Archive for August, 2011

Hold On

Irene: From the National Observatory, NASA

Although I am far inland, I am present in spirit with all of you on the east coast who are waiting for Irene. It’s only been four years since we were living in Florida and dealing with the anxiety of the hurricane high season. I remember the plywood, the Rubbermaid container filled with emergency supplies, important documents in gallon-sized plastic bags, and stockpiling at least a three-day supply of bottled water (one gallon per person per day).

Watching the storm projections and the video from Kill Devil Hills has put me in a mood to contemplate hurricanes I’ve known personally:

Hugo (1989) was memorable because it hit Charleston like a sledgehammer and then continued over land to Charlotte, uprooting five ancient oaks in front of my apartment building and nearly disrupting my plans to drive east to attend my sister’s wedding. (I made it safely there, although obtaining gas for the trip was problematic. My family ultimately dispatched the minister to meet me at a rest stop with a couple of gallons, enough to get me to a gas station that had power.)

I had to evacuate from Jacksonville Beach for Hurricane Floyd, so I sat out the storm in a hotel near the airport. It rained incessantly, but the sprinklers at the golf course next door continued to come on at regular intervals through it all.

In 2003 Hurricane Isabel destroyed my uncle’s tractor shelter, even twisting one of its steel beams. He lives in eastern North Carolina and when I talked to him last night he said he had everything secured. He told me the farmers in Perquimans County were working long hours to get the corn crop harvested before the storm hit. I hope they finished in time. (Unless I’m mixing my hurricanes, Isabel was also the one that caused massive flooding of hog lagoons in NC, and a considerable loss of swine.)

2005 was a busy season. I don’t remember any of the hurricanes by name—they came and went so fast—but it seems as if every Friday afternoon for six weeks I had to wrap my computer at the University of North Florida in plastic in anticipation of another storm. My office mate’s daughter called in a panic during one of those pre-hurricane preparation times. “Mom,” she said, loud enough for me to hear her on the other side of our office, “we don’t have nearly enough junk food!”

In 2008 Ernesto and I were in Cancun when Hurricane Ike brushed by. On the day it began to show itself with gusty winds and off-and-on rain we took a bus to downtown Cancun, and then got in a collectiva to take us to the port to catch a ferry to Isla Mujeres. A collectiva is a van that pulls up to the curb from time to time, the door falls open, and someone gets out or climbs in, and then it takes off again. The door closes “automatically” after the van starts off again. It gives the ride a whiff of danger, as the door seems to be in a constant state of falling open and then more or less falling closed. But the collectiva delivered us safely to the port, where we caught a ferry that took us to the island in about 15 minutes. It was an extremely fast boat, and you could either sit on top and feel like you were on a boat or sit inside and feel like you were on a plane whizzing you across the water. I loved it, and the rain from Hurricane Ike was part of the fun.

Between fits of rain we walked downtown and saw some wonderful Mayan crafts (or, as Ernesto says, “arts and craps”). We ate lunch during a downpour, then when it cleared a bit we rented a golf cart and tooled around the island. Our golf cart seemed to be defective or sickly; we couldn’t get it to go faster than a slow chug. In fact, other golf carts passed us with humiliating frequency. We finally made it up a hill at one end of the island, enjoyed the view, and decided to go back downtown before more rain rolled through. With some difficulty we got ourselves turned around and headed back.

“At least it’s downhill,” I said. “We should be able to get up a little more speed.”

“There is a saying in Cuba,” Ernesto said. “‘Going down, all the saints help.'”

We made it back and turned in our golf cart before the next deluge. All the saints had indeed helped—and I hope that they help everyone in Irene’s path get through this weekend safely.


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Roger Deakin, Cottage, and Cat (Hamish Hamilton Publishing)

I first came across the writer Roger Deakin three years ago, when I read an essay about him  and learned that he had compiled 45 notebooks about life on his property, Walnut Tree Farm, while he wrote a book about trees called Wildwood. I loved this quote from the essay:

Much as I enjoy the process of writing, the exercise of my own skill and craft in getting it right,’ Roger wrote in one notebook, ‘nonetheless I would often prefer to be a jotter. Jottings, in their spontaneity and complete absence of any craft, are often so much truer to what I actually feel or think at a given moment.’

I prefer jotting, too. I recently came across an old grocery list with a note on the back: “Ernesto has discovered the word ‘nincompoop.’ He keeps saying it to himself, then he laughs quietly.” That’s the kind of writing I love—it can’t be improved upon. It evokes a fall morning when I was planning to make Brunswick stew and pumpkin bread (the grocery list side of the paper includes the proper ingredients), and Ernesto was joyfully expanding his vocabulary. It isn’t a story, it’s a moment in time. Drafting a story requires so much effort, and even then I am seldom satisfied with the result. Moments in time are already perfect.

But what can you do with a roomful of jottings?  I really need to know. If only they were solid enough to stitch together—I would love a coverlet made of jottings.

I suppose I simply need to be patient and learn how to wrangle my fragments into shape, as Deakin did by writing Wildwood. Like my own writing the book is not perfect, and sometimes I don’t understand what the heck he’s trying to say. But it’s like a trunk filled with amazing and wonderful things (and the occasional piece of unidentifiable flotsam).

Wildwood introduced me to the painter Mary Newcomb, for starters. Later, when I tried to find examples of her work online to see what it actually looked like, I discovered a blog called That’s How the Light Gets In. The blogger, Gerry, once wrote about a Newcomb exhibition and posted several of the paintings, including the one I used for my post titled (like the painting) “There Is No End.” He also included a long excerpt from Wildwood of Deakin’s meeting with Newcomb.

Discovering Gerry’s blog has given me the perfect complement to Wildwood. His August 18th and 19th posts about walking through the English Dales are very much like stepping into the pages of the book and seeing the countryside that inspired Deakin to jot.

I expect I’ll have more to say about Deakin later. I’ve certainly been jotting down plenty of notes….

[Updated to correct Gerry’s gender. What can I say? I’m sometimes woefully unobservant.]

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There Is No End

Mary Newcomb: "There is no end"

A nutshell story.

Mama always says that she doesn’t want a lot of fuss made over her birthday, and Daddy always tries to raise as much fuss as he possibly can. Says he figures the more fuss he can stir up in honor of Mama, the more it distracts her from his faults, which are plentiful and of long standing.

Weeks in advance I asked Mama how many candles we needed for her cake this year, and she would only say, “Too many.” 

“Aw, Mel, it’s not the end of the world, especially considering the alternative,” Daddy teased. 

“It may not be the end of the world,” Mama sighed, “but I can see it from here.”

Daddy pulled me aside later and advised me to go easy; this was a birthday Mama found difficult to face. It appeared to me that I was not the one who needed counsel, but I decided to bide my time and see how he intended to navigate these treacherous waters.

I didn’t have long to wait. Daddy announced that had planned an entertainment worthy of Mama’s birthday: a picnic on Chappell Mountain followed by an outdoor jazz concert. I was not impressed by the depth of his planning. We had received a flyer in the mail that same day announcing the concert, and he actually used it to make his pitch.

“Look, Mel—it’s the Chappell Mountain Toastmasters Scholarship Benefit Concert Under the Stars!  Held on the very date of your birth! You will notice that the Toastmasters have captured the cheerfulness of this event by using bright yellow paper, two exclamation points, and a font that waves at you from the page! Now, I propose that we enjoy a delicious picnic on the mountain, then attend this festive and civic-minded event. What do you say?” He rolled the flyer into a spyglass and regarded Mama through it.

“All right,” she said. She sounded more resigned than interested. “What do you want to take to eat, chicken or sandwiches?”

“It’s your birthday, and you will not be permitted to lift a finger. I’ll pack us a basket.”

Mama still seemed dubious. “I don’t want to see any candles on a cake,” she warned. “That truly would look like the end of the world, and I simply can’t face it.”

“Leave everything to me.” Daddy unfurled the flyer and pointed to it again. “Look here. I know you’re not greeting this particular birthday with your usual delight, but isn’t there something uplifting about a concert that includes the Upper Piedmont High School Mini-Big Band? By the way, what do you reckon a mini-big band is?”

The day of Mama’s birthday outing Daddy produced a heavy picnic basket, a cooler, a blanket, two camp chairs, and an unidentified white bundle. We loaded the car and drove up the switchback road to Chappell Mountain.

“Let’s get a picture of the birthday girl at the scenic overlook,” Daddy said. He eased the car onto a gravel parking area edged by a low stone wall. A long, heavy wooden sign in front of the wall welcomed us to Bee Hive Overlook, elevation 2,418 feet.

Mama carried Bethany to the walled overlook, holding her tight as if she feared Beth might tumble over the side. Before I could run after them, Daddy beckoned for me to follow him to the trunk of the car, where he removed white bundle. “Grab this end,” he whispered, and the plastic began to unfold as he walked away from me. When we reached the overlook, Mama turned to see what was going on.

“Happy birthday, Mel!” Daddy said. We held the banner between us. I had no idea what it said, but I saw Mama read it. She looked at it for a good long time, then busted out crying.

Daddy and I looked at each other in open-mouthed horror. “Oh, now, Mel,” Daddy said, torn between holding up his end of the banner and going to pat her shoulder. He decided to do both, and he walked quickly to her, still holding the banner, me trotting to keep up. “Are you mad, honey?” he asked anxiously.

“No!” Mama said. She laughed, and mopped her face with her free hand. “Let’s take a picture.”

So Daddy strung the banner across the overlook sign, securing it with wire loops fastened to its top corners. I saw that it read, “Welcome to the end of the world! Here’s where the beauty begins.” Mama and I stood supporting Bethany between us on the elevation sign. In that photo we three are linked together tight, and behind us the edge of the earth seemed to drop away into a patchwork quilt of forest and meadow and lake.

Daddy had packed the picnic basket full of sardines, crackers, olives, cheese, peanut butter and banana sandwiches on raisin bread with honey, apples, potato chips, and half a dozen cupcakes. Each white-frosted cake had a favorite Mama quote written on it in thin dark icing, such as: “I did my research,” “Stop it, Frank!” and “Call me when the bleeding stops.” There was also a card. Inside it Daddy had written, “You can’t possibly have enough birthdays to suit us, because there is no end to our love for you!” 

Daddy remarked that he had overlooked no detail in planning this birthday feast, and Mama threw an apple core at him.

Afterwards we drove to the amphitheatre on the east side of the mountain, where a crowd had already gathered. “It is my fervent hope that the Upper Piedmont High School Mini-Big Band is composed of tiny musicians,” Daddy remarked, once we were all comfortable. “The size of garden gnomes sounds about right. Wouldn’t that make for a memorable evening?”

Mama smiled and squeezed his arm. Then the music flared up like a hot air balloon, carrying the four of us above the meadow and over the mountain.

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M. Molly Backes writes a blog on which she recently posted a response to a woman who asked how she could help her young daughter achieve her dream of being a writer. Here is a fragment of the answer:

“First of all, let her be bored. Let her have long afternoons with absolutely nothing to do. Limit her TV-watching time and her Internet-playing time and take away her cell phone. Give her a whole summer of lazy mornings and dreamy afternoons. Make sure she has a library card and a comfy corner where she can curl up with a book. Give her a notebook and five bucks so she can pick out a great pen. Insist she spend time with the family. It’s even better if this time is spent in another state, a cabin in the woods, a cottage on the lake, far from her friends and people her own age. Give her some tedious chores to do. Make her mow the lawn, do the dishes by hand, paint the garage.”

M. Molly is exactly right. What she described is almost precisely the sort of bringing-up I had (minus the cell phone and Internet). But I was certainly not bored. Eliminating what passes for entertainment these days (television, electronics, organized sports and activities) doesn’t necessarily lead to boredom; sometimes it simply gives a person the chance to attend to stray thoughts and follow an idea wherever it might lead.

Tedious chores are especially important—although one person’s tedium is another’s bliss. My favorite jobs as a child and young adult were mowing the lawn, collecting eggs at a commercial egg farm, and tying rows and rows of tomato plants to stakes. Tasks like that allowed my thoughts to ramble, since the repetitiveness of the work put me into a light trance.

(There are times when a light trance can be unhealthy, of course. One afternoon I was on the riding lawnmower, mechanically plowing through a heavy patch of tall grass, when I saw Daddy running toward me from the direction of the pond and Mama running toward me from the house. “What?” I yelled in an aggravatingly adolescent way over the noise of the mower. Then I realized flames were shooting up from behind the seat.)

Not that I didn’t complain about the chores, mind you, especially collecting potatoes and raking leaves. But even then I knew that those jobs freed my mind to make up stuff. That’s exactly where my writing came from. Rudyard Kipling described it beautifully when he gave us this writing advice: “[D]o not try to think consciously. Drift, wait, and obey.”

So thank you, Virginia and Fred!  Thank you for saving me from a possible fiery death and for arranging a childhood that fed my writing. Thanks to you, The Conversion of Jefferson Scotten is finally, finally in print as one of a trio of novellas in a book entitled Meat and Potatoes.  Jefferson began as a seed planted back home on the farm, and the drifting, the waiting, and the obeying played out for far longer than I had imagined. But in the end, they worked.

If you want to write, if you want to put down on paper the interesting and odd and funny and tragic thoughts that haunt you, find a tedious chore and go to it. Paint a room. Dig a garden. Mow the lawn. Wash every dish in your kitchen. Now dry them.

Don’t think. Drift, wait, and obey.

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