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.