Going to chill for a week or so, everybody. Set off on a photo excursion or three; sit half asleep somewhere and let my imagination go. Won’t be long, and then it will be Spring, thank the bleeding …
* * *
He finally had to go on vacation, they made him. “Look at all these leave hours you’ve accumulated,” his editor complained, “It’s like three years’ worth.”
“It is three years”, he told him.
“No vacation in three years and you wonder why you come in and stare at the computer for hours before you come up with the art I need.”
“You’re forgetting how often I work from home.”
“No I’m not, I’m counting those hours. But you don’t do any better there, either. And the thing is, when you do come up with something, it’s just not very good.”
And that hurt his feelings.
“You’re burned out and got artists’ block. Get out of here. Go do something.”
“Something fun for chissakes! Go someplace. I don’t want to see you back here for three weeks.”
That was Friday afternoon. The three weeks wouldn’t even start until Monday. He went home and sat on his couch in his underwear eating corn chips and watching ‘60’s sitcoms until Tuesday, not even bothering with the junk he generally killed time with on the weekends. Cultivating boredom, he called it. Only, it dawned on him sometime Monday, he wasn’t cultivating boredom at all, just thought he was. He felt disconnected, an overwhelming dread of not knowing what in the holy heck-fire to do with himself. What was the meaning of it all? What was his point?
This sense, or lack thereof, had happened before. When his collegiate idealism ran smack against reality. Life, it turned out, had flaws. The world would not change according to his expectations, and that had caught him by surprise. He had dealt with it then by running away.
He decided to run away again.
He got off his couch, showered, went down the street and had a decent breakfast. While he was doing that he booked airfare and hotels. Then he went home, checked his passport (still good), threw some clothes plus a couple drawing pads into a backpack, sent a couple emails telling a select few where he was, and left. O’Hare to Miami, Miami to Bridgetown (he felt bad about not going through Kingstown but thought he might take the boat across later), Bridgetown to ‘The Island Of The Clouds’, and checked into the Frangipani. There were certainly better places now, but he preferred his old stomping grounds. He put on his trunks and a very loose, short-sleeve shirt and a straw Panama, grabbed a beer to go at the Whaleboner, took a looping route through town past the elementary school where he was a teacher for two years, cut up the hill and used the boardwalk for a bit, grabbed another beer at Jack’s which he downed while walking along Gibbons beach, swung around on Lower Bay Road to Lower Bay Beach (heck of a lot less populated than Gibbons) and plopped down in a chair in the sand in front of Dawn’s.
About 80 degrees, light wind blowing from an achingly gorgeous aqua blue Caribbean, sun into its descent back over his shoulder. Waiter at Dawn’s brought him one of their rum concoctions. He gazed out to sea, let his mind wander. When the sun went down he drifted back along the beach, sat out on the Frangipani’s big veranda, watched the boats bob at anchor in the harbor, watched the lights twinkling off the water. Kept his mind wandering.
He repeated the same walks up the beach, sat in the same chairs, gazed out at the same sea, for several days and nights. And his mind wandered. And finally, his mind separated from his body; floated free into its own creations. An entity in and of itself, separate and unconfined, free to create. And in creating, created the artist. Created himself. He hadn’t been disconnected; he had been too connected. He hadn’t run away; he had run towards. Run into.
‘There,’ he thought to himself as the weeks passed, ‘There I am’.
* * *
BTW: The photo art and prose included in any given post are separate creations and rarely have anything to do with each other. Duality and such …
Face Of The Moon
She was tangential enough in her thoughts that the full Moon reminded her of the opening to an old vaudeville joke. It went, “I was on the sidewalk in front of the Plaza Hotel because that’s where I lived – on the sidewalk in front of the Plaza Hotel.” She’d heard it in an old ‘Twilight Zone’ episode about a guy who wanted people to laugh at everything he said, which proved to be a curse. In modern context it made fun of and was insensitive to homelessness and would thus be deemed inappropriate, but when the episode aired in the early 1960’s it was just dated, having first originated at least as far back as the 1920’s. Hmmmm, she thought, that joke is at least 100 years old. Whadya know. Oh wait, her rattled thoughts cycled around, the Moon.
The Moon. As full tonight as a police siren, as bright as a searchlight catching her in its beam and sending her mind backpedaling and serpentine into her own twilight zone, less on a sidewalk than an alley of some sort, not in front of the Plaza Hotel but a thousand miles away behind a motel she didn’t remember the name of, hiding in what sort of crevaces existed between the garbage and a shed, evading the face of the Moon.
The Moon. The Face of the Moon. The left eye a Sea Of Tranquility, languid, almost flirtatious. But the right eye, the Oceanus Procellarum, the Ocean Of Storms, an impact crater, one of the largest in the solar system, created by a left hook. Ragged with bruising and swelling. It was her own face.
The Moon. She shifted to another side of the shed where shadows sheltered her, allowing her mind to scatter, more old TV episodes, more cities far away, more Plaza Hotels, any kind of distraction. But from there the bright windows of houses just across an empty lot were as jarring as the Moon. She could see people walking past them, hear sporadic words from disparate conversations. In one of those houses miles away, in one of those conversations fueled by alcohol and inexplicable rage the Left Hook had orbited out of the darkness and impacted.
The Moon. If she could see her reflection there so could The Left Hook. How far had she already run? How much farther to evade it? She felt so tired. How many nights ago? Two? Three? She couldn’t remember seeing the sun, so maybe this same night? She couldn’t remember not seeing the Moon staring back at her, reminding her of her own face even as her mind tried to shift into fantasy, to an illusion of escape. She looked out to the traffic on the street; was the Left Hook cruising for her there? If she had a car she would drive and drive and drive into the darkness.
The Moon. It was too bright. It would not let her get to darkness. She gawked back at it, brought her hand gently to her face and felt her sore, swollen right eye, her Ocean Of Storms. She found herself gazing up to the Sea Of Tranquility that seemed to see her with absolute clarity. It seemed to be looking down at the motel, down into a window that led to the lobby. She could see at least two people there; two women at reception. She wondered if they had their own impact craters. If they knew about the Left Hook. If they knew what to do about its orbit. She looked back at her reflection in the Moon, into the eye of the Sea Of Tranquility, into the undamaged side of herself that would not look away and would not cower, then she got up, her head throbbing, and on shaking legs moved out of the twilight zone towards the bright lobby.
Maybe A River
The day began early in preparation for its climactic scene in which she would bury her husband of 36-and-a-half years. The ‘Happy’ pills they’d given her, which her second oldest daughter had insisted on, saw to it that her mood remained flat; neither high nor low. Her other daughter made breakfast for everybody and her son sort of hovered and kept an eye on the time and vehicle logistics. Thus, they all left for funeral services beginning at 10a, then graveside services at 1130a, and finally the luncheon provided by the church ladies at 1230p.
By 5p they would all be gone, and she would theoretically be alone – her eldest daughter and husband and two children to their home two hours away, her son and wife and toddler on a jet to their urban condo halfway across the country, and her second oldest daughter, who would make sure the ‘Happy’ pills continued, or would think she was, with her second husband and four children to their house in the rural town half hour up the road. The preacher would have tucked away his sermon on the value of a God-centered life which both she and he knew her late husband thought was a lot of hooey. The church ladies would have sent any leftovers to the shelter and cleaned up the dishes and the silverware and wiped the tables in the church basement before returning to their own families with the sense they had helped at least a little bit to allay grief. Friends who loved him would be home with their own degrees of mourning and friends who liked him would be reflecting on their own mortality and acquaintances who felt a duty to pay respects would have gone back to their routine without a second thought. It was the calculated ritual of it all that got to her. The passing she could deal with. They had both known it was coming. They had talked about it and had established context. The enormous sadness and emptiness were anticipated, like bracing before a tight curve at high speed. The slow ritual, like lying sleepless in the dark before a long trip, like waiting for surgery to start, like a forced slow dance on a fast dance floor, a half-clogged drain taking forever to empty, that drip-drip-drip was what sent her slipping upstairs and outside when her Happy-pill fixated daughter wasn’t looking. Outside to the side portico and the fresh air and the sunshine, she could breathe.
There, on one of the adjoining benches, he was waiting for her.
She wasn’t expecting him, but neither was she surprised.
He smiled, just enough to combine love with empathy. She hesitated only a moment, sat next to him, said, “It’s good to see you.”
His face brightened; until that moment she believed he wasn’t sure whether or not he should be there. “Not too soon?” he asked.
She said, “If you had asked me ahead of time I probably would have said ‘yes’. Seeing you now, you’re exactly what I need.”
He nodded. He was shy about this, she thought. But of course he would be, the artist that he was and had always been, why wouldn’t hesitancy haunt an affection simmered for decades after emerging too late. For both of them, as it happened, but longer for him.
“How long are you in town?” she asked.
He shrugged. “There’s a gallery here beginning an exhibit next week I have work in,” he said. “So that long, anyway.”
Strategically opened-ended, she thought. Of course, he’d not settled into an orbit that rooted him the way she had; a couple long term partners over the years, but no marriages and no children, other than his art. “Where are you staying.” He mentioned a cheap hotel that charged by the week. She chuckled, “Well, maybe we can do better than that,” she suggested. The side door under the portico opened, and sure enough, it was Happy-pill daughter. “This is my friend from college,” she responded to her daughter’s questioning expression. “I’ve known him even longer than I knew your father, isn’t it sweet of him to come?”
Happy-pill daughter smiled, but clearly wasn’t comfortable with this. “Mom why don’t you come in; people are looking for you.” Then added, “Both of you, please come in.”
This would not be her friend’s scene. “You go ahead, I’ll be along shortly.”
“Mom, let me help you down the stairs.”
“I said,” more sternly, “I will be along shortly. You go ahead, now.”
Happy-pill daughter grimaced in a way that deliberately conveyed her discomfort, then did what she was told.
She smiled at her friend, who smiled sheepishly back. “Give me a call day after tomorrow,” she suggested. “I’m going to need to get out of the house by then.”
He nodded. He was content. Looked at her, said, “This isn’t too Gabriel Garcia Márquez, is it?”
“Do you have a boat?”
“A yellow flag?”
She took his hand, then kissed him lightly and quickly on the cheek. “Don’t worry about it. We’re not sure there’s a river, anyway.”
Gambling On The Edge Of The Abyss
The November storm caught the stout research vessel while still in the Bering Sea and made it pay for the weeks of fair weather it had lucked into. It sent wind driven sheets of icy rain rifling into its every surface and record-breaking waves that slammed into the side and buried the bow each time it plowed into a new one. The crew huddled inside close to the survival gear which would likely do little good. Twice the captain ordered a pair of them to don safety lines and venture out to remove the ice from vital communications and radar equipment. The scientists stayed in their cabins holding on for dear life and, for the most part, throwing up, Dramamine or no Dramamine. All naiveté of the guest photographer from the National Geographic was exposed when he tried to continue photographing the event by hanging out a door. The storm first threw him into a bulkhead, then tried to sweep him overboard and would have succeeded but for the safety line one of the crew had made him attach at the last second. That same crew member saved his ass by pulling him back in even as he sacrificed both cameras around his neck, smashed as he floundered. He was soaked to the gills and shivering under three blankets back in his bunk and trying to hold on as the storm violently rolled bodies in all directions. He leaned over best he could and finally threw up onto the deck himself.
The slackening that began when the vessel rounded Unimak Island and entered the more sheltered Gulf of Alaska came on incrementally. The vessel steered towards its ultimate conclusion in Resurrection Bay as the storm began to rage past. The photographer still held tightly onto the sides of his bunk, head buried in his pillow and eyes squeezed tight. It took time before he realized the waves were no longer trying to swallow them. Even then he continued to lay there until his shivering subsided. He could hear people moving around the corridors by then; one of the crew even knocked on his door to see if he was okay. “Just waiting for my head to stop spinning,” he’d said. The ship’s doctor entered and diagnosed him with a mild concussion from his collision with the bulkhead, made him sit up and ordered him not to fall asleep. Two crewmen cleaned up the mess he’d regurgitated.
Hours, and the storm now clearly moving away as the vessel steamed to the northeast, hugging the coast where the waters were calmer. He retrieved his two smashed cameras – they would never capture another image, but it looked like their memory cards were OK. He had one camera left, albeit his least favorite. He tried to stand up; not bad, not bad. He managed a trip to the head; began to feel steadier. He attached his big telephoto to that last camera and moved slowly towards the deck.
“You dared stare into the abyss,” the captain said to him in something of a parental tone. “And God will not be photographed.” He couldn’t say anything to that. He thought about it now and understood not only how foolish he’d been but how he’d potentially endangered others, all for the pursuit of a photograph. The sea had become amazing calm, so he found a place to sit larboard and watch the Aleutian coast slide past.
The bear was fat from its summer-long salmon feast and prowled the shore for more to consume. It was just weeks now from its hibernation, though the photographer knew grizzlies on the coast might hibernate for as few as just two or three months each winter. He framed it with his telephoto as it watched them, as terrible and magnificent as the storm that had released them hours before. It seemed to pose against the wild landscape. The sun had peaked out as it fell in the westward sky and the snowcapped mountains in the distance shimmered. He captured image after image as the bear moved and the ship shifted position as it progressed northeast. New movement caught his eye, and his telephoto began following bald eagles as they stalked the coast, sometimes gliding just a few feet above the water before their big wings took them higher and they circled back, turning towards the ship, seeming to stare into his lens. As the sun slipped further into the open it bathed the world in a golden glow, a light from heaven itself. He’d clicked off dozens of shots and realized they were the best captures of the entire voyage, and all he’d had to do was sit there with his least capable camera.
The captain emerged from the bridge, examined the crew’s work recombobulating what the storm had wroth. Seemed pleased; also relived, like he had begun taking his first deep breaths in several hours. He moved next to the photographer, looking closely as if to reconfirm that he’d not actually been swept overboard. Remembering their earlier encounter the photographer said to him, “Wanna bet?”
She decided to make it a reading day. She didn’t feel like doing anything, and the weather was cold and dark and blustery. She had a headache from a combination of congestion and dry air and her mood was crappy which she blamed on the lingering effects of divorce and self-loathing and her dead-end job that did little but frustrate her. A Saturday to just collapse back into a hidden corner under a blanket.
Then her mother called.
She knew if she ignored it a) her mother might really be sick and needing a doctor, which sometimes she was, and b) her mother would keep calling every fifteen minutes. She picked up and her mother said, “When you go out … “
‘When’ you go out, she thought, because her mother couldn’t conceive of not going out, of having a ‘reading day’ spent entirely with her butt glued in one two-foot square of furniture, of wallowing in hours of self-pity and melancholy. No. That was outside her busy-body mother’s conception of proper conduct.
“ … would you please pick up my prescription.” There was no lilt of a question at the end of that sentence. Of course, picking it up also meant bringing it over and staying for god knew how long, which was, after all, the point.
No use fighting it. She put the book aside and pulled on a sweater, inside out as her mother would point out later, and tied her hair back then hid her head almost entirely under a stocking hat. She had to scrape frost off her windshield after which her fingers were frozen as bad as her mood. Parking a quarter mile away from the pharmacy she pulled her coat tighter around her neck to forestall the wind if only a little as she trekked into the building, where she then stood in a slow line. The pharmacist informed her the prescription her mother needed was out of refills. She called her mother. Her mother said she’d call the doctor’s office, and to wait there while the doctor’s office called the pharmacy. That took more than an hour. She wandered around the store thinking the worst of other patrons if not actually snarling at them. Once the ‘script was in her hands she returned to her car to find a prominent scratch on the door; no idea how long it’d been there. ‘Just great’, she thought, cursing as she navigated through the traffic towards her mom’s, imagining another hour-plus wasted sitting on an uncomfortable chair in that weird smelling little apartment listening to her mother rag on about almost everything. A song she liked came on the radio. Music.
And then there was a blinding light.
She awoke the same morning with no recollection of discontent. She had a bit of a headache, but a hot shower and a cup of coffee soon took care of that. It was cold and dark and blustery, but she lit a couple candles and put on some music. Music, seeming to lighten every dark corner. She revealed with a feeling of freedom. She thought what a good day it would be to curl up and read her new novel, but just then her sweet mother phoned with her need for a prescription waiting at the pharmacy and she gladly offered to pick it up. She dressed warmly in her favorite sweater, inside out as she liked to wear it, and pulled on a colorful, fluffy stocking hat. There was a line at the pharmacy, and she was able to use the time to catch up on her Twitter feed. Turned out the ‘script needed confirmation from her mom’s doctor, but she took care of that with a quick phone call. That gave her time to investigate the shelves; she rarely got time to truly explore all the different products and the miraculous variety of ‘stuff’ available for the taking, all manner of distractions and conveniences she could play with if she’d a mind. She found some things for herself and had a number of pleasant conversations with store workers and other patrons including friends she rarely got to visit with. ‘Script finally in hand she climbed back into the scratched car she thought of as her old guardian and cruised to her mom’s, letting herself in with her keycode so her mom wouldn’t have to come to the door. She found her there in her chair, practically the only chair she found comfortable anymore.
She said to her mom, “You’re hurting today, aren’t you?”
Her mom said in her soft voice, “Yes, I’m afraid so, dear. Thank you for getting my medicine.”
She shook out the right dosage and gently rubbed her mom’s frail neck. Her mom closed her eyes and sighed as she gently kneaded the knots in the neck and shoulders. “Shall I make us some coffee?” She knew her mom hadn’t been able to this day.
“Oh, yes, that would be lovely.”
Her mom’s coffee maker barely worked anymore, but she knew some tricks to jar it to life. “I’m buying you a new coffee maker as soon as I have some coin,” she said.
“Thank you, dear, you don’t need to spend your money on me,” but she would do it anyway. She prepared a cup for each of them, then sat in a chair next to her, holding her hand. The human touch seemed to brighten her. She would be her mom’s only visitor today, alone for a decade now since daddy passed, and now the other kids living so far away.
“Why don’t I stay for a while. Tell me what you’ve been reading and watching since I saw you yesterday.”
“Oh, you don’t have to, dear,” her mom said, but she smiled weakly and her eyes were moist. “I know you have your own life. But I love you. It’s your decision.”
Art As A Lifeboat
The sea bird reminded him of his grandmother’s paintings. It seemed to float in the haze above him, drifting slowly from one horizon of his periphery to the other in a gentle arch, his sleepy vision painting it impressionistically with the most soothing pastels as soft as his grandmother herself.
She lived beside the Outer Banks in a house so weathered and creaking his dad feared the slightest sea breeze would blow it to smithereens, though he knew, if he went back there right now, it was still standing proud and unbeaten, also like his grandmother. He remembered her callused hands that he would rub between his soft little boy palms while marveling at the rough texture. She never looked at him with less than a smile and warm affection. He and his brother would visit her for a month every summer. They would run amongst the dunes and dance in and out of the surf and sit up at night and gaze at the stars with the sound of the waves in their ears. He’d wake before his brother and find that his grandmother had awoken before him and gone straight to her paintings. She’d beam at him as he rounded the corner of her screened-in porch where she’d set her easel and say, “Come and look, dear.” She revealed such delightful scenes of the beach and the sea and the boats that worked there and the houses that inhabited its paradise. But mostly he remembered the sea birds; graceful, lithe creatures that seemed in her paintings to float with divine magic above the world. He knew he would look later in the bright day at the same scenes, but that his grandmother had made them look different; ethereal might be the term he’d use if he’d known that word then. “Would you like to try?” she would ask him, and he’d hesitantly take the brush and dip it into the color she suggested and point the brush at the part of the canvas she directed him to. “Just short strokes now, more like dots”, and he would do the best he could with no idea what he was trying to achieve. “That’s beautiful,” she would always tell him for those minutes he could stand to do something so reflective, “You are such a talented dear.” She would never touch up the part of the painting he’d worked. She touched up her own stuff all the time, and even seem to scold herself under her breath. But never his, and never a discouraging word to him. She didn’t remember his grandmother ever, ever saying a harsh word to him – at least didn’t remember such now.
Now, the waves tossed his tiny craft called a ‘life-raft’ which he shared with four companions. Actually, three companions and a corpse, but he didn’t know that yet. The sun had beat down on them now for, he thought, nine days. They’d exhausted water after the third, and exhausted food even before that, though rain had come in buckets twice and they’d held their mouths open to catch what they could as the sea violently tossed their rubber boat. Their skin had burned and blistered, and their bodies felt broiled beneath. Tongues in their mouths were swollen and dry from lack of water. Their empty stomachs ached. The blaring sun had near blinded them, like staring too long into a spotlight aimed straight at them, and no matter how they shifted they couldn’t seem to turn away from it. They were bruised and cut from their fight to escape their sinking ship. The sea bird came into his peripheral again, crossing this time from the other horizon; the hazy impressionism he saw it through was a product of his own delirium. It was closer this time and he could hear it’s calls. But they were funny calls. They didn’t sound like the sea birds he remembered.
He tried to become more alert, tried to follow the bird and listen more carefully. He squinted at it; not right, he thought. It’s too fat. He looked away and squeezed his eyes shut and slowly shook his head, trying to jostle up something resembling focus. He looked as it crossed again, even closer. Not a bird’s call, he thought, it’s a constant roar. And then a realization sprang, and he knew: it wasn’t a sea bird at all but a sea plane! A rescue plane and it had found them.
All my life I have had to learn to do things differently. To see the world differently.