Why I Write 2017

The Light is On

The Light is on. Susanne NilssonCC BY-SA

Write the things which thou hast seen and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter.

Revelation 1:19

I write to celebrate the strange adventure of life.

I write to relive moments too precious to forget.

I write to light the way for the children, so that they will find their own writing paths.

I write to clear the clutter in my mind, to ease the ache in my soul – and to encourage others to do the same.

I write to set my imagination free, to create worlds, to discover what happens there.

I write because characters pop into my head and need a place to be.

I write because mental images materialize, insisting that they have meanings, and that their meanings matter.

I write because I am a warrior. I will defend what I believe.

I write because I believe writing is a transcendent, transformative force.

I write to celebrate having loved and been loved

because love and words never die.

I write because words are in my life’s blood, always flowing, arranging, rearranging, singing a story

that really has

no end.

*******

 Another celebration: This is the 100th post on Lit Bits and Pieces.

Organic stuff

Blueberries

Blueberries. AudreyCC-BY

The new Teach Write blog, dedicated to “helping teachers teach writers and grow their own writing habits,” invited teacher-writers to post on the topic of Beginnings.

Instantaneously, a dozen possibilities entered my mind, for, truly, there’s no end to beginnings.

Needing to stretch my fiction-writing muscles, I decided to share a short short story about beginnings later in life.

Thank you, Teach Write, for the challenge. 

Organic Stuff

Melva watched him ringing up the fat-free yogurt, the granola, the blueberries, wondering if he had children and why such a distinguished-looking man was cashiering at the Market. Maybe he just wanted something to do. Maybe he needed a little extra cash to supplement his retirement income. She wanted to ask, So, what brings you here to our high-class grocery?

Of course she’d never dream of really asking. That was something her sister would do. Carlice, newly-divorced, affectionately referred to as a “health nut” by the family, was fifty-seven but looked twenty years younger, thanks to the Market and a membership at the gym. Melva had never stepped foot here in the Market until Carlice dragged her along a month ago:

Carlice, checking him out in the checkout line, whispered in Melva’s ear: “Here’s the new guy. Rumor has it that he retired from a bank. He had a wife. Don’t know if she died, left him, or what, but I bet he’s lonely.”

Something in the man’s dignified posture made Melva want to put her arms around him impulsively, to shield him.

 “So,” said Carlice to the man, surveying his nametag, “Ed, is it? You’re new here.”

“Yes.” He didn’t smile, didn’t make eye contact, which pleased Melva because men always fell over themselves around Carlice. This man, Ed, simply rang up the ground turkey, tomatoes, spices, and rice noodles.

“I’m Carlice. You’ll be seeing me a couple times a week. This is my sister Melva. Don’t look for her around here much, though! She doesn’t go for all of this organic stuff, do you, Mel?”

Melva’s cheeks flared. “I, uh, I don’t know. It all depends on how your turkey lasagna turns out. If it’s any good, maybe I’ll try my hand at it.”

Carlice cackled loudly, and, in Melva’s opinion, quite unnecessarily. Ed glanced over his glasses at Melva.

His eyes were blue.

Once a week since then, Melva had gone to the Market. On the first trip she bought everything to make Carlice’s turkey lasagna – it had been delicious. At the checkout counters, she was stricken with self-consciousness. Head down, she scurried past where Ed was working. She promised herself, as she carried the groceries home, that next time she would get in his line.

She thought of him as she baked the lasagna, which turned out to be flavorless and wretched. She threw it in the garbage and called Domino’s delivery.

Now, four repulsive meals later, she finally had the nerve to stand in Ed’s queue. He was too thin. So was his brown-gray hair. She noticed faint liver spots on his hands as he scanned her berries. No wedding ring.

What’s his story?

She wanted to talk to him. Desperately.

“I’m trying to eat healthier these days, maybe lose a few pounds,” she blurted as he rang her items. Her face spontaneously combusted. Melva knew she didn’t blush prettily. She knew she looked like someone who’d misapplied sunblock and stayed out all day under the blazing sun, that she was now covered in big red and white splotches.

Melva, you idiot! You’ll always be an overweight, unattractive old maid who can’t make decent conversation.

He looked at her over the top of his glasses, bagged her groceries, tore off her receipt. It fluttered to the floor. He bent to retrieve it, then stood, tucking a loose pen into his shirt pocket.

“Here you are. Have a good afternoon.” He handed her the bag.

Were his lips turning up just the slightest bit?

She hurried out of the store with her eyes on her Naturalizers.

Tears blurred her vision as she slammed the groceries onto the counter with such force that the yogurt carton split open and the receipt whooshed into the air.

“Fool!” she shouted at herself. “You can never go back there now. Forget about ever getting to know him.” She bent to snatch up the receipt, intending to rip it into shreds, when she noticed handwriting on the backside:

You’re fine just the way you are. –E

She stared, not breathing, not blinking, disbelieving, for what seemed like years.

A slow grin crept across her face.

She knew when she put those blueberries in the cart that she’d never manage to eat them with the yogurt and granola, anyway. They’d only sit and shrivel, which would be a waste of beautiful fruit. She’d put them in a cobbler instead, with real sugar, bleached flour, and a whole stick of butter. She’d take it to Ed while it was still warm.

She’d even get in his line with vanilla ice cream.

Yes.

That would be the perfect beginning.

 

Beacon

Kerosene lantern

Kerosene lantern. hare 🙂CC BY-SA

In reflecting on my reading and writing life, I am most thankful that my tastes cover a pretty wide spectrum. As a child I devoured everything from Dr. Seuss to Highlights, from cereal boxes to Funk and Wagnalls Medical Encyclopedias (yes, really), from fiction series to biographies, from Reader’s Digest to dictionaries, as I marveled over the many meanings a single word can have. 

None of these were required reading in school.

All of this is what I chose to read, was compelled to read, from an insatiable hunger for the experiences, the ideas, the information, the emotions, the beautiful and the stark way of stringing words together, long before I thought about how hard authors work on hammering those words and phrases into something with just the right impact on readers.

Now, as a writer, my tastes run the gamut as well.

With Lit Bits and Pieces, I am usually reflecting on or exploring meanings of every-day experiences. Creative nonfiction, mostly.

Today I am sharing a short piece of fiction – for, truthfully, fiction is forever beckoning me with a capricious and winsome smile.

This was inspired by a personal challenge, a house I once lived in, and being told a long time ago that when she was a little girl, my maternal grandmother sometimes assisted her midwife mother.

-Enjoy.

Beacon

The captain’s wife was going to die.

Lily and her mother couldn’t save her.

They tried.

Vestal administered tinctures she’d made from leaves and bark as six-year-old Lily rubbed Miss Rebekah’s swollen belly, repeating over and over in her mind like a mantra: Little baby, please get borned . . . your Mama’s trying so hard.

Lily’s arms ached. The odors of sweat, blood, and tincture hung heavy in the close room. Miss Rebekah had chosen the highest, hottest point in the house and she couldn’t be moved now. Lily breathed through her mouth instead of her nose to avoid the metallic taste of blood and salt on her tongue. She kept kneading: Little baby, please, PLEASE get borned . . . .

The hours wore on; the sky darkened and thunder rolled in from the Atlantic.

Storms frightened Lily. Vestal said she mustn’t let it show. “When you live by the ocean, Lily dear, storms are always violent. Become accustomed to it. This is where thunderstorms are born, child.”

The wind moaned like a ghost under the eaves; rain slapped against the windowpanes. Lightning burst and sizzled a split second before the thunderclap shook the house. Lily jumped but she didn’t cry out. She sat trembling while Vestal calmly lit the kerosene lamp on the dresser.

Rebekah, sinking deeper in the feather bed, whispered, “Miss Vestal, would you move that lamp over to the window, please, so Captain Turner can find his way home.”

Captain Turner was at sea. Lily knew he wasn’t due back any time soon. Even if he was, he’d never see this lamp through the storm.

Vestal hesitated.

“Please.” Miss Rebekah’s whisper was barely audible, more air than voice.

Vestal carried the lamp to the sill of the window overlooking the widow’s walk. Beyond her mother’s silhouette, Lily could see the surf illuminated by lightning, billowing, foaming, crashing. Lily thought about the women at the marketplace who dressed only in black, murmuring to one another that this Carolina coast was treacherous even without storms.

Women who had watched for ships that never returned.

Rebekah groaned. Vestal flew back to her. The groan was so deep and prolonged that Lily’s courage finally collapsed. She cowered with her hands over her ears while Rebekah, just nineteen, married less than a year, made one last, valiant push before her life ebbed away. Lily knew it was all over when Miss Rebekah lay silent, her pinched face turned slightly toward the window where the lamplight flickered, then stood still.

Vestal gasped: “Lily!”

Lily scrambled to the foot of the bed. There in her mother’s hands was a tiny, motionless body. In all the births she’d witnessed, Lily had never seen anything like this.

The baby had no face.

“Oh, Mama, what’s wrong with it?”

“She’s a caulbearer! All my life I’ve heard of this! Cauls bring good luck, Lily, and healing powers. Whoever owns one will never drown. We must save it for her Papa.”

Lily watched as Vestal gently peeled the membrane, intact, from the baby’s face. Sweet-smelling fluid trickled from beneath the caul. When the veil lifted and she faced the world at last, the baby shuddered, reddened, flailed at the air; she drew a rasping, croup-like breath, then gave a mighty squall, startling Lily.

Vestal beamed.

Almost instantly, there was another sound: heavy boots pounding up the wooden stairs. Captain Turner burst into the chamber, rivulets of rain and seawater running from his hat and cloak, so out of breath he couldn’t speak. He simply sank to his knees on the floor in the circle of light cast by Rebekah’s lamp.

Lily was little, but she believed in miracles, believed that she was witnessing how many, right now? She eyed that lamp, glowing so serenely through the gloom. She knelt by the struggling captain. With a tentative hand, she dared to pat his arm:

“Welcome home, Captain. Everyone’s made safe harbor now. I think maybe you should call this baby Stormy, sir.”

As if in agreement, the flame in the lamp flared and danced.

******

Note: My original version of “Beacon” ended up placing in a flash fiction competition sponsored by Women on Writing – just one of the ways I’ve tried to push and challenge myself as a writer. Here’s their pretty fun response: The Muffin/Women on Writing Interview.

Roadside treasure

Spock & Kirk

Star Trek Monthly Magazine Poster Book (cropped). Joe HauptCC BY-SA

The following is a narrative/memoir written several times with students in grades 3-5. I wrote a bare-bones version in front of students, then revised to model the vast difference of “showing, not telling” by adding detail and dialogue. “I can see it all happening!” the kids always exclaim, as the narrative comes to life. Yesterday’s eclipse brought this piece back to mind – the fascination with space, the many hours I spent watching and playing Star Trek when I was the age of these students. During the writing process, the kids ask countless questions. My favorite moment is when they realize what the story is really about.

I shake the device in my hand before I flip the lid and press the button to speak. “Do you read me, Spock?”

Nothing, not even static.

I pull the antenna out as far as it will go. I bang on the device a couple of times with my fist. I shout into it: “COME IN, SPOCK!”

My sister pokes her face from around the corner of our house. “This really ain’t logical!” she calls. She’s not even holding the device up to her mouth.

I sigh.

My sister is eight, I am ten, and we are tired of playing Star Trek. The batteries in the communicators we got for Christmas have quit working, and it’s no fun for Captain Kirk (me) and Mr. Spock (my sister) to keep yelling messages to each other across the yard, which has just one decent tree. There’s only so many pretend worlds we can explore when it all looks the same, with nowhere to hide from alien life forms.

My sister meets me at the street in front of the house. We leave our useless communicators behind in the grass and sit down on the curb as ourselves, not Kirk and Spock anymore.

“Let’s walk to the 7-Eleven and get a Slurpee,” says my sister. She likes the straws with the spoon on the end. She plays with them more than she drinks her Slurpee.

“I’m broke. I spent my last fifty cents on cinnamon Now-and-Laters and green apple bubble gum day before yesterday and it’s all gone already.” Our dad can’t stand green apple bubble gum. He says it stinks but I think it’s delicious, even though it turns my teeth and tongue green. “Do you have any money?”

“Nah, I thought you did,” says my sister, kicking at the grit beside the curb.

“Not anymore.”  I wish I had some green apple gum right now. I stretch my legs, which are getting long, out into the road. If a car comes, which isn’t all that often in our neighborhood, my sister and I will pull our legs up to our chests until it goes by.

I look down at the edge of the curb where it meets the street, at the little loose rocks lying there. I see a stubby twig and pick it up to write my name in the dust when I notice tiny chunks of pale blue-green glass. I wonder where these came from. Someone must have thrown a Coke bottle out of a car and shattered it.  I push the pieces around with the twig, inspecting them – they don’t look sharp. Time and weather, maybe, have smoothed away the roughest edges.

“What would you do if you had a million dollars?” asks my sister.

“I don’t know.” I pick up a bumpy chunk of the glass and roll it around in my hand; it sparkles in the sunlight. “Maybe I would have a horse and a big house. Maybe I would travel all over the world and be famous. What would you do?”

“I’d give some to poor people for their kids to have toys and bikes and then I would get me a bunch of dogs. What is that?”

I show her the bit of glass in my hand. I smile: “It’s an aquamarine. March’s birthstone. If you were born in March I would give it to you but since you weren’t, I will sell it for thousands of dollars.”

“Hey!” My sister is half amused and half irritated. “Look here—I got my own aquamarine!” She plucks up another bit from the curbside dust.

Suddenly we’re both on a wild treasure hunt, crawling along the curb so fast that we’re scraping our knees. We find bits of brown glass; we say it’s topaz. Green bits are emeralds, my birthstone. The clear ones are diamonds, of course. We can’t find any sapphires, my sister’s birthstone. We forget that this is trash, just pieces of bottles tossed out because someone else didn’t have the manners to put them in a trashcan. In no time we have amassed enough jewels for a princess, maybe two.

The sun shines warm on our backs and a couple of cars go by, slowing down, almost stopping, as they pass. Maybe the drivers are nervous about two girls crawling so close to the street or maybe they’re just trying to figure out what we are doing there in the dirt, but the quartz in the pavement winks at us, glinting like gold, and I know my sister and I are rich beyond compare. We are not afraid to pick our jewels out of the dirt, because dirt is just part of the world, and right now, we own the world.

Broken glass

Broken glass, curbside grass. Orin ZebestCC BY

slice-of-life_individual

Today is going to be long ago


Beyond the sundown is tomorrow’s wisdom, today is going to be long, long ago.  -Thomas Hornsby Ferril 

Daddy paid the bill and we left the doctor’s office. My arms burned and ached from the allergy injections. We’d waited a long time for the injections, despite having an appointment every week on my father’s day off. We’d waited a long time after the shots, one in each arm, too, in case of a severe reaction. The day itself was shot now. As we crossed the parking lot to get in the car, I thought: Nothing ever changes. We come, I get the shots, my arms hurt for another two days. I still can’t sleep a whole night through because of asthma attacks. Balling up with my knees under my chest, my head on two pillows, helps me breathe sometimes. I can take in air but I have to push it out. My chest rattles. The wheezing comes most often at night. It’s worse in spring and fall – every Easter and Thankgiving, my parents say. Each night Daddy pours more water in the vaporizer in my room, refills the little metal tray in the lid with Vick’s menthol. The contraption steams and sputters for the duration of the night, but the only effect I can see is the loosening of the tape holding my posters on the walls of my bedroom – posters I bought at the book fair, one of a tabby kitten dangling from a limb, captioned “Hang on, Baby, Friday’s coming!” and a red poster of a sunset, with “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us” – until my posters fall down.  Every day I try to stick them back on the moist walls. I am tired. I can’t rest at night, I can’t rest after school because the kids Mom babysits at home want me to play and there’s nowhere to go, no getting away from them. 

I walk in silence by my father, across the ugly gray concrete parking lot, my arms burning, knowing those kids will be at the house when I get home. It’s the same, day after day, night after night, forever. Nothing ever changes. 

I don’t know how I can keep going on. 

I was only ten years old. 

I didn’t know to attach words to my feelings – boredom, depression, in a rut, despair.  I never communicated the heaviness of my thoughts to anyone at the time – I have always been quiet by nature. Since I couldn’t run in P.E., because it triggered my asthma in the days before inhalers, I spent more and more time reading and writing. 

This was my salvation. My escape. The way out of the daily sameness, the beginning of overcoming, of strength. I described the color and the hot, cinnamon taste of Benadryl in my fifth-grade memoir – the teacher responded, “What clear, great detail!” That was the first time a teacher praised my writing – here, unexpectedly, was something I could be good at, something to work toward. 

It happened slowly.  I don’t remember the exact turn of events, or the length of time it took, only that the moment of long-ago despair was just that – a moment. Things did change. Eventually I got injections in one arm when doctors decided to combine the serums; then the shots stopped altogether. Unless I am around cigarette smoke or cats, I am not troubled by asthma anymore (though doctors warn me one is never “cured”). My mom didn’t babysit the pesky kids forever; I could find my “space” again. I have never had serious bouts of depression, despite the fact that it runs in my family. 

Looking back now, I can see where that long-ago darkness might have been the beginning of a very different story. I was fortunate. I endured. I found my way through with words and pages. Decisions for my health were made with more and more wisdom. 

I remain today, whole and strong, and grateful, because of it. 

Every word, every decision, every moment – wisdom matters. 

If tomorrow is to be. 

Trapped

Hummingbird

Ruby-throated hummingbird tongue. Pete MarkhamCC BY-SA

I hear it as soon as I step into the garage – a small flapping sound. I stop, trying to locate it – there’s also an accompanying sort of squeak. Mouse-like. I brace myself – I’ve found mice in here before, as well as a small copperhead snake that fortunately got away from me faster than I could get away from it. But mice and snakes don’t make flapping noises. This is the sound of little wings beating.

Desperately.

In a corner, beneath a window, I find the source. A hummingbird. It’s clearly in trouble. Not until I pick it up – almost weightless, just a quivering sensation in the palm of my hand – can I see why.  A bit of cobweb is stuck to its wings and wrapped in its feet. The hummingbird must have flown into it or picked an unfortunate place to perch. Once in the sticky thread, it was rendered helpless, unable to fly or free itself. How it got inside the garage is another question. 

This bird, utterly tiny, trembles in my hand. Its iridescent jewel-tone feathers glimmer like soap bubbles in the sun. I see its heart beating rather than actually feeling it. The bird’s eyes are bright, alert. How long has it been trapped like this? How much energy has it spent trying to rid itself of this confining cobweb?  The sound of its wings beating furiously and its cries of distress are testimony to the fierceness with which it tried.

“It’s all right, it’s all right,” I say in my most soothing voice, although I know my presence alone must be terrifying. “Be still, now.”

I pull the gossamer thread from the tiny, clenched toes, from around the wings where it’s loosely draped. The wings beat now with renewed zeal, as with vibrant hope or celebration. The hummingbird is suddenly airborne. I don’t even see it happen, it’s so quick. I run to the garage door, fling it open, and my little bird zips through like a miniscule fighter plane on a mission, into the wild blue yonder.

I watch it go, and my spirit soars with it.

I remembered the hummingbird this morning, when I heard softer wings beating in my garage, this time a big yellow-and-black butterfly (Eastern Tiger Swallowtail), trying to get out of a window. I caught him, too, and set him free outside.

It triggered the hummingbird memory, and got me thinking about being trapped. How hard it is to free ourselves of those things that hold us back, how they stick to us like a cobweb to a hummingbird’s wings. Past experiences, loss, failures, our own choices or choices of others, pain, regret – they feel more like chains. Burdens that keep us from living fully, maybe even from trusting life again, as that sometimes feels huge and potentially dangerous.

I think of things we desperately want to accomplish and the hindrances, the things that bind us, keeping us from moving toward those goals. The hummingbird fought to be free, in order to live – that was its goal, staying alive.

Surely it’s the teacher in me that suddenly thinks of Frederick Douglass. Reading his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave  for the first time in college, I was struck by his desperate desire to read and write. As a child he befriended little white boys in his community to get them, bit by bit, to teach him how to read – in a time when it was forbidden to do so. Douglass fought hard and long to stay alive, to have a better life than the one prescribed for him; with the help of others along the way, he escaped the bonds of illiteracy and slavery. A brilliant man of words and influence.

All of this comes to me, on hearing wings beating in distress. Matthew Arnold wrote of Percy Bysshe Shelley: “A beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.” We do not have to remain trapped, ineffectual. Our better selves, our better angels, would recognize those of others when their beating wings, their beating hearts, are caught in a void. It’s within our sphere of influence, within the parameters of our power, to help find the way out; in so doing, our own do not beat in vain.

Soul-ache

Only time for a quick hug

Only Have Time for a Quick Hug. JackieCC BY

I recently learned of the UK’s Empathy Museum, which began in 2015. Their mission: To help us look at the world through other people’s eyes. To walk in their shoes.

Literally.

Part of the exhibit, “A Mile in My Shoes,” is an actual collection of shoes worn by a Syrian refugee, a war veteran, a neurosurgeon, and many others. A person can don the shoes and walk in them while listening to a recording of the original shoe-owner’s story.

Another project of the Museum is the Human Library – instead of checking out a book, you can borrow a human for a conversation. “A Living Book,” says the site.

The keys to empathy are story and dialogue. Experiencing what others have experienced.

The Museum was founded by – can you guess? – a writer.

A thousand things flood my mind as I read about the Museum. Although I know it well, the power of story to impact and transform the mind and the heart is driven home again, anew. To live for a moment inside of others, to see through their eyes, to feel the stab of their pain, their fear, their sorrow, their longing, their joy (for joy, too, is a stab; read C.S. Lewis and William Wordsworth) is to bleed away part of ourselves on their behalf. Empathy is a simultaneous forgetting and remembering of our own soul-aches, while standing in someone else’s shoes.

Shoes remain, as stories remain. People do not. I have long been haunted by the image of shoes lying around the wrecked stern of Titanic when it was discovered. Author Charles Pellegrino writes that it took months for scientists to realize that these pairs of shoes, still intact after seventy-three years on the ocean floor, were uniformly spaced about eighteen inches apart, with shoelaces still tied. There’s no other trace of the people at all – not even teeth. Only the shoes remain to mark where the bodies came to rest. Scientists are at a loss to explain exactly how leather and shoelaces endure when no other clothing or skeletal remains are to be found, yet the shoes are there, the final witnesses, the last word in the story of their wearers. (And one more secret of the utterly mysterious ocean).

It is also worth noting how the hardcore scientists, successful in their famous mission to find her, wept over the Titanic.

Empathy.

Soul-ache.

For the suffering of others.

It’s also important to note that the word origin of empathy is rooted in passion as well as in suffering, hence the photo at the top of this post. The little girl runs to hug the stuffed bear in a burst of feeling, then runs away too quickly for the camera. Her image is blurred, ghost-like; a reminder that life is fleeting. She will not be a child for long. She may or may not ever be in this place again to see this bear, but in this moment, she is spurred to action.

That’s what empathy does – the short walk in someone else’s shoes strikes our souls so that we come away changed, wanting to make changes. We are all islands in a common sea, wrote Anne Morrow Lindbergh, twenty years after the kidnapping and murder of her baby boy. The common sea – the human experience, with all of its sufferings, its horrors, its joys, its beauty. See – really see – the people around you. Hear them. Feel their soul-aches, even as you feel your own. That’s empathy. Read it, write it, speak it – and by all means, teach it. A little soul-ache goes a long way in making the world more livable.

For all of us.

Note: The idea of soul-ache came to me while reading Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese.”

 

 

 

 

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.

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.” 

The hallway

Hallway

Hallway. DSC_003. ColinCC-BY

A large part of my job involves helping teachers and students grow as writers. I often define writing workshop as an artist’s studio, a place with time to fall in love with the craft of writing.

As I consider my own writing experiences, the image of a hallway forms in my mind. I am actually in this hallway. I can see numerous doors, one of which stands partially open, and through it I can see a window, and beyond that, trees, bright in the golden light of afternoon, probably in late spring or early summer. The branches sway in a breeze, making the leaves dance and beckon, but there is no sound, not from this vantage point. I would have to go through the door and open the window, probably, to hear the rustling, the insects, the birds, to feel the sun’s warmth and taste the laziness of a free afternoon – if, in fact, the afternoon is lazy and free, as it seems to be from where I stand.

Other doors are closed, and knowing that I can open any of my choosing sends a compelling shiver through me – each door leads to a different place, experience, and story. They are all mine to explore, at my leisure. I will never know what’s behind the doors unless I go and open them. Some lead to the past – when I walk through, I can see my family, some of whom are gone now but alive and remarkably young in this place.  They don’t seem to mind at all when I come – in fact, they seem to welcome my visit the same as they always did. If I go farther, I see old friends, classmates, even people I didn’t know well but who are somehow connected to an idea, a moment in time when I learned something or realized that something mattered. My childhood dogs bounce up at the makeshift gate between the kitchen and the living room in their typical greeting; I smell cigarette smoke, the old Kirby vacuum cleaner, the old worn rug; fried chicken also lingers in the air. But I do not want to stay and wander like a ghost here in my childhood home. I can come back another time, anytime I like.

Behind other doors are chairs where I rocked my babies. Here I sit with their soft warmth in my arms, their fuzzy heads nestled against my neck. I feel them breathing, slow, easy, contented in their slumber. I can stay here a while and just be, just rocking, holding one boy for a long time and then the other. I can see them when they are a little older, one always chipper and friendly, the other absorbed in his own thoughts, spending hours lining up his Hot Wheels or taking things apart to put them back together. They are safe and well in this place, so I will leave them here, after I kiss their satin-soft cheeks once more and tell them that I will always love them.

Other doors, I suspect, lead to worlds that I can still create, both real and imagined. I can only see so far in the future; only some things are certain and I will alternately face them and embrace them as they come. I could linger far too long in the imagined worlds, just to see what will happen, to discover the secrets and the magic, knowing all is of it is at my command.

I am surprised by the door that opens straight into the natural world. I have discovered this about myself, that the workings of nature have a strong pull for me. Some of the discoveries are breathtaking, like the iridescence of a dragonfly’s body, the precise blue and orange painted pattern down a caterpillar’s back, the powerfully sweet fragrance of a gardenia, of honeysuckle, and the tiny war-plane drone of a hummingbird’s wings. Others discoveries are not nearly as pleasant – a horseshoe crab decaying on the beach, a tobacco worm (a non-native North Carolina neighbor recoils in horror – “Is that a dragon?“) crawling on my porch rail, a scar on the wood trim by the roof where lightning struck the house. Not pleasant, but fascinating all the same. I had no idea until I started writing that nature spoke so much to me – just now, as I capture these words, the sun bursts forth from behind the clouds beyond my bay window, shining on the laptop and my hands as I type, like a validation, an invocation.

Other doors lead to mysterious places like cemeteries, where time is irrelevant. I don’t know these people, but I look at the stones, the names, the dates; I read the poems on the older, eroding ones, and I want to know: Who were you? What were you like? What was your life like, what did you love, and how did you die? What’s your story?

The most curious thing of all about this silent hallway is that whichever door I open, in whatever order, wherever I go and however far or for however long, I find myself there. Myself as I was, as I am, as I will be.

I give myself a nod.

And I write.