Clearly they have been traveling…

Whelks
by Mary Oliver

Here are the perfect
fans of the scallops,
quahogs, and weedy mussels
still holding their orange fruit –
and here are the whelks –
whirlwinds,
each the size of a fist,
but always cracked and broken –
clearly they have been traveling
under the sky-blue waves
for a long time.
All my life
I have been restless –
I have felt there is something
more wonderful than gloss –
than wholeness –
than staying at home.
I have not been sure what it is.
But every morning on the wide shore
I pass what is perfect and shining
to look for the whelks, whose edges
have rubbed so long against the world
they have snapped and crumbled –
they have almost vanished,
with the last relinquishing
of their unrepeatable energy,
back into everything else.
When I find one
I hold it in my hand,
I look out over that shanking fire,
I shut my eyes. Not often,
but now and again there’s a moment
when the heart cries aloud:
yes, I am willing to be
that wild darkness,
that long, blue body of light.

***

It’s been a long week of writing about home, or of trying to write about home. If you’ve been a regular reader of this blog, then you know I have never had a good grasp on the idea of such a place to begin with.

Throughout the month of June I have been participating in a fun Instagram photo-a-day challenge and decided to use the above photo to define my version of “centered”. The whelk in the photograph is the literal center and my emotional center is the beach beyond. Just this morning I realized the whelk, in its battered and nearly broken shell, is always home no matter where the seas toss him out. That damn whelk gave me a clearer perspective on the whole idea of home.

Does home have to be a single place?

During my research on the definition of home (yes, I’m that bewildered by the topic that I had to do research), I began to feel a little less obligated to call out the name of a single place to point to as home which, to be honest, left me feeling guilty for not giving the designation to all the other places I’ve ever lived. Clearly, I have been traveling.

For the record, I haven’t yet figured out my own definition of home but I’m learning there is more than one way to define it.

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Stone Cutting

Harriet Doerr

In a book recently given to me by my sister-in-law, I came across this quote by Harriet Doerr:

I’m quite happy working on a sentence for an hour or more, searching for the right phrase, the right word. I compare it to the work of a stone cutter, chipping away at the raw material until it’s just right, or as right as you can get it.

My very first college English class was taught by Diana Hacker, the author of several college textbooks (one of which, A Writer’s Reference, is a staple for most college freshmen) and the first person to ever tell me I was a good writer. More of my creative writing instructors would give me the same praise but none of it ever gave me a whole lot of confidence. So what if one instructor was a Pushcart Prize nominee and won The National Poetry Review Press Book Prize in 2010?

I am not lying when I say it feels good to be told such things, though. We all want to feel validated.

There has been no real desire in me to write, at least not as often as before. Before what? I have no idea. So, instead, I have been reading more. Is this a pattern for most writers? Is it because of the weather? I have been discouraged and unmotivated lately, unable to allow myself to be enthusiastic about much, although this could simply be a side effect of my existing depression. (There, I said it.)

But I do miss it. The writing. And I miss the validation from other people. At this point in my life, with what I do on a daily basis (studying, hanging laundry, fretting over dinner, following up on my kid’s reading assignments, wiping snot from my sick dog’s nose a dozen times), my routine hardly merits validation from others. If anything, I should be in awe of other parents who have children at home in diapers and still manage to make a full dinner in time for their spouse’s return from a day at the office (and I am!). To nobody’s surprise, inspiration falls short. Guilt, on the other hand, is plentiful.

Why guilt?

Because for over two hours I have been reading a book about writing dangerously and with abandon! while my husband is at work and my child is at school. I’m not vacuuming or cleaning floorboards or even walking the dogs (I have wiped the sick dog’s nose twice, however). Here I am, and here I have been, reading about how to write and then writing about it. And I’m always afraid it will be interpreted by someone as a waste of time.

By whom? Probably by people who don’t write. And they would never understand it anyway, not unless they are also driven by the same kind of force to do what they love, driven by a confusing pull that feels like inspiration and compulsion have merged.

It’s kind of unruly.

I don’t write for money (hey, wouldn’t that be nice?) and I don’t write to dazzle the masses with my wit (that would be nice, too). But if Harriet Doerr felt this way about how she spent her time, I guess I am in good company or, even better, we are in good company – the writers, the readers, the poets, the playwrights, the lyricists, the painters, the florists, the stone cutters. Maybe that is our validation.

We take our time to do a thing right, or as right as we can get it, and we hope it’s seen as right by others and not as a waste of time. Although those who would think it so are not the ones who motivate us to begin with, including ourselves.

This is my biggest hurdle.

A Kind of Bliss

Words and stories don’t come to me as easily these days. My schoolwork has taken most of them up, seeing as I decided to attend University of Oklahoma’s online college and now cram my courses into 8-week blocks. It’s the same amount of learning going on here as a traditional semester, but depending on how one looks at it, one could say I’m either studying twice as hard or finishing my core classes in half the time. Sometimes, it feels like both.

My days are fairly unchanging in that not much new happens now (honestly, I kind of like things that way). All that newness went away once we found ourselves becoming settled into a happy schedule of heading out to work, getting picked up from school, having the laundry finished on the weekends, and the dishwasher full and running by bedtime. Even the dogs know when it’s time to fall asleep.

To break the monotony of my classwork and studies and my daily runs to the elementary school and the coffee shop, I have taken to lightening the feeling of annoyance that certain tasks and chores tend to produce.

  • When I’m writing a research paper, I let myself wander off to visit a couple of websites full of whimsical artwork and imagine that the room in which I’m working and studying is filled with these pieces and prints. In fact, when I grow up I would like to live in a treehouse with wallpaper that looks like that artwork. There is even something inside of me that tells me bliss is having paint spatter on your toes, charcoal smudges on your hands, a comfortable pair of jeans destroyed by oil paint stains. I want that. Of course, I’m no artist (that’s my kid’s department), but fulfillment (or bliss) comes in many forms.

Phoebe Wahl

Rebecca Rebouche

  • When I’m waiting in the pickup line at Elle’s school, I put down the windows and let the breeze blow in and read Taproot Magazine. I consider it my reward at the end of the day, after I have acquired a headache and shoulder spasm from spending hours in front of the computer studying multidisciplinarity and annotated bibliographies and trying to understand why Harry T. Moore has never been publicly acknowledged as a civil rights activist! (That’s my research and I’m very into it). The artwork and stories in Taproot just soothe me and calm me. They make me want to find a little piglet to cuddle and milk some dairy cows, go run barefoot in a creek and learn how to knit, after I’ve mastered making homemade ice cream and tending to my beehive, of course. BONUS: Ashley English, the author of my favorite cookbook A Year of Pies, is a regular contributor. And Taproot is where I read about this story. I’ve done something similar, though in a more stationary setting. It’s fun.
  • Finally, at the end of the day, when I’ve got dinner on the stove and the table needs setting, I plan on listening to a lot this:

I just got my hands on their CD yesterday (thank you, Amazon, for the unexpected early delivery), but I cannot get enough of Shovels & Rope. Their music fires me up and makes me want to bang the pots and pans together when I’m cooking (don’t worry, honey – it’s just a feeling). Sure, there is awkward dancing and hand-clapping, even toe-tapping, but it makes me feel good. Besides, stirring things in a pot on the gas stove is more fun when there’s a rhythm to follow, no?

The Art Mind

My daughter tells me I need an “art mind” because, without one, I will never comprehend the beauty that is a brick turned on its side with steel poles pushed through it and displayed under bright lights in a gallery. And she’s right. I’m okay with this, though, since other people have told me something similar when it comes to appreciating poetry.

Details and explanations mean a lot to me so when I look at a piece of art or read a poem that someone has poured their heart and soul into, I usually think huh? and ask for them to just get to the point: Why do I have to guess at their meaning or translate it for myself? Why don’t they just tell me what they’re trying to say? It’s like charades in a way and people can get really pissed off when you don’t guess correctly. It is rather annoying.

But I can appreciate when something looks or sounds interesting. I have one favorite poem called The Supple Deer by Jane Hirschfield. I get it. I mean, I really, really GET IT. I think. I’m pretty sure I do. And if I don’t then it doesn’t really matter because it is a truly beautiful string of words she just made there.

The quiet opening
between fence strands
perhaps eighteen inches.

Antlers to hind hooves,
four feet off the ground,
the deer poured through it.

No tuft of the coarse white belly hair left behind.

I don’t know how a stag turns
into a stream, an arc of water.
I have never felt such accurate envy.

Not of the deer—

To be that porous, to have such largeness pass through me.

And yesterday, around the moment my kid told me I have no eye for the true beauty in art, I saw these. Sure, they’re just boxes and the focus was on geometry (sadly, something else I will never comprehend), but they are pretty boxes. I might actually like to have one of them inside my house, though I’m honestly shooting for a Florida Highwaymen painting to be my first big artsy purchase.

All artwork is by Eric Wright:

by Eric Wright

by Eric Wright

by Eric Wright

by Eric Wright

I think we call all relate to this little guy.

by Eric Wright

Summer in the South

Summer in Florida is the season that comes earliest and stays the longest. Beach days in January are common, even if they come after a night of hard freezing or heavy frost. Deluges between the hours of 2:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon are to be expected on a daily basis. Floridians know the difference between a cumulus cloud and a cumulonimbus cloud.  Hurricane evacuation plans consist of visiting family and friends up north and finding out which of your neighbors own chainsaws.

We don’t see a lot of fireflies. Mosquitoes take over. The dolphins, manatees, and right whales return to the St. Johns River. Alligators fill their bellies with more food in the summertime than during any other time of the year. Then they lie around with their mouths open. They don’t do this to look any more menacing than they already are. They’re just hot.

The Spring Equinox only arrived last week, but already Florida has started showing signs of summer. Humidity has returned, birds’ nests are already emptying, and kids are wearing shorts to school once again. One recent day reported temperatures in the upper 80s and low 90s, only to be cooled by a torrential afternoon thunderstorm.  That is how it works here. That is how we know it’s coming and that is how we know it’s here to stay, at least until late-October.

It’s funny how my childhood Halloween memories involve snowsuits and fitting costumes over that heavy bulk of warmth and fabric and here we are with Elle, a native Floridian, making sure her polyester cape doesn’t make her sweat to the point of dehydration.

As someone who lives on the Atlantic coast, I see the true sunrise. Exquisite as it is as its own part of the sun’s cycle, it impresses me most in the winter. It’s the warmer weather sunsets that really catch me off guard, every single time. For some reason, I am always surprised by how gorgeous the sky can be. If I really wanted to, I could watch the sun come up over the Atlantic Ocean and drive to the west coast to watch the sun go down over the Gulf of Mexico.  It would only take me a few hours each way.

In fact, I think I would like to do this sometime.

While these shots hardly do a Florida sunset justice, it gives you an idea of the kind of closing of a day I get to see many nights during the year. On this particular night, just over the past weekend, I was sitting on the couch watching television. All the main lights were turned off so only a subtle glow came from the TV, that flickering, annoying twitch that commercials often use to catch a viewer’s attention. Except I noticed all of a sudden that my backyard had turned pink.

The white fence was pink, the trees were pink, the pink flowers were a completely new and undefined shade of more pink. It was quite pretty. I scanned the sky and noticed the shades of pink coming from behind my trees and over to the neighbor’s backyard. The peak of his roof sliced through right where the pink ended and a normal sky continued. Over there, the sky just looked meh…but I got the best view.

Welcome back, summer. I don’t care that you are coming a little early this year.

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Summer in the South
by Paul Laurence Dunbar

The oriole sings in the greening grove
As if he were half-way waiting,
The rosebuds peep from their hoods of green,
Timid and hesitating.
The rain comes down in a torrent sweep
And the nights smell warm and piney,
The garden thrives, but the tender shoots
Are yellow-green and tiny.
Then a flash of sun on a waiting hill,
Streams laugh that erst were quiet,
The sky smiles down with a dazzling blue
And the woods run mad with riot.

And, again, while it might still be spring to most of the rest of the country, I am eagerly awaiting summer’s official return. To me, summer is already here.