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  • Writer's pictureZachary Desmond

#5 of 18: ODES TO GNATS

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

// IMAGINARY ATLAS //

March 7, 2023

Vol 1, Issue 5


Hi good people!


It’s been a big couple months, thanks for waiting. I won’t ask anyone to hold their breath but I am already writing the next installment to start chipping away at the backlog. We ought to be up to Issue #7 by April.


At some point in the last couple issues we took a turn away from scattershot digest and leapt into episodic memoir. We’re continuing where we left off from January’s Pilgrimage piece (PART I right here if you need a refresher).


Thanks as always to everyone reading--I love your reflections when you send them--and welcome newcomers to my Imaginary Atlas, a project I began in September when I started receiving $1,000 a month in no-strings-attached grant funding to simply “be an artist!” You are reading installment 5 out of an eventual 18, one for each month until the grant expires. You can read more about the project and other rites of mischief in the catalog below:



And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming.


Pilgrimage

The Procrastinator’s Guide to Writing Efficiently



PART II


I implore you… to submit to your own myths.

Any postponement in doing so is a lie.

~ William Carlos Williams, Paterson



Chapter 12

I am in New Mexico again. “The Land of Enchantment” on state license plates. “The Land of Entrapment” to those who know. It’s 2013, a summer of extreme drought. Pillars of smoke crown the Tres Lagunas and Thompson Ridge by early June. Two months later, I am huddled against a hot brown rock overlooking the Rio Grande gorge. The Taos Plateau is behind and beneath me, an alluvial cap of basalt resting atop one of the most geologically dynamic rifts in North America’s upper crust.

I have not eaten because I am here to talk to God about writing. On the first day, I scramble down four hundred feet to the bottom of the canyon and sun myself on a polished basalt boulder. The river is low and slow and reminds me to conserve my energy. On the second day, I quadruple-fold my grommeted tent tarp in the shade of the gnarled old juniper and sit on it cross-legged, bored enough to meditate. I blanket my hands and ankles but the gnats have free range of my face, persistent and bothersome as thoughts. On the third day, there is thunder and lightning, and rain that sends spiders springing from their hovels. I ask God if I get to be a writer. The Thunder whispers, Yes, go for it, in so many words. What are you asking me for? There are no promises.

Ten years later and 380 miles south, the abyssal entrance to Carlsbad Caverns falls in on itself, entombing Addie, Jurgen, Shira and five other characters in a play called Troglobites. They are earnest and seeking and not to be blamed. They talk to God. The Cave talks back.


Chapter 13

Some winters, thick plates of ice crush and groan against each other where the Hudson River crashes into Riverbank State Park, a smelly concrete promontory jutting brusquely into the estuary at 145th and Riverside. No ice to speak of this year but I remember vividly the children sledding full speed into hay bales; adults building dozens of snowmen onto park benches; kicking pucks of ice for miles between 189th and 65th street. This was once the long way to Juilliard, a respite from public transit when I had the time, when I needed space to frack up all the clenched, acrid desires with loud tears and hot breath.

Somewhere, between one-third and halfway through my pilgrimage to Battery Park City, there is a long silence. No more self.

Then some thoughts.

The worst things you’ve ever done, popping up through cracks in the pavement, but they’re not you. They’re just weeds and you step right over.

You are struck by the import of feet. A pedagogy of feet occurs to you, an acting school (!) centered entirely on this meeting place of self and earth. How your feet meet the ground determines everything… Suzuki did it.

You are half past midtown and the sun has gone down. On a billboard above the BMW dealership, Jennifer Lawrence sells luxury watches, a brand you don’t recognize. Yep. You gotta look ageless to sell Time, you think. You find this pithy and clever, and you write it down, wondering how old she is now, and how Hollywood stars can’t age because we don’t want to be reminded that Time is passing.

You write a lot of things down, actually, and you admit that this is why. To keep Time. You hope that writing things down, especially over years, proves that there was a difference, a difference between November and December, between the winter when the kids sledded into hay bales and this winter, mild and bare. This record of distinction is a ballast against sameness, proof that it didn’t all pass in a single, uniform chunk called “the past.” The ice broke into floes, each its own shape and texture, and they gouged and molested and affected each other in their untidy procession toward the sea. Your notes are evidence that you were here and you encountered a particular world on a particular day; this place again, today again, but different.


Chapter 14

Half an hour after sunset, Roger and I haul our sore, humbled butts from the cockpits of our kayaks. This little strand of beach on Fox Island is Ithaka and we fall into the waiting arms of our Penelopes, then immediately from them, every exposed inch of skin red and screaming. We take needlesome lukewarm showers and delicately abrade ourselves dry with scabrous beach towels commemorating the 2003 North Olympic Discovery Half-Marathon.

We choke down some Tofurky burgers, greet Ellen and Reena’s parents as heroically as we are able, and retreat downstairs. Ellen and Reena have transformed the basement into an early teen, co-ed dreamscape but Roger and I can barely lie down. Slathered in aloe and leaning gingerly against the foot of the couch, I watch a blue-streaked betta fish named Homer nibble fruitlessly at pink pebbles beneath an underwater castle as the French version of The Incredibles plays on the widescreen. Toute une famille de supers? Quel Jackpot!

When we turn out the lights, the fish tank glows blue-green and the overheated blood in my head drums heavily against the pillow. Reena feigns sleep on the couch above me, parallel with my sleeping bag. Eyes closed, her hand reaches out into the blue and her fingers find their way to my scalp, blessedly unburnt. I freeze, pounding headache forgotten as Reena, demi-goddess and major crush since tweendom, twirls curly circles in my hair. Under the bubble-hum of the water filter, I shift ever so quietly onto my side, sunburn be damned. I find her fingers with my own and trace a gentle course along the back of her hand, across her wrist, up the underside of her forearm, all the way to her shoulder on the couch’s edge…and then back, slowly, along her underarm all the way to her fingertips, which now caress the outline of my ear. She scoots herself to the lip of the couch. Balancing on the precipice, she drapes her arm carefully over my swollen, pink chest. I trace the underarm path again, feather-light, circling back to graze the creases of her palms, the tan lines left by hair ties around her wrist, the fluffy blond tract of nearly imperceptible hair that tapers out around her elbow and the smooth supple warmth approaching her armpit. Reaching as far as I can without rustling my sleeping bag, I nose my fingertips ever-so-gingerly beneath the hem of her tee-shirt sleeve, across the shallow basin spanning shoulder joint to clavicle, over a plain satin bra strap, and along the ridge of her collar bone, where I wait. I can feel Reena’s heart beating against her breastbone. Breaths held, she leans out as far as she dare, retracts her arm all the way back into her shirt, peels the plain satin bra strap off her shoulder and, without even a cursory glance to her sister snoring on the opposite couch, she finds my fingertips again, and guides my hand into her open tee-shirt sleeve.

Homer, the blue-streaked betta fish, watches us from the garrison of his purple castle, a real lech.


Chapter 15


Today is play. This morning anyway.

Naked

feeling my body on rocks.

Listening to trees and rocks and water and wind.

They all have so much to say,

I don’t have enough time!

I have now.

Butterflies, lizards, fish, hummingbirds

--what if my spirit animal is a butterfly--

other flies too.


My heart is afire.

Asking for a split open chest,

the heart of the universe

to live, play, and sorrow in mine.


-- Vision Quest notes, New Mexico, August 2013


Chapter 16

Thirty minutes north of Mexican Hat, Utah, the Moki Dugway turns into a series of unpaved switchbacks that rise 1,000 feet up the Colorado Plateau before veering left to Muley Point, where the horizon is nothing but blue desert sky, the San Juan River canyon, and the long shadows of Monument Valley between them.


Chapter 17

A few lakes south of the Canadian border and several cold October nights west of Ely, Minnesota, Tom and I paddle heartily against a stalwart southwesterly wind whipping up white caps on Lake Agnes, dragging us back to the mouth of Moose River, erasing half a day of progress as the sudden squall swallows up our last hour of good light.


Chapter 18

In Spanish Point, a village 40 minutes south of Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher, a Danish barista named Hannah introduces me to an Irish physiotherapist named Spanish Point Joe who tells me he’s just come back from a convention for psychedelic shamanism and to feel free to lay down whenever I’m ready.


Chapter 19

Either I am here to dance the Hunter’s moon to sleep and fast alone for four days beneath a tower of sandstone;

Or I am here to cross the Boundary Waters and bless my great vocational leap into the unknown with sweat lodges, frozen knuckles and poems by Rilke;

Or I am here because my knee seized up halfway through a five-week hike along the Atlantic coast and I can’t walk.

Regardless, I keep coming back here: to the cliffs above the canyon. The islands of the boundary waters. The therapeutic massage studios of Irish eccentrics.

The Road of Pilgrimage.


Chapter 20

In January 1989, Steven Foster published a revised edition of The Book of the Vision Quest with his wife and writing partner Meredith Little. Chapter 3 opens with the following description of late ‘80s Marin County, California, “... the suburban ‘paradise’ at the northern end of the Golden Gate…


“Behind the closed doors of this respectable community lurk loneliness and desperation. Behind the symbolic affluence and easy living there rages a hunger that cannot be filled. Teenagers cruise the streets… acting out their parents’ restless search for fulfillment and meaning.”


Ten months later, in that very suburban paradise, twenty-six minutes before Game 3 of the 1989 World Series was set to begin in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, I experienced my first earthquake, in utero, acting out my parents’ fruitless search for embryonic homeostasis.

It was the deadliest earthquake to hit the Bay Area since 1906, when a magnitude 7.9 quake caused a tsunami, ignited an interurban conflagration, killed 3,000 people, and annihilated San Francisco’s city center. Rebecca Solnit, contemporary writer (and fellow survivor of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake heyyyy), speaks [in this interview] about the founder of The Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day, watching the disaster from across the Bay in Oakland as an 8-year-old:


“[This event] is [Day’s] formative experience. And she observes, yes, people fall apart in disaster, but also there’s this falling together that we don’t chronicle. While the disaster lasted, people loved one another. She saw that people were capable of this, that all along, they knew how to do this, [how] to take care of each other… And she asked, “Why can’t we live this way all the time?”


Chapter 21


Asking for the courage and humility and guidance

to let go of everything between my heart

and the heart of god.

Something of me must die out here,

must be left behind.


I keep thinking prospectively about what I’ll write,

what tomorrow is going to be like.

But there isn’t tomorrow.

I have always crouched on this rock in the sun.

Walking on the rocks with bare feet after a swim,

I feel like a baby!

I only have three days out here.

Swatting gnats,

picking my scabs,

I’ve excavated many of the pebbles from between my feet.

It’s been maybe 6 hours.

I’m already exceedingly bored.


-- Vision Quest notes, New Mexico, August 2013


Chapter 22

I am feeling hopeless now, just south of Chelsea Piers. A hoary old eel thrashes painfully under my right kneepit and wriggles all the way down into my heel. Once I pass W 10th the numbered streets disappear, taking with them the inevitable countdown toward my goal and leaving me to an interminable parade of Christophers and Warrens and Leroys.

Four hundred years ago, before the Dutch built a wall along the northern perimeter of New Amsterdam (eventually “Wall Street”) to keep out the British and the indigenous Lenni Lenape and Munsee-speaking Wappingers, the primary trade route south over the length of Manahatta was Wickquagseck, later Brede Weg, and later still Broadway. Traversing the island along the water as I’ve done would’ve been silly, nigh impossible.

Limping past Stuyvesant High School and the new World Trade Center, I wonder why contemporary humans are so comforted by the wisdom of antiquity, the “prehistoric” oral traditions and spiritual practices of indigenous peoples all over the world; the holy books and theatrical pageants of ancient religious institutions; the “classics” that inspired the Enlightenment period in Europe and swept the globe in the form of Western liberalism, settler-colonialism, and capitalism; the poetry of mystics and all their peripatetic descendants: bards, raconteurs, rappers, and rockstars. In a moment of eel-shaped certainty, the brightly lit Statue of Liberty finally heralds the end of my walk, and I know that we turn to them for comfort, hold fastly to their legs, because life is not very long and there is way more to know than we could possibly find time to learn.


Chapter 23

On the fates of the Marin County bourgeoisie in the latter 1980s, from Chapter 3 of Steven Foster and Meredith Little’s Book of the Vision Quest:

The children [of Marin County] grow up in a protected, superficially pleasant environment. They become adolescent and are caught between childhood and adulthood in a long holding pattern until, as if by magic, they become adult at the age of twenty-one. As adults they enter the ranks of the working people. They find a job, a niche somewhere; they fall in and out of love and divert themselves in a variety of ways from the daily bumper-to-bumper commuting, the rising costs of living, the horrors of the newspapers. They marry or cohabitate; they do or do not bear children; they do or do not buy a hot tub or participate in the human potential movement. They separate or divorce or grow older, into the rocky transitions of middle age, and wake up one morning to the fact that there are wrinkles on their bodies that cannot be erased by rolfing, a sauna, a new haircut, a spray tan or a pill. They wonder what their life has amounted to. They think about going somewhere else. They become grandparents, join the “seniors,” retire, find themselves in a rest home. Many of them retain much of their youthful vigor and are wise, but they are largely ignored by the rest of the community. Many of them become very lonely. They do or do not prepare themselves for death. They die.


Chapter 23

During the aforementioned 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, a section of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge’s upper deck tore itself from its bolting and fell onto the lower deck. In Oakland, over a mile of Interstate 880 known as the Cypress Viaduct completely collapsed. It was the height of rush hour, but only sixty people were killed because the freeways were nearly empty. That year’s World Series was between the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants, both Bay Area teams, so an enormous number of would-be commuters were already tucked away into bars, homes, and Candlestick Park awaiting the first pitch.

My dad suggests that this is proof of baseball’s cosmic import.

My mom tells me that the apartment shook so hard that cupboards opened and launched glassware onto the kitchen floor. She had moved there less than a month before, just married, and knew no one. The phone lines were down. When the TV eventually came back on, it showed only wreckage. She had no way to contact my dad, no way to confirm that he wasn’t one of those lost beneath brick or concrete. She put her hand on her belly and said, “It’s okay baby.” She swept up the glass, looked out the window and waited for him to come home.


Chapter 24


I have been here for one and a half days.

It feels like an eternity.


Had some wind,

Which gave me time for I-Chuan without gnats.


I felt the power of Mother Earth in my legs.

Healed my body with flowing chi.

It was impossible to hold it.


Elated, on the second evening,

to see the cloud so bright,

throwing shadows.


I feel better than I did when I began.

Nourished and full of energy.


-- Vision Quest notes, New Mexico, August 2013


Chapter 25

In her book A Paradise Built in Hell [excerpt], Rebecca Solnit remembers the 1989 earthquake not as evidence of baseball’s preponderance nor as an isolating incident mediated by cable news anchors. In her memory, “Everybody was shaken up… But what was so interesting to me was that people seemed to kind of love what was going on.”

In conversations about the earthquake and the power outages of its aftermath, Solnit’s friends and fellow survivors tell story after story of human kindness, connection, and communitarianism, from the streetside barbecuers cooking up and redistributing the neighborhood’s thawing frozen food, to the candlelit bars that kept their doors open all night and became community centers, to the decentralized, mass organization of strangers who showed up at almost every intersection to direct traffic when it was clear the electrical grid had failed. And all around, the surprising realization that nearly everybody was actually enjoying the sudden disruption of everyday life, and caring for each other deeply. “If enjoyment is the right word,” posits Solnit. “We don’t even have a language for the emotion of disaster, in which the wonderful comes wrapped in the terrible, joy in sorrow, courage in fear.”

This is the throughline Solnit follows through crisis after crisis and many of the last century’s natural and unnatural disasters, from earthquakes to hurricanes to bombings to floods: that despite our assumptions about the correlations between catastrophe, human selfishness and violence, people overwhelmingly tend toward altruism, compassion and generosity in the wake of calamity. Decades of sociological research on human behavior during disasters have demonstrated this, but Solnit is particularly interested in that unnameable emotion that accompanies and unites survivors in recalling these disruptive crises: neither trauma nor terror, but ebullience and a memory of belonging.


Chapter 26


The dying:

To let wither the myths that are not life-giving, life-seeking.


Myths:

I am not a channel of God’s creativity.

Unless I am successful, I have failed.

My deep fiery passions are not divinely given.

I won’t be taken care of in my great pursuits.

If I leap, no net will appear.

It is permissible not to leap, to wait for leaping later.

Anger at my parents.

Blame of debt.

Guilt for past blindness.

Shame of inaction.

The thing that doubts.

If I can make $300-350 a week, after taxes, I can make it work.


Alright: No more worldly thoughts.

The gnats! What am I to learn?

I’m frustrated with how slowly time is moving.

Or more specifically,

how sluggishly the sun appears to be moving across the sky.

I want the glory of a vision

but I’d rather not do the boredom.

I’m avoiding the sun,

I’m avoiding the seat,

which doesn’t give me a lot of options.


I’m sitting with my boredom,

but it’s getting harder to open up my heart out here.

I’m more afraid of what will happen.


-- Vision Quest notes, New Mexico, August 2013


Chapter 27

When we name something a “disaster,” it signifies our belief that this something has happened to us. We treat death like a think happening to us. So rarely do we invite death into our lives. For fear it will catch? I treat death like a disaster to be avoided, an intrusive thought about the future, a gnat. So disaster comes to teach me the valuable lessons I refuse to learn from death, what Solnit calls, “A view into another world for our other selves.” She continues on the social impact of disastrous events, unexpected (and unwelcome) by definition:


“When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up—not all, but the great preponderance—to become their brothers’ keepers. And that purposefulness and connectedness bring joy even amidst death, chaos, fear and loss.


For comparison, the Vision Quest, according to Foster and Little, is a rite of passage designed to emulate the mythic transformation from life to death, then back to life. Says Foster of the profound fear about the vision unearthing itself from within:


“As with any birth, death precedes release. I had to die before my mind could read the words reflected on the mirror of my heart.”


Hitakonanoolaxk (Treebeard), an author and elder who claims Lenape/Delaware heritage on the site BigHornLenape, writes that the participants of the Leenkwaa'helan (seeking or questing for a vision)--often young teenagers by the way--embark “on a journey to the center of our very being,” and “go humbly before the Creator and all of the Spirit Powers, fasting for days on end, in solitude… facing all of our fears,” in order to find “the truth of our path and purpose, of our place in the world.” Treebeard offers this suggestion:


“Approach your search for a Vision as you would your death. You have to give yourself up completely to have a Vision. It is like dying, only you come back. It is a time of dying and rebirth, the death of your old self, who you have been, and the rebirth of a new self, who you are--who you are meant to be.”


All three of these contemporary prophets speak to a constant crisis of the social organ, no doubt an ancient crisis: for Solnit, the mandatory individualism wrought by capitalism’s broken solidarities; for Treebeard, the confused distortions of modernity, a “Civilized Society” orchestrated by adult children to insulate us from the very sources of Life itself; for Foster, an unconscious uproaring of suicidality, bent on his own destruction lest he destroy others. Foster again, in the desert:


“Most of all, I feared loneliness. All my heroic myths about myself came down like the walls of Jericho when I first heard, really heard, the awesome trumpet sound of the loneliness of the wilderness--the sound of silence. Against that I was nothing but a cipher. My ego withered, as pages of a book thrown into a fire.”


Solnit again, on the way disaster throws people into the present, immediately connecting them to the people around them:


“It’s as though in some violent gift you’ve been given a kind of spiritual awakening where you’re close to mortality in a way that makes you feel more alive, you’re deeply in the present, and can let go of past and future, and your personal narrative, in some ways… you often find very direct, but also metaphysical senses of connection to the people you suddenly have something in common with.”


Treebeard again, on the Vision Quest as the beginning of Spiritual Life, maturity, personhood:


“With Vision, our existence becomes meaningful and we gain a sense of purpose to our lives. We believe that a man without Vision is as nothing, incomplete, a half being.”


Nothing strikes more fear into my heart than approaching death with no sense of how to die. I don’t know the solution, but I keep going to the wilderness in hopes that I will learn something about it. Keep crying out to the Creator and the Spirits of Power for something to eat, for a vision to bring back to the people, for a life of meaning. And every time I go out, I come back with a piece of paper, a piece of peace, and a sense that I stumbled upon something I didn’t know to look for. Years later, it’s the paper that seems to last the longest.

Solnit again, echoing Dorothy Day’s observation from a hundred years ago in Oakland:


“And I think of that as kind of this funny way the earthquake shakes you awake, and then that’s sort of the big spiritual question. How do you stay awake? How do you stay in that deeper consciousness of that present-mindedness, that sense of non-separation, and compassion, and engagement…”


Dorothy Day saw it as an eight-year-old across the Bay and she was changed forever. From the ashes of a city destroyed, a community of care and meaning was born. She spent her life asking and answering the obvious follow-up: What if we didn’t wait for a disaster to treat each other so well?



To be continued…



With Love,

Zack






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