A stranger. We sit on rocks on the beach in that odd part of night where the moon looks surreal and everything seems made of quicksilver. The air is crisp. It’s been raining and my nostrils are full of the smells of sand and ocean and freshness. My mind is full of everything and nothing.
Toby gently finger-picks his guitar as he talks.
“For music it’s easier sometimes… It can be a memory that brings it out. But you have to be careful with the blues because the memory is most likely a sad one. You need to make sure it’s from the right place, you know.”
He pauses to let the guitar come through. This has been the last few hours of my life: conversation over guitar tinkering, punctuated by those pauses… to listen to the music. To reflect. To gather one’s thoughts. We don’t know each other but this seems to come naturally to us both and I’m glad – it’s been a while since I’ve been so comfortably quiet in someone’s company. There are a very few people I know in Melbourne who would enjoy company in silence (mostly male, I observe wryly) but even then some situations would suit it more than others and those well suited seem rare occurrences these days.
“It can’t come from a place that’s too intense – from a place where you died a little. Well, you can’t sing or play that. That’s passion dying, that is, when you feel that part of you die… You’re lost if your passion dies. No, it needs to come from that other place.”
He’s talking mostly to himself. Musing aloud. His speech is relaxed – he’s in no hurry. There’s time. I used to be like that, I thought. Smooth, chilled mind. Or it could just be part of the New Orleans accent that I’ve not grown used to. Or it could be the touch of herb in that smoke hanging off his lip. I grin quietly to myself.
“A person needs to have that place, you know,” he said slowly, letting each phrase hang there for a moment before carrying on. “Where your feet touch the ground, but don’t at the same time… Where the music comes from… Where the feeling comes from.”
I nod and accompany his playing with a quiet and unamazing harmony on the mandolin. This sort of talk doesn’t come easily to everyone, making it even more remarkable that this conversation was taking place.
“You know the place I’m talking about. You seem the kind of person who knows it.”
His hat hides his face from the moonlight, but I can feel his eyes are on me. The guitar is a counterpoint to the waves gently running up the sand a few metres from us. I look out at the play of light on the water, threads of my mind turning over different thoughts, memories, feelings and senses. Yes, I know the place you’re talking about. I used to live it, and now my fingers brush against the outside every now and then. I say nothing. I don’t feel like I need to.
“You think you’re lost, don’t you?” Toby says finally. “A lost soul. You can’t find what you’re looking for.”
He stares at me for a long while before returning his gaze to the ocean and changing the tune he’s playing. He falls silent again and I realise my fingers have halted lightly on the strings.
I wonder how someone I barely know can have read me so well. Maybe I haven’t had enough one-on-one “real” conversations with people on my wavelength lately. Too many crowded bar conversations, too much social media, too much whiskey. Too much time with erratic minds in erratic states. Too much haze. Not enough clarity. To much rush. Not enough calm. Not enough space. Too affected by what’s around me rather than maintaining equilibrium as I once could.
“That’s why you keep on that phone of yours, now, I think, ” he interrupts my tumbling thoughts, referring to my habit of checking my phone and playing with twitter. Earlier in the evening he’d taken my phone away from me in an attempt to get me to pay more attention to him – I’d zoned out a few times in conversation. “Are you looking for it there? I can tell you it’s not there.”
His posture settles back a little, a sign he’s not likely to speak again for a while. His fingers go on caressing the strings.
“I’m not even sure I know what it is,” I murmur, admiring the crescent moon and rejoining the music-making. Even as I say it I know it’s not entirely true. Home. That feeling of Home. I’d had it in the arms of someone I love and in the company of some very few close friends who are in step with me. I’d had it in short stretches and for certain experiences during and since travelling. I see glimpses of it in some places in my life that have yet to play out, parts of my life that hold untested potential for amazing things. I know that Home – that feeling of knowing you’re in the right place, even just for that moment – is part of it for me and that the thought of finding it again (or ever) is something that frequently occupies a thread of my mind.
I wonder then how much that city babble and chaotic energy has affected my once-clear thinking and immediately afterward am forced to acknowledge that much of it is my choosing. I use twitter heavily, compulsively. When I follow someone I think of it as inviting them into my living room. In effect I guess I constantly have about 180 people in my living room talking, venting, whinging, joking, squeeing, being cute and at times vulgar. A constant babble and in some ways with its own social politics baggage that seems, as I think of it, glaringly obvious and equally as unwanted. A far-too-large part of my socialising is at night and involves drinking in a noisy and chaotic environment and while I love my friends I have to admit that I need some friends that are happy to just hang out quietly …
Toby abruptly stops playing and mutters “You don’t know what it is!”. He lays his guitar in the sand, places his fedora on top of it and rolls up his trousers to knee height. He reaches over and gruffly rolls up my trousers in the same fashion as I put the mandolin on the ground. Pulling me to my feet he says it again, shaking his head in disbelief. “You don’t know what it is!?”
He takes my hand and strides down the beach into the icy water until we’re up to our knees. The shock of it brings me fully awake and I gasp. He grabs my shoulders and turns me around to look out over the water at the moon. “You’re not a lost soul, girl,” he says to me then, his voice near my ear. “You just forget how to find the place every now and then, is all.” He gives my shoulders a squeeze and lets go. Behind me I hear him sloshing his way up to the sand again.
I don’t turn around. I’m standing in the ocean – the real ocean with waves, albeit small and gentle – under what is now a mostly clear sky and a crescent moon. I can’t hear anything except the soft wash of the waves. I can feel the sand between my toes. I run my hand through the water and taste the salt on my fingers. Not surreal. Vivid. Solid. Now. I have nowhere else to be, nowhere to rush off to, nothing that needs my attention more than this. I’m here. I look up at the moon.
I’m a human in the ocean under the night sky, feet on the ground.
It dawns on me that in our using twitter and social media in its restricted form to keep our friends in touch in our lives we have (well, I have) started to lose the sense of human contact – something already paled in city life. Compounding that with a habit where our main catchup is an alcohol-fuelled night out, or in a large group… Yes, I thought. I too rarely have proper human contact where I really get to know someone. I want to go spend more time with friends. I want to meet for coffee and talk to a pal for hours about their life and nonsense, or crash on a beanbag with them and explore each others’ music collections, or just go and lie in the park with my head on their shoulder and not say a word…
I want to be able to hug them and take their arm and eagerly say “It’s so great to see your smiling face, my good friend! Tell me all about what you did on your weekend” and have it be news to me. I want to be engaged and focused and able to give them my full attention, without needing to spread myself out over a group. Not distracted by others or alcohol or noise or managing a sluggish brain after a big night.
The hum of Toby’s guitar flows out to me over the sound of the ocean, another interruption to tumbling thoughts. A friend of mine would have called it a mindfulness bell – a reminder to pay attention. I stop thinking about anything other than the information being fed to me by my senses.
I take a deep breath and smile at the universe. It’s great to see you, my good friend. I think it’s time we made some changes, don’t you agree?