Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Direction & Misdirection: A Confession

A little over 6 months ago, I moved to Kill Devil Hills, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina along a stretch of the Atlantic sea.  Maybe it is because of this relocation that I find myself lately so preoccupied with the notion of direction, with compass points and stars to steer by, with sextants and old maps, with navigation and being waylaid, with sound buoys and sea markers as a way of avoiding danger, of staying true to the course you set out upon. 

Treacherous Waters & Waylays:
A Down-and-Dirty Quick History

In the early 1700s, intrepid British, French, and Spanish mariners ventured to South America and the Caribbean in quests for new territory, for exotic spices, and for new world treasures.  They brought with them the world's riches (among them, sadly, slaves).  On their way south, they invariably navigated along the coast of North Carolina through a treacherous area where the cold waters of the Labrador Current collide with the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. The hazards of severe weather, strong currents, and navigational challenges resulted in so many shipwrecks that the area became known as the "Graveyard of the Atlantic" and today there are thousands of documented sunken vessels.

From the earliest days of sea exploration and navigation, mariners were faced with drinking water that would become rancid: during the long voyages, bacteria would grow in the drinking water.  British navigators, however, in a stroke of ingenuity, found ways to sweeten the water's taste: they added strong rum to the casks of water.  Sometimes, in order to stave off scurvy, cane sugar and lime juice were also added, making a thoroughly palatable drinking water (the first "mixed" drinks?).  By adding rum to the water, the alcohol would be diluted and would lessen the chance that the sailors would become drunk.  The rum had other helpful side effects:  it helped the sailors to "keep their spine" during sea battles or stormy weather and it helped steady the nerves of the gun crews.

On the Atlantic side of the barrier reef known now as the Outer Banks, shipwrecks abounded because of the shallow waters.  Because of the numerous shipwrecks, pirates and buccaneers – along with some local scallywags – devised ways in which to waylay and then plunder the unfortunate vessels.  Blackbeard, Anne Bonny, and Calico Jack all headquartered in the area between 1717 and 1718. 

But perhaps the most enterprising of all were the local scoundrels who  "encouraged" shipwrecks by hanging lanterns around the necks of their horses and leading them up and down the beach at night (the nearby town of Nag's Head was named for this practice). Passing ships would see the lights, assume they were seeing other ships moving in a safe harbor, and they would change their bearings, drawing closer.  By the time the ship's navigator discovered his error, the vessel would already have run aground and the crew would shortly be meeting its fate at the hands of plunderers.

The wrecked ships carried, among other goods, rum.  Hogshead barrels of rum washed up close to shore where "wreckers" (as they were called) would scavenge what they could of the ship's cargo before it sank, then hide their pilfered rum behind the large sand dunes – the same dunes where the Wright Brothers would later achieve first flight.  English rum was prized among all the recovered loot:  undiluted, the rum was so strong, it was said that it would  "kill the devil."  Thus came the name to my town: Kill Devil Hills. 

It is a sordid little tale, told happily again and again by locals here, and they tell it with great relish.  I appreciate how the tale keeps company with all the other tales of skullduggery by early settlers who laid the foundation of this country. I appreciate too that I live in a place that openly lays claim to its rather wicked history. But what has puzzled me, as I stand on the fringes of the nighttime beach here, is this:  how could those experienced navigators have succumbed to the wiles of scallywags and thieves.

O How The Mighty Have Fallen

It strikes me, as I stand ankle-deep in the tides of these treacherous Atlantic waters, at the edge of the graveyard of those foundered ships that, as a writer, I also may have been easily waylaid and, in turn, may have waylaid others despite my most earnest intentions to do otherwise.  This is especially true in workshops and classes where, as a professor of creative writing, I have held analysis and craft in esteem while the art and its audience were not as well-regarded. It saddens me to admit to you here that I probably never mentioned audience as a consideration in moving the work forward.  Rarely have I asked a student writer in class or workshop what her vision was for the work or believed that vision might be important to the discussion – and to the direction the work would take. 
What a foundering! 

I started writing many years ago with a high regard for the value of the writer's singular vision and the early creative impulses, and yet how easily they fell away during my education as a writer.  Maybe it is because somewhere, in the formal study of the art, I learned a way of speaking of that thing we call "craft." I learned to read literature and to study it, trying to tease out all the elements that helped to make it memorable: structure, form, enjambment, nuance, tone, music, diction, metaphor, allegory, simile.  And more.  

I became a literary sleuth, in hopes I could then take what I'd learned and apply it to my own writing.  In graduate workshops, when my work was under discussion, I learned that I was expected to politely thank my peers and teachers in workshop for their analyses but that I was never, ever to mention what had prompted the poem or why I felt compelled to compose it and write it as I had.  The implicit assumption in workshops is that writing should be "fixed." Underneath that assumption was another:  the writing was "flawed."  Under that assumption was a deeper assumption - and perhaps a more devastating one:  My peers knew better than I what the poem should say, what it should NOT say, and how it should look and sound.  During the "objective" discussion of the works, no one even knew who the author was.  Nor was the author queried or allowed to speak on its behalf. Nor to say where it might be headed.  Or towards whom. 

Sins of commission and omission:

I was a studious pupil and I eventually carried all my lessons into the classrooms and workshops where I have taught.  Over the years, I have stressed revision not revelation.  I failed to question or even acknowledge the artistic vision and impulse that had been driving the work forward before it came to us:  that course the writer had set for his/her own work and was navigating towards before the class and I "corrected" the compass – or broke it entirely – for the young writer. 

Craft, craft, craft, one of my most formidable teachers insisted, writing is all about craft.

Now, looking back, I can see the misdirection – and its consequences.  For those of us who write, there is more than craft.  There is also passion and faith, hope and despair, draft and revision, trying to deliberately hone the words so they convey what we almost mean to say.  Or think we mean to say.

What I know today: fine craftsmanship did not save the Titanic.

Compass, Sextant, and Stars to Steer By:

The questions that haunt me now as I enter into my later years of teaching are these:  Is it possible that, along the way, I lost a certain crucial balance and, in doing so, may have also hung the lanterns around the nag's necks and paraded them up and down a dark stretch, passing them off as lights in a safe harbor?  Have I, as a teacher, too often conflated the craft of writing with the art of writing? And what have been the consequences of that for my students and their work?


During the heyday of the New Criticism, and its proponents' open disregard for the poet behind the poem, Muriel Rukeyser exerted, "One writes in order to feel; that is the fundamental mover." 

Rukeyser could see, clearly, how much we needed poetry, as a people and as a war-torn nation.  As a young writer (and by "young," I mean in my early forties), I resonated more deeply to Rukeyser's assertions about the role and worth of poetry than to any textbook I had on craft - and I had plenty of them.  It is curious to me now, looking back, that nowhere, in classrooms, was poetry spoken of in the way she had spoken of it and written about it.

I returned last week to Rukeyser's essays in The Life of Poetry, because I believe, for my sake and for the sake of those who turn to poetry out of some deep human need, that I need to keep finding a new language: a language that can accommodate human experiences and observations – a language that refutes the static points that my Christian upbringing and Southern propriety would have allowed me. I need to search for a language which can move as water moves, in its deep and troubled bed: tortured by tides, filling with currents and shipwrecks, pulled by those old chains of sun and moon back and forth over the wide curve of the earth. 

I have needed a way to say what I have seen, what my hands have touched, where I have wandered, where I have almost lost my way.  I have needed to be able to say what humans have done – no, what they DO – to each other and how, as my good friend Jo-Ann Mapson once put it, we all live now with a heart that is mostly-stapled-together. I need to be able to say, in the opening line of a poem, "I set out once to kill a man when I saw what he'd done to a ten-year-old girl," and not have the old workshop editors all up in my head again, insisting, You can't say that. That's not poetic.

My deepest dilemma with writing has always had less to do with craft and more to do with the nature of the art itself, with how it can show me what is at the heart of being human, both the great and the mean of it.  

To put it bluntly, daily I must remind myself, again and again as I compose, that I am a human being engaged in an art intended for other human beings, that I am speaking TO someone, on behalf of someone. That is the certainty toward which every composition – word, phrase, image, and metaphor – must be directed.  That is the sextant, the compass, the polestar. And this is the dark beach in whose watery hem I stand, waiting.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

THE CALLING, THE FOLD, THE CHILDREN OF GOD (plus or minus one) - reposted from Deep Dixie

In the early sixties, I was a relatively-happy if somewhat ignorant girl growing up in a working-class, predominantly-Southern Baptist community in the deep South.  Largely because of the circumstances of my birth  (I'd been born to a father who, by the time I'd come along, was a new convert to the faith, a good man who very much wanted right-standing with God and, if not a pulpit of his own, then maybe one day a deaconship), I was immersed in the Church and its activities: choir practice, Sunday School, Training Union, Girls’ Auxiliary, Lottie Moon Christmas fund for the missionaries, Thursday night visitation, Wednesday night prayer meetings, Sunday sermons, Bible drills, Vacation Bible School, Summer Church Camp, to name a few.
I was trying, about then, to figure out some of the church's more perplexing tenets.  Like the one about the just and the unjust (the rain fell on both equally, according to Preacher, but the just one always has the satisfaction of knowing that, if drowned, he’d be called straight to Glory). And the odd difference between the saints and the sinners (we were all sinners, born that way, and the only way out of it again was to "die to the world" and "live in the spirit"). There were the saved and the damned (which had something to do with sheep and wolves and how the sheep were able to hear the Good Shepherd’s voice when He called them) and how the saved were those "called" by God; the damned never get the call – or, if they did get it, they didn't answer it.  The saved ones are safe in the "Fold of God."  The unsaved, uncalled, are wandering alone through the world without God's protection, among the wolves-in-sheep's-clothing in the wilderness of man's Original Sin which, by the mid-1900s, had been neatly categorized into sins of commission and sins of omission.  Or as my grandmother used to wryly put it, Damned if you do and damned if you don't.
I listened so hard back then, so intently, for that Call, I think I missed a lot of what was said to me at school, and at church, and at home. I was in trouble for not paying attention at school, I got into trouble at home for not listening to my parents, and at church, I was fidgety and restless and full of questions that I was told were "off-topic, young lady." I was like a stunned thing, unable to attend to anything except that intense listening for a "still, small voice" that I was certain was somewhere just underneath the loud racket of the world.  
I worried, day and night, that God would call and I would miss it.  Worse, what if He had already called and I had not heard?  Maybe He thought I had heard but had refused the Call.  So each night I would lean on my windowsill and look up into the star-strung heavens and would pray as earnestly as I could, God, I am listening very hard now.  Please, please call me again. Please. 
 On my way home from school each afternoon, I would head down to the riverbank near my home, thinking that maybe I'd be able to hear The Call if I was someplace quieter, if I was calm and easy and at peace, which I almost always was sitting by myself on the dock by that river.  When that didn't work, I went deep into the forest near my house – to listen.  And to be where no one would see me if I cried, in frustration and shame, when no Call came.  
I already knew by then, even at eight, that I was "peculiar," an odd girl.  I cried easily.  I stammered in school if I was called on or made to talk aloud.  I sat at the edge of the schoolyard and didn't join in the games.    I'd rather spend any day lost in a book and stories than riding bikes or playing outside with the other kids my age.  I was peculiar.  And that is the truth of it.  I could accept that most people around me thought so too and steered a wide path around me, but what if I were even too peculiar for the Alpha and Omega?  What if I was no good fit for heaven?  
One early spring morning, when I was eight, just as I was giving up on God – or I thought He might be giving up on me – a miracle happened at the Lane Avenue Baptist Church:  I got called.  The invitational hymn was underway.  In the congregation, all heads were bowed, all eyes closed, and the choir was humming in four-part-harmony the chorus of “Almost Persuaded, Now to Believe,” while Preacher stood at the front of the church, his hands raised, his eyes closed, entreating us to “listen for that still small voice.” 
“Respond to God’s call,” he urged us, “as Eli did in the temple: Here am I, Lord.” 
It was just about then that I heard my name:  Ruth Anne...Ruth Anne.  
Soft. Still.  Just over my shoulder, behind my right ear.  Hushed.  Barely audible.  And sort of. . . girlish.  So, as He had with Mary, Jesus' mother, God had sent an angel to do his bidding.  He was famous for that sort of thing.  The angels stayed pretty busy, according to Preacher, going back and forth from heaven to earth and back to heaven again. The quiet voice called softly again, just underneath the piano and the humming choir. Clearly, it called my name. 
So I knew I should step out then from the pew, to walk forward in a kind of confused joy, moving forward, one awkward step at a time up the wooden floorboards of the aisle, stumbling on feet that had always seemed to have a will of their own even when God wasn't involved, towards the pristine altar where The Word of God lay open on a white cloth and a vase of sickly-looking yellow mums and carnations bloomed, towards Preacher, towards the kingdom of heaven, to declare Here am I, Lord and to take my place at last among God’s chosen, to be a child of God.  
There would be much amening and praise-the-lording across the congregation.  There was always a good deal of joy when a sinner was called out of the cold world and into the "Fold," which is what Preacher sometimes called the group of believers, though I never could figure out, at eight years old, just how the saved had gotten folded. 
It seemed to me that the congregation would be unusually joyful – or should I say relieved – that one of the more ardent young "story-tellers" among the Church families was to be "saved."   Finally, I would be God's problem, not theirs.  Or that is how I imagine it now, looking back.  My young father, who would be directing the choir, would look over his shoulder and smile in a kind of amazement.  In the choir-loft, a look of profound relief would pass over my new mama's face.  My four-year-old sister, Michele, would be standing up in the pew and waving wildly at me because that's what she does in church. 
And me?  I would do what I always do when a crowd of people suddenly turns its full attention on me: I would stand facing the congregation, biting my bottom lip and staring down at my shoes, a hot crimson flush moving up my neck and into my face.
But try as I might, I could not get my feet to work.  I was rooted to the floorboards of the sanctuary. So I'd convinced myself that I would tell my parents what had happened first, let them decide if I'd really heard right.  I did, too – tell my parents, I mean - right after Sunday dinner. They told me I should step forward that evening at service, to walk the aisle and take Preacher's big hand and make that commitment to follow the Lord. 
So I did it.  I took that long walk out into the aisle and up to the church altar and told Preacher what had happened.  To my surprise – and terror – I was also invited to participate in the baptism that night right after the service.  Now that was a whole other matter.  I hadn't brought along a change of clothing.  Maybe Mama would say I would have to wait until the next baptismal service for that.  I returned to the pew.
At the very end, I discovered that the "still, small voice" I'd heard calling my name had not been God or His angel - it had been Elizabeth Harvey, the preacher’s daughter, who had been trying to slip me a Sunday church bulletin where she'd drawn a booger falling out of the nose of John the Baptist as he baptized Christ in the river.  
A mistake then, that Calling.  A mistake I didn't know how to explain or take back.  I waited until the time came to head to the back room and "robe up" for the baptism, then I found Preacher and confessed the mix-up to him while my Mama was off somewhere trying to figure out what I would wear underneath the baptismal robe.  Preacher said sternly that he would take the matter up with Elizabeth first and then with the Holy Spirit and then he would get back to me.  But I suppose even after lengthy and earnest consultation with the Most High Host of Heaven, he also couldn't figure out a way to take back, or make null and void, a public confession of faith.  How could anyone mortal – especially a girl – just say Oops, sorry, my mistake to the Great Everlasting, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, once the earnest promise to follow Him had been made? 
 I sat as penitently and quietly as I could, outside that Prayer Room, on the old half-pew in the vestibule.  I could hear a few words of the conversation inside, a conversation Preacher was having with two deacons.  Things drifted out to me like, Well, maybe this is the Grace of God in action.  After all, the Lord’s ways are mysterious.  Things like, Well, Elizabeth is saved and thus she is an instrument of the Lord.  Things like, Well, I don’t see any way around it.  We’ll have to give it to her. 
 And so it was unanimous:  the conversion stood.  I was saved
I was relieved.  I could finally stop straining to listen for that Voice, that Call; I would be folded too, a child of God among the other children of God.  But somewhere in all that upsweep of relief, I remembered there was to be a baptism – and in the Baptist church, baptism means complete immersion in water, head to toe – and that I might also be joining those who were already slotted for baptism.  
I got the news: I was to be "baptized straightaway" and I, who for most of my life had been terrified of deep water and drowning, went back to Preacher and pled earnestly, to be “let off” of the commitment then.  Maybe it was a mistake, I said.  Maybe we ought to think about it and pray about it more.  Maybe God would be mad for the big rush.  
But to no avail.  The decision was unanimous: I was saved now.  And that was that.
So, down I went into the chilly waters of the baptismal pool in a white robe about three times too large for me. I stood, shivering, with my arms across my chest, listening for my "cue:"  when Preacher said, I baptize you in the name of the Father and The Son and The Holy Ghost, I took a big breath and closed my eyes tightly.  Preacher placed a white hankie over my mouth and nose and leaned me backwards into the water. 
But something went wrong: the hankie wasn't tight enough and the chlorinated water rushed up into my nose.  Something took hold of me then and I don't think it was the Holy Spirit.  When my feet went out from under me and it seemed like it was taking a long time for my sins to be washed away, an unholy terror seized me: I am drowning!
I fought to get back up into the air and, in the process, I clawed Preacher's arm hard with my fingernails.  It surprised him and he let go for a second.  I remember falling backwards and the burn of  chlorine in my nose and eyes. I swallowed water and came up choking and sputtering and coughing.  Suddenly, salvation and the kingdom of heaven seemed a lot less appealing than it had before I'd entered the waters and troubled them.  Heaven could wait.  That whole washing-away-the-old-sinful-life-and-being-resurrected-to-a-new-life-in-God had almost killed me. I was certain of it.           
Too close for comfort, my grandmother said sympathetically when I told her about it later.
I would think, for many years to come, about the good dunking I'd gotten on that Sunday evening. But our family transferred membership to a new church the next year - one closer to our house - so I could almost forget how embarrassing and terrifying baptism had been for me.
A few summers later, at Baptist summer camp, all of us church kids were gathered around a campfire one evening singing and playing guitars – mostly, singing and swatting mosquitoes – and we got to a song, an old spiritual, that went something like this: "The Gospel Train's a-comin'. I hear it just at hand, so come on children get on board and join that holy band. Get on board, little children; get on board, little children; get on board, little children, there's room for many a more."
I stopped singing somewhere around the second "get on board, little children."  It occurred to me that the Gospel Train might be just some other Baptist trick to lure children into heaven and I might not want that ticket to Glory to be handed to me so quickly as all that.  Maybe later, I told myself, maybe when I was older and maybe not so afraid of water and everything else.  Maybe when I trusted adults more than I did back then.  Maybe, until that day, I'd just bide my time on this earthly plane and enjoy what could be enjoyed here, in the flesh.  After all, what did I have to lose?  I'd heard all my life, "Once saved, always saved."  That's how Baptists believe it works.  And Lord knows, I had been saved:  called, folded, dunked in the cold waters of salvation, declared a child of God, saved - though, in those days, I wasn't sure exactly what I'd been saved from.   Thus came I, at the ripe age of eight, to be among those who call themselves the children of God . . . though perhaps I am not so certain as others are of that "salvation," and though I suspect I am, more accurately, a step-child of God:  in by the skin of my teeth. And Preacher has the claw-marks to prove it. 

HE SAID/SHE SAID: A Love Story (Reposted from Deep Dixie))

1.  One Winter's Afternoon, After A Snow-Storm, He Prepares to Shovel The Drive and Front Walkway            
 She said, "Isn't it just beautiful out there?  Look at the icicles hanging from the limbs and power lines!" 
   He said, "I hate snow.  I hate the cold.  I hate shoveling."
 She said, "It makes me miss Alaska."
   He said, "You miss Alaska?  Why did we move here then?"
 She said, "To be closer to where YOU work."
   He said, "So, you're saying you would go back there?"
 She said, "Look at that view.  Doesn't it make you homesick for Alaska, even a little bit?"
   He said,  "You're nuts.  You know that, don't you?"
 She said, "I'm nuts?  You're the one wearing a knit cap with a pom-pom on top."
   He said, "Hey, it does the job."
 She said, "And makes a bold fashion statement in the process."
   He said, "So now I should shovel snow AND make a fashion statement?"
 She said, "I'm just saying. . . ."
    He said, "If you wanted a man who could make a fashion statement, you should've married Tim Gunn."
 She said, "Tim Gunn's not into women."
 (long pause)
    He said, "Tim Gunn is gay?"

2.  Early One Morning, He Enters The Kitchen Where She Is Making Coffee and Feeding The Cat
 He said, "Hey, did the cat just drop a turd in the litterbox downstairs?"
   She said, "I think he must have.  Smells like it."
 He said, "Oh, good.  I thought that was my breath."

3.  After She Brings A New Kitten Home
 He said, "What's that?"
   She said, "A cat."
 He said, "I mean, whose cat is that?" 
   She said, "It belongs to Beau."
 He said, "You got a cat for the cat?" 
   She said, "Yes.  He's been very lonely since the old cat died."
 He said, "Oh for God's sake.  He's not lonely.  He's a cat.  He eats and sleeps and craps."
   She said, "He is distraught with grief.  And lonely.  Even a blind man could see that."
 He said, "He doesn't even remember the other cat.  He's a cat.  A cat only has about three brain cells."
   She said, "One to remember me, one to remember the old cat, and one to remember the new little cat."
 He said, "Hey, what happened to one for remembering me?"
   She said, "You're the one with the mad math skills. If you wanted him to think of you, you should have given him four brain cells."
 He said, "So now it's my fault that he's dumb?" 
   She said, "Oh look! He's licking the little cat.  He likes the little cat!"
 He said, "He's probably just cleaning him up good before he kills and eats him."

4.  They Approach, Again, the Subject of Valentines Day Gifts
 He said, "Hey, check this out:  it says here that you can buy your sweetheart a star for Valentine's Day.  Only $49.99.  And they'll give you a chart and a deed to it."
   She said, "That's crazy-talk.  They can't sell a star.  They can't sell something they don't own."
 He said, "I'm just telling you what the ad says."
    She said, "Tell me you didn't buy one."
 He said, "I didn't buy one."
    She said, "Good."
 He said, "But you have to admit, getting a star would a lot better than getting chocolates. Or flowers."
    She said, "Since when?  With my luck, five minutes after they sent me the deed, the damned thing would explode and fling hot gas and debris towards the earth and the force of that explosion would send the earth careening towards a black hole and the force of that would pull the planet nearly in two and people would die horribly.  And then the few survivors left will make sure everyone knows it was MY star that killed off  half the human population. I don't want to be remembered like that."
 He said, "Where do you come up with this stuff?"
    She said, "Hey, I've read the Book of Revelations. It's biblical."
 He said, "So, are you saying you'd rather have flowers and chocolates like everyone else?"
    She said, "Tell you what.  Forget stars and outer space and the cosmos and, for once, just do the stuff normal people do on Valentine's Day."
 He said, "So, does this mean you want me to return the star?"

Friday, December 7, 2012

My Jezebel

Last July, just before the 2012 summer residency session began in Alaska, Ian and I quietly began our long move South, to the Outer Banks of North Carolina where we'd bought a home.  There was the usual relocation frenzy and furor that we have become familiar with since we married 18 years ago: the endless sorting through and packing up of all our worldly goods into brown boxes, renting a U-Haul truck and trying to squeeze everything into it, and I was also finding out odd and interesting historical facts about Kill Devil Hills that were sending me me spiraling into a dream of life in a place with that kind of history, life in a place where that kind of history is admitted and lauded, where it becomes a delightful part of the stories retold at bonfires on the beach at night. Pirates. Lanterns hung from the horses' heads to lure passing rum ships into the barrier reef. Murder and mayhem.  The din of iniquity.  The rummy hills. . . .

While Ian went back to our old farmhouse in the North to pack up another load of household goods (and to prepare our two travel-reluctant cats for the move), I flew off to Alaska for two weeks, to teach, still breathless with the anticipation of moving to warmer climes and to making a quiet life as a writer at the edge of the Atlantic: toes in the sand, head in the sunsets, a dreamy fool easing into the "next" phase of life. 

In August and September, we finally got everything moved in – including the two spooked fur-balls – and the next few months were spent painting walls and trim, unpacking, putting a household together again, re-carpeting, putting wood flooring in my studio (it was raw plywood before), and endlessly trying to devise new ways to lure the cats out of all the new hiding places where they were hunkered down in deep denial of the move.  I was eager to get on with the toes-in-the-sand-head-in-the-clouds part of the writing life.  I was missing too many sunsets on the sound and sunrises on the ocean, too many walks on an emptied beach.  I wanted to stand with my feet in the roar of the Atlantic again and be at peace, for once, with who I am and where I find myself.  I worked and dreamed. Worked and imagined.  The words came as a wild tide in me while I painted walls and scrubbed floors and bathtubs, while I ripped up old carpeting, scribbling things down on whatever was at hand: sometimes the lid of the paint can, other times a part of the wall I would paint over soon as I'd had a chance to copy it all out into my daybook, sometimes a torn corner of an old brown bag or paper towel.  My life in scraps.  Words floating from every corner, hidden in every pocket.

Being near moving water has always had that effect on me: it sends my logical brain out on errands and invites my imagination to the party, that little jezebel in silks, where it moves into my inner ear and starts doing its crazy little word-jig, starts up its vaudevillean song and dance with memory, turns up the stage lights and throws open the doors.  

Come one; come all. . .

And I am always the first one in the door, waving happily, ticket stub in hand.  Who needs popcorn?  Who needs reserved seats? Who needs anything more than a wicked little strumpet of an imagination starting to dance with  a life that has been filled with experiences no one ever told you would be out there in the world waiting. As the play is about to begin, the theater amicably darkening, the imagination clears its throat and puts one hand on its ample hip.  

It seems ironic now that, in all my imagining, I had neglected to imagine hurricane season.

It isn't as if I don't know first-hand about hurricanes; I grew up in Florida, in Jacksonville, and we experienced a few.  I vaguely recall eating "hurricane food" – melting cheese over Sterno can flames and slathering it on Saltine crackers – and the old dog being allowed inside the house during the worst ones, and the candles and Coleman lantern we lit when the power went out, and the bathtub filled with water and stoppered just in case, and the wild gray rabbit my older sister brought in once from a storm that bit us and bit us in its terror.  I remember school was closed.  And I think we missed Sunday services - oh rare event. And that's about it.  

So long ago.  So far away.

Just as hurricane season here seemed to be going out "with a whimper," all the meteorologists suddenly became highly-excitable, pointing to the double meteor-swirl of clouds on their charts, babbling about conditions being ripe for a hundred-year superstorm. Where landfall might be. And when. It dawned on me that there was Something doing a little two-step shuffle near the stage-door of that theater in my head that I might have overlooked: Trouble.  Trouble named Sandy.

Isn't that how it goes with an imagination like mine?  She stands there – the sassy tart, the little bejeweled jezebel –  urgently insisting that I consider the fine detail of some elegantly-made costume or prop, drawing my attention to stage-right and all its sparkle so that I miss the storm brewing at stage-left.  Before I know it, the proscenium is ragged with wind and water, the plot has thickened disastrously, the curtains heave, the lights flicker, the fly system is rattling wickedly overhead, all sixes and sevens, and the ticket-taker is rowing off in the last yellow lifeboat.  

By the time I did notice what was approaching, I had little more than a day left to fill old plastic jugs with potable water, to dig the candles and matches out of moving boxes and place them strategically around the house, to figure out where the small propane grill and tanks were going to be safe – just in case – and to bake sweet loaves of storm bread and get them to the neighbors. By the time my imagination had receded again, that fickle floozy, and my wits had returned, the rains had descended and the streets were flooding. Avalon Pier was knocked from its timbers.   North of us, Kitty Hawk was being evacuated. To the south of us, the webcam at Jennette's Pier went darkly down. 

We were all left to our own devices then, forced to lie quietly in the beds we had made for ourselves, in the dark – with our sweet breads and old milk-jugs filled with water near at hand, with our little candles and matches, with our somewhat soggy dreams – ever at the mercy of that other old jezebel, the sea, who had come calling, in her wet overcoat and sandy heels, ill-tempered, a distraction, dragging herself to our doorstoops and porches.

Welcome to paradise.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

In My Dream of the End-of-Days

I am alone in a deep ravine, standing before a towering wall of layered stone. Before me is recorded Time – Rock-Time. Geologic time.  At my back, the End-of-Time:  an ink-black sky where far-off stars flare, then fall through deep space, leaving behind a comet’s-tail of debris – a smear of light.

Like a blind man reading his world, I put out my hands to the great wall, fingering what lies before me, trying to discern what each remnant, each layer, signifies.
I move my fingers farther up the ledge: Here was fire, and here was water, a great flood; here, a tectonic shift. 
But where, in geologic time, did we exist?
Here, I say to no one, is where dinosaurs lived and the mammoth and mastadon.  Over here, I move my fingertips to trace a faint ledge, was a great flood; here a tectonic shift.
But where was Man?
I search higher on the rock and see, mid-wall, a thin chalk-white smear: all that remains now of the great cities, libraries, monuments, kindergartens and their noisy playgrounds; the greater and lesser works of philosophy, literature, art; the landfills and landmines; great deserts and polar ice-caps. Thus goes also the lush savanna with all its beasts; also all the sundials, clocks, metronomes; likewise, the cracked mug and china teacup; the weed and rose, timothy grass and lily pad.
This thin white rim is all that is left to mark our place in Time.  The chalk comes off on my fingertips. I put it to my tongue, to test it, the way an infant brings the world first to its tongue, learning the world one mouthful at a time.
It tastes like the world once tasted to me: bitter and sweet.  Like milkweed. Like fog. Like promise and betrayal.  A little bittersweet, like love.  The salt of remorse; the sugar of redemption.
Like some last Kilroy, I dip my finger again into the chalky crevice and write on the wall's stone face with my finger: We were here.
Then I turn and enter the End-of-TimeNot-time, and all its stars.