If you always do
what you’ve always done,
you’ll always get
what you’ve always gotten.
~ Henry Ford (among others)
Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames.
After a recent holiday visit, walking through the strange and wonderful land that is the city of New Orleans, where life and death seem daily to coexist together in close proximity, and where one never knows when an ill wind might blow in from the Gulf…I have one intention for the coming year…to live more deliberately…and with an increased measure of passion.
Happy New Year from the Carolinas!
Audubon Park, New Orleans
Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church at Loyola University
Come to the silver gardens of the South,
Where whisper hath her monarchy, and winds
Deftly devise live tapestries of shade,
In glades of stillness patterned,
And where the red-bird like a sanguine stain,
Brings Tragedy to Beauty.
~ from The Silver Gardens by Archer Milton Huntington
Two weeks ago…I had to get away. I easily forget how near the ocean is, so I packed a bag and drove to the coast…to spend the weekend on the Grand Strand of South Carolina. It’s the off season in Myrtle Beach, so the crowds have diminished and hotel rooms are plentiful…and reasonably priced. I needed to spend some time conversing with the sea…and I obtained an excellent vantage point…a room on the twelfth floor of the Bay View Resort, with a balcony overlooking the wide expanse of the Atlantic. I could breathe again as I sat in the chill November air…peering into emptiness from my watchtower. The gloaming soon turned to darkness.
Then, rising early the next day, I was witness to a miracle. My watchtower had revolved through space…and through the night while I slept…to once again meet up with the sun…to begin a new conversation.
After a while…after a long silence that helped clear my mind in preparation for the day, I made my way south along the coast about thirty minutes or so…to Atalaya…another watchtower. In fact, Atalaya means watchtower in Spanish. This castle on the coast was the winter home of Archer Huntington and his wife Anna Hyatt Huntington. It was designed by Archer himself, in a style reminiscent of Moorish architecture he had seen in Spain. Archer was a fabulously wealthy industrialist, and his wife Anna, a world-renowned sculptor (Oddly enough, I discovered that Anna’s last major work was a bronze statue of Andrew Jackson that is located in Andrew Jackson State Park, a few miles from where I live).
When I arrived at Atalaya, which is now part of Huntington Beach State Park, I checked in with the docent, who provided a map that would lead me on a self-guided tour of the structure. It’s really just an empty shell now, but while walking through the 30 or so rooms that encircle the inner courtyard, I could still sense the presence of the extraordinary couple who had lived there in solitude (along with their many servants), with only the wild Atlantic as their neighbor. When I finished my tour, I returned my map. The docent quizzed me…”Did you find the guest room?”, he asked. Hmmm…I thought hard…returning to each empty room in my mind. Then we both blurted out at the same time…”There is no guest room.” Archer and Anna valued their privacy, and while they often had guests during the day, they would pack them up and send them on their way by nightfall.
My next stop was just across the highway from Atalaya…Brookgreen Gardens, a botanical and sculpture garden designed by Archer and Anna. There is also a wildlife preserve on this expansive tract of land that lies between the Waccamaw River and the Atlantic Ocean.
I spent a few hours walking the many paths in this garden that was originally designed to showcase the work of Anna Hyatt Huntington. My favorite sculpture, however, was that of Laura Gardin Fraser…The Pegasus. It depicts Inspiration taking flight upon the wings of Pegasus. It lifted my spirits as I imagined it soaring into the perfectly blue Carolina sky.
I could see it on the horizon…six miles distant…like a small sun rising over the pines. It was the Peachoid. Life is just not complete until the Peachoid is seen in all its resplendent glory…especially, now that it’s been freshly painted. For those of you who are fans of House of Cards…you’ll know of what I’m speaking. For those who aren’t…the Peachoid is a water tank in the town of Gaffney, South Carolina, that has, what Wikipedia describes as, an ‘enormous cleft’ made to resemble that distinctive characteristic of a peach. The water tower has also been, to the dismay of Gaffney residents who are extremely fond of the structure, the ‘butt’ of many jokes (visit the Peachoid link above to view some pictures and to draw your own conclusions).
But the Peachoid sighting was just a charming interlude on my way to Flat Rock, North Carolina, to visit Connemara, the former home of poet and writer Carl Sandburg, and now a National Historic Site. Sandburg moved there in 1946, when he was 67 years of age with his wife, daughters, and grandchildren. He lived there until his death in 1967 at the age of 89. Our tour guide attributed his longevity to the goat milk and cheese from the goats that his wife Lillian raised, and whose descendants can still be seen in the goat barn on this 246 acre farm.
The Sandburgs were said to have lived very simply. The most striking thing when walking through the house was the sheer number of books that were present. There were shelves in practically every room that held seventeen thousand books… in many of which could be seen small slips of paper that served as bookmarks…a record of when they were last consulted by members of the Sandburg household. I noticed many, many books on Abraham Lincoln that were most likely referenced by Sandburg during the writing of his own well-known works on our sixteenth President.
Carl and his wife Lillian, who was the sister of famed photographer Edward Steichen, were married for sixty years. Standing in the bedroom where Carl died in 1967, it was hard not to get misty-eyed when our tour guide mentioned that his last words, or last word, was ‘Paula’…a nickname for his beloved wife…
The Great Hunt
I never knew any more beautiful than you:
I have hunted you under my thoughts,
I have broken down under the wind
And into the roses looking for you.
I shall never find any greater than you.
~ Carl Sandburg, Chicago Poems, 1916
The contrast could not have been greater. I spent the last week in the Los Angeles area…falling asleep every night to the incessant sound of traffic rumbling by on I-10…right outside my sealed-shut window. Sunday morning…I awoke to the sound of a yellow-billed cuckoo…with its soft rattle, followed by a frog-like thwump-thwump-thwump…a soft cool breeze wafting through the open window. Welcome home.
On my flight back home on Saturday, I sat next to a 15-year-old boy who was traveling alone. He was sitting by the window. For the entire duration of the 4-hour flight, he kept the window shade down. Instead…he focused on either his cell phone…or his laptop computer…or both…completely engrossed in video games. Perhaps…an escape from the real world, where he was forced to commute cross-continent by himself?
Towards the end of the flight, he put away his computer and phone…pulled up his hoodie over his head…and fell asleep. When we landed, he awoke and asked if we were in Charlotte. I replied, “Yes…Charlotte. Are you going on to Raleigh?” I wanted to make sure he didn’t miss his destination. He sleepily replied, “Yes.” He turned his head towards the closed window…back to sleep. Hopefully, there was someone waiting for him in Raleigh…glad to see him.
I took my time on Sunday…catching up…slowing down once more. Silence…and solitude…was broken when an American Goldfinch came tapping on the window…not once…but twice… seemingly, peering in and welcoming me back. A strange and unexpected greeting. Remarkable…nonetheless.
I boarded the Airbus 320 early this morning in Charlotte, bound for the West coast. As soon as I crossed the threshhold of the plane, stepping up from the boarding ramp, there was a loud klunk…and the plane went silent…all power apparently shut off. Immediately, through the open cockpit door, an apologetic voice exclaimed…“Sorry.” Then, with an audible click of a switch…the power came back on. The rest of the flight was uneventful…thankfully, with no other apologies necessary while we were airborne.
I’m always amazed that I can cross an entire continent on nothing more than a granola bar, a glass of water, and a cup of coffee…a feat the early pioneers couldn’t even imagine doing. But…after finally checking into my hotel in southern California, I was famished. I wandered next door to El Burrito, a walk-up Mexican restaurant. I ordered one of their specialty burritos, delectably named the Garbage Burrito. After about five minutes of waiting, a tiny screen door slides open. “Number 53!”…that’s me. Out slides a cardboard tray containing a burrito that appears to be larger than the bicep of my right arm. My body is saying “Yes,” but my mind is screaming “No!” I furtively grab the tray, along with my diet coke, and hurry back to my room to enjoy this guilty pleasure in privacy. The long, cross continental journey was worth the hardships…although I’ll probably pay for this later.