Grand Junction

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I’m racing against time; everyone is. I will not win; no one will. I recognize this struggle; many do not. When recognized, more can be done: remember and record.

It is hard to fathom, but sometimes I have nothing to say and don’t even try to speak: nothng is going on in my head. And then – WHAM! – out of the blue something crosses my path and there is a avalanche of recollections and new connections. It’s peculiar and sort of amazing how the train gets rolling from there.

This time the initial WHAM started with an article in The New Yorker about water problems in the western United States. A segment of the story produced a vivid recollection of a travel experience I had twenty years ago. [1] I had also been thinking about the derailment of an Amtrak train from Washington, D.C., outside of Philadelphia, another rail trip I had taken and my son takes periodically. [2]

When not at a stand still, or busy with a day’s practical matters, I am sucked into the vortex of past or future.

As with practically anyone’s vacation, I go about family travel just taking in what comes along, and then – WHAM! – I am completely euphoric: the moment seems monumental, significant, glorious. And it is all neither required nor expected. I confess that a single glass of red wine near sunset tends to magnify, prolong, and vaporize these revelations.

That is what happened outside of Grand Junction one June evening in 1995, as my wife and son and I sat down in the dining car on Amtrak’s California Zephyr.

FOOTNOTE:

1. David Owen’s article “Where the River Runs Dry” in The New Yorker on May 25, 2015.

Owen’s describes the Colorado’s headwaters:

“If you drive west on Interstate 70 from Denver, you pick up the Colorado at Dotsero, about a hundred miles east of the Utah border, and follow it west through canyons so deep and narrow that some stretches are engineered like double-decker bridges: one lane on top of the other. The railroad goes that way, too, on the opposite bank. Tunnels punch through buttresses of rock that the road builders couldn’t go around, and there are sections where the view above is so transfixing that you have to remind yourself to look back at the road….”

2. Wikipedia, “2015 Philadelphia train derailment”; URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2015_Philadelphia_train_derailment (Updated: September 6, 2015).

3. Three days after publishing this story, I heard this on NPR’s Morning Edition about Amtrak’s Southwest Chief. Kirk Siegler’s report is entitled “Las Vegas, N.M., Needs Amtrak To Help It Draw More Tourists”; URL: http://www.npr.org/2015/09/17/441063247/las-vegas-n-m-needs-amtrak-to-help-it-become-a-bigger-tourist-destination (September 17, 2015).

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Painting A Way

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The piece associated with this introduction was not written as a story or article. It is a how-to letter to a friend. But I find it very interesting and share-worthy. I asked Gail if I could put it in TennesseeSoul and she relented.

The aim of TennesseeSoul, or one of the main aims, is to share the ordinary about a small community of people who try their best to survive by keeping productive and endeavoring to discover new things about their world on a daily basis. It is not intended to be showy or prissy professional in the top-drawer sense favored by snobs and academics.

When I read this letter, I wanted to paint. Gail makes it seem very doable. She makes painting a way of life.

I completely revolt against anyone telling anyone else they should not pursue a process that may make them happy, especially when that activity is harmless and more than likely will enrich the practitioner and, perhaps, an audience, no matter how small.

I want my epitaph to read: “TennesseeSoul: He tried.” Some wiseacres quip that life is eighty percent showing up. It’s not quite as easy as that; if it is, get a life. I believe life is at least half trying for even a mediocre existence in sustainable harmony with our world. And mediocre life is pretty good life indeed when you look around at many of the alternatives.

Gail’s simple letter about painting is about far more than painting. The act of painting leads a way to discovery and sustained harmony.

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Still Life

Our widowed friend paints life still:

each object vibrates color;

vessels brim with promise past,

with memories vaguely shaken.


Repeating acts for themselves,

sublime grasp of the moment,

each stroke observes one forward step,

one backward glance forsaken.


Still life is breath, no less,

when human hands and eyes behold

what minds and hearts embrace,

what sharing lives awaken.

Little Shops of Honor

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In former days, these hands of mine did more than blindly stagger around a computer keyboard. They were nimble – as comfortable with a straight-razor blade or a thin paint brush as with an electric drill or a table saw. Duties done, they will be free to come alive again in that heavenly retreat of retirement, making things not to have fine things but for the exhilaration and finality of touch and fabrication.

When I retire to my little shop of honor, I will not miss the formal, well-paid, self-important work. The troubleshooting, the problem-solving, the deal-brokering, the puzzle-working, the dot-connecting, the creating something from nothing, the adapting old into something new – all will still be with me. It was with me before I started my belated career of twenty-two years; it will continue to be there in the company of my family and neighbors and singing birds.

When I retire to my little shop of honor, I want to invent, or share in the invention of, one more creation, one more thing to be proud of. I am confident that there is one more way out there to reinvent myself and to make my modest shop a source of simple, ephemeral pleasure.

Millions of little shops of honor can achieve similar goals by simply pursuing the activities that they most enjoy with practiced skill – risking loss, and letting others marvel at their dedication and product.

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Born Again

With some frequency, I have mentioned that I once returned to college many years after leaving it. I never deliberately dropped out: eventually, after more than four years of hard study there, I was excreted.

The first time I left, though, I was propelled from college. Something was happening to me which I did not understand. Friendships were dissolving, personalities were shape-shifting, my body was bloating, the world was gnawing. And it was spring. But more significantly, I had hit a wall. I enrolled in a course on Renaissance Europe at Memphis State University. I had taken four very good required survey history courses prior to this particular course but had mainly taken courses in business and psychology. More inclined toward the latter – and seeing the former, based in no small part on the other people pursuing it, as a misfit for my temperament, principles, and evolving interests – I sought out new study paths late in my junior year.

The readings for the Renaissance course were complex and overwhelming on many levels. Though my professor was a spellbinding storyteller, I felt lost in material that I could neither digest nor piece together. I was captivated by images and tales of men and women who made my own life seem under-lived and completely uninteresting; I encountered ideas that made those surrounding me and my time appear clearly insufficient. Yet, I felt the time speak to me – call to me. Having read and attended with all my ability, I went to my professor and told him of my decision to withdraw from school. I told him that I would risk all, even risk being drafted for duty in Vietnam, to see the world and find my place in it. This man, who seemed to hold the world in his large hands, his imposing stature, and his deep, authoritative voice – a true believer in the power and fundamental necessity of education – did not attempt to dissuade me. He was genuinely supportive of the reasoning upon which I based my move outward.

I will be honest. I left school in pursuit of craft. The very word loomed noble and superior to bland consumption. Emphatically, I did not leave for humanism. I never would have dreamed that humanism could, through the twisted witchcraft of modern-day religion, be cast in popular American culture as the most wicked scourge ever to plague mankind. I was humanism through and through. I did not need to pursue it. And there was nothing that could drive it from me. It was the grand gift that had seeped into my pores from the moment that I was born. It was the alpha and omega of my education. It was the beginning and sustenance of my values. And nothing solidified humanism’s hold on me like the benevolent Protestant upbringing in my household that surrounded me since birth. To me, Jesus was humanism writ large. He would not stand so pervasively and personally approachable without the ideals, contributions, and sacrifices of humanism, and humanism would not thrive without the model and teachings of Jesus.

Consistent with my practice of posting manuscripts related to the Middle Ages, I have attached essays pertaining to my exploration of the Renaissance.

The mighty figures and events of the Renaissance would mock our petty conceits. And we justly deride many of theirs. But we easily see ourselves among them. We find their assumptions familiar. Their excesses are recognizably human in our eyes.

The Renaissance in History
Lawyers and Statecraft
Michelangelo
Letter About Machiavelli’s The Prince
Review of Renaissance Letters

(Refer to the key offered in the previous post on dooms to view these learning journals. Read them or ignore them at will.)

End of the Middle

Although we all think we know what differentiates dark from light, there are gradations across the middle that confound easy dismissal and categorization. Such questions hardly matter to most people nowadays, but they are the most fascinating questions to me. They are rich and complex, without definitive answers.

The more I studied, the more the questions. I thought that I studied for answers, but answers aren’t the half of it.

I can gaze out of my study window at a steep hill of green trees, or at the backs of my eyelids into black in the very early morning, and I see another version of our world, another time. It is just as alive as the day by day one in town or country.

Such experiences are not things of common social status and honorifics. They are not the source of livelihood and wealth. They are an internal eternity that can only be separated or ended by neglect, illness, injury, or death.

I have linked a number of manuscripts that I assembled while doing my most intensive study of history. I offer them not as examples of outstanding scholarship or creativity or party conversation, but as a record of the pageant that has been gifted to me by my life of observing, being taught, and questioning.

The complexity of the Middles Ages, and economic necessity, brought me back to studies in 1988 and riveted the focus of my mind. The Middle Ages are our alternate reality. The essence of the age is what we get if we are very very foolish or very imaginative. They are the default that hangs in air; they are the ways embedded in our DNA. They wait for awakening.

No more need be said. This is the end of the middle.

Delineating the Middle Ages

Evolution of English Law

Mediaeval Knights

Gothic Architecture

(Refer to the key offered in the previous post to view these essays. Pick any paragraph to start with and see where it takes you.)

Odd Man Out

When you travel, particularly if you take photographs and take note of the people and places you visit, it is easy to see your relationship with foreign places and people as being one where you are on the outside looking in. That is not necessarily the whole truth about the nature and consequences of the transaction.

Although I spent many weeks traveling in Central America in 1973 – and with a companion who also carried a valuable camera – there is not a single photograph of me among those remaining from the journey. (There might have been a couple taken, but my companion lost his complete film record from atop a Volkswagen Beetle during a move within a year of returning to Memphis.)

I certainly took no self-portraits, nor did I ask a local inhabitant or a fellow traveler to take a photograph of me standing before an important cultural site. (I wish I had asked.) Therefore, initially, I viewed myself as being on the outside looking in on a culture, observing differences that were supposed to be foreign to me, but never viewing myself as part of the picture.

In time, however, in a slowly revelatory way reminiscent of the movie Blowup, when I enlarged and studied the people frozen in my photographs, I began to see that my subjects were observing me, too. In fact, in a deeply reflective exercise, I saw that I was observing myself, along with my hosts, through the act of photography. Going further in this exercise, in terms of both my photographs and my notes, I came to see the trip as a flushing and fleshing out of identity – a transformative journey made by watching myself in a foreign context, where the context, even if at times a caustic compound of heat, grime, privation, isolation, exoticism, and tedium, was both a stimulate and a healing aid toward a path of personal resolution.

The details of that resolution are grainy now as then, but the process and conclusions are clearer. A photographic image of ourselves in distant places offers little insight, though it can be a pleasure and a mile post to others who know us. The impression that we project and recall, at home and abroad, in our commerce with matters foreign is the souvenir that gives and endures.

I see nothing in my old photographs that render my image as a traveler as intrusive or unwelcome, as beggarly or greedy, as uninterested or mean. By traveling, I took a part of my culture to my hosts and they pointed me home again by being themselves, uninhibited and unthreatened by my presence.

The ancient Greeks had it down to a tittle: our duty as hosts and sojourners, at home and abroad, is kindness to strangers from afar who are on the road with us. As visitors, we owe it to pay our way by sharing, demanding little, and leaving a small footprint – and by fair observation, remembrance, and gratitude.

When we notice an immigrant – if indeed we are privileged to do so – we tend to see an outsider looking in. But the immigrant is a conduit for our seeing a foreign culture, for our seeing potential for ourselves. We are then on the inside looking out along with the visitor – or we should be, if we intend to reap full advantage of our being graced by a visitor who wants to be part of us – who wants to learn and mimic our ways while among us.

The odd man out, then, is not the man who is left out of the picture. He is the man who neglects the essentials of his own survival by failing to behold the foreign, by failing to wisely seize and invest impressions of a predictably surprising world full of shooting stars and common wonders.

My photographs, journals, and musings from this travel are an open door on a perplexing, perilous, marvelous, and vulnerable world. Despite its plainness, it is a view of ceaseless bewilderment in the presence of bountiful variety and inevitable similarity.

The foreign is among us constantly. We stand unfulfilled if we do not embrace it as our own while allowing it to be foreign and itself. Foreign to none, all is foreign. Foreign to much, much is freshly familiar – the necessary spur to our ascent.

Blurry Pictures

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Somewhat like the ground around my house covered by fallen leaves, I am blanketed by flawed pages from times past. Each leaf is a beautiful object and lively memory that others confuse with debris.

Pity the soul who cannot recall and re-examine, laugh at and draw lessons from, experiences of his prime. The young cannot fathom how much the twenty-three-year-old inhabits the body of the sixty-three-year-old. The near-elderly in their sixties can hardly conceive of the young girl yet dancing in the head of the octogenarian.

Blurry pictures are true pictures of life in midair.

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Raising Ruins

Patterns from a Rooftop: Chapter 5

Hovering over a pool of one’s bright red blood, in the dead of night, gives one pause. Freshly oxygenated blood from the lungs is a strangely beautiful sight – and a surreal experience. But it does focus the mind on fundamentals.

When I undertook extensive foreign travel as a young man, I did not know what I was looking for. But most assuredly, I was seeking something. My long journey came on the heels of shocking personal experiences related to health, giving rise to legitimate questions about my prospects for the future. Essentially, I was looking for an acceptable direction for my life, having given up on the path of more education in exchange for an open search elsewhere in more Romantic climes.

In Guatemala, in late spring of 1973, I discovered a path home. In fact, the discovery was home. What started in Europe and wound a circuitous, uneasy route through Mexico and Belize, started to emerge as an answer in the jungle of Tikal. The vision was crystallized at Lake Atitlan, and decisive action was begun while sitting on a bench in the middle of the afternoon in Antigua.

Suddenly, there the answer was before my mind’s eye. Like most revelations, it had been there in front of my face all along, but I had failed to see it in all its glory and detail. I think that observing the daily lives of the Mayans of Guatemala helped guide my way.

Tennessee beckoned as it never had before. A person dominated my thoughts who had not been quite so prominent before. All the pieces of the puzzle were visible. But it would take two more years to see if and how they might fit together.

NOTE: I have not repeated the overview of how TennesseeSoul works with TennesseeSoul Mate since the latter’s inception. It might be worth repeating now, as I sense there may be some misunderstanding. TennesseeSoul Mate is the jumping off place for long-time readers of TennesseeSoul. I send out a link to an introduction and at the end of the introduction is a link to an entirely different website where the full story might be found. In the story, there is a link to the introduction, referred to as the Preface, which returns one to TennesseeSoul Mate. At any time, readers (intrepid, friendly explorers really) can view a table of contents for all the stories ever published in TennesseeSoul by clicking on the TennesseeSoul logo on homepage of the main website (TennesseeSoul.com) or the heading Archives on the left sidebar of all other pages. I hope the explanation is not more confusing. It is truly a web and everything goes around, over and through – and eventually connects.

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Start the full journey here for the series Patterns from a Rooftop.

Party Crashing a Mission Town
Patterns from a Rooftop: Chapter 1
Read it here.
Preface & Reader Response

Resurrecting Small
Patterns from a Rooftop: Chapter 2
Read it here.
Preface & Reader Response

Drawn to Scale
Patterns from a Rooftop: Chapter 3
Read it here.
Preface & Reader Response

On the Lip of Languor
Patterns from a Rooftop: Chapter 4
Read it here.
Preface & Reader Response

Raising Ruins
Patterns from a Rooftop: Chapter 5
Read it here.
Preface & Reader Response

Epiphany at Atitlan
Patterns from a Rooftop: Chapter 6
Read it here.
Preface & Reader Response

Wheels Up, Trujillo
Patterns from a Rooftop: Chapter 7
Read it here.
Preface & Reader Response

Painting Eyes

I vividly recall the moment, at twenty-one years of age, when the fire in my belly was finally lit. I was living on Watauga Avenue in a duplex near Memphis State University. Three of my closest college friends, including the young woman who would become my wife four years later, had left Memphis after graduation to work abroad in England on an archaeological dig in Winchester. I was left entirely to my own devices.

The world of art fascinated me but seemed too remote from the life that I lived. I knew little about drawing and painting, but I had become interested in them due to reading history, casual encounters in conversations with friends and a college mentor, photographs in books, and a course in art history that I took late in my college career.

One lonely night, I picked up a pencil and a drawing pad and proceeded to draw a copy of Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque. I completed the drawing that night. I was utterly astounded by the grayscale textures that I had produced in translation of the richly colored original. I marveled at the optical illusions that could issue from a simple pencil applied in various ways to a white sheet of paper.

From that spark, I went from thinking that I could do nothing well to believing that I could do anything. Pencil drawing proved not to be as enticing as painting, but the embers of one night and a singular experience with the odalisque, fueled my determination to go farther.

The more I looked at that drawing over the years, the more distorted and unnatural it looked. My confidence in my achievement eroded as the being that I drew seemed contorted in an impossible position, having body parts in ridiculous places. The size of the head in relation to the long body and big butt made my odalisque look more like an invented animal hybrid than an inviting young concubine.

Only in writing this introduction, and looking up the spelling of the original painting’s name, did I look again at the painting on Wikipedia. I had no idea all of those years that Ingres had been roundly criticized about the exotic distortions that he had imposed on the poor odalisque’s torso. Her fanciful anatomy, further exaggerated by my copy, had been a deliberate enhancement by Ingres.

What had Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres done in 1814 to open the newborn painting eyes of an eager young novice on Watauga Avenue in 1971? He had employed his own painting eyes to express the world of his own day in the full light and color of his own mind – with no intention whatsoever of replicating reality.

Read it here.