Blossoms: Consider the Lilies

It’s time to head back to Minnesota. The snows are over, so they say. The ice is melting. It’s mid-April, after all. About time!

Here in Sanibel, I look out the window on a brilliantly sunny day. Our amaryllis has surprised us with eight huge blossoms. Who knew that the ugly bulb I had totally forgotten about and left for months hidden under a palm tree in the shade could produce such amazing blooms out of nothing? Even the orchids that I tied to the trees have bloomed, thriving on air and humidity. I’m amazed that those scrawny plants that I had long ago written off have survived on nothing but air—especially considering how I had fussed over them when they tried to  live in the house. Sometimes it is good to just let things be.

Who knew these were hidden in that brown bulb?

And so we will leave Sanibel, Florida, and let it be for the next six months. I’ll leave my friends, who will head back to their respective homes too. We come here and take on new lives. No one seems to care who we were before we landed on this small island.

My “Joy of Writing” class this year was wonderful. So many writers willing to open their notebooks, uncap their pens, and write! I hope that whatever we started in the class will continue and that more blossoms (stories, poems, essays) will come. Sometimes it seems we try too hard to make things happen when all along within our bodies, minds, souls something quiet and alive is at work and just waiting for the right time to show itself.

As I write this, I’m remembering some of the writers who read their work during the last class. Molly Downing wrote about crossing the causeway bridge to Sanibel.

As I ascend the arc of the bridge to its sun-beamed zenith, I feel a palpable lightening of body and spirits. I inhale deeply the sea-sweetened air. Gentle warmth relaxes my shoulders, my neck, my face. An osprey soars overhead, flaunting the fish in his talons with loud proud whistles. Below, palm and pine lined white sand beaches offer previews of delights to come.

From “What is Paradise?” by Molly Downing

Wendy West told a childhood story about a time when she and her sister crashed a large funeral for an exotic Romany visitor to her Minnesota town.

I had never been to a wake or a funeral. I did see a dead priest once. My father had dropped me off early at school, and we had to go to mass every morning. As second graders, we sat right up in the front. The mass was going to be a funeral for the priest. I sat in the pew and looked over at the open coffin. He looked alive! I was all by myself. I stared at him for a long time and was sure I had seen him blink his eyes. What if he was still alive? Would they bury him anyway?

From “The Queen of the Gypsies” by Wendy West

Kathi Straubing’s essay, “Let It Be,” was about how so many words, sometimes meaningless, crowd our lives.

We write words. Embellish words. Impress with words. Delight with words. Dismantle with words. Curse with words. Accuse with words. Amuse with words. We read all night, rise with a crossword puzzle, talk all day, text forever. We never stop long enough to listen, to just . . .Let it be. Just let it be!

From “Let It Be” by Kathi Straubing

Speaking of words, My St. John wrote about how the single-word question What? is so prevalent among those of us who are now hearing impaired. She ends her piece with this funny anecdote:

Just the other night, I was sitting next to my friend Clare at a yacht club dinner, and I asked her who the man was at the other end of the table. I thought she said that he was an ex-convict.
“How exciting!” I whispered, “What did he do?”
Her answer, “What do you think ex-commodores do?”
This morning, I made an appointment with my ENT doctor.

From “What?” by My St. John

And so, the time has come to leave the island and our friends here. While I’m ready to go back to life in a metropolitan area, I’ll miss Sanibel, my friends, and the blossoms that surprise and inspire me.

Free to bloom on a tree

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Writing Idea:  During the Joy of Writing class, we use writing envelopes to jump-start our practice. Each person has her own envelope. Into the envelopes, we put slips of paper with a phrase, a quote, or a topic that could serve as a prompt to get us started. The idea is to pull out one or two slips and, without over-thinking, use the prompt to free write for ten minutes or to fill two pages. For example, in the envelope for this session, one slips says:  Write about pretending to like a certain food. Another says: Write about a childhood game that went bad. Another: Write about each decade of your life (or someone else’s) using clothes. The writing that comes from these can become fiction, poetry, or memoir. Anything.
Try it. Whatever happens, just let it be. Who knows what blossoms might emerge?
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“The nature of This Flower is to bloom.”  Alice Walker

“Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not…” Luke 12: 27

On its own…bougainvillea

Starting All Over: Spiders, Webs, and a New Year

Here we are ready to start again. A new day, a new calendar, a new year. A few months from now we will have forgotten how fresh our world seems today, but for right now all is well.

One of my friends sends out a poem every Monday. I particularly like the one she sent this past Monday, January 1, 2017.

New Year’s by Dana Gioia

Let other mornings honor the miraculous.
Eternity has festivals enough.
This is the feast of our mortality. . . .

The new year always brings us what we want
Simply by bringing us along—to see
A calendar with every day uncrossed,
A field of snow without a single footprint.

As the new year begins, we see “a calendar with every day uncrossed/ A field of snow without a single footprint.”

My January calendar already has a few prospective footprints. In a few days, my friend Mary and I will head to Key West for the much-anticipated writer’s workshops, sponsored by the Key West Literary Seminar.  Mary will be working with the poet, Rowan Ricardo Phillips; and I, with Dani Shapiro, who has written novels and several memoirs. I’m hoping to take a few small steps toward the completion of a collection of short prose pieces I’ve written over the years.

Key West Schooner

While we will be going to Key West for the workshops, we will also stroll along Duval Street, eat fresh fish in our favorite restaurants, enjoy the people we always meet at the Key West Bed and Breakfast, watch spectacular sunsets, sail on a schooner, and maybe even leave a few footprints in the sand. Going to Key West is truly “a feast of our mortality”–a carpe-diem sort of place.

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On another carpe diem note, I’ve resolved not to watch (and read) so much news this year. Alain de Botton concludes his 2014 book, The News: A User’s Manual (a serendipitous find yesterday at the Sanibel Library book sale) with these words:

We should at times forgo our own news in order to pick up on the far stranger, more wondrous headlines of those less eloquent species that surround us: kestrels and snow geese, spider beetles and black-faced leafhoppers, lemurs and small children–all creatures usefully uninterested in our own melodramas, counterweights to our anxieties and self-absorption.

Our Spider: Crab-Like Spiny Orb Weaver (Wikipedia)

His words make me think of the spider I have been watching build her sturdy web across the corner of our deck here on Sanibel. The web is an engineering marvel spanning a five-foot corner. It has withstood rain, wind, and my sometimes awkward maneuvers to water the plant that anchors one of her filaments. I accidentally knocked it down a couple of weeks ago, but the next day she started all over–swinging on her almost invisible silk threads, like a tiny, skirted acrobat in mid-air.

 

And there are our five grandchildren: each one a delight–any day spent with one of them is the best day ever. They help me see an ordinary spider web and lots of other small (and large) wonders I might not notice. With them I also do things I wouldn’t ordinarily do, like trying to fly a kite with Lucia in Dalkey, Ireland, on a cold, not-so-windy December day.

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On Writing:  Here’s hoping that you will find new life and happiness in the words you spin in the coming year. You never know what you might catch. An idea you didn’t know you had? A moment easily forgotten?  A story to hold onto? A sense of your own self?  Maybe we can forget the news for a little while each day and settle into a chair with a notebook and a good book. Or take a walk in a park. Or by the beach. Or watch a spider. Or talk with a child. And then come back and write about it.

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“Do you understand how there could be any writing in a spider’s web?”
“Oh, no,” said Dr. Dorian. “I don’t understand it. But for that matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.”
“What’s miraculous about a spider’s web?” said Mrs. Arable. “I don’t see why you say a web is a miracle-it’s just a web.”
“Ever try to spin one?” asked Dr. Dorian.”
E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

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Before We Leave

It always happens. Just as soon as you think you’re ready to leave and go on to the next place, the one you’re in becomes incredibly beautiful. It happened to me this morning.

In a few days, I’ll be leaving this Florida island and going back to Minneapolis. I’ve told everyone I’m ready to go home: the island is too crowded with visitors, I say. I just want to go to my regular grocery store. I miss my Minnesota family and friends.

Then this morning as I sat outside reading the Sunday Times and drinking coffee, I dropped deep into the astounding beauty around me: the gentle air, the birds’ songs, the green of foliage, and the startling blue of sky and water. It all seemed impossible to leave.

The hibiscus and bougainvillea by our front door are putting on an incredible show saying to me, Don’t go. Stay and look. See what you will miss.

It also happened this morning that our radio was tuned to Krista Tippett’s “On Being” featuring the poet David Whyte.  April is National Poetry Month, so how pleasing to hear the musical voice of David Whyte read his poems and talk about poetry and the spirit.

                                                              Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice.

–David Whyte, “Everything Is Waiting for You”

The place I’m in now as I prepare to leave is the space of poetry. It is the time when you notice what you will miss, when you see all that you have not seen, when it will all go away in an instant. Poetry helps me see–if but for a moment.

The song of the cardinal is shriller than ever this morning. The pileated woodpecker searching the hole in the dead palm trunk is brilliant: red, white, and black, bright and clear against the brown. The sunlight through the blinds as I write makes a work of art of the keyboard and my desk.

I have missed much in the days before when I drove methodically down San-Cap Road focused on how slow the car in front of me was going.

My friend down the street created a delicious dinner for four of us neighbors on Friday night. How sweet to eat cooked-to-perfection lamb chops, to taste the caramelized walnuts in the strawberry salad, and to savor the beauty of her chocolate cake with its small lake of raspberry sauce and crown of piped whipped cream! All of this as the smooth words of conversation flowed around the candles; and there too, on the table, were three translucent pink hibiscus blooms to remind me of the temporality of all of this. They bloom for only a day.IMG_0030

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Writing Idea:  Look for something today that will be gone tomorrow. Go for ten minutes in your notebook. Try it again tomorrow. And the next.  It could be the last chocolate chip cookie in the bag. It could be that old shirt you decide to throw out. Is there a story or poem in the transitory? See what you have to say.

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“I’ll tell you how the sun rose, a ribbon at a time.
The steeples swam in amethyst,
The news like squirrels ran.
The hills untied their bonnets,
The bobolinks begun.
Then I said softly to myself,
“That must have been the sun!”

But how he set, I know not.
There seemed a purple stile.
Which little yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while
Till when they reached the other side,
A dominie in gray
Put gently up the evening bars,
And led the flock away.

Emily Dickinson 

Putting the Meal on the Table

In our Sanibel writing class, I’ve used a cooking analogy to guide our thoughts about creative writing over the five weeks we were together. We started with a recipe and ingredients, mixed things up, and added heat. It’s all a process–sometimes messy, sometimes frustrating, always creative. Then last week, our final week, we put the meal on the table. We brought in one complete, polished piece to read to each other. We listened to each other and wrote comment cards while nibbling chocolate covered strawberries.IMG_0016

We heard about feeding sharks in the Tahitian Islands, the demolition of a neighboring house, a July Fourth celebration that began with an emergency trip to the hospital, and a South African wedding with the slaughter of a cow for the feast. Two people read letters they had written: one to her deceased parents telling them about what life is like now for their daughter and son; and another to a friend lost to death and dementia, updating her on how their gourmet club is doing in her absence.

Here are a few lines from the pieces:

“It was 4:30 a.m. when Roddy woke me up and said, ‘I can’t take it anymore. I have to go back to the hospital.’ ”                                           –“July 4th” by Wendy West

“We missed you, but your presence was felt in all those reminiscences. For the past four years of your life you had no memories. What a horrible disease. At the end memories are all we have and those were taken from you. Rest easy knowing we are remembering for you.”
–“A Dear Jean Letter”  by Bev Forslund

“The old gentleman comes to shake our hands, with a tipsy gait and a toothless grin. His whole right arm, all the way to the shoulder, is covered in dried blood. with flies buzzing around him. The action of slaughtering a cow is quite obviously thirsty work….”
–“An African Wedding” by Maria Bouloux

“The noise was awful. . .ripping, tearing. . .its massive motor making a thunderous roar! Watching from high on a balcony next door, looking down on this raucous mess, I clapped my hands over my ears. The ugly, dirty old house next door–once someone’s much loved white cottage– was being torn down.”
–“1160 Junonia Street” by Maryann Daly

“At a moment’s notice, seven reef sharks swim at a rapid pace within our circle. Smooth, sleek, and hungry, they move at record speed.”
–“Feeding the Sharks” by My St. John

“….But I know you can’t come, as much as I want you to. You’re in another place I know nothing about. I’m not ready to visit you, so the closest you can come to visiting me is in my imagination, as I write this letter.”
–“Dear Mom and Dad” by Lolly Murray

I’ve called this class “The Joy of Writing” like the famous cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, and it has been a joy to write/cook with these inspiring people.

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Note this change:  Because I like the idea of finding joy in writing, even when what I write about might sometimes reflect a darker side and even when the process is frustrating, I do believe there is great joy to be found in both writing and reading.

So I’ve decided to call the website, The Joy of Writing. This will better reflect the aim of what I record here. I’ll still use the URL of www.turtlehouseink.com. So all should stay the same for those who subscribe or seek out the site.

I hope you keep coming back to The Joy of Writing: A Home for Writers and Readers.  I always enjoy your comments and e-mail!

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“I am more modest now, but I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.”
― M.F.K. Fisher

 

 

 

 

End-of-Year Reading Blitz

One of the pleasures of returning to Sanibel, Florida, where we spend the winters, is visiting the library here and coming home with a huge stack of books to read in the warm days ahead. I’ve given up trying to play golf and tennis. I’ve taken up yoga and walking–and now spend many afternoons and evenings in my chair by the window, reading with my iPhone tuned into Minnesota Public Radio’s classical station. “A winter storm is brewing,” says the Minneapolis announcer. “Expect ten to twelve inches of snow.” It’s almost as if I can be in two places at once: here in sunny Florida and back in snowy Minnesota at the same time.

The books stacked by my chair take me to more than these two places that my physical body now calls home–I should say three, since North Carolina will always be my first home. Right now I’m dipping into books by some of the writers who will be speaking at the 2016 Key West Literary Seminar. These books have taken me from NYC to China and from to Kiev to Montana and Mississippi.

KWLS '16 Writers

KWLS ’16 Writers

In a couple of weeks, my friend Mary and I will make our annual January  pilgrimage to Key West for a delightful feast of literary pleasures. The focus this year is “Short Shorts.” I’ve been reading Thomas McGuane (Crow Fair: Stories), Hilton Als (White Girls), Molly Antopol (The UnAmericans),  Brad Watson (Aliens in the Prime of Their Life) and browsing through books by Daniel Menaker (My Mistake) and Karen Russell (Vampires in the Lemon Grove). So I’m anxious to hear these writers and many others in person, particularly HIlton Als and Gish Jen (Tiger Writing), two of the most thought-provoking writers among those attending.

Yet there is one writer who won’t be in Key West. Her latest book was on the new books shelf of the Sanibel Library, and it is the one I’ve been enjoying the most over the past several weeks:  Shirley Jackson’s Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings.  Shirley Jackson, author of one of the most famous short stories ever, “The Lottery” (1948), was born in 1916, the same year as my mother, so Jackson will be celebrating her 100th birthday this coming year had she not died an early death of heart failure on August 8, 1965, at age 49.

Luckily, besides the many books she published in her short lifetime, she left behind a rich trove of unpublished writings. The new selections in Let Me Tell You (2015) were collected by two of her children, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt, and bring to readers more of the material found in her archives. Some are serious pieces; some light; some reflect on her life as a writer; many are about her family and children; some are lectures she gave on the craft of writing. In most of the pieces, you can see Jackson’s wicked sense of humor and her interest in the weird, uncanny, mythic elements of life.

One lecture, “How I Write,” contains a single paragraph that sets up how her story, “The Lottery,” came into her head. She writes: “I remember one spring morning I was on my way to the store, pushing my daughter in her stroller, and on my way down the hill I was IMG_9762thinking about my neighbors, the way everyone in a small town does. The night before, I had been reading a book about choosing a victim for a sacrifice, and I was wondering who in our town would be a good choice for such a thing.”

Thus began the kernel for a story that has been read by thousands. Shirley Jackson was simply pushing her daughter in a stroller and thinking about her neighbors and a book she read. She ends this paragraph saying how the story came to be published in The New Yorker and how she received many letters asking how could she ever “think of such a terrible thing.” She says that she was “just thinking about my neighbors, but no one would believe me. Incidentally no one in our small town has ever heard of The New Yorker, much less read my story.”

The importance of this “birth of a story” teaches me a good bit about the writing process:

  • Even when I’m not writing, I’m writing.
  • A flash of inspiration may come in idle moments when I put together two (or more) seemingly unrelated events.
  • So as not to disturb that jolt of inspiration, I can’t worry about where the story/poem/essay/journal entry will end up or how others will react.

Jackson was not thinking about publishing or whether her new story would be good or not. Nor was she concerned about future reactions to her story.

She couldn’t wait to get home to write it.

So enough of this sitting in my chair, reading. I need to put down this book and walk the dog around the neighborhood or clean the kitchen or get cracking on tomorrow night’s dinner party, while letting those writing ideas bang around in my head. Then back to my desk with pen and notebooks!

(P. S. I forgot to mention another great book I recently read and loved:  Euphoria by Lily King. But my favorite book of 2015 was Oliver Sacks’s autobiography, On the Move: A Life.) 

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Writing Idea 

Try taking an ordinary event from your day and kicking it up a notch or two by combining it with something else you’ve observed or you’ve been thinking or reading about.

For example:

In “Here I Am, Washing Dishes Again,” Shirley Jackson tells about how she imagines the lives of the glasses, forks, dish towels, steel wool, floor, curtains, as she cleans the kitchen. She sees the jealousy between her two forks: one with four prongs and one with two.  “My two forks are insanely jealous of each other, and I find that I must take a path of great caution with them. . . .I try to keep them out of their quarrels…but I am always fumbling the delicate balance of power that is all that keeps them from each other’s throats.” She lets her imagination go with this idea, and the short piece lifts off and comes to a revealing ending when she sees herself being flattened and drawn to the magnet that holds the knives in place.

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“One of the nicest things about being a writer is that nothing ever gets wasted. It’s a little like the frugal housewife who carefully tucks away all the odds and ends of string beans and cold bacon and serves them up magnificently in a fancy casserole dish.”
–Shirley Jackson, “How I Write” (from Let Me Tell You)

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Happy holidays to all you writers and readers out there! Here’s to a wonderful, productive 2016!  Stay well.