Thursday, August 30, 2012

On Capturing the Surreal

It was like this. Surreal. The Outer Cape. Come Saturday morning there were barely a dozen bodies on the beach. No. Twelve exactly. I counted. There had been an electrical storm the night before, morning was grey, but by 9:30 AM the clouds were beginning to slowly disperse southeast over the Atlantic. At 10:30 AM, lunch in backpacks, we mounted our bikes and peddled along the sandy, narrow road, following the deep grooves of wide tire treads set in clay. At the top of the wooded hill, we could barely see the ocean but we heard it like we hear, from a mile away, the soft hum of a highway during rush hour. The pine-covered path that wound down, in serpentine fashion, took us through tall, dancing oaks and merry, berried bushes and out to a paved road leading to the ocean. Lulu piloted the way.

It was like this.

Surreal. The Outer Cape. Nearly every day (and on a few days, very soon after the storms cleared), in northern Wellfleet, abutting Truro, we set our low chairs, blanket and small cooler along the wide expanse of Newcomb Hollow Beach, where the forest, gushing out to sea, falls off in a dramatic one-hundred foot sand plunge, and its rosehip, bearberry and boulder strewn dunes tell a marly, striated history of life along the coastline. (These are the great dunes that Henry David Thoreau called "the backbone of the Cape.") Vegetation clings perilously to the edges of these sand banks, and at the foot of the fallen earth lie injured, traumatized, forest scrub.  It was on this beach, before the inexhaustible sea, that I read to my husband, from Thoreau's Cape Cod, "The breakers looked like droves of a thousand wild horses rushing to the shore, with their white manes streaming far behind; and when at length the sun shown for a moment, their manes were rainbow tinted." To which he, eyes still fixed on Richard Zacks's The Pirate Hunter, replied: Wow. Is that ever overwritten. (Which makes me wonder, now, if I am doing the same.) But the breakers, the gurgling white breakers, from a certain angle, did look like the streaming manes of a thousand wild horses rushing to the shore.

At least to me.

It was on this beach, too, where little terns scattered and herds of seals bobbed in the aqua froth, that Max ran barefoot every day--straight into Truro, along deserted ivory sands, way, way out of our sight. On one such run, as Lu and I ate lunch, I became aware that Max had been gone a long time. Too long. And I had grown concerned. Almost an hour into his run, my phone rang. It was Max. Mom, he said, Mom! And then, the phone cut out. Now, I was more than concerned. I tried reaching him several times, but there was no reception. (On the outer Cape, the valleys and hollows, including the shoreline, are almost entirely dead zones.) Moments later my phone rang again. Max had climbed one of the steep sand slopes--the only spot in which he could find a smidgen of cell phone reception. Immediately I asked if he was OK.

Yes! he hollered into the phone. But there's a seal! A beached seal, and I don't want him to die. I've been cupping water in my hands and tossing it over him to keep him hydrated.

What? Max hun, I explained, seals don't get beached. They're not whales--it's normal for them to come on shore. They can scoot back into the water. He's probably just resting.

Yes, but he's bleeding. His flippers are torn up. He said, too, that he was the only person on the beach. No one else in sight. Which is the way it is in lower Truro, where few roads lead directly to the coastline.

This boy. Kind heart. I felt his worry. (He is the boy who, once, as a four-year-old, eyeing the stations of the cross in church, cried out, What are they doing to Jesus! They're hurting him!) I told him that the seal would be fine. It would go back into the sea and the salt water would heal the wounds. And then I instructed him not to get too close to the seal, not to touch it, especially since it seemed hurt. And then--I don't know why, perhaps I felt deprived of mammal intimacy--I told him to take pictures with his phone, from a distance, to get off the dunes, where he was not supposed to be, and to run back to where I was beached.

When Max returned a half hour later he told me that he had zigzagged down the dunes--so as not to cause this great escarpment to collapse--and then ran toward the area where the seal had been resting only to find that his friend was gone. Returned to the sea. But before he called me from the top of the sandy slope, before he even thought to set his fingers on any buttons, or worry about collapsing dunes, he said, he sat face to face with the seal on the empty shoreline. Just him and the seal. The seal and him. And the seal barked ever so slightly, and Max gently said Hello back.

So the seal is fine. I said.

Yeah, he's good. He smiled.

You had a moment with the seal. That's pretty special, don't you think?

I do. Yup. I do. And then he dug into the cooler and pulled out a water and a turkey sandwich.
It was like this.

Surreal. The Outer Cape.

During an eight-year span in the mid-19th century, Henry David Thoreau set out on four walking tours of Cape Cod. Two of these tours were solo, and two were with the company of his friend and poet, William Ellery Channing, whom had previously advised Thoreau to go out into the briars and build a hut. Thoreau took Channing's advice in earnest. The book that followed that excursion is Walden. The book that followed Thoreau's Cape Cod jaunts is Cape Cod, which is the book that I read on the sand bar that is Cape Cod. It seems that these haunting, and haunted, sands are the closest I may ever get to experiencing a real desert. The Cape Cod National Seashore, in fact, is a kind of desert island. One can sit on the seashore for hours almost entirely alone, even in the hottest, dog days of summer. This graceful arm, especially its soft, sandy wrist to fist, has a history of luring artists and writers to its shores. In the dunes of Provincetown, through which we biked, we were reminded of the writer's shacks of years ago. A few still remain. Eugene O'Neill and Norman Mailer both, at one time, lived in these dune shacks. From a tiny, grey hut overlooking the Atlantic (so the story goes), Tennessee Williams wrote The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. Here, on the Outer Cape.


And then, a friend of my husband's, who had led us, on our bikes, through several miles of hilly dunes at the tip of the Cape tells us that Mary Oliver is a Wellfleetian. Imagine. Mary Oliver in Wellfleet. (I hadn't heard or read this before, or if I had I'd forgotten.)  I wanted to imagine that I would run into her the next morning while sipping coffee out on the deck in front of The Flying Fish in downtown Wellfleet. But then, I looked her up--the Bard of Provincetown--to find only a P.O. Box number in P-Town. Maybe I misunderstood when he said, "She lives right here." But we were sitting on the brick patio of a Main Street, Wellfleet, restaurant. Right here, on the Outer Cape, may mean almost anywhere on the Outer Cape. (Oliver's bio on states that she currently resides in Provincetown.)

We had dinner in Truro the night before we left the Cape. Most nights had been cloudy and threatening, but this evening, our last, was clear and dry. Before we returned to our rental in the woods we stopped by Newcomb Hollow for a last look at the falling sands, the beach, the breakers. Along the shore a few bonfires blazed, some had been abandoned and smoldered. We listened to crackling fires, to waves piling up against what seemed the edge of the universe. The night was very dark, black-dark, and we proceeded carefully down the slope, onto the beach, where we stood under the flawless dome of a flickering galaxy.

No. It was more than flawless. Impossibly beautiful, it was. Astonishing. To the left, to the right, north or south the sky pulsated, fiery dots shot through the sky, auditioned, as if they had waited for our reflection, for our very being so that they might demonstrate their capabilities. I think, truly, they were playing with us.

On the shore, by a pit of orange embers, I pulled out my cell phone. One photograph of the shimmering Milky Way and I understood that the evening could not be captured this way. It could not be digitized, put under any unnatural process, reimagined elsewhere. It was only here--Midnight under the Milky Way--below this celestial canopy under which its myriad characters glint and transmute, on the Outer Cape, land of the surreal, that this beach, this sky, this ocean, this sand was real. Very real.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Sifting Through the Narrative

"Better and better, man. Would now St. Paul would come along that way, and to my breezelessness bring his breeze! O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies; not the smallest atom stirs or lives on matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind." Herman Melville, Moby Dick 

Lulu's last day of fine arts camp was more than a week ago. Two weeks she'd been there; two weeks in which I thought I'd find an ocean of time to write. But I failed to get in the water. It was the sands, those turbinado-sugar-sands that were still on my mind, mind sands, dunes or desert, where grains of narrative filtered between my toes but failed to stick underfoot. Desert, beach, glass, quartz, black, garnet or volcanic for Chrissake—there was simply no semblance in the sands, and if there were, if by chance there may have been a granule of anecdote, this also sifted through the sieve-of-a-brain that is mine.  No narrative, no structure. Nothing doing. Undoing is what I did. Undoing packages that I'd neatly tied up many years ago. I don't know why I have this compulsion to return to old boxes, to open the lids of rust-covered dreams. A strategy perhaps. Fear of marching forward. Up the hill. For whom do I march, anyway? Up which hill shall I march? What will I find on the other side? (Assuming I actually make it over the summit and across to the other side.)

While Lu crafted and beat the steel drums Max often went down to the fishing hole that is Howard Pond. I had plenty of time to climb a hill. To climb a mountain. But I didn't. I don't know what I did. There's lots with which to fill a day. Filler. I could tell you about all kinds of minutial chores I performed throughout the day. Taxi here and there. Pack, unpack. (Well, I have been traveling, too.) Dishes. Clothes washing. My god, clothes washing! Minutiae fills. It also numbs the mind. And sucks gobs of time and energy into its black hole of domesticity. It allows for disengagement. It's enticing. Which is handy now and then.


That path, that sandy, rosa rugosa lined path, is what I've been walking. Yes. Bodily present or not it's where I've been dredging my bare feet like some exotic ammophilous being. And I could tell you, also, that since leaving the turbinado-sugar-sands of Nantucket I'd been thinking about Herman Melville's Moby Dick and my own furling wave of melanomic monomania.  (A wave of which I rode for too long.) This is an unpredictable wave, or so I thought. However, if you drift with it, let the current pull you, you'll eventually be delivered back to the safety of the shore. Should you panic, let it collapse over you, you'll plunge into a delirious spin unto the murky seafloor. 

Wait. I've overdone the metaphor. 

Back to an epic story... 

(Which is what, I think, I should be telling.)

You know Melville's tale—the ship captain, Ahab, obsessed with destroying the great white sperm whale, the ferocious and cunning Moby Dick, to whom he lost his leg. Nantucket is from where Ahab's Pequod sailed. Melville wrote of Nantucket before he ever set foot on the "mere hillock, and elbow of sand."  He first visited the island only after Moby Dick was finished. But it didn't keep him from envisioning, from writing about the island, and its people who... 
... plant toadstools before their houses, to get under the shade in summer time; that one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day's walk a prairie; that they wear quicksand shoes, something like Laplander snow-shoes; that they are so shut up, belted about, every way inclosed, surrounded, and made an utter island of by the ocean, that to the very chairs and tables small clams will sometimes be found adhering as to the backs of sea turtles. But these extravaganzas only show that Nantucket is no Illinois.
Moby Dick is a book I never fully read. Until now, right here, online. And in each line, each carefully chosen word, I come to understand that I've spent this summer undoing because my story,  my Moby Dick, my Ulysses, hell, my Dick and Jane, is like Moby Dick himself: one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air. A portentous and mysterious monster. I thought I'd slay him this summer. Ha!

I am not Ishmael. I don't know where to begin. Somewhere, in the sand, I keep thinking. In the sand.

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And speaking of envisioning, this man cut away at the stake, has to be one of the coolest literary images I've stumbled upon.

You can see more magic from Brian Joseph Davis here

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I'm returning to the Cape in a couple of days. Out, above the elbow, along the National Seashore (where sharks, maybe whales too, are slinking about). I'll be  a week or so there. In the sand. The children return to school in less than twenty days... at which time I plan to return to this space fully engaged

Now, off to bring Max to soccer...