October 23, 2010

Well hey. Sorry for the break in continuity, everything ended so damn abruptly… Maybe it’s time we started talking again.

Who am I? Oh yeah, California. Bicycles. Wind-swept dreams. It has been a long time, friend. It’s cold now, my hair is long and I’m nested for the winter. I’m in my bedroom in Pittsboro, NC, in a big house in view of the courthouse. It’s a small town with big ideas, big personalities, good food and plenty to talk about. I’m enrolled in the Sustainable Agriculture and Biofuels programs at the community college down the street, radical programs taught by a few radical teachers. Class is often outside on the student farm and the reading material is, for one class at least, Wendell Berry (the man who kept me from going to the Grand Canyon, if you’ll recall). The biofuels program, which I decided to add on later, is taught by a wonderful example of homo sapiens sapiens, Bob Armantrout, who I’ll probably end up telling more about later. First day of class: “so, just so we’re clear, there isn’t much hope in biofuels. Do you want to make money? Yes? Oh. Well, let me explain some things…” Oh here he is, standing with some North Carolina banana trees:

And this is out on the student farm; pizza from the wood-fired oven topped with fresh veggies and herbs:

For the most part, I am happy, or at least well-fed. Mathilde (my bicycle) is doing well. I can’t believe she made it the whole way, and continues to get me to school every day.  She’s lost some paint and can get a little fussy, and probably isn’t too thrilled about being shut-up inside all the time.

In my room I’m surrounded by various photographs and stories: a bridge somewhere in Maryland on the way home from New York, that Mediterranean sunset on the uncomfortable boat-ride where that guy tried to rob me, a painting from last winter where I turned inward for too long, books on top of books on top of books, a few postcards from Michigan, a bag from City Lights, my red boots, a brick. All of these memories. I’m not all too sure of what I have gleaned over the past few years, and the bicycle trip is still spinning too quickly to be a comfortable, digestible old memory.  I float often to the past, especially when what is at present is uncomfortable, or when I can’t seem to pull myself together. It’s probably an ego-driven trick of the mind, but goddamn if sometimes I just want to go back to the big empty desert and just sit under the sun and listen for that train way off in the distance that seems to be traversing the landscape infinitely, a perspective at once making me feel big and small. I began reading a book called “Mycelium Running” by Paul Staments today (loaned to me by Bob) and came across his observation of the mycelial archetype, which he parallels the networks of the brain and internet. Memories, in a way, hold on like a mycelial fabric communicating and reverberating through the past and present, thus composing and enacting an appropriate future. (I won’t write like this for long, I promise.) I have also been reading Carl Jung (when not in school), reflecting on and digesting his observations, and would like to share a wonderful collection of words he found:

“The psyche is not of today; its ancestry goes back many millions of years. Individual consciousness is only the flower and the fruit of a season, sprung from the perennial rhizome beneath the earth; and it would find itself in better accord with the truth if it took the existence of the rhizome into its calculations. For the root matter is the mother of all things.”

Fruit. Roots. Fabric of the Earth. Myriad connectivity. Symbiotic movement. Something is there,  but what does it mean, what does it matter. All these memories, this search for beauty, for life, for the ideal shade of humanity, for universal absolution, and I’m still just as irritable and awkward as ever, with more years in my skin and color in my hair. One thing is beginning to change: I understand more of the why now. Like light in the play No Exit, so has the surrounding landscape bored into the desert of my soul, uncomfortably but dutifully taking root. Is being true to one’s self such a chore? I’m leaning towards yes. Yes, and it must be done.

When I decided to go home, sitting by the ocean in Trinidad, CA, things began to lose focus. The carpe diem confidence I had left with had become something new, something less contrived. To use an old metaphor I felt naked, as though I’d dispelled some great illusion about myself. I spent that night in a lush grove, listening to the pacific once more and reading an old friend, Orhan Pamuk, in search of wise words. Well into the evening a very drunk man stumbled to near where I was. “You, you’re a holy man, hey, holy man, I can, see, you… do something…” I took this as a sign. Wallowing in the pretense of half-assed asceticism had gotten me somewhere, but it had nothing to do with holiness. I had made more of a peace with myself and those around me; I had lived out a small struggle in a symbolic reformation of the past; I had seen many faces of humanity. The feeling was holy. My self, however, was more human than ever. I found a quiet spot and fell asleep.

I believe now that the reason that I came back to NC so suddenly was simply loneliness. I thought about Charles Duncan’s unshaven, modest gruffness, about Hannah Pearce’s heart-blossoming smile and radiant curls, I thought about my dad’s quiet humility, his easy-living spirit; my mom with her indomitable vitality. I thought about Meredith and Ana and Rachel and  friends old and new. I was eager to experience the eloquent existence of living in a small town, and the quiet discipline of a student. I was ready to rebuild myself, to integrate into the whole, to live in a community, to reawaken old emotions and burn with the drama of life. It may be youthful optimism, poetic abandonment, or regurgitated, beat-en archetypes, but man, if life ain’t for living, if it is only for this postmodern/postmortem ironic resignation, you can count me out. I could have made it further, sure, just another small hurdle, but I had gotten to where I was going.

I spent the next night in Eureka, CA watching reruns of the show Sliders on the internet with a guy-who-knew-a-guy who had some bison that he could buy and big dreams of retiring on bison farming. In the meantime he was a commercial fisherman/reformed party junkie. Now that I think about him, he was a warm soul and it was a good time, but it was a little weird. He lived with another fisherman, younger and a little wily looking. He asked if I wanted to go to the store with him. “Sure, I need a crescent wrench.” Almost as soon as we got into the car did his eyes start to burn. “I used to do heroin, but now I don’t. Don’t you believe me? Hey, can I use your phone I need to make a call.” I crossed the entire country and managed to pass around the darker shades of life almost as a whole, and here we are again, in California (if you remember the story from Barstow, CA), with another skinny junkie whose intentions are buried under thick piles of denial and fear (and we’ve all got our junk in some way). It was a wild car ride, to say the least. He bought something, socks, I think it was, while making three or four unexpected stops along the way, doing 60 the whole time. “Fishing man, it’s tough work but good money. But I can’t seem to hold on to the money. They kick me off the boat every year, partying too much, but I’m good, so they always take me back.” There was a desperate honesty in his voice at times, and an overwhelming detachment from what would be the “typical” life of a 26-year-old. Relatively no interests, no dreams, no home. Eureka itself stank with dissolution. Empty-souled concrete, and hot, poverty-stricken industry sitting on the golden coast of California, surrounded by overwhelming majestic forests. The bay stank of overfishing, the people scrambled around in all directions, going somewhere, returning to the same place. Eureka, a big-ish city, but cut off from the rest of California’s metropolises, wearing itself out trying to keep up. It seemed sad.

The next day, driving back down to San Francisco, California seemed to melt in it’s vastness, to become easily tamed, dominated, dream-like. I found a ride via craigslist with a girl, a student from Arcata and rugby fanatic, all the way to San Francisco. Let me explain fanatic. Rugby was all she talked about, that and her social life centered around rugby, which mostly involved drinking lots of beer and inter-team hook-ups. Which Rugby players were cute, which could hit hard, what happens when you drink too much before a match, you know, sportsy stuff. Sometimes I would try a tactical conversational diversion, letting the rouse of a short-attention span try to introduce other worldly subject matter, but inevitably she would slide-tackle my words to the ground and bring us back to the one true path, missing teeth et. al. I’ll go ahead and call womens rugby tougher than any man-dominated sport out there. The thing of it was, this girl was about the softest-spoken and genteel minivan driver in all Northern California, but behind those quiet eyes, quaking in those still hands, there was a rugby player: holy oblong war-woman, the cleated, pile-driving queen of Humboldt State.  I learned a great deal about rugby, not so much in the sense that now I know how to play it, but rather I have a deep sociological understanding of the dedicated subculture of girls who play rugby. It exists.

Soon I was back in San Francisco, back in the mission district. My head was spinning. My flight was booked. What am I doing? How am I going to get my bike on the airplane? I bought a sandwich and did what I could, already feeling my attitude towards life shifting. No more decisions read in smoke-signals or conjured up from the backs of novels, no more listening for a home in the woods, no more flat-tires. Now it’s school books, house repairs, death and taxes.

I spent the night on my friend Emily’s couch, on the third floor of an old apartment building.

Emily was a friend-of-a-friend turned quick friend. I remember distinctly being taken off guard by her succinct and honest conversation, a rare and beautiful quality. The conversation, after short introductions and hows-your-days, went quickly into an analysis of life and death, a foray into the sticky matter that drives our subconscious and probably reveals more about us to ourselves and others than the old favorite color routine.  (I say probably because even the most benign conversation can ripple through our bodies in ways we would never know.) Emily worked in and around hospitals, her proximity to the human life cycle gave her a grounded humility. Of course, we only really talked for a short time, but this was the impression I left with. I was reflecting on this story only a few days ago to one of my current roommates, Sam. Another roommate had recently learned of a death in the family, and we could all feel its ripples. “You know, sometimes it is part of Buddhist practice to do hospice work,” Sam told me. Makes sense. Ancestry, impermanence, suffering, peace. I have not had very much experience with death in my life, apart from brief suicidal dramas and indulging my own mortality (I’m with you, Carl Solomon). I know I will see its inevitability and true face, and I only hope to confront it with the same grace as Emily.

Early the next morning, Emily and I had coffee and scones, and away we go. I caught the train to the airport, more nervous than I should have been. I took my bike apart in the airport lobby with a hellish determination, still unsure of what I was doing. I was on the plane at four. I was surrounded by a large Indian family splitting a large pizza after takeoff. On the edge of this small puddle of family, I remembered that I had one, too.

The sun started to set during the flight, and down below I could see little spots of fireworks faintly exploding below. It was the 4th of July. Every 30 miles or so there would be little multi-color patches, and I could feel the eyes transfixed down below as they watched, marking the year, marking their lives, marking their history. I guess I’ve seen something of an American cross-section.

Thank you Tessa, for starting this trip with me. Thank you Daris and Maggie, for your hospitality and big hugs. Thank you Mike, from the County Store in Lilesville, NC for dinner and breakfast, and the lakeside resort camping. Thank you Phil from Walhalla for the lesson on woodcutting, the breakfast, and the beautiful yard to camp in. Thank you Ron Wright for helping me with that first busted spoke, your laugh lingers on. Thank you Trailhead bikes for the comfy grip, good beer and downtime. Thank you LeeAnn, jell-o, tacos, and Angel Wilkerson, I totally understand. Thank you Katie, your warmth was indispensable and your hospitality refreshing. Thank you Melanie and Mike for reminding me to take the day off. Thanks to the Woodyards for your open hearts, enduring support and Key-lime cheesecake. Thank you Tom and co. from Mentone, the tree house was lovely. Thank all of you at the Iuka Piggly Wiggly for letting me tell stories, and for the cheering section. Thanks to the Rodriguez family in Spiro for the microwaved tea and homegrown hot sauce. Thanks to the unnamed farmer with the 50 gallons of diesel to burn, you crazy bastard. Also thank you Charles Preston in Wellington, TX, a friend when I needed one. All you boys in Amarillo, thanks. Oh, and the girl at the Amarillo YMCA who consulted me about relationship troubles, I hope it helped. Thanks to the Montoya cowboys, the wind did suck, but the steak was fantastic. Thanks Darren Williams, I love your enthusiasm and your articles. Thank you Winter and Marie, for the drinks, couch, french toast, absurdity, etc. etc. Thank you Ish, brother. Thank you Jane and Rod Mahoney for your belief and support, and for the green chile experience. Thank you Megan and Adam for the cozy home, french toast, BB’s, bees, music and camaraderie. Thank you to the people who’s property I may have camped on without their knowledge, and the one’s who offered. Thank you Andrew in Flagstaff for the curry. Thank you Marguerite, Sasha and Saso for the unforgettable Flagstaff evening. Thank you Amber for the lovely coffee conversation. Thank you David in Barstow, my heart goes out to you. Thank you infinitely Hannah and Shannon, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Thank you everyone for your understanding, or at least marginal acceptance (also included: casual indifference, warranted antagonism and averted glances). I was more than a little crazy during this trip, and I can’t say with any certainty that anything has changed. But I am America. These muscles came from the mountains in Georgia, from the wind of the plains, from the nourishment (for better or worse) of the land. I am America’s unrelenting movement, her forgotten child, her youthful abandon, her broken spiritualism. I am her illness and medicine, success and failure. I cannot present with conviction the color of her soul, I can only reflect her face.

My parents met me at the airport, and I’m sure I looked just how I felt: absolutely uneasy. The air travel disrupted my perception. It was hard to believe that the people I love were so far away and inaccessible just a few days before, before I had decided to stop riding, were standing right there now. North Carolina, home; good bad and otherwise, became real again, just as scattered as before. I keep returning with what I hope is wisdom, an outside perspective maybe, to make some sense of this mess. Maybe even do some good in the process.

I did learn one thing for sure:

And you see, continuity is a blessed thing.

When I got back to North Carolina I was rootless, probably a little desperate and cycling this incredible energy to do, to move, with a melancholy calmness. I stayed in this limbo for a whole month, sometimes triumphant, sometimes defeated. I began to work on a house, the one that acted as a catalyst to bring me back to North Carolina. Jim, the house’s owner and all-around evolved male,  had basically said “here is a house, do something.” I had dreams of an arts collective, an autonomous communal social experiment; things that would keep me out of the minutiae of that looming threat of anonymous, economically-worrying indoor living.  It was set back in an old-growth forest right about a mile from Jordan Lake. The place was, in a way, trashed, and even after cleaning and organizing for a good part of that first month, I didn’t feel at home. And for that month, it was just me. I met with a few other students who were interested in the project, but usually followed by “I’d like to but its too much to take on.” In Late July, I had a restless, fever-filled night, something that hasn’t happened in quite a long time, and knotted up in blankets at my parents house. My mind was circling the options, the obligations, working out shat I should and should not do with my time. I was overwhelmed. I got up around 3 am and went for some water, only to find my mom standing in the kitchen having trouble sleeping; her job was weighing hard. Workplace tensions and unclear obligations left her feeling out-of-control, with no clear solution of how to move forward. What we concluded was this: the simple fact that these things were keeping us up with worry was enough to make a decision, to see the root cause of the problem and decide if it was a weight we were willing to take on. Two people that had stopped by the house as prospective co-habitants had really impressed me, and I contacted one of them, Gabe, the next day. They had found a house downtown, right near the school, and needed one more roommate. Perfect.

Life has done another one of those topsy-turvy scene changes (or maybe I have done it to myself, that’s probably more correct) and the still life in Pittsboro has been anything but. It’s amazing how quickly time passes when you don’t have to worry about where you’ll sleep at night. It’s almost the end of October.

July: I rolled around uncomfortably with a fever of uncertainty, nearing comatose states haunting the cities of my past. Shannon came into town. We listened to a river, I heard things I did not want to hear. Saw a tesla coil. Prufrock ringing in my ears:

August: Things begin making sense. Went to see an old friend, Greg, living on a boat in Beaufort. Dreamt up elaborate schemes of travelling dreams. He has since sailed on. Music festival in Richmond. Started working at a bread bakery, started school.

September: Hello, little city. New friends, old friends, settling in to this forgotten shape.

October: Shakori Hills. Reawakened, remembrance, anxious exuberance.

This city is amazing, really. I leave it sometimes, to go visit friends, or just to move, and always on the way back can almost catch a glow above it. There is a certain vitality present, an inspiration, a raison d’êtres. Until only a few years ago, Pittsboro was like most other rural North Carolina cities, or so the story goes. A few small organic farms moved in, a few more, a biofuels plant, and something new was created. Something natural: a community. I’m kind of in love with it right now, and I’m rolling deep in Plenty’s, and beginning to mellow.

To keep the fire stoked I’ll let Carl Jung have the last word:

“And so it is with the ideals, convictions, guiding ideas and attitudes which in the period of youth lead us out into life, for which we struggle, suffer and win victories: they grow together with our own being, we apparently change into them, we seek to perpetuate them indefinitely and as a matter of course, just as the young person asserts his ego in spite of the world and often in spite of himself.”

Mail: 137 West Street, Pittsboro, NC 27312



Postscript: I would love your feedback, your honest opinion, your inspiration etc. Please e-mail/snail-mail me with thoughts, comments, suggestions, book recommendations, stories, photos; anything really. I’ll keep blogging if you’ll keep reading, and there is much to be said, and more soul to bare. I’ll write back.


3 Responses to “Grace”

  1. hannah said

    I enjoy your words.

  2. hlp said

    I envy you your experience, form and gift for narrative…I am proud of the equanimity you’ve grown in to and I appreciate the nod, which was most winsome. You are a dear soul Andrew, ever-evolving and expanding in the best ways possible. Glad to know you.

    There’s still a lot of work to do. Always more work to do and plenty left to learn. You’ll have to teach me some of that serenity one of these days.

    Keep writing.

  3. well of course community colleges are part of a good educational system too ;*.

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