31 December 2018

Setting Stones

The singular coldness of basalt, agleam with the residue of maritime fog, seeps into fingers stiff from work and winter air. The greyness itself seems to transfer to the flesh as if the rock itself is exacting a toll for having been quarried for use by the hands that dared disturb the earth. Fair exchange, perhaps. There is no escaping that in the material world creation incurs disruption, if not outright destruction. We do well to acknowledge that condition through respect for the resources consumed and environments affected. Our destiny is to sleep in the beds we make, and our descendants should not look upon our legacies with disappointment and disdain. They should know we laid the stones with respect for the past and for stewardship of the future.

The head and the heart began collecting stones long before the hands. This last day of the year I sit on a small boulder, chin resting on palms, meditating on coming days of slow and steady work. Even through scuffed leather the skin of the fingers has picked up a faint aroma of iodine and minerals. That scent itself a legacy of the sea just yards away, exhaling its spirit over the beach grass and stones. The cottage itself has been banked with samphire and laver around the base. An old tradition that still has its use even if only to comfort the mind with thoughts of stopping the wind. The waves whisper up the strand. Reaching out, I pick a stone and kneel to the new foundation.

This is what happens when the mind is given pause by deep shadows and short days. Human perception and language creates this border, this separation, this arbitrary terminus est at which the old gives way to the new. Things turn with the year. The hands grip stones, the weights of which inform the heart of desires and directions to feed and nurture through the passage of winter. Our foundations start here, setting stones on the last day of the year.

23 December 2018

Ceres and Poseidon: A Christmas Homily

On an afternoon of clear tranquility I sat by the windows to meditate on an ocean of jade-tinged iron. Through the panes streamed December sunlight, painting the cottage walls the color of a well-worn wedding band. A week of rain and wind had finally departed. Beach and boulders along the headland shone in ecstasy of greeting the sun. Peat smoldered on the hearth, filling the cottage with warmth and the soul with gratitude. Salt air filled the lungs on each slow breath. My empty belly growled as it dreamt of stout and oysters.

This hunger dream manifested itself in the flesh as a Christmas wish possessing an elegant simplicity. It is not greed, it is not selfishness, it is not gluttony. It is appetites to be satisfied by simple means, the result of harvest and craft. Hearing the growls, I wondered how far that simplicity could be extended into a life infused with meaning. Et comedent, ergo sum: “I eat, therefore I am”, is that valid meaning? It seems simple enough.

Hunger drives us all, almost strident in its voice when the days are on the cusp of winter. Cold twilight days combine with erstwhile Christmas spirit to amplify the pressure to desire more, want more, need more. The prevailing social matrix would have you believe that more, even excess, is the cure for hunger. Reductionism to the point where what you consume is made less important than continued consumption itself. Quantity over quality. More over enough, stupefaction over engagement.

The sea continued its stirring. Waves upon the sand brought me to stillness, their susurrus an irresistible entreaty to cease thinking, cease worrying, and be in this moment. I acquiesced.

Brothers and sisters and fellow humans, my belly dreamt of stout and oysters, avatars of the creative expression of field and sea. Each a simple want to be savored in its having, preferably in the company of love. In the quiet of the day, this moment of repose becomes the season of peace and contentment.

Laugh with a full belly. Love with full heart. May you too find your stout and oysters. Merry Christmas to all.

16 December 2018

Disappeared - (Coda)

I left the river that day not free of melancholy wrought by the past, but with an understanding of how I could honor that feeling in my life without it overwhelming me. Realization was crystal clear that they are the disappeared, the people and places that I once knew now gone or altered beyond easy recognition. Rejected or removed, they cannot be forgotten. A factory building, a younger man, a sea of grass or grieving father: the heart holds a place for all of them. They had their habits. But there comes a time when past habits fail to serve us well in present living. We remember, not to relive the past but to learn from it. In this world, to learn is to grow. Growth enables the shedding of our skins in glorious, cyclical rebirth.

I have in my possession a collection of persons 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 by experience into silicon and grey matter, writ plain on the heart. They are installed in a personal Hall of Memory curated by my future self, to consult in times of need.

09 December 2018

Disappeared (Part 18)

Awake and breathing with tendrils pushing into the soil, slow and sure. Sycamores along the banks of the Patapsco spoke of this as their daily meditation. To hear such missives requires a discipline for stillness. One has to engage with disengagement. Disengagement from the yokes of modern life which decree and direct what you do and when you do it. The yoke could be a job, a phone or tablet, or a machine. The medium matters less than the message when it comes to the potential for distraction. What is distraction? That which prevents the soul from dealing with the truth of the life surrounding its container. Distraction is anything which prevents or inhibits the accommodation of grief, the reveling in love, the savoring of contentment. In short, distraction is anything that gets in the way of that which feeds the soul and therefore prevents growth or understanding.

Walking along the Patapsco River one morning, in the quiet radiance of my daughter’s presence and not long after our arrival back east, I looked up at the sycamores I had so long admired and had so long missed. Their trunks looked little changed from the last time I had seen them. The trunks shone in the sunlight where it filtered through the leaves. The limbs resplendent in shades of gray wolf and marble dust tinged faintly with ambient green. They stood as quiet witness to our presence. Our phones had been left in the car. Perhaps the trees knew this, and respected that choice. Space had opened up for us to talk of many things. Silence, too, had its place. My heart could tell because my mind was calm. The trees, water, and my progeny were the catalyst for a serenity not experienced in years.

What does it mean that the river is still there? Everything. Whether an internal reality manifested as a vision in the mind’s eye or the external reality of water and stones before the senses, it is this riparian presence that has provided a singular constant in a tumultuous cataract of years. From a place such as it I was figuratively born. To a place such as it I literally returned. Strolling by the Patapsco that morning, a comparison became inevitable between it and the rivers of my most recent experience. The Missouri and Mississippi surely possessed more mud, width, and mythology than the humble river I thought of as mine. But what those two stalwarts of American iconography did not have, and possibly never will, was a hold on my heart. Too little time spent in the company of the Mississippi, I guess. The Missouri and I never became friends. I walked its banks a few times and crossed it more than I can recount, but I never felt accepted. I never felt comfortable. Whether that says more about me than about the river is something I may never know. The Patapsco, on the other hand, has always been quick with an embrace. Humble, quiet, content.

The following months became a sine wave of hope and despair, calm and stress. Adjustments to a new life in a once familiar place soaked up extraordinary amounts of time and energy. This life was a new bike. I knew its theory but not its practice. Loneliness, job stress, and family emergencies extracted from me more than I had to give. I became broken and withdrawn. Existence became a question for which there was no clear answer. A demanding fall slipped into a discontented winter as I flailed about searching for proof that the decisions that had led me here were the right ones.

Alone in my apartment one Saturday in the following spring, embedded in a span of directionless free time, I felt my heart fluttering while my mind raced. The walls were too close. I needed to be out. Water, rocks, and trees chorused their siren call. Soon I was on the road to the river flowing through my mind and in the real world of the valley not so far away. The river held some answers. I heard them in the rush and burble that day while perched upon a boulder near the flow. Meditative deep state has never come frequently or easily to me. That day was different. Within minutes my eyes unfocused. Somewhere inside the heart of a blue whale stirred, with its tardo pulse and stately rhythm. Breathing became a languid zephyr stirring the leaves. The membrane between Me and Everything thinned and slipped. I felt the river in my nerves, heard it in my ears. What it said was that all the experiences of the past few years transpired to bring me to the present, this here and now. All the pain, all the joy, all the in between put me where I was meant to be. In the words of Ortega y Gasset, I truly was “myself plus my circumstances”. The whole was truly greater than the sum, I was going to be okay.

I came to, dappled by sunlight dripping through the leaves. How much time had passed was unknown to me. The voices of the past melded and morphed into the sound of water over stones. Standing up, I brushed off my pants, took a satisfying breath, and walked back into the world as the person that I was faded into the shadow of the person I had now become.

02 December 2018

Disappeared (Part 17)

I awoke the following day with the taste of ash on my tongue. Sometime in the night smoke tinged my river dream. The tiny lanterns of fireflies flitting about became embers. The teeming rubicund lights were languid in their downward drift, snuffed out by the ribbon of black mercury that was the water. In my dream, I had shipped my oars so that I could rest. The water was calm but moving steady with no rapids. Ahead I could see the beginnings of sunrise touching the horizon with fingers of peach and gold. Behind me the sky was tinged with red of a different hue, one that spoke of tragedy and loss. Perhaps by stopping to rest the wind had caught up to me, bearing on it the ashes I sought to outrun. The oars dipped into the river. I opened my eyes.

The fire behind and the ocean ahead held us in thrall, a chunk of iron suspended between opposing colossal magnets. Ambition to escape the former and embrace the latter would be the force to liberate us from stasis. My daughter was oblivious to my eager anxiety. The stakes were different for her. She was on her way back to a home she never left. I was on my way back to soil and sea that had never truly left me but to which I would require reacquaintance. While not being a religious man, it struck me that living the reinvented life ahead would be a relearning of the words to a forgotten hymn. Coast, shoreline, river and bank, the houses of worship I forgot I needed. Perhaps it was no coincidence this was the third day of my revival.

Road music. The hum of tires on the asphalt becomes the slither of water along the hull. Fair weather hitched a ride, ambling along as the car nosed its way through Ohio and West Virginia. Lunch in a chain sub shop somewhere in Pennsylvania, while I did not know it then, would be the most memorable thing about the last leg of the trek. There was silence between my progeny and I. This silence was not born of malice or personality fatigue. No, more due to road weariness and anxious anticipation of a landing at the end of the asphalt.

I become the salmon and trout, alewife and blueback, returning to natal rivers from whence we entered this world. Watercourses of deep memory no longer the same but still homes not forgotten. Trees may have fallen on the banks. The rocks abide in the currents. Somewhere upstream it is possible that the riparian channel has shifted course, or in a tectonic shift of circumstances perhaps an old dam has been removed. The years like tons of silt washed downstream by the inexorable pressure of time, of change. I stared down the dirt and debris rushing past under the impetus of the hydrological cycle of my soul. The river of my birth was not swirling about my knees but it was close enough to smell its crystalline, metallic tang. Like my marine cousins, I was navigating by memory and deep structures impossible to see by direct observation.

Memory and deep structures served us well, terminating this cross-country hegira by the quiet parking of our car in a hotel parking lot. Warm summer air, gravity with humidity, flooded the vehicle upon opening the doors. Upon the breeze was a faint hint of iodine and salt, or so my weary senses told me. That the Chesapeake Bay waited just over the horizon was not lost on my psyche. Green waves rolled over my head as I floated just below the sunlit surface. It would not be long now.

Saltwater and smoke are different beasts, with very different and sublime aromas. After the trials of the year behind, my heart chose brine over ash. This became clear as my daughter and I left the hotel to search for dinner. Tightness in the belly slipped away as I stood outside breathing deeply of air which had recently slipped over water instead of grass. My heart throbbed in systolic and diastolic sympathy with waves now not so far away. Blood ebbed, blood flowed. Its pause and rush filled my ears with the sound of breakers caressing the shore.

That night sleep came swiftly. Of the dreams that paid a call, I remember nothing except for standing before a cottage door, wondering if I still had the key.

25 November 2018

Disappeared (Part 16)

Sunrise in St. Louis. A new day begins within sniffing distance of the Mississippi. It is not lost on me that we will cross it when we leave the city. The big river psychically holds a place in the collective consciousness as “where the West begins”, especially to those who were born, raised, and spent most of their life on the east coast. It is a myth, mostly, but one that hovered in the back of my mind for years. Years, that is, until I spent some years living in Kansas. The Mississippi River may have been where the West began centuries ago, but these days it is more a state of mind rather than a reality.

That state of mind was on my mind when the wheels hit the road on the William L. Clay Bridge over the river. This was not where the west begins. This is where the next phase of my life, my eastern life redux would begin. Big water interposed between me and the wreckage, the fire, and the memories from the land of Oz. The short term goal was simply to make it to Ohio. Columbus, Ohio, to be exact. Never before had I been there, never had a reason to visit. It was a new day. The circumstance of distance made anointed Columbus as the mid-journey stopover, a place to catch breath and lay our heads.

King Pepe meows and places his front paws on the dashboard. The sun lights up his face, illuminating his eyes with tawny gold. The figurehead cat will soon lose interest in the road ahead. He will curl up in the back with that luxurious ease that felines possess. I envy him. He rests, I drive. My daughter keeps herself entertained via the smartphone, although we chat and like about memes and the weirdness of the internet. This is comfortable, this is good. This is the first road trip involving just the two of us. At first it was a bit awkward. My time in Kansas had afforded little chance for chance conversation, just us. But heart memory served me well, and we found common ground with broken ice. For the first time in years, I felt like a father in practice rather than just name. If my hands hadn’t been on the wheel I might have wept. But the kid could not drive and we had miles to go before we slept.

The river flows into Illinois, cross-wise to the Mississippi, a flow of striped asphalt bathed in the hum of traffic. Something happened when we crossed over. Was that a door slamming or a curtain falling? The horizon behind shifted and blurred. The undersides of the clouds no longer carried the tinge of flames below. The air itself smelled sweeter without the tang of smoke. Our vessel found its head, and I was content to let it follow the ribbon of pavement into the east. Illinois rolled away under the wheels. Indiana was more a chronometer than a place. Miles became blur, hypnotic, calming. Travel as a fugue state that brought peace of mind. Not so long ago I would have paid cash money to find that peace. My gratitude was palpable to have achieved it on the road.

A change in the weather greeted us upon crossing the border into Ohio. Clouds gathered overhead, storm curds gravid with the threat of thunderstorms. They chased us down the highway to catch up with us as we neared Columbus. The skies cracked open to turn the interstate into a log flume ride in a particularly hectic amusement park. The car did not so much roll into the parking lot of the hotel as it floated. Still, the deluge had not saddled me with the usual grouchiness that afflicted me when bad weather complicated my life. Quite the opposite. The rain was heavy, the road slick and uncertain. These things were easily handled. The water itself soothed and cleansed, whispering good things to the soul. Rain and river were carrying me away from the damage of the recent past into a future uncertain but full of promise. What the water told me is that the hurt is real but so is the healing.

As we checked in to the hotel, the storms moved on. We left our bags in the room, and went in search of dinner. Sunlight peeked through a hole in the curtain of the sky. White gold rays coruscated over billows of dusky purple. Omen? I do not know. Later, over ice cream, my daughter and I agreed it was beauty. Surely this boded well for the morning, and another good day on the road. That night I slept well, dreaming of a river flowing into the sea. I could hear the waves and it sounded like home.

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.

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.