Saturday, May 2, 2009

away, ghosts

My favorite entry from Matt's old blog:

I saw a note in a garbage bin in the gym that had handwritten instructions: “Meditate or ‘just be’ for 5 minutes, then write a sentence or 2 about your experience.” Underneath the fold was the response, in a different hand, “I forgive you now.”

Friday, May 1, 2009

purgatorial night, redemptive morning light (part III)

I must have fallen asleep at some point, because I realize I’ve been dreaming. I hear Jesse’s methodical breathing and know that she has fallen asleep too. I conduct a quick bodily inventory, making sure none of my limbs have fallen off me like heavy blocks of ice. I wiggle my toes and am startled that they still have sensation. I slowly maneuver my head out from underneath the seat. The cold air hits my face and saturates my lungs, causing me to heave. The car is filled with a tangible iciness, but also a strange stillness. I open my eyes, squinting, trying not to let the cold get to them too. Suddenly, I see lights. Someone is shining a beacon of light through the rear window of our car.

Shit, I think, someone called the cops. I jerk my head down, hoping they didn’t see me. My mind flashes, is this really happening? Are we really going to get arrested after a night like this? I remember that technically we’re parked on private property, and then there was that brief bout of voyeurism, which may be a bit difficult to convincingly explain away (“we didn’t come here for the small children, officers, we came here for the church!”). I quickly conjure up outlandish excuses we can use: amnesia, abductions, reality tv shows, whether we can claim temporary insanity. Our prospects look dim. And anyway, jail would be warmer than this - and I imagine Icelandic jails can't be that full. I gather my nerves and sit up to peer out the window, face-on into the headlights, into the eyes of those who determine my fate.

I see before me the Atlantic ocean, wide, vast. Its water, heavy with cold, moving like a colossal army of gray over hills. This is the first ocean I’ve ever known, fascinated as a small child by these waters, always wanting to be taken out beyond the breaking point and lifted over its upswings and currents. The sky has taken on the warm tones of early dawn, and I can now make out the horizon line, separating the effervescent water from clouds above, the ocean’s breath fogging just like mine. The sky churns in a moment of tension, like water about to boil, then clouds separate and the sun reemerges form its low seat, sending its cascading shimmering light out over the water, which in turn mirrors it back up to the sky. I feel yellow light on my face, pouring into the car. I call out to Jesse, curled up and sleeping behind me, to tell her with a slight lingering disbelief that we’ve made it.

In a daze, I fumble around, moving seats, searching for door handles, pulling myself in all of my layers out of the backseat and into the open, into the surroundings we missed the night before when driving in darkness. I gaze around. I’m a tiny insignificant dot in a world of white. Snow-covered peaks surround us, with cliffs dropping down onto white rocky beaches. Ice sparkles like stars in the sunlight, the land shimmering, shaking. White and grey sea birds soar over the glacial water, stretching their wings out in an early morning yawn. The sharp breeze carries the scent of salty life, and as much as it pains me to take in that frigid air, I take the deepest breath I can. I feel the tremor of cold begin to slip away, and a stirring of wakefulness deep within me, as my body slowly begins to rise toward the light.

I realize I’m standing next to the church. It looks smaller now, slightly old and decrepit. This intimidating force that had towered darkly over us all night, now cowers in its surroundings. For a moment, I consider walking up the stairs again and double checking the doors, just to see if I would find a key under a doormat that we had failed to look for last night, or a lock mysteriously hanging open. But my legs shake underneath me, I’m hunched over, leaning my weight on our tiny car. I'm still floating through this sunrise landscape, this view I would have missed had we slept inside, pacified by the comforts of shelter.

Suddenly, I hear the engine turn, and the car’s sputtering but triumphant rumble. Jesse is awake. I decide to forego the stairs, and the answers they may bring. I climb back into the car, ready for the heat bath, ready for the night to melt away. We unwrap our wrinkled roadmap, a casualty of the restless night, and pore over its dots and lines, semi-aware of its futility with the daylight illuminating everything before us. This place, this moment, has become the new starting point for us, on our road northward. Bathed in the night and swimming in morning, we begin to drive.

purgatorial night, redemptive morning light (part II)

The freezing cold does strange things to you in your sleep. By the time 3am rolled around, I felt violated. The previous three hours had been a long sequence of shifting positions, reorganizing clothing on my body, shivering, chattering, and bargaining with higher powers for warmth. I was beginning to deeply appreciate delirium, which flashed by and temporarily made things interesting. I had emptied my backpack and was now wearing every article of clothing brought with me to Iceland. Two thermal shirts, two sweaters, a down-filled puffy winter coat, long underwear, two pairs of pants, two pairs of wool socks, two extra sweaters wrapped around my feet and tied into knots because the socks weren’t enough. A scarf, earwarmers, a hat, gloves, with my towel draped over me as a makeshift blanket for extra measure. I was still freezing, and night wasn’t even half over yet. I considered climbing into my empty backpack and using it as a cocoon, but decided my movement was restricted enough for the position shifts that needed to be executed every 20 minutes to maintain feeling in my limbs. I lay there and dreamed longingly of the horizontal collapsibility of folding screens and accordions, cursing my body for not being able to do the same. When did humans become so vertically-oriented anyway?

Another unfortunate discovery that surfaced while cooped up in the car, which we had dubbed the Hotel Yaris, was when I realized I was the exact wrong size to curl up in a ball in the passenger-side seat. This, I learned through trial and error, was the warmest sleeping position I could muster, but proved to be impossible to pull off over a period of time, as my epic battle with that horrid seat raged throughout the night. When I managed to pull my legs and feet – fattened with my many blubberous layers of clothing – onto the seat in a position in which they would stay, I found that my head hung off the top of the seat, bobbing violently every time I began to doze off. I squirmed down so that my head could rest comfortably enough to sleep, which then in turn sent my feet hurtling off the seat bottom, causing me to lurch, arms and hands flailing, toward the dashboard. My improvised sweater-shoes invariably popped off my feet when this happened, and I then had to take off my gloves, unzip my jacket, and strain forward to tie them back on with numb hands. My patience for this seesawing didn’t last long.

I gave up and toppled myself over the console into the miniscule backseat, my head wedged underneath Jesse’s reclined driver’s seat, my feet stowed underneath the other. My knees, elbows, hips, and other now incredibly inconvenient body parts rested in a heap of bones somewhere in between. This position at least eliminated the teeter-tottering, but required me to extract my head and come up for air every half hour so as not to suffocate - when did humans became so damn dependent on oxygen anyway? I treated the tiny crevice under the seat as a sauna, heated by my vaporous breath, and cherished the moments when it became so warm that I could pull my hat back off my face and strain my eyes enough to see the stars out the back window. However, it wouldn’t take long to feel that familiar fuzziness set in. The colors would begin to flash, the dreams surfaced while still awake, and in a sudden wave of alarm, I’d realize it was time to start the engines deep within, pull the levers and get the wheels cranking, to pull myself out from under the seat and up to the surface for some air. Goddamn, I was so tired. I needed an oxygen tank.

The only thing that precluded my need for air was my need for warmth. Jesse was struggling with the cold too, so we developed a system. All night long, we waited until it was too cold to bear – violent shaking, numb body parts, lips on the verge of turning blue – and then turned on the car, heat blasting full force. It’s a strange thing, when you’re this cold, that heat can actually hurt, but your body slowly begins to remember it and ease back into a temporarily normal state. We did this about every hour, letting the glory of artificial heat pour its sweet nectar vapors into the stale car interior until we felt the first inklings of perspiration under our thermal layers, our bodies welling up again from warmth, blood circulating, sensation’s magnificent return. These moments were the happiest pinnacle of my life. Then we’d turn the car engine off again to save fuel and try to trick our bodies into falling asleep as fast as possible with false promises of continued warmth, before the heat dissipated out the foggy windows and we found ourselves back in a cold nature’s deathly grip.

There are only so many mental states you go through in those subzero temperatures before you realize you’ve come up against the final wall of sanity. The path you follow to this point drives you along an emotional twisting road, allowing you to see as if for the first time, and ponder, the things you can handle and the things you can’t. But when you come up against that wall, you’re looking directly at the things you can’t. You’re staring right into their eyes – an army of headlights facing you in the dark. And they’re not getting out of your way as you push and push through the night. They move with you, growing in number as your patience and will begin to wear away. There’s always the looming thought of how much further you have to go, how you’re going to stay warm if the gas runs out and you can no longer rely on heat, how you’ll possibly manage to leave the car if your body wants to get rid of the water you’ve been consuming as a last-ditch effort to console your nerves. You don’t know what time it is – what if your mind’s been playing tricks on you and you still have ten hours left of this torment? And even if your mental clock hasn’t been deceiving you, you still don’t even know for sure what time the Icelandic mid-winter sun will decide to brighten the sky and tell you when you can leave this godforsaken town.

But, as the morning hours grow nearer, and you see with each passing hour that time is shifting onto your side, you begin to find a strength in these things. They become a badge displaying all that you’ve survived already. You think, I’ve made it this far, I can go a little further. You discover that the body and mind have a hidden reservoir, buried deep below, a reserve army of secret forces that it only brings out when you’re in dire need. They cushion you with a startling calm, and cheer you with memories culled from long stored away times, carrying you along your road when it becomes impassable by foot. You think of your childhood birthdays. You think of your favorite songs. You think of the first time you saw the Pacific. the first time you saw India. You think of your boyfriend and wonder what he’s doing at that exact moment, hundreds of miles away. You think of sex. You think of food.

I began to space out the hourly heat sessions in my mind as points on a mental map, visualizing as time went by how much closer I had moved toward the next spot. I passed through hour after hour like this, place after place, nursing and coaxing my traumatized body onwards, with eyes and hopes set on my ultimate destination – a mecca I was determined to reach that night, a brilliant radiating light beaming up from the middle of my map. I was aiming to reach the newest s-word that held the utmost importance for me: sunrise.

purgatorial night, redemptive morning light (part 1)

The late-April heat wave that baked Brooklyn in 90-degree temperatures got me thinking a lot about the cold. Often when I don't want to risk the spike in electric bills from air conditioning, I comfort myself with thoughts of the frigid winter air, the cold wind blowing in off the river that numbs my face, snow creeping in through my shoes and bathing my feet in an unwelcome icewater bath. However, during these soothing and cooling remembrances (which do sometimes succeed in taking the edge off the heat), I always remember that the cold temperatures in winter had me pining for the blistering heat of summer. This April heat wave was particularly bittersweet, because it occurred only two months after one of the coldest nights that I've ever experienced - and one that I barely survived to tell about. And as a reminder to myself that even Brooklyn summer heat has its advantages, I am going to recount it here:

During a recent road trip around Iceland, my friend Jesse and I had been left with no choice but to sleep in a car, parked on a crest of land jutting out from the eastern Icelandic fjords, with our tiny two wheel drive staring pathetically into the immense icy jaws of the Atlantic. We had no sleeping bags or blankets, only the clothes we had packed for a week. Our winter coats, we discovered quickly into our trip, weren’t crafted for arctic temperatures and even by day, offered a flimsy defense against bitter winds and Celsius temperatures that we as Americans had no idea how to interpret, only knowing that negative numbers weren’t our friends.

It was a particularly black and snowy night. We had spent most of it snaking around mountains and delving deep into fjords, praying we wouldn’t be buried by avalanches as our windshield was pelted by the most menacing pebbles we had ever known. Each pop and crack was a threat to us intruders that the mountains would soon come down with them if we didn’t heed their warnings. After pushing on for hours, we realized we had finally reached our limit upon arriving in a small fishing village, whose name began with an S but left us at a loss when we tried to wrap our mouths around the following sixteen letters. This place would have to do, as we couldn’t go on any further without sleep - another word that began with "s" that we could pronounce and which we were craving voraciously.

When driving at night with no clear destination in mind, it’s easy to continuously extend your driving time. You think that by the time you reach a certain place, you will surely be exhausted and need to call it a night there. But when you arrive, you convince yourself that a little bit of coffee and the right music on the radio will keep you awake enough to make it to the next point on the map. In our case, this was coupled with the fact that most of the points of the map were completely silent and void of people when we pulled in, leaving us with no place to sleep even if we wanted to stay there, and willing us to seek shelter in the next town along the way. However, by the time we pulled into S-town at an hour that was late even by New York standards, we were ready to play our last hand in the hopes that it would gain us something. Anything.

We had heard from travelers at our Reykjavik hostel that there was a small church on a hill in this village that had been taken over by a local couple and converted somewhat rustically into a one-room guesthouse. In a haze brought on by hypnotic night driving, I allowed my mind to be carried off to the romantic and unlikely possibilities of sleeping in such a place. We would settle in on sheets and pillows spread across church pews that served as hard mattresses, as an eerie Christ statue cast his sad defeated eyes down upon us from his perch on a crucifix, our watchdog as we slept. We would fill our water bottles from holy water vestibules, store our backpacks away in a tabernacle locker, and feel the morning sunlight cascade in on us through stained glass images of death and suffering. It all had a disturbingly strange appeal, and I realized the price I would be willing to pay just to have the warmth and solace that the church’s walls could provide. The moon protruded from the clouds as we arrived in town, and there on a hill in front of us in the moonlight – what could only be described as the eeriest quintessential Hitchcock moment of my life - loomed the church.

We coaxed the car up the steep ice-covered hill - tires screeching and sliding, a menace to elfish lawn ornaments in its path, a raging Norse god of war on a leash. Worried about the wind, Jesse then pulled off the most incredible feat of driving I ever thought possible – a stick-shifted k-turn on a slippery road surface only big enough to hold a pick-up truck, with a steep cliff drop-off on three out of four sides. Standing outside waving my arms to direct her, I craved the fiery blazes of an inferno that should have accompanied the biblical red glow surrounding me in the brake lights. I imagined the horror the townspeople must have felt, rousing each other from bed to search out their windows for the source of the late-night screeching and hissing, only to spot a fiery red figure glowing in the distance, her arms waving, beckoning them to come closer, closer still… now stop, ok good you can approach a little more. Now… crap! too close! Go back!

As we should have predicted before ascending the hill, the church situation was too good to be true. We gazed up at its wooden doors, chained shut with an intimidating fortitude designed to keep stragglers like us out of its realm, with a foreboding paper proclamation nailed to its doors. We blasted the heat for longer than necessary, trying to absorb as much comfort and warmth as possible before commencing our arduous pilgrimage up the stairs on what was amounting to be this darkest night of our souls. After finally willing ourselves to venture out and read the sign, our worst nightmare was confirmed – it told us that in order to gain entrance into the church, we had to call the owner’s cellphone and ask him to unlock the doors. Travesty! Our hopes lay in shattered pieces at the doors, trapped outside with the souls of millions before us who couldn’t gain entrance into its salvation, as we realized that neither of our cellphones had reception. Higher powers had commanded a penance that we couldn’t complete. Darkness and cold crept in.

A few minutes of bleak pondering and regretful contemplation passed before we realized we could just find a payphone. Revved up by a new hope, we set out on a slightly detoured route to our requiem. Jesse descended the hill on foot, I on my backside, as my shoes had suddenly lost all traction. We roamed the town, lit eerily by a smattering of street lamps, and an occasional living room or bedroom light that taunted us from inside warm-looking homes. Our footsteps crunched, the wind howled. We passed the dock, its ships bobbing in the water like sleeping whales submitting to the will of the gentle methodical waves. We passed the only restaurant in town. A closed gas station. Driveways containing SUV’s – droolworthy, muscular, Viking snow warriors compared to our compact Toyota Yaris, which we likened to a whiny, cranky Brooklynite who figured it didn’t need to pack anything extra on a trip to the North Pole because its snow boots had managed just fine on concrete sidewalks.

There wasn’t a payphone in the entire place, as we should have guessed, since this wasn’t the land of convenience stores and 24-hour facilities. We were, after all, in a small fishing village in rural Iceland. We decided to try yet another plan. I whipped out my lonely planet guide, which I had bought at the last minute before heading to the airport, thinking it may come in handy at some point. I looked up the village and sure enough, there was mention of the church. And better yet – it told us which house in town the couple lived in. We circled back, night prowlers in search of our prey, and looked for the little yellow house on the hill below the church. There it was before us, like Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread house in the woods.

There have only been a few times in my life when I’ve felt like I was acting really creepy. I soon realized this moment would become one of them. We stood at the gate in the front yard, straining our necks to see inside, checking to see if lights were on, if we could see people stirring. We noted children’s toys in the yard. We tiptoed up the walk, cringing at each loud crunch of the snow under our feet, wondering if the couple could use our footprints as evidence when they called the cops in the morning about two intruders sneaking around town all night. A quick spat at the door over who would be ringing the doorbell, and Jesse pressed the button. We waited a few moments, then rushed back to the gate, thinking it better to watch the door from there. No one answered. We quickly considered and dismissed the idea of ringing a second time. Nobody had stirred in the house, and it didn’t look likely that anyone was home, judging by the fact that ours were the only footprints in the walkway. The whole town was asleep at that point. We were out of ideas.