June 15, 2009

Livin' on Hilton Time

"Ospreys slept with their feathered plummeting dreamselves screaming through deep, slow-motion dives toward herring."- Pat Conroy


It was irresistible not to seek out Jim Curley and his family while driving down in the steamy nether regions of the Old South. There is something other-worldly about farms in out of the way places, and even more so when headed up by counter-cultural Catholics like Jim. (I've wanted to meet Mr. Culbreath too.) It was humbling to meet him and his family; it almost feels like a Meeting-Better-Catholics-Than-Me Tour (last visit was with the Darwins). Or perhaps the "Catholic All-Star Tour".

Jim's sense of place is so keen he named his blog "Bethune Catholic". It never would've occurred to me to name my website partially after my town. (Perhaps he started his blog soon after he moved there and so it was in his "frontal lobe".) If I moved to Manhattan tomorrow I might've named the blog NYC Catholic or something. As it is, I (obviously) didn't give the name or URL much thought, never imagining the blog would get more than a couple hits.

Dinner at the Curley's was delightful. Both the food and company were good; it was very Waltonesque, and I think about how hard it must be to be counter-cultural without lapsing into cultishness and yet the Curleys seem so wonderfully normal and hospitable. Mrs Curley makes her own bread, mentioning "milling the flour" which sounds almost like a foreign language. The Curley visit inspired my wife to cook like she'd never cooked before. It could only be termed a conversion experience. During the ensuing seven days, we only went out to eat once all week, and that was my idea.


I mentioned to the Curleys the uber-frugal Ham o' Bone, who has four young children and yet channeled his restlessness into hard work and hard savings towards the goal of retiring in a year at the age of about 45. That I'm willing to buy time off work, as I do, pretty much testifies to how the goal of retirement seems too distant for me to engage in too heavily. Sure I save in the 401k, but do no Ham o' Bone heroics.

How will he pay for health care? Let Obama pay for it, or go without it (as we all did for centuries) are the answers I suspect he'd give. Whether he does or not, to even be able to entertain the possibility of retiring at 45 is a shocking thing these days.

But then he's full of surprises. (How many Mary Karr fans are also huge fans of Rush Limbaugh?) He's working on David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest", a book I got half-way through during a six-year period ending about eight years ago. Now he's discovered Wallace's former girlfriend, poet and Catholic convert Mary Karr. Ham is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you'll find. (Which reminds me that a group of surly teenagers yelled at me as I ran past: 'Run Forrest, run!". Proving kids today are so movie literate as opposed to literary-literate. That movie came out fifteen years ago; they were probably three or four years old at the time!)

Bone strikes me as someone too carnal, as in incarnational, to be a proper Protestant. The Real Presence seems a doctrine attractively visceral for someone so un-gnostic. He's not the type to be satisfied with less, and in that reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkins. But then Bone's rebellious streak, which I personally find delightful, is so pronounced that I can see how he'd have difficulty with the papacy. But the relation between the teachings can be seen from this excerpt from the Hopkins biography:
"Doubt the Real Presence in the breaking of the bread - doubt that - and he would 'become an atheist the next day.' Yet, such a belief would be 'gross superstition unless guaranteed by infallibility.' One could debate a lifetime, he concedes, whether the Anglican or the Roman Catholic Church had the better claim to be called the Church of Christ. But surely God had to have made His Church attractive and convincing to the unlearned as well as the learned. In any event, Hopkins knows that he at least has looked hard at both sides of the controversy."


The first thought as I returned to the supernatural clean sweep of sand and sea and sky of Hilton Head was to sigh and say, "what took so long?". Two years as the crow flies but such distance in travel time can seem longer.

I wanted to run long with the perfect song playing in my head and three beers in me, all at the same time if possible.(I've heard of marathoners having a beer during the race, the four-hour marathoners that is.)

Our odyssey normally begins, officially, after groceries Sunday which is after 10am Mass, which means maybe 1pm. We brought enough groceries this time to get us to Monday and so it's to the beach by 3pm Sunday - we've never got so much vacation in so soon! From seeing Jim & family and eating at his house, to stalking William F. Buckley's brother Reid Buckley. Er, well we tried to stalk his house at least without success. (He looked to be listed in the local directory but his house was ill-marked.)

It's three pm Sunday and I'm a half-beat behind the beat, trying to catch up to the jazz ocean who'd been playing for long before I'd arrived. So needy I am, or spoiled, that the decade plus I've been coming here almost seems a part of my wiring, or rather a natural part of the unwiring I need to palliate the unpurged soul so full of the Indoors.

Vacation means never having to say you're sorry for consuming beer, and so I suck down three fine brews in short order. From this vantage waves wrinkle up like a million dimples. The grasses on the humps of sand stand straight as altar boys while visions of Annie Dillard's prose dances in my head.

"Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" goes one of the best titles in recent literature and in a scandalously trivial sense I want to bury myself amid these sandy embankments from which the tall altar boy grasses grow and in which I can rest. I recall my Field of Dreams dream in which my suburban half-acre is covered not with Augusta grasses but run full with tall Gurney-hybrid corn, Jack & the Beanstalk tall, from which I would cut rabbit-like paths through the Robinson Crusoe vegetation.

"Can you re-create it?" is the computer programmer's refrain when meeting an unexpected error (and, aren't they all unexpected?) and yet, in this context, "can you re-create it?" applies to a grandeur no artist can recreate, this being no error but its opposite. No painter's brush can communicate the breath of air, the gasp of brine, the clasp of sun. It's too wide for any canvas.

Immediately it all comes back, that of reading the Pearce biography of Oscar Wilde under the influence of ceaseless waves. How rare do book and moment so perfectly meet, all the variables coming together like three cherries at the ten dollar slots. Fears shrink like frozen testicles under the glam lights of the Carolina sun - indeed with such assurety are civil wars begun. ("It'll be done in six weeks," I imagine them saying in Columbia.)

In the foreground grows a profusion of waxy-leafed plants eroded to a foot or three in height. They undulate before the sparse grasses which lie before the heaping Sahara sands. Rabbits emerge from their warrens only to re-submerge in the opaque hidey-holes in the thicket. Occasionally a palm will just from the surrounding vegetation like a beleaguered school master, trunks covered by the brush version of island ankle-biters. The sky is painted with white clouds and dotted with animated white seagulls. Did I mention the sun? He beams even at 6pm with a generous benevolence.


It wasn't long before the Curley eggs called our name. Those lovely light brown eggs, full of the aura of authenticity by their differences in size and color, were fried and scrambled Monday morning. Bacon, eggs, a real breakfast. None of this donut stuff. And dinners were pulled pork with fulsome, winsome salads, breaded shrimp another, jambalaya another... Yum.

11am turns into 2, a swim, 3:30 a bike ride. The days feel precious, each one as fragile as one of those Russian eggs. I waste the morning reading non-fictional offerings like "One Nation Under Dog" and the politics behind the development of Hilton Head. Beaches call for fiction reading the way Rogers calls for Hammerstein and I've been an idiot not to lead with fiction and poetry since it's those things that always die on impact during work weeks. So I cleanse the palate with a taste of McNabb's more nutritious "The Body of This". A Travis McGee novel would be cool. It's ludicrous, but already on Monday I'm thinking that the Europeans have it right, that a vacation of only one week is an abomination.

The rains come briefly while I'm biking and I go by the deserted beach camps except for the lifeguard who sings to herself, "all the leaves are gone...and the sky is gray."

Earlier when it was sunny I rode by a woman standing up and reading a book at the edge of the surf. No bike or chair looked near her.

I listen to the radio while biking, constantly tuning in new channels during the commercials. I hear a preacher man mention an old woman thanking God for her food and how someone told her that even if God wasn't thanked she'd have food and she replied, "but the food tastes better when I thank Him." Thank God for this vacation.


I wake up early and watch the pelicans dive into the water and create little nuclear water explosions. The morning is special here, the water is lapidary as it laps on the shore. There is a soothing repetition, the ritual of water meeting shore.

There is a solace in continuity and I suppose that's especially true for those of a conservative temperament, so there was a solace in seeing again at Mass - did I search even anxiously for them? - the Hahn family. It has an "all's right with the world" feel to it. For the umpteenth year it seems, or more accurately 16 years, the semper fidelis-ness ones were even sitting where they usually sit. While I miss the occasional year and don't attend every Mass when I am here, they seem to be here every year (unless they miss my years) and every Mass (unless they miss my Masses).

It always feels retroactively "Godidential" (God replacing "prov" though the meaning's the same). I first heard him at this church, in person, after Mass. Later he would lessen my tendency towards clericalism, not to mention teach and edify me through his books. I recall a time, perhaps wistfully now, when a new Hahn book was a time for celebration.

The parish has grown very traditional over the years and I had to smile when I saw the name of the hymnal was not "Glory and Praise" but "Ritual Song". If "ritual" has gotten a bad name in recent decades you won't find it here in this thriving parish in which even daily Mass garners a decent crowd.

The priest mentioned that modern man tends to refute the law of contradiction, in trying to have things both ways, and it eerily reminded me of Bill Luse's piece on Terri Schiavo and how her opponents said that she died years before while simultaneously calling for her to "die with dignity", as if she was of the undead, a zombie as it were.


It's 10am when I head down to the "beach office", my pretend office for the week. Vacations insist on the suspension of disbelief as much as films and novels do and offer the same promise: the return to "real life" with fresh eyes and experiences. You have to forget how brief they are, and forget the world of work and home in order to fully refresh. I've always understood the need of revelers to don masks on Mardi Gras (though without making it a license to sin since that just sets you back). You have to forget who you are in some sense in order to change or grow. Forgiveness, I read recently, is God's greatest gift and it is that which allows us to dare hope to be with Him in Heaven, that is, to dare hope to be saints, sanctity being merely the means to the end of experiencing the Beatific Vision. As Flannery O'Connor wrote, "The meaning of the redemption is precisely that we do not have to be our history."

I love the smell of pine in the morning, in this case the new pine boards of the condo deck halfway between our place and the ocean. I'd have stayed longer on the balcony but for a/c blaring noise and hot air, though it has its moments. I like the Tuesday morn peace and quiet (except for the occasional crow whose screech wakes me from the start of a nap).

The sun lends a translucent clarity to the proceedings; the dunescape looks mirage-ish, the greens shiny as emeralds. Despite liberal use of SPF15, my Irish skin has already acquired a sunburn. I switch to SPF30 and read the Gerard Manley Hopkins biography, hoping for some Wildean magic. Last night I'd enjoyed a fine dollop of Updike's "Widows of Eastwick". The author writes about how the Oxfordians in Hopkins's day feared nothing really mattered, while it's my source of concern that everything does.

I recall a John Denver song that went, "the more people the more scars upon the land." Sounds almost misanthropic, especially in these days when devaluing the dignity and sacredness of human life is in the air and water. The early days of the environmental movement (combined with warnings about a global population boom) struck the wrong note, but today's environmentalists are doing a good job in emphasizing the preservation of the globe for future generations of humans.

Beer o'clock has been scandalously late the first few days. 5 or 6 instead of the sun-kissed 2 or 3. There's something about a cold beer on a hot beach but I've started the week with brews on the balcony or deck. Location, location, location as they say. Tuesdays are great vacation days - you feel truly relaxed for the first time but still have plenty of time left. I always know I'm relaxed when tunes come to me with new lyrics, like the words to "North to Alaska" as this: "Goin' south to Carolina / Goin' south to Car-o-line."

Despite Sunday and Monday being two heavy running and biking days I've still got surprising amount of stamina. Sprinting down a stretch of vacant beach to the Fenian's "Black 'n Tans" playing in my ear, I think of another tune, that of the late Jerry Reid singing in "Old Dogs" about "hopin' that my heart don't stop" while hoppin' all over the stage at an advanced age. I wonder how many years I can still do this sort of once-a-year interval training, how many years can I still give into unbridled excess. I think, naturally, of Michael Dubruiel while I do the running equivalent of downing five shots of pure grain. Better to wear out than rust out I figure.

It's probably that time again, time for the obligatory mention of beach fashion and such. Got to keep the blog ratings up you know, and Ham o' Bone will be displeased without a reference such that he can say, "talk slower". Tender readers may want to advance to Wednesday. Speaking of advancement, human progress seems something of a misnomer since human nature doesn't change, and yet I'm always tempted to become a progressive when I see the continuing inventiveness of the young female in showing off her attributes. In this particular case, there are apparently now "swim" suits that expose the side of the wearer's breast, a sort of side ventilation. Who knew? The white orbs that pop out on both the top-front (breast) and bottom-back (buttock) provide a pleasing symmetry and artistry. God knew what he was doing with the human female. Since the Supreme Court is all about finding rights that don't exist, I'm wishing they'd make themselves useful and declare the right to non-concupiscence.

At night we watched part of the film Rendition, a $5 DVD, after failing to engage with another five dollarer, "Be Kind, Rewind". "Lost in Austen" is the final offering, set for Thursday night.


So it's Wednesday and there's still time to properly slow down though I speed up in order to get there. The perfect vacation finishes finally in boredom, which makes you appreciate work again, though I've never quite reached that point. Perhaps a two-week, European-style vacation. Today I'm thinking about how to improve daily life, such as run before work and/or pray better.

Long bike ride with Steph to Sea Pines. Later I come back to hike the local preserve and to serve as a blood donor for a batch of mosquitoes thick as thieves:

On the way back I cut through a no-trespassing zone and get a sharp look from a woman on a cell phone. I get paranoid and think she's alerted the authorities - the lifeguards - and so I take off my black hat to throw 'em off the scent.


It's ALIVE! Went into the ocean and found a curious thing - fish. Like Mexican jumping beans I came across a bunch of fish popping up all around me, little silver flashes too quick to view. I stayed stock still in order that they may surface even closer than the two feet away that they already had, but no matter how hard I concentrate I can't see the little devils, just a flash and a splash. Oh for the pause button. The spectacle quickly attracted a pelican.

Later I spied a large red-tailed hawk perched in a palm tree about the same level as our balcony. He sat on the branch for about ten minutes or more. Then he either found a dead rabbit or returned to the fresh kill. He lugged it to a shady area like we would a suitcase on rollers, though with more effort. He proceeded to eat it, head first.


In a book about Samuel Johnson and the art of reading it seems that way back in the 18th century there were predictions of everyone writing and no one reading. I suppose the advent of blogging makes that more prophetic. It certainly seems, sometimes, that more people write poetry than read it.


You can't walk down the street these days without a mission statement so over a couple beers I came up with this one for the vacation: "Leave no beer behind". Americans drink 22 gallons of beer a year and I want to do my share.

I've been lately obsessed with Charles Dickens, particularly after watching the BBC production of Little Dorrit. A biography refers to his stuff as poetical with a comic edge which, to me, is the definition of good writing. No wonder he's the best selling English author.

But what about his own life? In 1865 he was in a horrific train accident and I wonder if his writing was ever the same. It's as if his writing comes almost to a halt, a sort of reverse of St. Thomas Aquinas whose writing ended after seeing a scene of great good (a vision of God) instead of the great evil Dickens witnessed. Dickens died on the fifth anniversary of the accident, one of those little Victorian ironies that seemed to happen more then than now.


Vacations are weight-bearing pillars in which you don't want to put too much stress on them even while recognizing that it can't be any other way. It's in my DNA, I think I come by it from my great-grandfather and Uncle Bob. Eric Weiner writes that beaches, palm trees and sunshine come with their "own inherent pressures," that they scream: "Be happy, God damn it!" A good vacation is a piling up of instances of wonder, such as I felt while gazing up at the tall canopies at Sea Pines or while tooling around the beautiful gardens outside Lawton Stables.

There's no need to run Roomba on the beach, cleaned each night by the agents of wind and waves. Wiping the slate. A signor crest of green land abides the shoreline in careful fealty. The sands, in-breath, the sea-surf runs at angles: rush, sea, rush, calm the battering heart. The sun in the '90s, the equatorial sun, melts the newspapers, leaves print in my hands like dreams.

A country song comes on the radio:
"So girl I can't buy you a big diamond ring
No house on the hill full of life's finer things...
But baby don't think that I don't love you."

And I thought it an answer to prayer, as God's song to us. Though he is infinitely rich we can't have our appetites satiated in this life.

Jesus was not a rugged individualist however. In the garden of Gethsemane,
What if -
after His blood-sweat -
He told the angels, "no sweat
Hey I'm God,
don't you know?
I don't need your
I can do it alone."?
Jesus was not a stoic.

The waves are calm today, and it's only at rare times so far that you can body surf. The ocean is omni-present but retains the right to provide nice wave action. It's amazing in June how much quality beach time you can get even as late as starting at 4 or 5pm. Chalk it up to the nearness of the summer equinox.

On a whim we decide to go out to an 8PM dinner, a steak dinner at Alexander's. Great view of a local waterway and even better food.

Finally a robust dream life appears, like a coral reef restored after the algae of work has been destroyed. Yes, Europeans have it right. A week off is a travesty, an insult to body and mind. You need one week to relax and de-charge and a second week to restart the batteries. Earlier days' off seem frittered away as long weekends, as helpful as those are. The exercise level is great down here and I do wonder if the modest amount of exercise at home, ought be doubled or trebled back at home.

I would I had a greater sense of gratitude. Psalm 98 says let us "sing a new song to the Lord, for he has done wondrous deeds!" How often do I do the opposite and instead sing the same old song to Him while expecting Him to perform new wondrous deeds?


Ominous, this day, standing in such close proximity to that former ally but now cruel foe: Friday, our last day down here.

We begin with Fox 'n Friends, which reminds me of our trip to New York last year, cereal, and the relaxation of limbs still pleasantly stiff from yesterday's riding and swimming.

To Pickney Island today, and early, before the temps do us in. A day of sheer happiness, reminding me of our trip to the green spaces of hot Busch Gardens. We see the "Ibis pond", a rookery of hundreds of the white alb'd birds. We see a gator and other wild things before heading back to the car and visiting the Coast Museum, a restored plantation. At the store inside, the New Testament in Gullah!

Back at our plantation, I see workers digging holes in the noonday sun. Madmen, Englishmen, and bearded 40-something blue-collar guys. At least the latter gets paid. One carefully places no less than eleven orange warning flags around a hole probably a foot diameter. Four flags at least. Six flags, good. But 11? That's what God does for us in warning us from danger. You'd have to be blind to step in that hole, which is probably what God must think.

On a recent bike ride I came to a Baptist church and looked inside. There was a large bible open half-way through with a large gold cross in front of it. It looked like the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance. It's not either/or of course; the Mass is the liturgy of word and sacrament. In the Byzantine liturgy it's made more explicit; the priest circles the church with the bible before which the people bow and then later the gifts, before which they again bow.

It's 4PM and still firecracker-hot. Of hot weather we would not be cheated. Steph has had a wonderful time and exclaims, to my surprise, "I'm so glad we bought this place!" Quite a gift indeed. I feel as if in suspended animation here, as if time has stopped and in such an agreeably pleasant place.


One day to read a thousand novels, encapsulate a year's days, ride the wind, learn her song, rediscover the meaning of life, outrun assailants, and in general, to leave it all on the beach.

One day to fossilize the brine, incentivize the enterprise, particularize and sanitize, and return to sense through nonsense...

One day in seven, one week in a deck of 52, Lady Luck smilin', an imprint of a Bass bottle bottom on sand, like landing on the lucky square in a game of Monopoly, like an accident of time, like a lottery winning: "you've got a one in 52 chance of being on vacation."


He swoons
like he's never seen the ocean
like he's never seen the dawn break
the black back of night.


Leave no run behind
I say and so submit
my land-lubbing, bellied frame
to the cursive shoreline.


Perched (unlike perch)
in the high-top can-vas
tree house palmed with
slanting sun restoring
the slim but crucial
silver of promise.


mrsdarwin said...

*sigh* Vacation... Now I feel like I need to brush the sand off my feet and rinse the brine out of my hair. It's refreshing to read about the ocean breezes when in Texas the high is edging towards 100 degrees.

TS said...

Always very happy to oblige your vicarious vacation experiences. :-) It was really hot down there but the breezes worked like magic. I can barely imagine Texas heat.