To paraphrase that one-time Charleston resident, Edgar Allan Poe, we live in a kingdom by the sea.
We have little hold on the solid ground.
We see the road beds sink on Hagood, on Lockwood. Half of the town rests fitfully on fill dirt. At high tide, we avoid certain roads.
That dwindling population of the tourist ridden Venetian Lagoon may still know that ancient catechism:
“Quid est mare? Refugium in periculis.” (As attributed to Alcuin of York)
We have no such refuge in danger. Quid est mare? She is life. She is death. She is our mother. She is our teacher. She is our best friend. She is our worst enemy. We live for and through her.
She terrorizes from May to November with the threat of hurricanes.
(Pronunciation: hurra-kins not hurra-canes)
Every hurricane season, I recite the old poem:
June, too soon
July, stand by
August, ‘most upon us
September, we’ll remember
We always remember September.
Lowcountry folk have dealt with the fickle follies of the sea for generations. We watch the gathering storms in the Cape Verde Islands. The winds blowing off the western side of Africa vex us every year as they cause us to shiver as we reserve hotel rooms in Charlotte and Greenville.
In 1893, the storm was so bad that Clara Barton herself came to help in the aftermath.
We acknowledge as Memento Mori every named storm. We live on pluff mud and sand. We know we hold nothing permanently. In the midst of life we are in death, but what a place to live.
There are fiddler crabs in the back yards some days.
Old resort towns disappeared in storms: Edingsville, St. Helenaville.
(May be don’t use “ville” in a name?)
(May be don’t build on the coast?)
We pray that the storm jogs to the north and east.
We run to store for beer and bread
We gas up the car
We load up on dog food
We know that we who are blessed enough to live here must pay a price for the beauty.
We float on the tide.
We have no control.
One of my favorite paintings is in the Louvre. Really. It is. No kidding. Again, such a tourist.
It’s a painting of a ship, of sorts, adrift on the sea.
The most gruesome part of the painting is at eye level in the long gallery.
A body in the water drags along shrouded in thin funereal gauze, starved ribs exposed.
A man clutches a ragged cloth to signal a ship breaking the far horizon.
Before Creation, the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2)
The Spirit has forsaken this vessel and all who sail upon her.
French Romanticism of an unromantic true story, a national scandal.
The Raft of the Medusa by Theodore Gericault.
The Raft of the Medusa is the perfect metaphor for those of us who live between Campobello and Key West.
We hold to this thinning soil as those souls held to their raft flagging down distant help. We pray for deliverance from the storm.
I ran across a reminder of that painting in March seeing this study for it by Gericault himself.
I first saw The Raft of the Medusa in Paris in 1989. That same time, my friends and I were reading biographies of Jim Morrison. He was all the rage. Jim Morrison’s words were the perfect pairing for Gericault’s brushwork
“I love the friends I have gathered on this thin raft.”
As Florence pushes her evil winds and waves this way, tenously we cling to the Spirit, to each other, to this thin raft, and to this kingdom by the sea.