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Midnight fog on Mississippi

Written: December 29, 2014, in Orlando, FL

About: New Orleans, the night of December 27

Fog rose up from the night-time Mississippi in tongues like ghostly flames. A low wind drove this fog, it slid over the levy and then lapped against the squat buildings of French Market. In places, the fog piled up, rising in a wispy columns. Gnarled and twisted, they rose up until they joined the low clouds, which themselves were held up by the glowing high-rises of the Central Business District.

The docks of Algiers, across the river, were but a disjointed collection of lights and angled roofs. Someone began to imagine them, but did not quite finish, and so they floated on, primeval and hypnotizing.

The wind picked up, and the fog grew into a shapeless behemoth that charged the shore. It moved fast, and almost instantly the levy disappeared, swallowed up. The lamps glowed weakly, like distant frozen comets. The massive wave of fog breached the flood wall, broke up into a legion of shadows and apparitions that rushed into the streets of French Quarter, growing ever more invisible with every step, every leap.

As the surge dissipated, it left behind a ragged sheath of fog, showing the water beneath. It looked taut, rough, grey, and wet, like the skin of some vast, languid animal dreaming under the fantastical cloak.

In all of this, Natchez, at her night dock, appeared as if behind a ward – completely free of the fog. The water around her sides was a pure, glistening black. Her light shone brightly, their clarity made more brilliant by the chaotic and unfocused world of the fog swirling around the ship.

All Souls 2014

Written: December 14, 2014 in Washington, DC

About: November 2, 2014, in Tucson, AZ

My mother called me late at night. My grandmother had passed away. She kept her composure, but the unusual raspness of her voice betrayed the grief. We spoke briefly. She made plans to fly back for the funeral. This was not possible for me.

You always hope that this call would come at a time when you are in a comfortable, safe place. It never does. You are at a birthday party, or eating breakfast, or pumping gas. I was at a laundromat. The phone call left me wiped out and numb, but I had to stay in this place until the spin and dry cycles all finished. It seemed absurd and grotesque that instead of profound, this moment was menial and full of strangers. So it goes.

At least it was in the middle of the night, and I could escape into the empty street for some relief.

A heaving loss was lumbering somewhere beneath the surface of my consciousness, but I could not quite figure out what it was that I had lost. My grandmother had drifted into the fog of Alzheimer’s long ago. Even then, she was left behind that brutal watershed, immigration. In my mind, she had become a fable, and her departure only confirmed her mythological status.

Next morning, compelled by childhood memories, I got up early, went into the kitchen and started cooking. The sun peeked over the roofs and found me with a tall stack of bliny, warmed by the gas stove, as it had often found her. The clouds were turning red and gold, a sight to share with my grandmother. I learned to make bliny by watching my grandmother do it thousands of times.

I have previously been considering going back to Tucson for this year’s All Souls Procession. Now this became an essential, vital need.

***

A mass of humanity – thousands of people – has arranged itself on Tucson’s 6th Street as the desert sun rolled away. It had stoked the afternoon heat, but with the soft darkness drawing upon the city, everything and everyone felt unburdened and refreshed. Filling the streets as a vast flood, we have come for death and remembrance. We have come here not in sorrow, but in unity.

Many carried memories of those who passed away in the last year. Anything from a small pocket photo to costumes to large family gatherings carrying altars adorned with lights and icons. The Urn took up its place at the head of the Procession, filled with letters written to the departed.

Shared sadness turned into great joy. People formed a mad, often bizarre tapestry of costumes, masks, and painted faces. A mesh of music coming from stereos and musicians hung over the gathering. Yet friends still found each other in this chaos. Time passed in smiling conversations, punctuated with excited greetings and hugs. Then by some command, more felt than heard, the crowd shook, the drums kicked up, and we began to move. The sidewalks – the banks of this human river – were packed with onlookers, waving and cheering on those walking.

Somewhere in the thick of it, the pipers of the Tucson Highlanders blew their pipes, lofting that perfect sound of steady hearts and hallowed memories. We followed the thin ghost of their distant sound.

As we followed the pipers, the procession pulled into an underpass beneath a railroad. The entrance into narrow concrete tunnel was ringed with people hanging off the guardrails and the top of the bridge. It was a portal made of humans. The pipers drew themselves up, and launched into Amazing Grace as they descended.

The concrete underworld vibrated and bucked with the power of the music and of the people singing, cheering, whooping, dancing, stomping. The walls beat with our hearts and the lights shined brighter. Sorrow burned and evaporated away, leaving behind only the joy of remembering those we love.

The memories of my grandmother welled up in my chest, too compressed and entangled to pick them apart. Rather, I remembered her, and what it was like to be with her. This feeling pushed out against my bones, burst upward, roaring. I lifted my head and I howled. I howled and I howled I howled, with tears in my eyes, with all the sadness and the longing and the love, until it all emptied out of me, until the pipers led us out of the tunnel, back into this world, back into the crisp night, our river flowing steady between the human banks.

I was in a place removed infinitely far from grandmother. In a foreign country, in a strange desert, a small human in a giant ritual that was unabashedly grotesque and alien. Yet then I was as close to her as I have been in the hot summers of my childhood, on the cool riverbanks, in the green orchards heavy with cherries, in her small kitchen, watching her cook an endless feast for a gang of grandchildren.

Later, in the leery midnight hour, feeling fresh from a monsoon that passed through us, we found a street vendor serving up Sonoran hotdogs, in itself a small tradition. In this safe harbor, we stood around making cheery small talk with the woman while she prepared our food. On the other side of the cart, obscured by a shifting cloud of steam, a beautifully painted Katrina stood leaning on an old cab, another haunt, another apparition.

All Souls 01 (edit 800x480)

I despise air travel

I despise air travel. I’m writing this while sitting at the Orlando Airport. I am delayed by about five hours because my flight was oversold, and I took the bullet (and the generous travel voucher) so that some other poor soul wouldn’t have a meltdown in the happiest place on Earth. If you ask me, overselling flights during the holidays season is an insidious practice.

Mind you, I am not afraid of flying. I am not afraid of heights and confined spaces. I actually enjoy that kick from the engines at takeoff. Flying is, in no uncertain words, magical. Common air travel, however, stabs, tramples, and poisons every bit of this magic.

Security. I still giggle when I take off my belt and shoes. It feels like a bad dream where you end up naked in front of the gym class, everyone laughs, and you want to die from embarrassment. Everyone else is either annoyed or takes it too seriously. I guess if your day consists of hunting and eliminating a stray shampoo bottle, those are your only emotional choices.

The airports are just sped-up, anxiety-driven malls. There are two states of being at the airport. The first is madly racing through the crowd to catch a connection. The other is a slowly creeping stupor of being trapped in a glass cage for an indeterminate amount of time. If a connection is more than an hour, it might as well be some sort of slow mental torture. Simple decisions become awkward exercises in mathematics. Are forty-five minutes enough time to get a hamburger? Use a restroom? Sit down in a restaurant? Everything is gaudy and fake. Reality devolves into something shapeless and weird. You are caught in a loop, where the reality replays itself every five minutes. Every repetition is somehow both more boring and more terrifying than the last. There is the constant fear that you have somehow missed your flight, even though it’s still two hours away. The concept of “hour” has stopped making sense a while ago, though. It may have become a negative unit of time. You may become trapped here forever.

I’d recommend stranding someone in an airport for a day or two as a means of “enhanced interrogation,” but by this time they may lose their self of identity so completely, they will be of no further use. At best they’ll be able to recite the standard public safety announcement and guide you to a Cinnabon.

The airplanes are cramped. I half-expect a sturdy stewardess to put a put a booted foot squarely on the chest of a patron in the first row and push, just to see if the passengers can be compressed just a bit more, and another sweaty family covered in suitcases and Goofy neckpillows could be squeezed on board.

I am not a man of excessive frame, at 6″ and 190 lb. Not diminutive, but surely not of unreasonable proportions. Yet I still feel like most airplane seats are a prank, and somewhere, someone is giggling hideously while I try to arrange a folding tray, a book, and a scampering bag of pretzels. I’ve given up on trying to use a laptop. I just end up curled in unnatural ways, stabbing myself with hard plastic, at mercy of the person in front of me who might decide to lean back slightly at any moment and crush my delicate arrangement completely, with grievous consequences to my person and property.

Air travel is overwhelmingly pedestrian and offensive. I may extend my policy of “I’d rather drive” to about twelve hours. If I have to have another six-hour stint at an airport, I become temporarily rabid.

I hate flying. Someone, for the love of all that is good and holy, get me out of here. My flight is boarding in an hour, and I don’t know if that’s enough time to safely get a hamburger.

Sunset in the Texas Prairie

Written: March 2, 2011

About: the Texas Prairie, which I am currently traversing

I have crossed the Texas Prairie many times. Several times by car, many more by plane. The view from the skies is actually fairly unsatisfying. The view from the car is much better, but I am constantly distracted by having to pay attention to driving. The highways may be exceedingly straight, but there is an occasional mountain in the way.

Living in Arizona, I have learned to love this tremendous, vast emptiness. The Sonoran desert is just as featureless and beautiful. There is a sense of serene personal dissolution that is almost instantly meditative. The landscape is soft, minimalist, and ends far beyond the eye’s reach. It is just a near infinite expanse of land, exceeded only by an even greater sky.

This time I have the advantage of crossing the Prairie on a Greyhound bus. I have the benefit of being only feet away from the brush without the hassle of having to steer. Instead, I have the luxury of paying attention to the scene.

The sunsets in the Southwest are renowned. As everything else in nature out here, the color scheme of a sunset is as simple as it is powerful. A sunset is made of gradients, various shades of red, yellow, and brown.

My first time in the Southwest was when I moved from Florida to Arizona, driving almost the entire length of I-10. A sunset came upon me in West Texas, and I was so overwhelmed by it that I had to pull over on a pile of gravel and take it in for a little while before getting back to the road.

In the midday sun, the Prairie is bleached. The sun is so intense and bright everything is washed out, thinned out, like a wispy water color painting. There is an indication of shapes, but the colors are but polite departures from white. As the sun leans toward the horizon, the shadows begin to accumulate in the brush. Colors return vibrant and intense. It is now a rich, thick blend of yellows and browns. Everything becomes textured. The scene becomes so saturated with colors it is almost visually tangible. It is a place to rest my eyes in peace.

Frozen air in Grünow

Dec 30, 2010

Grünow, Germany

My first time in Grünow, and this is as wonderful a winter as I could wish for. It has been snowing around Berlin (Grünow is about an hour North of Berlin) regularly through all December. With exception of a couple brief thaws at the beginning, it hass stayed below freezing. While there is a treacherous layer of ice beneath the snow, it’s been worn through on all the major streets. Thin sheets of ice also cover all the trees. Heavy accumulation of ice and snow has broken a lot of trees and branches, temporarily shutting down some highways and railroads in the area. Though frozen, everything has been back to normal, more or less, for about a week.

Yesterday I witnessed something I have not seen in a long time – an extra-cold front rolled through and froze the air. The temperature outside dropped from -5 C to -9 C in about an hour in the middle of the day, which is an unusual swing for the area. The physics is quite simple. When the temperature drops that quickly, past the dew point, the moisture remaining in the air doesn’t have time to condense somewhere, and so it forms droplets right in the air. This is how fog is formed. Of course, if the temperature is already below freezing, it’s a frozen, icy fog. Which looks far more ominous than regular fog.

I first noticed that something was off as we were driving home from a restaurant. I was looking at a hillside where some clumps of earth were poking through the unperturbed white snow. The country here is mostly farmland, so huge plots of snow go untouched for days except for a few animals that cross them.

My eyes followed the clumps up the side of the hill. As the hill rose, the clumps became less visible. However, they were not being covered up by more snow. Their obscurity was smoky and distant. More disturbingly, the clumps faded by the hill did not seem to end. It simply rose infinitely into where the sky should have been. There was no sky. The hillside simply extended into the whiteness that now included that whole side of existence.

As I looked around, I noticed the same whiteness creeping over the distant objects all around. Trees, houses, other roads, everything was slowly dissolving. This did not seem like a fog, or a low cloud, or a snowfall. Fogs and clouds have a texture to them, and a snowfall has movement. This manifestation was almost perfectly even and motionless in its distribution. Everything simply faded and dissolved, became erased.

The temperature continued to drop for a couple more degrees, and the frozen fog set in with greater intensity. As it thickened, all that remained was the stretch of the road ahead and the row of trees following the sides of the road. Everything else was at the most a shadow reminiscent of the object’s existence. Further out, the white fields and hillsides merged seamlessly with the equally white sky.

At first, I have to admit, this brought with itself the uneasy feelings of alarm. Things were disappearing, and even the sun itself was powerless to get through the freeze. For a while, it hung in the sky as a dimly lit token of its presence. After a while, however, even this sunk into nothingness as the sky became increasingly even. Though these feelings did not last long.

All became peace and simplicity.