Glancing out my back door I glimpse a black and white cat on my deck, beckoned perhaps by my drum-play. One of my teenage dreams involved touring with a band, improvising with instruments night after night, town after town. I was never much of a traveler, lacking wealth, talent, and initiative. Yet still I got around. Made it here and there. Hence the “literary turn,” the turn to books and careers based on them. Books allowed me to spin off in any number of directions, across many dimensions, albeit mediated by language. Where to tonight? I slip on Joe Henderson and Alice Coltrane’s The Elements and read about obstacles to black homeownership as documented with painstaking detail in Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s new book Race for Profit.
Travel isn’t quite the remedy I’d hoped it would be, though it rarely is. It rained — and I was still working throughout the day grading papers. Plus the laws, the policies of the state, make it hard to conduct Dadaist and surrealist walks. Urban excursions. Those are the practices that thrill me as a traveler: resolutely following a lack of itinerary. The surrealists called these practices déambulations, their results appearing in works like Louis Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris (1926) and André Breton’s Nadja (1928). Strange encounters: a kind of “weird fiction,” though infused more with romance than with horror. An experimental approach to cartography and cosmology, becoming revolutionary (at least in the everyday of a collective reality — tiny, temporary, but at least not boring) with subsequent groups like the Lettrists and the Situationist International. These groups amp up the emphasis on “scientific study” and “rigorous analysis.” There was not among Debord’s circle enough dancing and loving, not enough romance in the group’s theory of the dérive. I prefer the surrealist emphasis on the authorial agency of the unconscious. Prior to all of these figures stands the original urban saunterer, the Parisian flâneur. Charles Baudelaire described the flâneur as “a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness.” In the 1940s and 1950s, the Beats reinvented this practice for the postwar era, the art of flânerie set on the road, flâneurs now palling around with one another, driving, hitchhiking, freight-hopping: the artist-poet as ecstatic world-tourist and pilgrim.
I arrange plans for travel, a short weekend trip to a neighboring city. Sarah’s delivering a paper tomorrow at a conference; I’ll meet her there after work. A friend spoke this afternoon about the underappreciated British Romantic Charles Lamb. Lamb lived a remarkable life, writing innovative essays, corresponding with contemporaries like Coleridge, and co-authoring with his sister, the murderess Mary Lamb, an English children’s book called Tales from Shakespeare in 1807. In honor of Lamb’s love for perambulation, Sarah and I go for an evening stroll, admiring along the way houses in the neighborhood decorated for Halloween. That said, we’re both excited to get out of town for a few days of adventure.
We set up to the left of the stairs in chairs down by the water. “Setting down a place by the water”: that’s a whole way of life, kin to “finding shade in the forest” or “farming on the prairie.” Coastlines promise opportunities to watch waves, swim with changing tides, body glistening in the sun. Earlier in the day, we saw dolphins while watching the sunrise. Now, however, would be a wonderful time to swim, so I do. Then the sunning begins, body rubbed in coconut-scented lotion. What can we reconstruct of the psychedelic experience? What are its teachings across time?
Sarah and I arrive to the coast and set up a portable temporary architecture, chairs and a blue umbrella. Sandpipers and seagulls play by the shore beside boogie boarders, kids tossing balls back and forth, swimmers. Beaches present life at its most joyful — life measured out in waves of guiltless play. A squad of pelicans fly past hanging low, close to the water. I imagine fields and sets of objects undergoing phased modulation and metamorphosis as in the interior of a kaleidoscope. It isn’t until after a brief swim that the objects focus into grains of sand. I think of my brother, a lifelong surfer, and begin to sound out intersections of surf culture and psychedelic philosophy. By that I mean more than just The Beach Boys. I mean Rick Griffin and Surfer magazine’s 1978 interview with Timothy Leary. Unfortunately, despite abundant prompting beforehand, I let my fear of bad dining experiences interfere with my ability to heed the recommendations of others. A sign with adjustable letters reminds me, “Fears we don’t face become our limits.” Time to face those fears, I nod. Outgrow them. As always, it means learning again to trust others. Don’t just sit around in a funk watching the sunset from the hotel balcony, I tell myself, rousing myself from circumstance.
Morning meditation on a friend’s screened front porch eases me into a relaxed day in Des Moines. Tufts of prairie grass bend with the breeze as I read about “Holacracy-powered organizations” and muse about the future. Thoughts sour a bit as I scratch and sniff a scam. But these are small things, minor perturbations, and before long, word arrives of Divine Rascal, a new biography about Michael Hollingshead available for pre-order from MIT / Strange Attractor Press. Entities move about around and behind me, opening and closing doors. Let us call them “neighbors,” a term generous enough to include many orders of being.
Checking in with myself, I find little to report, monkey-mind at a standstill. Travel seems to have knocked the wind out of me.
An airline attendant repeats instructions through a loudspeaker as I sit at a gate waiting to board a flight to Des Moines. Fellow travelers stare at phones and tablets, the seats that fill the space around them arranged in rows. My desire to be elsewhere, I tell myself, binds me ever more tightly to this pleasureless condition.
Laid out on a futon on a screened-in porch at my sister-in-law’s house in upstate New York, I sip a Belgian-style wit brewed locally with hints of lavender, children’s voices rising up from the park across the street. Origami birds hung with wire circle and converse beside a Japanese maple. My favorite moments are ones like these when, through modest experiments with sense and awareness, I’m able to reach out and investigate my surroundings. The books I’ve been reading these past few days all seem connected in accordance with what the Three Initiates refer to as “the Principle of Correspondence.” Brian C. Short’s New People of the Flat Earth, The Kybalion, even the movie Back to the Future, which my nephews watched for the first time last night: all of these works seem to resonate when properly aligned. The same can be said of these origami birds hanging by the window, their forked tails and black-and-white plumage resembling those of the frigatebirds I noticed last night flying in the sky above my sister’s back yard. The question now is: how might I utilize this principle in service of the good?
I arrive to the beach before the others, grateful for these rare moments of silence. Before long, the beach disappears from sight. A fog rolls in off the water, leaving only the sound of waves cresting and receding. Next thing I know, it’s evening and I’m back at my sister’s place, staring up at seabirds. I imagine there’s more to report: a piece of green ribbon, one end tied to a lamppost, the other end dangling in the wind; small explosions — someone setting off fireworks in another part of town; nephews of mine chasing after an ice cream truck; anger, envy, disappointment, contempt — the bleeding, in other words, of my proletarian heart amid extravagant displays of wealth; plus continued study of hermetic philosophy so as to remain awake through all of this without being ruled and debased by it.