Fall at the Shack

It’s the end of September. The weather is conflicted, a bit subdued, and utterly romantic. Outside the leaves are involved in their final encore of life, performing most beautifully right before they die with the promise of rebirth in the spring.

Pensive like the weather and the leaves, I’m sitting inside listening to rain falling on a roof, but this one is special, this roof I mean. This cabin is part of my soul.

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The cabin is old, built in the early 1900’s by my great-great grandfather’s hands it has changed little in the last 100 years. A potbelly wood stove is the only form of heat, ancient bunk beds built by the same lumberjack who built the cabin stand next to army issue WWII bunks. There’s no running water and a few bare bulbs offer the only electricity. Old tools hang from the walls, and it takes all my imagination just to figure out what they were used for. Among them is a giant saw with two handles and a long rod with a sinister looking claw hanging from the middle. There’s also an old fishing boat hanging from the ceiling of the kitchen, don’t ask me how it got there. The driveway is two worn down tire tracks that fill up with mud during rains. A Horseshoe pit straddles a fire ring, the woodshed is across from the out door john. The chinking between the logs is fairly new, my dad did it when he was my age, back in the early 70’s.

History is everywhere. Names and dates are scrawled on and carved into any exposed piece of wood inside. My great-grandfather’s name is there, dated 1922 when he was a young man. Right next to his, my grandfather’s name is carved meticulously with the date 1946, the year he returned from China-Burma-India where he had been flying missions over the Himalayas. I can almost hear the sadness in his eyes as he carved that, amazed that he was here at all, having watched over 90% of his original squadron disappear forever in the mountains and jungles of Burma. It makes sense to me that this was the first place he would come to try and find the boy he was before the war. Closing my eyes, I listen to the whispers of the past. What I hear mostly is laughter in this comfortably worn cabin, my grandfather’s signature cackle that has filled the shack so many times. When he won another poker hand, or saw another grandchild catch their first fish. His blue eyes would sparkle and the cackle would turn into a chuckle and then a personal giggle as he let himself drift in memories of his own past.  He is gone now, my papa, passed away gracefully at 82 years old, his life full and complete. But he has not left this cabin. I don’t think he ever will. So he is with us now, as we deal out the cards and smoke cigars, laughing about the four generations of Doucette’s who have come of age in this magical place in the woods by a lake. Still a long ways from civilization and so close to the heart.

Walking across the rough-hewn floor to the doorway I see my own name, written by my mom when I was one year old and I can follow it every year since for the last 27 years. My earliest memories exist between these walls, it is the center of my whirlwind universe, a place that the spinning, sweating, stumbling speed of the modern world and my life has mercifully passed by. Every year I come here full of questions, and every year these four walls give me answers. Perfumed by burning wood, cigar smoke, gun oil, and wet dogs, the womb of this ancient cabin always nurses me back to spiritual health. It seems so clear what matters and what doesn’t when you strip away all the excesses of life.

Standing Still in New York City

I turned off my ipod, put my sunglasses in my pocket, and indulged in one of the purest, cheapest thrills available in New York City…I stood absolutely still. Standing there in the middle of rush hour I opened my eyes and ears, letting the energy of the city run through me. I can’t really say why I did it, an obscure character in an old Tom Robbins book being my only real motivation along with the desire to understand a place that felt so foreign to me.

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The pavement vibrated as thousands of footsteps thudded in unison. A million different lives, each with their own story, spun around me like a psychedelic carousel. It began as a blur of faces and footsteps. I had to let my eyes adjust slowly, as if moving my head along with a fan to separate the blades, and focus on individuals. Mine was the perspective of the homeless, street vendors and musicians, a stationary spot in a city controlled, obsessed, by movement in every direction.

At first I got bumped into, brushed aside with looks of anger, impatience, and incoherence. I stood my ground, apologizing to the back of people’s heads. Then the crowd began to part, flowing around me like a rock in a river as I ceased to exist in the world of movement…I wished I could see what it looked like from above. A tiny spec among the concrete canyons…maybe it would look like I was the one that was moving. Now, that would be something. I was overcome by the urge to lift my head skyward and spin in dizzying circles until I lost my balance and toppled into the crowd, leaving the inevitable crash and physical contact with a single person to fate and fate alone. You never know, we could change each other’s lives…it’s happened before.

The City beeped and skidded, honked and whirred, but beneath the noise of the machines there was something different, the buzz of humanity. Human sounds began as a whisper and grew until they seemed to fill the air. I heard laughter…squeaking squeals of teenage girls and baritone hoots thick with Jersey accents. I heard the cries of two lovers parting for an hour or a lifetime, and I heard the word “fuck” more than any other in what must have been two-dozen different languages. I saw a man hand a ring to a woman, they were both crying but it was difficult to tell if they were tears of joy or sorrow amidst the confusion that surrounded them.

The world marched by me in so many different layers; Planes flew above my head, international flights bound for every corner of the globe, police helicopters circled, taxis, Mercedes, delivery trucks, and limos honked their way through gridlock, the subway rumbled below me, thrusting the warm putrid air up through the vents beneath my feet with a subterranean growl. And all around me there was life. Old and young faces, of every color, of every nation, whirled dervishly around me. How strange it was to stand in the crossfire of so many different pairs of eyes. Some were amused by my raffish quest for a stationary perspective, some were annoyed…most simply didn’t give a shit.

Andean music drifted up through the subway tunnels. The intricate mix of drums and ever-present flute gave the city a spiritual, even mystic, quality as the sounds of an ancient civilization mixed with those of a modern one. Questions about the future filled my head and I once again thought of the Tom Robbins Character; a man who stood on the sidewalk and, ever so slowly, turned in a circle. If you didn’t stop and watch him he looked like he was standing still. What was his message again?

In the center of the street, in the center of the city, in the center of the modern world there were visions of both hope and despair, often right next to one another. Right about the time I was getting ready to join the moving world again I saw a group of young children holding hands making their way slowly through the human traffic on the sidewalk. A crippled homeless man who had been somewhere between sleeping and dead propped him-self up and began to watch the interweaving lives in front of him, much as I was. He was truly destitute, a rash bubbled up his neck onto his face, his beard was gnarled and splotchy and his skin was lined with a hundred hard luck stories of loss and desperation.

Everyone on the street swerved wildly to avoid any sort of contact with him. But the children, or rather two children, oblivious to life’s cruel realities and holding hands in a gesture of oneness stopped inexplicably and both of them used their free hands to reach into each others pockets and pull out an object. I couldn’t tell whether it was small change, a piece of candy or something else entirely but they offered it to the man with such innocent affection that he took it reverently into his hand and I saw him smile widely, his white teeth sparkling in stark contrast to the rest of his outward appearance.

What I saw was a collision of hope and despair so visceral that any despair I held in my own heart about humanity’s similarities to a virus disappeared. All that remained was the memory and the hope of those two children in the center of the street.

North

North. There’s always been something special about that particular direction in my life. It is the last direction, a final destination. North is the fiercest, the most independent…but also the most peaceful, the easiest to understand. South has always meant escape, a place I go to disappear. Jack Kerouac knew it, outlaws know it, and so do I. To head south is to dive into chaos, to melt into the confusion and steam of the tropics and become anonymous. East. Full of mystery and civilization, the east offers the allure of riches and cultures unknown. It is the direction of money, of trade and business, where life moves in circles instead of lines, and to die means only to be reborn. West. Freedom, anything is possible, cinematic happy endings and new beginnings, opportunity, go west young man; go into the future, ride into the sunset.

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 But North, North defines challenge, a direction to follow when I want to turn my back on society, the bearing I take when solitude is my goal, when what I want is to pit myself against nature, to feel her strength and test my will against that strength. It is a wild and uncomfortable direction, dominated by unforgiving wilderness and uncompromised beauty. North is raw. North is romantic. The many questions of life drift away. Things like shelter, food, water, warmth and companionship are all that matter. Life is simple when it’s difficult, that is the true allure of the north…simplicity through fortitude. It is not a place to be conquered or claimed, it can only be witnessed and survived.

So go further, follow the compass into the great white north, into the Arctic Circle and onto the ice of a frozen ocean, birthplace of the wind.     

Ancient and animistic, full of contradiction, the far north is a place where night’s darkness reigns for months at a time only to be replaced by the light of a midnight sun. Where the aurora borealis dances above the ice in vivid displays of red, yellow and green arcs. A white world lit by an atmospheric rainbow. Where stars come home and the spinning earth stands still. The top of the world, the arctic is both beautiful and deadly. Survival is the only victory. At first glance it is a barren wasteland, cold and cruel, wicked in its intensity and bland in its homogenous landscape. Above and below the ice and snow, however, an Eden of life blooms.

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I’m not a superstitious person, but something about the arctic makes me believe in magic. It seems close to something that I can’t understand, the last stop before a bridge that I can’t see to a place I can’t go. Sacred in its power, the north is poetic and violent, humbling and invigorating and full of many other adjectives that can only be felt in order to understand. Perhaps it is in the magnetism of the place, a magnetic charge on which all direction is based. Without North, one can argue, there would be no south, east or west.  

In the end, that is what has always attracted me to the direction north…its mystery. No other direction can take you closer to nature’s secrets, make you feel so small, or beguile you so easily with its immensity. For North is not, nor has it ever been, ruled by mankind…and there is something enchanting about that. 

Last Words

The old man smiled, one last time. Battered by disease, soft wrinkled skin drooped lazily over his brittle skeleton and each breath he took exacted a heavy price. He knew he didn’t have many of them left. His hair was gone, and the muscles of what was once an elite athlete could barely support the weight of his head. But his eyes were clear and bright, shining intensely, staunchly refusing to miss a second of this, his final passage and greatest adventure.

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The thing that struck me most about his eyes, the thing that I will never forget, was the absolute lack of fear within them. There was curiosity, forgiveness, acceptance, and the slightest bit of nervous anticipation, but no fear. My own eyes were cloudy and wet. I was afraid. My head was spinning as I tried to find the right words. I choked on the simplest expressions of love and gratitude, of admiration and respect, in the end all that came out was a blubbering version of “I love you,” yet somehow that was enough.

I leaned in to give him a final hug and his chalky hands tensed around mine. A strength that could not have been his own held me close as he whispered in my ear. His voice was rough with emotion and scratchy from the effort of speech.

His last words, like his life, have become a mantra of mine. They remind me of what matters, and how precious a gift life is. The words themselves were simple, and even through the pain of disease I could hear his smile and sense his satisfaction within them. “Kitt,” he said, “there is only one thing in life that you can be sure of.” His breath was warm against my ear, and it brought with it a sudden calm. The confused sobs of helplessness and tight black sorrow that held my heart released their grip. Clasping my face gently in his hands he looked into my eyes and I could feel all his energy, all the vitality that he had ever possessed flow through me as he spoke. “The simple truth is, you live, and then you die, so you damn well better live.”

So here’s to living; every day, every moment, because in the end, all we ever have is how we choose to live.

Pa Pi Mal in Haiti

When you ask a Haitian how they’re doing they inevitably reply, “pa pi mal” which means not that bad in the local creole…not that bad because, you see, it can always be worse in Haiti. There’s always someone who is worse off then they are, an idea which is both hopeful and disgusting when a little boy with a dirty rag for a shirt and no pants tells you this as he slurps on a rotten shard of mango that has been sitting in a pool of piss for a couple of days. Pa pi mal, not that bad, it’s still pretty damn bad though.

The plane flight from Miami to Port au Prince takes a little less than two hours. From above, the Caribbean is beautiful, all aqua marine and turquoise with dark spots of reef and slivers of white sand. At about a thousand feet above Port au Prince, however, I get my first look at the city. Disjointed piles of rubble are everywhere, blue and grey tarps cover crumbling and non-existent roofs, makeshift tents shelter shattered lives. They go on forever, the tent cities, covering every piece of open space in the city. There are no soccer fields, no country clubs or golf courses, no plazas or parks, even the medians of the old French-colonial boulevards are crowded with make shift lean-twos, squeezed between the trucks and buses belching diesel fumes. With nowhere else to go, people crowd the streets; from 500 feet above you can see them in tight knots stacked on top of each other, huddled in the small spots of shade. I hear one of the volunteers on the chartered 737 behind me gasp, “What have I gotten myself into.” The consequences of our good intentions start to sink in.

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We disembark and the Haitian heat swallows us whole. Oppressive, sticky, dense, in late May it becomes suffocating, but bigger problems lie on the horizon. In June it will start to rain, turning an already desperate situation into an apocalyptic one. Cholera will come, so will Dengue Fever, Diphtheria and a host of other nasty diseases that feast on the high density tent cities and human cesspools in the streets of Port au Prince.

The volunteers, however, continue to come as well. Despite the rising tide of frustration and violence, they come to Haiti from all over the world. Some have skills that the Haitians need, doctors and nurses are in short supply, lab and x-ray techs, prosthetic engineers, and many types of surgeons are non-existent in Haiti and all are badly needed. Others come to serve a higher power, well meaning church groups and missionaries, along with a few religious zealots and fake profits, offer salvation through prayer and faith. Others still come for the chaos, the lawless streets and edgy danger that a place on the brink possesses. Some say they never had a choice; they were compelled to come from deep within, the reasons still unclear even to themselves. Driven forward by the raw, masochistic allure of volunteering in Port au Prince; a place that Dante would have had a hard time dreaming up but also a place that continues to pull people back over and over again.

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Because there are a few things that become undeniably clear when you spend time volunteering in Haiti; the place affects you, it enchants you, and it scares you. Whether you like it or not, Haiti gets inside of you, and once it’s inside of you, it refuses to be forgotten.

Sailing Beneath the Southern Cross

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“The sea doesn’t care what your history is, or what your dreams and goals may entail.  It doesn’t care how much experience you have, or who is waiting for you back home. It simply exists. It is eternal.”

A disclaimer: Sailing across an ocean is one of the most iconic and romanticized of all adventures…it’s certainly one of the oldest, and it has inspired writers and poets far more eloquent than me to expound upon the beauty and wonder, along with the fear and fierceness the open ocean can conjure. I think it’s probably best to leave it that way. Simply put, sailing across the South Pacific was incredible; it’s a mode of travel that seemed to suit my spirit, being pushed slowly along by the wind to a place I’ve never been, and in no real hurry to get there. I felt as close as I ever have to the ancient soul of movement, and found a clarity of thought, a deepness of sleep, and honesty of self that I can only describe as extraordinary.

The following is a small collection of moments from the days and nights I spent aboard the good boat Sea Dragon, sailing from Rapa Nui to Tahiti.  It’s a brief list of some things I will never forget.

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The lights on land disappearing into the darkness during our first night at sea. Sitting with my legs hanging over the bow, the taste of salt on my lips and a ring of clouds circling the boat. Staring at the unbroken horizon line where ocean and sky meet in a collision of infinite blue while listening to the slap, splash, slurp, and sloosh of waves against the hull. Watching a flashing fish draft the bow’s wake. My first time taking the helm…standing with the wheel in my hands, aiming the bow at a bright star on the distant horizon, while bending one leg and then the other, finding the rhythm of the waves and absorbing the ocean surging beneath me with my entire being.  The snap of sails filling as the boat keels over in a graceful curtsy to the wind’s majesty. Staying low during rough seas, head always ducked and eyes always up, moving bowlegged from one hand hold to the next. Damp rope in my hands and the thick canvas of the sails as I struggle to take in a reef amidst a freshening breeze. Pushing a large needle and waxy thread through that canvas in an effort to fix a hole in the stay sail.

The wind changing direction suddenly in a squall during a downward run, watching as the 40 foot boom breaks free from the preventer line in a crash jibe and swings over our heads with the violence of a two ton aluminum baseball bat. The sickening lurch of the boat, screams from down below, while the captain yells, “hard to port!”

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The crackle of line being pulled out when a fish hits. The smell of rotting fruit, body odor, damp clothing, and dirty dish rags below decks. Pastel sunsets and the stars during the midnight watch; a dome of sparkling, pulsing dots of light that flicker and shine in a cadence and language all their own. Shooting stars and UFO’s streaking through the night sky unburdened by any form of light pollution. The inescapable sun, and the crisp, clear blue water when I dive off the bow into 13,000 feet of ocean a thousand miles from land. Floating on my back in the middle of the ocean, looking up at the sky as the abyss below supports me. The tangible experience of my spirit expanding in such unobstructed space. Losing track of what day it is and realizing it doesn’t matter. Jumping off the boat at a remote atoll and being circled by a trio of curious juvenile sharks so close I could touch them.

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The un-romantic reality of life at sea for weeks at a time. Vomit. Sleeping in a middle bunk with six inches of head room. Fourteen people sleeping, bathing, sweating, eating, shitting, fucking, living and breathing in less than 400 square feet of space. The kitchen floor, and the unavoidable spills, squished rice, carrot peels, and crushed Cheerios sticking to the bottom of my bare feet while washing the dishes. The divine smell of freshly baked bread wiping all the other stink away for a few beautiful minutes. The snoring, farting, whispering, banging and rocking of nighttime below deck. The clatter and clang of cooking in a rolling sea and the silence of 4am on deck under full sail, when we feel like the only two people in the world, necks craned at the stars as Orion’s perpendicular belt guides us west while Venus rises slowly in the east. Talking about our lives and dreams as strangers become best friends. Pumping the foul smelling grey water tank in the morning, standing in the rain, hoping it rains hard and long enough to sneak a quick shower in on the bow. Strong hot coffee and fresh popcorn at 4am, letting the smell of it wipe away the rotten guava stench. The teeth crunching taste of tang, used in excess to cover up the brackish drinking water. The click-clack of wrenches locking into place and the steady groan of taught ropes. The ricocheting triangular glare of a low sun.

Finally, watching an island grow slowly on the horizon and the inexplicable but definite smell of earth, a whiff of life fluttering across the desert of the sea’s surface. Those first wobbly steps on dry land that can’t help but turn into a run, and the taste of a cold beer shared with crew mates. The joy of landfall fading quickly against the nostalgic memories of being at sea, and then the dreams, months later, of floating blissfully along under a bright sun or the Southern Cross. Knowing that I would give anything to be back on a boat in the middle of the ocean watching the sunrise over that beautiful blue water.

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