Sunday, May 26, 2013

We Are All Soldiers Now

There was a time when warfare was a spectator sport. No, not in the Roman Coliseum, though that certainly was a one-on-one kind of warfare. I’m talking about when citizens took their picnic lunches and went to watch a battle. "Coming Soon To a Field Near You!" It happened right here in our own country, if you recall your history. It was during that most civil of Civil Wars. Civil because the people who fought it could, when the shooting stopped, shout to one another across the line, even trade between enemies at a very low level, perhaps catch up on family events as brothers fought brothers, fathers fought sons. And later, of course, when it was all over, we came together again as a people.

There was an historic tree on the campus where I spent many years, its location later marked by a bronze plaque. The plaque told of a Confederate sharpshooter who, using the tree as a perch, fired on nearby Fort Stevens. One shot found its mark in a military surgeon standing next to President Lincoln, who was watching his soldiers at their work. The tree stood for many years, a witness to war and history. But those days are long gone. Today when civilians are present, they are more likely to be intended targets.

War has now become a world-wide affair, involving solders and sailors and airmen . . . and the rest of us. Targets are not just people in different uniforms, or places where something important to a war is manufactured or prepared or distributed. Those kinds of targets are so yesteryear. And it doesn’t matter who is the enemy and who is the friend. Nor does it matter where the war is being fought. In truth, "the war," all wars, are being fought on land, sea and in the air, and in a neighborhood near you. Unless you are unlucky enough to be in the neighborhood that is today’s target of choice.

So as we think about why we have a memorial day, and recognize those men and women in uniform who have secured for us what we hold most dear, we really ought to expand its scope. The next battle could be in your street, or on my road, in an office block or a residential complex. We need to recognize that war is everywhere around us, that we are all in the middle of it, not spectators any longer. And if you are called upon to fight, to defend, to aid and comfort your fellow warfighters, you must be prepared to make that sacrifice, that "last full measure of devotion," to protect what is most at risk, and most valued: our freedom and our right to live.

We are all soldiers now.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Writing Life

I want to give you some insight into what being a writer means. Especially, I want to give you some feeling for what it is like to support yourself and your family using a common skill. I also want to tell you how I feel about it, and what it is like to be a writer.

To begin with, I think it is important for the non-writer to understand that putting words on paper (or on a computer screen), is really the end of a process that begins somewhere deep in the brain; that begins with a thought or a picture and ends with the words, "The End." Between those two posts lies a fence of sometimes fragile fabric drawn from research, imagination, and knowledge. Pulling those strands together must begin before the first word is put down. That is the hard work of writing.

Imagination? A very important part of writing comes from the writer’s skill in recognizing the three-dimensional vision of a thought or idea or image. That is perhaps the first spark that ignites the fire of creativity. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, or between two words you are reading in a book, or putting one foot before the other as you walk along a path in the garden, that quickly, an idea or picture or full-blown sentence arrives in the part of your mind where it is recognized, and you are off and running with an idea. Now the work begins.

If what you are writing is to be part of a report or perhaps a plan for a product, then hours of research must follow. If you are writing for someone else, a client or a teacher or a lover, you must have the patience to refine your idea to the point that you can express it clearly and in words that are both economical and appealing. But what about "real" writing: creative, fictional, imaginative? That’s what I really want to tell you about.

Just as with any other writing, putting the words down is the end of the process, not the beginning. One doesn’t simply sit down and start putting letters together in a single, breathless burst. Pay no attention to those filmic events in which the previously despondent and frustrated writer suddenly wakes up, grabs a pencil or turns on the computer, and madly, compulsively, brutally attacks the blank page and fills it with word after word until the sun rises over the dirty city where the garret is located, and the hero types: "The End." And then is rich and famous. Doesn’t happen.

And about being lonely, alone, depressed and despondent: another myth, probably first generated by a writer who discovered the truth and didn’t want to share it. Put it this way: how could you be alone, much less lonely, when you are in the middle of a world you create yourself, populated by people who owe their very existence to your imagination, in places only you have seen before? This is your world, your space, and it is what you want it to be. Lonely? Well that’s when you have to leave your own world and rejoin the rest.

It’s the writer’s life for me!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Everything is set for Spring

Everything is set for Spring except the weather.

I stepped out this morning, as I do every morning, sometime after 7 AM, knowing that it had been cold overnight, knowing that we had, for a change, not benefitted from a cloud-cover insulating layer, expecting some of the more delicate spring buds to look a bit less robust than they had yesterday. I didn’t expect a skein of ice on the wheelbarrow that had absorbed Saturday’s half-inch rain storm.

All the signs of the season had been promising Spring for the last week or two: chilly but not freezing temperatures overnight, warm (60 - 70) days. Even the birds and frogs were saying it was time. I should have known the season hadn’t really taken hold, though. The humming birds, that for years have arrived on April 30 to serenade my wife on her birthday, didn’t show up until May had begun. Still, Ice? And the forecast for tonight is for temperatures in the twenties! Not fair in this time of global warming, yet there are the numbers on the recording thermometer.

Of course the warming is happening, just not all at once. The weather is unsettled, not simply tracing a new graph with a single direction. That’s to be expected as scientists experiment with new ways of holding the line (not reversing it) so that change happens at a speed we can deal with and prepare for.

It’s much the same with writing, let me tell you. Some days the words just won’t stop flowing, and they are good words, too. Other days I have to use all my available energy to tease the thoughts out of my creative corner and see them show up on the page. That doesn’t mean I have no more ideas, or that the ideas aren’t worth pursuing. It does mean, though, that time is having its way with the creativity nodes. I perhaps don’t process the things I see and hear quite as quickly as I used to. I recognize that there is a time yet to come when the creative juices will slow and perhaps stop. That doesn’t mean I should give up, of course, or put my mind on slow. It really means that I’d best be aware of the possibility of change, of longer incubation times for ideas, or of shorter periods available for working with the ideas I do have. Change, like Spring, will come.

I embrace it and make it my own.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Summer Day: Looking Ahead From Behind

Spring comes slowly to the mountains where we live. So slowly that even on a sunny, breezy day in May, one is still hoping for a really warm, summer day. We may regret that wish come August, but here in the hills "hot" doesn’t last too long.

Instead of feeling a summer day, my thoughts have turned to summer as I remember it from my childhood. Here is what it was like for me:

When I was small the world came to me in terms of sight and sound and smell. A summer day, for instance, was a mixture of those images. This is a moment as I recall it:

Green. The predominant color is green. Dark, almost black in places, thick and shadow-casting green. Lighter colors seemed blanched, almost non-descript. Green is what I can see. The sky is a hard blue, the sun a white-hot yellow. But the color most abundant is green.

Musical. That is the only word to describe the sounds in this picture. Insects, heavy leaves rustling, water trickling in a creek. A frog plops into the stream. A screen door bangs. Distant sounds of other children laughing or yelling. A lawn mower, man- not engine-powered, adds its chink-chink-chink sound of blades crossing the cutting bar. Saws and hammers from a building under construction offer the keening song of teeth cutting wood, set to the peculiar diminishing pounding rhythm of two carpenters working as a team, the hammer blows overlapping, then the pause as another set of nails is positioned, then the bang-bang-bang again, diminishing, then a final loud one; BANG.

Sweet. A heavy, musky scent from some of the flowers, mixed with the mossy moldy smell of drying creek edges. Green has its own smell: hard, brassy. The water in the creek is cool-smelling, with a sharpness of its own. In the sunnier places the warmth of the water repeats the moldy smell of the drying streamside. An occasional whiff of human overlays it all.

Hot. The air moving over bare arms and legs is hot. Noticeably so in the sun, less so in the shade. It sometimes has movement, but at others is so still. It can change just by changing position: in the open it has a slight movement, but step behind a tree, or walk into a thicket and it becomes still and heavy.

Those are the sounds and smells that still remind me of summer. That and walking slowly along a dirt road, the dust kicking up from the feet of my dog who walks ahead, panting, sniffing the air, and we arrive at the dark screen door that takes us back, into the cool shelter of the house.