Sunday, October 26, 2014

On the Beach

It’s time again to be on the beach. Every year we leave our beloved mountains and head for open water, where the sun announces itself with a brief reddening of the horizon and then, as if on a spring, pops up and fills the sky with its red gold light.

This morning the shrimp boats are all across the horizon. Last night, around midnight, we could see their navigation lights far from shore.  At first light they were still at work, lights on, moving slowly in the sea. As I stepped onto the sandy beach beneath the reddening sky, the tide was coming in, the air was slightly salty and, even though the dark still lay on the land, the early birds, gulls and sand pipers, were doing their morning dance along the moving edge of the sea. It restoreth the soul.

Sitting on the wide screened porch, overlooking the ocean, friends and coffee cups meeting together to welcome the day, our time of renewal begins. We’ll be here time enough to shed the cold we left behind, and the cares that seem to gather like clouds when you are at home where you might be able to do something about it. Here on the Healing Porch, though, all is light, and breeze and the sound of the surf, and since we know we can’t do anything about the things we left behind, we fall into a series of days of conversation, friendly discussion, quiet speculation. We all know we will be back with our cares, but that is days away. We are aware that the ones we left behind, children, grandchildren, dogs that have extended our families, will be there to welcome us, including the newest member of our immediate family (literally any minute now). We are also aware that we cannot do more than wish them all a pleasant and good time while we are away.

For years, as we have enjoyed this annual trek, this healing by the waters, knowing that it will not last beyond the allotted week, but holding the thought that it will come again next year, I have tried to frame a story that would involve not only this place, but these people. I haven’t found the storyline yet, and I’m not sure I ever will. I have written many times about a writer’s way, or at least this writer’s, of filtering everything through the writing process. Well, not everything.

Even though I have written about this annual change of scene in the past, I have never found a plot that would let me include the place and time we occupy here. Perhaps that is more than just lack of ideas; perhaps a desire to savor and keep real this time and place. It is not something easily given up or turned into something else. It is a special place, a special time, and I want to keep it that way.

In the end, I think there is a need to protect and treasure a place and a time, from becoming a part of a made-up life.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Living Writing

I have never done just one thing. Multitasking seems to be a way of life for me. I’ve never been happy focusing on just one thing at a time. Oh, I can do that for a few hours, but soon my mind begins to examine other things, other plans or other tasks that either need doing or I want to do. Of all the things that capture my attention, however, the one I’m most comfortable with for the longest time any day, is writing.

In a typical day I will spend my morning in front of a keyboard or a yellow pad or a notebook, putting thoughts into coherent sentences and pages. As with most things I do, I seem more focused when I work alone when the objective is building something. It might be a construction using wood and glue and nails, or it could be an essay such as this one, or a tale I want to tell.

When I write I lose myself in the story, get lost in research, find new avenues to explore in my mind as the words appear in front of me. If it is cold and windy (as it is today), writing warms me. The process fills me with a heat generated from within. If the temperature is above comfortable, writing redirects my awareness away from discomfort, away from myself. Writing something about a character or an act or just about the scene itself, causes me to reach deep into my experience, my steamer trunk of observations, my catalogue of expressions, to build a character or establish a sense of place and time.

When I am writing I am in my most comfortable place. Even when I’m doing other things, part of me will be observing, considering, filing for future pages. There are lots of things I love doing, find time for, think about when I’m not doing them. I love solving problems created by the way we live, trying to be self-sufficient where we can, providing for heat in the long winters, maintaining our small fleet of vehicles and other tools of life in the country, or just taking time to enjoy where and how we go through our days.

Still, it all comes back to writing. Everything I do seems to have a place in what I write. Life, at least for me, is made up of two qualities: experience and expression. Experience comes from living. Expression is applying experience to observations and situations, finding the meaning or usefulness in what I learn or observe.

I suppose I am, at heart, a loner. I enjoy being with other people, talking, listening, observing. At the same time, though, I am filing away scenes and scents, appearances and applications that, along with all the other things I see and hear, eventually find expression in words that make up stories. That is where I live, where I spend most of my time. Writing, for me, is the engine that drives me.

Life is what starts the engine.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Tell Me a Story

In writing these more-or-less weekly essays I often use some incident or encounter from the past as a foundation. I can recall details of conversations and events that may date from my childhood or from some other time long ago. It is a skill that has served me well when doing research for technical and educational films. Now, writing fiction, that ability to recall not just words, but time and place and action helps me create characters with dimension, and scenes or settings that give breadth to a character or an event. I think it is a skill a lot of people possess, but don’t always use, especially when recounting a bit of family history. And everyone, it seems, loves history. Especially when it is their own.

There are others who love that kind of recall. More than once I’ve had people tell me stories from their family, ending with “you ought to write that.” Well, no, You ought to write that. Those are your stories, from your family and your life. It isn’t all that hard. You simply write the story as you recall it, then add as much detail as you can to give the people and events dimension.

My mother undertook to write her story when she was in her 80s (she lived to be 96), and which she had printed for the family (by then including many grandchildren and great grandchildren, cousins and nieces and nephews). An immigrant in 1912 at the age of six, dropped into a small Southern town where her father had prepared the way, she and her mother spoke no English, had no exposure to any place bigger than a Russian farm village. Her story of how she became an American in every way, including a genuine Southern accent, was legend in our family. An accomplished (but mostly unpublished) writer in her own lifetime, she left a priceless inheritance for her family. As our family increases with the addition of spouses and progeny, her little booklets about her life will keep her story alive, and give substance to memory.

How difficult is it to do the same with your own stories? Not really hard at all. To begin, take something from the past, a photograph, a special plate or spoon, at tool from great-grandfather’s workbench, virtually anything that has a story of its own. Hold it, touch and turn it, study its dimensions and picture it in use, or sitting in a special place on the mantel or corner cabinet. Describe the object. Be aware of every detail that you can see or feel or recall. Remember when you first saw it, who told you what it was, where it was kept. It’s the little things that give life to an object. Now you have set the scene.

From that starting point, expand your story. Write about the people who handled the object or who are in the photo or painting. Put down details of who, what, where, when and if you know, why. You will find yourself recalling far more than you had expected, far better than you remembered when you began.

And don’t worry about the words. If you think your spelling or grammar is not up to a standard, there are two things you can do about it. Especially if you are using a word processor, there are tools available at the click of a mouse to check both of those things. Or, you can simply write what you want, in your own voice, and not think about what letter goes where, or what ending a word needs to agree with the words around it. I’m not recommending that you pay no attention to those things, of course. Doing it right will make the reading experience better for your audience, but the main thing is to get the story down, get it right. Make it beautiful later if you wish. The main thing is getting it down.

Tell me a story.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Neighborhoods and Neighbors

It seems official, now: Fall is here. The leaves are not only in full color, but full flight, too. I cleaned them from the roof and gutters, decks and walkways on Friday. It sort-of rained on Friday night (the first in nearly two months, and barely a tenth-of-an-inch at that), followed by Saturday’s strong, drying wind that continues today. Until all the trees that shed in the fall are bare, leaf moving will be a regular exercise.

When we lived in the city and suburbs we didn’t have acres of woodland to care for, nor did we need power equipment to do the job. A rake or two, some burlap to drag the leaves to the compost pile or curbside, and a broom to clear the flagstone walkway and we were done. Now we limit leaf-moving to the gutters, decks and walkways. Nature does the rest: by spring they are ready to be incorporated into the soil, or simply provide moisture absorption against the dry days of summer. We aren’t too concerned with nicely kept lawns (we don’t have any) or neat beds and paths. We tend to let nature follow its own path.

There are chores you can’t ignore when you live in the city because neighbors and neighborhoods tend to exert pressure on neighbors. Here in the country, especially in the mountains, where the nearest neighbor is beyond any line of sight, how you care for your land is your business. It’s up to us, for instance, to decide how close the trees can be, or how wild the vista from our windows and decks. For us, trees are close, neighbors are not. We like it wild and unruly and somewhat chaotic around our living space, maybe because chaos reminds us of why we chose to live beyond the borders of what most people think of as civilization. We like our privacy, our peace and quiet, our sometimes limited views (very limited in the summer, more open in the winter). And we like it when we call the local power provider to report an outage and they ask if our neighbors have power. Our reply is that the nearest neighbor is a mile away. At least that is the way it used to be. Lately it has become somewhat crowded here.

We live a mile from the main road. For years the next inhabited house was at the end of the road, a mile beyond us. This year we’ve seen a one-hundred per cent increase in neighbors: one a renter of a farm about half way between us and the end of the road. The other, half way between us and the renter. A young couple bought a small holding and filled the house with their four kids and a dog, added a kitchen garden and some chickens. “Getting crowded, here,” I muttered to my mate. “Might be time to think about moving on.” Fortunately she didn’t jump to start packing up. Turns out having neighbors so close (still beyond sight or sound), isn’t so bad after all.

In fact, it’s kind of nice. We talk, we share chores and tools and equipment. That happened just last week. An old 4-wheel-drive SUV we use to drive around the place, for taking the dogs places, or to go  over the mountains when the roads are snow-covered or icy, was stuck and needed more than one person to move it. A call to my neighbor brought him and his tractor and his willingness to help, and in less time than it took him to drive the quarter-mile between us, the old machine was back where it was supposed to be. No drama, no “how will I solve this alone” monologue, just a call, an answer and a solution.

We like knowing that there is someone to call if we are in need. More than that, we like the presence of little kids who will grow up here in our valley. We like seeing the old houses become homes again. We like having someone close by we can help when they need it. We like finding ourselves, after all these years, once again in a neighborhood.

Hi, neighbor!