Sometimes at night I’m sitting on the white silt bottom of the ocean some 50 or 60 feet deep, waaay deeper than I’ve ever gone; the blue water is dusky almost dark from the depth. My veins are racing; with my gut I tamp down a fear that could become feral. I can see nothing but the blue and black, and this beam or shaft of yellow sunlight impossibly penetrating all the way down yet lifting like the tail of a passing tornado. I can feel its force, its sidewall is pulling at me. I get caught — it pulls me up through the water to the glassy underbottom surface. And I always wake up before I hit. I imagine the surface shatters like glass, like water, and there is bright daylight…
I’m uncontainable. I can hardly sit still for long. Often I have moments where I feel I might spontaneously combust – implode and explode in the exact same instant – and all that will be left will be some smoke poofing out in mid air. Sometimes I feel like this wherever – at any moment – even in a grocery aisle.
A few years ago on a short trip to South Beach in Miami, at water’s edge I really felt the continent at my back, even if the spit of land that is Florida is actually all that is between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico then the Desert Southwest and the Pacific.
I looked out, southeastward. I’m an ok swimmer. I can get better. In my spontaneous moments I dream I can leave the land and swim to Cuba. Or Africa. Just get in the water those turquoise fading to deeper blue Atlantic waves and leave everything and everybody behind.
Once you leave the land, it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s just you and the water, and the closeness of your breath inside the waves inside your ears. All that water.
I didn’t have goggles, so whatever or whoever was with me was out of mind. It was just me and the open plain ahead. The lifeguard in the painted stick house on the sand always hates me as I start to pass the buoy line. They blow the whistle but what really can they do? The crowded beach doesn’t notice or care. Soon I don’t hear the whistle, and I never cared.
Without goggles, seriously I have no idea who is beneath, or how deep. I could swim outward forever.
I love my body. I love living inside my body. I love anatomy. Fluidity in motion. Did I tell you I’m a shark?
Why is it when at last I decide to turn around the dream dissipates instantly and you are vulnerable, your back exposed to the whole mouth of the rest of the ocean? The shore seems far away in front. Now my movements got jerky. I had joined the land again and had to get back there. My breathing was a little off, but I’m cool. Then something big and rubbery bumped into my leg and yeah I shot out of that water probably making a big ol UGLY splashing my body accordioning but I regained my cool and swam inward, not feeling this at all now, but arms knifing into the water one after the other.
I need to face my fears. I think I should be able to go anywhere. I have been staying on the surface even when I’m certainly known as a deep muthafucka. I need to swim with my bare exposed body with them.
Did I tell you I’m a shark? I need to learn to swim better and dive with them, like them.
I go anywhere.
The current had pulled me down the shore. I dripped back onto land and went about my biz. Nobody knew.
Happy New Year. It’s January 1, 2014. Today we start our 2 year adventure together: Fear & Loving: Where Sea Level Meets the Deep.
14 years after founding the non-profit organization Great Plains Restoration Council (GPRC), I’ve got our current main projects in Fort Worth, Houston and Santa Fe County (NM headed by capable people on the ground, so that I can manage those non-profit efforts by computer, phone and plane for these next two years. This writing sojourn is actually a detailed and well-organized strategy with my top team and funders at Great Plains Restoration Council to not only use literature and the arts to advance our mission of connecting people deeper with the world, but build our non-profit organization stronger and more supported in the long run.
“One writer is worth several activists,” GPRC board chair Frank Popper remarked last year.
As I write this I’m sitting on an old graffiti-tagged concrete wall by Biscayne Bay, with downtown Miami skyscrapers and the Port of Miami’s big shipping cranes visible in the near distance.
Wondering how I will be struck these next 2 years… What’s going to happen? I can sense it. 2 years from now I will look back to this day, and smh at what I didn’t know. At what happened, which at this very moment right now today, is still the future and ‘un-happened’.
I’m actually really excited. I have specific plans. Let’s do this blogstory journey together in layers, one peeling off into the next, as we go deeper and deeper.
Sunday afternoon when I arrived in Miami I walked to the beach. Looking to the aqua-fading-to-darker waters of the Atlantic Ocean beyond these two black men holding each other and having their pic taken, I suddenly thought:
I can’t believe I’m really going to become a scuba diver & dive deep these next 2 years.
It’s big & scary and there are all these THINGS swimming around I’m gon have to face!
Last night I walked to this same bay where I am right now and looked down into the shallow waters as a dinghy floated tethered. The water is pretty clear, even at night. What is it about night that adds another layer? I imagined what it would be like if I jumped in at night. Crazy. What the hell would I do that for?
Leaving Dallas two days later than planned, I was already tired. Long night of driving ahead.
I-30 east out of Dallas merges with I-20, which takes you across the Deep South. Can you believe I actually drove 80 miles before realizing I had made a mistake? I’m embarrassed to even admit that somehow I missed the merge and kept driving. I mean I’m a plainsman, a traveler, a nomad! I had my iPhone earbuds in my ear but wasn’t listening to music. Was talking to a new friend in Philly. He’s a sergeant in the Army and also works on the tarmac at the airport up there.
It’s been a long time for me. We’ll see. But so far…
Dimly I recall thinking “why I keep seeing signs for Texarkana?”, which is in the far northeastern part of the state, near Arkansas. What distracted me so much I went 80 miles out of my way, listening to his voice?
By the time I realized I’d fucked up = no exit, just deep woods and the freeway. Pitch black night. No choice but to drive the last 20 or so miles all the way into Texarkana then try to work my way back down through side roads at night to Shreveport, Louisiana and Interstate 20 East. This is not prairie wide-open Texas, but part of that closed-in deep woods looming on either side of the road East Texas.
Was pretty agitated, but since I teach my Restoration Not Incarceration™ crew members in my non-profit organization how to manage feelings, I applied that to myself and let my pissed-offness dissipate out the cold open window. Just drive.
Couple more wrong turns. This plainsman / nomad / traveler through life wasn’t getting it right tonight. Dead of night. Poorly or unmarked side roads sliding down into Louisiana. On one wrong turn I saw a cop car idling in an abandoned driveway and you know you can never blink or make any unusual or sudden movements around them.
I was going the wrong way. Had to turn around. I drove miles farther before I finally did. Look straight ahead. 2 a.m. Drive like you know where you are going. A pickup truck had pulled up alongside the cop. They were talking at each other through their open windows. I escaped.
Been thinking lately: Have things gotten worse? And was there a pause in this hatred in the mid-1990’s (James Byrd notwithstanding)? Why do I get a sense that in parts of the country, things have hardened, become more dangerous since the Tea Party and the election of Barack Obama? My wires are up more than ever. The only place that pall of danger and hatred lurks harder than the Deep South is the outback American West, which is still 1870.
I just drove and drove, drinking my cans of Lemon Elation and Enlighten Mint Yerba Mate that I’d bought at the Whole Foods in Highland Park in Dallas. (Just down from former President George W. Bush’s place.) Yerba Mate is great for the gym, and great for the road when you want to stay conscious and not too loopy. Push yourself.
Finally made it to the Interstate.
Louisiana is a Southern cowboy in a black hat and black button down shirt and black pointy boots throwing up repeatedly in the sink at a Love’s Truck Stop and clogging the sink. Constipated truckers noisily trying to shit behind stall doors. Gas stations selling cracklins and beer, and add-on rooms to the side with red and purple neon signs CASINO faltering in black-cellophaned windows.
I don’t remember much of Mississippi and Alabama, lots of mid-winter dead leaf woods. At stops I saw large-bellied black men in XXXL red or black t-shirts with even larger-bellied white women wearing pink t-shirts while their large-bellied children who could use a brush or comb ran for the Walmart entrance. I got to Mobile, Alabama and the Gulf Coast near sunset Saturday night. Mobile Bay is wide and you drive right across a long causeway.
Feeling like midnight when it was only after 8 in the middle of the Florida Panhandle, I turned on the radio and caught the end of a public radio show “American Roots”. Stopping at a deserted rest area, I shut the car off, but left the radio on. Hanging on to what I was hearing.
American Roots tonight had been covering music originating from black men jailed in the South. They mentioned the American folk and blues musician (and felon) Lead Belly and his famed song Midnight Special. The narrator spoke of a notorious 1920s prison in Sugar Land, TX, a town which of course is now a suburban part of the Greater Houston metropolis. Cotton, and sugarcane plantations, lie beneath. Midnight Special was about a train that came through at night in Sugar Land and its locomotive headlight flashed through the prison cell’s tiny window onto the black men’s grimy, humid faces… and they could hear the rumble of that train going free through the night.
I sat there in the parking lot of the Rest Area by the night freeway. What I think was a tall blackjack oak dripped with very long curling strands of Spanish moss. Some females would love for weaves that long. Blackjack leaves drop in the winter, but during growing season people say they look like the bottom silhouette of the space shuttle. A lone lightpole cast the Rest Area in orange glow. Nobody in the entire world knew where I was. Well besides my iPhone and the NSA. Same set of clothes – old camo pants, blue Old Navy thermal, old blue Adidas kicks. Driving gear. I hate to sit. I stop a lot. My hip (a lady driving out of an Albuquerque parking garage a long time ago when I was walking on a sidewalk fractured it) kills me a lot when I sit too long.
They ended the American Roots program with a cover version of Midnight Special by American rock band John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival. They may not be black, but this jams.
I ended up driving all night again. Time to arrive already. And finally, somewhere by Lake City, FL, the hardwoods and the “normal” temperate nature of America was over, and the dank wet soil and vegetative smells of the tropics had taken over. An East Indian man had to lock up his convenience store/gas station each time a truck or carload of drunk white girls and their boyfriends came to buy liquor in his adjacent Package Store. Waiting for him to come back, I just wanted a jug of water. I inhaled.
The Florida Turnpike took me diagonally southeastward through the hinterlands. Signs warned repeatedly of HEAVY FOG. USE EXTREME CAUTION.
I foolhardily tend to dismiss these kinds of things as worries for other people, because I think of myself as being always aware. (Funny I went 80 miles out of my way the first night huh!) Soon night fog swallowed me like an alien world. I did drive carefully. I have no idea what I drove through. I was so surprised how many hours me and that little silver Kia traveled without coming upon any town or city. Occasionally a couple lightpoles rose up, emitting that orange light, shrouded. I did not want any strange fruit. I drove long through what I believe were swamp and trees, but aside from the fog and the very fresh blacktop of the road painted with a very bright reflective white line down its middle, I actually have no idea of where and what I passed through. A couple service plazas, space outpost domes of orange glow in the thick fog and closed for the night except for the bathrooms and the self-serve Shell station, were the only signs of civilization. It’s true I could have been completely in the dark, but cutting diagonally through the middle of the state, it was almost like most of Florida was devoid of people.
Radio station highway: Creedence Clearwater Revival covering Lead Belly in the middle of a northern Florida night.
I live in a Cuban hood filled w Cubans,
a smiling Asian chick wit a baby,
a lil ol white lady who reads a book in the park every evening,
lots of bicycles, basketballs, baby strollers, beer bottles, banana trees, & beaches,
and a Whole Foods just a few blocks away staffed almost entirely by Black Folks.
The Atlantic smells like fish.
South Florida is so different from the rest of the United States. Feels more Caribbean, which often feels like a mashup of Latin America and Africa.
I’ve been thinking – what does it mean to be here, instead of visit?
All around me people’s lives and moments are happening. Haven’t made any new friends yet. Don’t even know most of the plants or birds.
As I rode my mountain bike up the barrier island of Miami Beach I felt the excitement again of a new land. #NomadCulture
Any story is always told through its details.
Some things false trigger what I know – Texas and the drier West. Like coastal riding on a sandy gravel road with short weeds growing out of the poor dirt. I find myself on hyper alert for goatheads fallen off weeds, those “stickerbugs” whose fat little thorns will easily puncture bike tires or bare feet.
Or leery of chiggers in grass, those tiny invisible beasts who corkscrew into your skin causing hardened circles of burning itch that can drive you mad. People in Dallas or Houston would rarely chance lying down in grassy areas in summer. But those things are not here. In South Florida people sprawl out with bare flesh exposed against park grass. It’s soft here.
A huge melting pot of people too. From extended Cuban familias to several different black nationalities to (mostly) well-off white folks to Hasidic Jews in full orthodox suits, hats, and long beards to people from many different countries to a lot of Miami street level “weirdness” of all ages, races and genders that keeps reminding me of the old Tompkins Square Park and Alphabet City in NYC. The linear tourist zones of Collins and Ocean seem like a haze, and I cross straight through with a mental buffer when I need to get to the beach.
Up north people are talking about the winter, which has been harsh. Even in Dallas and Fort Worth. And more rumblings about a changing climate. Ever since I read this article last year “Kicking the Refrigerator Door Open”, I’ve had additional queasies – this new sense of being connected to the Arctic in ways we never thought. So much we don’t know.
Riding up the island of Miami Beach you go from South Beach to blocks of quiet Jewish neighborhoods to working class and often Haitian or Bahamian North Beach, then you hit Surfside, where condos begin to rise, then very exclusive Bal Harbour right before Haulover Cut, a channel dug out of a narrow point in 1925 that connects northern Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic.
Finding my place under the bridge on the south bank of the cut, where most people don’t go, I realized it was an old handicapped fishing spot. Even had a sign. Why was it in a cage? There was a small spot of ground-up and shit-out fish death about the size of a quarter on top the concrete wall – likely from a bird. I could smell it from here.
In that one little bit of dribbled then dried rectal gruel there was the essence of that fish’s life and death and that bird’s digestive processes. Tropical South Florida is filled with many dense smells.
Over the years my senses have gotten very heightened. The clarity of the water will take some getting used to. In Texas, the Gulf waters close to shore are muddy and fertile from all the biblical rivers draining into it. Here I will be able to see everything. Def.
Bal Harbour’s tiled walkway along Haulover Cut is where the masses and exclusive people of means might meet. A high-rise condo touts its sea turtle protection efforts, approved by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission. A resident had left the gate open to the steps to the private pool and spa. I was reading the sign about saving the sea turtles when a worker, a dark skinned dude in resort white shirt, khaki shorts and white kicks saw me and ran down to close that gate. Our eyes met. You can be on the same yet opposite side of the fence.
Out at the end of the jetty several Cubanos were fishing with this one female pelican whose fishing method was not dive bombing the sea but standing there with flat webbed feet waiting, staring or maybe glaring at the men with poles, nets and other wheeled-out fishing equipment.
A young dude in a skull cap decided he was going to fish further back on the jetty. He walked past the female pelican. She jutted her head to the side like some black females would as if saying “uhhh where you think you’re going!” His black t-shirt with red lettering said DON’T GIT BIT.
So much I don’t know. There’s a little abrasion or skin irritation on the back of my left knee. Is it from waves bumping me into the jetty rocks or something else in the water? The sea I want to take lightly and comfortably, at least walking out from shore.
Only by repeated immersion am I going to make this like butter. Just get my skills and swim/snorkel/dive until it’s nothing. Several years ago I wanted to fly on rollerblades like I do on my bike – as if born with it. After I cracked my tailbone you bet I never leaned back again. And despite fears, I kept on till I was night blading down that steep 4th Street hill in Fort Worth, shooting under the railroad trestle toward the Trinity River – eyes peeled for concrete cracks because any mistake at 25 mph would not be pretty.
Government Cut is one of those big old-school federal engineering projects. Opened in 1905, it’s the shipping channel for the Port of Miami. It marks the southernmost end of the barrier island of Miami Beach (South Beach). A jetty of large rocks as big as Smart Cars line either side. Mountain goat skills help to climb over them.
My son Kaiden out on Government Cut last July.
Aerial view of Government Cut, Miami Beach Florida,
circa 1916. [Source: Wikipedia]
Big, jagged, one slip and you’ll hit something soft on your body with something very hard and maybe crumple down into those wedges of water. Only close to shore is a top spatter of concrete for a walkway.
The waves on the beach side of the jetty were too rough. Surfers were happy. On the other side, inside the Cut, the water seemed calm enough.
I didn’t want to not go. I hate not doing something I say. This past Sunday, closer to shore, I saw a homeboy spearfishing the rocks, baseball cap backwards beneath his dive mask and tube and wearing big yellow work gloves. I climbed past the new telescoping pier they’re building alongside. The last pier was obliterated in storms. A lot of summer storms now, I hear. Supposedly they’ll be able to reel the thing in when the next hurricane comes. Something new.
Keeping my bike gloves and Champion shirt on, I climbed down onto a flatter rock, took my UnderArmour shoes off and fitted the fins and mask, making sure of a good face seal. Slipped into the water. A swirl of flashing gold flakes – sand particles – and a clump of little fish the size of arrowheads all pointed face forward like one large composite arrowhead. I don’t know who they were.
The water was lower visibility than expected. Only a few feet. Translucent blue-greens and yellows, with sand bottom below, then sudden rocks right in front of my face. Sand and silt. Fine-tuning my kick like coach Thaddeus’s been showing me in a Lauderdale pool, I swam out along the rocks maybe 50 yards. The rolling waves inside the Cut were picking up. Occasionally they crashed with white spray against the rocks. They tried to push me. At water level I imagined caves along some remote Yucatan coast.
I swam back and rode a break in the swells to slip onto the flat rock I’d come in off. Many rocks closest to the water are concreted with hard little whitish shells. I think they’re barnacles but again I don’t know. I saw no other fish.
Hidden out there, I sat for a while like a seal pup as water drained off my body, until the increasing waves seemed they were having second thoughts about me being back on land. It’s always cool to be somewhere where nobody else knows you are.
Had a thought: Do you think the term “sea change” comes from how things change in the water suddenly, so completely?
Heading back, somebody had spray-painted in black “Rome wasn’t built” on one of the rocks. A three-pointed crown was on top that.
I rode my bike up the beach road of packed sand then through the dune cut, parting through a flock of vacationing black women heading to the ocean. The fluffy-haired one grabbed my wet butt and said “Hey Boo!” as I passed. I smiled.
To finish drying I sat like a lizard in the sun on the boardwalk’s rock wall. 100 yards away this older blatino man in a baseball cap with a little pot-belly straining his red t-shirt and jeans tapped two bongos. They sounded as if their skins were not tightly stretched, drums distant like a jungle coast somewhere.
How many people you know googled “hope for ocean acidification” last night at 12:31 a.m.?
Been having dude problems and also been feeling tons of pressure from all the probs in the world like I can’t breathe, so couldn’t sleep.
Alone in my apartment with the light post by the bed still on I decided to check email on my phone. Any distraction welcome.
Saw a message from Theresa, one of our long-time GPRC Youth Mothers from Dallas. She’d recently taken her daughter and son to Galveston, where they volunteered for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – a bunch of cool folks for scientists btw!)
Theresa wrote that one of the things they did was an experiment showing how acidic waters degrade calcium in shells.
Of course climate change’s equally evil twin is ocean acidification – the oceans are absorbing so much carbon pollution from the atmosphere that it is changing the chemistry of life. The first to go are the corals and the shellfish. The current rate of acidification may be unprecedented in Earth’s history. Here are “20 Facts about Ocean Acidification”.
I walked into the tiny bathroom of the old beach apartment, quietly flipped the toilet lid closed and sat down. In this old school Cuban apartment I lucked out with two bathrooms but in this one you can’t really sit straight without wedging yourself in with your knees pressing into the super smooth white-tiled wall in front of you. If you lean forward you can rest your forehead against the tile wall or press the top of your head into it.
Thinking… Yesterday, my upcoming scuba instructor told me how even since 2006 he’s seen a change in the coral reefs… He’s seeing dead patches… Also increasing storms are smothering or wiping out coral reefs. He says Hurricane Sandy affected the coast all the way down here to South Florida.
It’s expected that all coral reefs will be extinct by 2100.
I love the night quiet. You can hear an ocean of silence, and all the little things going on in the alley. But especially all the silence.
I closed my eyes and pressed the top of my head hard into the super smooth tiles and the crevice of grout.
I opened my eyes and just needed some release from the pressure. There has to be something. Opening Safari on my iPhone I randomly googled “hope for acidification”. Just so overwhelmed all the time. I will squeeze out any drop of good news I can find. I’m an occasional Google randomer – just to see if there is something going on, or new, I do not know. Sometimes, anything just to focus my overheated mind on something else.
Check this out: one coral reef off Palau is thriving in waters that happen to be naturally as acidic as all the oceans are expected to be in 2100.
Waters much less acidic are killing off the corals. But for some great mystery, this one is surviving.
If you get a chance, give 9 minutes and listen to this public radio piece. Listen to the sounds of the water and the people speaking.
Scientists are studying this beautiful vibrant hopeful exciting Palauan reef to try to figure out what is its super secret.
And while all our other coral reefs may die off within 80 some years, it’s possible this one mysterious glorious survivor may, as the narrator says, keep us company into the 22nd century. It may – just may – no promises BUT just might – even offer us a mystery clue to help others.