Thursday, July 30, 2009

Beside the Kawiwi River

I awoke at about 5:20am local time and looked around the room at the young men breathing quietly in their bunks. Despite the fan and well-running air conditioner, the atmosphere in the room was sticky with the smell of Pacific salt. I slipped on my running shoes and walked out the door. The sun was still behind the crest of Nani Ka'ala, and the mist that ever enshrouded the mountain glowed like a pillar of fire and cloud. It was still a bit cooler outside than I had imagined it would be.

I started down rumpled sidewalk of Ala Hema Street and out onto Farrington Highway, running northwest past the homeless shelter with its barracks-like construction and razor wire topping its chain link fence. A man and a woman sat on the curb inside the compound and smoked cigarettes. The man waved at me offhandedly and I managed a short breathless vowel of hello as I jogged. Beyond that, the shoulder opened onto a wide green field - sprinkler fed on the leeward side of the island - that bordered the intermediate school in the distance. I decided to make the end of the field my turnaround, and I laughed a little sadly at the gang tags that labeled the reflector on each telephone pole with the name "Saint." Aloha kakahiaka. Aloha Iesu ia'oe, even in the face of darkness.

If you listen to the dry savannah grasses in the Diamond Head caldera, you can here it in their whisper. God still lives here, amongst the hopeless. The fields are ripe, and the workers are few. In the beautiful faces of children who were so happy just to play with pipe cleaners and stickers and hear Bible stories, in the awkward but grateful smiles of their older cousins and aunts and uncles, their neighbors, their 'ohana, who were glad to stand around and talk with us, you could sense the hunger and the humility, the readiness.

I spent the week working on the third floor of Pu'u Kahea, a hundred-year-old sugar plantation house in Waianae, Oahu. The foolhardiness of those in charge to give me the task of redemptive carpentry was astounding, but I couldn't have been happier than to put my hands on the old cedar walls and to breath the astringent smell of that wood as we cut it and reformed the room. It smelled a little like lime Gatorade. We fought with the angular ceiling and the endless termite damage as others in the group took on various projects around the grounds of the camp. But the greatest reward was probably seeing the smile of a couple little girls as they collected our addresses on the last night and excitedly told people that they had learned how to talk to God.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Scotland: Lunar Epilogue

My second excursion into Fife was on Sarah’s bicycle, and was also late into the evening. By my reckoning, I had run further than I had ever run at one stint. Therefore, I should be able to cycle much further than I could run. I took the same route, enjoying the ease of my travel across the bridge and glad not to pass anyone on the narrow pedestrian causeway. Water stretched out in a black expanse to my right, whispering tales of Perth and its history, and to my left, where the North Sea looked back at me with its thousand-mile stare. The tiny lights on the shores of Fife stood like cheery guards above every door.

I bore left onto the paved bike trail that paralleled Newport Road, hoping that the tiny LED light affixed to the handlebars would be brilliant enough for me to make my way without vaulting over a curb. I passed the small tourist rest stop and the last of the streetlights and continued on until I was forced to slow down to be able to make out the edges of the trail as it followed the road. The grade seemed to slope gently downhill toward the water, which lapped peacefully several hundred yards to my left. After navigating some gates and detours, strategically placed to guide cyclists through construction, I began to consider the fact that I was not tired. I would eventually have to turn back, because I would ride all the way past Tayport and out onto the immense sandy promontory that lay at the edge of the forest on the shores of the sea. Either that, or I would ride all the way to St. Andrews. Neither prospect bore the hallmarks of responsibility, but I couldn’t help but think about the beauty of sitting alone on the forgotten beach until dawn and watching the seals come up onto the land and peer at me warily. As I stopped to consider whether or not to turn around, I chanced to look back toward Dundee. Above the Law and slightly to the left, hanging like a crescent emblem of war and peace above Lochee, the moon was draped in a deep ruby blush. I stood there on the lonely road, and she slowly sank behind the northern horizon, drawing to her the ocean and the years and the minds of all men quiet enough to look. Her uttermost tip went down just above Bruce’s house, and I wished that he was there to see it. I decided that I would turn back, but not before I had gone as far as this tiny road would take me.

The bike path left the side of Newport Road and plowed on down the coastline, beneath trees that further shaded the already dark track and made every sound stand out in my ears. I passed homes that glimmered through the trees and a lighthouse that stood oddly dark on the beach. The trail lead up back into the streetlights of Commonty Road and seemed to terminate near a small graveled parking lot, next to a grassy landing where a park bench sat empty. A sign said, “Danger: Steep Cliffs.” I got off the bike and walked to the rail surrounding the tiny park. Gorse bushes grew persistently on the cliff face and shielded the shore below from view. So many of the kids we had dealt with that week came out of apathetic or malevolent situations. Many boys of ten and eleven already had a keen sense of streetwise bravado that made them feel safe as they balanced on the edges of aloneness and fear. The girls were greeted by pop culture that told them that their identity was merely sexual. The wisdom of the day spoke in languages of haute couture and catchy guitar riffs. Entertainment is a jealous queen. Across the estuary, an oil rig was being built, its scaffolding highlighted from beneath by a halogen glow. The one thing we all seem to agree on, the preservation of our planet, is a litany of concern over that which will burn in the end. What of that which remains? I wondered about Knoxville.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Through a Tiny Window

There's still so much wonder about sending film off to get it developed. You give a tiny roll of possibility to someone you don't know, hoping that things turn out alright. Then comes the delicious and terrible waiting, your anticipation building until you can't stand still. Then you finally get that little package back and rip it open like your golden ticket is inside, finding your memories like paper gems.

After much anticipation, at least on my part, photos have started to trickle in from the trip to Scotland. I finally wised up and went to Thompson Photo down in Mechanicsville. No more Walmart, Walgreens, Kroger, cheap crap, kid with a job pushing a button and no training. Here is a tiny sampling of what is to come. Go to my Flickr page for the full gallery.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Scotland: Like A Final Breath

For now, as I have to get back to writing some other things, this will be the final installment on the latest Dundee trip. There is more, but you'll probably have to put a cup of coffee in front of me and hear it firsthand. Thanks for reading.

The sun rises at about 5 a.m. in the summers near the sixtieth parallel. I had brought my neon Nikes in my suitcase, and in a fit of folly I decided that the dead of night was a good time to go for a jog. I slipped them on and put my fingerless gloves over my hands, dressing in some respect like an aerobic panhandler, all neuroses and passions. I tucked Sarah’s spare set of keys into my glove and slipped out the door into the stairwell, which was dimly lit with a toady orange light. The sounds of my footsteps echoed off of the concrete walls with a muffled resonance, as if the world still had its head on the pillow. I slipped out the wooden door of the breezeway and began to run toward the silvery Tay. Paton’s Lane led me down upon Magdalen Green where rabbits lolled about chewing the shallow grass in the dark. My shoes crunched on the gravelly sidewalk and every one of the creatures froze and raised its ears, seeking for sounds. I passed the green and went on beneath the amber streetlights beside the steel girders of the Tay Railway Bridge. The current bridge sits beside the closely shorn pylons of the former one, which collapsed during a storm in 1879, killing 75 people aboard a crossing train, including the son of the bridge’s recently knighted architect. While this, even with over a century of separation, is unfathomable as a tragedy, it must be noted that the crash was immortalized in song by William McGonagall, who is often cited as the “worst poet in the English language.”

I ran on along the sea wall beside the estuary and past the grocery store and museum with the black water whispering in tiny waves at intervals as the tide pulled toward the moon. Once in a while, I would pass an orange life ring and a rescue hook hanging on the railing in case of someone drowning – either accidentally or otherwise. How many suicides are there in a city full of alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and teen pregnancy? I was glad to be out that morning, but how many people were staggering through Dundee’s endless capillaries and alleys, finding their way into flats or hotel rooms or unmarked doors? I was determined to make it to the far end of the other bridge about three miles from Sarah’s apartment. I made the staircase below the bridge that led up to the long walkway across the Tay. A man sat alone in the guardhouse that looked down on the roadbed. Anemic UV lights colored his lonely room with a green tint, and he sat and watched the tiny television on the counter looking like Charon at his dreary coast. I was struck by a sudden desire to go and talk to him, perhaps to prove to myself that there was indeed life. Maybe I wanted to prove it to him. I turned my face toward the converging lines of pale streetlights that stretched out ahead of me and started to run across the wide river, following the long straight line of sidewalk and passing only one tired stranger as I jogged.

I did at last make it to Fife, all 3.3 miles, but that’s not the point of this little story – and I’m aware that the distance is not that impressive. The point is that I turned around to walk back across the bridge, and the light that had burned all night with a sapphire suggestion under the horizon of bleak Hilltown grew into a blazing dawn. A third of the way back towards the Dundee side, I had to stop. I couldn’t stare straight into the sunrise, but having run further than I’d ever run at one stretch, and that in the middle of the night, I wasn’t going to turn away until I’d seen our local star come round into view above the distant sea. The stranger I’d passed while running finally caught up with me and went on his way with the barest of nods, his ears submerged beneath headphones. I turned once to acknowledge him as he passed and then looked quickly back toward the east, and from behind the stone battlements of Broughty Castle, the light exploded outward like a solitaire.