Phall if you but will, rise you must: An Oregon Coast Journey
There was Turtle.
Turtle was alone and swam in the deeps of the sea.
And none know what Turtle found there.
And Turtle is silent.Turtle grew tired.
Floating on the surface of the sea, he slept.
And Turtle dreamed a great dream
and out of this dream came Bear and Raven.
Bear was solid and serious,
but Raven was wily and loved to laugh.
He’d laugh at the sun and the moon and the stars,
but most of all, he’d laugh at Bear.
Now Bear had been busy creating all things.
He created salmon and deer and birds and clams.
But Bear wanted to make things that loved.
Raven thought this was Bear’s funniest notion ever.
So Bear collected some things that he made – little frogs.
He taught them how to stand, to talk and to dream.
And he told them about love.
And they ran off into the world on Turtle’s back.
Now Raven had watched Bear closely,
he asked him, “Oh Bear, what is the secret of love?”
“Time,” said Bear. “Each little frog is meant for one other only.
So it is important that they run off together.”
“Oh,” said Raven, “You are wise Bear.”
But Raven was laughing under his wing.
Now when Bear had left on serious Bear business,
Raven shuffled the little frogs around.
Bear came back and sat down with the little frogs.
He taught them how to stand and talk and dream.
He told them about love and they ran off into the world.
Bear wondered why Raven was snickering.
Soon the little frogs were hopping around,
talking and running and dreaming like crazy.
And they hopped around looking for the other right little frog,
when that right little frog was not yet born or already dead or with another little frog.
And bear scratched his great furry head
and pondered long and hard
and wrote poems about the mystery of love.
But Raven laughed and laughing, flew off to join the little frogs.
Chapter I. The Word Known to all Men
the rest is dross.”
— Ezra Pound, Pisan Cantos, LXXXI
The summer of 2013 was supposed to be my kayaking summer. I made plans to prepare for advanced training, to go on some long kayaking journeys, to amp up my involvement on the local club board, and to help plan for and teach at large kayak event.
Yet, instead of all that, I found myself leading a project at work that entailed training five hundred young students at three universities how to become software developers. My team and I were to spend two weeks at each of the universities, teaching two shifts of students for eight hours a day.
Our first engagement was in Phoenix, Arizona. The temperature never got much below 110° F, day and night. We carried out our student engagement as hackathons, a kind of wild and wooly unschooling experience that is a surprisingly effective way to enable students to teach themselves.
The students fell in love with the program and we fell in love with them. The days were grueling: we had two sets of seventy-five students per day but the connection with them made it seem somehow lighter.
Also with us was an old friend and colleague, Professor Tom Murphy, a college professor from California. Tom has a huge personality; he is a force of nature with an infectious enthusiasm and huge love for teaching.
Tom, a white, Celtic, Catholic guy from San Francisco, teaches at a college in a very tough part of the world. Tom has an amazing rapport with the students there, almost all of whom have had a rough time and are often mistrustful of those outside their community. Tom is the genuine thing; any mistrust they feel melts away as they connect with him. Typically, after speaking for a few moments with a student, Tom will look at them and say, “You are now my student forever.” He means it. They know. That is all.
Did I mention that I love Tom? I do. He is that kind of person. Once you know him, you have to love him.
All right. Have we seen a theme develop here? Love? There it is. That is the theme of this blog post.
Why love in a kayak blog?
We say we love kayaking, but what do we mean by that? Is love that which you cannot bear to be without? Well, I abandoned my kayak love this summer for another but I do not love it any less.
Is love forever? I used to love to rock climb, but I no longer do it. In fact, I can’t. Too old and did not keep it up enough for my body to accept the considerable strains it places on one, at least at the level at which I was accustomed to climb. I love the memory of climbing, but I don’t think I love it any longer. There it is. Lost love.
Some love never leaves. A child’s love. A parent’s Love. First love. New love. They remain deep within us but can become difficult to reach. They must often be rediscovered, rewritten and renewed.
I began this blog some years ago with that well-known quote from Dante’s Divine Comedy – Midway through Life’s journey, I found myself in a dark place . . .
And, come to think of it, I almost immediately referenced both climbing and kayaking, just as I have done now.
So how do you rediscover those things, which remain? How do you shine a light on those kernels of truth in our love? Must you enter a dark place first? Can a kayak take you there?
Lost in the Stars
– Ulysses, James Joyce
One night during the Arizona hackathon we stopped the van, which we affectionately called the Great White Whale, in the middle of the desert at night. The task at hand was to see stars. We piled out of the van into the warm desert darkness and looked upward into swarms of stars. They seemed oddly close, as if a stern flick of the hand could swipe them from the sky like bright little gnats. At the same time, they were far and cold and distant – alien pinpricks in a void.
Of course, they were neither gnats nor pinpricks, but rather impossibly huge balls of mostly hydrogen burning with such a flame that they were being converted into something new – helium. Flame turning to inert gas, flaring light, and heat and radiation beyond what we can bear.
Moreover, these gnats, these pinpricks, these stars may no longer exist; they could have disappeared ten million years ago, and we’d be none the wiser, standing together at that moment, there, in the desert.
But the light from those stars illuminated us; we felt taken up off that road, away from the tasks we were pursuing, to another place.
After some time looking up, I glanced down and saw, of all things, a beautiful creature, like a fox. The light of the stars glinted off the fox’s eyes as they pierced mine. At the same time, I felt the years slough off of me. Like an old snake shedding its skin and finding itself renewed, so I stood. Newborn. Can such a thing happen? Can there be a connection like that between a man and a creature like a fox? Yes. I know for it happened to me. In that place, bathed in starlight.
On an early August day, Peatrick, Beatrice and I set out to explore the area between Arch Cape and Manzanita, Oregon. Though only about six nautical miles in length, this stretch of coast is famous for its sea caves, which we were looking forward to exploring. The conditions are typical for August, a low swell, and though there is a long period, surf energy is low.
Peatrick and I have paddled together for years. He has a reputation among local kayakers as a daredevil. This is not true actually. Peatrick in not a daredevil but rather an explorer. He challenges the unknown places and boundaries within his self as well as on the water. He is an elegant paddler.
At the put-in, a short walk leads down to a sandy beach. I gear up quickly and am ready to get going. I feel, indeed, I know that today I wam going to be invulnerable. Why? Because of the impossible, Fox-like creature I had seen in the desert. You cannot encounter something like that without a change – for good or bad. Today is good and I am anxious to set out.
Just as I am in my boat ready to launch, Peatrick comes splashing up through the shallow water, a look between humor and embarrassment on his face. It seems that he has forgotten his PFD and now what should he do? It only takes a few minutes for him to decide to launch anyway. Dangerous? Maybe, but on this day, it is obvious that this is not a bad idea.
I launch first, and though conditions are benign, I still have to work hard to get outside the breakers. There is just enough wave energy to push me back, even side-surf me a few times.
Finally outside, Beatrice joins me but where is Peatrick? Beatrice wanders off, as is her wont but I stick around waiting for Peatrick, who I feel might be vulnerable without his PFD.
The day is glorious; the sunlight sparkles on the water and there is just enough ocean swell to bring the sea into your heart. Whilst on the waves, my thoughts turn to that beautiful fox-like creature I met in the desert. Where is she now? I say she, for I know it is a she.
I begin to talk to her – “See Fox-like Creature? See the beauty of this glorious day? See the sparkle of the sun on the sea? Feel the energy of the wave approach from somewhere deep and far, feel it lift the boat. Watch, Fox-like Creature, as the water rebounds from the cliff faces and creates such patterns as these”. I am actually speaking these things aloud, so it is good that there is no one nearby to witness my madness.
After a while, both Peatrick and Beatrice show up, carried by the swell, the pattern of wind-generated waves, from the north. Mounting the waves, we ride them effortlessly south. We paddle towards Cape Falcon, content to be together on the beautiful sea, on such a glorious day, surrounded by the everyday magic of our coast.
Chapter II. Caves
Through this passage to the truth you long for,
So that you’ll learn to cross the ford alone.”
– Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, Canto II
As we near Cape Falcon, we can see the opening of the caves in the cliff face. From a distance, they seem like mere niches in the rock or perhaps small alcoves. Coming closer, they open rather suddenly into imposing entrances with water surging into the broken yellow brown black of the basalt cliff.
All caves are problematic. The earth is solid, or so we think, and the idea of a hole in it is disturbing. How was it formed? How is it maintained? And more importantly, what is down there? Ogres? Dragons? Hell itself?
I do not like caves on land; they are scary and unpleasant. One reason I loved climbing, was the exposure. I loved that empty feeling you get in the soles of your feet, when you are on a sheer face, a thousand feet above the ground with fields of vertical granite stretching in all directions; a feeling akin, it is clear now, to being on the open seas.
I hate the claustrophobic feeling of worming into a small hole, to feel the immense weight of the earth above, to imagine a collapse or getting stuck, wedged in a small place. A horrible way to die. Trapped and inaccessible. Lonely.
Sea caves are different. Scary sometimes, to be sure, but the water flowing in and out gives you a sense that you can leave if you desire. And they are full of life, at least near the entrance; the shelter the cave gives makes them home to a plethora of starfish, gooseneck barnacles, anemones, snails, and mollusks of all sorts.
In our Oregon setting, basaltic lava dominates everything. Our caves are often formed from weak point in the lava walls, where water has eroded and eaten away the basalt structure. Sometimes, the openings lead to lava tubes formed millennia ago when hot, liquid lava flowed through a more viscous matrix and created tunnels, thousands of feet, even miles in length.
Once inside, every cave is the same but different. The particular shape and form of the cavity causes the water to move uniquely, but it always moves, reflecting and refracting off the sides, hissing and moaning through cracks, steaming sometimes when the flowing water is atomized after being forced through a crack and expelled, suddenly, in a puff.
I venture gingerly forward into the first cave we approach and, paddling past the starfish encrusted entrance, I find myself in a deep room. It seems almost circular – complete – like the inside of a stony igloo. As I paddle back, I see that the back wall is actually broken and, during a low point in the surge, another room is revealed.
Dare I try to paddle into that back room? What will I find beyond that low ceiling, in the darkness?
At the back, the ceiling is cut away. If I can time the surge correctly and duck, I might make it through. If I mistime, if the surge increases, it will fill the room with water and smash me against the roof. Crazy.
Without thinking much or planning, I lean forward and stroke hard just as a swell is starting to recede. Ducking, I make it under the low ceiling, but just barely, and moreover the sickening scrape crunch of the paddle against the roof lets me know that this is a stupid move indeed.
I am through though. I ride up and down on the familiar swell, alone in this old place. Each time the swell recedes, a diffuse blue light fills the cave from the light outside. On the swell rise, blackness returns.
Blue. Black. Blue. Black. Like the stuttering light of a film projector or a slow strobe – blink on, blink off.
I can’t remember how we first went out. I mean, I remember our first night out, but I do not remember how I asked her. It must have been me asking her – I think. I remember we had sushi. She was a vegetarian and had cucumber roll.
After dinner, we went to a playground and rode on swings. She sat up on the swing; I leaned forward and we kissed for the first time. It was small revelation of softness and sweet resistance.
I am not sure we did more than that. I gave her some flowers the next day and a note, “Thank you for complicating my life.” She did not know how to interpret that.
I remember kissing and kissing and kissing some more. After such an evening, I remember that light-headed feeling as, intoxicated by love, I’d traipse back to my room at UC Berkeley, floating. I remember Randy, my roommate, looking at me when I came into the room and how he smiled; we both knew that feeling.
“Can there be a moment more important than this? Can there be someone whom I love more than you?” I asked.
“You are my sweetest dearest boy. I will never love anyone more than you.” she said.
The sudden surge of a big set sets my boat spinning into a brighter blue light and back into a longer, deeper black.
Blue blue fades to black.
All is dark again.
I must leave.
I have to time things correctly, but to my surprise, going out is much easier than going in. I wait for a deep surge and push off down into the space under the roof. I ride the rising wave of the swell up effortlessly into the bright sun and see Beatrice, all smiles, waiting for me at the entrance.
“Yay Paul,” she says, characteristically accepting and applauding
Peatrick though is a bit stern; He looks displeased. “Dude, are you nuts? Are you trying to be more me than me?” he says.
The beetling walls above us, though mostly dark grey basalt are not uniform in color or texture. At places where the original lava cracked, new flows have filled the spaces, creating dikes and intrusions. The grey-black basalt is often over-layered or intermingled with swaths of yellow sandstone lending a birthday cake, layered feel to the cliff faces.
The constant, driving winter rains have drawn black water stains, which weave into an icing of white streaks – melted guano from thousands of generations of Western Gull, Common Murre, Pelagic and Double-Crested Cormorant, Pigeon Guillemot & Tufted Puffin which call these walls their home. The Ammonia smell of their waste is a constant a companion in these environs.
Often, when we approach a cliff face, the birds fly off en masse. It can be startling; you enter a sea cave, absorbed by the task of navigating in such a perilous place and all of a sudden a rush of wings and a squawking cry means that you have flushed a nesting guillemot who had been hunkered down on her roost.
Beatrice is a lover of birds and spends many evenings counting owls in the thick forests, which pour down our hillsides to the sea. She is able to identify the birds, which fly panic-stricken out of the caves we enter. She is in many ways birdlike herself, with her slight frame, light gait and constant, ever-present smile and laugh. She flits across the water and is as undaunted by the churning seas as a tern skimming the top of wind-driven waves.
Peatrick is nowhere to be seen, when Beatrice and I come to a new opening in the cliff face. Another cave. I enter. Inside, I find not one room, nor even one passage, but many. It is a game of mazes now, following the branching, flooded lava tubes around pillars, chamber into chambers, sometimes popping back out into our seas, sometimes branching deeper and deeper.
Suddenly and unexpectedly, I come out of the darkness into a bright space. The roof of the chamber I have entered has collapsed flooding it with light; the reflection off the water creates a blinding flurry of whiteness – the streets are covered with snow, the sky is full of swirling flakes, the street light casts its yellow flame through the blizzard.
I shuffle my feet, and though the world is snow, I am not cold, or more precisely, I do not feel anything – neither cold nor warmth. I am gripped with numbness in this mad swirling snowflake universe. The city of Cambridge is utterly silent save for the low rumble of snow-plows working off in the scaleless distance; they sound like distant waves breaking onto an unseen shore.
I, a father? I do not understand.
Yet somehow, in a manner beyond any design, plan or control of my own, I am flooded by a deep chthonic love. What to do? How to comprehend this? I stand in the snow, close to tears.
“No matter what,” I vow. “I will be true to this love. I will do whatever it takes to provide and care for and to nurture this being that is love.”
I depart and wander through the streets. The storm flakes are huge, they swirl like a billion tropical butterflies blown by some miracle to Boston. It is so quiet that I hear the whisper of the snowflakes as they jostle each other before settling with a sigh on the bodies of their predecessors. My feet kick up little flights of powder, which rise from each step like specks of sea-foam. I walk home, my tracks already obscure.
With a sigh, I slip back from the dazzling room into a dark tunnel. Beatrice is waiting. The tunnel is long. Far at the end, I glimpse a tiny half circle of light. The exit is there.
The tunnel is utterly black and though I can trace the wave form of the swell for a few feet, what happens in the blackness? Will this uniform roof betray me and bulge down? I do not hear anything like the crash of the wave against a feature, but you can never be sure. And even if the roof is true, what of the floor; can I depend on it? Will it stay true and provide my boat the depth it needs to pass through without disaster.
Beatrice and I discuss the way forward for a moment and then decide that the tunnel is the way we must take. I am somewhat grim, but she laughs.
I set out paddling and am swept into a deep blackness. I am acutely aware of the swell we are riding; I surrender to its motion and surf forward. I keep my head low and rudder with my paddle to track straight. The half circle of light grows until I see the open sea beyond. I am thrust forth into an arena of rock walls and boiling distorted clapotis. Beatrice emerges with a shout and we find Peatrick already there? How did he know where we would emerge? Another small mystery on this strange day.
Chapter III. The Fall
We have been paddling some hours now and though kayaking is a pleasure, sometimes the greater pleasure is to stop. How nice to get out of the cramped cockpit, away from all that blasted water and to free yourself, at least for a while, from the strangled confines of the dry-suit.
Beatrice, who lives on this part of the coast and paddles the area constantly, knows a take out where we can sit in the in the sun and enjoy our lunch. Soon we are at rest on the sand. Out of my kayak, I lay back expecting to relax, but find I cannot.
The clear blue sky above me seems empty. Where are the stars? Have they disappeared forever? Reaching down, I grasp a handful of dry sand. So many grains, uncountable. They run through my fingers and are lost amongst a million, million others – so futile.
All day, I have been thinking of that Fox-like Creature. But what to make of it all? How long can this connection last? Might the fox already have bounded away to wherever such creatures go? Could this have been just a fluke of timing? Would I ever see such a creature again? Trying to subdue the rising tide of anxiety, I head out to sea.
Our plan is to continue along the coast, round the corner of Cape Falcon and then make our way to Manzanita. The final corner of the Cape juts out into the ocean like the broken prow of a ship. This prominence concentrates much of the wave energy and the features here are beset with angry wreaths of foam and the crash of sucking waves.
I paddle south, still dwelling on the bleak thoughts, which had beset me on the beach. Just ahead of me, two paths diverge under the grey-yellow cliffs. On the left a narrow passage to open seas. On the right, another cave or maybe a tunnel; from my vantage point, I cannot know its dénouement. Which way to take? All day I felt a certainty of purpose, but now, a rising tremolo of doubt. I stop to consider. The cave feels threatening, a black maw, like the open mouth of a panther.
A voice from afar murmurs, “The cave is too dark, you are tired, it is dangerous.”
I remember the bright eyes of the fox-like creature. But – the darkness. What might I face?
Putting thoughts of the Fox-like creature aside, I opt for the easier way; I will take the open passage and eschew the unknown peril of the cave. As I pause for a moment to plan my route through the arch, I realize that the way is not trivial. Swell flows through the arch from directly in front of me; I will have to plan carefully so that I am not carried out of control backwards. To make matters more complex, the entering water rebounds from features behind me forming a counter wave flowing back through the arch and rebounds against the incoming waves to creating a tohu and bohu of confusion.
Still, if I am careful.
I wait to try to time my passage with the pattern of the swell, but as I launch, I realize that I have made a mistake.
I am surfing down
the steep side of the incoming wave.
I am out of control.
I try to edge away from the incoming wall.
It does no good at all.
He was dud.
With a resounding hollow – tonnerronntuonn! – the nose of my kayak impacts the wall.
I hold steady for a moment of a moment then slowly,
like a late winter day, fall.
I try to roll too quickly in the turmoil under the arch and fail.
I lie still, upside down, under the boat. I feel the pulse of the ocean. A gentle rocking – a child – rock me gently.
To stay here like this.
I set up, and roll easily.
Passing through the arch, I meet Beatrice.
“Can you look at my boat?” I ask, “Is it OK?” She looks at the bow and I see her grimace. “It is a bit chipped,” she says. Peatrick comes up and looks carefully at the impact area. “I dunno, dude,” he says. “Might be a crack or something.”
As I stare forward, I see a thin white line arching across the bow just in front of the forward hatch. It is a pressure crack caused by the impact of the blow. I notice that the black seam, which binds the deck with the hull, is in tatters. My boat is broken.
Tears of shame and defeat well up in my eyes. Worthless. Finally, after all this. Worthless. What a stupid thing to do.
I feel the gaze of the fox recede. Her eyes extinguished. She lopes off into the night. What have I done?
The stars fade and blackness descends on me. Peatrick is voiceless, brought down by my foul mood.
We paddle in silence.
The Green Glow
Like a bolt out of the blue
Fate steps in and sees you through
When you wish upon a star
Your dreams come true.
Beatrice is not so easily quelled. She insists we visit one last feature. Paddling around the corner, we see it – a tunnel shaped like a heart.
Reader, I can hear you already. “This can’t be,” you will say. “You are making this up in order to finish your blog post with a clever ending. A tunnel shaped like a heart? Give me a break!”
But dear reader, my dear friend, indeed, you whom I love most – you with whom I have shared these most intimate thoughts. It is true. There in front of us is a tunnel whose edges bow out at the top and then narrow, with a feminine curve, to the bottom. And at its apex – a tongue of rock. It is indeed a heart of stone or rather, a heart of air and light, for the stone only forms the outline of the heart rather than the heart itself.
And as the air and light and wind stream through the heart, I feel the black bile of despair ebb, never, perhaps, to disappear, but at least to be submerged by this light and held at bay.
As we near the tunnel . . . of love. I mean, what else can I call it? As we near the Tunnel of Love, Beatrice becomes more excited and animated, she seems to be waiting for something, or anticipating something, but she will not tell us what it is.
Passing through the heart, we come into a basalt chamber. The water is . . . Grey yellow walls surround us. The water is . . . Purple and orange starfish adorn the water line; they creep sloth-like over the fields of barnacles and blue-black mussels. The water . . . Gulls and murres cry and then swoop in grand circles from the walls. The water.
“The Green Glow,” Beatrice says, laughing.
The water is a livid, living, glowing green. Like the water bathing a nuclear pile. And the glow increases at the edge of the chamber. Bright neon fading to pea green in the center fading to blue back at the outer-most edge. We are floating on green light.
The walls of the chamber, which are solid above the water, are pierced below; the sun light entering, at just the right angle, ignites the green glow.
I sit in thought. My kayak had taken me to sources of joy and deep pain.
In darkness I found love, now love has brought me to a deeper darkness.
In this place filled with light, I feel lost again. Has my journey by kayak reached an end?
My guide and I did enter, to return
To the fair world: and heedless of repose
We climbed, he first, I following his steps,
Till on our view the beautiful lights of heav’n
Dawn, through a circular opening in the cave:
Thus issuing we again beheld the stars.”
Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto XXXIV
. Beatrice sits still in her boat, the light of this place illuminating her ever-present smile till she becomes the smile. I look away and then back, but she is gone.
Peatrick is yet nearby but in a moment, he turns. Quietly and quickly he leaves the green light. I watch him paddle away. An explorer; a shade returning to dark water.
For the first time, I am alone.
Nothing can check the tears, which course down my cheeks.
And though I am indeed alone in this place, it seems that I hear a sweet voice, “Weep not! Weep not yet. This moment is not yet come.”
Oh hope unexpected! Oh surety of task!
Like the dawn suddenly banishing night’s gloom, my anguish departs.
The first thing I do is abandon my wounded boat. I love it but no longer need it.
I slip out of the kayak. It seems glad to be rid of me and rides high and empty in the water.
I let go of my paddle. That blue staff, which has supported me through wave and wind.
I discard the spray skirt and watch it slip away. Next the PFD – I am glad to be rid of its bulk. Then the dry-suit–that yoke of safety that burdens us so much. I slip it off, wresting my head free from its suffocating embrace. Next, my now soggy insulation. Free at last to feel the liquid green wash over me. Light and freedom.
Somewhere ahead, on the other side of the arch, the Fox-like Creature runs through a green field. The field is dotted with tiny flowers, sprinkled like stars in a grassy sky. I must find her. We are driven by love to pursue love. We have no choice.
Diving into the glow under the arch, I feel the cold grip me. I swim down, lost in the brilliance of refracted light. I cannot make out the path ahead. I will swim in the green till I find my way.
Once upon a time, there were two little frogs.
The first little frog was just beginning to hop,
the second had been hopping for some time.
The first frog’s hops, though still tentative, were becoming higher and more powerful.
The second frog could not hop nearly so high as he used to and sometimes, could not hop at all.
One day, they began to hop together. To their surprise, they hopped higher than each could alone.
As they hopped, the first frog began to pull ahead;
she bounded over the world like a bird in flight.
The second frog’s hops, though powerful, were ponderous and slow, like a lumbering bear.
The night sky opens in song, incandescent fusion merges all into one, we are lost together, out here in the stars.m