It begins as a vague call to journey, in the way I imagine a bird perceives the time of its migration. A magnetic tingle. A gut-level pull. Some limbic conspiracy to preserve, to survive. It seems almost subconscious, beyond my ability to resist, yet I am aware of the feeling and I can ignore the summons if I choose. But I have learned over many years that this calling is spiritual, and necessary, and will yield a wealth of miracles and grace. So when I feel it, I always heed the call of the sea.
It is a Sunday, and it is raining, thank God, and, there’s the SuperBowl on the T.V.. The roads will be empty and the beach will be the way it was when the Miwoks walked upon it before Francis Drake stumbled along in the fog. It’s a perfect day for a long, lonely walk in the rain.
The rain. That means boots and foul weather gear and a hat with a brim. It means a thermos of coffee and the rhythm of the windshield wipers and that soothing patter on the roof of the car. Being out in the rain feels to me like I’m really living. The rain changes the whole world into something utterly different in spirit yet still familiar in form. The ocean is dark and the surf is brutal. In the breaks between the squalls I pull over to the side of the road and stand outside, baffled before the trees in the muffled dampness. Everything glistens in the shock of the silence.
I approach them cautiously because trees in the rain take on a quality of menace, like trees at night. But I have to get closer. I have to touch them to see if they’re real. After 48 years of this I still don’t know what they are. I can’t fathom how it is they were created from what began as a spark. They are the one thing on this earth I can say for sure I have never taken for granted and when I see them, every time, I see them with new eyes as if I’d never seen one before. Surely I have been a tree in a previous life. For only that explains why I am drawn to them like my reflection in a still pond.
And I have to approach them. I have to take a reading of their texture and their energy. It’s like I’m testing them for signs of that kinship, that familial mark, as if one day I’ll find the one who will speak, my long lost mother, or some other sign of recognition beyond seeing. So I feel along their flanks like a blind person will take a face into his hands to read the measure of a man. Not him. Not the one. No, not that one either. Most of the time I just move on.
And then there’s all that life among them. The little birds that somehow weather the blow. Here I am swaddled in the best clothing money can buy, my artificial hides, and I’m shivering in the kist and blowing on my fingertips to keep them warm. But they’re out there in the wet and the cold, an ounce of pink flesh surrounded by a fistful of feathers. Where do they go when the wind does howl? Jesus tells us that we’re worth more than many sparrows but I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t know if anything’s worth more than anything else anymore. As I squat on my haunches watching the sparrows peck out grass seeds in the rain I know a hundred-thousand human beings are filing into some vast coliseum at great expense to watch grown men play with a ball. I cast no judgement upon them. But I’ve no allegiance to fictitious hawks or horses. I’m for the sparrows.
The closer I get to the water the better I feel. They say it’s all the negative ions, which increase alpha waves in the brain and helps blood to oxidize serotonin. That’s fine. I’m happy there’s a rational explanation for the increase in my joy. But I don’t need science anymore. I need large bodies of water nearby. I need the sea. I don’t care about the chemistry, I like to look at it change colors in the shifting light and I like to hear its sound. The boom and crash and the whispering hiss of the receding water. It’s like Prozac in gaseous form. An atmosphere of natural antidepressant. A pharmacopia of molecules and quarks. It starts when I get to the dunes. The grasses whisper too and the sound of the ocean is muted behind them but every time I break through over the top it’s like this incredible surprise, like with the trees, as if I’m looking at the ocean again for the very first time. And I know that’s home. It’s not some vague recollection, this is unmistakable. I came from there. I lived in it once and not so long ago. That there is momma. I know her call from all the others. Right there is my womb.
And what will she bring me today, I wonder? Some small bits of herself and the talismans of form – those artifacts of man’s creation that did not manage, like the sparrows, to weather the storm. The beach is a gold pan and every time I visit I discover Sutter’s Mill. I kneel in the tiny particles of glass and stone and dig out what fossils the sea will deliver. The record of some civilization lost without its even knowing it. What I can’t take with me I capture with my surrogate mind. These haunting images of the world that I break up into bite-sized chunks and separate out from the whole. A camera enhances the illusion that I can deem parts of the world more worthy than others. A camera makes me feel like a king. A photograph is just another selfish gesture whereby I attempt to possess what can never be owned.
But now I know. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind. The wind. It’s blowing up a gale out here today, but I don’t mind. I’m the only man alive. I pull my Gortex hide up over my fragile skull and give thanks for my blessings. I have shoes on my feet and legs that are strong. I am alive; at least in this dream. And I am entirely present in this moment, at one with my creator, sober as the day is long and not hiding anymore. I have miles to go before I sleep but no longer have I secrets left to keep. It took me a long time to get here. This walk on the beach was forty years in the making and it is unlike any walk I have taken before. Life and death and all their attendant illusions follow me like those tiny insects that orbit the porchlight. Let them come. Let them tap on the glass, let them flail at the bogus sun.
The mummified remains of a once great sea creature, unearthed by the blowing wind. Its hide is thick as roofing tiles and its bones are heavy and bleached white as ivory. I know that it’s an Elephant Seal, once massive and imposing. But here it lies deflated like some swimming pool toy. It won’t be long before it becomes dust and part of the fabric of the beach itself. Life, as we define is everywhere I look but so is death, as we define it, too. And it seems so clear, this dialectic, this contrast of form, this binary mode of being and nonbeing, as if what what were is defined by flesh, by a body, and not by spirit. I am reminded, whenever I come across a carcass of an animal, or the sad black lump in the road that I avert my glance from as I drive by on my way to one of the places that bodies go, that I am a body, I am not a form, I am not a man and I can never die.
What is all this, this dream, this vision?
Strange object rise from the ground and grow for hundreds, thousands of years. The ground. Below my feet it fractures and crumbles and becomes boulders, it becomes dust. Tiny winged mechanations flitter about in the air, in the sky. All manner of terraforms crawl, run, skulk through dense living mediums of energy made corporeal, by what? What forces? Whose dream? Forests. jungles; microcosms teem with translucent monsters, whole armies of them on the head of a pin. And other organisms, similar to myself in form, speak, and sing and compose poetry and narratives about themselves, about us, about this dream, this condition we call an existence, and I am one of them, doing it now, resisting time, both walking on this beach and sitting alone with a cat on my lap three planetary rotations later, imagining that there’s some context, some explanation that makes sense of it all, and encoding what passes in this world for perception into a symbolic language that might evoke a similar perception, or an emotional response from another, from a mirror-self, in hopes of what? Verification of sanity? There is no way this is sanity.
There is so much more I could show you. I walked and I walked and I found and I found and I took my little pictures and pocketed some stones. And I was so happy. There’s no cell phone reception here so the only thing I find myself checking incessantly is the status of the sky. What I look at, here, are footprints left by scavenging animals and weather sign. I’m tethered to nothing, yet I am more grounded, more balanced here than anywhere else. I and this mystery, here we stand. Walt Whitman wrote the story of my life, so why write anything more? Because living fiercely drives something out of your pores. Feeling and being find their expression in song. Art is not the province of the few, it’s the imperative of us all.
When I came upon the little pond I knew I had found what I was looking for. This was it. Whatever was compelling me to come here today, to Point Reyes, to Limantour, to this marsh in this light, wanted me here for this singular vision. Even now, having stared at this image for hours, I can’t tell you what it’s saying to me or what it means. Does it have to speak? Does it have to have a hidden meaning? Can’t it just be what it is and I be moved? I dropped what I was carrying and prepared to snap off a few photos when I heard the little ding, the push notification from my iPhone. What? Some stray invisible beam of who-knows-what found me and gave me a single bar. I took the phone out of my pocket and saw that it was a notification from the New York Times. Philip Seymour Hoffman dead at 46. That’s all. Carry on.
People die all the time and there’s a tragedy every second and children are starving and celebrities with tremendous talent are always leaving us too soon. I don’t know anything about Philip Seymour Hoffman. Anything. I only know that something shined through him, like something shines through certain trees and certain stones. I loved him as an actor and I imagine I would have loved him as a human being. A few years ago I wrote a screenplay for him, my first, and though I never even hoped he’d read it I was grateful that he had given me the fuel to craft the story and the part. He inhabited me for weeks while I wrote that beast of a manuscript, I channeled him, so maybe I do know something about who he was. Maybe I even know more than most. So it seemed fitting to me that I should arrive here at this spot on the end of my journey, to this glorified puddle I call Phil’s Lake, to receive the news of his passing in the very best kind of place to hear of such things. I had to come all the way out here to find Philip Hoffman again. That’s why.
I walked back to the car wondering, not yet knowing how or why, and asking myself if I had know he was only 46 years old – younger than I am, another victim of the fear, the shame and self-loathing that fuels addiction. Even a beautiful, talented, gifted, beloved human being can hate themselves enough to stick sharp pieces of metal up under their skin. Most people don’t understand that. I do. The thing about suicide, and all overdoses are, is that you always wind up killing the wrong man. That’s not the real you, that person in the throes of the despair, that’s not who you are. That’s some version of yourself you came to believe in long before you could possibly understand what was really going on. It’s a tough script to reject, that narrative that tells you you’re not worthy to be living, that voice that tells you you can’t handle the pain anymore. There’s only one solution to that black lake at the end of your journey, and it’s not some Malibu treatment spa with a stunning view of the sea. The sea will heal you, but not by looking at it from afar.
My last stop that afternoon was a stand of aspens I saw from the window of the car.
What do you even say to them when they ask you to make an account of yourself? What possible response is there to this? This gathering of numens, this tribunal of living ghosts? I can’t even stand to look at them sometimes because I know it’s all just a mirror and I’m looking at myself, the world I created. I keep walking as if there actually is an end to the rainbow, as if Tartarus could be found. I’m like Magellan searching for the edge of the world, as if it’s some place outside of my body.
I am a writer, in the same way that Phil Hoffman was an actor. This is who I am. This is my gift. And when I doubt that, which I often do, I just have to remember the little lake, and the time I met him there, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s ghost, telling me in no uncertain terms to keep on living, to keep on being who you are. I am the edge of the world! Right here. It’s all here inside me, now.
o O o