The Death Card | Field notes from the Pacific Coast

This is a series of posts I started in late May and plan to continue for 40 days, with a goal of hitting 50,000 words by July 5. It’s inspired by a three-day solo trek on the Washington coast, with side-story memoir scenes wrapped by a few themes. I’m writing each post live, pulling in stories I’ve drafted before or I’m writing for the first time, for this project. You can come and go (it’s non-linear) or start at the beginning here, which is really the end.

I got out of the water and stuck the branch in the ground, I stabbed the sand but it wouldn’t go in the first try. I found it floating in the water and used it as a staff to keep my balance, and swung it in the air like a wizard. It was curved like a hook, a crude looking scythe—I fancied myself Ian McKellan as Gandalf wincing, doing battle with the lion-headed daemon Balrog, its fiery whip, the two of us spiraling down a pit and me emerging, gone from gray to white.

It was mid-afternoon some time but I didn’t know exactly; I’d been out swimming a good hour and estimated 3 o’clock. It was getting socked-in though, which happens fast on the Washington coast. All at once we were rubbed out in the mist and fog; it made the distant rock structures in the sea mysterious looking. They were ganged together to the north in the manner of skyscrapers, ancient cities, abandoned.

And with the temperature drop and my hair wet I began to shiver, and though the sand was hot and felt good on my feet the shivering continued, a rattling of teeth and the skin on my legs pink-purple from either the sun or the shock of the cold water—I got into my bivy sack and warmed up to the greenhouse effect, I zipped in, lay there to calm myself.

I was not a good swimmer, I started late in life. It wasn’t until I moved to France I got confident in open water like that. I’d often swim in the sea after dinner at my parent’s house in the nearby village, close enough we could walk. There was a field separating their village from mine, rocky and sparse with a thin, dirt trail. It’s that field my mom found the hanged man one day dangling from an old fruit tree, looking out over the Mediterranean. She ran off to find someone but she couldn’t speak French, could only find the vineyard workers out tending to the vines, had to pantomime what happened by angling her neck and making dramatic faces, pointing, mort, mort!—but no one understood her, no one came.

I’d swim in the sea after dark; it was so salty you could flip over on your back and float forever, the salt buoyed me up. I’d swim from one cove to the other around a rocky cliff, get out, dry off, swim back. My mom and stepdad John had a condo there in a town called Collioure and bought a house in the adjacent village, decided to keep the condo, and I offered to quit my job in Seattle to come look after it. I think John (who was English) was trying to get my mom to move to Europe with him permanently and it seems to have worked—he’s dead nine years this Halloween, and she’s still there.

That summer I was into Castaneda and it seemed everything in the book lined up. I had a word of the day calendar, and often that word bespoke an event for my day, a horoscope or fortune.

There was the word caduceus one time, the ancient staff used by Greek gods, Egyptian clerics—with snakes wound around it, and wings. I got that word one day I saw a dead snake on the path, the day I found out my mom was going through cancer treatment. And it was Castaneda who talked so much about death through the exchanges with a shaman and the real and imagined witches they battled, how death is an adviser, not a thing to be feared, but a guide to teach us how to live. That death is always there, all our lives.

And on the road connecting my mom and John’s house to Collioure I walked every day past the gas stations and cliffs overlooking the sea, past palm trees and succulents with their blooms—and there was a concrete wall on one side for a stretch I never went behind until the end of the summer when I was getting ready to leave: and sure enough, it was a cemetery, mainly above ground, with adornments and flowers for the dead, pictures and names. Castaneda was right, it was just behind the wall.

I had this fear-thing with swimming from a dream in college where I died, I drowned. That never happened to me in a dream before, I always woke in time. In this dream though I died, I felt the very real sense of that when I woke, it hung on. It was so bad I thought about staying inside all day and calling off from work, but that didn’t seem like a good idea.

I was walking along a country setting, the farms near where I grew up, a place they call “Pennsylvania Dutch,” inspired by German settlers who moved to southeast Pennsylvania (probably because it reminded them of their home, in Germany).

There was a pond in the dream I walked down to and then just slipped in, and felt the sensation I was treading water. That’s when the face of a little girl appeared and there was some malice about her, I knew that from the dream. I think the girl sensed I was scared, she said Your fear will drag you down…and the phrase struck me in the heart, I felt the pull I was going under…I reached to smite out the girl-face, I grabbed for her throat but her face just puffed up like a balloon, it got bigger…and down I went under, and died.

I knew the dream-prophesy of fear was about failure. It was fear of failing that would kill me, or prevent me from living: namely, fear of failure as a writer, a dance with the demons you have to learn, to really dance.

Overcoming that fear, confronting it, meant actually failing. That was simple to do on one hand (to fail), but hard on the other (to allow yourself to). Maybe there were multiple, necessary deaths in that: a hundred million deaths, drafts, the writer manifesting themselves, having to recreate, bury, move on. The hardest part was reconciling myself in what I wrote, having to accept the reality of my limits, right there in writing. And to redefine those limits, to destroy or ignore them, though they themselves could feel like walls.

I’d talk about this with my eccentric hair stylist from my old job, Donnie, who’d become a kind of guru to me, and then I learned he actually was that, he studied divinity, shamanism: and on his website to schedule an appointment there was a drop-down menu of services, and I noticed one time at the bottom there was a selection for “spiritual counseling” which I thought odd, and the price for that was much higher than for anything else.

Donnie would pull in Carl Jung and talk about the shadow world of our spirits, how it was necessary to go into the darkness to confront and understand those fears. I imagined going into that dark, if you went far enough and punched through, there’d be light on the other side.

That summer in France I lived alone in a one-bedroom condo, but the one bedroom had a palpable presence in it the first two or three nights I slept there, so bad I couldn’t sleep there again, and never did. Instead, I used the fold-out couch in the small living area, with the sliding glass doors and balcony overlooking the sea.

I’d fall asleep after a swim around midnight and wake each morning about 8:30 to the same sound, the lapping on the shore…and with no plans, no work, not much money, I’d float on my back in the sea and time would fan out in all directions, and life had no borders. I did that for a few months but realized I couldn’t do it forever. I was 26, didn’t speak much French, and what writing I did that summer qualified more as “typing,” which I got good at, it seemed easier to pick up than the writing part.



Categories: death, identity, Memoir, writing

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

8 replies

  1. I like the way the places intermingle in this one. Good stuff about the fear of failing too. Booyah!

    Funny that I saw the word caduceus just yesterday, in Desert Solitaire of all things. Is that weird, or what?!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. 50K words is a book. Right?

    Death isn’t a thing to be feared but that’s a tough sell when it’s staring you right in the face.

    You’ve got to type before you can write. It was all a part of putting in your 10,000 hours. Now look at you. You can bang out a nice post like this in almost no time at all. Think that happened all by itself?

    26 sounds like it was a pretty golden year to me. Money. Feh. It’s irrelevant until you’ve got some familial obligations weighing you down.


  3. I’ve lived my life motivated primarily by fear. It’s a very limiting thing. I feared roller coasters and never went on one. A few years ago, I was at Disneyland and my kids and my cousin’s daughter were going on the roller coasters. I said to myself, “This is so f’ing stupid.” I went on the roller coasters at Disneyland. Yes, I know, many of those roller coasters aren’t “real” roller coasters, but give me this one.

    Swimming and other things around water have been another fear of mine. When I was a kid, I spent a few summers at swim lessons. I refused to dive into the pool from a standing position. I would only do a sitting dive. I didn’t do a real dive until about ten years ago. We bought a house and put a pool into the backyard. My kids got to a point where they started diving into the pool. I said to myself, “This is so f’ing stupid.” I dove into the pool a few times.

    But swimming in the ocean. I don’t know that I’m there yet. I want to be.

    What I really want is that I stop letting my fears control me, to limit my experiences. But that’s not how my mama raised me. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s a pretty dang cold ocean to be swimming in around here. I don’t do it unless I’m wearing thermals (a dry suit). And as for meaning, I’ve never associated it with other parts of my life, it’s always been enough on its own. Perhaps if I spent my time on the surface rather than under it I would relate it to other surfaces I’ve known, and would dive more into them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s well put Dave, thanks for saying so. God bless Portland! I don’t know how I swam in that creek so long, likely the depth was ok and really not bad. Or I’m half-nuts, or both. Both!

      Liked by 1 person

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