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.

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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.

“This Is My Island”: Fear and Confusion in Toronto

When I travel there are certain disasters or near-disasters that I hope never befall me, but when they do, I’m glad I experienced them: three little kids on a crowded street in Buenos Aires trying to slice open my backpack to steal whatever tumbled out; three grown men, one drunk, cornering me and trying to rob me on a Buenos Aires subway during rush hour; getting lost in a strange neighborhood in Seattle that may or may not have been dangerous.  I’m glad of these moments because they are the ones that stick with me over the years.  They are the ones that get me questioning and wondering about the nature of the place I’m exploring and the people who inhabit it.

One such episode occurred in Toronto, when I took a ferry from downtown to the islands that mark the eastern end of Toronto Harbor.  There, on the largest island, I strolled among happy families picnicking on the green September grass, kids splashing in fountains and screaming from rollercoasters, and adults biking along the paths that meander through the island’s forests and green spaces.  Centre Island is a place of unbearable lightness and gaiety that, while you’re there, comprises your whole world.  But as in all public spaces, at any time of day, there are also secluded spots where danger may lurk and where strange things may happen.

Around mid-afternoon I approached the western shore of the island to gain a view of downtown Toronto.  I got to within one-hundred feet of the shore and smelled cigarette smoke wafting in the wind.  Though I couldn’t see the source of the smoke, I could hear the laughter and cursing of the young men from whom it emanated.  I thought nothing of it, high-stepped over the tall grass that lines the shore and hopped along a series of half-submerged stones out to a boulder that afforded a view of the city to the east.  The CN tower soared above the pristine condos and new high rises that speak to the vitality of a prospering and burgeoning metropolis.

I crouched on the boulder, not quite large enough to sit on, and pulled out my camera to take pictures of the ducks paddling by against the backdrop of the city.  I thought I was alone, but soon I heard from behind me the sound of twigs snapping and grass crunching, followed by a series of splats, as if someone were slapping the water with the palm of his hand.

I turned around and saw a man in his twenties standing on a stone between me and the shore.  He was staring at me.  Neither one of us said a word.  The man looked at me, then at the rock on which I was crouched, then at the trail of stones leading to it from the shore, as if he was pointing out to me that to go anywhere I would have to leap into the lake.  He rested his eyes on me again, and with a blank face he said, “Hey man, how you like this island?  It’s nice, yeah?”

“Yeah, this view is awesome,” I said.

As if he hadn’t heard me, he said, “This is my island.  I love it.”

He hopped toward me and crouched on a boulder beside me.  He looked at me again and said in a whisper, “This is my island.”  He paused, then, with a sweep of his hand and a nod toward the shore, said once again, drawing out his words, “This is my island.”

We sat there in silence for what felt like half an hour, just the two of us, the water lapping against the shore, the trees swaying in the breeze, the cigarette smoke still wafting in the wind and mixing with the smell of algae that saturated the air, and the disembodied laughter of the young men coming from beyond the shore.

I was scared, but there was little I could do about it, knowing that this man’s friends were nearby.  I guessed that he wanted to exercise power over me, to threaten me with confusion rather than with overt gestures of menace or force.  I felt like that poor toad little boys poke at with a stick yet which they can’t quite bring themselves to crush.

I had calmed down and accepted my circumstances when the stranger asked where I was from.  “Texas,” I said.  “How about you?  Are you from Toronto?”

He laughed.  “No, I been here a year.  Came from Nigeria.  But this is my island.”

“You have a cool island,” I said, and on hearing this he stood up and hopped along the stones back to the shore.  He turned back to me and said, “You’re cool, man.  I like you.  You’re cool.”  And he disappeared among the tall grass and the trees swaying in the wind.

For some reason I felt elation over having formed some kind of meaningful bond with a man who at first frightened me.  I wished I’d had more time to talk with him, to ask how he came to Toronto, what it was like to start a new life in a foreign continent, to leave home, maybe for good.  More than anything, I wanted to know what exactly our whole encounter was about, and why I liked this man who had toyed with me and gone out of his way to scare me.  Why did it gladden me to think that I had somehow earned his respect and approval?  Approval for what?  For existing?  Or did I misinterpret the whole encounter?  Maybe he was just lonely and wanted company.  I don’t know.

*Buenos Aires and Argentina: It occurred to me that I gave two examples of sort of bad things that happened in Argentina and Buenos Aires.  I want to clarify that Argentina is one of the safest countries I’ve ever traveled in and that these two incidents are as likely to happen in a big American city as in Buenos Aires or anywhere else in Argentina.  I just had bad luck, or I did something to mark myself as vulnerable.  Good friends of mine (who are argentinos) live in Argentina.  They’re kind in the way most of the people who live there are.

San José’s Nightmares: Arriving at Night in a Foreign City

I board a cab outside of San José International Airport and sit in the back seat with the windows rolled down.  As I wend my way through Costa Rica’s sprawling capital the wind clutches at me with ethereal fingers that smell of car exhaust and a mysterious odor I can’t quite place.  It’s an odor that is unique to every city.  When I return home after a long time away, the wind and the scent of home it carries with it collide with me as I leave the airport.  The weight of home bears down on me in humid gusts saturated with a lifetime of memories.  Home wraps its airy arms around me and knocks me about like an old friend annoyed that we’ve fallen out of touch.  In like manner the San José wind buffets me, screams at me, and with these gestures and its smell of otherness it is the first of the elements to announce that I’ve arrived somewhere new.  “I don’t know you,” it says.

A soft layer of clouds presses down on the city like a padded lid.  The cottony sky glows red, as if the city below were aflame and on the verge of destruction.  Mountains surround San José and stand black against the reddened sky.  Through the window I see pedestrians scampering across busy streets.  They run, they pause, they dodge headlights.  Somehow they manage to ford the rivers of traffic.  Cars honk and squeal their brakes.  Police sirens wail in the distance.  I pass block after block and they all look the same to me, with the same ten story concrete buildings, the same plazas, the same people milling about, the same bands playing the same music in a never-ending repetition of the same park.  I imagine that the city sleeps and that through the windows of the cab I’m seeing visions of its nightmares. 

At night the whole world shrinks around me.  My only reality is the city itself.  It’s as if I’ve woken up beneath a thick quilt and in my hands I hold only a dim flashlight.  I may point the light in any direction but I will see only the checkered underside of the quilt and the red glow that the quilt reflects back at me.  I don’t know where the quilt ends and where the outside world begins.  I may thrash about.  I may crawl first in one direction and then another, yet the edges of the quilt will elude me.

I arrive at my hostel and I fall sleep on my bunk.  Monsters populate my dreams and strange faces parade before my closed eyes.  Morning comes and the city wakes with me.  Its demons retreat into the shadows that pool beneath buildings and trees and lamp posts.  Slowly the sun rises and dapples the urban landscape with light.  It splatters reds, blues, whites, and yellows on those same ten story buildings from the night before.  Parks glow green and trees spindle upward toward the sun.  Plazas and the people milling about them acquire detail and stand out from one another.  The sky no longer presses down on the city; now it soars and opens clear and blue above me.  The mountains that loomed darkly last night now cradle the city in their verdant lap.  San José makes sense now.  It exists in the wider world.  What I thought were its demons dancing around me were in reality my own demons projected on the unknown.   

I feel confusion and menace of this sort on arriving in any new city at night.  The place could be Chicago, New York, Buenos Aires, Santiago, or Lima.  Maybe I’m walking from a Greyhound station in Portland, Oregon or stepping off the train in Fargo, North Dakota.  In each case, at night, I feel the weight of the unknown bearing down on me.  The slight twinge of fear I feel on these occasions is electrifying. 

San José, Costa Rica

 

Park, San José

 

Site of the old San José Airport; now el Parque Sabana