An autumn poem before I get totally into fiction writing.
The little maple tree young and maybe not yet used to how things are stood red as fire dressed to call attention to her beauty. Her fate was to stand alone in a small clearing in the forest on the mountainside. She trembled delicately in the cool dawn breeze still in the shadow of older and taller trees. When the sun climbed the clean cloudless sky warm golden fingers touched the tree top, moved downward caressing. The leaves began to fall as they were touched. They rained directly down mounding at its feet like a robe dropped seductively. When the day's light bathed the entire tree she stood naked as a concubine prepared for the Emperor's pleasure.
Did it -- signed up for NaNoWriMo. I'm very jealous of my time although my days are my own. As everyone knows nature abhors a vacuum -- which is partly why Tantric meditation is SO hard. That's a different matter -- sheer everyday life abhors a vacuum and I'm very, very good at filling it with a ton of things I want and love to do.
NaNoWriMo is a month, i.e., November, during which the participants -- there's an official website and enrollment and daily tabulation, etc., etc. with worldwide participation -- attempt to write a novel, or something that could be shaped into a novel, of 50,000 words in the month of November. The word count is not particularly daunting, it's the time element that is a crunch -- goodbye to most quilting, lots of reading. Never mind the very avoidable housekeeping, I'm good at ignoring that. When I was asked if I was going to do it, my first answer was no. But I thought of a novel begun probably 10, 12 years ago, maybe more. Situation, conflict, setting, a couple of characters fairly well formed in my head. I stopped back then partly because I thought it was not marketable: the subject is the fate of a collection of quilts. Who cared? But in the interim books about quilters or featuring quilts have become a kind of sub-genre, a couple of publishing houses understand the market. There's hope of a sale.
So I signed up and will see how far I get. I'm sure the whole thing will be more than 50,000. Of course a first draft is only that, but it must be done and probably much will be usable. So as of Sunday I'll get started. Daily word count is reported.
There are regional groups, one of which met last night at the local Borders -- 12 or 15 enthusiastic 20-30 somethings, bright and fun oriented. Writing games, an attempt at espirit de corps. Okay, but not my kind of thing. Planned "write ins" -- I have never written with other people and don't want to, don't need that. Tend to feel that "real" writing is not a team sport. One does it as a part of one's life or not. Only a few do. From things I've read about NaNo -- it serves to some extent to weed out the wannabes who think there's glamor in writing from those who just know they will write and soon realize it's not glamorous.
Anyway I've committed myself and I'll do it, not truly feeling pressure to write approximately 2,000 words a day but, Geewhiz, that's not many words. I write that many words many days. Anyway, posts may be a bit fewer during November. It's a matter of so many hours in a day and I will not give up reading (books and blogs) or walking and have various other commitments.
I have been looking at the prayer flags in the photos below and have decided the ones that were caught on the bush were NOT the ones I put on the cairn. The color arrangement is different.
Where did they come from? I don't know. I went back yesterday afternoon and they were gone. Flags flying around the world? I once found a set of smaller Tibetan prayer flags on the sidewalk immediately outside my NYC apartment building when I went out about 7:00 in the morning. At that time the Dalai Lama was in the city so I assumed they had been displayed somewhere, wafted away and landed where I found them that morning. Was it Shakespeare who wrote, "there are more thing in heaven and earth than ..." whatever -- will have to look that up and see what the context was, somehow it sounds like Midsummer Nights Dream.
I've heard the story of the butterfly fluttering in the heart of China, making a breeze that becomes a wind that becomes a great storm at sea or a tornado in Kansas. I don't believe it, but I can't forget it. The human mind makes myths and manufactures miracles. I love the stories, but loving doesn't make it so.
A true story, small and simple. This is the end of October. My story looks backward to July. A small pile of stones at the end of Long Beach where I walk grew taller and taller until I thought it had earned the name "cairn." I sometimes added a stone of my own. I always walked around it clockwise. Teen-agers, I thought, are building it. They moved other rocks around, made hearts and peace signs and initials on the sand -- seashore graffiti
Cairns in the Himalayas and on the steepes of Mongolia wear wind horses -- prayer flags. In Mongolia they wear crutches and vodka bottles, maybe money, various tokens of thanks. So I took a set of Tibetan prayer flags saved for years for a purpose I kenw I would know when it arose. I tied them to the rocks on the cairn and weighted their ties firmly. There they fluttered in the summer breeze for three weeks ... ...until a hurricane's remnant brought high winds and wild seas. When next I walked to the far point the flags were gone. The cairn had lost its top stones [too big to fall in wind or any but the fiercest waves). Wind took my flags, I said. Teens tore down the cairn. I looked among the rose tangles which might have snagged the flags but they were gone. They could have flown anywhere. That is the fate of loose flags in a windy world. And so it was for months, the cairn returned to a humble pile of stones but the hearts and peace symbols lay on the sand, simple outlines the tides did not destroy, nor the teens.
Today after a wintery wet weekend I walked the beach to the end. The tide was higher than I had ever seen it. The pile of stones was an island twenty feet from dry sand. Around the corner a thorny tree, its roots twisted and gnarled into a dune, was festooned with my prayer flags, tattered and twisted, held by grasping branches. The ink washed away, the colors bright -- the primary ones: blue, green, red, yellow and white were the only colors in the brown of sand and stone, the gray of rippling sea and matching sky.
The flags came from Lhasa. They were meant to fly under the pitiless sun and be whipped by the winds on those tallest of mountains. These hardy wind horses had rested a while -- surely caught on other thorny growths -- torn loose and caught again beside an ocean unused to mountain symbols.
I do not write or miracle or moral or myth to end this story. If the reader needs it, his mind will make it.
The clouds in cahoots with the wind toss rain buy the fist full and the maple leaves the popular leaves the beech tree leaves the locust leaves many, many, many, many leaves nearly all the leaves, are f a l l i n g.
I try to avoid bookstores the way I try to avoid potato chips. You can't eat just one -- you know, nor can I go to a bookstore and buy just one. Before I was past the vestibule of Barnes and Noble yesterday I found two sale books, an anthology edited by Toni Morrison about banning books [No, No!] and a novel by Paul Auster. I only meant, really, to see if they have the kind of art calendar for 2010 that I have so much enjoyed for 20009 -- a Page a Day on it's own easel and great art pictures. They had it.
The only Starbucks mid-cape is in this B-N so I had to have coffee. Can't have coffee without reading a magazine so I picked up two, one on journaling and the latest Quilt Arts Journal -- I let my subscription lapse because I don't really make art quilts and I get tired of their endless emphasis on techniques that require great outlays of money for stuff like paints and Angelina yarn and so on. It seems to me they exist for their advertisers. [So what-da-ya expect? I ask myself. That's how they most publications are.] Anyway, this one has an article about using snow in a dying technique that was so intriguing I had to have the magazine.
However the journaling magazines is NOT for me, it's mainly about visual art journaling and about kinds of paints and various stick-ems and expensive techniques. That I dislike but I also dislike the insipidity of most of it. It's greeting card-y and a little new age-y and design is not innovative -- again: [So what do-ya expect?] Okay, that goes back on the rack. So then I browse the magazines a bit more -- I am a magazine junkie, I'd bring home every art mag on the racks if they weren't so expensive -- and I saw that the cover girl on Shambala Sun [another lapsed subscription because everyone was sounding alike] was none other than Pema Chodron and she cannot say anything that is not worth reading. She has a new book I will have to get on my next trip to B-N which probably won't be for another month at least.
Did I say I'm a magazine junkie? I had a very small errand downtown today -- which was really an excuse to walk a couple miles round trip because it's a beautiful Indian Summery day -- so I went to the library to see if they had the latest couple of New Yorker magazines, and they did. This is not a lapsed subscription because I'd drive myself nuts wishing to keep up with them if I got one every week. But I love their serious articles and with a library time limit I'll read the most interesting ones and let the rest go. Oh -- I also picked up a Smithsonian because the cover story is about hiking Hadrian's Wall which continues to fascinate me as a possible summer activity ... hmmm.
So it goes ... books and magazines are a little less fattening than potato chips but so much less resistable.
I was in a Border's bookstore a few weeks ago and got hooked by a table of Buy-2, Get-1-Free. I'm reading two of them in tandem and the information in them is like a assault even though none of it is really new to me -- it's well told and feels like so many hammer blows to the heart. One is Diane Ackerman's The Zookeeper's Wife, A War Story. About Warsaw during the German blitz and occupation. She is known for her relentless research. This book is not fiction but "fictionalized" with some conversations. Some information is not needed, like all the styles of lampshades to be found in a store at the time. I tend to want to rush through some such catalogs but, in a way, they lighten the awful story -- which isn't entirely awful for Jan and Antonina were very brave and good and heroic. The awful brutality has been written about and shown in movies and I've been to Yad Vashem and seen photos. Why do I put myself through this? Because she is a good writer and I want to watch how she handles true material in a fictionalized setting as I'm trying to do the same thing in what I'm writing. The second was A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz about the exploration of North America. Again I know the horrors of how Native Americans were treated but that information is less fresh and I am revisiting things that I had partly forgotten, like DeSoto's trek through what is now Georgia and other deep South states. Horowitz interlards it with his own travels -- a style very popular today and which I enjoy. Past and present played against each other and he doesn't hesitate to point remnants of the bigotry that has always been part of the story.
As if I'm not beating myself up enough, I went to a free showing at a senior center of Milk, which I missed this time last year when it was in the movie theatres. Again, I knew the story, which is part of why I didn't make a big effort to see it. But Sean Penn is such a fine actor, and this was free so I thought I should see it. I'm not sorry but my spirit is feeling bogged down at this heavy load of information about man's inhumanity to man, about ongoing ignorance and fear and discrimination.
I have almost finished the fat-ish book of Mary Oliver's that was loaned to me -- it is a balm even though she is definitely clear headed about the nature "red in tooth and claw." She also tells us about some of her own savagery [a word that's not quite true] when she steals snapping turtle eggs and makes breakfast, when she writes of how the mussels recognize danger and pull back, but she chooses the biggest to gather and take home to eat. These are natural acts, she never sees herself as "above" the rawness of nature. Yet she is also tender and observant and loving. And she constantly asks "how to live" -- she means live deeply. Reading such materialalways brings up the question. I guess this is why genre books are so popular and it's so hard to sell "serious" literature.
How many poets can pack a good sized auditorium, get a standing ovation before and after reading, get a sigh of group love and pleasure at the close of most poems? In America, in 2009, this can happen. Did happen last night here on Cape Cod when Mary Oliver came to the community college in Hyannis and read for an hour. She is now 73, she looked more elegant with a snowy pageboy hair cut and black pants and top than she does in the windblown photos that are on many of her books. She read many short poems, with slightly mumbled asides, many of them humorous, in between. The audience was of all ages from students to her contemporaries and clearly many knew many of the poems, many of the themes. New books were selling fast before the start of the reading.
True she is local poet, was headlined in the NYTimes Travel Section this summer as "The Bard of Provincetown". Possibly Maya Angelou is the only other living poet who has such a following, it is like the following Robert Frost had in his later years. For a poet to be loved in this technological age is wonderful, and more wonderful as this is not a performer like the slam poets who are mostly showmanship and less depth. Oliver simply read, slowly with her own cadence and emphasis, her probing questions about the meaning of life and death, her beautiful images of the natural world, prodding toward focus and attention that she embodies and that is rarely expounded [outside Zen retreats] in this age of multitasking and overload and even adult ADD.
Who else writes of going to the woods well before dawn to sit quietly and wait for the deer to walk by, so quietly "one would have come into my arms" she felt -- who does that today? Only a poet who doesn't "know exactly what praying is" but does "know how to pay attention." She does not only write of what we easily call beautiful; she finds beautiful and wonderful what others cringe at: the blood beak of the owl, the snake in the grass, the road kill gray foxes she tenderly carried into the grass.
It was a beautiful evening when many people were paying attention to Mary Oliver.
Most of us take it for granted. We know we shouldn't -- when we see someone walking with a seeing eye dog, we are reminded. Some of us are reminded every night when we take off our contacts or glasses. But we don't really think about what a wonderful thing sight is.
I had my second [right eye] cataract operation today and am looking at this computer screen without glasses or contacts and it's been getting clearer over the half hour I've been reading and writing stuff. I may need reading glasses for tiny print but I am better sighted than I have been since the age of 12 or 13. when I get up in the morning my arm automatically reaches toward the bedside table for my glasses. They won't be there ever again. The habit will go away before long.
I am grateful and amazed at the ease and comfort of the operations [two in two weeks] and the patient centered treatment, pleasant, competent people, miracle of microscopic surgery that is so quickly effective, so totally painless. This is a very fine example of what American medical care can be. I know not everyone in America -- perhaps a very large percentage, do not live near major medical centers as I do where standards of care are high. I'm also very aware that in large parts of the world nothing like this is available for any but the most wealthy who can go to major centers. I hope that inequality can be addressed in this century -- or sooner.
Will I make finer quilts because I see better? No, I don't think so. My taste and skill have not increased. But my pleasure may have, we'll see. [Yes, of course that's a pun!]
Of course there's a dawn every day whether I see it or not. Now that we're into autumn dawn will be late enough that I will see it every day, or nearly. I can have breakfast and watch the sky flaming from color to color. That was impossible all the years I lived in the city. Sometimes, like these red-sky mornings, I can't help but remember Kipling's Mandalay where "the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay." -- confession time: I wrote that line differently then looked it up and those are Kipling's spellings. I'm very grateful to my friend, Ellen, who told me many times about questions I'd ask that I could do a search and find out. I don't always succeed, there's a skill to searching the internet and I have not mastered it completely but I found the poem quickly. How exotic it was! And still is, really.
As I'm still reading Mary Oliver's poems and she writes often of being up before dawn and walking the woods and marshes, it seems a dedication to her love of nature that is much greater than mine [and most other people's] which is why her perspective is unique today when people are so separated from nature. Also, this is Columbus Day -- a strange phenomenon as many people write. That we should honor a man who did not "discover America" but only some of the Caribbean islands which he thought to the end of his life was part of Asia, and who, in later years ruled them very badly. If we needed an autumn holiday I think it would have been better of celebrate Golden Leaves Day or something of the sort. But no one asked me and I doubt my opinion would have carried much weight.
I have been reading a lot of Mary Oliver's poetry and found it impossible not to write a poem in imitation -- really only imitating her desire to "pay attention." She goes another important step and adds an observation, a personal discovery, or probing question that is deeply meaningful. She has thought deeply. I'm afraid I haven't her depth. But here is "Geese"
They announce their arrival With a few honks seconds before they descend,
Not in formaion as for migration-- They are locals with grzing routines and preferences.
The black webbed feet extend forward brakes to take the shock of fiteen pounds dropped to earth.
Never a stagger or bounce, solid pefect landing. They fold their wide wings and set to work combing the grass.
Often one stands, head held high, watching. I do not know if he's the gander guarding his flock of geese.
He is not larger or differently marked. Why don't I know simple facts about the daily visitors to my lawn?
I've been reading a great deal of Mary Oliver's poetry lately. Firstly I love her work and have for years, secondly we are reading and talking about her at the poetry group tomorrow, and mainly because she rarely reads in public but will be reading at the community college here next Wednesday and I'm eager to hear her. She's known as a nature poet but as I've been reading a few books borrowed from the college library which are more recent, I find that she had been profoundly touched by the death of her companion and the poems while still based in nature, have become deeper and more thoughtful and philosophical. Watching an artist, poet, writer, painter, quilt artist, whoever, grow and deepen and find new things to express is a moving experience for the observer
But, a little lighter, in her book "What Do We Know?" here are a few lines that do what a poet ought to do, at the very least, which is show us how to look at something we hadn't thought of in that way. We all live those these gray, wet days. This morning was just such a morning, which happily cleared up around noon. But here is the beginning of "Last Night the Rain Spoke to Me" which seemed so apt this morning.
Last night the rain spoke to me slowly, saying
what joy to come falling out of the brisk cloud, to be happy again
in a new way on the earth! That's what it said as it dropped ...
So said I to myself -- get over it. It's not all about you.
At the writer's seminar Friday, John Paul DeMilo, who wrote about his experiences as a Massachusetts prison librarian, mentioned (as he had the week before) that he would be reading from his book at the Centerville Library on Saturday and said he hoped to see some people from the group. I asked Rachel for directions, she told me, I did not write it down but repeated the left, left, right, right. Saturday morning didn't so much dawn as dump. Deep gray sky, serious rain all morning. I had plenty to do and argued with myself all morning about whether to go to the reading at 1:30.
I remembered too vividly going to read from my book in Rockville, S.C. at a bookstore where the wonderful Dottie Moore had arranged the event. It was pouring. No one came into the bookstore (a sweet small one near the little college.) NO one, the librarian was there, Dottie was there and I was there. No customers of any sort arrived let alone potential listeners or book buyers. Thinking of that I didn't want John Paul to have such an awful experience, he seems a nice man. Even lousy writers should not have such an experience. At 1:00 the sky lightened somewhat and the rain slackened. I threw on some presentable clothes and went out. Rachel's directions were perfect.
When I arrive half a dozen people were there as well as John Paul and the librarian, a few more arrived, perhaps ten in all -- which is, unfortunately, a reasonable number of people for such an event. He read and paused for some discussion now and then; it was a good hour and a half. Among the chapters he read was a short one about the oldest wooden jail in the US -- a national heritage site, the old Barnstable jail (picture above), build by the Plymouth Counsel [I think that was the official body]. Long since out of use, of course. Bought as historic site, moved and now restored.
No one else from the writing group was there -- no surprise. A sense of mutual support is generally not a quality of people who write, at least not in this sort of setting. I think it a shame but I felt the tug of inertia strongly too. I try not to add tothe general weight of human indifference to others.
Perhaps this is a harvest moon; perhaps the harvest moon is the next full moon four weeks from now. Whichever -- this was two nights ago when the sky was clear and it was lovely. I am cursed with an electric pole and a swag of lines in my view. I wish the town had been fore-sightful and buried them like bigger cities do. Ah, well.
I am infected with autumn and there are, so far, only a few trees turning color. During the week I wrote a 12 page short story called "Equinox" in which I gave myself permission go linger on descriptions of autumn at a lakeside summer-people area. This was, of course, a metaphor for the only character, a woman who was in the autumn of life deciding what to do with her immediate future. It was not autobiographical except that all the detail of place were known to me although I've never lived at a lakeside cabin. It included past travels and I indulged in those desciptions too.
I am stunned that in the writing seminar I am taking no one is writing imaginative material. It's all memoir, confessional, possibly therapeutic and without any critical response either offered or, it seems, wanted. It's all pat-on-the-back time. I'm sure encouragement toward confession is good for people who have led somewhat repressed lives. But it seems to me anyone can profit from learning skills that allowed them to write more vividly and to think more deeply -- maybe even to exercise imagination. Apparently not. Alas. I'm accustomed to trekking up the writing mountains alone. I had hoped for one helpful person -- there is one woman who has worked at various writing-type jobs an who read a well crafted personal memoir first chapter ... perhaps she will be a bit helpful.
The mid-70s are a surprise! Part of me remains in the 50s -- age, I mean, not decade of 20th century. It's a joy ride, new experiences land in my lap and I've become a better quilter, poet, writer than I expected. It's a rich life for a person never rich financially. Hey, this is what the mid-70s are like!