The Two Jameses

 

One James has his silk-coated back to the river he sailed up a long time ago, in front of him the town he marked out and named for his boss’s mom. He is stylish and even a little campy, in his right hand a rolled-up copy of the charter for the colony of Georgia that could pass as a microphone. From one angle he looks like a karaoke singer, taking a breath between verses, attempting to sing out over the city a lot of people think he made.

Half a block away, across a green space and half of Broad Street, another James looks back at him. Smiling in a three-piece suit and cape, he clutches a Shure SM-55 mic close to his chest. He is wearing a wedding ring.

They face each other across Augusta Common, a green space envisioned by James Oglethorpe but realized only in 2003. Of the two, Oglethorpe looks more like the rock star.

 

 

Augusta was his idea, but the other James is all over the place. His face and name are everywhere: on a main north-south boulevard, on the arena named for him where just about every famous African-American musician in the cosmos came to both pay respects and get up offa that thing, right in front of his open casket in 2006. Michael Jackson said a few words then. He said as he stood there in front of the Godfather of Soul forever stilled and silenced, that without Brown there would be no Michael. No Prince, no Usher, no Bruno Mars.

The statue of James Brown on Broad is as tame as Oglethorpe’s is brassy and confident. He’s a happy crooner, not a trace of James’s ferocious virility. There is no sign of the agony—sexual, racial, political—that Brown projected from his sweat-soaked face in live performances. He is now a domesticated, buttoned-up local hero, not the jump-suited, off-kilter-afroed Sex Machine. As much as an honor it is to James to have a statue of him in a town that did not always receive him kindly, the statue seems an attempt to cut him down to size—literally: the statue represents the surprisingly diminutive size of his body, if not his outsized persona. He is immortalized now, a torch-singing family man in bronze, no longer floating above the stage like he once did, his impossibly elastic ankles moving, doing it, you know. He could dance and sing like nobody else, and was one of the greatest (and sternest) bandleaders in popular music history. Not many recognize how well he could play (he plays keys on “Sex Machine”).

But you don’t get any of that from the statue on Broad, which looks less like a tribute than an attempt at exoneration. Not for James, but for the city that has long been uneasy about him. The message of the statue is less “James Brown invented popular music” than “Look, we gave James a statue, OK? So let it go.”

 

 

You can imagine how those planning conversations went down in City Council. James Brown was not always Augusta’s favorite son, and it ain’t hard to see some of the resentment towards him come through in the image of Brown Augusta decided to reify. The current image of Brown on Broad is Brown as the Augusta power-elite wished him to be, not as he was, which is, even still, hard to keep up with. Like James himself: always a beat or two ahead of the crowd and its fashions.

I don’t know if anyone did, but I hope someone during those city council discussions about the statue proposed the skin-tight jump-suited Brown of the 1970s, mid-split, or even the serviceably patriotic image of Brown from Rocky IV. Hell, even the improbably Scandinavian version of a pompadoured Brown in a red-and-white Nordic sweater from the 1965 film Ski Party would seem a better compromise to appeal to the country club set in Augusta, but that is not the image they went with. They went with a black version of Josh Groban. With a cape.

Many of the images of Brown around Augusta seem designed to modify the statue’s presentation of him. On on the boarded-up storefront of Fuji Wigs, a stylized image of his famous hairdo. On each side of a traffic light switch box on the corner of Broad and the Boulevard named for him, a different black and white image of Brown, each strikingly different from one another as they are from the statue. On the one facing Broad, James is smiling, looking up, a cross around his neck. He is not wearing a wedding ring. He looks here less like the Godfather of Soul than its High Priest, as is meet and right.

As statues go, Oglethorpe got the better hand, in the end. He’s the more stylish one. In bronze, anyway.

But neither statue in Augusta has the footprint or airspace that a third one does.

On St. Patrick’s Day on Broad Street, the crowd is mixed—Africa-American, white, Asian, Hispanic—but everyone is wearing green. A fountain in the middle of Broad Street spews up emerald green. In front of the notorious Confederate Memorial not a block away, an African-American man in a KISS ME I’M IRISH t-shirt passes and looks sideways at the monument. He registers nothing, and does not stop like the white family whose greened-up little girl in a shamrock headband innocently prances up the steps of the monument under the words:

No nation ever rose so white
Nor fell so pure of crime

The little girl’s parents quickly raise their cell phones to take a photo.

The statue was meant as a reminder of who runs this town. When African-Americans marched down Broad Street in the 1870s, the white Lost Causers of the city put up a gigantic statue of a Confederate soldier right in the middle of the street, so that if blacks were going to march in protest again, they’d have to go around the big white middle finger to them. The monument is huge, but it doesn’t make a sound.

Down the street, a brass band is kicking ass in front of a flower shop. Dozens of folks have stopped to listen. One older, pot-bellied white man in a white cardigan and green leprechaun’s hat sits through it all on a folding chair, clutching a koozied Silver Bullet, which he sets down on the sidewalk between songs to clap his hands enthusiastically. The all African-American band is mostly men and mostly trombones, one of which is played by a woman in jeans and Chuck Taylors. They are tight as an E-string. They each take turns leading. When I show up, a young man in denim shirt and blue jeans is out front on the trombone, a red-striped white towel in his right hand, Satchmo-style. A toddler bounces percussively on the sidewalk next to him, scratching on a tin grater with an afro pick.

 

 

During a break I ask the sousaphone player what their story is.

“We play at the United House of Prayer every Sunday. And right here every Friday night.”

I was not expecting that. I’ve heard brass bands in church before in New Orleans, but I didn’t see this coming in Augusta. I assume that it’s one of those new-school churches that uses unconventional musical styles to draw in young people.

I am so wrong.

The House of Prayer has been around a hundred years, and by the time the Georgia WPA Guide was written in 1940, it was well established in Augusta, along with its house music:

The House of Prayer, 1269 Wrightsboro Road, is an unpainted, rough-board tabernacle in which Bishop Grace preaches a highly emotional religion to the accompaniment of much shouting, increased by the four brass bands that provide music for the services. At one end of the auditorium, decorated with streamers of crepe paper, is the “throne’ of Daddy Grace, as the preacher is affectionately known. Worshippers sit on wooden benches arranged on the sawdust-covered dirt floor.

The United House of Prayer for All People, as it is now known, is an unpainted, rough-board tabernacle no more. On the same Wrightsboro Road site is now a brightly-colored brick and stucco building with three gabled and spired main portals, surrounded by a black aluminum fence. “Sweet Daddy,” as he was affectionately known, was not the local pastor of the House of Prayer, but its founder, who established Houses all over the country, the first of which was in West Wareham, Massachusetts. Born Marcelino Manuel da Graca, “Sweet Daddy,” had come from the Cape Verde Islands in the early twentieth century, toured the country in a black cassock and pattypan squash hairdo. But he was a bishop, and like the cathedra in Catholic churches, the throne for Bishop Grace was likely usually empty, waiting for Sweet Daddy to come back from tending to his many branches around the states. Though he was not there much, they still called the place “Sweet Daddy’s.” I don’t know if there is still a throne in the new building, or if it’s occupied.

 

 

And I don’t know what else James Brown took from Sweet Daddy Grace, but he walked out of the House of Prayer one Sunday in 1941 with a taste of his hereafter he’d seen and heard in there: the hairstyle and sass, the spirit-shake, the swagger and the bone-quaking brass. I am sure Sweet Daddy could shell down the corn like no man, but no one ever made a more persuasive on-film preacher than James Brown did in The Blues Brothers. Shameless and clichéd, yes, but slip-sliding and swing-kicking across the stage in a fuchsia gown that could barely keep up with him, calling us all back to the Old Landmark, his hair hilariously and uncharacteristically disheveled in a way only the Holy Spirit could get away with, James Brown could have made any damn body see the light.

On the Common, Augusta may look more like James Oglethorpe imagined it, but—today, at least—it sounds like James Brown.

 

 

Truths Breathed Through Silver

It is March in western North Carolina. The pellucid, almost neon green of spring is beginning to return, and the ground is damp and spongy from a very wet winter.

So it was a great pleasure to be in Southern California for a week in the beginning of February, where parrots alight in unfamiliar branches, where a seemingly perpetual light strikes the arid rocks of barren mountaintops, and there seems never to be a reason to be sad.

I was in Pasadena to take part in the Culture Care summit hosted by The Brehm Center at Fuller Theological Seminary. My friend Mako Fujimura invited me to be a part of discussions each day about the theology of making along with my then-daily breakfast companions at the decidedly retro Conrad’s Restaurant, Curt Thompson and Esther Meek. I had the great fortune of spending a week rooming and often talking together into the night with Mako, hanging with and learning from Curt and Esther every day. I met inspiring people who are committed to “a vision of the power of artistic generosity to inspire, edify, and heal the church and culture.”

There is too much to say and too many good people to say good things about from that week, but I did come away from southern California with a new, unanticipated project. This, I suppose, is what happens when you spend a week in a great artist’s studio.

It wasn’t what I had expected. Nothing in Pasadena last month was what I expected, but when I got back to a very grey and chilly Asheville, I threw myself into something I did not plan for.

As a writer, my materials are not very interesting: a keyboard and a screen. The actual materials are ones and zeros, and it is not easy to form an intimate relationship with bytes and digits. After being with people who make beautiful things with their hands, I began to envy a little bit their concrete connection with their own works of art and the things they make them with. I started to wonder if I shouldn’t write the next book or essay by hand, in pen and ink. But I went back to typing on a laptop and sharing my ones and zeros with you over an electronic cloud that exists precisely nowhere.

On the other hand, I’ve been thinking a lot about film.

In particular, about hundreds of short strips of mostly black-and-white negatives that I shot with my old friend John Hayes on a series of tours we took across the southeast from 1997 to 2004. We drove “Bessie,” his 1977 Ford F-150 with no air-conditioning, across the backroads of the south in August air so thick with humidity you could chew it. I could tell you some stories.

And I will. Trust me.

If we had taken a tour in 1977 when Bessie was new, not much would have been different from when we took our first, when the truck was twenty years old. We still would have shot on film, used paper maps, and, if necessary, called home with coins. But twenty years on from the first tour, everything is different. Almost no one outside of professional photographers shoots on film anymore. You can still buy hard-copy atlases and maps, but almost no one does. Almost all of this work has been outsourced to devices.

Everything in 1997 we did by hand: loaded film into the back of a camera, unfolded and refolded a map in such a way as to make it manageable and less unwieldy, with only the relevant part visible. We found places to stay and eat by happenstance and often took our chances, without the benefit of pre-screening Yelp or TripAdvisor reviewers. To travel in 2018 is to minimize risk as much as possible, to remove the possibility of disappointment. Not that long ago, this way of seeing the world wasn’t imaginable to anyone except maybe a few tech nerds in Silicon Valley. You took risks—small ones, to be sure—but risks that made any journey an exciting possibility the costs of whose discoveries were the occasional misfires and lemons that you were willing to endure for the chance at something you did not expect.

I have roughly a thousand photographs from the first five tours, mostly in Kodak Tri-X or T-Max. They have been, for years, in a dedicated black box, organized into contact sheets and divided by trip. Seeing the photos again for the first time in years, it is striking how different film feels from digital imagery. My photographs are often not precisely focused. They are variably grainy and sometimes over- or under-exposed. During our fourth trip, a light leak emerged in the Minolta SLR I borrowed from my dad for the first tours (although “stole” is probably more accurate). Shots from rolls taken with that camera are streaked with mistaken light. Some rolls that I processed myself are incompletely developed, blotches of white splattering the negatives at the most inopportune points. Some of those images are beyond repair. But some of them, even in their imperfection, have a certain unrepeatable, unintentional beauty to them. They are singular in a way that only accidents can produce: weird, psychedelic almost, and photographically amateurish, but interesting in a way that I didn’t anticipate or even hope for.

Film has a texture that digital images cannot reproduce, even with the most sophisticated forms of technological imitation. Taking a picture on film also requires a different approach: because you know you do not have virtually indefinite storage space, you have to be deliberate about each shot you take. You cannot afford to waste film, which is expensive to buy and to process. You are limited by the speed of your film; if you are shooting on slow 50 ISO film, you will have to adjust significantly if you decide to move indoors where the light is low. If you set up your camera to shoot inside, your images will have a different quality when you move into broad daylight.

Film photography is basically chemistry; digital photography is essentially electronics. Film is material in a way that digital photography is not. To work with film is to work with specific materials, namely silver halide, microscopic particles of which are embedded in gelatin emulsion and coated onto strips of cellulose acetate. Silver halide is responsive to light, so when exposed to it, it becomes dark and opaque. At its most fundamental level, film photography is an atomic metamorphosis.

None of this is to say that film photography is objectively better than digital. I have no position on this debate that I am willing to share publicly. Digital photography has practically made artists of us all, or at least given us the illusion that we are. It’s an extraordinary and inexpensive medium, and easily manipulable. Digital photography, however, does remove the element of risk involved in shooting film. You can afford to waste a lot of shots, and worry about editing them later. When shooting film, you have fewer chances, and must be more open to what you get.

Much of the mechanics of digital and film photography are virtually identical: shutter speed, aperture, focal length and so on. But digital photography is essentially the transfer of algorithmic information, while film photography is a chemical action involving actual materials. It is the transformation of liquids and solids, rocks and minerals, into images.

In Pasadena I had the opportunity to witness Mako paint. Mako is a master of nihonga, an ancient Japanese style of painting that uses mineral pigments hand-ground from azurite, malachite, oyster shells, and so on. The pigments must be ground to a powder and then mixed with a glue made from animal hides before being applied to a canvas. The result is an image that is never quite the same from moment to moment. Because the paint on the canvas is composed of millions of prism-shaped mineral crystals, it refracts light in infinite ways, and never looks exactly the same twice (or even once). In this sense, Mako’s paintings are events, happenings, that have to be experienced, received, enacted in person.

In a way, film photography is not so different from nihonga. It depends on powdered minerals that respond to light in unpredictable, unmanageable ways. In other ways, it couldn’t be more different: film is made in a lab, not in a studio. It is produced by machines and not by hand. The capture of an image on film is instantaneous, not a distended process like painting. But at root something magical happens with film that also happens in Mako’s paintings, but does not with digital images: light strikes rock, and rock becomes more than itself.

Positive images emerge from negatives: in order to produce light on a print you need opacity, a first response to light. Light always comes first. Darkness is derivative and subsidiary, but they belong together. What actually happens in the processing of in image is a paradox: light produces darkness, and that darkness in turn makes way for light.

And light, thank God, is unpredictable.

 

Why We Travel

The Landcraft unpacked and cooling in the driveway, Charlie pulls up a metal chair to the table where he has eaten breakfast for four years, sits down and looks out the window towards the trampoline that he has not jumped on in five weeks. “It feels different,” he says.

Sine nomine

We sang it on Friday at day-fall,
The lusty old tune without a name
To celebrate the singular circumincession
Of work, life, and friendship that ensign the saints
These three are one in all who are one in Him
Including a violent son-of-a-bitch
trapped inside the body of Christ
Who doesn’t look a whole lot like a saint
All clad in bright array
(Unless you mean the neckties)
But holiness is rough-hewn and sanctity supple stuff
They might not feebly struggle now, but they did
Named to us and nameless,
none are not known

We sang it again today at the procession
To end a holy triduum of holy fools
We handed you over to them today, Oliver
And got you back, more and less our boy
At the corner of Charlotte and Macon
Where hangs a paint-splattered Christ
Vandalized, or consecrated, or both
By some drunk hippie on Halloween
Who didn’t know what he was doing
Or perhaps some nameless saint like the others
who didn’t either, but who,
fearing the Lord, fear nothing else

But we never know less than when
We think we know what we are doing or saying
Like what became of you today, over the font
You didn’t know what we were doing
Or what we thought we were doing
But maybe you did—more, much more than we
Because you laughed
And didn’t stop

You, we pray, will grow into the vows we made
with all the difficult rest
For you cannot promise to God without difficulty
Or without friends, whether you like them or not

And I—
I hope to grow into the joy you have today
To grow into the expanse of your smile and
To become like you, an enfleshed alleluia
Like the ones who shook the mighty world
Who stole upon the ears of the serious
And still do

You made Henry and Charlie more than brothers
Today at the corner of Macon and Charlotte
Keep that vandal body before you always, dear boys
The king of glory passes by this way
Alleluia.

Yes, alleluia.

 

 

 

 

This is That

 

He was my first favorite author, but I didn’t even know his name.

My mother loves to tell the story: we were on a family trip to Washington, DC circa 1978. It was my first time on a train, and the first time I think I ever saw snow. We toured the city in taxicabs and buses and on foot, gawked at the monuments along The Mall.

“That’s the Hirshhorn Gallery,” I said.

“That is the Smithsonian Building.”

“That is the National Gallery of Art.”

I knew them all, precocious little tyke that I was. In mom’s version, it was because I was somehow advanced for my age. But in my version, it was simply because for a month or so prior to that trip, I had been nose-deep in a book called This is Washington, D.C. by someone I knew for years only as M. Sasek.

I was captivated by the book, and by Sasek’s eccentric, whimsical artistic style. Sasek (Šašek in Czech) was born in Prague, and he treated all of his subjects the way an outsider would, with wonder and surprise, and not a trace of world-weary cynicism. He would visit his subjects for a few weeks at a time, wander and sketch the city by day and return to his hotel room to paint into the night. He took places for what they were, received them with a sense of innocent enthusiasm, and gave them back to us as if to say, “you really have got to see this.”

I never knew a single thing about the man behind the book, but felt immediately that I loved him.

He drew like I drew, or wanted to. His human figures were stylized, comic, his architectural drawings simple and unfussy. His cars were the best: they captured the winged style of the 1950s and 1960s, when cars and buses were still works of art. His colors were bright, inviting, true. When I saw the Smithsonian Institution for the first time, it was exactly as I had seen it in This is Washington D.C. I wanted to be able to draw like Sasek, but he fired in me something else: a sense of wonder at the world—or what later academics would unimaginatively call “the built environment.” He was the first one to inspire in me a fascination, which I have never outgrown, with one of the great universal works of human art—universal as a form but unique in every single one of its instantiations—the city.

He also wrote books about whole countries (Ireland, Israel, Texas) and quasi-cities (The United Nations, Cape Kennedy) but at the heart of his work was a child-like fascination with living forms of human community that take an architectural form. He showed architecture as making certain forms of life possible, forms which could not be possible in exactly the same way in other places. Sasek communicated not just a city’s monuments but its secret life. An image of the White House is juxtaposed with one of three policemen, each of a different race, talking about the latest gossip. Another two-page spread shows the majestic, Seneca red sandstone Smithsonian Castle and multi-colored brick Arts and Industries Building alongside a dark-skinned man blowing up colorful striped balloons for kids like me.

Sasek had come from one of the world’s great cities, and that would have been enough for most people. But something in his own, mostly unknown history in Prague drove him to seek out other cities of the world, to offer them up to us as worthy of fascination, to show them to us as he found them, and invite us into them. He left us his own vision of other places: Greece, Cape Kennedy, Texas, Munich, Edinburgh, London, Rome, Historic Britain, Israel, Paris, Venice, Australia, Ireland, New York, The United Nations, Hong Kong, San Francisco.

But what Sasek never showed us was his own hometown. He never wrote This is Prague. I wonder how he would have seen his own birthplace, how he would have painted and narrated it as an insider, knowing all its dark secrets that only come from familiarity. But he didn’t tell us.

When I was in D.C. then, Sasek had given me a visual grammar, a code book to the city. He drew places for me and said, “this is X.” I had them imprinted on my brain when wandering The Mall, the National Gallery, seeing the Hope Diamond. Sasek’s “this is” became my “that is,” as I pointed out—I am sure to the annoyance of my parents and brother—the sites that Sasek had already told me I should see. I was seeing in real life what I had only seen in a book. This is Washington D.C. allowed me to be a different kind of reader, not just of a book, but of an actual place.

This became that.

The same thing happened when we visited Cape Kennedy in Florida. I had devoured Sasek’s book on it, which became the whole reason I begged my parents to take us there. This is Cape Kennedy (reissued as This is the Way to the Moon in 2009) was published in 1963, years before the Apollo missions would transform Cape Kennedy from a site of technological possibility to a near-holy site of human aspiration, a portal from one world to another.

Sasek was attentive to minute details: not just the scientific interest of the statistics of the Atlas rocket (weight—264,000 lbs.; thrust—360,000 lbs.; speed—17,400 m.p.h.) but the human ones: a boy perusing a rack of postcards, the Church of Our Saviour’s fundraising chart in the shape of a rocket, a Manhattan boy on the beach, a toy rocket in his hand, dreaming of flying to the moon.

Sasek’s cities became more than tourist destinations for me: they were sites of pilgrimage. I wanted to visit every place he had written about and painted. And when I discovered Sasek’s books on places I had already been—like This is Edinburgh—the books became like gratuitous scrapbooks of my own voyages, but better than my own photographs, because they ensured that I would remember those places to be as enchanted with magic as they really were.

I ate up every Sasek book I could find, but at some point in my childhood, the trail went cold, as it does in the dreary years of adolescence when you lose your orientation to the world. That’s what Sasek had given me: an orientation to a world that I didn’t yet know, a world in which surprises and wonders lurked in the open. But all was not lost in those wandering years. Shortly after I met Sasek, I also met another friend whose real name was also occluded by initials: J R R Tolkien.

It was only years later—not that long ago, in fact—that I learned that the M. stood for Miroslav. When my first son was born, I started looking for Sasek’s books to give to him. Fortunately, Universe Press (a division of Simon & Schuster) had begun issuing reprints in 2003. The first one I bought was This is Texas, which seemed a good place to start, since I was living in Texas at the time. I bought a reprint of This is Ireland and gave it to my niece. I gave a reissue of This is San Francisco to my brother and sister-in-law, who had lived there.

Amarillo Livestock Auction, from “This is Texas” 1967 (left) and the 2006 reprint (right)

But eventually I stopped buying the reprints. The colors in them were nowhere near as vibrant as I remembered them in the originals. When the thought struck me, I would seek out a used copy of a non-reprint Sasek, in the hopes that my boys would be able to experience an author the way I had. But they were almost impossible to find. On the extremely rare occasion that I did stumble upon a copy in a bookshop—as in the extraordinary Books of Wonder on W. 18th Street in Manhattan—it was a prohibitively expensive first edition. I didn’t want a first edition; I wanted books for my children that were already well-used, which they would not be afraid to touch and handle and love with their own hands. Over the years, I managed to pick up a few copies in decent condition, with the hopes of building a complete collection for them to draw from whenever they felt curious enough, or a need to wander without leaving home. But after a while, I stopped looking.

Then, in July of 2017, in the middle of a long road trip with my family, I was in Sandy’s Books and Bakery in Rochester, Vermont. I was supposed to be writing, but could not help myself from exploring the somewhat random collection of books on the shelves. There was much of interest—a great poetry section, a couple of books by Richard Halliburton that momentarily tempted me, a small collection of mostly obscure local authors—but nothing I couldn’t live without.

I had almost stopped looking and started writing like I was supposed to. And there, on the top shelf, in a place where it probably should not have been: a mildly battered 1966 edition of This is Cape Kennedy, a piece missing from the bottom of the spine and a piece of packaging tape holding together the top. I may have been shaking a little when I pulled it down. This was the same book I had read when I was a boy like my own sons. I may have even imagined for a moment that was the exact same copy. It wasn’t priced, and thankfully the bookseller did not realize what she had, or how much I was willing to pay at that particular moment, in that particular place, for that particular book. The cashier talked it over briefly with a manager-type, who was in the middle of steaming milk for someone else’s latte.

“Eight dollars seem fair to you?” she asked.

“Uh, yeah.”

I do not think my boys shared my giddy excitement when, later, I slyly lifted the book from the brown paper bag, as if unveiling a holy relic. It seemed as if it was just “that book” to them.

But I was not concerned. Because I know Miroslav Sasek.

Months later, I go into my ten-year-old’s room, looking for the book.

“Henry,” I say, “have you seen that Sasek book on Cape Kennedy?”

“Oh,” he says, extracting the book from in between his mattress and bed-rail.

“This one?”

Read more about Miroslav Šašek at The Sasek Foundation.

Sea Stories

We hit the ground running from Rochester to Rockport, Massachusetts, where we are meeting my parents and my brother and sister-in-law and their three kids for a trip that Mom and Dad have given us for Christmas. Mom has been going to Rockport for painting workshops since the early 1980’s. My only impression of it is a watercolor she made of Motif No. 1, the iconic red lobster shack that overlooks the harbor, an image of paradoxically enduring fragility. Rockport is a special place for my mother, and it doesn’t take us an hour to figure out why. It has attracted artists like mom for years for good reason: the light is other-worldly, a particular manifestation of that maritime light that seems to bring out the essences of things.

Setting out on them high seas
Feels just like being born

By the time we drive up Yankee Division Highway onto Cape Ann, Sturgill Simpson is on the main deck, but I am starting to hear another voice from the deep, hauntingly encircling the Landcraft: Herman Melville. I recall indistinctly the opening paragraph of Moby-Dick, about how the sea holds both unfathomable mystery, terror, and solace all at once.

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an underhand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feeling towards the ocean with me.”

Rereading these lines not a hundred yards from the Atlantic Ocean, I am struck by how much darker they are than I remember. I’ve taught Moby-Dick several times, but in trying to read it like a professor, I missed so much: the existential urgency, the grim despair and near-suicidal impulses that only the encounter with the sea can draw down. I don’t share Ishmael’s chronic despair, necessarily, but in this spot especially, I understand what he means. An experience at the shoreline is not just a witness of something sublime and majestic; it is a confrontation–with eternity, with death, with nothingness, with oneself. The sea is, Melville writes, “the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”

As I’m standing exposed to the winds at the sea’s edge, suddenly this doesn’t feel so academic anymore.

Nor do other voices that once felt so safe in the classroom. T S Eliot spent summers in Gloucester as a boy, and he titled the third of his Four Quartets after a rock formation just offshore of Rockport called The Dry Salvages. The poem is shaped by the region far more than I realized, and reading it with these very rocks just over my shoulder, it hits me the same way Melville does.

The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale’s backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity

The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.

Rockport is just north of Gloucester, the first seaport in the country, and long a storied terminus for countless successful fishing expeditions and almost as many failed ones. Gloucester was the final landfall for thousands of men who left looking for a big score—cod, swordfish, lobster—and never returned. In Gloucester, mom points out to me a “widow’s walk” that she painted thirty years ago, and I realize it’s not just a metaphor. Anticipation is written into the cityscape of Gloucester, in its architecture of grief, of expectation, of hope against hope. Maybe nowhere so poignantly as atop Our Lady of Good Hope, a Catholic parish built by Portuguese fisherman in 1892. In between two blue-capped spires, a statue of the Virgin Mary looks out over the harbor. In the crook of her left arm she cradles a fishing boat like her own little boy.

Closer to shore, along South Stacy Boulevard, a wind-beaten fisherman at helm looks out in a similar way. The centerpiece of a haunting memorial to the lost fishermen of Gloucester, “The Man at the Wheel” is suspiciously reminiscent of the logo for Gloucester-based Gorton’s Seafood, a stark reminder of the price really paid for fish sticks. The pedestal beneath him is inscribed with a passage from Psalm 107: “They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships,” and around him a series of bronze plaques record the names of over 5,000 fishermen who were lost at sea. The real figure is probably twice that.

It is staggering.

Later, on Old Garden Beach in Rockport, my boys play with their cousins on one of Eliot’s “losses:” a fragment of blue foam washed up on the beach, which they repurpose into a sailing vessel or boogie board. They clamber up the rocks, and to each of the mounds of granite reaching into the sea they give a name: Mount Henry, Candler Peak, Mount Marion, Port Charles, Mount Wannahockaloogie.

They do not know Melville or Eliot—or Sturgill, really—but they seem to intuitively sense what each of them—and all of us—feel. An urge to give our own names to things, a desire to secure ourselves fast to solid rock against the vast, forgetful deep. A wish to be remembered, to play at the edge of time.

 

 

 

Two Ways to Overdose on Sturgill Simpson

On the same weekend as our unexpected encounter with purple martins on the White River, my close friends from college are gathering for an annual get-together on Lake Murray in South Carolina. While I am off the grid in Vermont, they will be taking a sunset boat ride to an island in the middle of the lake where a huge colony of purple martins will come home to roost.

Chris is texting me from his Gamecocks folding chair, while the others are standing around the corn hole pitch, beer in one hand and bean bag in the other, or just watching the action. Chris tells me they’re just hanging out, listening to music. I ask him what, but I don’t need to. It’s the same soundtrack as the last time I was able to attend Lake Weekend, two years ago: Sturgill Simpson. As a gesture of long-distance camaraderie, I call up Sturgill on iTunes in Vermont. In a rare moment of cellular access, I can get one song to download.

For the next week, “Sea Stories” is the only song I can listen to on my phone. I play it hundreds of times, trying to get these lines down:

Well now you hit the ground running in Tokyo
From Kawasaki to Ebisu
Yokosuka, Yokohama, and Shinjuku
Shibuya, Ropongi, and Harajuku
Aw, from Pusan and Ko Chang, Pattaya to Phuket
From Singapore to Kuala Lumpur

By the end of the week I have almost got it, and have driven my family nuts listening to the same damn song over and over and over again.

“Noooooooooooooo!!” Henry calls from the back seat at the sound of the nautical bell that opens the tune.

We don’t make it far enough into the song for me to remind Oliver that “Dam Neck” is just a place and not a dirty word. It wouldn’t make any difference to him; he’d bleep it out anyway.

Sturgill is singing about shipping out on a US Navy frigate to Japan, but I feel his pain when he says “my life’s no longer mine.”

Over the Bent World Broods

It’s pouring rain on the day Charlie decides to sit out Suzuki violin camp. He could have picked a better day to play hooky, but there’s no staying put. Mama is not going to allow that. As we drop her and Henry off, she suggests we go for a hike. I bristle, and make that face that makes her want to punch me.

It’s not really a great day for hiking, I say, and as the words are coming out of my mouth I already regret them.

It’s no longer raining when we pull off at the Riverbend site off of VT 100, but the weeds—or “native flora”—are laden with rainwater, bowing into the overgrown trail that hasn’t been used in a while. They are over George’s head, and Oliver’s too, in places. By the time we reach the eponymous bend in the White River, we are all soaked to the skin. George, as usual, is begging to get buck naked, but he becomes distracted by a stick, and stays clothed.

According to the seventh-century theologian St. Maximus the Confessor, human beings possess two forms of will: a natural will (which inclines us to our natural ends, like eating when we are hungry), and a “gnomic” will (which makes us deliberate about means to ends). Natural wills do not hesitate, but gnomic wills do. If you pause to consider before acting in a way that you know is good, then that’s your gnomic will working. This is why, Maximus says, Jesus did not possess a gnomic will: he obeyed the will of the Father without hesitation. I don’t grasp all of this well enough to explain it to anyone, but whatever Maximus is on about, I realize one thing after the Riverbend hike to the White River.

Jesus may not have had a gnomic will, but I sure as hell do.

I’m not worried that I don’t completely understand the concept, because I don’t completely understand myself. I did not hesitate to concoct a 4000-mile road trip with four small children, but I hesitate to go on a short hike in the rain. I never said to myself, “but it might rain,” when thinking about the close-quarters marathon adventure. But when presented with a minor and not very arduous quarter-mile walk with three kids into the dense, wet brush, I hesitate, and come up with all sorts of dumb reasons why it isn’t a good idea.

It could be that I am just lazy, or irrational, or some perverse resistance to ideas that are not my own.

Like the soggy hike to the river, which is one of the best things I do in Vermont.

When we arrive to the river’s edge, there is a small sandy bank where George promptly begins beating the water with his new-found stick. On a tiny island of sand, Charlie starts construction on earthworks to dam up the flow of the river. Oliver takes to swordplay, finding long branches to poke into the sand straight up, then whacks them down with another stick. This is a perfect spot to wade in with a fly rod, but that did not make the trip. I perch on the edge of the bank a few yards up, and look.

The White River arcs away to the right behind us, beyond which a smoky mist broods over the Green Mountains. Purple martins fly in low from upstream, just above the water’s surface, foraging for flying insects. Their calls echo the sound of the river itself: bubbling, gurgling, joyful. From this particular spot, they rebound strangely from the concave hill behind them and sound as though they are calling through a pipe.

It is magical.

On the walk back to the Landcraft, we get drenched again, and I have only one regret: hesitating.

 

“Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time,” or something

It’s over 900 miles from Hull to Asheville. According to the GPS, this will take us approximately fourteen hours. Piled into the Landcraft just shy of lunchtime, we are ready for it.

The boys are urging me to drive the whole way. We won’t get in until 2:00 am, I tell them, but this hardly registers with the creatures in the back who have no sense of time. But turning south on to Nantasket Avenue, I tell myself—and Meredith—that we can totally do this. We have been on the road for five weeks, and we are ready to get home.

I set the bar too high for this trip. I planned it as if I were traveling with Meredith alone, and not with four children whose bowel movements sometimes define the itinerary. Early on, I had to temper expectations, align them more with the reality of riding with people whose interest in architectural and historical milestones does not always match my own obsessions.

And on the last day, I am true to form, setting the bar too high. One half of me is completely convinced that if we hunker down and power through, we can make it to Asheville by early morning. The other half is the rational one.

When we pull over in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania for dinner, it’s clear we’re not going to make it to Asheville tonight. Not by a long shot.

It is dusk when we find a curbside parking spot that does not require a two- or more point maneuver or the use of the reverse gear that led to an almost near-miss in Tarrytown, NY. (The tire of my bike grazed his fender. No blood, no foul.)

Thanks to Bruce Springsteen’s “Youngstown” and Billy Joel’s “Allentown,” I expect this former epicenter of American steel production to be a hell hole of urban despair and blight, a decaying ghost town haunted by specters of soot-coated, out-of-work men of steel crushed by hardship and oblivion.

My sweet Jenny, I’m sinkin’ down
Here darlin’ in Youngstown 

King Steel is long-deposed from Bethlehem. Gigantic, sprawling brick and steel factories hulk silently by the railway lines, but the broad main avenues of town are lively with foot traffic, men and women gussied up for dinner and/or a drink. Across the Lehigh River, the Bethlehem Star—avatar of Bethlehem’s biblical namesake, its Moravian founding, and the steelworkers who built it—shines atop South Mountain. Apparently Bethlehem is going through a bit of a revival, which I might know if I were the type of person who reads Money Magazine. According to Money, Bethlehem is in the top 100 American cities to live in.

There’s something surreal about it all–a particularly American form of surreality in which life emerges amidst the dead wastes of outsourced industries. Think Detroit or the Mississippi Delta. Cars and cotton. They used to be the engines of the American economy, but when jobs went elsewhere, so did the life of those places. As with the Delta, life (of a sort) has returned to Bethlehem thanks to a strange patron.

The slot machine.

Approaching Bethlehem on East 4th Street north of I-78, it’s hard to miss what looks at first like a huge steel truss bridge suspended in mid-air. It appears to go to and from nowhere. Emblazoned on its middle, the over-sized red logo of Sands Casino. Turns out it’s a crane, not a bridge, but still serving a purpose for which it was not made.

Perhaps this is consistent with the state of our politics now, but it’s still worth thinking it odd how much small-town, rural America is increasingly becoming a series of outposts of Las Vegas.

I’m not the only one in Bethlehem setting the bar too high. People used to come to Bethlehem to pluck iron ore from the hills; now they come looking for gold.