Mythical morn

Iceland beach

Sea stacks (Reynisdrangar) and black sand beach,  Vík í Mýrdal, Iceland

The breaking of the wave cannot explain the whole sea. – Vladimir Nabokov

My older son toured Iceland this week, capturing his own abiding images of the exotic landscape.

We struggled to find adequate words for encapsulating the stunning scenery.

Desolate. Windswept. Wistful. These drifted in and out of my thoughts when viewing the photos, although they were a shade off, a tad too dark, didn’t have the exact right feel, weren’t sufficient. Uncaptured words, like elusive, shadowy birds, circled round my mind, never quite touching down.

It’s like being on another planet, my son texted.

Ethereal, I texted back, almost happy with that word, as it’s one I love and it almost fit.

It’s mythical. 

My son nailed it.

He was, after all, the one there taking it all in.

Land of legend and lore, glaciers and volcanoes, sharp contrasts and starkness, sparse, picturesque villages, moody skies and morning mists, Iceland is mythical. Not in the sense of Avalon and Atlantis, for one can actually stand at the volcano’s edge or scoop up handfuls of the black sand at the beach, really tiny pebbles of basalt. The whipping wind, the rocky coast, the crashing waves – the Vikings would recognize these still.

It looks like something out of Tolkien or the Chronicles of Narnia, said my son.

Experiencing Iceland vicariously, I did what I always do when I wonder about things – I looked them up (until this moment, I hadn’t thought that looking things up might count as a hobby; I am saying it’s mine, the next time I’m asked). There in the Internet’s vast sea of words, the facts have as magnetic a pull as the legends.

On the southern tip of Iceland, where my son stood on the black sand looking out at the craggy basalt sea stacks, the ocean is unimpeded all the way to Antarctica – there is no land mass in between. Hence the Atlantic rollers – long, powerful waves – can attack this shore with ferocity. I envision the sea drawing itself back as far as it wants, like a pitcher winding up for a fastball. Treacherous, even deadly (local legend features sea trolls and shipwrecks), there’s yet something lyrical, spiritual, about the wild freedom of the ocean at this point on the globe.

The Earth is mostly water; we are mostly water. 71% of Earth is covered by water; there’s 73% water in the human brain and heart. The ocean’s inspirational pull on us may be that simple – like recognizing like. We see the beauty and the power of the sea and something stirs deep within us – humans have waxed poetic about the ocean from time immemorial.

The thing that draws me most about this particular spot, the fascinating black beach at the village of Vik on the southernmost tip of Iceland, is knowing the ocean is unhindered here, from the shore at the uppermost part of the world to the lowest. The vast freedom, the power. The creative force. It draws me as a writer, as a teacher, as a human. That we are capable of great destruction is an understatement – but that’s not where I am going. From our entry into the world to our exit, there’s not a time we aren’t hindered by obstacles, both physical or metaphysical, taking their tolls on our bodies, minds, hearts, spirits. It’s astonishing how we are inspired to carry on, unfathomable how the smallest of things can be the source of willing ourselves onward – we flow over, around, through what would hold us back, finding peace despite what looms, ever how great, in our paths. As with the ocean, humankind has waxed pretty eloquently, deeply, about trouble, trials and pain. It’s a shared experience; none of us is unmarked. The difference is how we make our way, individually.

To be truly unleashed and still live seems an impossibility, so I ponder the power of unhindered inspiration – the indomitable force that would be. What heights, what depths, what creativity. Ultimate constructive power, unlimited possibility.

If such energy were harnessable . . . well, that’s the stuff superheroes and sagas are made of.

I tap into it as much as I am able, and let it flow on – one grateful conduit of ideas, images, and meaning, in my little part of the boundless, surging sea.

Iceland waterfall

Skógafoss, a waterfall in southern Iceland at the former coastline.

Note: Prior to writing this post, I had been toying with a piece about an enchanting encounter on a beach much closer to home. The titles of these posts are deliberate plays on one another, attempts at capturing the essence of place: Mystical morning.

Twilight’s gleaming

Twilight Zone

Rod Serling – Twilight Zone Button. Tony AlterCC BY

“It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.” 

– Season One opening narration, The Twilight Zone television series (1959-1964)

What’s your Fourth of July tradition, fellow Americans?

For my family, it’s watching The Twilight Zone marathon on Syfy.

I have to ask myself: Why do I love this series? Why is it so addictive? After all, special effects have advanced light-years since these shows were filmed; some of the outer space/alien/futuristic costumes and settings are primitive, even laughable. Rod Serling, garbed in dress jacket and skinny tie, strolls out of inconspicuous places – other rooms in houses, offices, or even the woods – to comment on the rising action and the characters,  occasionally smoking a cigarette in true ’60s vogue.

Part of the fun is seeing famous people when they were heartrendingly young, when their stars were still on the rise: Carol Burnett, Telly Savalas, Elizabeth Montgomery, William Shatner (THE Captain Kirk, before the inception of Star Trek). There’s Burgess Meredith, the best of the best character actors, Mickey Rooney beautifully playing an angry drunk. The furniture and props in many episodes, some fashionably chic, some commonplace, are now vintage, nostalgic slices of a bygone era. Something must also be said for the show’s camera work, the strategic zooms, the compelling close-ups. In truth, between some captivating characterizations and the cinematography, there’s a great bit of artistry in The Twlight Zone.

But all that’s just part of it. What really draws the viewer, ultimately, is the story.

The Twilight Zone breaks the dimensions of time and space, to be sure – it takes us away from Earth, brings us to an Earth we don’t recognize, allows us to step into the past and sometimes into a future that isn’t future anymore (I just saw a calendar on the wall of a restaurant in  one futuristic episode: 1974. Geez.). Statues come to life;  a warm, vibrant grandmother is really a custom robot; dolls talk, wreaking havoc and destruction. People down on their luck find good fortune; people lose fortunes; people are at the mercy of forces greater than themselves; people possess supernatural powers that are often abused or taken advantage of by others.

The most haunting thing about The Twilight Zone isn’t the supernatural, however. It’s the journey within, the recognition of the worst parts of ourselves. Selfishness and greed are common themes, with catastrophic consequences – not that the Zone is didactic. In the spirit of the best short stories, with O. Henry-esque twists at the end, The Twilight Zone follows the dark convolutions of the human psyche. Endings are intriguing, but not always happy.

My favorite episode is “A Stop at Willoughby.” A man is locked into a job he hates by a demanding, socialite wife; a hardcore boss berates him for his ineptitude and lack of drive. He’s miserable; he can’t please anyone, least of all himself. On the train commute between home and work, he falls asleep and dreams of a stop that isn’t on the line – a back-in-time place, where women carry parasols and children go fishing and men ride penny-farthing bicycles (the ones with the huge front wheel). The vision of this place, Willoughby, is so real and inviting that the man thinks about getting off there in his dream.  He wakes to the ongoing pressures of his life, but yearns more and more for the slower, contented pace of Willoughby. His wife mocks him for wanting to be Huckleberry Finn, then turns her back on him just as he caves from the pressures at work. On the train, he dreams of Willoughby once more, and this time he gets off, where the townspeople greet him cheerfully by name, as if they’ve always known him, as if he belongs there.

The story doesn’t quite end here; there’s a final scene with a big final twist, but I would be the ultimate spoiler if I told it here. The episode – all the episodes – are meant to be experiences for the viewer. Here’s part of the closing narration: “Willoughby? Whatever it is, it comes with sunlight and serenity and is part of The Twilight Zone.”

Perhaps that’s the pull of the Zone – that beyond the darkness, horror, oppression, bad choices, fears, the worst of humanity, there lies something better, that’s worth the pain of overcoming. Where morbid fascinations, bystander mentalities, selfish desires and regrets melt away. A place of healing, of peace, of freedom – where the best of humanity thrives, has a voice that’s heard. It’s not a place to be merely maintained, but is always being actively created.

What does that sound like to you? What would a Magic 8-Ball say?

Utopia? Very doubtful.

America? Most likely.

The Twilight Zone? Yes definitely.

So celebrate.

Cherish. Savor. Digest. Mull.

Not just food, but your tradition, your story. Yours as well as others’.

And see beyond.


Rare perspective

Ocracoke lighthouse inside

On my recent trip to Ocracoke Island for professional development, courtesy of the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching (NCCAT), my colleagues and I were treated to something unexpected and rare: A visit inside the Ocracoke lighthouse, which is closed to the general public.

The Ocracoke Light, as it is called, is the oldest and smallest of the Outer Banks lighthouses. So tiny, in fact, that the only person allowed up the spiral stairs is the bulb-changer. There’s just enough room for this maneuver at the top. The bulb is about the size of an average man’s pinky finger. It’s not the bulb, of course, that shines a steady light fourteen miles out into the Atlantic and the Pamlico Sound; the fourth-order Fresnel lens, historic in itself, magnifies the light.

The history is compelling, how the land was purchased for so little (two acres for $50 in 1822), and how this diminutive lighthouse originally operated by burning whale oil. Tiny yet powerful, standing on high ground, this lighthouse still guides ships safely through the inlet to other inner ports. I was also drawn by the graves nearby, almost obscured by a white picket fence and sheltering live oaks, just a stone’s throw from the lighthouse door. I wonder how many people ever notice this.

“Who were they?” I asked the NCCAT facilitator, an island native who had the key to let us inside the lighthouse. Imagine walking around with such a key in your pocket! “The people buried here – were they the original landowners?”

“Some,” was his answer, which set my mind surging so that it was hard to pay attention to the presentation. Who gets to be buried in such a captivating place, on a remote little rise overlooking the sea, at the foot of a lighthouse? What an incredible resting place.

It got me thinking about the human connection to place, to each other.

The original light could only shine about five miles out to sea – not always enough to save some of the ships. With the new lenses, really multifaceted prisms, the light shines almost three times farther. That it is a steady light seems significant to me – it does not blink or rotate at intervals, as other lighthouses do.

Perhaps because I am an educator, I connect this to teamwork, to the light we can shine individually only going so far, and how the strategically focused, combined efforts of colleagues goes so much farther in what we can do for students. There’s power in collaboration, in steadily striving for a common goal, in strengthening one another for the sake of those we are trying to help.

This doesn’t apply only to education. It applies to any organization – in fact, to humanity as a whole.

Which leads me to contemplate the rare perspective of being inside the Ocracoke Light – there’s a tiny bulb at the top with a mighty lens to magnify its illumination during the night, but I am here in the day, and I see natural light spilling in a tiny window.

That, to me, is inspiration. The natural light that shines through whatever little window into the human soul. Such light may leave periodically with the temporary darkness, while the light from the top of the lighthouse shines far for the benefit of others, but it always returns again, driving the darkness away.

We have only limited glimpses into the hearts and minds of others; we can hardly recognize our own, sometimes. There’s no real correlation between the light shining through a window to the inside of a lighthouse and its ability to shine a light at night – but for a human, there is.

Inspire. Be inspired. Appreciate your own rare perspective, and you’ll better see that of others.

A little light goes a long way – longer still, if we magnify that inside each other.

Ocracoke lighthouse


Abiding images

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.

We abide.


Sunset Pamlico Sound

Sunset on the Pamlico Sound.

In reading and in writing, our instructors told us, “Setting is everything. It drives the story, drives the characters’ actions.” 

Song of invisibility

I sit straight up in bed. “Oh dear.”

My husband jumps: “What’s wrong?”

My brain can’t form thoughts yet. I was dreaming about . . . something. Whatever it was has already melted away.

He repeats: “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. I am – startled.”

My husband sighs, turns over, goes back to sleep.

I can’t. I lie there with my heart pounding.

I’ll write for a while, I decide.

The predawn house is dark but for a nightlight in the hallway. I creep around, wraith-like, to avoid waking the three sleeping dogs. Heading toward the kitchen, I hear it, loud and clear, as if it’s on the front porch, trying to find a way in:

Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will . . . .

My favorite onomatopoetic sound in all the world. I’ve not heard a whippoorwill that close to the house before.

Is that what woke me? 

And then I start thinking about symbolism, so while my coffee brews, I look up whippoorwills on the laptop. Chilling stuff. Harbingers of death, disasters, impending trouble. Being visited by a talking Raven might be more desirable.

Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will . . . .

Okay, it’s a captivating sound, more enchanting than haunting, I think, pouring cream in my coffee. I’ve loved the call of the whippoorwill since I first heard it, the summer after I moved to rural North Carolina. It dominates a warm country night, an energetic, compelling song rather than a plaintive one. It makes me want to stand still and listen for a long, long time. I continue my online reading, how the whippoorwill is referenced over and over in story, song, and poetry. Folks, it’s really a mating call. That bird isn’t going to be lonely for long.  

And then I read: A group of whip-poor-wills are called a “seek” or “invisibility” of whip-poor-wills.

My imagination takes flight. Those are magical words.

“Seek” implies “seeker,” someone on a quest, not to mention Quidditch. Few words have greater magical connections than “invisibility” – it’s a coveted power. Granted, in this context invisibility and seek define a homely, nocturnal bird that is rarely seen and which is simply  seeking a mate with its fervent night song, but still . . . could there be something more?

I’d awakened with a sense of imminent danger, bolting upright in bed. Oh dear, I’d said, just as I crossed the line between sleeping and waking (this a hypnopompic state; I looked it up just now).  While I cannot remember a dream-creature – or any shadow-people, for the true paranormal enthusiasts out there – attempting to do me harm, I do wake sometimes because of a dry, rubby cough, thanks to the flu earlier this year and my latent asthma. I wonder if irregular breathing is the root of this.

What an unromantic notion.

Whatever the reason:  Suppose the whippoorwill arrived at my house not as a portent of doom but as a protector, a preventive force. What if it knew to sing its song – because, let’s face it, that song is all about life and reproduction, not death – to wake me at the very moment before disaster struck? Exactly what, then, did it seek to drive away or undo – and why? What did my evaporated dream have to do with it?

Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will . . . .

Ah, here are better words to describe the call: Ethereal. Otherworldly. 

A little bit of magic in the still of the night from the seek, the invisibility – although I always hear only one.

I sip my coffee, smiling at my flight of fancy.

Although it could be something more . . . .


My book bag


Everywhere I go, my customized book bag is a topic of conversation.

First of all, it’s literally a BOOK bag, sending the message “I’m a reader.”

Then people realize what the “book” is about. A play on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, my book bag bears the title “Magical Worlds and Where to Find Them.”

Opening a book, for me, is akin to Newt Scamander opening his suitcase – we step in and walk through magically expanded worlds. Whatever the book, it’s a passport to the minds and souls of other people, where I find myself reflected not always as a writer or thinker but as a fellow human being on the common, complex journey of life.

That’s the message I want to send to my young students, who are frequently in raptures over my book bag: Read. Expand your world, your mind.

My book bag actually sends more than one message:

Bookbag spine

It’s an homage to my favorite fantasy writers and the worlds they created, old and new.

Much is written and debated, perhaps, on the importance of reading fantasy. Here’s a favorite quote on the subject:

The problem with people who are afraid of imagination, of fantasy, is that their world becomes so narrow that I don’t see how they can imagine beyond what their senses can verify. We know from science that there are entire worlds that our senses can’t verify. 
-Katherine Paterson

The magic is a draw, certainly – in regard to Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, who wouldn’t want to experience singing stars and merfolk, a centaur, talking animals? Who wouldn’t want a chance to feel the tingle of the box of dust from the lost island of Atlantis and ride on the back of a huge owl? Truth is, the bigger, deeper exploration is not the mysteries of the magical world but the real workings of the human heart – we read fantasy to escape our world, to live in another for a time, and all the while we’re looking into a mirror. This is where our thinking truly broadens – in understanding self, then in pushing the parameters of possibility.

Dr. Seuss said:

Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.  

The lines between the fantasy stories we love best and the world we live in are much blurrier than we realize. It’s where the impossible and possible merge – who’s to say where all the boundaries really are?

Which is fun, sometimes even comforting, to think about.

So everywhere I go, I carry a little fantasy, a little magic, with me.

Via my book bag – a messenger bag, indeed.

Bookbag back


The storm passes by

Church after tornado 6-18-13

Our phones are popping at the same time:  “Take cover immediately . . . .”

Outside, the wind gusts; objects are striking the building, the windows.

We quickly gather the children who’ve come for Vacation Bible School – there’s about seventy of us in all – and they get down on the floor, balling up with their heads against the painted cinderblocks of the main hallway.

The wind is roaring now. The electricity goes out. The emergency lighting flashes on, bright as spotlights, adding a stark, garish quality to faces and bodies. The fire alarm goes off, a deafening blare, as it’s right above us. A boy with hearing aids rips them out of his ears.

The children are still, silent, as heavy objects strike windows in classrooms – will the windows shatter? For a split second I am tempted to look out and see if Miss Gulch is riding through the air on her bicycle just as she morphs into the Wicked Witch of the West.

Instead I kneel over several children as a shield, leaning my head against the cool concrete wall.

These walls are solid, I think. Safe.

But just around the corner in the fellowship hall is a hutch with a large, framed photo of the church when it was nearly flattened by a tornado twenty years ago.  

Minutes are eternal when destruction is banging on the door.

If we die, I think, at least we are in church.

My husband, the pastor, prays aloud.

The wind soon abates, dies away.  

We go outside to find long strips of vinyl from someone’s home strewn in the parking lot. Big pieces of plywood from who knows where are lying against the building. Shingles are scattered about like fall leaves. The trashcans are way across the graveyard – we trek over to fetch them and we see the gap in the woods where the tornado came through. It cut a path through the cemetery, knocking down a line of gravestones. Silk and plastic flowers, little angel statues and other loose memorials left by families for their loved ones are blown everywhere.

The children retrieve and replace them.

Parents begin arriving, alarmed. Others in the community come to see if everything’s okay.

Just as we are leaving, I turn back toward the church – “Look!”

Arcing up from the woods across the street to the woods behind the cemetery, in the sky directly above the church, a rainbow gleams.

All is well.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

Courage (part two)

The surgery took longer than expected, but the surgeon came to the waiting room at last.

“It went well,” he said. “Your husband’s eye is removed and the implant is in place, covered by membrane and attached to the muscles as it should be, if he were to get a prosthesis.”

He paused.

If it went well, why is he pausing? Something’s not right.

He continued: “I had to remove a lot of extra tissue, as it was dark and there’s no way for me to tell if it’s just natural pigment, or bruising, or melanoma.”

I was shaking. “What does this mean?”

“I took all of the dark tissue but he may never be able to wear a prosthesis, as there may not be enough support for it,” said the surgeon, gently.

I nodded. How are we going to tell him?

“Pathology will send the eye to Wills Institute in Philadelphia – they’re the best. They’ll analyze the tumor, whether or not any cells have spread . . . .”

 I closed my eyes as he spoke, not having considered this possibility.

I recalled the oncologist’s words when we consulted him: By the time it’s found, it’s usually metastasized. Radiation and chemotherapy are ineffective. It’s nasty.

That doctor had treated five patients with ocular melanoma in the last two decades.

All five had died.

Please, God. Please let those cells not have spread.

And then I went to recovery to hold my husband’s hand.

He squeezed mine, hard.

Half his head was bandaged. When an eye is surgically removed (enucleated), that side of a person’s face bruises badly. A conformer, a clear plastic piece like a huge contact lens, is put under the eyelid to hold its shape during healing so a prosthesis will fit.

The pain is intense for the first few days.

When the bandage had to be removed the first time for the application of antibacterial ointment, my husband said, “Get me a mirror.”

I handed it to him.

“Dear God,” he said, looking at his reflection.

It was the only time he cried.

After that, he never complained, not once – all of his energy went into healing.

The first night back home, when he went to bed, my husband said, “I see a light.”

“There isn’t a light,” I said. “I just turned it off.”

“I see it with my . . . what used to be my eye,” he said. “A bright light at the floor. Then it sort of swept up to the ceiling.”

I thought about amputees who still feel rings on fingers that are gone, or sensations in legs that are not there anymore. Phantom pain.

“I think it’s a phantom light,” I told my husband.

 He saw it for a few nights, this ghost light, the optic nerve trying to adapt to not seeing anymore. And then it stopped.

The bruising absorbed in a week or so and the eye – what do you call an eye that’s not an eye? A non-eye? – didn’t look as alarming as one would imagine. Just a pale orb, sort of like sclera without an iris. Not frightening at all, nothing like a hallowgast from Miss Peregrine.  Just different.

And every day we wondered about that pathology report.

Three long weeks went by before the surgeon called:

“No rogue cells in the tissue around the eye! The timing couldn’t have been better – the tumor was in the early stages.”

We threw our arms around each other; we could get on with living.

It wasn’t all that easy.

At first my husband wore a black eye patch to shield the removed eye. Everywhere we went, little kids called out, “Look, a pirate!” My husband just laughed and waved at them. An eye patch, however, is quite convex. It bumped against the lens of his glasses, which he had to wear all the time now for his remaining eye, as it was becoming strained.

He tried adhesive bandages designed for eyes next. Our grown sons said, “Dad, the eye patch looks better than those Band-Aids. A lot better.”

My husband sighed. He decided to try wearing a contact lens in the real eye, doing away with glasses so he could go back to the eye patch, which worried all his doctors:

“You only have one eye now – you can’t afford an abscess or corneal infection,” they told him.

He tried it anyway – and learned that in order to put a contact in, you really need two eyes to see what you’re doing.

At last he resorted to tinted lenses and gave up on coverings altogether.

He had trouble with depth perception, driving after dark, merging onto the highway. He was startled by people approaching him on his left side, because he couldn’t see them coming.

He bumped into things, hard enough to leave bruises.

He had trouble reading, which worried him more than anything else – he’s a minister, and reading is the foundation of his life’s work. He got a magnifying glass to be able to study his Bible.

He became restless, quiet.

At an appointment for his strained eye, the neurological ophthalmologist asked: “Why haven’t you gotten a prosthesis?”

“The surgeon said with all the tissue he removed, there may not be enough support for it,” answered my husband.

“Hmmm,” said the ophthalmologist. “How long has it been since your surgery?”

“A year.”

“I think you should investigate it. Here’s the name of the ocularist. He’s only about an hour away.”

We called, and learned that the ocularist sets appointments in the morning. If the patient is a candidate for a prosthesis, he makes it in his office that day and the patient leaves wearing it.

My husband hung up the phone, his face alight with hope.

“What if . . . ” I struggled, “what if you’re not a candidate?”

“Then I tried, and that’s all I can do.”

I worried the whole trip about how the idea buoyed his spirits, fearing that we’d be sent away, and how would that affect him?

Our younger son drove us. The three of us sat in the office together as the ocularist examined my husband.

“Oh, that was a lovely surgery,” he said. “Lovely. Great movement of the implant. Let’s get to work.”

“Do you mean,” I hardly dared to confirm, “that he will be able to wear a prosthesis, after all?”

“Sure – not a problem.”

I sat there watching as the mold was made of my husband’s non-eye, then as the resin was poured into it to create the prosthesis, thinking, This is like a cross between a medieval apothecary and Lemony Snicket. It might have been downright gothic, except that the room was sunny and cozy, being part of a house converted to an office.

The last step of the process was painting the prosthesis. We watched this man, this artist extraordinaire, open his set of paints and create his little masterpiece. He held the prosthesis up to my husband’s eye for comparison: “You have a lot of ocher in your iris. I have to add more.”

Back to dabbing paint he went.

As long as I live, I do not expect to see anything like it again – it was nothing short of a miracle when the ocularist placed the prosthesis over the implant, and my husband looked at me with two big, beautiful brown eyes.

My mouth fell open.

So did my husband’s, when the ocularist handed him the mirror.

We arrived at 8:00 that morning.

We left at 3:00 that afternoon, with the new eye.

On the porch of the office as we were leaving, in the bright the afternoon sun, my husband said, “Tell me how it looks.”

A perfect match – one would not know which was the real eye.

“It’s unbelievable,” I said. “Amazing.”

“It looks great, Dad,” said our son.

“I feel like myself again,” said my husband. A grin spread across his face.

“I just wonder how long it will be before someone asks if I can see out of it,” and he dissolved with laughter.

That was just three weeks ago.

He hasn’t stopped smiling since.


(Note:  Just before the surgery, when we didn’t know what would happen next, we made the seemingly insane decision to adopt a seven-week-old Lab puppy who needed a home. If you are interested in the puppy’s story in relation to this experience, here’s a previous post: The unplanned baby.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

Follow the light

Hermit crab

Hermit crab. Jessica DiamondCC BY-SA

Daddy has a story to tell this morning:

“Last night, a sound woke me up.  I got out of bed and listened.  A steady clinking was coming from the bathroom. I thought: What in the devil could be making that noise in the bathroom? I went and looked around – didn’t see anything. I bent down to look at the pipe under the sink. Nothing. The noise was much closer, though, almost right in my ear . . . I turned my head and there on the sink leg was that hermit crab, crawling up. His shell was hitting against the metal leg – that was the clinking.”

I look in the glass bowl where my pet crab Shermie lives. He’s completely inside his black-and-white shell now, obviously sleeping off his late-night adventure. 

“He got out of his bowl and went that far? Why would he do that, Daddy?”

 “I guess he was following the light.”

The bowl is in the living room. I look at the hallway. The bathroom is at the end, around the corner on the right. That’s an awfully long way for a little crab. I imagine him crawling along the hardwood floor past the bedrooms in the dark. It’s a good thing none of us got up and stepped on him. 

Shermie’s stalk eyes peek out of his shell and I wish I could ask him: Why were you trying so hard to get to the light?

Maybe it wasn’t the light. A quick skim of the Internet reveals that hermit crabs are nocturnal creatures which often climb out of cages at night, when they would normally be in search of food and water; in the wild, they do this in droves, traveling for miles. When a pet hermit crab escapes – apparently quite a few do – the experts say to check the bathroom, as the crab might be seeking the humidity of its natural habitat.

In the days before the Internet, however, we didn’t know all of this.

For years I thought of that tiny creature and the Herculean task of climbing out of a wide, smooth glass bowl – how, I do not know to this day – to make his way, alone, through the dark toward the only light in the house.

And I would think: If Shermie could figure out where the light is, then so can I. There’s a light to follow out of this darkness, somewhere. I’ll find it. I’ll climb out.

slice-of-life_individual Early Morning Slicer



Crossing the bay


Chesapeake Bay, Eastern Shore, Virginia. Ken LundCC BY-SA

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
   Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
   Turns again home.

-Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Crossing the Bar”

I walked the little beach many times in the five years I lived in Cape Charles. With the ebb and flow of the tide, tiny periwinkle snails bury themselves in the sand. Gulls hovering overhead cry in their piercing, lonely voices. Storms churn the Chesapeake Bay, stirring its hidden contents so that afterward, treasures can be found on the shore – sand dollars, whole and unharmed, prizes to a beachcomber. I collected many.

I was alone on the beach the day I saw the old train coming to the end of the line at the harbor. I’d never seen it come through – Cape Charles is a tiny railroad town that almost didn’t survive the loss of the industry.

Where’s that train going? I wondered. Has it gotten on the wrong track? There’s nowhere to go – nothing but the bay ahead of it. Will it turn around, somehow? Or back up? 

Is it going over the edge, into the water? 

The train kept rolling forward, slowing to a stop at last.

I relaxed.

And the train began to float away from the land, as if by magic, as if it were Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, sprouting a flotation device.

It’s on a barge!

I watched, marveling, as the train sailed out into the bay, a majestic, most rare sight. I imagined visiting fishermen looking up from their bait and tackle to gawk as the train drifted by their boats.

There was something poetic about it, both grand and poignant, filled with awe and tasting of sadness. The gulls cried; a salt-tinged breeze caressed my face. I watched as the train grew smaller and smaller on the bay, until I could see it no more, and turned again home.