Voyagers: A Mystery, A Ghost's Tale, A Love Story
The canoe — brand new, beautiful — was shipped behind them, and when it arrived, Bob left it in a fishing camp. It was never used again and eventually disappeared beneath the water. Sissy supposed he was saddened by that trip: On his first voyage down the river, Anderson had been young and free; now he found himself wed and working. He never mentioned the trip in her presence again. To Sissy, Bob would first express a strong desire for sex and then a conviction that he was diseased and impotent. Sissy writes in her memoir that after a suicide attempt, Bob began to rave.
He shouted about spirals — the way spirals curl in the other direction below the equator, and how his God was a spiral, with no beginning and no end. Then he sat on the floor, crying, and said he was searching for more gods. His eighteen-month treatment there meant that he missed the birth of his first child. When he returned home, Bob lived alone in his studio, often complaining that Mary, his new daughter, was the result of some affair by his wife. There is no evidence to suggest this is true.
He claimed once he wanted to crucify the girl. On another occasion, he brought a blanket to her crib and began to smother her.
Another two months later, he had escaped: He tied a rope of bedsheets and lowered himself three floors to the ground. He paused on the way down to leave behind his art: a great mural of birds in flight, rubbed onto the red brick with soap. The remaining patients stood before it in awe. Two weeks later, he was found sleeping on the springs of a mattress-less bed in his studio. The family sent him to another hospital in Baltimore, which managed to hold him for two months. This time, his journey home required a walk of more than a thousand miles and took three months.
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The family believed he followed rail lines south. On all of his journeys, Bob had kept a logbook, and this time was no exception. He simply could not be held. Sissy tried to separate, leaving Ocean Springs with the two children. They stayed with friends and family in Chicago and then Biloxi. Bob always followed. Bob promised that he was cured. But at home on the coast, he pressed Sissy for sex, sometimes over her objections. After it was over, he would punish himself, as he had upon the night of his first proposal, by burning his flesh. One day, he hurled a knife at his wife and daughter.
Sissy contemplated divorce, but instead decided to move again—with Bob this time, trying to build the kind of life in which he might thrive.
Bob had always said he thought manual labor—perhaps farming—could be what would save him. Would you like to come? During his hospitalization, drawing had been an outlet, and at Oldfields Bob became even more productive. Studying texts on symmetry and design, he began to develop his now-trademark style. He gave gifts of hand-made dolls and put on elaborate puppet shows. Two more children were born — a daughter, Leif, in , and a son, John, in — though Anderson never attended a birth. He wandered, of course. By bicycle, he traveled to New Orleans to sketch city life, and crossed the Texas desert, even journeyed up to New York to visit museums.
He traveled to Costa Rica to paint wildlife. He walked and sailed the Gulf Coast and its bayous in search of birds. Once, Sissy caught him spoon-feeding sweetened coffee to a cockroach.
Some scholars believe this sentence implies that nature depends on humanity. The world he drew was self-fulfilled — a place we might marvel at, and marvel at our place within, but whose beauty was already complete. It was an act of noticing, a kind of mindfulness, and a gift to the viewer, too, a reminder we can just as easily notice beauty. John is troubled by the biography in other ways, too, enough so that he required that he be allowed to write a rebuttal of its psychological assessments.
Maurer, for his part, writes in the book that he does not intend to diagnose the artist, but simply present the diagnoses for the historical record. The reality we experience is mediated; each human being orders and interprets his or her experience in the world. We each construct our own reality, then, and the truth beyond our constructions can never be reached — only pursued, endlessly.
The mores of society are built upon a collective, consensual interpretation of the world — one most people accept without examination. As he spoke to her, he gestured with his hands toward the surrounding world. He was still drawn to Sissy. He would ride his bicycle to Oldfields in the darkness — over 15 miles of narrow, two-lane roads — and stay with Sissy a part of the night, disappearing before dawn. Sissy, to pay the bills, took a job as a teacher.
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One could play with abandon; no fear of sudden encounters. Sleep would be deeper, more peaceful. Anderson would give gifts at Christmas, odd gifts: pens or flashlights, or used books. Drowsiness made me feel safe and sort of normal. But he never was there the next morning.
She could never tell if he was aware of her presence there. But his reputation as an artist was beginning to grow. In , at the behest of two longtime Shearwater customers, his work was shown in Memphis. Purchased pieces made their way to Brooklyn. Later that year a letter arrived: The Brooklyn Museum wanted to host an exhibition of its own.
Anderson agreed, though he expressed a hope the work might be priced cheaply enough for the masses. Anderson never attended the exhibition himself. Instead, he took off for China. According to Leif, he never told the family about his intentions. John believes Walter wanted to avoid recognition and accolades, which would only limit his hard-earned freedom, only dilute his ability to see. Tibet, with its tradition of Buddhism, appealed. The trip was ill-fated. Anderson had to wire his mother for money to fly home, then sort out a morass of visa and passport issues.
He never made it to Tibet. But Horn Island and its solitude offered comfort. After the Oldfields years, it became not their place but his alone. For the next 15 years of his life, it became the central focus of his travels. He liked to row there, leaving at sundown, under bursting pastel skies that turned as he traveled into thick, still darkness. When fishermen passed and offered rides, he refused — their boats were too fast, too loud. He napped through the morning, waking to the glare of the afternoon. The island is about 4, years old, and, like other nearby barrier islands, is the creation of the slowing Gulf current as it arrives near shore; as the water stills, it drops its sand.
In the late 18th century, a geographer measured Horn Island at 17 miles; now, it is about 10 miles long. Such small islands have never played large roles in human civilization, and their size means they rarely host true ecological abundance.
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But, perhaps for those very same reasons, such spaces have always captured the human imagination. Many early societies envisioned paradise as an island; the buffer of water kept the wolves at bay. Anderson certainly suffered the rigors of the island. There were swarms of mosquitoes and sand flies, brutal heat in summer evenings, lashing storms.
The water teemed with jellyfish, and the island was thick with cottonmouth snakes. He passed out on the beach, surviving only because he was rescued by two boys passing in a boat. He provisioned himself with random cans of food, and their labels were always washed away by the seawater, so he was never quite sure what he would find inside. He drew his water from an artesian spring. Days became long meditations, wandering about the island according to whim, contemplating the bounty that nature provided. He collected animals, sometimes naming them, to serve as models for his art.
He wandered the deep pine woods and acres of scrubby holly and wax myrtle. On the island, he painted thousands of watercolors — of birds and shells, of cows and rabbits and trees. No surprise, then, he wound up snakebit. John, to show what he means, conjures an image he remembered from his own voyages to Horn Island: a squadron of pelicans, spiraling above the water. It is an aside, and it feels like he is speaking to himself, reflexively, beyond ego. To John Anderson, such jokes stung. But John admits he shirked his father, too. If he was hanging out downtown with friends, and his father came past, John would turn around and pretend not to notice.
The island changed his life.