Friday, August 24, 2012

A Lake of My Own

Wednesday, August 1, Milledgeville, Ga. It’s about seven-thirty. I got up as usual at six, with the light from outdoors peeking in through gaps in my curtains and walked over to my desk at the perch of the loft, to look out through one of the two big triangular windows facing the lake, the surface of which is like brushed aluminum, but with a faint warm greenish-gray patina. This is my favorite time of morning, my favorite time of day, when the lake is like glass, a surface waiting to be inscribed, and the world is mute with expectation, with hope and promises.

Sometimes I’ll begin the day with a swim out across the inlet and back, a distance of a little less than half a mile each way. I go down to the dock with my towel, goggles, and bright yellow swim cap. There’s a heavy wooden Adirondack-style chair on the dock over the backrest of which I drape my towel, then I snap on my cap and goggles and lower myself via a rusty ladder into the glassy, Coke-bottle-green water The spiders have been busy all night, spinning their webs across the ladder to catch May flies and other insects, and I do my best not to destroy their work, though sometimes it’s not possible, and I don’t care to jump in the water first thing in the day.

At that hour the water is warmer than the air. It feels almost like bathwater, with a thin layer of fog hovering over it. I paddle out to the front of the dock, sight my target—a stand of pine trees across the way—and head out doing a swift crawl, counting each stroke. I don’t know why I count, except that somehow it adds to my momentum and makes the way across swifter. Since I started swimming here three years ago, I’ve tried to count the exact number of strokes required by me to reach the other side, and have yet to do so successfully, since always, no matter how hard I try to concentrate, at around a hundred fifty strokes I lose track. The best I’m able to estimate is that it takes me somewhere between 180 and 200 strokes to cross, a figure that means little to me and will mean even less to you, though it does give me a way to judge my progress and choose, should I wish to, intervals at which to rest.

Since it’s early morning there are no boats out. One has to be careful about powerboats when swimming. Their drivers don’t always look where they are going. This is especially so when they’re pulling water skiers and also with jet skiers—that loathsome race of subhumans. It should come as no great surprise if someday I’m struck dead out there in the middle of the inlet by a jet skier, and yet I’ve already made my peace with that possibility, preferring it by far to death by automobile accident or heart attack or any other death on dry land. Even if at the hands of some moron on a jet ski still, let me die in the water, out on my lake.

When I’ve counted around 190 strokes I can be pretty sure that if I stop and put my feet down they’ll touch a soft, sandy bottom, and they do. Beyond the stand of pines there’s a modest dwelling, a cottage fronted with a screened porch. The grass there is overgrown. I have never seen anyone at or near the house, and suspect that its owners have put it up for sale. Meanwhile the shoreline between the pine trees is a favorite hunting ground for herons. Often, as I stand at one end of my swim, I’ll surprise a blue heron there, just in time to see him spread his great smoke-gray wings and alight into the pale morning sky. Once, a few days ago, I had a chance to watch one for a while—while he watched me, this queer, yellow-headed monster rising from the water. Then he beat his wide wings and was gone.

Then back to the dock, to my chair and towel. There is enough privacy out here most of the time so that, if I wanted to, I could swim in the raw. As it is, by Georgia standards, my skimpy Speedo (or its equivalent) is comparable to full public nudity (except at the Olympics I don’t think anyone down here has ever seen a grown man in a Speedo). However tempting it is, not wishing to risk an confrontation in with my neighbors, I stick to my Speedo.

Back at the house, having hung up my gear on a cast iron Victorian hanger screwed into the wall near the door, I put on my house togs—a pair of drawstring pants, clogs and a T-shirt—and fire up a pot of espresso. The stove’s electric, one of those flat-topped modern jobs in which the elements are invisible. Still, it works pretty well. There is also a microwave in which I simultaneously heat up a half-cut of milk—close to boiling, but not quite. With hot latte in hand I stroll down to the dock again. I never get tired of the lake and the dock. I have not yet entirely gotten over their immediate and constant presence here in my life and hope not to. They are the perfect means by which to greet the day. There are times, too, when in the midst of some dreary or tedious chore I will look up from my desk and out the window to see the lake waiting for me, spread out there in front of me like some eager and never satisfied lover, and I’ll drop everything to attend—sometimes grudgingly—to her wishes. The point is that the lake is always there, always willing, always inviting, and it seems a pity to deny it. Even in the rain sometimes I swim, as long as there’s no thunder anywhere. (Right now, writing this, I have to resist the urge to step away and tend to this other calling. I cannot be both writer and swimmer at once. I have to choose between duties and desires.)

It has been over two weeks since I arrived again here in Georgia, in my new home. The moving van pulled up on the 14th of July, Bastille Day, and today is the first of August. I am settled in, pretty much, but also unsettled. There’s the sense of having arrived in a place so perfect that the “arrival” feels close-ended, permanent, as if I’ve come not only to the end of my struggles but to the end of all worldly ambition. It has made me — not complacent, exactly, since a predisposition toward dissatisfaction and struggle is too deeply ingrained in me—but it has filled me with a morbid turpitude with respect to almost everything other than “putting my house in order”—a phrase chosen advisedly and in full awareness of its irony. There’s a sense in which perfection is like death, or—to put it the opposite way—in which the creative force is powered by the drive toward attaining that unattainable summit of perfection. We are inspired by what we hope to but can’t possibly achieve. This keeps us honest, restless, active, while keeping a distance between us and our ultimate destiny: death. To be satisfied is dangerous if not lethal. This is why the best artists often have such messy lives. Those little (and often not-so-little) bits of perfection achieved on canvas on with words are but countermeasures, temporary stays against life’s overwhelming and insurmountable losses and deficiencies. Yeats presents us with the choice between perfection of the art and perfection of the life: no, the poet says, we can’t have both. Here, on the shore of this lake, I feel as if I have achieved, or am in danger of achieving, a perfection of the life. Insofar as that is true I feel no desire to create. I feel arrived; I feel empty.

*   *   * 

Still, there’s been work to do: putting “one’s house in order” is no mean feat, not when the house is a work of art. And so I’ve been painting walls. The other day I painted the bannister leading up to the loft, as well as the loft railing fronting my desk. For each of these I chose a different, complementary color: a deep sea blue for the bannister leading up, and an equally rich warm magenta for the loft railing. Like voices in harmony the two colors interact, gliding in and out (and over and under) each other. The walls under each of the railings I painted in correspondingly complementary hues: warm magenta under the sea blue railing, sea blue under the magenta railing, so the overall effect is no longer that of a two-part harmony but more like a string quartet, with two or three paintings hung on both walls adding human voices to the instrumental harmonies. On the central main wall, which rises up to the rafters, over the mantle of the stone fireplace I’ve hung two large paintings, a horizontal one of the Titanic in its fateful approach to the iceberg, and a vertical self-portrait of the artist, in splotched painter’s clothes, wielding his brushes and looking either angry or frightened. To both sides of these painting, in the narrow space dividing each triangular window from the French doors that open to the wooden deck, I’ve hung a set of wooden oars, complete with rusty oarlocks, bought from Ebay. A hand-painted Moroccan vase (an urn, really) sprouting dry eucalyptus twigs of various autumnal shades and centered on the wooden mantle piece completes the effect while scenting the room’s air with a faint odor of mentholated musk.

As for the rest of the room, which with its cathedral ceiling embraces dining room, living room, and kitchen, I’ve spread rugs (a vermillion and yellow kilim for the dining room, a blue and red druri for the living room) over the gray-blue carpeting, while in the kitchen teams of espresso cups of various styles and shades hang from hooks over and around the stove. There is still no dining or living room furniture; these are due to arrive in a week or so: a brown imitation leather sofa from K-mart, and plain, modest dining room furniture in a maple finish, and a two-tone black and cherry server (to go against the magenta wall under the sea blue bannister). Up in the loft, meanwhile, I’ve painted all but one wall butter-yellow, to contrast with the dark Guyanaian fabric drapes and a colorful Indian spread over an old maple bed that was left here when I moved in. I pushed my oak mission desk up against the loft perch facing the big windows, and next to it a two-drawer file cabinet. Since the pitched roof drops down to shoulder height at my right, I’ve lined the butter-colored wall there with a series of low “Verona” shelves, where I’ll store my works-in-progress, a dictionary, thesaurus, and other reference materials to be kept close at hand, as well as a small radio (since the one downstairs can’t be controlled by remote from up here). There are jars of pens and paper clips everywhere, and straw wastebaskets, and brass hooks. Atop the staircase I’ve hung three of my father’s charming slipshod paintings of Rome: one of the Piazza Navone, one a view looking down the Spanish steps, and one of St. Peter’s (there was a fourth painting in the series, but it was destroyed by water in a basement flood).

The last room apart from the basement is the master bedroom, which will serve as my guest room/valet and which I’ve painted the same butter yellow as the loft, with red curtains hung in its three windows, and tall stained shelves filled with books vying for space with the chest of drawers and a dresser. (The idea of putting bookcases in bedrooms first came to me when I visited the writer and historian Walter Lord, author of, among other things, A Night to Remember, the classic book on the sinking of the Titanic. Lord, who had Parkinson’s disease, could no longer broach the stairs in his apartment, and so they’d moved his bed into the library where he slept surrounded by ceiling-high tiers of books. Something about sleeping among so many books, in a library, appealed enormously to me. Ever since I’ve made sure to include bookshelves in my sleeping arrangements.) Since there was no room for it in the closets I screwed my tie-rack to the back of the guest-bedroom door.

And that’s it about my home, just about, except for the basement, which is unfinished but where someday I hope to create an art studio. For now, it’s where I store my art supplies as well as a dozen big cardboard crates stuffed with about a hundred and fifty paintings (the rest I’ve scattered around the house). With more lights strung in it and with its two sets of paned doors letting in some natural light along with a truncated (by the underside of the porch deck) view of the water, it will make a decent studio. The though of painting appeals to me enormously at the moment, in part if not mainly because I’m not writing, not wanting to write, not caring so much about words as about colors and shapes and arrangements of those things. Then again, as my friend the poet told me the other day, nothing is easier not to do than writing. It is the most avoidable of all tasks, and possibly the least natural. Illustrating the ineffable is, to put it plainly, a pain in the ass, a pursuit at the far—if not the furthest—end of our humanity, utterly at odds with our baser animal instincts. The hunger it satisfies isn’t a natural hunger, which may help explain why writers are always running to the refrigerator, or wanking off, or jumping in lakes—anything to relieve the “pain” of ignoring those appetites in favor of an appetite (if it can even be called that) that’s entirely artificial, entirely man-made. To the extent that such a hunger exists we’ve invented it to complement and augment our neuroses.

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