ourselves and others, so that those lives may not fade in stillness.

22 July 2018

Lost Threads

Making a career out of writing about the inability to write seems impossible. Of course, making a career out of merely writing also seems impossible to me, at least. Yet again ideas flit like hummingbirds into the garden of my mind, only to be chased off by the distractions of bad news, social media, and the attendant anxieties. In a world of flashing lights, my mind is a crow: observant, apparently intelligent, and overly fascinated with shiny objects. I am a compliant victim of self-inflicted diffusion.

This diffusion is irritating. The mind unfocused and swirling like a cloud of starlings over a meadow. There is no cure for it, aside from putting everything out of my head and latching on to one thing or thought. In my case, I find that near impossible, too. Most days when I can persuade myself to put down the phone or tablet, the one thing I grab hold of is food. Food and cooking. And thinking about food and cooking. The thing becomes the thought and vice versa.

To give you perspective, one day last week at work I just could not keep my brain on task. Not that the tasks were onerous, mind you, but they were not grabbing my imagination. Consequently, between queuing up music to stream (a bizarre intersection of electronic dance music and stoner rock, mostly) and desperate attempts to get things done, all I could think of was dinner. Specifically, a good sandwich from this local Italian deli I’ve come to favor. They call it a Roman. It is prosciutto, cappicola, and provolone layered on an Italian roll slathered with hot peppers. Yes, it is delicious, and yes, it had the strength to prop me up so I could power through the workday.

This deli has a television mounted up above the main dining space. I don’t typically cotton to such things when I dine out (hello, distraction, my old friend) but the management mercifully keeps the volume down to a background murmur. Easily drowned out when the place is busy. What is interesting is the set is usually tuned to an Italian station. News channel, it looks like. Even when I can hear the station I cannot understand the announcers, an unfortunate side effect of an inability to comprehend the Italian language. Between the ticker at the screen bottom and the video I can usually get a good idea of what is happening. Most of the Italian words and phrases I know are food related, but a few words I can suss out and the context of the video fills in the big gaps. What I do know from watching is that human misbehavior and mayhem are universal constants no matter where one is in the world. It just sounds better in a different language.

Dinner. Tucking into my goal for the day and watching the world burn in Italian triggered something, shunted my lollygagging mind onto a track hidden in the shadows. I had in my hands the luxury of a hefty meal. In my eyes I had a shipload of migrants encountering a navy vessel somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea. No stretch to say chances were good those folks had gone without decent food for days or weeks. My reaction surprised me in its strength and duality, of good fortune and humility. For the first time in weeks, strangely, there was a gap in the cloud of depression which plagued me. The breath caught in my throat, brought on by illumination and disquiet. I chewed and chewed watching the humans on the screen. That the world chews us up, and that we cannot survive except by the destruction of something else. These thoughts would not leave my head, disturbing me and comforting me. Can something be melancholic and uplifting simultaneously? The evidence suggest this is possible.

The story changed. The scene changes from desperation on the water to something involving a beautiful woman and some unfortunate escapades in personal turpitude. Or so I gathered from the tableau on the television. My meager ability for translation of Italian had exhausted itself seeing as it was definitely outside the realm of food. The basic gist I was gleaning from the video. Downing the last bits of the sandwich, it came to me that this meal had hit the trifecta of human fascinations of existence. The great rivers of food, death, and sex intertwined into a roiling confluence that swept me away. I leaned back in my chair, belching quietly.

The news was over. The plate pushed aside, crumbs brushed off the shirt, and a few steps back out into the warm summer evening. I could not divine where this big river would flow whilst I search for the lost threads in my life. The important thing is that it carry you into and through experience. Oh, and enjoy every sandwich along the way.

15 July 2018

Plumb The Swell

It may be known by the pelicans, this wreck that lies not far offshore from the low tide line. The spray-flecked birds roost upon the crossbars in a display of maritime avian inscrutability. They seem comfortable perching on the rusty wet iron. Such a tableau piques the interest. It invites one to come investigate, to see what the pelicans see. Who would not want to commune with such creatures, perhaps divine some insight into a life spent in symbiosis with the sea? No one. The swim to the roost should be an easy commute. Yet it is the swell, vitreous and undulate, that holds one back.

Of course the swell makes the sea seem alive. A huge, peculiar beast seeking to swallow those daring enough to depart the safety of the strand. Ripples on the surface bear more than a passing resemblance to scales on a serpent or a dragon. Such an image cannot help but evoke nervousness as a swimmer wades into the surf. The roil and tumble of waves is exhilaration embodied in tidal energy. They curl in a jade opacity, and it is this opacity that strums the nerves with anxiety.

What the eyes cannot see the mind fills in with abandon. In the full light of day, no less. The surf becomes a medieval map. Here there be monsters, maybe, or at least very large beasts of unknown intentions. They stand between desire and fulfillment thereof. The blank space between that to be known and the actual knowing of it. Shipwrecks have a way of grabbing the imagination form an early age. The reality of seeing one in the world is very different than those seen in photographs. There is no filter or remove.

Waves roll. Pelicans rustle and flap. They seem a genial coven of witches, magistrates conferring in the square, as they dip and bob their heads while shuffling on the crossbar. What could be learned from such chatter? How to approach them at their party? If only we could know the witty banter of seabirds, perhaps we could join them at their leisure.

First, we must cross the water. Overcoming fear is the first step. Eventually we must dive into that which cannot be divined beforehand. There is no other way in this life. To connect is to invest, and treasures will not unearth themselves.

08 July 2018

Living the Life Histological: A Sunday Biji

KEEPER OF LIGHT

Columba leaned back against the warmth of rough granite. Eyes closed, knobs of rock gently digging into his back, his sleepy mind wandered through a field of memory. It arrived empty handed.  It was nearly lost to history, the last time a visitor had trod the sand and slate before the keeper’s house. In his head the visit had become myth. So began another sere summer in servitude to the light.




LIVING IN THE SUMMERWINTER

Heat begets the melancholy. The turning of the seasons has undergone an inversion from the naive days of adolescence into the bittersweet twilights of adulthood. This has never been more apparent than upon being ambushed by three chords in a summer song that the heart would be happy to never hear again. It is not that the song itself is bad, by some measures, but wistfulness and regret ring hard on ears already full of the same.

The full experience of summer brings understanding of the winter. Your heart understands. It knows the singular jolt to the soul induced by spasming with chill while swathed in the swelter of humid sunlight. It seems impossible, illogical, but there it is. The trigger can be a song, a sound, a smell. Any stimuli, almost. What matters is how such things are woven into the soul. Peculiar combinations of memory and emotion combusting into an incandescent fount of reaction.




LAUGHING AND DRINKING FROM THE CUP

Sitcoms and soccer and a little sun and sand. The order reversed itself from what I thought it would be, to become what it was meant to be. We watched the games, critiqued the teams, and then laughed ourselves silly over sitcoms of which she had seen more than I. Of course, it is I who has seen more of life. It is not untrue to say I wish the situation was reversed.




TRIPPIN’

No bones were broken during the fall. The same cannot be said of dignity. Dignity shattered like a glass Christmas ornament in the clutches of a deranged house cat. This sort of thing happens when attention lapses, or is allowed to lapse. Not surprising in this era of distractions, digital and otherwise. People convince themselves they can live without situational awareness, but that is the path to perdition. By our lack of care, we may find ourselves in Hell.



01 July 2018

Tumble

Squeaky hinge clarion call of the gulls cutting through the syrup of a humid morning. A counterpoint of cicadas hums from the live oaks in the yard. A buzz of life just loud enough to be interesting but not overbearing. The susurrus of the ocean can just be made out over the whirr of traffic, ears leaning into the sound. The shore calls out, cajoling the legs into the short walk over to the waves.

With each step towards the water the body becomes lighter. Years slowly slip away, it feels like. More accurately the anxieties about the years begin to fade into the background, akin to the ghost crabs that skitter away from approaching footsteps to disappear into carefully constructed burrows. They will return. They always do. But for now they are out of view. It is the way of things.

What is eminently important in the moment is the water, its rush and burble of it over toes in the surf. This bracing jade coolness thrills the skin. It invites and entices the body to continue further into the sea. Waves curl in bearing with them their own exhortations to play. The body obeys, all the while under the influence of salt air and marine undulations.

Waves and the electricity of existence. Skin like solar panels absorbing the life of the sun. Rapid shuttling between the frigidarium of the sea and the caldarium of the air. The hands and arms break the crests while the feet revel in a comforting scratchiness of sand and pebbles on the ocean floor. Currents flow up and down, back and forth, through body and earth.

A seventh wave ripples the short horizon. The heart races, the belly flutters witnessing the power of Manannán mac Lir come to carry the body up the shore if not out to sea. Still, do not fret. Let it sweep you up. There are fewer things more affirming of life than taking a delicious tumble into saltwater and seashells, awakening into a maritime heart of gladness.

24 June 2018

Call You Home

The call is felt in the blood. A tidal surge in the veins that ghosts the heart with gravity. When least expected, the surge will lift the feet off the floor and leave the urge to be out the door. On the road to the water in all its nervous-making grandeur. The heart fears the swell, and needs it to survive. Dreams tell it so.

A maritime song perhaps first heard in the womb. Blood rushing, swirling through the cataract of the umbilical to percuss the nascent tympani of a budding creature. A glorious song shared between the mother and the child. It would be the child’s first experience of the rhythm of the tides as expressed in heartbeats and phases of the moon. It would be fifteen years or more until a day came when the youth stood on the shore, dumbfounded, without understanding why the sight and sound of the waves was bracingly new and shockingly ancient. He felt it without comprehension of the reasons.

It could be that this illumination was the young man’s first real glimpse at the Mystery of life. There could be no forgetting of that energy and electrification in this first experience of synchronization between the heart, blood, and consciousness. The youth could not know then just how similar the feeling would be when, years later, he made love for the first time. The congruency would be sweet and shocking.

But that was in the future. The shore was the Now. Of course, the Future is the Now at some point. This realization came home to roost years later, experiencing the same sensations in different circumstances. It reminded the man of comedian Brother Dave Gardner, heard decades ago on a vinyl record, who quipped that you can’t do the same thing again but “You can do something similar!” Brother Dave was referring to people who had a good time at gatherings, but the sentiment applied still. A beatnik comic channeling the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, as interpreted by a young man who woke up in middle age.

Today that man stood with his toes in the surf and fingertips wet from the sea. The taste of that water lay lightly on his tongue. It was the taste of something similar, a different river, but realized anew in the heart. It tasted like home.

17 June 2018

On Not Acting My Age (Because I Don't Know It)

I don’t get it, this getting older thing. Chronologically, yes. But state of mind? Personal aesthetics? Outside interests? No. Rather, I’m not sure. I don’t know how I am supposed to act, or exactly what it is I supposedly like now that I have survived five decades on Earth. My head and heart are caught in a tug of war between the dorky punk I used to be and the curmudgeon into which I am morphing. The tension is real and bizarre.

Routines are much more part of life these days. It is an afternoon habit of mine to have a tea or coffee break at this coffee shop near my office. I do not recall how it started, but almost every day I am there, hopefully perched in a window seat. People watching, daydreaming, writing such follies as this. Near to this shop is the campus of a liberal arts college. As such, the place has its share of students as customers and quite likely as baristas. This shop does not have Muzak or programmed piped music. Proof that there is mercy in the universe, sometimes. But what happens is that the employees typically hook up their smartphones or MP3 players to the shop speakers. Consequently I get to hear a broad spectrum of music, much of which I either know little of or have never heard.

The other day in the shop I was sipping tea and listening to the music. It was otherwise quiet so I was getting a good earful. Deciding I liked what I was hearing I opened the music identification app on my phone and let it cogitate. The result came back for a band of which I had heard the name but not the tune. Cool, I’m thinking I might have to get it. I research it only to find out that the song is an album that was released in 1992.

1992. Twenty-six frickin’ years ago. Blood rushed to my head, then swiftly drained out. Twenty six years is half my life ago.

See, herein lies the problem. I love music from the standpoint of an enthusiastic listener. I used to have a strong sense of time and place when I listened to it. I could orient myself quite well. But these days music is not so much bound by context and location. Also, between having listened to music for decades, the ubiquity of listening devices, and the widespread distribution of music wherever I go, I am simultaneously bored and fascinated by it all.

A consequence of that is I hear old stuff that sounds new and new stuff that sounds old, to my ears. I honestly don’t know what I am hearing sometimes. I just know I like it. Mostly. Recent adventures in music have taken me into rap, hip-hop, a little dub, neo-psychedelic rock, and even electronic dance music. There is much undiscovered country in music, for me, most of which is far away from my formative years in becoming a music lover.

On any given day the music I hear makes me feel old, young, and ageless. That can be a good thing. It can be dizzy-making, too. It feels odd to me to realize I am fan-boying over music that people much younger than me are considering to be the shit. Music is music, right, and age don’t matter to the ear of the open-minded listener, right? So why this mixing up with the issue of my years on earth?

This is a problem in that the onset of summer already has me disoriented and detached from life. My dizziness is only increasing from the influence of this musical curiosity of mine. Music has been by turns exhilarating and exhausting, uplifting and depressing. My head is unable to give direction and my heart is feeling oh so lost. Consequently I am at a loss as to how to behave in my life. “Act your age” is a shopworn bromide I have heard before. But what do you do when you cannot pin that down? The music is helping me to feel something, at least, even if it isn’t helping me think. That might be a good thing.

10 June 2018

In the Quiet Box

Silence expands to fill the available volume regardless of the total. This is knowledge gained as a collateral effect of living. It could take decades before one notices what is happening. Different cities, different containers, different boxes all experiencing the same result. The silence is loudest in the night, in those moments before another bedtime. Silence haunts.

Amusingly enough the silence is not without a soundtrack. The noises heard tend to be generated in places other than the throat or head. The click of a kitchen light switch morphs into a rifle shot. An air conditioner fan takes on a near corporeal presence, a machine-age analogue of a waterfall coursing over a brim of rocks. Low hum punctuated by the pouring of rain outside the windows that surges in when the conditioner unit cuts off. The abrupt absence of a sound like that tricks the mind into thinking it is losing its balance. Living in a quiet box it is an easily acquired habit of leaning into sound because it offers support.

Support in the form of distractions from the vacuum of a life unrealized. Absences. Connections not formed, or frayed to the point of unviability. Projects uncompleted, or worse, never started because the attention was absorbed by some other thing in life and the mind failed to grasp the threads it should have followed. Funny how the hollow clattering of a butter knife into a sink (which was cleaned earlier in a fit of anxiety-induced housekeeping) can knock the mind from one track into another. A metallic thud serving as an accidental rin chime signaling the beginning of involuntary meditation in the temple of the head.

The knife lies still in the sink. Stillness broken by the hum and whirr of domestic machineries within, wind and rain without. The body reacts by pacing around the quiet box of its apartment. It cannot be helped that the mind is flooded with memories and regrets and the helplessness wrought by the realization that not enough has been done to find security in an unstable universe. In the stream of silences the head and the heart cannot escape the notion that so much potential appears to have been wasted or unrealized. Picture the tap on the barrel of water that was supposed to have enabled the successful crossing of a desert. Unbeknownst to all this tap was not secured before embarking. Miles of trudging through the heat and sand engendering thirst beyond measure, not to be slaked because the water dripped away.

Desperate discoveries occur in the silences of the quiet box. The stomach knows because it drops. No amount of pacing truly eradicates the gnawing sensation, but the motion can ease some of the discomfort. Discomfort? Do we really mean fear? Fear of having missed out on a cosmic scale and now not understanding how to get something back? Ah, this is it. Of course it is fear. A nipping at the heels brought about by a late-night revelation that you may not know what you are doing. Ever.

But you should know this by now. If you do not, surely that would be irrefutable evidence of the ineffectuality that you believe to be your shackles. It is this ineffectuality that howls the loudest in the midnight of the quiet box. Ineffectuality is the diamond-eyed beast that prowls the undergrowth just outside the dying circle of light. Growl and moan, rustle and snort, the impression is one of power that does not care how bright the fire you build. It will get what it wants. It will feed.

Living a life of balance is draining, in the face of knowing the universe does not need an excuse to eat you alive. The prime directive of that life is to find something, or better yet, someone with whom to share the quiet box of life. By such good fortune the beast will be kept at bay.

03 June 2018

Heliotrope

Earth pirouettes in black velvet. The terminator glides over the crust like God’s inshave scraping the face of the world with light. Whether high or low, all things, all creatures acknowledge the presence of the light. Not all themselves are noticed or remembered when the darkness comes again, but they continue to hope. It is that, or cloak themselves in a shroud of numbness while waiting. This is the way of the world.

Growth often stretches out over years before the connection between the presence of love and the presence of life become clear to the heart. With light comes energy and awakening. The numb darkness is forgotten (or better, never having been known) when the terminator crosses the line of the soul. A certain voice, a phrase, a face seen across the room sets the soft machineries in motion. It is bliss. It is joy. Circulation returns and the limbs infuse with warmth. In the heady scent of a new spring, it is no surprise that the arctic winter fades from consciousness. What veins would not desire such rebirth?

The proof is reaction in the presence of love, of kinship, and connection. To experience the triad is to know great blessings down to the level of the cells. Watch what happens when love walks into the room. A body twists while the face leans towards the light. Suddenly, all is warm, all is light. What a sensation to feel the abrupt lightness of limbs when the shackles fall away!

The living know this intimately, the gadabout perhaps more so than the recluse. Does one know it more keenly than the other? That may depend on the voluntariness of their choice to be out there or undercover. A recluse may not want to be a recluse, but lives under the belief that life is too contrary in its rewards. Tolerance for pain is not infinite, even amongst the most optimistic.

A recluse can know the joy of light, though. Memory knows what it is to feel the surge of electricity in the nerves upon witnessing the sunrise. Or love walking into the room. There can be doubt. The heart thrums. The body awakens. Witness the turning of the face to the source of life, cheeks aglow from the scraping passage of the terminator bringing about a rebirth of the human inside us all. The fields rustle and hum when life turns towards the sun.

Are those fields fallow or sterile? Darkness renders this knowledge difficult to obtain. If the eyes cannot see the ground, they cannot see that which may sprout from it. From the darkness comes the sorcerer Unknown and his familiar, Unease. The first plays tricks on the mind and heart. The second figure-eights around the ankles in the guise of seeking affection, but really is there to trip the body up. Falling down is distressingly easy when the ground is unseen.

Hope and the memory of warmth lead the heart to believe the fields are merely fallow. This belief is necessary for survival. Sterility would mean the death of hope, of blood ceasing to flow, and humanity leaching away into the alkali fields of a mind that has lost its way to connection. The task is thusly defined as the need to hold on until the light returns. Keep the heartbeat going, however feeble, even if it means emotional stasis. It is in this way that love can be rediscovered.

Time dilates. Earth pirouettes, it is clear. The body follows along a highway of diamonds, strewn along the sable cloak of the universe. Battered hearts cross the terminator into light, scraped anew, and the soul awakens. Faces feel the warmth as they turn to a new source of life. This is love.

27 May 2018

Stonemason Blues

On the shore of a personal ocean, black stones of the past clutched in hands scraped raw. The palms ache. The back, the legs, tremble to support all the weight. Gravity fills the bones, pouring from a heart overflowing from the rains of memory. Saltwater washes over bare feet sinking into the sand from the current. The stones are heavy. Heavier than physics would seem to allow. Dark matter denser than blood and iron carried so far, so far.

A journey of decades led to stumbling down this path ending on the strand. Years of confused struggle against things rarely understood crystallizing in a vitreous, drawn out slice of infinity. Time gels and breathing slows. Tears may well but do not fall. Life thickens. Ghosts whisper in the back of the head. They win, sometimes, in their efforts to coerce the mind into believing it will never be whole. They speak occasionally of hearts forever sundered. Deep in a cold night of the soul, victory against such slanderous propaganda seems unattainable. Why would it not? Belief and stamina once led a verdant existence in the valley of the soul. Now there is desert.

Drought happens in life. Rivers shift in their channels, rain ceases to fall, clouds become precious memory. To be human is to know a sere existence upon enduring loneliness as a rule rather than an exception. In the mirror maze of the heart there is no mystery to this loneliness. It is in the world, like gravity.

What is the seeker to do? The soul cannot sustain this constant cycle of wandering and returning with nothing but stones of experience. To build a shelter from them would be to take up residence in longing and bitterness. Terrible feng shui to be sure. The advantage to such housebuilding is that at least the shelter would be a known quantity. No guesswork, no fevered wondering at where one would lay one's head to get out of the weather.

The waves continue their liquid caress of the shore. Listening closely to their sibilance arising from sheets of water gliding over sand the heart may hear voices, offering encouragement or warning is difficult to ascertain. On the beach for miles in each direction no one is visible. No one to turn to, except perhaps figures in the mist whose advice may be as ephemeral as their presence. The questions to be answered, of course, are of what to do with these stones. Throw them in the ocean to let the tides carry them away and out of memory? Or find a green, quiet place to lay them down as a foundation of experience upon which to build a new life?

The head and the heart debate these questions at the edge the world, watching the tide recede.  They will have their answer soon, turning over and over the stones in the hands.

20 May 2018

Divine (or Something Akin To It) Intervention

The rain poured down as a fitting tenor for the day. I pulled my car into the parking garage just like I do most days of the week. The distinctive voice of Matthew Sweet pealed from the radio, with lyrics I already knew but could not help but feel as needles under my skin.

I cannot understand my God I don't know why it gets to meOne day my life is filled with joyAnd then we find we disagreeAll depending on hisDivine intervention*

In the space. I hesitated before killing the engine. I had no real desire to hear the next verse, yet could not bring myself to turn off the radio. It was going to start with that line, you know the one, where Sweet sings “Does he love us? Does he love us?” Gets me every time. The question haunts me often, as it has starting in particular about fifteen years ago. That was the time when I lost my first two children. It seems cool, rainy days have a penchant for resurrecting memories.

I toughed it out through the end of the song. For what it’s worth I actually do like it. Matthew Sweet has pulled off the rare trick of writing a song about God that is neither cloyingly adoring nor furiously critical, and thereby appealing to me. The approach and the style I find interesting. I can listen to it with no eye rolling or agitation.

Certain days, however, with their combination of mood and weather in conjunction with a certain song can really land a punch on me. Rainwater slid with languid grace down the windshield as I waited. The parking garage had the feel of an aging mausoleum. Grimy surfaces, dim light, cold echoes of traffic and machines. The song ended, the engine sputters out, my head sags to the wheel under the peculiar weight of my five-plus decades on earth. I was having trouble breathing.

The steering wheel was cool on my forehead. I held it there for a few moments, listening to my breath while I meditated on the necessity of exiting the car and walking to the office. Rain continued to fall. The world continued to turn. Memories swirled together with weariness over a life gone akimbo, a little dizziness took hold and I wondered if maybe I should just turn around and go home, go back to bed.

But I didn’t. Work to be done and the need to eat got me out of the car and headed for the street. The song echoed in my head, lyrics messing with my heart. I did look around, and what I saw was far from destruction, yet I could not help but wonder how much longer any one of us can keep counting on divine intervention.




Lyrics from "Divine Intervention", from Matthew Sweet's album Girlfriend, released in 1991. 1991, damnit!