31 December 2019

Silence and the Sea

Year-end thoughts like hesitant lemmings on a cliff, jostling and murmuring as they decide which will be the first off the edge. The waters of the old year have ebbed. The waters of the new are surging up onto the rocks. Peace is ephemeral. Roar and hiss are constant. The desk top is slowly revealed as the clutter is cleared. Here in this room, this house, the walls  are painted with the lilac-blue of winter sundown. A shaggy terrier paces in another room. His nails click the hardwood. A cat, with colors suggestive of a creamsicle, perches on the windowsill peering into the gloaming with eyes of green and gold. I ask it what it thinks of New Years' Eve. It stares at me with tail a-twitch. There is no answer.

This all happens as I sip tea from a brand new porcelain mug. It is a gift. Creamy white surface adorned with four figures of cats rendered in deep cobalt. It is a small wonder, this mug. It combines three things of which I am quite fond: cats, tea, and the color blue. It is a calming object. Warmth. Smooth porcelain. Shaded color into which I sometimes yearn to dive. The mug and the person from whom I received it have kept me back from the edge of the cliff as I face down myriad regrets and anxieties in the run-up to midnight. It is cause for thanks.

If pride of place belonged strictly to the loudest of the voices in my head, this page would be filled with a red-hot rant of personal truths and angry upbraids of the universe, for allowing things to decay and for bad things to happen to far too many who did not deserve it. Volume too often means weight. Weight too often is mistaken for rightness. Rightness sometimes hides to escape the shouting.

I consider the voices. Tea slips down the throat. Warmth radiates from my core, on a tide of pleasant bitterness accompanied by the faint floral notes of roses and jasmine. The tea has stayed my hand. It has muzzled the loudest cries for attention. In that silence it is possible to hear the soft ones trying to capture my attention. Loudness is not king. Anger and bitterness are no true foundations upon which to continue building a house. Take comfort in ones' persistence, the pride of surviving the storms. Most importantly, in the undiscovered ocean of the coming year, do not forget to love.

30 November 2019

In Memory of the Lad Charlie B.

The tree isn’t much to look at. Spindly, bare, pushing up from mud at the bottom of a swale. Spindly due to its location. Bare due to an exhausting combination of highway wind and oncoming autumn. These are unavoidable facts of existence.

Humor resides in this tree. After all, who willingly decides to sink its roots to grow up bracketed by galvanized guard rails, in the middle of a nondescript median? That is a black sense of humor or bad luck for the seeds, depending on the lens that receives the image.

Admire the tenacity of the leaves as the cars rush by, flailing in the watery light of a dying sun. The leaves work for it. They hang on. Soon they will probably fall. That is life.

31 October 2019

Remnants of the Burn (Flash fiction for the last day of October)

Tarnished silver drops falling from a mottled pewter sky were enough to keep the smoker under the awning. Faint vapor swirls up from a cup of late afternoon coffee. The acridness of the smoke could near be felt through the glass. It wafted along with a muffled phone conversation seeping through the speckled panes. His waving hands swept in ragged circles, a cigarette in one tracing swirls through the air. Ashes drift from the tip to stipple the mahogany-sheened surface of his coffee. Distracted, he raises the cup and gulps down a mouthful. There was no time to warn him. Undeterred by ashes the conversation carries on. Inside, behind the glass, it is left to the imagination to wrap itself around the taste. As for myself, dark roast kissed by sugar lies content on the tongue.

30 September 2019

16 August 2019


Salty August air,
undulating aqua glass
reflects quaking heart

08 July 2019

Home Again, Home Again

The first thing that struck me was the aroma. The combined fragrances of the old house were the triggers that unleashed a flood of memory. The dam broke around ten years of time gone and memories burnished. Ten years since I walked through the door on the first day of ownership, seven years since I left it to embark on a quixotic quest for a happiness that was never quite attained. Time folded in on itself. Dizziness overtook me. To exist in the Then and the Now is a peculiar experience. I stepped fully through the door. The aroma intensified. Lightheaded, misty-eyed, I was home again.

27 June 2019

The Other Side of the Sun

Phone call unheeded
Glazed eyes watch emerald leaves
Solstice wanes away

20 June 2019

Flash Fiction Thursday (or, I’m Too Tired to Write More)

In the bottom drawer, on the day of Big Papa’s funeral, the boy found the pistol, worn shiny bright. He stuck it in the waistband of his goin’-to-town clothes, where it clung to the small of his back in the Georgia heat. Ten years later he was shocked at the loudness of the shot, even though he never heard the scream.

12 June 2019

A Feast for St. Crispin, Part 4

The wisp reels him in. Its ethereal gravity was far stronger than blue-grey gauziness would suggest. He spirals in towards the lowering fire, dropping the wood beside it. He was confident the pile would allow completion of the ceremony. Sticks fed into the expanding maw of flames, the heat grows. The sun was disappearing behind the leaves.

04 June 2019

A Feast for St. Crispin, Part 3

It begins with small things. Branch tips. Twigs, if necessary. Slabs of bark. Wind and weather have strewn the forest floor with them all. “Chop wood, carry water” the unspoken mantra of the amble, the stoop, and the grasp. Embraced by the nave of trees he finds hushed joy in the rasp of dried wood against his fingertips grasping the first stick showing promise. At the moment of contact, from deep in the trees comes the toktoktok-toktoktok of a woodpecker hammering on a tree. The patchwork canopy diffracts the staccato tapping into a call to prayer. He stops, sinking to his knees. Not much of a religious man, he nonetheless succumbed to the first devotion of the day.

The shock that hit him had been years in the brewing. The garden was no longer the refuge it once had been, its silence amplified by the disappearance of those who had accompanied him through the gates. There was no one with whom to keep watch. Peace of mind had become moonlight on broken water. Try as he might the pieces were ever slipping from his grasp, a prelude to the terror and confusion that would grip him later. He knew this now from the benefit of the scanning microscope that is hindsight.

The woodpecker hammers anew. A zephyr stirs leaves dampened by new-fallen tears. Of regret or sadness or loss, he did not know. That they fell brought solace as proof of life. To be alive is to feel, emotion as real as the crumbling leaves that disintegrated under his fingertips. Questions arose from the crackling litter.

To whom do you listen? Whose will do you obey? Who is your master?

Breeze ripples through the trees, feeling for all the world like whispers on his ears. The effect startled him. Spooked, he sprang to his feet with a racing heart. There was no way, he hoped, that someone or something could have followed him out here. The last people he had seen was a pair of hikers heading in the opposite direction, over three hours ago. They would most likely be at the trail head, he thought. More hammering from the woodpecker. The burst ends with a solitary, emphatic knock reminiscent of a gunshot. He took it as a sign to return to the fire. The sticks he gathered in his arms before turning to the thread of smoke winding through the trunks.

27 May 2019

A Brief Meditation On Account of the Dead That Sacrificed

Put down the drink
Set aside the coupons
Challenge yourself
To grasp tight
Sadness and memory
Of all the souls
Wrapped tight
In that freedom rag
You worship
And exalt
Without care
At the ruination
Of another’s arc
Cost paid by them
But extracted
By the powerful
And the delusional
Who cannot stop
Fabricating reasons
To carve more names
In the stone wall
Of our violent privilege

20 May 2019

A Feast for St. Crispin, Part 2

He rose to his feet. Crackling in his joints echoed the crackling flames. To his ears the sound was another stitch in the universal fabric into which his existence was woven. The body, like fire, consumes to live. The price of existence includes the toll it takes on both. The flames offered themselves up as temporary axis mundi for this feast day in the woods. Ephemeral, fluttering, but temporal and true.

Metaphysical indulges aside, there was work to do. He stepped out in a languid amble spiraling anchored by the volute spring of the fire. Leaf litter crumbled underfoot, little brown mosaics shattered by the high notes of his tread. Fire warmth in the limbs fades into the coolth of October air seeping through shirt, jacket, and jeans. He amused himself with the folly of the forest as a Roman bathhouse. Leaving the fire behind on a foliate passage from caldarium to frigidarium, minus the shock of a dousing with water.

Having recently dropped the stones, his hands were empty. They tingled. The time had come to fill them with new fuel.

To be continued

13 May 2019

A Feast for St. Crispin

The smoke rose to meet Heaven on October 25th, in the fifty-fifth year of his tenure on Earth. A warm beast of a campfire lay just beyond his feet. Sparks threatened his socks, but the therapy of the flames was too good to resist. Hard days of hiking had etched tattoos on his lower legs, in the form of bruises and blisters. Cramps, too. He considered that as he absent-mindedly massaged his left ankle and arch. New, not quite broken-in boots sat on the ground by his side. To the front firelight dappled a pair of old shoes that very nearly were in the embers. The proximity of fire to footwear did not bother him. Indeed, the closeness made him happy, seeing as it was integral to the point of sitting fireside on this Saint Crispin’s Day.

October seeped into his bones. Afternoon sunlight filtering through the trees striped the forest with honeyed gold and slices of dusk. Leaf litter tanged the air, undergirded with the memory of petrichor. He reveled in the boon of communion with earth, air, fire, and water. Modern science may have moved on to greater accuracy in classifying the world and loosening the grip of things elemental but they still held sway on his imagination. Balance was restored through the arboreal embrace of the forest. The proof was here and now.

More walking awaited. There was still wood to gather, provisions to secure. He reached for the boots, slipping them on. While lacing up, motion by the fire caught his eye. Faint threads of smoke were spiraling up from the toes of the shoes. “Whoah!” he barked, startling himself with the volume shattering the quiet of the woods. He snatched the shoes away. It was too soon to end the celebration. That would have to wait, when the sun was down and the belly was full. He finished lacing the boots, and stood. The fire needed the depth of the night to reach its full flower. Time to gather the fuel.

To Be Continued

06 May 2019

Essence, Volume Zero

Memory and longing grabbed me by the nose on an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday afternoon, putting a tiny stutter in my step. The tourists may have thought I was tipsy, but I knew better. The sway of abrupt dislocation was triggered by an amalgam of scents wafting from a doorway. The drawing of a breath snatched me out of myself and into a memory palace far from my feet on the ground. A quick turn of the head to verify the source, a shake thereof for clearance, and then continuing on my way down to the harbor. This was break time. I would have no truck with ghosts, within or without me.

In the town where I work there is a spice shop around the corner from my office. It is on literal Main Street. I pass by it nearly every day during the work week. Good weather in the warmer months leads to a door often propped open. It is their custom to place a folding sign on the brick pavers in front, adorned with photos of the wares offered within. Aromas heady and alluring spill out into the sidewalk air. Most days I stroll past without much of a thought for it. But this Tuesday was different. The aromas hit hard and fast.

A different time. A different place. A different me. That person is not here now except in his own amber memories. I am reluctant to think of him now. How often does an island think of departed tsunamis, or a mountain dream of past earthquakes? I have no claim to the solidity of of such geographic stalwarts. but in our shared concerns it feels that we are brothers. Remembrance of the past does not equate to a desire for reliving it.

Mountains and beaches speak of singularities. In the collective memory of humankind, such features are “essential” in an ancient sense. They possess spiritual gravity. In our lives we know this because their proximity pulls at our hearts and minds. The great naturalist John Muir understood this, famously saying “The mountains are calling and I must go.” Substitute “ocean is” for “mountains are”, in particular, and it becomes supremely illuminatory.

The light was strong, the call was loud that ordinary Tuesday. I stood surrounded by both, with a nose full of memories. My heart beat slow. My pace matched it. I wandered off in search of an essence just beyond the edges of recall, wondering if it was written in Volume Zero.

29 April 2019

Middens, Part 5 (At Rest)

Night air with its aroma of pelagic iodine brings with it a heightening of the senses. Hearing, touch, and sight in particular undergo an increase in their gain akin to dialing it up on a stack of amplifiers. Crickets in the dunes chirp with an intense clarity. My forearms rest on the desk. The burnished raspiness of the wood comes through as mild, electric warmth. By such solidity I can reassure myself that I will not plunge into the earth. I have an anchor as I continue to gaze out the window.

There is joy in bearing witness to magic. A silver ribbon bedecks the wine-dark sea as the moon begins its languid ascension into the sky. Breakers atomize into argentine drops, Poseidon casting coins onto a waiting shore. The scene spurs me to move. I am overwhelmed by the urge to walk the waterline and scoop up the bounty. The scraping of chair legs over planks ricochets around the cottage when I push back from the desk. Prickles of something akin to pain grind through the knees, the back, popping the joints. The sensation reminds me of stepping from the ocean into the embrace of a scratchy cotton towel. Slightly rough but offering tactile satisfaction. Standing feels good. I grab a flashlight from the shelf by the door and make my way outside.

Heat of the day clings tenuously to the siding and the sand. It is quickly being replaced as the night breeze swirls about. I know the path to the shore well enough to walk it on the dark, but moonlight makes a worthy accompaniment to the trek. Footsteps make their own music from the crunch and rasp of shells, sand, and dry grass. The sound is a balm, perhaps best enjoyed in the silence of a solitary walk when the mind can be fully present. As I approach the strand this current rendition is subsumed into the studied cacophony of the waves. It is a dialogue worth hearing.

I am at the tide line. The sand has that peculiar heaviness that comes from saturation. Density underfoot, with gravity. Seaweed scribes the beach with calligraphy untranslatable but intuitively understood. The vegetation is another shield, I find. A green rampart redolent of iodine, bedecked with remains of tiny creatures that did not survive the surf. There are pebbles, bits of wood, and shells. Clam shells in particular, with the odd fragment of whelk. The shells remind me of the oysters I had for dinner. Appetites come to mind. A shard of history surfaces in my mind.

Native peoples by the shore knew where to find sustenance. Ancient humans knew a good thing when they saw it. The consumption of oysters and the like over time led to the creation of huge mounds of shells, as we have discovered. Middens created by the survival imperative. Standing by the wrack, looking out over the moonlit sea, I am surrounded by the water, the walls of the cottage, the oysters in my belly: the middens between me and the world, keeping me alive and sane.

22 April 2019

Middens, Part 4

To be at rest in the present day is becoming a luxury. Technology is convincing us that not only should we be connected, but we have to be connected. All access, all the time, as evidenced by our anxious search for recharging stations in public spaces. I marvel at the growth of my own disquiet while the battery percentage drops. Retreating into the dynamic serenity of dunes and breakers affords ample space to realize the disquiet is symptomatic of an affliction, one that is a creeping corrosion of peace of mind. Another weighty breaker pummels the shore. Emphatic maritime punctuation to my belated realization.

The horizon is the next nearest barrier, and it is far away. Its arc is faintly limned by the silver light of a moon yet to rise. My thoughts a mirror to the glow, I can feel a revelation creeping in on little padded paws. The hearth smolders. I will wait and see what the currents bring.

To Be Continued

15 April 2019

Middens, Part 3

Sand, in the form of dunes, is the cradle here. I feel them swaddling the cottage. The day is on a gentle glide into night. Stars reveal themselves as burnished dimes embedded in a firmament of deepening indigo. I have lost track of how long I have been here in the chair by the window. Cool air redolent with aromas of iron and salt drifts though the casements. This is the scent of the world, of threads that bind me to it. It is an olfactory blanket which serves in part as shield against “dry land and its bitter memories”, to borrow a phrase from a favorite song.

The notion of shields has been hovering about my mind as of late. The world as it is seems to be on fire. Every day brings some new fresh hell of political chicanery, social disruption, or environmental chaos. The Internet alternates between being a crucial source of information and a digital dumpster. Having shields means having the means to preserve sanity and optimism. It means being able to endure. Satisfying our appetites, the hungers we feel, becomes it own form of shield. Eating comforting food, reading an engaging book, or laying eyes on a beautiful vista are all shield-building exercises.

Make no mistake here. These are shields, not walls. They aren’t meant to be permanent or static. Shifts occur as circumstances and needs evolve over time. It would be worrisome if this were not so. But what is true is the periodic need for protection, and thereby respite. Through a combination of temporal and spiritual means we seek and can find that respite when the world becomes too much and our minds overflow. Such is the appeal of this place by the sea, where the walls of civilization are not so close and the mind can expand into quiet, to actually hear itself.

It is getting dark. The line between the sea and the sky is near imperceptible. There is a lack of “something” there, yet that "nothingness" tells me here, I am safe. I am at rest. The profane is beyond the circle of light.

To Be Continued

08 April 2019

Middens, Part 2

My hands are dry. Stillness compels me to hold them out before me, quivering under the influence of nerves and pulse. The unkindness of desiccated air has roughened the skin. Across the fingers is a skein of tiny cuts brought about by the raggedness of shells. Wavelets of pain flare across them as I flex my hands, calling attention to debts paid in order to eat. There is a clarity to this pain. It is a pain that I understand. Pain, hunger, joy: among the interlocking gravities exerting actions at a distance on the bodies we call home. They can take us out of ourselves but ultimately they bring us back. We ignore them at our peril.

Dinner settles in my belly. To experience such fullness is to experience modest grace. What matters is that we do not abide in ignorance of manifest hunger and the satiety which slakes it. I ponder this while watching a squadron of black-backed gulls tussling over the corpse of a fish down by the waterline. Sometimes the line between a gull and myself is nearly nonexistent, crossed as it is in the assuaging of hunger. In this way the gull and I understand each other.

The cottage needs room. Opening the casements ushers in the balm of salt water and warm sand, zephyrs like wee cats’ feet riffling the papers atop the desk by the windows. Papers. Journals. A smattering of pens. These too are tools used in the satisfying the appetites of mind and soul. The frequent exhortations of the page, as inscrutable as they are sometimes, bring me to the desk over and over again. This is imperative much like the need for an ocean view with time to contemplate the breakers in their infinite variety. Words and waves, the DNA of new stories using familiar elements.

A seventh wave thumps the strand. Vibrations from the impact work their way through the floorboards of the cottage to shiver my legs. The sound nudges me out of reverie. The afternoon is on its way to evening. Aureate light intensifies around the headland to paint the cottage in a warm gold sheen. This is precious time out here. The atmosphere is of a sort to have photographers scrambling for their cameras. Ordinarily I would do the same. But not today. Today the sea quietly suggests that today is not the day for the capturing of beauty, it is a day for experiencing it. This logic shall not be quarreled with.

If beauty has a purpose in life, surely it must be as a bulwark against the brutality and despair of the world outside ourselves. This thought puts its hands on my shoulders and gently pushes me down into the chair. Gulls call, shrill piercings that crack the sky and dissolve in the static of foaming water. I follow the fading cries into the sand.

To Be Continued

01 April 2019

Middens, Part 1

The counter above the sink is disappearing under a Lilliputian scree of natural detritus. A crab shell. A pine cone. The dessicated corpse of a monarch butterfly. An ever increasing collection of oyster shells which echoes a trio of clam shells. In their turn they speak of the butterfly wings. All crowding up an earthenware bowl cradling a pair of silvery, greeny looking onions. Bulbs of garlic nestle up to the onions like penguin chicks. A scattering of garlic peels, snippets of allium papyrus, adorn the onions and the bowl. Doing the dishes, one cannot escape the sight of these gleanings from field, farm, and sea. Soft light reflecting from water and dune turn the cottage into a vitrine. I am among the objects on display.

I dry my hands on the rough cotton towel that hangs down the cabinet face. The hook from which it hangs was fashioned from a smallish cleat I excavated from the sand years ago, in the wake of a ferocious storm that had walloped the headland. Howling winds and horizontal rains ceding overnight to a stiff breeze scrubbing an azure sky punctuated by dandelion puffs of clouds. Walking the beach that day I spied the dull chrome tip jutting out of a ragged wreath of dulse. Brushing the sand off revealed the clear to be in good shape, so it came home with me.

Afternoon light fills the cottage. My hands wrap the towel around themselves as my peripatetic mind ponders the remains on the counter. I am reminded that the origin of the collection is fuzzy in my memory. The pine cone has been on the ledge for nearly two years, a curio brought back from a visit with family. The crab shell, perhaps from that trip as well. The clam shells I vividly remember saving from a particularly good batch of chowder I made in the fall, a brace of years ago. The butterfly? Date and time of collection is lost to history. But it is all a collection. A faded inspiration catalyzed the beginning of it. The intent, if it were ever to be coupled with action, was to create a series of still life photographs. Fading daylight reminds me that the intention has yet to be fulfilled. Another idea flitting away like the butterflies themselves.

Silence inhabits the cottage. It is not the aural sterility of anechoic chambers. Rather, it is the quiet of blankets and morning forests. There is the murmur of the waves, subdued. Accompanying them is the occasional cry of a kittiwake frisking about down by the waterline. The sounds reach me through a layer, gauzy on the ears. In this silence I recognize that my need to collect these avatars of nature has roots in a resting state denied me by current events, anxiety, and an addiction to information. The absence of input is a gentle reminder to step back from the chatter. It is not a theft of time to cradle a shell in the hands, trace the contours with a fingertip, and consider the threads that tie you to it.

Shell as tool. Shell as totem. Shell as container of food. These are the states by which I know them. The gathering and gleaning of these things is relief. The contemplation of these things is meditation. Either state is a frame of mind worth inhabiting. I know this having received revelation in the shucking of an oyster, and in the placid track of sunlight across the antediluvian scales of a pine cone.

To Be Continued

25 March 2019


Oceans perchance can be forgiven for unawareness of their own power. Such pelagic giants have concerns far larger than humans and animals. There is some suspicion that marine giants such as blue whales have insight into the machinations of the deep, but are notoriously silent in the relation of that knowledge. Silent, that is, if humans have not yet learned to listen and understand. As a species humanity has vast distances to cross before viewing even the outer walls of true understanding. In the interim humans have no need to comprehend titanic unself-consciousness in order to understand its effects. Look no further than the tide line, with its jetsam and wrack and faunal remains.

Freed from the shackles of economy and utility, beach combing is more about meditation than acquisition. Serenity can be found along the tide line while executing a patient search for that which is of interest, interest being defined as “you’ll know it when you see it.” The flotsam of ships afloat and under the waves. Natural curiosities. Shiny things. Strolling along the scalloped edge of retreating waves, a curious mind cannot help but be entranced by the leavings of the tide. The stories that could be told by shard or shell!

Stories are the root of the exploration. Every rounded lump of glass is an essay. Every man-made object is a codex. Every animal carcass, large or small, is a tome. All await the eyes and mind of the reader. What do we want to know? When his students were stuck for inspiration, the architect Louis Kahn advised them to ask materials for advice. “What do you want, brick?” was his famous question (the answer: “I like an arch”) and it was pointedly about creating engagement. To encounter a faded crab carapace or burnished chunk of driftwood is to be graced with an opportunity for wonder. Surely the sight of pearlescent fish bones fading into sand makes one pause, ponder, and ask “What brought you here?”

The tide line intrinsically serves as catalyst for the asking of that question, which in turn acts as mirror and reflection. Lying amongst the calligraphy of cast up seaweed are chapters and verses, tales of creation and life. The hummocks came from somewhere to end up here in the now. This state of affairs is the human condition writ large. People are not lumps of seaweed, obviously, but we know more than we can say about being carried along by currents we cannot fully perceive only to end up in places we may not have expected to inhabit.

Wandering along the laminar edge of the breakers’ last hurrah, there is much to be seen that is unremarkable. The homogeneous grit of sand interspersed with drab pebbles and uncountable shell fragments represents “beach” to many of us. This is ordinary. This is as it should be. The ordinary is crucial as it serves as backdrop to the extraordinary, those bits of glitter and opalescence that beckon fitfully to the eye as they are rocked by the waves. Especially in the sunlight the fragments call out. It is nearly impossible to resist the urge to bend low to pick such treasures up. We see them. We know these irregular shards as shells and as pages, cast up from books not written by the hands of humans. But they tell stories. Stories of long journeys and hard experience. Once they were whole, now echoes of something larger. The form is still here, different from the “used to be” which existed in that time referred to as “ago”. Different, but beautiful all the same. A pearly fragment in the surf is not so distant from us, tumbled as we are by circumstance and fortune, to emerge from the chaos with burnished edges and wondrous tales to share.

18 March 2019


Consider the oyster in its unassuming shell. It has neither the Fibonacci grace of a clam nor the sublime fluting of a scallop. Human prejudices tend towards beauty that does not admit of jaggedness and the rough. Perhaps it is so amongst the animal kingdom. Clams with their curves burrow themselves away from hungry eyes. Scallops lie on the sand, but they have speed to evade their enemies. Oysters grow in clumps, tucked in craggy armor, not giving a damn about passing predators.

Maybe oysters do give a damn about predators. Hard to say, by nature being quiet and sessile creatures. Is it jealousy they feel, abed and watching clams dig in and scallops gambol about the sea floor? This is a topic for serious investigation. Imagine a curious heart immersing itself in an estuarine embrace to visit among the oysters. Filter the water. Share salt with strangers for whom rapprochement begets gratitude. Tuck into bed and dream with them in the interstices of the tides. Patience receives its reward when the shells open. They may be amenable to sharing secrets once their bellies are full.

Secrets. Yes, this is it. Humble exteriors holding secrets. This helps explain the clumps, the ragged shells, the propensity for mud. Appearances deceive throughout all kingdoms, human and animal. The phrase “Do not judge a book by its cover” has many variants among the languages of earth. Yet humans often fall for the notion that virtue and worth are arbitrated by prettiness, shininess, and affluence. Judged by those characteristics alone oysters would seem to have no chance at becoming a regular foodstuff for Homo sapiens. Jonathan Swift wrote, in his book Polite Conversation, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster”. Gazing upon inelegant shells strewn amongst the mud of the tide line, hard labor is not required of the imagination to understand the genesis of Mr. Swift’s epigram.

But was it boldness that drove the choice? Or was it an overarching hunger? Hunger was likely the prime directive. When the belly scrapes the backbone, who knows what one will do to put space between those two. That includes pulling unlikely manna from the muck. There is nourishment there, and beauty. These things are known by hunger when it exerts itself to open the tightly closed shells, freeing that which lies within. When that hunger transcends survival, the soul can then turn to boldness. It finds things hidden in the mud with secrets to be revealed and shared. Be bold. Shuck the oysters of the self. Drink the liquor, find the pearls, and spread them all before the light.

11 March 2019

Overturning the Bushel

Lux. Corpus lux! A folly of a translation, in service to the idea of we are but bodies of light. Or is it homines lumine, humans of light? Our bodies become an amalgam of stardust and intentions. Language itself becomes light. The gravity of Latin is ancient, its pull irresistible in the search for essence. These words! How far back must we travel to grip the soul of light? The gap between the experience of light and its description may never be closed. Words weep under duress of inadequacy, but they must make do. I can only blink my eyes and gape in wonder when it fills the around me, the sky above me, the heart within me.

Light all around. What was it like before humankind learned to paint it as it is known to modern man? Before electric light? As a teenager I camped one night under an unsullied canopy of stars. It was was enough to still my voice. My head filled with awe, dumbstruck by this highway of diamonds I never knew existed. A faint film of jealousy occluded my heart to know that long ago humans had experience of light never tainted by clever inventions. Jealousy because I wanted to know that, too. Such desire awakens to know these disappearing night skies because the universe turns fittingly. It is not due to artificial impositions of creatures who do not fully understand what they do.

Light reflected by water into sky. I laugh to myself. My fellow patrons in the coffee shop where I write don't notice my humor, or are polite enough to not stare. Do they know I dream here in the window? While I cannot see the water nearby, directly, it is visible in tiny slices if one looks carefully through the windows of the market cross the street. Some days there is no certainty if what can be seen is real, or just a figment. My mirth arises because I take comfort from the water in reality and in imagination. Water presents the light in an ever-changing familiarity of mien that we have never seen before but will always recognize.

Light. Where is this light we seek? How does it find us as it leaks through the slats, shines in the spaces between the leaves, illuminates our skin as we stand gaping under a sky so blue it makes the heart swell? This light, lovelies. This light that arrives and vanishes without warning. It fills the dreams and wakes us from the same, only to leave us confused and bereft but with comfort and hope. It will be back. Our light is fickle as we constantly hide it from ourselves. The soul can be a basket or a candlestick. To know in our lives the difference is a universal struggle. We are our own bushels, struggling to be overturned, that we may bring about the sharing of light.

04 March 2019

On the Horns of Mourning, Part 3 (End)

Mid-October at the ranges of Chimney Butte and Elkhorn. The cusp of winter on the plains and work is underway on a ranch house made of cottonwood logs. The main house would be finished by spring of 1885. Other buildings would follow, including a barn, a blacksmith shop, and a chicken coop. Theodore Roosevelt had ambitions to raise about one thousand head of cattle. One wonders how much of that ambition was driven by the relatively successful cattle raising season of the year before, and how much was driven by the need to grow something new from the ashes of grief.

If I could ask Teddy a question, it would be, from what was he running when he arrived on the ranch? He had a reputation for forthrightness which leads me to believe he would give honest answers to honest questions. He also does not appear to have talked much about losing his mother and wife. Perhaps his own version of the “man code” advised him to lock up the pain so as to not feel it. Certainly as a way to avoid displaying personal damage to the world. Displaying pain has often been taken as a sign of weakness, in personal and societal mores. History shows Theodore Roosevelt as the kind of man who placed great value on personal strength and courage. Given all that, my questions to him most likely would have been met with polite demurrals.

I have a clear idea of what he was escaping, though. Pain such as that is relatable. It is translatable. My respite from it would have to happen within. With limited exceptions there was no place to go but to the wilds of the mind. More so than usual, I began to live in my head. I ventured into the dense benighted thickets that became my emotional landscape in the months that followed. I had nowhere else to go and was at a loss to find anything better.

The soul as animal kept for study. Cranium as vivarium, the only safe place for that animal to roam. Its security I augmented by undertaking long walks in the woods and by water. Hiking provided relative solitude in what was far from frontier country. Birds and deer and the occasional fish became my herds of cattle, free ranging through the the parks and river. Boulders served as impromptu rocking chairs on riverbanks serving as porches. I took counsel from wind in the leaves and water flowing over rocks. Voices such as theirs beckoned me back from the black edge at the end of the universe. It is safe to say that nature had a direct role in preventing my dissolution.

Solitude in conjunction with the natural world allows hearts and minds seeking respite from trauma to find their respective levels. Solitude and nature are undeniably restorative, a gift that is integral to what they offer to human beings. I conjecture that Theodore Roosevelt understood this, and he was fortunate to have the resources to act on it in such direct, spectacular fashion out on the western edge of the Dakotas. My circumstances were more modest, but no less worthy and helpful. I never made it to the Territories in the physical world. I wish I could have done so. In my mind I have a different story. I would join our past President on the porch of his ranch house, with a rocking chair and a good book. Out there in the gold light of summer afternoons, Teddy and I would share our experience on the surviving of grief, with nary a word having to be spoken. We both understand being gored by the horns of mourning.

25 February 2019

On the Horns of Mourning, Part 2

I have never possessed a ranch in the middle of solitude. There was a time in my life where my need for that ranch was desperate.

The light went out of my life in August of 2003 on the day my son died, hard on the heels of the death of my daughter not much more than two weeks earlier. What light there was flickered wanly in my heart, to be replaced by suffocating darkness, cold and infinite. The shock had me frozen and paralyzed. As it slowly abated a singular thought ice-picked its way into my mind: run from the dark, as fast and as far as my shattered heart would allow. There was no destination other than to find a place away from the world and its obscenities.

The Elkhorn Ranch was unknown to me at that time. If I had been aware of its existence, while engulfed in the miasmata of grief, I almost certainly would have mounted an expedition to visit. What I know now is how much I needed a ranch then.

Wide open spaces and time to explore them: true luxuries not within my possession. I called a truce with my job, and my employers were sympathetic to my need for time away to grapple with the fallout from grief. The tether remained. A journey to big sky was not possible. Temporary respite manifested in the form of a week-long trip split between western Massachusetts and Nantucket Island. The Berkshire Mountains embraced my soul with verdant arms of arboreal grace, while the deep aqua green waters of Nantucket Sound laved away some of the pain that patinaed my heart. I dreamt often of uprooting, of selling off possessions, and moving to where the sea and forest would insulate me from the outer dark.

The sabbatical was not to be, of course. No ancestral lands, or manor house, or second home to be found. There were no territories offering sanctuary, those places having been subsumed by statehood in the intervening years between myself and Teddy. As the days wore on I came to understand that I would have to explore the territories within in order to attain peace without. My habit of long walks in the woods and by the water would become the proxy horseback rides away from civilization. As such, I rode far and often in search of that place where I could hang my hat by the door. The Elkhorn Ranch I needed was somewhere in the recesses of my mind.

To be continued.

18 February 2019

On the Horns of Mourning

There is nothing like death to stoke the engines of escape. Shock is the fire, grief is the gasoline. To lose one beloved is catalyst enough. To lose two in succession is to inject pure oxygen into the roaring furnace of the soul. Experience this and watch the world turn from cherry red to arc-welder white. Survival is possible, but not guaranteed.

Consider the life tragedies of Theodore Roosevelt. In 1884 while serving as an assemblyman in the New York State legislature the future President was called home because of the severe illness of his mother Mattie. On February 14th, she died of typhoid fever not long after Theodore’s arrival. In the afternoon of that same day his wife Alice, who had given birth to their daughter Alice Lee Roosevelt two days prior, died from undiagnosed kidney failure. In his daily journal for that day, Theodore inscribed an ‘X’ above the terse entry “The light has gone out of my life.”

To say that light has gone out of life is quite an understatement. That dual tragedy appears as a cosmic gut punch with a fist to the back of the head on the way down. Anyone would be forgiven for collapsing under the force of such a terrible blow. A small mercy to be had in embracing the floor or ground or whatever one finds to grasp. Is it the hyperabundance of gravity or the lack thereof that impels us to seek an anchor, to avoid getting sucked in or drifting away? Thus is the pressure of grief.

Theodore Roosevelt undoubtedly felt the gravity that threatened to tear him apart, counteracted only by an anti-gravity that reached out from the west. It took him from New York to the far western reaches of the territory that would eventually become the state of North Dakota. On a quest for solitude, the future President ventured out to a ranch he already owned, the Maltese Cross Ranch, and ended up purchasing the land for a second one about thirty-five miles north of the town of Medora. He planned on raising more heads of cattle, and he dubbed this sanctuary the Elkhorn Ranch.

It was there that Roosevelt, it may be surmised, wrestled with his grief and how it framed his life. He kept the ranch until 1890. The fate of the Elkhorn is in itself an interesting reflection of the effects of mourning on the soul.

To be continued.

11 February 2019

She A Baller

Over Sunday lunch she opened the conversation with a surprising declaration.

“The German Bundesliga is my favorite league name to say.”

This was not the most likely thing one might expect to hear from the mouth of a 14-year old girl, but in her case not totally inexplicable. She likes football, what America calls soccer, and even typically calls it football in conversation. Yet, the extents to which she delved into knowledge of the game were not realized until she voiced that comment about the Bundesliga.

I raised my eyebrows. “Bundesliga? Really?”

She told me it was because she really likes the sound of it, especially as compared to the names of other major national football leagues. Spain’s “La Liga” comes in second. Premier League (England) is just meh. Major League Soccer? Fuggedaboutit. And Ligue 1 from France is a non-starter (boooring.) I didn’t get a chance to ask her about Futebol Brasileiro, so her thoughts on Brazil’s top league will have to wait.

Her take on football in general did not have to wait. She enjoys playing it and watching it. With the Women’s World Cup taking place in the coming summer, interest is particularly high. She has her favorite players. She wears the kit. What is most fascinating to me about her curiosity, interest, and delight in the beautiful game (she has heard me say “jogo bonito” more than once) is that it is almost entirely self-generated. As much as I love the game I have never felt compelled to push football on her. She started playing at an early age and has maintained connection ever since, an occurrence I find gratifying and grounding.

Case in point was our last summer vacation. We had a week down by the ocean, in the midst of the 2018 World Cup. Sun, sand, and ocean? You bet. But she made a point of wanting to watch the two-a-day matches leading up to the knockout rounds. Me, well, I couldn’t argue with that. Quality time with my daughter, cheering or groaning depending on the run of play, and pouncing on the opportunity to bellow “GOOOOOOAL!” Beautiful game? You bet. But most importantly, a beautiful slice of life.

04 February 2019

#79 (Winter)

Crystal fading light
Life love disappears slowly
Will shoots rise again?

28 January 2019

Ponce De Leon's PB & J

Memories falling from the sky when the rain comes down a certain way. Maybe it is the light filtering through the drops in a particular fashion. It serves up reminders of a day years ago, having lunch by the harbor, sitting next to the linchpin of my heart. An overcast sky casts pearly light through the window. It illuminates my daughter like a cherub. Her laughter makes my heartbeat skip. She is being silly, making faces and sticking at her tongue, with cheeks smudged with peanut butter from the sandwich she is not so much eating as she is molding into a makeshift toy. She knows she is being messy. She knows I know she is being messy. In response I stick out my tongue. We both crack up, grinning wide and laughing. This is pure joy.

We are complicit in each others’ breach of etiquette. She is unfamiliar with that word, etiquette, but someday she will know what it means. In the clarity of the moment it is unimportant, these rules that bind our lives as adults. They are unknown except to the extent that those much older often enjoin her to stop or be quiet when she engages in so-called uncouth behavior. Most of the time I do not exempt myself from those ranks. Yet that day, in that moment, I withheld admonishment in favor of playfulness. How could I not? Youth was the teacher, and experience can always learn something new. Our day would be better served by levity rather than solemnity. We laughed together, watching the gulls wheel about over the harbor.

Wind played the same trick on me years later. Winter breeze, to be exact. Whispering down the street bearing understated pungency of a wood smoke key that unlocked another room in the memory palace. I was crossing a side street that hunched cat-like in late afternoon winter sun. It was not the city of my birth but stepping out and breathing that scent of burning firewood transported me to a day most similar, sprung from a solitary adolescent interlude as I walked home. I recall walking through the door, into the warm hug of the kitchen. I made myself a toasted peanut butter sandwich. No memory of whether it included jelly, but it must have been good for me to recall after so many years.

Something else happened above and beyond the recall. Crossing the street I stepped over a boundary in time and space. Both of them wrinkled, folded, bringing two disparate points together to touch however briefly and remind me that as I once was, so was my daughter. Through the miracle of memory, we can be so young and free once again.

21 January 2019

Sipping Tea

News breaks the windows while living in a water world. Glaciers made of tears melt in the heat of hatred and violence, spewing runoff into a sea growing increasingly bitter. Walls rattled by wind still manage to keep out the chill that clings to the air. But they are working hard, groaning with the strain. The walls will hold. It is in their nature.

Keeping the windows clear is not imperative, simply desirable. A worthy expenditure of energy in a season possessed of insatiable hunger for it. In this manner weary eyes can monitor the swell and breakers. Heavy seas pound the shore but rogue waves will not take the cottage by surprise. The iron green water roils and tumbles, polishing the stones mingled with the sand. In this there is comfort. The stones murmur in concert with the water. Listening carefully cheers the soul, in spite of light being hard to hear.

The hearth smolders, crouching cat-like at the end of the room. Eyes of embers and paws of flickering yellow. Hot breath caresses the kettle. It howls in response. The body, mind, and heart know what to do. Pour the water, steep the tea. Meditate while the ancient magic coils its way into the mug. The outside scratches and claws at the door, but cannot break the hold of hands on the mug. Sip. Watch the sea and sky. Peace will find a way into the heart.

14 January 2019

Winter Feed

Gunmetal sky snow
Melting in burbling iron pot
Fills sunken belly

07 January 2019

Gossamer Threads of Cast Iron

A book, a skillet, and a hungry belly were the elements of a personal chemistry uniting in an emotional solution inside my head, the wondrous precipitate of which was to realize the sheer quantity of history held in my possession. The cornbread was fresh out of the oven. Black cast iron skillet gripped in one mitt-clad hand, wire rack held in the other, I flipped the bread over and on to the rack. Perfect. Balance had been achieved and honored. The unctuous sheen of glossy black metal unmarred by stuck bits of cornmeal testified to things right and proper, transfixing me on the spot in the kitchen. Something deep, something ancestral spoke.

Dinnertime had come around as it usually did. It beckoned to me to put down the book* I was reading and head into the kitchen. Hunger took precedence over a fascinating look at food and the people who raise and harvest it in modern-day Appalachia. The "mountain south" was not exactly on my mind as I puttered about, assembling good eats via practice, sense memory, and prized artifacts of the kitchen. Yet its presence hovered about. It wore like a light mantle spread across my shoulders, full of comfort and guidance. The touch was in charge of my hands, though that was in no guise very clear. My back brain was working on it all the while.

I did not grow up in the mountains of Appalachia. But my mama's mama (G-maw) and her people did. G-maw was born in West Virginia, close to western Maryland. She was of the mountains, of a holler. Her extended family, as well as my maternal grandfather, had deep roots clustered in West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. G-maw was a teenager when the Great Depression hit. That in combination with mountain life could not have been easy. It certainly was educational in that it taught her survival skills and granted a kind of wisdom that serves one well in life when making the best of what you have in hand. G-maw carried that experience to her new home in southeastern Virginia where she took up with my grandfather and began to raise a family.

Some of this was on my mind as I read that book. The language used and the descriptions of places, people, and food occasionally jolted me with the shock of the familiar. I recalled mountain topography from the occasional visits in my youth to relatives in West Virginia. The hollers, the switchback roads, the great green womb of trees hunkering by the roadside. Summer evening in a place not awash in light pollution or noise. The notion of snacking on saltines adorned with thick slices of bologna. That last one jumped from the book's pages to gob smack me, as I recognized it right away. As a youth, I ate more than my share. As an adult, the habit faded into memory. What the book did was to bring it back in full force. G-maw used to eat that stuff, and so did my family. I learned it as a tradition even though it was not taught as such.

Growing up in southeastern Virginia near the ocean is literally hundreds of miles from the mountains. Figuratively speaking, the soils of each were (and still are) two homesteads looking at one another over a river of time. With the exception of college (five years in the Blue Ridge Mountains) and a stint in the Midwest (five years near Kansas City, Missouri) all of my life has been spent in easy driving distance of the coast. My rhythms of life, speech, and eating habits all suffused with the coastal South, even when I tried for many years to downplay or hide my roots. I did not know as a young adult that to practice that sort of self-deception plants the seeds of anxiety and doubt. Seeds that will bloom later. Yes, they will. They catch up to you.

That time was a constant search. A longing I could not explain or fulfill no matter how many questions I asked. On the one hand I was pursuing the American dream mandate of job-marriage-2.5 kids-and a minivan. On the other I was losing sight of where I came from, and by extension, where I wanted to be. Eventually I was at loggerheads with myself. I lacked the insight to find the peace of mind or sense of ease in my own skin that I so desperately wanted. Anxiety, emotional numbness, and a serious digestion related health problem forced me into a corner. My search for escape routes led me smack into the middle of food, eating, and truly learning how to cook. And not just cook for survival, but to cook for some peace of mind.

G-maw passed away while I was a college student. Some years later I received the gift of some cast iron skillets that had belonged to her. I knew little about cooking well then so I had no idea of the magnitude of this gift. Those skillets followed me to my first apartment out of college, my first new house, an apartment and a house as a divorced bachelor, through changes in relationships and geography, to ultimately reside in the kitchen of my apartment not far from the Chesapeake Bay. In all those years, I learned a few things. including respect for that cast iron. The skillets were faithful and true, devoted as dogs tend to be towards those who love them. They helped keep me alive.

They spoke to me, those skillets. For years I did not understand what they were telling me because I balked at giving credence to spirits. To my mind that would have been akin to surrendering to the demons of depression, self-loathing, and melancholy that periodically seized hold of my imagination. The difference lay in the tone and quality of the voices competing for attention. What the skillets were imparting was delivered at a steady, quiet pace. Respectful and attentive, never overbearing or toxic. It was the voice of history, of my family guiding me along a path I was not fully aware of taking.

This is where cornbread stepped back in that evening just last week. I was making it in the very skillet my grandmother had used to make fried fish and hushpuppies for me and her, when I was a kid, washed down with iced tea spiked with lemon. My recent reading in that book about mountain food and people pushed to the fore memories of my time with G-maw. A lush scent of crackling crust and toasted corn filled my kitchen to trigger a thunderclap realization of my ancestry. 

I am more a child of the lowland and the sea than I am of the timberline and the holler, this is true. But the mountains are in my blood, evidenced by DNA and ingrained habits as a human being. I make cornbread in that skillet because that is what my grandmother made in it. The action made sense to me like water makes sense to a fish: you can be surrounded by something that gives you life and be oblivious to it and its inherent sacredness. You know it by its absence. To come back to it is to know comfort and connection. In the instant I flipped that cornbread out of the skillet I dove back into that matrix. I felt my grandmother's hands on mine, saw her smile from somewhere up in mountains much closer than I imagined. I was home, knowing that my heart beats in two places connected by gossamer threads of humble cast iron, well-seasoned by history and love.

*Victuals, by Ronni Lundy