The Tumult of Time

 

IMG_0066

Well, the month of June has come and gone without any mention from me, here.

I always swear I am not going to let the days smoosh together unrecognizably, or get caught up in a current of activity that is moving so quickly I am merely carried along, not noticing or marking the unique (and therefore precious) moments along the way. But sometimes it happens anyway.

Summer solstice brought us the longest day; the charcoal grill got uncovered and cleaned and put into action. The weather warmed and the garden has started to grow in earnest. A good portion of my time has been spent there.

So, in truth there have been markers along the way.

The last couple months have been full of the emotional distractions and energy-absorption of canine health issues and crisis that kept our household on edge much of the time. I am familiar with that blur that can happen with the act of caregiving (and the worry and lousy nights’ sleep that accompany it). So I am neither apologizing nor judging — merely noting and now am finally starting to pick up the threads that I had set down a while ago.

My birthday was in there too, somewhere (well-marked by an avalanche of birthday wishes via social media), but that day found me in bed with the flu.

Some years are more celebratory than others.

 

But there is some good news to this story.

I now have renewed energy for the novel-in-progress, thanks to the wise insights, suggestions and genuine enthusiasm from editor and mentor Max Regan. I have started plowing back in, rethinking and reshaping some of the characters, time lines and sequencing. It is an exciting prospect, but I am feeling a little tentative and shy and new about the whole thing, so for now am going to suspend the monthly excerpts here, and focus on the writing itself as I move ever closer to a finished first draft. It hardly seems possible from here!

And short story has been accepted by Spadina Literary Review, to be published online in the fall! So stay tuned.

So okay, it has not been a complete blur, after all.

 

But then at the end of May, Brian Doyle died.

 

Those of us who knew about his cancer diagnosis knew that day would be coming sooner than later, but it was still a shock to the system. One of those shocks that momentarily stop all awareness of the outside world, filling the senses and mind and heart and body with the roaring silence of the Awareness of Absence. Something irrevocable. As certain as it is mysterious. It’s one of those human mortal things that are difficult to explain but as tangible as a metallic taste in the mouth or the hairs rising up on the back of your neck.

A teacher and someone I consider a mentor, Jeffrey Davis, says there are different kinds of mentors: people we encounter live and face-to-face, those we connect with at a distance and online, and those whose writing inspires and informs, our mentors-on-the-page.

Brian Doyle was a prolific writer, compelling storyteller and illuminator of the marvel and grace in life’s smallest moments, but not everyone is able to love his style of writing: He had a deft hand with run-on sentences and had an amazing knack of putting punctuation-less, stream-of-consciousness prose on a page that, if you stopped and thought about it, reflects exactly how the active and curious mind actually thinks. (He told a funny story in an interview once, that after the publication of the novel Mink River his brother sent him a page full of nothing but commas, and an attached note to the effect that he seemed to have lost his supply, so here were some he could use.) For some people this makes for difficult reading. I totally get it. But, if you’re able to settle back and unhinge something in the conscious mind, wade into the stream of his writing and be able to ride its ebb and flow, it can be rich and lush, abundant in the wonders of the world.

I received one of the most gracious and encouraging rejections ever from Brian, in response to a piece I had submitted for consideration to Portland Magazine – the quarterly University of Portland publication of which he was Editor – the turnaround time was next to immediate (which, for any of you who have experience with submitting know this occurrence is on the far side of unlikely and unusual). His explanation was that he respected writers and the courage it took to submit, and he wanted to honor both with a timely response; and besides which, he knew himself well enough to know that if he waited to respond the submission would likely get lost in the vastness of his inbox and he was afraid to lose track and not respond in a timely fashion. I had never felt so respected as a writer.

 Above my desk sits a framed “self-portrait” with the inscription “with laughter and prayers, Brian Doyle.” It was his response when I handed him my notebook open to a blank page to sign; after a wonderful talk about some of his favorite writers and the imperative we should all feel to tell stories (as being the warp and weft and grist of our lives, of where we intersect as human beings), others had thought to bring a copy of one of his books to sign, but I hadn’t had that forethought. So, feeling slightly foolish but sincere, I handed him the blank page to sign. What I received instead, was this: 

Brian Doyle self-portait

It is apparently something he sometimes did – I recently saw one tacked up next to a shelf of his books in a local independent bookstore where he had done a reading in the past – and I was thrilled to have one of my own.

As he was thus autographing my notebook page, I told him of the nephew of a friend of mine who had recently suffered a near-fatal bicycle accident. My friend would sit by his bedside in the hospital while he was still in a coma and read out loud from Mink River, which was one of his favorite books. He later told her he remembered hearing her reading from the book, and how important that was. Brian’s response was to ask for both my friend’s and her nephew’s email address; I don’t know what he wrote but he made a point to write to both of them. That was the kind of person he was.

I want to say we are truly gifted by the richness of his spirit as well as the many stories and “promes” (his word for his particular prose/poems) full of rich language and wonder that remain even in his absence. (If you would like to read more – tributes and reflections as well as some of his words in essay and interview – the links are below.)

So my return to my own creativity, as well as to the desire to live fully into each day, comes in part from this latest reminder of how precious and fleeting is this gift of time we have here on this planet, in this life.

 

Brian Doyle’s essays published in Brevity.com

Brian Doyle’s interview on Brevity podcast

Brian Doyle and Orion Magazine

An open letter from one of Brian Doyle’s students

Brian Doyle’s last poem

 

Advertisements

One Dish at a Time (excerpt): Fireflies

(It is the first of the month, and so here is another excerpt from the novel-in-process – this time a fond childhood memory of the book’s antagonist.)

Fireflies or lightning bugs light up a meadow in Arkansas during the spring.

There must have been a million fireflies. Dancing dots and flashes of light in the dark, some blinking slow, some fast. Swimming through the deep blue-washed night, they made Alice think of music. She felt like she could almost hear the music, sweet and rhythmic, with different instruments for the different speeds of blinking. Sort of like her “Peter and the Wolf” record, with different instruments for the different characters.  Maybe she would grow up and compose a Firefly Symphony.  She started humming in time to their movement.

Well okay, she couldn’t actually count to a million, but she thought there must be at least a million of them. Maybe two. Or, maybe there were only a million, and their reflection in the pond made it seem like two million (this, one of the wonderful illusions that came with the warm summer evenings of childhood).

Her father had asked Alice if she wanted to catch some and put them in a jar for a while, so she could see them up close. “Could I?”she asked with delight, amazed that such a thing would be possible, like catching magic and holding it fast with a canning jar lid. He had smiled at her expression, and said sure you can do that. You just have to be sure to keep them for only a little while, and then let them go back to their homes.

He had brought everything they needed: From a back pocket of his khakis he produced a flashlight with a piece of blue paper taped to the lens so it cast a light blue light. “It’s so we don’t disturb them, so they don’t think our flashlight is the biggest firefly they’ve ever seen and get scared and fly away,” he told her. He had a jar with a piece of wet paper towel inside – “because they like air that’s not too dry. It’s why they like to be out here in the summertime when it’s so humid, right?” Alice had nodded, not sure she completely understood, but had wanted to impress him with her knowledge and understanding of such important, worldly matters. He said he would hold the flashlight and the jar. He demonstrated the arm movement, easy and gentle so as not to hurt the insects, then solemnly handed her the small net with the long handle (Like a wand, Alice thought. I am Queen of the Fireflies!).

They went off into the middle of the field, and he told her to stand still for a minute, “let them get used to you being here.” She barely breathed. Slowly, like the movement of water, the twinkling gradually surrounded them and twirling of what now she was certain was at least a million fireflies. It was like standing in the sky among the stars, Alice thought. It was like the fairies in the movie Fantasia that they all went to see the summer she turned six, only this was way better, like being in the movie. Alice forgot about the plan to capture a few of them, until she felt her father’s hand softly on her shoulder. She looked up at him and smiled, then got her net ready.

firelies in a jar on a dark background

Alice went into the house, holding the jar with its tiny blinking lights out in front of her with both hands, eyes wide. She didn’t see the smile that her parents exchanged over the top of her head. Bea came running from the kitchen, where she had been helping their mother make dinner, eager to see Alice’s treasure. The sisters took off for their room, to look at the captive insects with the lights out so to see them better, followed by the sound of their father’s laughter and their mother’s call that dinner would be ready soon.

* * *

Alice missed fireflies, living in Hawaii. She had read somewhere they had tried to introduce them at one point, for some reason or another that seemed logical at the time, but the environment wasn’t conducive and the experiment failed. You can’t always just put something (or someone) where you want it to be. Not that she would dream of moving back to Minnesota – not for them, or for anything else, for that matter. Alice wondered if there were fireflies in Seattle. She doubted it. The lights of the city were so many and bright that, even if the insects were there, would obliterate the firefly’s blinking like they probably did the twinkling of the stars. Alice looked up from where she sat on her porch. Above her was suspended an assortment of constellations that she recognized by sight, if not by name. Here on the quieter side of the Big Island, one could still see stars, at least more than were ever possible in the lights of Honolulu. She loved the verve of the city, though she tended to stay closer to home in the height of the tourist season. It was a decent trade-off for living here in paradise. No Minnesota winters. Shorts or short skirts, tee shirts and flip-flops almost all year round, if she wanted. Mosquitos followed her here from the Midwest, true, but not in great numbers. No, she was certain the benefits of living here far outweighed the brief wonder of firefly season back home. Still, she smiled at the memory and faintly wished she could have a firefly summer evening again, just once.

One (more) Dish at a Time

Raw coriander, garlic and flax on vintage desk

The first excerpt of the novel-in-process was published last spring (with much thanks to  Marisa Goudy for giving me the nudge and the venue). It was anxious-making and exciting to see it out in the world as a Real Thing, even virtually, and I decided I would post more bits and pieces as I went along.

Since that first excerpt, I have doubled my page count (up to over two hundred pages, though I know there’s still quite a ways more to go on a first draft that has yet to be subjected to the editing and shaping process), and have added to the working title. For now at least, it’s:

One Dish at a Time: A Story of Family, Forgiveness, and Finding One’s Place at the Table

And now I am in the midst of a several-month online mentorship program with Jeffrey Davis and Tracking Wonder which is helping propel me through this process. Their encouragement, too, reminds me that I said to myself I would share more of the process with you, too.

So, here is another draft excerpt. Hope you like it.

     “Did you know that if you hold the end of a piece of string to your nose with one hand and take the string in the other hand and stretch it out straight to your side, that piece of string will measure one yard?” Michael Smithson’s face held a grin and look that made Bea think of a magician that once did an assembly in her school. “Although you’re still a little small, you might have to turn your head and stretch the other arm back some,” he added. “Shall we see?”

     Bea’s father just happened to have a small ball of string in his jacket pocket (of course), and demonstrated how it was done.

     “How do you know that’s a yard?” asked Bea with small-child skepticism.

     “Hah! I tried it once and then measured the piece of string,” her father replied. “I don’t have a measuring tape on me, I don’t think,” patting his pockets to be sure, “but look, remember how I showed you once that the tiles here in the kitchen were twelve inches across? How many feet is twelve inches?”

     “One.”

     “Good. And how many feet in a yard?”

     Bea squinted in concentration. “Three?”

     “Yes ma’am. Good work. Any chance you know how many inches in a yard, then?”

     Bea squinted her eyes almost closed, trying to make a number appear in her mind. She opened her eyes and shook her head.

     Her father laughed, “That’s okay, sweetie, that’s a hard question and more math than you’ve done yet. I’ll show you on paper later, draw it out for you so you can see it. For now, though, let’s measure. See? This is how it’s done. Now take this end – hold onto the string right where my fingers were so we get it right – and put it at the corner of the tile there at your feet. Now don’t let it move.” Bea squatted down and did as instructed, being small-child-careful to be precise. She watched as her father took the other end and, laying it along the edges of the tiles, until it was a straight line, just past the corner of the (one, two, three) third tile. Bea’s eyes opened wide like she’d seen a magic trick, was waiting for the string to suddenly change into a strand of knotted, colorful scarves.

     Her Father smiled, triumphant. “See? Pretty neat, isn’t it?”

     “But it’s more than three feet….well, just a little” she hurried to add, seeing her father’s eyebrows raise and not wanting to hurt his feelings.

     “Right you are. Using a body ruler – that’s what they call it – is good for approximate measurements. You know what approximate means, right?”

     “Almost?” Bea answered, her voice raising into a question with uncertainty.

     “Yes! Almost, or more-or-less, or close enough to count. You couldn’t build kitchen cabinets that way I don’t think – we could try it though. Think your mother would mind?” Bea giggled. “Now, let’s check your body ruler.” He handed her the string and she copied what she’d watched him do. The results were a little short of three feet.

     “Try again, and this time turn your head toward the side of the hand that’s on your nose, and stretch your other hand back as far as you can.”

     This time the measurement was almost three feet.

     “Approximately,” said Bea, smiling.

     “Exactly right. Now, no matter where you are, you’ll be able to measure a yard of anything you can hold like that in your hands. Back in the olden days, women used to measure fabric that way for the clothes they made. I remember watching your grandmother do it when I was about your age.” He wound the string back into its ball and returned it to his pocket. “There’s lots of these kinds of measurements. I’ll teach you more of them if you’d like sometime.” Bea nodded enthusiastically. It felt like she and her father now shared some kind of important secret. She could hardly wait get home to show her sister.

***

     Bea hadn’t thought about that afternoon in years. But she realized she had committed all the “body ruler” measurements her father had taught her to memory and used them often. Just now, she had unwound a length of kitchen twine and, knowing from experience that to tie a pork shoulder roast of this size required about three feet of string, put the end to her nose and reached her other arm out, reaching back and turning her head to give her a bit of extra to work with, then cutting it with her kitchen shears. She bound the piece of meat into a nice, even cylinder; she recalled as she was tying the ends together that it had been her father who had also taught her a lot about knot tying. That was the summer before he left. It was a lesson that had been left unfinished, for he knew more knots than he had shown her. It had been hard for Bea to make her seven-year-old fingers work together right, but he had said it just took practice, that she had good slender knot-tying fingers and when her hands got a little bigger and stronger she could probably even enter knot-tying competitions. What a bullshitter, Bea thought to herself, shaking her head.

     But she realized she loved knowing practical things like tying knots and being able to measure things without having to first stop and scrounge in a drawer or toolbox for a ruler or tape measure. For example, she knew the span between her thumb and little finger, when she opened her palm wide, was eight inches. Handy (no pun intended) to know when picking a pie or cake pan out of the cupboard and wanting to be sure whether or not it was eight or nine inches (or ten, for that matter. She could determine an inch or two beyond her hand span).

     Bea placed the roast in the oven, wondering what more her father would have taught her if he’d stayed.

100 Days of Discovering Continuous Practice (and counting)

IMG_5364 A few months ago I accepted Saundra Goldman’s invitation to join her #continuouspractice project. It is a group whose members strive to post a photo each day that reflects a dedicated ongoing practice; for most it is about writing, but there are also photographers and a runner, and still others who simply make a point to be present to the world around them and document that practice with a photo. We are a supportive community of like-minded strangers; we come together on the pages of Facebook from all over the globe, aligned in the determination to mindfully establish a disciple of regular attention to our chosen activity.

Do some of us miss the occasional day? Do I? Oh hell yes. But this is not another rigid taskmaster exercise that becomes an easy set-up for failure and self-recrimination – every day is a new day. There is something, however, about the intention of posting a daily photo of one’s work that lends itself to a certain accountability. Not a bad thing.

I have missed the occasional day, but less often than I would have thought. You see, the momentum and practice of showing up every day becomes sort of self-perpetuating. I miss writing if a day goes by without it. Sitting down to the desk with pen and paper or keyboard has become a sort of coming home, one that deeply satisfies (even as I sometimes wrestle mightily with the muses of fiction and poetry, not to mention my own internal critics). And that is the point really. The showing up, come hell or high water. A sink of dirty dishes, lack of sleep, requests from family and friends, to be given their due, but not given all. It doesn’t have to be a lot. Twenty minutes is the suggested minimum, but truly, even ten minutes a day, every day – and like the birds who somehow know the feeder is full of seed, the muses will come by and pay a visit. It is a creative anchor upon which we can hinge our days. It is no small thing, even though perhaps a small amount of time. It is a stand for our own creative worth.

Some days I write a little, some days a lot. Sometimes it is a letter to a friend (yes, I do write letters, on paper and in envelopes with stamps), journal entries to myself, work for a freelance client, work on my own creative projects. Or some combination of these. It just has to be something. 

Earlier this month I  up-ed the ante and took part in Max Regan’s online “Boot Camp” (actually for the second time). Daily prompts, lessons and encouragement; writing 1000 words/day. For ten days. Put my head up after that marathon and lo and behold, I had cranked out 10,000 words! All rougher-than-rough draft, the point is to establish the practice of showing up. Every day. It’s frankly exhilarating. Some of it is well worth keeping, some of it’s pretty much drivel, but a lot is in between, and has potential.  But again, the point is the Practice. In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott has a lot to say about the reality, if not the value, of shitty first drafts. I still struggle with scheduling time to write. I still find ways to procrastinate, derail myself. It’s why they call it Practice. But. With very few days missed, today I posted the photo for Day 134 in #continuouspractice. That is something.

Oh, and the photo above includes a bowl of some sort of salad creation of the day. Not 134 days of cooking necessarily, but creating dishes with an assortment of ingredients on a regular basis satisfies me in similar ways to creating bodies of written work with an assortment of words.

Creativity taking several paths, in my life.

(no accident that the protagonist in the ongoing book project loves to cook, and that the entire story is interwoven through a multi-course meal that she is asked to create. Curious? Stay tuned.)