Portraits of Life and Death While On The Road

A Portrait of An Artist As A Young Fool

When I feel as if I need a vacation from writing, I make certain to bring my laptop computer with me to the cheap motel room that I designate Command Central. So call me the obsessed fool that I am. I no longer own time for caring about the judgments people make regarding me (nor even about those judgments I make about myself).

For the past few days I’ve been on the road. Not at all the same road that Kerouac traveled, not this time; because I’ve been down that road before, and I witnessed there no more than dizzy desolation. I might yet die of the repercussions of that particular voyage.

No, no more of acts of self-destruction, not for me. This time round, instead, I searched for grandeur, for the splendid and exquisite tenderness that lives inside this paradise that I call home.

A Portrait Unaware of Prying Eyes

I watched pink flamingos preening, and I noticed that they never once looked back at me. True grace owns no sense of vanity. We human beings clean our feathers so that others might offer us compliments before we wrinkle up and die, while these gorgeous birds perform a similar act just so the gift of oil without perfume will keep them dry whenever heaven rains.

A Portrait of The Good Old Days
When Good Men Died On Rocky Shores

So popular nowadays for some to say that “The Good Old Days” are only myth. But I believe these pale philosophers of the present moment are lying to themselves, either that or they are young and inexperienced. Each man owns his own sense of a prettier past, memories in song and smell and mental photographs. Without my “Good Old Days” I’d feel bereft of tales to tell.

Lighthouses are, for me, one constant source of inspiration (that other so-called myth that a writer’s not supposed to await). While on this road trip, I watched one of my favorite beacons blinking. I walked inside the white-washed granite house and met the keeper who told me stories of shipwrecks and whale oil lamps. “This lighthouse was named for the pine trees that surround it,” he said. “You can walk upstairs and watch the lens if you please, or downstairs and watch a bit of history.”

I chose the downward spiral first.

A Portrait of  A Kitchen Called Home

And there I discovered the warmth of a lonely home, heated stove against the outdoor storm. Copper kettle. Fire burning wood to blackened bits of char inside the heart of Nature.

No labels warning man of the hazardous possibility of disease; he’ll die no matter how long or short his life on Earth.

No list of ingredients and calories. Instead, walk outside tomorrow morning, and there on God’s property butcher a lamb and milk a goat. Enter the outdoor shack and check the level of oil inside the tank. The year is 1855. Sailing ships still made of lumber depend upon your common sense of dignity and duty. These are qualities that no university degree is able to instill.

A Portrait of  A Modern Wilderness

I next traveled a short distance up the coastline, and there I found the backside of an ugly building that impinged upon my sense of what is right. A three-story, rectangular box made of concrete, glass and tired imagination. No artist designed this rude monstrosity. Yet, I told myself, someday someone will include his memory of this sharp-cornered prison inside his vision of “The Good Old Days.”

So frail is any man’s notion of art. So surrounded and contained by prejudiced experience. Bake a cake inside a concrete building, and the cake’s sweet aroma will supersede its concrete container.

A Portrait of  A Mimosa Memory

When I was a child I lived inside a paradise that I could not recognize as such. Too much violence and conflict interrupted my sense of vision. Back then and there we oftentimes tried to raise mimosa trees, bushes really, trimmed to form the basis for a trunk. Our attempts always failed beyond the tree’s age of adolescence. The soil thereabout was hard and so needed constant tilling. So close to shore were we, the tree and I, that if either one of us dug down more than three feet we’d reach saltwater as she flowed toward us from the ocean.
Inside the part of paradise where I, an older man, nowadays live, tall mimosa trees are plentiful. Tender shoots and twigs. Delicate, fanned leaves, soft if held close to a man’s cheek. Pink flowers that look a lot like feathers.
Saltwater is here close by, but so too is the fresh water that bubbles up from underground springs at the tops of hillsides, and then slides downward as she must, toward the bottom, ready there to feed mimosa roots their fair share of heaven’s nourishment.
I suppose that I’ve reached a certain level of maturity. I recall past, failed efforts; continue to persist and then celebrate each memory brought to fruition.
A Portrait of An Artist Who Destroyed Himself
Last evening I closed my laptop computer for a while. I began to re-read James Agee’s masterpiece, A Death In The Family. The first few times I read this book, enthralled though I felt by the poetry that made this man, I did not realize just how autobiographical was James’ story. Main characters: Father who drinks too much and who thinks even more. Son, six years old at the time of his father’s death; named Rufus (James Agee’s middle name).
For the longest while I’ve been a writer’s snob in that I insist that the best stories are built of poetic language. I yet believe my judgment to be true; and as I said before, I’m too old to give a copper coin’s worth of currency to an opposite opinion.
Still, whenever I begin to think too much of myself and of my own prose, I read a truer artist, an artist such as Agee was; and I feel humbled, almost to the point of suffocation.
Imagine this man. He owns so many gifts: handsome appearance, soft sensitivity, poetry for blood and a successful career as a journalist.
Yet he tortures himself and tries to dampen the pain with alcohol. Down the gullet. Straight burn. Ulcerate the hollow cavity within.
And so he dies while sitting inside a taxi cab. The last of a series of heart attacks kills him, just as cardiac arrest murdered his father, just as James wrote about Rufus’s dad.
Art imitating repetition.
Am I an artist of self-destruction?

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