The Drinking Gourd
Arcturus Major tips across the sky on a still summer night. It’s too hot inland. I’m standing on the beach in the dark praying for a breeze to follow me home when I go. This close to the sea I can almost touch my father, who died one year ago next week. I hear his voice singing in the still air: “Follow the drinking gourd, follow the drinking gourd. For the old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom. Follow the drinking gourd.” It’s an old folk song he used to sing when he got tipsy. By the time he was full on drunk he would move on to endless rounds of Irene Goodnight. I remember standing in the doorways of parties wanting to listen to him sing, with my mother shooing us out and away home with her, a look of shame and irritation on her face.
According to popular legend, The Drinking Gourd is a song from the days of slavery and the Underground Railroad. It was a way that escaping slaves from the south could communicate to one another to follow the Big Dipper north to freedom. My dad was part of the Civil Right movement of the 1960s. White, liberal, democratic agitator. He worked to find blacks housing in Placer County. Joined the Peace and Freedom Party. Got his name on an FBI list somewhere for appearing at a rally where the Black Panthers showed up. My dad, the commie pinko.
But really, when I think about it, I think the song for him was about drinking. My dad the wino. Getting drunk was his path to freedom. Freedom from the prison of his mind, where he was anxious and tortured and angry and ashamed his entire life. He talked about it his final years. How when he tried to quit he just couldn’t stand it. Six weeks is the longest he ever made it without a drink.
Oh how I know what he means. Some days I’m trapped inside my skull with some of the meanest thoughts about myself you could ever think to hear. Or just that feeling that I want to tear my own skin off to feel better. On those days I want to reach for something so badly I have to sit perfectly still so as not to shatter. I have chosen sobriety for a long time now, but the animal in my gullet still tries to claw it’s way out sometimes. It pushes me to reach for fame, work, food, distractions, driving fast, approval, sex, love, possessions, careless choices, anything, anything, anything. Anything but silence. Anything but feeling like this.
Thank God it eventually passes.
At the bottom of the well of this misery lies the simple fear of being alone. Not alone in a room. Not alone in life. But alone in all of space and time. Existentially alone. Aloneness that never ends.
The Big Dipper tips in the sky above me. My feet touch the sand beneath them. There is the tiniest of cool breezes off the crashing water in front of me. In the dark the sand feels like ashes and I wish I had brought the small container of my fathers ashes with me so I could mix them in the sand, paint them on my body, pour them down my gullet with the world so I can feel connected again. Instead I drop down into the sand and beg for this feeling to be lifted from me. Offer this feeling up to the waves and the sand and the sky. To my dead father who is everywhere now. To this distant God I have never known. To the small gods who cluster around me with their tiny offerings. I am of this earth. This much is clear. Something deeper in me has to decide to reside here.
Drinking gourds carried water to slaves working in the fields. Water that rescued them each day, getting them through the hot struggle of their lives a little further, a little closer to the possibility of freedom. Here tonight, I lie in the sand under the cool lip of the stars and pray for water, not wine.