I have a friend who is rich. He’s almost a hundred years old. I dedicated my novel The Poet of Tolstoy Park to Ray. When he lived aboard his 42-foot Hinckley sailboat here in Fairhope, he was for me a guru, preacher-man, and best friend.
He told me many things that helped me see differently.
Like, if a thing will have no value a million years from now, he said, it has no value now, none at all. I told Ray, I get it. And I mentioned Shelley’s poem Ozymandias. He asked me to find a copy and bring it to the boat, he’d love to read it again. I did. And he read it aloud to us both. The poem perfectly echoed Ray’s comment and made it plain to see that only love in action has value a million years from now.
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Ray also got a big kick out of reading aloud The Wonderful Tar Baby Story from Joel Chandler Harris. We’d sit in the cockpit of the Hinckley, sipping hot black coffee, and Ray would open his worn copy of the story and read it with big gestures of his arms and in different animated voices. He didn’t care that passersby on the dock would look sideways at the two of us.
And Ray loved questions. Love to ask them, loved to answer them. Once he asked me that if it was truly just as wrong to lust in your heart, that if thinking about it was the same as doing it, then if he thought about going to church was it the same as going to church? Then he gave a big belly laugh that startled the seagulls off the dock.
And one morning, with a fat pelican on a piling cocking its eye toward me as I stood in the companionway of the Hinckley, I asked Ray, “What is your most valuable possession?” Without hesitation he answered, “My mind’s ability to experience insight. An insight is an incredible thing. Forever valuable.”
Then he said this world is an illusion of individual perceptions. “Some people think a Hinckley is the best sailboat in the world. But not the man who owns a Swan. I am attracted to tall thin women. But Rubens liked big, full-figured women.” Ray told me that when Jesus said he’d overcome this world, he likely meant he’d come wide awake and saw all things clearly, without illusion’s biased preference.
Ray’s sailboat was named Illusion, lettered in real gold leaf in a graceful arc on that pretty wineglass transom. He said the thing wouldn’t be worth a nickel in a thousand years, but filling the heart with an afternoon’s sail would be forever priceless.
Moments of insight,
illusions vanish like dreams
when I awaken.