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Sitting by candlelight after a full day of writing that vanished out from under me. A happy thing.
Watching the night gather. Watching the light make rainbows on the whirling CD in the player. Watching in awe the brilliant, shining thing my life is at this moment.
I am listening to the exquisite, exultant melancholy that is Arvo Part’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. And I know that I want—for one moment in my life—to know that my work means as much to someone as this work means to me.
For one week, I am holed-up at the house on the river, writing an essentially urban book from a place that is exactly the opposite. I have chosen well.
Dever is never silent. Denver is (at least where I have decided to live) concrete strung with Christmas lights. Crickets don’t chirp in the city. The air is not heavy with the smells of green. My feet do not touch ground. As it should be.
The river house exists in a bubble of peace; at night, the air conditioner is the loudest sound. Eagles wake me in the morning. I have these gifts for a week, and for a lifetime after city-work is done. I had not forgotten how much I love this space, yet I am glad to be so well reminded.
Music from the CD. Music in my head. Music of darkness and light. Music of solitude, cloaked by a generous muse. One perfect moment in a string of them. I am eyes, here. And ears. And words.
This is what I want. This is what I am.
The Quadrantid meteor shower last night.
Woke without the alarm at 1:30 a.m., gathered my kit—the long cushion from the patio swing, pillow, jacket and an assortment of wool blankets and throws—and stretched out on the driveway, the vantage with the best view of the north/northeastern sky.
Fuzzy moonlight overhead. Owls hooting at the edges of the pasture. The distant lowing of a worried cow. The occasional rumble of a neighbor’s heat pump. And waiting.
Patience is the lesson of most meteor showers. 80-100 meteors per hour does not mean a cosmic schedule of clocklike regularity. Last night, patience meant waiting for moonset and the clearing of the night’s high fog; meant knowing that, for a while, only the brightest, strongest shooting stars would be available to me.
Moonset. The vanishing of the light, a new kind of silence, as if a hiss had gone from the sky. I opened my sight to the reach of my peripheral vision. And then. The show. The one that had been going on all along, even when I couldn’t see it. Meteors. Long-track ones, horizon to horizon. Tiny pale ones. Sparkly bold ones. A twin: two meteors, side by side, a synchronized swim in the sky. Two almost at once, from opposite directions, the second appearing before the first was gone. A green one.
Was I the only one out there in my little valley, under the sky? Probably. And as I lay out there, waiting for the ooh/ahhh, grinning when it came, I thought—as I so often do, in the oddest of circumstances—how much like being a creative person this was.
Alone, we are. Braving the chill at absurd hours. Lying in the dark, waiting for the miracle.
What sort of happy fool would do something like this? What inner-whatever does it take to appreciate the long wait for a instant of beauty; to witness the last living moment of a well-traveled bit of heavenly scree as it transforms so magnificently from matter into something else? What would the neighbors say if they saw me out here?
The answers to those questions are the essence of what we are as writers, artists, musicians. We wait in the dark and the cold. We wait alone. We wait with wide eyes, hoping to capture fleeting flashes of beauty that we struggle to remember, to feel, to describe…the magnificent instants that may well have meaning for nobody by ourselves.
We are the wait. The longing. The brief, brilliant light. We are the meteors at the true north of ourselves, the instants worth waiting for.
I never expected that a single place could speak to me for the rest of my lifetime.
I knew, from the moment I set eyes on this river house and its countryside, that I would love it as my parents did. It was an inexplicable love, greater than the connection my parents had for this place, greater than the hours spent watching the sun cast its light into the water, greater than the sunset over the pasture or than the creatures who come to visit.
Who’d have thunk?
I have always had a restless heart. The need to experience what is not present has been a propelling force in my life. The desire for opposites drives me. Except here.
When I’m writing, I don’t spend as much time sitting out under the sky at morning and sunset, but the place remains present in my eye. The sounds that change with breeze and season. The color of light on water. The rain. The breeze and its touch on the deep notes of windchime that tell me the wind’s direction. Change comes to small things. And there is no boredom in it, no same in the sameness.
These are the elements that inhabit my writing. The silence that gives me my voice; the ever-different backdrop of my life. It is not a settling for less than everything. It is not the product of getting older. Minute by minute and day by day, the same-and-changing experience tells me everything about itself. And about myself.
Do all writers have this: a place that speaks to us, that helps us write–even if it is only a place in our heads?
For me, the view from a chair. The who I am when all else is stubbornly absent. Of the earth, by the earth, the gift my parents gave me.
The 300 yards that open the universe. A finite door to infinity. That’s the view from the back of the house.
Last evening, in the hour of long shadows, I sat out with a glass of wine and wondered at it. At the water, wrinkled by wind, colored chartreuse by the chemistry of angled sun and fading leaves. At the birds, frenetic with the insect-opportunities of the warm autumn afternoon. At the silver splashes of fishtails in the lowered water. In the heron that chooses to perch—and complain—from a riverside tree on my side of the water.
The hummingbirds were there…fewer, to be sure, and less tubby than their earlier-fleeing cousins. Two eagles flew overhead, looking at one another as they flew. I hear the unexpected whistle of a baby owl where none should be at this late time of year, not hardy as its spring brothers had been. Cocky lizards, warming in the false summer. Cows mooing loudly from the pasture, in their delivery of baby calves.
And over it all, from the sheltered side of the house protected from the prevailing weather, the sssssshhhhh of the wind in trees, the sound we humans have borrowed to comfort one another.
I would never have expected that such a limited view could reveal such unlimited wonder. I weep with it; can’t help myself.
Nature and writing came to me simultaneously, very early in my life; an impulse grown from the nature of me to describe the Nature of it; the instinct to see it, to describe it as others did not. A company in my solitariness. My personal Walden has not given me the chapter that remains stubbornly at a distance. Not yet. It has given me something more. When I remember to look for it.
Different, not alien. The people I knew I would see from day to day, the traffic on the roadways: No. My company, these days, is limited to the friends and colleagues who email and phone me, the neighbors who wave as they walk, the rare car that drives past.
Walks are quiet, too. Birds and insects make the loudest sounds. Eagles call one another behind the house to the point of being obnoxious. Cows low in the field. The sawmill on the mountain makes its sawmill-y sound. Deer appear on the road… an occasional mink…a chipmunk…a groundhog.
These things are gifts to the writer, when she listens with the right ears.
Sitting out back of the house of a morning or an evening—one can hear the sounds of cars, trucks. They are far away, over the hills; intermittent. Highway 5. People getting from here to there.
An analogy comes in with the sound. People. Far away. And me. My life.
I know that Others are out there…but the knowledge is vague; far off. People with somewhere to be suggests a very different existence from this capsule of ritualized privacy and quiet in which I live. And it has always been that way for me, even before I called this place my full-time home.
The Writer Me has always lived with the rest of living held at a distance. People are always over a hill, somewhere. I know that they are there, but I can’t see them, talk to them, touch them. They don’t know that I’m here listening. They likely don’t much care.
Writers live life apart. We live lives of watching and listening and imagining and experiencing through filters. It’s part of who we are; it’s what we do, part of what makes us the synthesis machines we are.
The universe—even the immediate one—is very far away, and we are very small in it. The trick is not minding it. The secret is liking things that way.
Just spent the morning at tasks in town; things I knew were coming. Driver’s license, provisions, hardware, cat food, seed for birds. No way around doing what needs doing. It keeps me from the writing. An absence that makes the heart grow impatient, not fonder.
Woke in the middle of the night, again. Thinking. Not the good thinking, this. Not the thinking that writers love. These were the occupations of a too-tired, too-busy mind.
In the may-as-well of the waking moments, I decided to combine the nature of sleeplessness with the nature of…well…nature. And there, the tiny miracle.
My friend, the sensitive, wonderful Glorious has spoken of seeing stuff here. Lights. Where no lights usually are. I’m not surprised.
My late (and decidedly un-crackpot) Mum used to see things here every once in a while, too. This place is infused with a spirit that comes up out of the ground; a spirit one could feel if one were blindfolded and deafened. Peace is built into this place, if one can take the time to feel it.
Not a fluorescent tide glow. Not a ghostly emanation. Not neon. Or pulsing. Just a soft, contented white, brighter than a white rose had any right to be in the middle of the night. I can’t explain what made that optical effect. I don’t care to try. Seeing it was enough. A benediction of the house and the nature that surrounds it on a sleepless night; the assurance that all was well, that peace and the words will be there if patience will wait one minute longer.
The roses are past their prime. In daylight, in the rain, they are too blemished to cut. Last night, they were perfect. The souls of roses, a nod to my own.
That’s the thing about emotions: They are never the same, one day to the next.
This time last week, I was bent out of shape about the Unemployment Insurance counselor who, after pulling up a half-dozen listings for jobs that have nothing to do with the work of my life, told me “I have a degree in Journalism from [a local college]. It took me 10 years to find work. I have no patience with someone sitting around waiting for a writer job in Springfield.” The small-minded mean-ness of that statement stuck with me. My writing took a hit; my worksearch morale plummeted.
I am, by necessity, spending more time at the river than in town. Having the web at my fingertips around the clock, now, (and, of course, a phone) means that my job search is not bound by proximity to the city or the need to sit in the front yard to borrow someone else’s internet. The search for work can happen any time, on any day (and btw, to the counselor-whose-name-rhymes-with-stitch: My search is national, not local). And it does.
And the writing. Ah, yes.
The house in Republic is lovely, but its view of fenced yard and neighbor’s house looming above it never really spoke to my heart. The place was never really mine.
The view out the window here on the river helps to calm me. The seduction of the hills and stonefaced cliffs, the fog on water, the green, the birds, the critters…it opens the door to words. The work search and the writing alike both look fresh from the vantage of this place.
But the rhythm of the work—transition has taken some adjustment.
As I’ve written in this blogspace, the contrast between workday and writing time helped me force my focus. Writing at the river has lost some of its urgency, knowing that there is more time for everything. I have made up for that by sitting with the laptop all day, every day. All-day-every-day probably isn’t the answer. No one can be in love with such intensity 24 hours a day. It’s exhausting.
Yet, I know that the rhythms will return. I know that the concentration will come back. I know the focus will re-focus. This writer will find the old writer in herself—or maybe a whole new one—as she figures out the new tempi of life in a place that is still neither here nor there.
In the meantime, I can still watch Clancy and bold lizards face off…
A writer sees with writer-eyes. Eyes that make snapshots of everything. Sometimes those shots are full of joy; sometimes, full of tragedy.
I had both kinds of kept-images this weekend. Life and death in 48 hours.
On Saturday evening, an unfamiliar whistle called me out into the approaching dusk. A rising birdcall, over and over. I looked up to the side of my little Arkansas stone-clad ranch house. Something was clinging to the stone. Something that flew to the ground five feet from where I stood.
A baby owl.
The thing was adorable. Wonderful. A little greyish thing, streaked with brown, maybe eight inches tall. Still full of baby fuzz and just-fledged clumsiness. He sat on the ground for several minutes, seemingly uncertain about what to do next. Then he lifted on owl-silent wings and flew to my one remaining peach tree. Started calling again. Called all night. Called all the next night. An explanation of why I’ve seen the female out at unusual hours: baby-owl mouths to feed.
Yesterday morning, then, the downside of natural wonder.
The rancher across my little go-nowhere road has been haying the field. Doing it in sections, one swath, then another, one day then the next. A cattle pasture is left to grow tall when the cows are moved to another field. Perhaps that was the reason for the tragedy.
Two uncommon things, there. Both were telling. A massive flock of vultures. A gathering that only appears when something is newly-born. Or dead. The little bones, the tawny bits torn between the scavengers, the tiny rib cage suggested the sad thing that dinner was.
Beside the buzzards a doe, standing. Watching. Mourning. If I had ever doubted that an animal could mourn, I will doubt no longer. This strong brown doe looked stunned. Her mouth was open, an approximation of human grief. Her tail lay low, not its characteristic white flag. She didn’t seem to know what to do with herself. As a person might not.
A few times, as I watched, she would come back to herself. Charge the gathered birds. Challenge them. Try to run them off. As if she held on to the hopeless hope that she might save the little thing that was, even at a distance, so clearly beyond saving. Deer, like people, can find the acceptance of death impossible.
No way to know whether the fawn was lost to the hay mower or to the birds that wait for newborns; that have been known to kill fresh calves. But this…I couldn’t watch any longer. I couldn’t make the image go away.
That’s why this post is about nature, not writing. It’s a writerly tribute to a sadness and a joy. The things that happen in the turning of a day.
The chair from which I write (the only one big enough to comfortably accommodate my body, computer and elbows, and the only one with an ottoman) has a lovely view that occasionally penetrates my more inward vision. The view includes an old and moribund maple with a hanging bird feeder, the yard to the hill’s edge and various beautiful and very-tall trees at the riverbank that were here long before this house was ever a greed-dream of the farmer who owned the land. It also includes the concrete patio, where the lizards party. And therein lies the tale.
We’ve got some pretty damned cool lizards out there. In the years since the hungry roadrunners made their last appearance, the little boogers have staged a real comeback, to my endless delight.
A lot of them are Eastern Fence Lizards (I think), there are a couple of kinds of skinks and some other variety about which I have no clue. They are so varied and so different that I have begin to name them: There’s Biggie, not to be confused with the more rotund Fatty, Whitey (whose pale face is very recognizable), Half-Tail and Skunk (a B&W skink-like thing.)
I love these guys. I love them more than the cats do, though with less gustatory aspirations.
This is cat theater at its most entertaining: Cats wag and speak to the would-be prey that remain a safe, screen door’s distance away. The lizards, with a lovely, almost New-Yorkish belligerence, get right in their cat-faces and do I’m-tough-whatcha-got? pushups, which I can only assume are lizardly displays of might.
They are virtually fearless and endlessly entertaining, these reptilian property-mates. They almost make up for the fact that, in my writer-head, I might as well be a million miles away.