The Belly of the Whale
I left Los Angeles a few months ago. I moved out of the place for good and that’s that. The big story of my adult life up to this point has been the battle between myself and that city. A month after I graduated high school, I jumped on a train in Boston, bound for Union Station. The city knocked me on my ass and in a matter of months I was back home and humbled, yet determined to return. The city became a Goliath in my mind, a dragon to defeat. It took me seven years, a military enlistment and a number of crummy jobs in cities I would rather not have lived in, but I did return to live there once again in the overpowering sun, garbage and concrete.
As my time in the city was drawing to a close, I had grown comfortable and lazy. I was on easy street. The years were beginning to slip by, one palm tree sunset after another, after another. Every day was hazy, sun-drenched and indistinguishable from the next. I was in Never-Never Land. I was Peter Pan. I was Odysseus seduced by Calypso. There was nothing for me there, stuck in the tar like so many of the fossil creatures found in the pits within the city. When I finally did leave town, I slipped out the back door quietly without telling hardly anyone. No goodbye parties, no goodbyes at all, really. No room for second thoughts. When it comes to this you can’t be sentimental. Kill it and be done with it.
My old man is the only immediate family I’ve got left and he isn’t getting any younger. He’s been there this whole time, by himself in Massachusetts. He likes it that way, but it gnawed at me. I couldn’t enjoy myself. I couldn’t travel without the bleeding sensation that I should be visiting home. What if he dies while I’m away? What if he needs help and he’s not telling me? I have to be there. I’ve got to get out of here. It crept up on me with progressive frequency as the months and the years flew by. I was sacrificing that precious time to loaf around in the smoggy comfort and sweaty decay of an aging North Hollywood apartment and a series of gigs I clung to for dear life, constantly in fear of the next stray dog like myself, waiting to snatch them up the moment I slipped up. I was always slipping up.
So then I was back in Massachusetts, full circle from one adventure and back into the belly of the whale—back beyond the threshold and into chaos. Growing up in a coastal town in Southeastern Massachusetts, the image of the whale was inescapable. It was there as a tribute to the gloomy whaling history of the area. New Bedford, Massachusetts was once the whaling center of the world. Melville had Ishmael set sail from there in Moby Dick. Knowledge of the plot points and the layers of meaning behind the novel came to me early in life. “You should know at least some Shakespeare and the Bible. How else would you be able to understand Moby Dick?” The image of the sperm whale in particular was everywhere—its silhouette brandished the front doors and weathervanes of houses, on the logo of the local newspaper, high school mascots, restaurants, shipyards, gift shops and of course, the whaling museum itself.
An ancestor of mine, my great-great grandfather, came from the Azores and settled in New Bedford after his whaling days were over and the world began sacrificing a new kind of blood for a new kind of oil. It never escaped me that we had been the initial reason why whales were so rare. The whale has always held meaning for me as a symbol of suffering, sacrifice and violence but also of home, identity and strength—mirroring the duality and complicated nature of being itself. That’s the reason why it’s the logo of this blog and why it’s tattooed on my arm, rising out of the waters of chaos. In meta-myth, the belly of the whale is a kind of worldwide womb image, a symbol of rebirth through chaos.
The late mythologist, Joseph Campbell says, “The whale is the personification of all that is in the unconscious. In reading these things psychologically, water is the unconscious. The creature within the water would be the dynamism of the unconscious, which is dangerous and powerful and has to be controlled by consciousness. The first stage of the hero adventure is leaving the realm of light, which he controls and knows about, and moving towards the threshold, and it’s at the threshold that the monster of the abyss comes to meet him.”
There was a time in my life when I thought relocating back to Massachusetts was the worst thing that could happen to me. That meant failure, defeat, the death of a dream. You can and you can’t go home again. You can’t go trying to resurrect the past. You can’t remake the movie. It just isn’t going to be very good, but you can build something new on the foundation of the past and honor it. That place I left seventeen years ago is long gone. The old house is still here, but it’s an old ruin. The old man has kept it up only slightly. Being inside the place feels the way medieval people must have felt while squatting in the old Roman Colosseum. This once powerful place that seemed to hold so much authority over me, now nothing but a crumbling edifice. The old authority figure himself, lording over it. The Romans built chapels and workshops in that old ruined amphitheater, they quarried it, a cult based themselves out of there for a while. The whole place made everyone so sad that they considered turning it into a factory for the city’s prostitutes to work out of. Every street I turn down here, every building I go into, feels like living in the ruins. I quarry what I can out of them.
I was enveloped by a naked, vulnerable feeling upon my arrival back in New England. The sting of failure was hard to shake. Those seventeen years I spent away, all the letdowns and triumphs, all those stories, all those people I knew, all that love and hate, life and death—all nothing but a pale and wan memory. Back to the starting line. Better hold tight. Everywhere, everything was covered in ice, frozen ground and impossible nighttime. The tall trees and innumerable stars up above my head—they all seemed to call out to me and ask the same questions—what the are you doing back here, you old bastard? What are you going to do now? I got myself a job, then another one at night, something to drive me crazy in another direction and keep my mind off my mind. Now here I am, like Pinocchio, rescuing my dying father from the belly of the whale.
I’m still unsure if I have processed everything. For months, I couldn’t write. I plodded my way around, stunned and nervously negotiating reality. My workouts had no vitality in them. I lost my appetite. But on the horizon, the sun broke through. It hurts to breach through the chaos. Doing what’s right and what’s good is often not the most comfortable thing, but in the end I am in alignment. Cruising through the villages and towns which seem to grow naturally out of the tall countryside has been remarkably healing. My friends are solid and true, having endured me for so long and yet still willing to share my company. I hold a solid bond to these people and these places that goes beyond rational thought and into the realm of mysticism.
I am utterly ensconced by beauty. The old colonial houses with small windows and big fat chimneys, the old cathedrals, the kettle ponds in the pine forests, the turkeys crossing over into the cranberry bogs, the salty air of the rocky beaches—they all fuel me and let me know that I am from and of this place. They are reminders that beauty and greatness are possible and they revive me in times of trouble and doubt. Being able to go on walks and consult the old man has been everything to me. There has been difficultly and suffering, there have been sacrifices and doubtless, there will be more to come. Yet, in my heart there is a resounding voice repeating, “Yes. You are doing the right thing.” I tell myself that as I start each new day here, in the belly of the whale, cut into pieces in the pit of chaos to be reborn.