Two interlinked thoughts about making meaning:
“It was the night flight from Houston.
Almost perfect visibility. You could see the lights from all the little Texas towns
And I was sitting next to a fifty-year old woman who had never been on a plane before.
And her son had sent her a ticket and said:
Mom, you’ve raised ten kids;
it’s time you got on a plane.
And she was sitting in a window seat staring out
and she kept talking about the Big Dipper
and that Little Dipper and pointing; and suddenly I realized that she thought we were in
looking down at the stars. And I said:
You know, I think those lights down there are the lights from little
Laurie Anderson, Night Flight From Houston
When I was studying glassworking in Rhode Island, I went to the beach when I needed to clear my head. It became an obsession one summer…the beach was near a bike path and a good distance outside of Providence, and sometimes I would just do that, but sometimes I would take the bus as close as I could, head out to the two-lane highway; and hitchhike the rest of the way.
Art school was rocking me hard that year. I had a crush that had bordered into an obsession that was falling dangerously apart, and I was feeling addicted and desperate. The program I was studying with focused continually on knocking us out of our comfort zones, and the approach to me at that time felt phony and unreal. I was lost in so many ways, and struggling with the work demands of the program had me exhausted and constantly questioning myself. I barely slept, hardly showered, smoked too much. I was a disaster.
And then I’d get to the beach, not to swim – it wasn’t that kind of beach, more a pebble beach that opened out onto Narragensett Bay, cold grey water, with a salt marsh you sort of had to walk through that always smelled foul, especially when the summer heat cooked it – but I would walk and pick up rocks and comb the beach looking for treasures and let some of my stress and sadness go. I guess I’d gone through my phase of mysticism at some point and abandoned it, but those walks, scanning the sand, were a kind of meditation. Maybe it was just the fresh air and the exercise and the getting out of the dust and intensity of the studio…but it always made me feel better.
So, one time I was there and honestly, one of the main reasons I went here was there was almost never anyone else that did…but this day, there was an older guy, normal looking and probably in his later sixties, beach combing right along with me. I had a headful of dirty dreadlocks and wooden beads and wasn’t taking real good care of myself at this time, smoking cigarettes in my ripped jeans, but for some reason I was usually pretty approachable for most people…especially out here at this property owned by my college, since I think most people just assumed, correctly, I was an art student and therefore fairly harmless.
I say he was normal looking. Well spoken enough too, and though definitely blue collar he was smart and educated and had a basket full of rocks too (so did I) so we got to talking. I showed him my rocks…There were these wonderful bits of shell that had been so perfectly eroded by the saltish water that the underlying structure was revealed, a lacey network of columns and threads of stone that looked liked the interior of bone, so delicate and wondrous, and that was what I was collecting…I think with some vague idea of making it in glass.
What HE was collecting, however, was so much better, and it all came down, in fact, not to what he was actually see but what he thought he was seeing.
“I consider myself an amateur archaeologist,” he told me, and went on to explain that he was sending samples of these “archaeological fragments” to all sorts of universities and anthropology programs because he had PROOF, unrefutable proof, that the Vikings had landed HERE. In Rhode Island. That there was a settlements and buildings and monuments and that basically where we were standing was as significant as Stonehenge or anywhere else…and that he would take me someday to show me a huge carved rock in the woods, covered in ancient runes and images.
I looked in his basket. “Archaelogical fragments?”
“Yeah…and none of the universities are answering my phone calls…but I document every fragment I find, I found a bunch today even. This is huge. This could blow the roof off everything we think we know about American history.”
I examined some of his fragments as we walked back through the woods to find his “ritual stone”. They looked like normal bits of rock to me. Colored a little, mottled where the salt had gotten to work on them revealing underlayers of stone in a kind of crude cameo process, but nothing special. He kept talking until we stopped at a completely unremarkable granite boulder.
“Do you see? Do you see how there’s a mark here that looks like…ok, stand here, see how the shadow, how it looks like a bearded man? Wearing a helmet? And this side…this looks like a kind of handwriting…” He kept talking as he circled the boulder, pointing out stains and discolorations and describing this incredible world to me. And the more he talked, the more it dawned on me…this guy wasn’t an amateur archaeologist. He was a guy who, when confronted with the incredible beauty and intricacy and variety he saw in these little stones, was unable to conceive that they had arrived there by natural forces. You know how you lay on your back and watch the clouds some days and make pictures? How some clouds can look like figures or faces or animals?
“…and this one” (he had the stones from his basket out now) “…is also some kind of warrior head, see…this one has more writing, part of a writing fragment, some kind of rune…”
I guess having an art background had taught me already that you can “see” all sorts of things in nature, and that the tendency to do so is a reflection usually of your subconscious mind, your eye trying to take the chaos of the world and make sense of it, organizing it into a narrative. It’s why you seek out images in clouds…I don’t think our brains are programmed to acknowledge and gloss over chaos, but prefer to superimpose some kind of order over it.
Can you imagine approaching the world that way? If every rock on the beach had a story to tell?
It was just beautiful. I told people about it later, and they said it sounded schitzophrenic, to find messages and conspiracies and meaning out of randomness. But he seemed so happy about it all, like the world had suddenly opened up and made sense to him. Every rock he picked up further confirmed this incredible alternate history he was writing in his head. He had literally created magic in his life, and it was the kind of magic he could confirm in a really tangible way, whenever he needed to, by simply picking up a stone…and looking for the picture. The warrior, hidden in a smudge of sienna brown on the uneven side of a salt-eroded pebble. A beautiful language, runes, in place of the quartz veins running through a chunk of granite, a language he couldn’t quite read, but was imagining being the epic tales of sea travels and ice and battles far away. And it was RIGHT HERE, right here in Barrington, RI, where he’d lived his whole life. It was the power of his belief, and that belief alone, that had taken these bits of rock and pebbles and nothing, and turned them into something noble and wondrous and incredible.
Belief is a powerful force.
I chose to not say any of this to him, that I didn’t think the stones were real artifacts – that in some ways, I thought they were much, MUCH better by virtue of his belief system -and instead just listened and nodded with wonder and for a little while I think I believed it all too.
Anyway. I put a 24-hour-only picture up here this week as a quiet announcement for those of you paying attention. <grin> Anyone catch it? I think I’ll write more about that announcement later in the week, Still holding it a little close right now…it’s a whole OTHER new magical reality and I will talk more about it soon. Promise.