Sketchbook

The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but I shall be content if it is judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it.” – Thucydides

Tidying up some odds and ends on this mungy day, I came across some old journals of mine.  Most of the writing was of the quality you’d expect from old journals, but there were a couple of interesting little stories glimmering among the wailing and gnashing of teeth.  In the interest of getting to know your narrator a little better, and not desiring to waste a good word, here are some highlights from the historical record, along with some pages from my old sketchbooks:

August 24th, 2005: I was in the water the other night, in the pool under-water between blue and blue and blue, naked like from-the-womb naked. Had I enough breath and enough night I would have stayed there for years, under the unclothed legs bobbing above and over the grate at the bottom of the deep end. Just the water and the not-a-kid-any-more in the water. Then I surfaced and the summer ended and I cleaned up the empty glasses on the table and the summer ended…

Summer started two years ago with a jump and a splash, and later drying off, Ross said that, well, it’s really summer now. The other night coming out of the blue and blue and blue and seeing the steam rise off the surface, backlit by the moon, sucking in handfuls of breath summer ended, and we got out of the pool. Now it’s time to write the epilogue-that’s-not-an-epilogue to the summer-that’s-not-a-summer. Dry off and say: well.

December 23rd, 2005: The gas generator only ran from nine in the morning to nine at night, so as to save fuel. Late at night, then, once everything was shut down, or just before it, I’d go down to the water’s edge, out on the dock, to collect plankton for the captive fish. The way we did it was to tie a dive-light to one of the pilings and leave it there for an hour or so, then come back with a bucket and scoop up the churning mass of annelids, chaetegnaths, fish larvae, and sundry other miniscule nightmare beasts. Squirt them out of eye-droppers into the fish tanks bright and early next morning.

Anyway, walking out to the dock in the hazy blackness of the tropical nighttime, I’d see pulsing witch-lights in the water. Near the shore the lapping waves’d hurl bioluminescent protozoa at the pilings and the sand, the water emitting greeny flashes that left a pink after-image floating inside my eyeballs. Farther out in the lagoon drifting grey patches heralded foot-wide jellyfish, come up from the deeps to drift about the shallow reefs like bag-ladies in a shopping mall. Down at the end of the pier hung an old gas lantern that barley illuminated the hammock hanging below it and the rough planking of the pier itself. The rushing water below was an even neon black. This was the territory of Roy, the night-watchman.

Roy slept during the day, stretched out in his hammock against a perfect blue tropical horizon. Every night he’d rise and make endless circuits of the island, dodging ghosts and the crocodile.  By the time I’d be getting to the dock to do my fishing, Roy’d be long gone, shuffling through the mangroves on the south end or loitering around the latrines, waiting for the supernatural. The sea was dark and it was scary at that hour, the dimly flashing water and that pathetic little gas-light only making it more so. The stars must have been amazing too, all the equatorial ones I’d never likely read about, but I never had my eyes on anything but my precarious footing and the shivering patch of black just in front of my face. So I’d bucket my evening’s catch, haul up the winking halogen dive-light, and hot foot it back to the lab. During the day the pier was Roy’s, but at night the whole island belonged to the ghost.

A few years back a researcher hanged herself from the lintel of one of the cabins. The staff found her the next day, gently swaying in a westerly breeze, eyes gazing flat on the limitless expanse of the Atlantic. Since then she’s stuck around, frightening the bejeezus out of anyone who strolls anywhere after dark. Henk the Dutchman claimed to have seen her on numerous occasions, but Henk also had a very strange sense of humor and had been in the sun far too long. Ellen, model of wrought-iron Aussie tenacity, was lodging in the ghost’s old cabin- still is; she and Henk are there until January at the earliest. I doubt she believes in ghosts.

Sometimes at night, out on the dock or walking the trails, I’d hear a rustling in the brush or catch a glimpse of a shadow that wasn’t quite a shadow. For a small island it was awfully big when you couldn’t see it. The ghost, the dead scientist, was almost an excuse of ours for the fearful dark of our ignorance of the atoll, lit up in scattered witch-lights under the ever-lapping sea. It wasn’t the ghost that came to me at night and played her spidery fingers over my face, it was my fear of the island itself, and of the foreign deeps.

February 19th, 2006: I don’t know how to write about washing dishes without sounding like I’m complaining. I wouldn’t say that I like doing the dishes, but I enjoy it. I’m not complaining.  Every time somebody cooks, I wash the dishes. I realize I mention washing dishes an awful lot, and I guess that’s because it’s a thing I’ve gotten attached to, that I define myself by. If I ever stopped scrubbing, well I don’t know who I’d be.

When the party’s over and I turn down the lights so it feels like I’m in a Tom Waits song, and the stereo’s playing something old and blue, maybe even Tom Waits, I get down to it and clean ‘em all. Look at what everybody left on their plates- one time I cooked asparagus and beans and stuff, and someone had only eaten the tips, and left the bodies of both all over the plate, a bunch of damn quadriplegic vegetables. I scrub off the plates and rinse out the cups, always the cups last, turn them upside-down on the counter. At the end there’s a little city of everybody’s dinner forgotten on the shore of the sink. Then the next day I get up groggy and put it away, or someone else puts it away, and I’ve already misremembered who had what or if they ate it all, and who left early and why, and who said what, and who was there, and why I got left with the damn dishes again.

Tonight as I was cleaning up, Adrienne cut up a mango and left me a piece in exchange for my washing the knife and the cutting board. Every time I wash the dishes, and I’m not complaining because that’s what I do. You give me a bit of mango, and that’s what you do. I’m not complaining about that either, because I like mangos. I guess I’m dependable; that’s certainly what I say I am, and that’s what gets me bits of mango. Who I am is mostly what I say I am, a little bit the thing inside me, and a little bit the thing inside you. We’re all a series of concepts discussed. We’re all a collection of discrete objects. We’re all in this together. We’re all us. Something like that.

May 27th, 2006: Earlier today I was walking into town and I remembered the one time I ever smoked alone. It must have been February, middle of the night and blustery snowing cold whipped this way and that by the wind. I had a sorry butt of a cigar left over from some party earlier in the winter stashed deep in my coat-pocket, saving it for just this sort of a moment. I waded out into the thrashing lamp-lit whiteness to the little patio at the other end of the concert hall and lit up the bedraggled cigar with the cheap purple lighter I’d picked up years before when I bought cigarettes for Sara because she wasn’t eighteen yet and I was, just. Feeling perfectly miserable, but with the satisfaction that I’d done perfectly miserable perfectly, I smoked and coughed my way through that dead old cigar, head down and collar up to keep the storm out. Then I saw through my sunglasses again and walked the rest of the way into town and forgot to buy milk.

It’s not quite warm-summer-nights yet up here, but the bugs are out, and if there were frogs I could strain to hear them over the traffic noises. Maryland’s got frogs to chirp me to sleep in the mist-muggy middle-of-the-nights, turn off the yellow desk-lamp and clatter the paintbrushes clean. Slide to sleep with an eye cracked for the moon and the fireflies, head soft on the pillow, knees soft in the sheets. Don’t much want to go back though; don’t want to feel nothing about nobody until I hit that soft sand bottom, a year ago in the Gulf of Mexico, Noctiluca whirring lime yellow into my kicking feet. In Maryland: the rafts of fireflies, glittering like candles on the river, bobbing smaller and smaller to the sea; memory receding with the tide.

January 7th, 2007: I think of language as a whirling torrent of words, rushing through the air in front of me. Single, brightly colored words shiver like minnows through clouds of doggerel and occasional linked phrases, mating in the flow. I’m standing there and my hands shoot out, plucking at fragments of sense and anchoring them into place, breakwaters in the rushing tide of gibberish. And that’s sometimes the way I speak, and always the way I write, grasping at whirring dragonfly-fish before they melt away into the tumult…

Christmas eve I was out at Connor’s again. His family was out of town, and I’d been hired to feed the cats. It was a balmy evening, so I took a stroll down through the fields and liminal woods nearby to the spring. Again, I heard the bird-wake before I saw it, alarm calls and small clouds of bluebirds erupting up out of the tall grass before some unseen predator. Stock-still, I watched as a fox trotted onto the trail, bounding now and again after a careless denizen of the field. Slowly, carefully, making a tremendous racket, I followed the creature as far as the center of a fallow field before it grew tired enough of me to scamper off into the woods. At that point I noticed the sky, and the smell of the earth, and the sound of distant Canada geese, and the dying light in blue and orange, and the fact that it was Christmas eve, and the shadows of deer in the forest, and everything. In the tiny scope of a few words, I can’t express that feeling of everything all at once, very fast and loud and soft as moss, gentle as meltwater. It was Christmas eve, the night before the story’s birth of our savior in all this mess. Whose grassy tresses we cling to through thick and thin, who lifts us up in heaving clay to better see whose cloud-scattered rain-giving sky, who is the oceans and the wind and every pumping vacuole in every cell of every stem, whose happenstance we are and in whose grace we cannot help but go. The birth-day of the halo ’round the sunward limn of this, our turning world.

March 10th, 2007: Last night, driving into the City to get food for the trip, I was looking out the cramped backseat window at the row of buildings across the river, towers of lights like the tree-synchronious fireflies of Malaysia. I saw the windowlight reflected in the muddy nighttime black-green water and knew other river memories of another night when the moon was low and hazy. Leaning on the stern-rail of the barge, the thrum and churn of the engine wash casting widening V’s downstream to frame the sky, we talked about not smoking cigarettes and the glow of distant bodies. Later it was dark, the springwater cool and musty, peepers and treefrogs calling dawn down to the rolling purple world. And the sun came, and the river dried to matte green rumbling silt, and in my mind the banks still roll away past sagging willow and glass tower. The half-recounted fog of moonlight on the barge-wake awoke in me a little piece of someone else, staring out the narrow backseat window at the river reaching backwards to the headwaters of a past. The ears of my ears and the eyes of my eyes, and all that, opening…

Well, I’ll take some pinch of this history with me to another shore, and be the river through the river-watching pilot’s eyes. Rafts of fireflies in a humid summer field; the moon suffused in a haze; a jetty thrashed by storm-chased waves; the glow from the city over silhouetted trees; now this: the black river reflecting towers of yellow lights.

July 6th, 2009: I see a colony of manroot vines growing over the BART tracks as I bicycle to work most mornings.  They are tearing the concrete to pieces.  Every spring the thick roots, as big around as your waist, sprout vigorous tendrils that race upwards to the light, seeking any chink in bark or cement.  Come summertime, the spiny fruit is thick on the vine and the leaves are browning for the summer drought.  They have been here since the bay was dry prairie, grazed by creatures that, from a distance, looked almost like elk.  They have seen the small, beautiful people crushed into the mist of songs from which they were sung.  They have seen the forests hewn into park benches.  They have seen the rapid transit system, and they have seen the bridges, and they have seen the tenements, and they have seen the gunfights, and they have seen the roads.  They are growing over the BART tracks; in the shadow of the mountain, the manroot is growing over the BART tracks.  Every morning I see these plants and I remember a little more.

When I sleep I hear bŭbŭm ‘cham, the wind-lessening, wind-singing trees speaking in tall voices in the green-dark places of the world.  In the Yuba, in the cold fish-bright water, I remember floating below the moonlight in a Maryland swimming pool.  It was the last night, and I was the last in the water, under the water, naked in the moon.  I close my eyes, and forget about the poker players, and the walls, and the road noise, and I can hear far-off the sound of shell beads clinking together, so soft, so gentle, like water.

2 Responses to “Sketchbook”

  1. Beautiful sketchbooks and wonderful blog!

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