Glowing Fields and Shimmering Seas

The boy winced at the sound of the breaking waves and glanced up at his father.  “It sounds like someone’s clapping,” he said.

“Does the ocean scare you?” his father asked.

“Yes.”

“That’s because you’ve never seen it before.”

The father and son stood side by side, two hundred feet from the crashing waves, where the white sand of the beach gave way to rolling dunes and the tall, swaying grasses that anchored them in place against the ravages of the ocean.  Each wore dirt-stained blue jeans.  The father wore a white T-shirt smudged with grease.  The boy wore a white button-up shirt with yellow sweat stains around the collar.   Father and son wore tennis shoes whose soles were cleaving off.  The boy, who rose to just below his father’s shoulder, squinted at the sun hanging overhead in the clear blue sky, then at the ocean rumbling toward the shore.

“It reminds me of home,” the boy said to his father.

“Of North Dakota?”

“Yeah.  The way the waves rise and fall, the way the wind sends shivers through the water—it’s like the wheat fields at home, how they sway back and forth and they go on forever to the edge of the earth.  The wind screams there, too.”

The boy looked toward the sky.  A seagull hovered overhead.  He looked left and right and saw all around him seagulls gliding, landing, waddling across the sand and trailing webbed footprints behind them.  Some fought over fish carcasses.  Others pecked at their grey and white feathers.  Their calls cut through the roar of the ocean.  “It sounds like they’re telling us to leave.  They’re saying, ‘Go!  Go!’” the boy said.

“You think they don’t want us here?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe they don’t care.”

The father glanced at his son and nodded toward the ocean.  His son shrugged, and together they shuffled forward through the sand.  The ocean grew louder.  The gulls grew more insistent: “Go!  Go!” they called.

Now a gust of wind heaved the salty air at the boy and his father.  The boy lost his balance and nearly toppled over.  He stumbled backward and caught himself.  The father nodded toward the ocean again, and again the two of them edged closer.

“Another hundred feet,” the father said to his son and gazed at the sea.  The sun had sunk closer to the horizon and the ocean shimmered.  It roared louder and the fine spray of the breaking waves lingered in the air.

A moment passed and the boy said, “Actually, it’s like home, but it’s also different.”

“It’s angrier than home.”

“Yeah, and the sun is different.  At home it pours out light and the wheat fields drink it in.  When the sun sets, the fields glow golden and they give back some of the light they drank in.  And the fields smell like summer.”

“And what happens here?”

“Here the sea doesn’t drink in the light.  It spits it right back up at the sky.  But some of the light pools on the water and even forms little streams.  And here it smells like dying things, but it’s a good smell.”

“The pools of light are just reflections,” the father said.

“I know.”

“You’re right.  It does smell good.”

The father stood on his left leg and took off his right shoe and sock, then stood on his right leg and took off his left shoe and sock.  The boy leaned on his father and did the same.  He dug his feet into the sand and felt its heat flow into him.  He dug in another inch and now felt a chill pass through him from the cool, moist sand beneath the surface.

His father smiled at him, winked, and took his son’s hand.  Together they dragged their bare feet through the sand, closer to where the ocean pounded the beach.  Finally they stepped into the edge of a retreating wave.  The boy jumped, then laughed.  He pulled his father onward, until the the father was wading up to his knees and the boy up to his waste in the surging waves.

They bobbed up and down, and the boy said, “It’s like it’s playing with us.  It’s not angry.”

“You’re right.  But it could break us so easily.”

The man and the boy held hands and let the waves rock them while they watched the sun sink into the ocean.  “Now I get it,” the boy said.  “The ocean swallows the sun whole every evening and frees it every morning so that it can shine down on the fields of wheat at home.”

“That sounds right.”

The boy and his father waded back to shore, and, not pausing to dry off, put on their socks and shoes and turned their backs on the darkening ocean.

Why Words Matter, in the Words of Diane Ackerman: An Excerpt from “Language at Play”

The following is an excerpt from “Language at Play,” an essay by Diane Ackerman about the power and use of language, and the role poetry plays in all of our lives.  She says it better than I could.  This is the kind of writing that paralyzes me and that I can only react to after it has lived inside of me for a while.  Enjoy!

We ask the poet to reassure us by giving us a geometry of living, in which all things add up and cohere, to tell us how things buttress one another, circle round and intermelt.  Once the poet has broken life into shards, we ask him to spin around and piece it back together again, making life seem even more fluid than before.  Now it is a fluency of particulars instead of a nebulous surging.  We ask the poet to compress and abbreviate the chaos so we don’t overload from its waterfall of sensations, all of which we nonetheless wish somehow to take in.

Every poem is a game, a ritual dance with words.  In the separate world of the artwork, the poet moves in a waking trance.  By its nature, poetry and all art is ceremonial, which we sometimes forget, except perhaps when we think of the Neolithic cave painters in the mysterium tremens of their task.  Intent on one feature of life, exploring it mentally, developing it in words, a poet follows the rules of the game.  Sometimes artists change the game, impose their own rules and disavow everyone else’s.  Then they become an ist among the isms.  But there are always rules, always tremendous concentration, entrancement and exaltation, always the tension of spontaneity caged by restriction, always risk of failure and humiliation, always the drumbeat of rituals, always the willingness to be shaken to the core.

Once, after a lecture, a woman asked why accomplished scientists and prose writers (such as Loren Eisely), who turned to poetry late in life, were such poor poets.  Is it easier to switch from poetry to prose than from prose to poetry? she wondered.  I don’t think the genre is what matters, but the time of life.  If you read the first book by famous scientists–J. B. S. Haldane, Werner Heisenberg, Francis Crick, Fred Hoyle–you find minds full of passion and wonder.  Those books are thrilling to read because mystery is alive in them, and they are blessed by a youthful, free-flowing enthusiasm.  But in later books these same people become obsessed with politics and sociology; their books are still of intellectual interest, but they’ve lost the sense of marvel.  Those who stay poets all of their lives continue to live in that youthful state, as open and vulnerable and potentially damaging as it can be.

I suppose what most people associate with poetry is soul-searching and fiercely felt emotions.  We expect the poet to be a monger of intensity, to pain for us, to reach into the campfire so that we can watch without burning ourselves.  Because poets feel what we’re afraid to feel, venture where we’re reluctant to go, we learn from their journeys without taking the dramatic risks.  We cherish the insights that poets discover.  We’d love to relish the moment and feel rampant amazement as the seasons unfold.  We yearn to explore the subtleties, paradoxes, and edges of emotions.  We long to see the human condition reveal itself with spellbinding clarity.  Think of all the lessons to be learned from deep rapture, danger, tumult, romance, intuition–but it’s far too exhausting to live like that on a daily basis, so we ask artists to feel and explore for us.  Daring to take intellectual and emotional chances, poets live on their senses.  In promoting a fight of his, a boxer once said: “I’m in the hurt business.”  In a different way, artists are too.

And yet, through their eyes–perhaps because they risk so much–we discover breathtaking views of the human pageant.  Borrowing the lens of an artist’s sensibility, we see the world in a richer way–more familiar than we thought, and stranger than we knew, a world laced with wonder.  Sometimes we need to be taught how and where to seek wonder, but it’s always there, waiting, full of mystery and magic.  I feel that much of my own duty as a writer is to open those doors of vision, shine light into those dark corners of existence, and search for the fountains of innocence.

The world is drenched with color and nature is full of spectacles.  you would think that would be enough.  yet we are driven to add even more sensations to the world, to make our thoughts and feelings available in words.  We use words for many reasons.  As a form of praise and celebration.  To impose an order on the formless clamor of the world.  As a magical intermediary between us and the hostile, unpredictable universe.  For religious reasons, in worship.  For spiritual reasons, to commune with others.  To temporarily stop a world that seems too fast, too random, too chaotic.  To help locate ourselves in nature and give us a sense of home.  Words bring patterns, meaning, and perspective to life.  We keep trying to sum life up, to frame small parts of it, to break it into eye-gulps, into word-morsels that are easier to digest.  Sometimes words allow us to put ourselves in harmony with the universe, to find a balance, however briefly, in life’s hurricane.  They make it possible not only to communicate with one another but to do it in a way that may change someone’s life.

Isn’t it odd that one big-brained animal can alter the course of another’s life, change what the other sees when it looks at its reflection in a mirror, or in the mind’s mirror?  And do that by using the confection of words.  What sort of beings are we who set off on symbolic pilgrimages, pause at mental towns, encounter others who–sometimes without knowing it–can divert or redirect us for years?  What unlikely and magical creatures.  Who could know them in a lifetime?  When I start thinking like this, in words, wonder shoots its rivets into my bones.  I feel lit by a sense of grace, and all my thoughts turn to praise.

*This excerpt is from pp. 184-187 of In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction.   The rest of Ackerman’s essay is well worth reading, as are the other essays included in the book.

Losing Myself in the Desert

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California. My dad, Steven, took this picture. There are two people on the dunes. Can you find them?

*I think the second half of this post is much stronger than the first half.  When I write, I usually start off pretty weak, so why not be honest about that? 🙂

I sit atop a sand dune.  I stare out at the desert and I wonder at its bleakness.  I try to understand it.  I rest my eyes for an hour on one mountain peak.  I stare at a cactus.  I leer at a clump of vegetation that has crowded around a trickling spring.  The desert confuses me.  It envelops me.  It includes me, so that even as I gaze at that mountain and that cactus and those plants around the spring, I stare into myself.  Is that what I love about the desert?  That when I look at it I look at myself?  Do I gain a heightened sense of the universe peering in at itself through my eyes, and do I see myself as the universe does, as something small, fragile, barely existent, some spark that in a moment will fizzle out?  I try to understand the desert, but before long I realize that I’ve embarked on a futile endeavor.  I can’t hold this landscape in my mind.

Death Valley, California. That's my mom.

I love the desert because I lose myself in it.  My soul, my thoughts, my selfish drives, my everything seeps out into the emptiness that surrounds me.  In an enclosed room, let’s say in a prison cell, my self would bump up against the brick walls of the prison.  It would try frantically to slip through the bars and escape into a larger space in which it may roam with greater freedom.

Death Valley--this bench no longer exists.

In a prison cell I would suffocate in my own company.  But the desert disperses me.  It turns me into an insubstantial vapor that is now here, now gone.  I disappear, and with me my pain and my sadness disappear, too.  I’m nothing, and all that remains of me is the lingering residue of a thought, a question, a sigh.

Then the moment slips away.  The desert returns me to myself.  I remember who I am and what I’m doing here.  I leave my perch atop the sand dune and I carry with me the pain, the sadness, the complex mix of emotions that churn inside all of us even in our happiest states.  But I leave with something more, a memory of the sigh, of a moment in which I was both everywhere and nowhere, and everything was all right.

——–

This was something I was going to expand on during my trip to Chile, but it’s fine as it is.  When I wrote it, I was thinking of Death Valley, where from some points you can see mountains two hundred miles in the distance.  And at night, if you park yourself at the southern end of the valley and look north, you’ll see dots of light below the horizon.  They stand still.  You know they can’t be buildings because the desert is empty.  You know they can’t be stars because they lie below the horizon and they don’t twinkle.  They don’t flicker like candles suspended in space.  They shine steadily.  After a moment you see that the dots of light are moving.  They rise and fall with the contours of the now invisible mountains that line the valley.  They sway right, they sway left, as if unsure where to go.  Every right-left motion brings them closer to the valley floor.  They sink deeper into the sea of darkness.  You hear nothing but the sound of your own breathing.  You hold your breath and you hear even that, because there is nothing else, only the mysterious dots winding their way silently through the emptiness.

You realize that the dots are headlights.  They light the way for a lone driver, maybe a family.  They may be thirty miles away from you, but since nothing stands between you and them, they’re as present as a stranger sitting across from you in a café, sipping her coffee, glancing your way in between sips.  Who is she?  Who are they?  And where is everyone going?

Funny: The first half of this post was about losing yourself in the desert.  The second half was about finding yourself, and in some strange way connecting with a distant dot of light that represents a person who will never know you saw her.  Alone, in a prison cell, I would see myself everywhere and I think that eventually it would drive me crazy.  In the desert, also alone, I would see myself nowhere; the landscape would erase me for a moment, and I would become nobody.  But again in the desert, seeing another human being thirty miles away, I would feel my individuality contrasted against the driver of the car.  I would come into focus, and so would she, and I would feel some kind of fellowship with someone I’ll never know.

Old, old car near an old, old gold mine, Death Valley.

Death Valley. My dad took this one, too.

NOT Death Valley. This is the Grand Staircase Escalante, in Utah. I'm including this picture because of the road.

Also not Death Valley. This is from the Great Sand Dunes National Park, in Colorado. Don't we all want to take our own version of that famous Ansel Adams self-portrait?

Do Words Matter?

Do words matter?  Sometimes I feel like words are just words.  They diffuse into the air like an exhalation in winter.  The wind sweeps them away and the cold robs them of whatever warmth they carried.  And so often, only the speaker remembers what he said; the listener was never listening and never had anything to forget.

Yet I know this only to be true part of the time.  Words also harm, and their sting lingers long after they’ve been uttered or printed.  They sometimes gladden.  Not all of them disappear.  Some of them last.

Words tell stories, and when they tell stories words really are more than words.  They paint pictures.  They convey tragedy and joy.  They touch people.  When words tell stories they are life itself.  Identities, whole histories, cultures, and peoples are bound up in them.

I didn’t go to Chile.  There was a hiccup in my job search.  I don’t have adequate words to express the state I’m in.  Confusion, sadness, doubt, frustration—these speak to part of what I’m feeling inside, but they’re just words.  They don’t tell the story.  But maybe this post as a whole will succeed where they fail.  Maybe it will convey my ambivalence, this sense of not knowing what to feel or what to say, of not knowing what’s going to happen or where I’m going to be in two days, this aching worry about loved ones and the need to do right by them–and always the question: Did writing this help?  Did it matter?

Yes, it did.

This is life.  It ain’t always perfect, but it moves on anyway.

Heavenly Dreams: The End of the Shuttle Program

I will NEVER take photos as good as NASA's! That's one shortcoming I can forgive myself.

When I was a kid I dreamed of being an astronaut.  Images of space shuttles launching into the heavens, men frolicking on the moon, and fantasies of traveling to Mars pervaded my mind.  Space held such wonder for me then.  The first shuttle disaster happened when I was six years old.  I understood the tragedy.  I knew people had died and that the nation had suffered a wound.  I saw my mother shed tears at the news of the catastrophe.  Yet I persisted in my dream to one day either take my own chances in space or at least study the heavens as an earthbound astronomer.

Pale Blue Dot

As I’m sure happened to most kids of my generation, eventually I abandoned my aspiration of going into space and concluded that such a dream was unrealistic.  But I held on to my love of the star speckled dome that opened above me on every clear night of my life.  Sometimes, when I was young, I imagined the night sky to be a dark, hollow sphere surrounded by a medium of light so bright that it must be liquid in quality.  I imagined that our world was nested inside of this black sphere, that its outer shell was shot through with holes, and that through these holes the light outside leaked in little by little.  Brighter specs were bigger holes.  Our sun was the biggest of them all and gushed light aplenty like a perennial spring.  I thought that with each passing moment the hollow sphere in which we were suspended filled with more light, and that if light were the stuff of happiness, then over the eons it would fill our world with a radiance so thick that one day we would be able to run our fingers through it as through water.

Servicing the Hubble Telescope

Twice when I was a boy I remember running into the street to watch the shuttle streak across the evening sky over the Texas Hill Country en route to Cape Canaveral, leaving a trail of plasma in its wake as if it were slicing the heavens in two.  And I remember vowing one day to watch a shuttle launch.  Only one opportunity remains.  The last shuttle will lift off this Friday, July 8.  I won’t be there to see it.

Nowadays I take these Hubble photos for granted, but they're still awe-inspiring.

Is human space flight a waste of money?  I don’t know.  All I know is that as a kid I marveled at the idea of launching people into space.  I idolized the men and women who sat on top of those rockets and, as it turned out, had about a one in fifty chance of never coming home.  For all of society’s delusions about the safety and the routine nature of the shuttle program, I think the astronauts knew the stakes.  They left the comforts of earth, pushed the boundaries of human ingenuity and potential, and in doing so they gave little kids something to dream about.  Armies of scientists, engineers, and (yes) tax payers stood behind them and made the whole spectacle possible.

Hubble photo of a galaxy.

Maybe that’s what dazzled me more than anything: the space program emerged out of millions of hours of labor.  Over sixty years tens of thousands of people devised improbable ways of accomplishing the impossible.  It cheers me to think that all it takes is something like one hundred thousand clever optimists toiling for decades to pull off six manned moon landings, one hundred and thirty-three shuttle missions, the launch of a lone telescope that revealed the universe to be even more stunning and mysterious than we imagined, and dozens of missions to planets, asteroids, comets and moons throughout the solar system.  That we were able to harness the creativity of thousands and direct it to one romantic end gives me hope for the future.

The sun as photographed by NASA's Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope

Jupiter's Red Spot, which has changed significantly since I was a kid.

Saturn as photographed by the Cassini spacecraft

"Stellar Snowflake Cluster"--Hubble

*Disclaimer: I took none of the photos in this post.  I have never traveled into space, never floated above the earth, never orbited the moon.  I did build Star Trek models when I was a kid.  That’s something.  You know you did too… the one person who knows I’m talking about him or her.  You!

All photos from NASA.

*I actually searched for the official number of successful shuttle missions.  I found the numbers 123 and 119, each source dated this year.  TIME published an article today that placed the number at 133.  I guess I’m going with that one!

Where Memory Counts: Bound for the Deserts, Volcanoes, and Mountains of Northern Chile

I’m going to the deserts of Northern Chile.  I’m bringing with me a small backpack with some clothes, shoes, and a few books to read.  I’m going because I want to take a break from this chaotic world where anyone can access me wherever I am at any time of day, where with a click of a mouse or a tap on a touch screen, I can find out the GDP of Turkmenistan or read about the manias of Charlie Sheen.  I’m leaving this world where memory counts for less and connectivity counts for more.  Who cares to know about the ravages of World War II when you can look them up online?  Why carry around encyclopedias of knowledge in your head when you can turn to the all-knowing hive mind for whatever bit of information you may seek?

In the digital age will the younger generations lose touch with the massive effort and commitment that went into unearthing the information they google, writing the stories they read, and filming the movies they watch on their smart phones as they sit silently with their families at the dinner table?  Will the products of human ingenuity (and stupidity) in general become detached from the monumental efforts that went into forging them?

I worry that the young live in a world in which everything is a finished product, tailored to their wants and delivered to them on demand.  I worry that the connection we once had with the earth, our understanding of the relationship between labor and survival, weakens further as our creations become separated from the long and difficult processes that yielded them: the collaborations, the face-to-face conversations, the brainstorming sessions, the trial and error and repeated failures.

If the young live in a world of finished products, how will they learn to labor toward their own goals?  How will they know that the act of creation costs, draws energy, demands toil; and how will they know that such efforts, in order to be undertaken, must be compensated?  Ideas originate in the mind.  They may benefit from access to the hive, but for them to form in the first place the mind must swell with experiences and information and wisdom, and the connections that emerge from this rich inner-world.

I’m going to Northern Chile because I want to be in a place where memory counts.  The high deserts, the snow-dusted volcanoes that ring them, the Pink Flamingos that wade in shallow turquoise lagoons and stir barely a ripple, the Andes that stretch toward infinity to the north and to the south so that one might imagine that they wrap around the entire planet and hold it together like an unbreakable chain with a million colossal links —the whole scene is a window into the earth’s memory.  It contains knowledge dating back millions of years.  Stories flow out this parched landscape as from the mouth of a planetary Shakespeare.

I want to stand atop one of these mountains and listen to the earth as it tells me its story.  Speak to me, earth, of cataclysms, asteroid impacts, floods, and eruptions.  Tell me of braids of water that flowed into this desert long ago and carved out the wrinkles of its dessicated skin, revealed its many red, yellow and white hues.  Speak to me, earth, of dinosaurs, birds, and squirrel-like mammals that frolicked and died in your hands, and of societies that found sustenance in your soil and beauty in your cracked, age-worn face.

*Note: I should say that overall I think our world is better than it was not that long ago.  We’re more tolerant, etc.  I’m not all apocalyptic.  I just think we’ll have to learn to deal with the world we’re creating, and as always, that will be a challenge and we’ll never quite get it JUST right.

Better Things to Come: On Finding Home and Finding a Job

I like to tell stories.  I used to like writing essays, but I don’t have the same confidence in my thoughts and viewpoints as I used to.  I figure that I’m more often wrong than not.  I can’t see how it could be otherwise in this complicated world.  The blog posts that have brought me the greatest pleasure are the ones I’ve written about people and encounters, the ones in which I get to use the narrative devices of fiction to speak truth and shine light on someone else’s existence and how my brush with their life enriched my own.  I’m never entirely comfortable talking about myself, even though I do it all the time and even though self-reflection is half the purpose of most blogs, including my own.  Lately, though, I’ve told fewer stories about others, and I think that my writing has fallen off a bit.  I write for myself, yes, but I blog because I want people to read what I have to say.  I have to earn your time, and lately I’ve been disappointed in my efforts to do so.

Two weeks ago I left a steady teaching job in Texas to move to Kentucky.  Soon my sister, my brother-in-law, and nephew will join me.  I took a gamble.  I moved to Kentucky with no job lined up and with only the prospect of an interview.  I inhabited this new state but I couldn’t see it as home so long as nothing anchored me here.  Since I arrived, Barnes and Noble has served as my de facto internet service provider, which is a problem because in exchange for use of B&N’s wifi I have felt obligated to gorge myself on scones and sugary coffee drinks.  These new habits may prove fatal ;).

Now for the good news: I got the job for which I interviewed.  I will teach Spanish at a local middle school.  Now I know that I’m staying here in Kentucky, and now I call home what formerly struck me as foreign.  The hills glow greener, the birds sing louder and with more feeling, and the people smile more.  Of course, the hills glowed from the beginning, the birds sang with same zest when I arrived here as they do now, and the people always welcomed me to this land that straddles the mid-west and the south and so contains elements of each region’s temperament and idiosyncrasies.  Kentucky didn’t change: I did.  I see Kentucky differently because finally I see it as home.  I belong here.

So now I feel liberated.  Liberated to write a little better and with a little more care.  Liberated to fly to Chile and vagabond for two weeks in that country’s northern deserts, where volcanoes rise out of the emptiness and lord over their realm as ancient kings who wield fire and ash.  I’ll come back with some good stories.  I promise.