Skot's autobiographical epic: Back to the Beach

Dec 1997 - 3085

After I got my driver's license, most of my highschool days were spent away from the classroom. I probably got the worst marks for attendance in the spring of my tenth grade year, 1994. Although I had promised my parents I would do better in school, I simply could not stand the stultifying lessons, the repetitious teaching, the classes devoid of all color. I got an education, alright, but I got it elsewhere, and in spite of my educators. I called in "sick" to school so frequently it became a joke among my friends. Once I even "took a vacation with my family" for two weeks and spent the whole time reading Proust and Joyce in local cafes. Occasionally I tried my pen with a bit of unsatisfying writing of my own.

But the most memorable 'days off' of all were my drives into San Francisco. I often got the chance to drive up the coast of California from Santa Cruz, and I took it whenever I could. Much of my time in that city has been spent sitting in the great cafes of the North Beach, where Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac once took their own coffee, and where Lawrence Ferlenghetti can still be seen in the vicinity of City Lights Bookstore. My only brush with greatness, in fact, was with this impressive man. I had parked my car along one side of Washington Square and my meter was running out, so I walked down from my comfortable table at Cafe Puccini to feed the meter. After I had given myself another hour to leave my car there, I decided to walk down the hill a block or so and spend that time shopping for books in City Lights. I didn't buy anything that day, but I happened to walk in on a conversation that Ferlenghetti was having on the stairwell with a friend. Of course I didn't interrupt or say anything; I had more tact than that. Nor do I remember much of the conversation, besides Ferlenghetti's infectious humor. Nevertheless I came away with the distinct impression that I had just had an experience I would never trade for yet another day in English class, learning about the long dead Charles Dickens. Such is the way of an education on one's own.

Those quiet days when I left behind the classroom, lecture, and work to flee towards the cafe, the beach and the city seem more real to me now than the routine I constantly fought; they seem more full of life than the routine I am now fighting. Compared with these glorious moments alone, the rest of the things I have done to keep my carcass walking seem unreal, diversions to distract us from a joy we dare not believe in, lest we topple the whole ridiculous edifice of school and work and routine for the promise of an illusion. It seems to me that the greatest joy in life is found in living through these serene moments, not in careening frantically through one's days from rising to retiring so that each day ends before it has really begun. By keeping busy every moment, by always finding something to do with yourself, you foreshorten your days into seconds, catapulting you to the end of a wasted life before you have had time to notice your aged appearance in the mirror. It will have changed imperceptibly, beneath your notice, because the whole time you could not waste time quickly enough. Surely this is not joy. Yet I have met uncountable numbers of people who rush through their lives in this way without ever bothering to pause and note the fact they are alive. This is the most sorrowful aspect of our lives today; it is the aspect of modern life I repudiate and fight. I refuse to live life divorced from joy, wedded to sorrow!

These drives alone up and down the coast of California were in many ways the single joy of a difficult life. I had determined to drop out of school to become a writer, and I often drove listening to an unabridged recording of some work of classic literature. Once I listened to the Odyssey, another time to a recording of Robert Fagles' impressive translation of the Illiad (which deeply influenced my poetry at the time); another time it was "The Dharma Bums", and once I had discovered "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" there was no stopping me. What writing I was doing was not much -- short stories which lay unfinished as often as not, a novel which refused to move, essays badly written and opinions tossed off -- but I believed in myself and little else besides. I had not yet met Torrey Glenn, so I really had no support for my decision. I was chasing two girls around with no luck and much frustration. My parents did not understand my rebellion and threatened to take measures. I needed to spend whole days alone, to listen only to myself and the words of the great men I admired.

Recently, trips to nature have taken on a less urgent tone. My life is happier in general, and I tend to go to the beach with friends. Just a couple weeks ago my friends Garrett and Torrey and I decided to drive south from Santa Cruz, along the coast, to at least Big Sur and possibly further, and have a picnic along the way. While we were still in Santa Cruz County, I continued to write on my clipboard, but sometime after we passed Watsonville I set down my pen and put the clipboard away. I had usually driven north in the past, due to my attraction to San Francisco, and I'd only driven to Monterey once. (On that occasion, I had joked to my friends that I couldn't come into class that day because I was on a mission from God to get a great hamburger.) Familiar territory had receded into the past and all around was the glorious landscape I had nearly become blind to. All the coast of California is magnificent, glowing, beyond the human scale. Nature is not afraid to show her brute power against these cliffs, beaches and mountains; one is forced to acknowledge he is puny in the face of it, even if only subconsciously and in denial.

I had almost become blind to the beauty of my hometown, Santa Cruz, and this trip reawakened my slumbering appreciation. It is a marvelous place to wake up to, a generous city. The streets themselves are generous beyond comprehension, in fact. Just this morning, after a downpour rinsed the whole city clean, I set out for a walk. I had called in sick to work, although I felt perfectly healthy. I hadn't been "sick" for more than a month, and this writing cried out to be done. I suppose old habits die hard. Anyway, I was on my way to the cafe down the street when a bright glint caught my eye. I'm hardly out of the house and the street is giving me money! I found fifty-six cents. I pocketed them and walked on towards the corner, but almost before I got there, I decided to turn around and have a second look, to see if I could find more of the same. What luck! I found four more quarters, five dimes, another nickel and two more pennies! Two dollars and thirteen cents! The gods had evidently decreed that I should have a cup of coffee, and they put a shining seal on my decision to call in sick by throwing two hundred coppers in my path. Two dollars and thirteen cents from the heavens to assist me in my holy mission to write -- for chance is the signature of God.

As I say, Santa Cruz is beautiful -- as is Capitola and Watsonville, where Garrett lives -- but it no longer commands my attention as it once did. I simply know it too well. So when Garrett called Torrey and I up and asked if we'd like to go for a Sunday drive, we readily agreed, Torrey and I. Up until Watsonville we talked about school -- the subject came along readily enough, since I am a college dropout, Torrey is taking one class, and Garrett is trying to get into a university. Garrett is a young man; we are all young. He is trying to get into the University of California at Santa Cruz, but I believe he does not need any further schooling. Garrett has more insight into the workings of his own mind than a graduate student in psychology, precisely because the graduate student has too many theories propping up his few and feeble observations. Never once does this student think to examine his own emotions and reactions and see for himself whence they originate; he feels obligated to bring them before his professor and see what he thinks of them. And of course the professor feeds him his own pet theory in response. No, Garrett is not one of those types. He has come to know himself, not through a book, not through a professor, but through pain, through conflict, through violence, through love. A man such as he needs no school, unless it is a school in which he is the teacher and the rest of us students. He also has a great talent for letter-writing; I credit this to the thousands of email messages he has penned. He has also invented a new genre; he has given us the day as an art form, the account of his own day always replete with crackling observations into his own nature, always direct, always uncensored. Perhaps he is afraid of telling all, but he tells it anyway, unadorned and direct. He is only twenty-two, but do not let his age decieve you.

As I say, Watsonville was now in the past, and I watched out my window at the fields and hills rolling by, at the placid ocean invading this land. What beauty, what drama is the California coast! We got all the way to Monterey, and Garrett pulled the car to a stop just outside the city. Here was a beach he wanted to show us, a beach he had been at recently before. It was a state beach named "Carmel River". Since it was a pebble beach, an inlet of the Monterey Bay, and not a river, the name seems a bit obscure to me. We presented a familiar picture on this beach: Garrett took the lead down onto the beach, his gigantic orange welding gloves on his hands, his camera on his shoulder. (This camera, he had told me, was the only one he could trust to take photographs of the beach we were standing on.) Torrey was just ahead of me with her hands in her pockets, her burgundy sweater pulled around her. I trailed behind, overprepared as usual, with my brown striped sweater, dark lined flannel, warm gloves and leather hat.

When Garrett reached the shore he did the first thing he always does there: he scooped up a huge handful of matter from the receding wave and smelled it deeply. Torrey walked along, collecting interesting rocks and shells for her terrarium project, stowing them in my pockets. I did what I always do at such outings; I stood there, had conversation with the others, and enjoyed myself. Occasionally a philisophical thought came, unbidden, but these were not interesting. We walked along the shore towards one end of the beach. I watched the flies dance on the surface of the sand as I walked along, as Torrey and Garrett pursued their own, separate interests.

We had travelled at last all the way to the end of the beach, coming up against a large stone formation and a series of small tidepools. The formation consisted of a large wall of fine sediment, with larger stones that seemed cemented in place by some infinitely wise artist, who worked with stones, cliffs, moss, tidepools, the ocean, instead of words, paint, canvas. The effect of millions of years of erosion, salt wind and water, on that formation, was extraordinary. Pure chance and natural processes caused that miniature cliffside to look like that, beautiful and compact. The laws of nature, chance -- the signature of God? We explored the tidepools for a bit, but I had to go off to use the bathroom, so I let Torrey and Garrett continue exploring the wall's face.

When I returned from the bathroom the officals had so graciously erected, Torrey and Garrett were busy at the cliff's bottom, collecting rose quartz, shells, and other attractive items for the house. They stood when they saw me; they had decided it was time to get going. I turned in the direction they indicated, and when I turned, I noticed for the first time a lovely bouquet of salvias stuffed into the sand at the foot of the cliff wall, in an out-of-the-way corner. I pointed it out to the others.

"Yeah," said Torrey. "I noticed that. Somebody probably died." -- this last in a joking tone.

I didn't think much of the flowers at the time, but since then they have preyed on my mind. Perhaps it was the memorial of some pet which had died and was buried at that spot; perhaps somebody had been killed there and this was the survivor's way of marking time and love; perhaps it was some more obscure memorial, difficult to fathom, impossible to understand without asking the maker of the bouquet. These flowers, this dying memorial in the shifting sand; what were they for? Was it a memorial to ourselves, perhaps, the three of us on the beach, three dying testaments, buried in the protean sand? The sands of time are no stronger than its waters. The simplest creatures on that beach were bacteria, the most complicated were the various human beings, including us, a family or two, and some scuba divers. All of us had come there, under one guise or another, to view and appreciate the natural beauty of the world around us, a natural beauty which we usually shut out with our cities, machines and gadgets. And what were we, standing on the beach? Mortal humans, blessed and cursed with consciousness, the only creatures capable of seeing the beach as 'beautiful', slowly dying even as we breathed and ate our food in order to maintain ourselves to the inevitable end. Is this what the flowers tried to tell us? That they are a memorial given to humans in their prime? A fitting metaphor which rivals its subject for beauty; flowers in the sand, like humans in the cosmos: a dying memorial in shifting sands. Here, the flowers seemed to say, this is for you. And we must take them; we have no choice. We were brought forth by lust, by sex, the eternal sacrament, and we came here, children of the stars and galaxies, to the edge of the ocean, to recieve our memorial and go forth again. Perhaps this is the secret knowlegde which underlies all our trips to the beach and into nature, all our camping and hunting and canoeing; perhaps this knowledge drives us there: we must memorialize ourselves and disappear, we dead, burying the dead.

At bottom, the flowers tell us there is nothing to fear, that the memorial itself is beautiful and that death is also beautiful in itself, as well as the life which can appreciate it. Who knows, really, about the dead -- for all we know, the dead may have the keenest understanding of life, far keener than any we might possibly hope to obtain while alive. Nietzsche's reasoning was that we can never hope to understand life, because we are an interested party. We're too opaque to ourselves, too prone to imposing our hopes on the universe, too prone to seeing symbolism where none really exists. We are too ready to read meaning into a bouquet of flowers stuck into the sand. After all, it may well have been placed there on a whim, and is not what I thought it at all, this dying memorial to the living; impermanent and beautiful, and all the more poignant for that.

We drove as far south as Big Sur, which I had actually never seen before with my own eyes. I had only learned of it through the writings of others, men who had passed through the place long before my birth. And all this in spite of the fact that Big Sur is only a hundred miles south of my home.

We were just beginning our trip back; after a confused discussion over which route to take, we settled on a steep road up the side of one of the Santa Lucia mountains. We stopped for a few moments halfway up, just before sunset. We looked down the mountainside, along the browning hills to the Pacific ocean sloshing below. Torrey gathered a few plants for the house, Garrett took a photo of me standing by the fence on the cliff. We had a brief conversation, and then we all got back in the car and continued on our way. In the dying light I tried to write about what I saw and found I could not. I wrote a paragraph about my inability and left it at that. The mountains are too vast to be described adequately in a sentence or even a book. When I am in the midst of nature I find myself not only speechless but literally thought-less: the vast beauty of the cedar forest, the redwood tree, the Pacific Ocean, the mountain range -- these pre-empt any thoughts I have and leave in their wake a glorious lucid silence. What kind of a word is 'mountainside' to describe what I saw as the car worked its way up through the jagged switchbacks?

What was I thinking but all the flora and fauna, the landforms and the ocean flashing by my window in the backseat of Garrett's car? I was unable to write because none of the thoughts I had could be put into words. All the beauty of nature flashed by, and I stuttered and hesitated and formulated, but it was no use. These things can only be put into words when they are safely dead in the past.

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