by Tim Gilmore, 6/19/2012
Distinctions of light distinguish one place from another. He had lived in the Pacific Northwest and never understood why people said the rain made the region depressing. He rarely recalled the rain back home being the kind of rain that slashed down from the sky here. The rain back home was moody, temperamental, like listening to a lot of Zoe Keating or Paganini. Or like listening to a lot of the bands that came out of Portland and Seattle. That music never got him down. He lived in that music, in his ribcage, in his skull. It measured the way he walked through the world. He wasn’t in a hurry, and he felt things deeply. He also thought cooler colors more beautiful, more profound.
Though he had been moving toward it, only now did he come fully to the realization that he was a creature of his home landscape and that it was time to return. It had made sense not so long ago to move the furthest reach within the country to escape the books that filled his father’s house and the dark green gardens that cloyed the property all around it. The absence of his mother meant no interception of Oedipal competitions with his drizzly, cardigan-wearing, full-bearded, longsuffering but despondent failed jazz pianist of a father.
Florida was 2900 miles away. He had driven the distance and been astonished he could still even possibly be in the same country. Even overpopulated as it was in its coasts, the country’s vast interior emptinesses cut a new dimension in his understanding of the planet. He didn’t think culture or politics defined America when it could have such enormous and secret and lost distances within it. No American president or writer or movie producer could ever really know the truth of this continent.
And all the space he traversed he put between home / dad and the new life. Florida was the opposite of home. It was hot and bright. It was less literate and less artistic. It wasn’t a place for moody ponderings, but a place to throw yourself open to the brutal sun and wear little clothing and race loud cars. He’d made a deal with his dad and himself. He would go to college after all, if he could go to college in a place like Florida and focus more on girls playing volleyball than on girls playing moody music.
But he hadn’t accounted for the differences in the sunlight and he hadn’t realized how much an Ecotopian he’d always inherently been. After four years, he had become annoyed with the Confederate flags. Though the buildings at his university were LEED certified and a fair minority of hippies inhabited campus and recycled plastics and paper, the still relatively conservative campus seemed to him an island of environmental mindfulness in this town. Some surprises he could adjust to—he knew fewer Asian Americans and more black ones here and a lot of the Southern Christians were personally much nicer than he had expected, even if he thought their politics were mean-spirited.
But he found he missed the kind of rain you could walk through. The rain here was violent, accompanied by too much lightning, and it came down almost desperately, like bayonets instead of needles. He missed the way landscapes that curve always present you surprises and he missed the mountains. He missed the shade and hue of the sunlight. He missed all the bookstores, although he had fallen in love with the gargantuan Chamblin Book Mine on the other side of town here. He missed how people could be very friendly and non-religious at the same time, a combination he didn’t find often here. But on this particular day, the final factor was the sunlight.
He had apparently strayed from where he and some friends had camped beneath scrub oaks at beachfront Hanna Park, just outside the Navy base in Mayport. He understood some stretch of Alabama was referred to as the Redneck Riviera, but here in Jacksonville, people often gave Hanna Park the same distinction. If it was a distinction. But they’d had a great time last night, drinking Carlo Rossi red wine and telling bad campfire stories. How and why he woke up where he did this morning made no immediate sense to him, nor would it in later recollections.
He awoke, alone, on concrete pierced by ragged brambles. And the sun! The sunlight had baked him while he slept and he woke up on fire. He thought the sky held a clothing iron to his face, and even still the sky stayed so far away. He had been here four years, but he had a sudden recurrence of the realization of how much higher and simultaneously closer the sky and its sun were here than at home.
He looked up from the concrete onto which he had apparently sleepwalked and collapsed sometime in the middle of the night. A squat square building blinded him with its whiteness. Its windows were boarded up and its deck was surrounded by bright white PVC fencing. In the blinding light beneath the hot high sky it bore a broad red square cross. He could see the beach and bramble fall off from the building below, as the building perched on a rare small Jacksonville hill. However hungover, when he realized what it was, he thought it was abandoned, and these two apparent truths hit him with a personal metaphor.
He had wandered through briars in the sand late at night to fall finally onto the concrete deck of a shuddered lifeguard station. The cross was a Red Cross. The squat structure was a beacon of hope, but the beacon had been abandoned.
Later he looked online for images of and information about this lifeguard station and could never find it. He never went back to look for it. In retrospect, it seemed to be there physically, but only for him. It seemed to be there physically, but only psychologically. He had come 2900 miles and had enrolled himself into an educational program and four years later had found himself prostrate before a lifeguard station that had been boarded up and where no one could help him.
And the light. He had come to understand a counterintuitive thing about sunlight. He had grown up in soft light and a rainy climate that people from elsewhere said was depressing, and he had come to the land of light, the “Sunshine State,” and had found himself often depressed by the light. If he had never experienced it, he would never have understood it. Yes, the light would scorch you. No, the light was not yellow or amber or golden. Yes, the light was white. Bright white light. But even all of that was not enough. This light brought this heat. Not warmth. Heat that fried plants that throve in warm climates. Here was desert in a subtropical climate. It burnt you and burnt you and burnt you and flooded you with violent rains and seemed only suited to alligators and the uncountable insects. Had never seen so many insects or so many kinds. Didn’t know so many life forms could burgeon so fully in such brutality.
Forget all that though, the heat and the cockroaches and mosquitos. Distractions. This morning outside the empty lifeguard station, the sunlight cleared everything. It burnt away every other consideration. The sunlight burnt away everything but the sunlight.
Here is what Ian had learned. Sunlight could be depressing. The sunlight that beat him down, beat the boarded-up lifeguard station down, beat the whole town down—the sunlight flattened the people and the buildings and the plants. The sunlight wilted everything. The sunlight withered everything. The sunlight depressed everything.
The sunlight had a violent way of making bland these buildings, this vegetation, these people. It whited them out. It dulled them down. It washed them out.
He had never heard anyone say these things and only now understood he had thought them all along.
He pulled himself up to the bright white wall on the deck built on telephone pole pylons, and just then he remembered having walked on the beach in the middle of the night with some stranger with whom he had unaccountably converged and would never again find, even if he searched.
The man told him the light now in the middle of the night was the best light this land could boast, that the moonlight was bright here too, but the moonlight was not only bearable, but worth becoming nocturnal for. Not that this man, whose name was Herman, was planning to be here long. He never stayed anywhere long. He was from Chicago, but he had wandered from Los Angeles to Atlantic City and from Manitoba to Mexico City, all without obtaining a passport. He knew very few things, but he knew those things. Most people did not know the things they thought they knew. Herman picked a shell up from the tide in the nocturnal light and said, “I’m supposed to give this to you.”
Somehow that act of giving brought many things together—his running away from his father, the death of his mother, his inability to let himself love, his sad inability to believe in anything. He knew it didn’t make sense, but it occurred in this particular moment in which it didn’t have to make sense.
Herman said, “I don’t know you, but I know this one thing about you. You have to grow in the direction of you. Anyone can grow away from their own growth. I was supposed to give you this seashell. I know it sounds crazy, but it bears a pattern. And that pattern formed in the deep over long periods and the seashell don’t know anything about it. But you can know something about your own growth. You have to go toward yourself. Go and grow. Grow toward you, and into you, and up through you into something new that’s you.”
Or at least he later thought that’s what Herman had said. He couldn’t picture the man at all, but thought he was 50 or 60 years old. He was sure he had walked on the beach with somebody and that somebody had given him a seashell.
Someone had unbuttoned his shirt. Someone had drawn a charm in red across his skinny chest. An upside-down triangle.
A B R A C A D A B R A
A B R A C A D A B R
A B R A C A D A B
A B R A C A D A
A B R A C A D
A B R A C A
A B R A C
A B R A
A B R
He had an ordinary seashell in his jeans pocket. By the side of the empty lifeguard station, he looked up at some kind of communications tower that pointed to the sky. He wished lightning would strike it and that he could grab it that same moment. He wished he might be electrocuted into being alive. Abracadabra. But there was nothing, nothing but the nihilism of the bright, white, burning sunlight that fried the sky. And the seashell in his pocket.