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On Mountains (part 1) (written 10/12/19)

“I want to stand with you on a mountain”

-Daniel Jones & Darren Hayes (Savage Garden)

What I believe is my earliest memory begins in the ocean (or was it a bay, a sea, or a gulf? I haven’t the slightest idea regarding the scene’s specifics; I know it’s not one of the Great Lakes because my parents never took me there…), and I’m standing in this water or perhaps walking, in between my mother and father, each of them holding one of my hands, as the low tide was either nearing the furthest it would recede out or just beginning its return in towards the shoreline. (Where is my younger brother in this memory? Perhaps someone is watching him back on the beach? Or babysitting him elsewhere? Or, for some reason beyond my knowledge did I block him out of the memory? I hope not! Was he not yet born? If so, that would make me a one year old at the time; I doubt I possess the capacity to recall life from when I was a mere one year old, though I did read of a woman named Lucy Boyd who told NBC News reporter Bill Briggs she believes her first memory to be of when “she was not quite 2.” Apparently recalling life at one year old however is quite rare. In any event, while there is much I fail to piece together about the enigmatic aspects of this memory, what strikes me most about it is how awestruck I felt in reaction to the water’s shallowness and how far away we seemed from where the waves crashed. I also felt immense jollity as I fixated on the vastness, wideness, and openness of this stunning body of water.   

As I aged, through childhood, adolescence, and even early adulthood, my love for the ocean (which was augmented by an extremely lucky string of beach vacations my parents took my siblings and I on) persisted and deepened, and I advanced from desire to live by an ocean to fulfilling that desire—twice!

For awhile, when I was 19, back in the autumn of 2006, having recently dropped out of college, I lived in South Beach, in a small efficiency, I believe, on Bay Road, not more than a forty minute walk from the ocean, where the water looked as emerald-turquoise as the water of Caribbean often does. At one point I worked for Wings Beachwear, one block from the beach, so on my breaks I’d sometimes walk closer to the water and stare while (though it disgusts me to recall and admit) smoking…usually unfiltered Lucky Strikes or my own hand-rolled cigarettes. For a short time I believed myself to be “living the dream” in “paradise,” fulfilling a dimension of my life’s purpose (simply to live close to the beach) which I’d clung to for virtually my entire life up to that point! (As drawn to the beach as I was, I only ended up in South Beach to follow a girl I thought I was in love with who lived there. I left that beautiful island for New Jersey for the same reason when she transferred to Boston University as she’d only be a three hour train ride or so away).

 I also lived, with my wife Ashley, before we were husband and wife, for awhile (back in 2009, when I was 23,) in southern California, just a half hour or so north of San Diego, not more than a fifteen minute drive from the beach. I quickly deemed this area the most beautiful on Earth, outdoing Southern Florida and the Caribbean. All of San Diego county (where Oceanside and San Diego both are) possesses a stunningly complex and sophisticated mix of mountains, valleys, beach, urbanity, rural open space, and diverse plants and population; it has cosmopolitan and earthy essences to it—a special richness which induced within me then, and induces still, as I think back on it, a boiling and almost religious adoration…a feeling van Gogh seems, at least for me, to have captured in “The Starry Night”—reverence for the universe and one its most “majestic” royal subjects (“majestic” is my wife’s word for it).

My most intense memory of California consists of a cantle of a drive along Interstate 15 heading north towards Riverside where my friend J. lived, studying theology in graduate school there at the time if I am not mistaken… (I grew up with J. in Robbinsville NJ. That thrice in life, by chance of fate, we experienced such propinquity—twice on the Atlantic coast, once quite close to the Pacific— is serendipitous. 1)How much of life seems this way! I hadn’t followed J. to Riverside or anything you see. After 12 years of that sort of friendship which felt for me more like a brotherhood than a friendship… well…As Phillip Lopate writes of his thoughts on friendship:

 “I clung to the romance of the Best Friend all through high school, college, and beyond…

…it was not until the age of thirty that I reluctantly abandoned the Best Friend expectation and took up a more pluralistic model. At present, I cherish a dozen friends for their unique personalities, without asking that any one be my soul twin. Whether this alteration constitutes a movement toward maturity or toward cowardly pragmatism is not for me to say…”

In my case I was 33 when “I reluctantly abandoned the Best Friend expectation”)…

… J. and I did not simply talk about nearly everything…our dialogues and exchange of descants, especially those on the question of whether or not a God exists, whether or not such there is an “absolute” truth, what makes art “good,” what is ethical… I shall ever view these jam sessions where we applied those philosophical portions of our minds as epic, like hikes up the highest mountains we could find within the peripheries of our perceptions, understandings, and contemplations, et cetera. How I lost so much sensibility of the glorious verbatim playback of these conversations—’tis one of my greatest losses and failures indeed! And that this Best Friend idea and Expectation (to borrow again from Dr. Lopate) has since broken up…well.. Alas, to quote The Fray from two separate songs: “Find another friend, and you discard” –?—

“He smiles politely back at you

You stare politely right on through

Some sort of window to your right

As he goes left, and you stay right…

“…Drive until you lose the road

Or break with the ones you’ve followed…

“… Or he’ll say he’s just not the same

“…Where did I go wrong?

I lost a friend”

Though, since our California days, we picked up where we left off every few years or so for awhile. Whether the “every few years” pattern persists or not, I shan’t speculate, however… let the words of one of my heroes, Michel de Montaigne, speak to this:     

            “Those who have deserved my love and thanks have never lost anything for being no

            longer with me: I have repaid them better and more punctiliously when they were absent

            and unaware. I speak all the more affectionately of those I love when they no longer have

            any way of knowing”

Anyway, on my way to this visit with J, and up much of I-15, to Riverside, I saw these mountains. What the mountains (or even what the interstate) looked like specifically I fail to recall, (I often struggle with concrete, physical descriptions of things) but the sight, I do recall, zapped me (to speak figuratively of course!) as if like some spiritual electrification of my soul.

I thought, neglecting to pull over on the shoulder, step out of my car and gaze and stare in wonder would be an insult to life and the universe and a derelict of my duty as an artist. Did I actually pull over though? Sometimes when the memory replays, I do. Other times not so. The fragment of memory I have retained consists of me imagining some piece of literature my subconscious started crafting which was concurrently being written upon the sky, either calligraphy style or in cursive; I forget which. I did not visualize specific words etching themselves mystically into the molecules of sky… however I could imagine, almost like x’s, y’s, z’s and n’s, et cetera, symbolize variables in algebra, that similarly imaginary, blurry shapes, in this algebraic sense, were appearing, slightly plum-like, in the sky, meaning to convey about my imagination or subconscious some deeply felt thought which nonetheless was still only fetal, merely latent, and not yet in the explicitly born, conscious, and linguistic state.

If you ever hear the Bee Gees song “My Lover’s Prayer” when they sing with spiritually romantic intensity: “Let our words burn a sign in the sky…” – that is the closest I can come to articulating with any cogency, the essence of the feeling. Never again did I have a “vision” or “spiritual experience” of quite this sort…

References   [ + ]

1. How much of life seems this way!

By Sean O'Connor

Hi, I'm Sean O'Connor, a poet and writer pursuing my MFA in Creative and Professional Writing at William Paterson University, where I also work as a learning generalist and where I received my BA in Liberal Studies.

Currently. I also work as a writing tutor at Raritan Valley Community College and Mercer County Community College.

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