Last week I spent several days on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, studying writing with teaching colleagues from across the state. This extraordinary opportunity was provided to us by the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching – heartfelt thanks to you, NCCAT, for your support of teachers, and for inspiration at a time when it is needed more than ever.
Ocracoke is, in the words of our faculty advisor, who’s native to the island, “a windy, sandy, watery place.” It’s also tiny and breathtakingly beautiful. One of our assignments was to capture abiding images from this idyllic locale in our writer’s notebooks.
Abiding images are symbols with deep personal meaning to us, often recurring, according to dream analysts. Abiding images are part of us, shaping our lives the way the wind and the water continuously shape this island. To poets and writers, abiding images come from a wellspring inside us – stories, dreams, conscious and unconscious memories – each as unique to us as our own fingerprints.
Our task was to walk in this brine-tinged breeze, under the moody sky, without speaking to one another. We were to walk alone, searching for the images that speak to us.
I prefer to think of it as being called by the images that wish to speak to us.
The long beach grass rippled like hair against the ground; the sea, shimmering and calm on the Pamlico Sound side, flowed ceaselessly from left to right like words across a page. Come, was the inherent, compelling invitation. Come. Listen to me. I have stories to tell.
I filled seven pages with abiding images and took pictures of a few.
There were the pink wildflowers, startlingly bright against the beach grass. Marsh pinks, they’re called. Sabatia stellaris. Our advisor said for anything to survive on the island, it must be hardy, yet here were these delicate flowers with perfect yellow stars in the center, as if painstakingly hand-painted by an artist. Incongruous. Surprising. Hopeful, somehow, for these flowers carry the mark of the heavens in their upturned faces.
I came across some shells by a small hole in the sand, out of which grew a thin, solitary blade of grass. No other grass stood anywhere near this one long, lonely strand, this one hair from this one follicle. There are secrets in the sand, the advisor told us. So much more goes on in it and below it than we really know.
This curious wisp of grass shivers, nods.
I walk farther and discover the ivory-yellow skeleton of . . . something. I don’t have a frame of reference for it, other than knowing it’s a bone, something once alive. It worries me. I want to know what creature it was and why it’s here in such pristine condition, with no other marks in the sand near it in this isolated spot. How long has it been dead?
I learn later that it’s the skull – just the skull, although it’s the size of a chicken – of a red drum. North Carolina’s state fish.
I still don’t know why it was lying there all by itself.
The last of my abiding images is at the marina in front of the NCCAT building, which used to be the old U.S. Coast Guard lifesaving station. As I turn to go back inside, I encounter a rusted handle quite suddenly in the sand near the marina’s edge. It’s sticking upright, clearly attached to something buried there, and it’s obviously been around a long time. What’s THIS secret hidden in the sand? I don’t tug on the handle, although I want to; I imagine pulling it and a door coming forth from the sand to reveal an opening with stairs leading down to . . . anywhere. A bunker, a secret gathering place, another world, another time. Oh, the stories this strange handle evokes!
Perhaps I will write one of them yet.
For now, the images abide in my notebook and in my mind; they shape me, even as I shape my thoughts about them. I carry them with me while I leave a piece of my heart, perhaps a piece of my soul, behind with them.
We belong to one another. That’s what I think as the sun goes down over the Sound, as I hear boats over in the marina rocking as if they are waking from a long sleep, coming back to life.
In reading and in writing, our instructors told us, “Setting is everything. It drives the story, drives the characters’ actions.”