“… their insides are open to view, simple, clear, and direct …”

They seem to come with the houses these days.  Who would buy one otherwise?  And for what?  But once received as a gift, or once inherited, one finds many uses for them.  One might finally ask, What did we do without this machine?

I suspect there’s a part of the brain that longs for black dirt, and digging in it, smelling it.  If lucky enough to have been born with gardens and real crops and big machines, one inherits a love of digging.  And of dirt.  Southern dirt is best, but what we have is New England dirt.

We inherited the tractor with the house we took over from my in-laws ten years ago.  It came with the three-stall garage which half-serves as a barn to those with a history of farming.  We have old family photos of my father-in-law farming the lower two acres with the FarmAll.  In my memory of him, he is sitting high up on that black seat with that wide-brimmed straw hat on his nearly-bald head, with that patient pace of his, with that look that said he had all day to plow the corn field, in those baggy Levis, in those L.L.Bean rubber shoes.  Then that mild reporting at day’s end of the earth he had moved, the dirt he’d played in.  Before putting the FarmAll with its specialized plough attachments to bed at night, he’d tend to it, check its oil with the dipstick, kick its giant tires, then wedge it into its tight space, wiping his greasy hands on a rag and stamping his feet at the back door.  Word is that photos exist of his dad on the same tractor – he’d bought it, after all, to do some real farming – but we don’t seem to have them.  It’s enough to know that our FarmAll has served three generations faithfully.

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Navel gazing

I want what everyone wants. A good story. A good story.

There’s the rant.  Then there’s the whine.

I gave up part-time whining a decade or two ago when I realized nobody was interested.  I reassessed.  Now when I need to whine, I say this:  “I need to whine for three minutes. Is this OK with you?”  Hearing “three minutes”, which seems reasonable – I mean, a person can put up with anything short of physical torture for three minutes – and whoever’s on the receiving end says, “Fine.”  So I let loose.  I’m respectful of the time.

I need to whine for three minutes.

I’m emboldened by an article in the Wall Street Journal.  So, some background:  I’m at the breakfast table this morning, I open the Review section, which I read first, just before the book review, the theatre review, and anything by Peggy Noonan, who is brilliant and reasoned, and I see a column by Sam Sacks. He’s reviewing Nell Freudenberger’s latest.  Ho hum, I say to myself.  I’ve already read a review of that book, and I’m no closer to buying (or reading) it now than I was then.  There was something too smooth, too urbane, too circling, too meaninglessly psychological …. too too about her first book.  I stopped reading halfway through.  I was happy not to have paid good money for it.  I couldn’t understand the hype around it.

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A Rascally Fellow

Every morning at 7:30, the red fox stops by our granite bird bath to take a sip.

This oasis, lying low in Siberian iris, we now keep scrubbed of bird droppings and filled for our discriminating friend.  He sips carefully, his pointy nose finding the sweet spot, his tongue lapping, thin and quick.  I move silently to the kitchen window to watch. I want to run my hand down his gray-red back, down to his white-tipped muff of a tail.  His legs are thin.  He walks with delicacy on small paws.

Before political correctness doomed Uncle Remus’s rich wisdom, I enjoyed his stories as a child –– right alongside Aesop’s Fables, Grimm’s fairy tales, and Greek myth.  Brer Fox was my favorite character in Joel Chandler Harris’s Songs of the South.  I suppose I identified with him – a loner, pondering, watching, a sometimes rascally fellow into occasional thoughts of schadenfreude.  Even now, when I get stuck in my own “tar baby” messes, I remember my furry teacher, Brer Fox.

I imagine our fox feeling safe at our place.  His route is predictable:  up the hill from his den down in the field, a stop at the watering hole, a slow and graceful trot across the back yard, a clear preference for the steps through the perennial garden, up to a rocky outcropping where he pauses, listening, at a thicket of cactus.  I imagine that he remembers the chipmunk he discovered there, pouncing and capturing it in an arching leap through air.  I have learned that foxes hear low-frequency sound and that, perhaps, he heard the hapless little mammal with the racing stripes, burrowing, coming up for morning air.  The fox’s wait was quiet, patient.  No struggle about it.

Just a graceful in-the-moment watching, poised in a relaxed attention, natural to him, that holds him together.

Just a graceful in-the-moment watching, poised in a relaxed attention, natural to him, that holds him together, inside and outside. I remember thinking the lunge was cat-like.

“I said ‘Good mornin’,” Brer Rabbit said to the tar baby.  Dressed in a hat, the tar baby looked to Brer Rabbit like a real person. Impatient and not one to be ignored, Brer Rabbit punched the tar baby with a left hook, then with a right, then with both feet.  His struggles had landed him, stuck, in his own issues.  Brer Fox, laughing like crazy, enjoyed the show from behind a bush.

Several weeks ago, we watched with fascination as our fox cornered a mouse and played with his catch for minutes, enjoying a game of volleyball, of sneak and toss, of cavort and hide, until his joyful game became his lunch. And we know that good feelings and a few light moments at table aid the digestion.

This morning, our fox rests on the garden steps in full sun, grooms himself patiently and works those pointy ears like rotating antennae.  I stand at the sunroom windows, not moving, ten feet away from his small gray-red body, and look at him in wonder.  He looks at me straight on.  His ears come around when I move closer. He wraps his tail, white-tipped and muff-like, and rests there, confident.

Moments later, having had enough of me, he trots up the hill toward the vineyard, looking for something else to stick his nose into. His gait, so appropriate to his purpose, is unhurried.  Inhabiting his small body, he knows what to do, and when, while my human day stretches out, over-planned and held together by a list. When I remember the fox, I can slow my pace, remember my purpose, and inhabit my body too.


Goddesses of the Everyday Rant

Kali of the fierce nature

I’m not feeling lyric today. See my new category: Righteous Rants. Once in a while, I can be forgiven for having some fun with daily annoyances.

Once upon a time, I loved music around me. All kinds. Work with Verdi, create a new spreadsheet with the Stones, fold laundry with Rachmaninoff, plant a peony with Queen, prepare for a dinner party with Wagner, hang out with Whitney. That was then — Before the Assault of Piped-In Music. This is now.

I’m lying on the chiropractor’s couch, needles of energy pummel my lower back, ice packs hold me down, prone, and music blares from a speaker behind me. “I (something-something) sky / You (something-something) earth / Can’t get enough of your (something-something) … .” I picture the sound booth – girls screaming into a mic resembling a giant insect’s eye. I see the mixing room guys at the controls – “Hey, add some bells? and how ‘bout some Caribbean drums? and make that 2:4 time. More twang on the guitars. Fill the room, man.” I’m strapped down, imprisoned by somebody else’s assumption at 60+ db.

I’ve barely pushed my cart into the fresh produce section of Dave’s Marketplace when I notice that the music is louder than usual. Another screaming rocker. “Shake that thang / shake it for me, baby / come on and shake that thang / one more time / yeeaaahh.” Imprisoned again. I assume marketing studies show that we linger in grocery stores longer, buying more, if crooners and screamers accompany testing of cantaloupe, waiting at the deli for Boar’s Head. Do businesses actually buy this piped-in music rubbish?

I don’t know about you, but my appointments are as brief as I can manage. How many avocados can you squeeze? Do you really tarry at your ObGyn?

Go places with me. To that six-month checkup at the dentist. To that lunch at the new place on the East Side. To that annual trip to the mall for a new swimsuit. To that weekly visit to the bookstore, that daily workout at the gym. Anywhere.

Enough is enough.

What comes to mind in that fed-up moment is Sekhmet, the lion-headed Egyptian goddess with an attitude. And fierce Kali, the many-armed Hindu goddess with the scary face, the destroyer. Her tongue’s stuck out: patooie, she’s saying. Temper these outrageous ladies with a half-cup of good sense, timing, and compassion, and you’ve got yourself a good dose of right action.

Temper these outrageous ladies with a half-cup of good sense, timing, and compassion, and you’ve got yourself a good dose of right action.

I hear the door open. The chiropractor’s assistant enters the room to check on me, pinned down to the couch. “Could you turn the music off, please?” She laughs and complies. Somebody shuts up. Ah, silence …

I place a half pound of mesclun in the cart and walk over to Dave’s customer service desk – I know this woman; she’s a good sort – and ask if the music might be turned down. She cocks her head, listens, nods, smiles, and complies. The Mamas and the Papas take it down a notch. Ah, better…

“Excuse me,” I say to the dental assistant, “do you have a room with no music?” She smiles and turns a knob on the wall. Shania lowers to a reasonable nasal warble at nine in the morning.

“Excuse me,” I say to the waitress at the East Side bistro, “could you move us to a table that’s not right under the speaker?” She smiles and moves us, and five minutes later, I notice I can hear my thoughts and my friend’s story.

“Excuse me,” I say to the sales assistant who’s fetching yet another swimsuit.  “This process is painful enough without the hardbody lyrics.” She laughs in agreement. She can’t do anything about the volume — I assume it’s brought to us by satellite — but we share the opinion that, in the words of Maggie Smith’s delicious crone in Gosford Park, “It’s a little more than background music.”

The franchise bookstore? The gym? Well, words fail me here. Take earplugs to Barnes & Noble, and run your three miles a day on a quiet neighborhood street. Leave your harnessed Sekhmet and Kali at home where they can await the next justified outrage. (TVs in waiting rooms? “Do not touch these controls!” warns a hand-written sign in one local doctor’s office. Sekhmet and Kali are getting their backs up already. But, hey, that’s for another day.)

Then I think of those other women. “Excuse me,” I’ve said to them. They’ve smiled or laughed in agreement. Strapped down too, denied the privilege of filtering for themselves. Inured.

Two clocks tick – a small antique clock in the dining room, a big ole grandfather clock in the library. The chickadees peep-peep-peep on the feeder. The turkey clucks by the stonewall. A male cardinal lets out a chirp that amounts to shouting in the bird world. And what I just heard was an uppity breeze in the pine grove.

Silence is hard won.


The 9:08 freight train clatters past the Kwik Way.  I’m old enough to expect smoke when I see this much train.  I park out front between two Ford pick-ups — one with a dog box, the other running tractor tires. Outside, the Chill & Grill propane tank sits on concrete, and in the newsbox, The State announces, above the masthead, that the Gamecock girls’ team lost to Stanford.

I’m here to buy my small (17-oz) cup of decaf with a squirt of sweet hazelnut creamer.  For sale inside, also, are Bik lighters in yellow and red plastic, packets of single-dip snuff, Lays potato chips, and any kind of Barefoot wine you want.  Vinyl-topped booths and tables are laid with fresh paper napkins, silverware, and glasses turned upside down. Ready for drop-ins.  The place smells of fried sausage, fried eggs, and fried hash browns.  I think about a smoky sausage biscuit with hot mustard, and only in this place.  Here, old wants crash into newer habits — loose-coupled — and there’s a bumping around in my head, like the buffers of freight cars.

Old wants crash into new habits here — loose-coupled — and there’s a bumping around in my head, like the buffers of freight cars.

“Good morning,” everyone in the place says to me.  I don’t know these people, but this doesn’t matter to them.  This is White Rock, South Carolina, and if you don’t know everybody, you should.  I’ve been here only a week and the red-aproned woman behind the Henny Penny fryer knows to ring me up for $2.30.  Even numbers — for customer convenience, she tells me.  You do the math.  That’s 13.5 cents an ounce.  Down here, Starbucks is viewed as a rip-off.  And I’m feeling more conservative myself just being here.

I’m dressed.  When I say dressed, I mean nice slacks (that means no jeans), a nice blouse, a nice sweater, nice shoes, and nice jewelry, not too matchy-matchy, but stuff I never wear in New England.  The azalea, Bradford pear, and dogwood bring out the nice in everyone.  I wonder if I should be making arrangements to live here full time myself. The air itself smells flowery, leafy.  Nice.

I pay for my coffee, agree to “have a good one,” and head back to my car, a 1999 Honda Accord on loan from my nephew’s wife who’s said she won’t hear of me renting a car for ten days.  Three big, friendly men stand on the sidewalk in short-sleeved shirts, smoking. They’re talking about how good the fishing on Lake Murray might have been at dawn — stripers, they’re guessing — after that cats-and-dogs thunda-busta we had yesterday.  The air is clear of pollen, washed off cars and running yellow into gutters, and warm with just a touch of morning chill.

“Good morning,” they all say, and pull their cigarettes out of my way, as if in apology. Cigarette smoke reminds me of home, and I don’t mind it here.  In New England, I’d have a few snippy words for people who smoke on the street, huddled against their gray office buildings in their black coats and boots.  Memory is tricky. There’s wispy emotion in it, curling up and around, like what’s left when a flame’s gone out and the hot, red wick remains for a second or two, and we can’t look away.

Today’s Sunday, and just across the street, the parking lot of Bethel Lutheran Church is half full.  Early services on the Fourth Sunday after Lent.  Purple cloth drapes from a cross near the street. This is church country, and the big-congregation Baptists and Methodists know that Easter’s coming.  Choirs are assembling, and candles smoke on altars up and down Old Lexington Highway.  The vegetable stand kitty-cornered to the church — Jonah Stukes Fresh Vegetables, a sign says — seems abandoned.  On Wednesday, he had early tomatoes and peanuts boiling on a smoker.  Later in the summer, he’ll have native corn and pole beans and peaches (the sign will say PEACH’S), and he’ll hold his daughter, diapered, barefooted and snarly haired, by her feet and lower her, upside down, into the nearby Goodwill bin, and she’ll come up with something to wear, and then she’ll play so close to the red signal light at the intersection that my back will ache. Another sign says We Buy Old Cars.

The train has rattled on up the single track.   In daylight the Southern Coastal Railroad races through these parts, stopping traffic in all directions, rushing from Columbia, moving on up the line to Chapin, to Greenville, northwest of here, sometimes with three engines pulling sixty cars. There’s nothing old about these cars, red and yellow and green, and somebody’s protected them from grafitti.  There is none.  I counted the cars last summer as we drove alongside on the way to Fat Buddy’s for fried chicken, cole slaw, and fried mushrooms. Jeans are OK at Fat Buddy’s, and a blue T-shirt I bought last year says I’ve been there and that I like the place well enough to advertise.  ”What’s Fat Buddy’s?” folks in New England ask, and I remember waiting for chicken, fried to order while we drank a pitcher of Corona. Thirty minutes.  Nobody’s in a hurry.

The trains that split White Rock in half three times a day are all about business and what counts for bustle in these parts.  Shock absorbing buffers cushion the cars, holding each undamaged by another along a rough track. The whistle is heard as a warning; the flashing red light and the black-and-white poles put a hold on the present moment, a temporary wait on moving too fast into tomorrow. At night when I’m awake in the dark, I hear the mournful whistle of the 3:15 to Simpsonville and Greenville.  There’s regret in it, and a call, and imagined smoke, trailing.


photo credit: PhillWatson

Ijawi breath

Outside the window, the first songbird of spring after the winter that wasn’t. A cardinal by its sharp call — the first one on the feeder, the birdbath, the fir, even before the robins, who are late.  The word is out: hustle.

There will be straw collecting, mate selecting, nest building, bark tapping, worm and grub hunting, gatherings at the bird feeders, territory protecting, and quick sex. The windows are open for the first time since October. The pine grove awakens and shushes in the breeze, like an inland breath.

… surf taking and retreating along the packed beach … that’s the planet’s true ijawi breath …

There’s been no winter. The deer didn’t eat the rhododendrons and, hey, I wore my new (fake) fur coat only four times — both of these situations are of equal importance to me — and this spring’s not so much a relief as an expected occurence.  But it’s sweet enough.  My last year’s summer clothes still hang in my closet.  I’m not sure what to make of this.

I begin to think about the Outer Banks.  I may turn my head to hear the wind in the pine grove — that shushing, whispering, and awakening — but surf taking and retreating along the packed beach of a barrier island, grounded in the broad Atlantic basic?  Well, that’s the planet’s true ijawi breath.

The brown pelicans know this in their light bodies.  Watch them.



The game closet, yesterday.  I was rummaging through it, looking for something, when I found a small piece of a jigsaw puzzle in a corner.  Stem green with a purple edge, one side a ninety-degree angle, the rest of it like fingers flung out. A cornered amoeba.

I do not like jigsaw puzzles.  They crop up everywhere in my life, as if the universe continues to send me not what I want, but what it thinks I need to see … until I see it.  I suppose, then, the universe will be sending me jigsaw puzzles forever.  Because I won’t do them.

Take, for example, the jigsaw puzzles for the beach house.   Prior to our family trek to the Outer Banks each summer, all puzzles are dragged out of the game closet, unpacked, spread out, picked over, dismissed or chosen, repacked carefully, talked about in the car for 500 miles, removed from the car first, set up on a card table, and fussed over.  The year we forgot the card table, we used the dining room table for the puzzles and ate on our laps. Ketchup was difficult.

“Coming down to the beach?” I say to four family members.  It’s 10:00 – beach time – and I’m at the door, greased up, hat on head, beach bag packed with the day’s supply of books, pens, and notebooks.  Four heads bend over a puzzle.

“Looking for this piece,” one of them says to another, pointing to a hole.

“Try this one.”  Murmurs.

“No, I need a ninety-degree angle.  Green.  With a little purple showing.”

“Y’all coming?” I say.

“Found a different one!” my husband shouts, and applause breaks out. He looks at me as if to say I’m not a team player. I know this.

I go down to the beach alone, schlepping my chair, umbrella, bag of books, and frustration.

Now, take the jigsaw puzzles at The Heritage, my mother’s retirement community.  Rummaging through closets in the club room, the Puzzle Queen of South Carolina discovered 179 boxes of puzzles, dragged them out, shouted “Come on, y’all” to everyone in her building, and thus founded The Heritage Jigsaw Puzzle Club, going strong for three years now.  Puzzles are fussed over and discussed as if they are intractable children. She has told me three times that The Puzzle Club has completed 53 puzzles.  This is not from short-term memory loss.

“Let’s walk down to the club room and see what’s happening with the puzzle,” my mother says to me.  I’m visiting her for two weeks, and we’ve just finished three loads of laundry and a chocolate treat.

“I’m not into puzzles,” I say.  “You go.”

“But I want us to do stuff together while you’re here.”

I’d rather read Pam  Houston’s latest book.  “OK, OK,” I say.

I sit down at the card table in the club room.  Three other elders are there, intent on the puzzle of the week.  Hot air balloons.  The workers murmur, eye one another, poke through puzzle pieces, try one, then another, ease pieces into right places, and snap them into place to a chorus of exclamation.  I look down at the tiny pieces, all similar in shape, size, and my interest in them.

“Why don’t you like jigsaw puzzles?” my mother says.

“No idea.”

“Puzzles keep you young.  They work your brain.”  She’s ninety-six.

“My brain’s just fine.”

“Epiphany happens outside language,” we are told.

“They help you understand how the small things fit so you can figure out the big picture,” she says.  “You know.  Puzzles are like life.”

“Mama, you know I don’t believe that.”

Opinions on the subject rip across the faces of my mother’s friends, but no one offers support for either side.

“You should think about it.”  Heads nod.  She finds a piece that fits, lets out a whoop, and applause breaks out around the table.

My brother sits with Mama and me in her living room.  I’m go back to reading reading Pam Houston.  She spreads dissimilar fragments of her life around with her pen, sees some odd relationship among the pieces, some quirky theme; the pieces don’t fit together and she doesn’t force them and she doesn’t tell us every little thing. But I know somebody is present.  We are left to infer. “Epiphany happens outside language,” we are told.  My yellow highlighter and ballpoint are poised over the page – How does she do this?

My brother and I are sitting with Mama in her apartment.  I am reading.  They are working a crossword puzzle, another family activity I’m not good at.  Or don’t have the patience for.

“Can’t get this last word,” my brother says. “Eight letters — begins with M — means ‘Vacancy on the top floor’?”  His pencil is tapping, his leg is pumping, he’s leaning toward Mama whose brow is furrowed over the coverless Webster’s she uses for her crossword puzzles. It’s almost as old as she is.

“Mindless,” I say without looking up.

They jump as if they’ve been shot from off-planet.  My mother says it fits, my brother says it’s perfect, and the Sunday crossword is completed.

Words I can do.  Words are not a game. I remember what Mark Twain said about words.  “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and a lightning strike.”

It’s 11:00 by the time my husband arrives on the beach with his chair and his own books.  I hold his red beach cup of tea with lemon, no sugar while he sets up for the day.

“I don’t feel deprived because I don’t like jigsaw puzzles,” I say.  “And I’d rather write.”

“The puzzle’s missing one piece,” he tells me, frustrated.

I backed out of the game closet, pulled the dust bunnies off the green and purple puzzle piece, and took it downstairs.  I put it where he’d see it.  When he came home, he said something like, “Finally we’ll see the big picture!”

We’re not getting one

Every six months or so I want a dog.  I think of this returning wish as a chronic disease, like malaria.  I punch up “Rescue Shih Tzus” on my MacBook and page down through what’s available.  I get to choose what area, how old, what color, how much, and when available.  Like shopping online for the right lamp.

I found an adorable Shih Tzu nearby.  Male.  Seven years old.  Alfalfa colored.  Black eyes, looking at the camera as eight-month-old babies look at the world — as if they just arrived from the other side of the moon.

“Here,” I say, “look at this one.  Isn’t he adorable?”

I don’t expect an answer.  He doesn’t want a dog.  We’ve had this conversation many times, and we’ve debated all the reasons.  Vacations, the rugs, early morning and late night potty walks, and our frequent commutes to Boston, our long days there.  All valid reasons why not.  I allow MacBook to sleep, and the chronic disease begins to subside.

After the evening news, Nature brings us a preview of an upcoming documentary, “Ocean Giants.”  There in deep water in a photographer’s lense is a mother whale and her tiny baby, just born.

“Look at that,” I say. “Isn’t it adorable?”

“We’re not getting one,” he says.





Making do along the natural path

A natural wildlife corridor crosses our land, a sometimes-grassy space, open and sunny, a sometimes-woodsy space, protected and dark.  It begins we-do-not-know-where, over that hill past the vineyard, perhaps near the deer thicket, the fox den, the coyote camp, the possum hole.  It comes at us along a steep grade, within sight of the sunroom, and disappears down the hill, ending we-do-not-know-where.  I imagine it circling a corn source, a meat market, the reservoir.

When I look out the sunroom window, I see a path from a vague beginning to a vague ending.  Like a life. We’re all distributed along it.

The deer pick a careful path along the corridor – the four does, the eight-point buck that covers them, and their spotted fauns.  The fox plays along the corridor as if it is his, cat-like, sweet-faced.  The coyote sniffs his way in stealth, and he is thin and leggy.  The possum scampers from rock shelter to an overhang under the rhododendrom.

Only the lame doe stays close.

I saw her last year along the corridor, keeping up with the small herd, limping along, always last in the watchful line.  When alerted, the herd would leap logs and rustle through the bushes along the path, leaving the lame doe to make her own way.  I’d watch her from the sunroom, viewing her as almost human, and wish her courage and tolerance of pain, as I would wish myself.

I see her as resilient and brave, taking to her life alone, compensating, without complaint.

This year, I see her more often.  She is alone, favoring the woodsy space, protected and dark, within sight of the sunroom.  And the patch of grassy backyard where the rhododendrons grow tall and wide and lush.

It’s her front left leg.  Caught in an unseen hole?  Shot by a careless hunter?  Wounded by a hungry coyote?  It doesn’t matter:  she limps.  If she could travel with the herd, she would.  If she could cry out, she might.  But she seems to be making do – her coat is smooth, her bones do not stick out, her eyes are alert, those ears work, and that white tail.  I see her as resilient and brave, taking to her life alone, compensating, without complaint.

It’s winter again, and we are older.  The berries are gone, and the leaves from the deciduous trees.  My husband looks out into the yard.  “It’s time to hang Irish Spring on the rhododendrons again,” he says.   Let’s back up a moment:  that strong-smelling soap protects our rhodys from deer that would otherwise strip them of leaves as far up as they can reach, leaving bare limbs with leafy crowns.

Last week, late at night, we pulled up into the driveway, the headlights shining across the backyard.  There she was at the rhodys, alone, her head up and still, her eyes reflecting her silent attention, but unafraid.  Up off the ground she held her left front leg.  She limped away slowly, favoring the woodsy space, protected and dark.

Over time, nature may favor the fit, but I’m a sucker for the isolated and brave.  I postpone the soap project.



photo credit: mary k. baird

Fauxs, a sacrificial gesture

My twenty-year old coat is not warm.  I’ve said so for three years.

“‘Warmth’ technology has improved,” I said.

“How ’bout one of those down coats from L. L. Bean?” he said.

“You mean the ones that make me look like the Michelin Tire Boy?”

I found a fake fur coat.  I would say “cheap”, but that would be a tacky description for a coat that’s anything but.  So, let’s say “inexpensive.”  It’s warm.  It has a hood.  It’s gorgeous.  It’s fake mink.  I feel a bit self-conscious in it.  When I wear it, I make up reasons for having it (I live in a cold place) and rationalizations for having it (I’ve never had one before, I deserve it, why not me?).  The time it takes to run through all this internal dialogue is excessive, time my old black coat never required.  Ever notice how long and involved our stories are when we’re justifying?

I wore it to the post office on Saturday – the thermometer said 18 degrees – and I got in line behind a woman with a small child.  She looked at the coat, then at me.  She sniffed and said, sotto voce, to her daughter, five years old, give or take, something like “animal murderer.”

I smiled and said to her, “Yes, a lot of fauxs died to make me this coat.”  She had the grace to smile, but only a little, like a reflex.

“What’s a faux?” the little girl asked.

“A fake animal,” the mother said, not looking at me.

“A fake animal?”

“Well, one made by a machine.”

“Machines can make animals now?”

“No, just the fur.”

“Can’t animals make their own fur?”

Bob the postal clerk interrupted with “Next,” and the woman flew to the counter with a big box I noticed was addressed to L. L. Bean.


For Christmas, a Marine and a Shih Tzu

It’s Christmas week, and I’m browsing for Christmas decorations at the mall. I like the mall at Christmas.  It gets my blood up, and I need some fake encouragement when I think of two major holidays — Thanksgiving and Christmas — smashed together in less than 30 days.  It’s not fair, and I don’t have to like it just because it happens every year and I should have accustomed myself by this time. I haven’t.

So, I look for the odd and satirical.

I see two handmade ornaments hanging on an overly decorated tree that stop me in my tracks. A shih tzu and a Marine.  The former is not unusual.  In fact, we have ornaments honoring our dead pets.  A favorite is an Australian sheep dog.  Our Eli, now dead.  The Marine is a first for me.  And so weird a juxtaposition that I laugh out loud.  I buy the shih tzu and the Marine.  My husband will remember and laugh.

The Outer Banks.  Three summers ago.

As massive as New England Patriots tackles, Navy Seals, or heavyweight boxers, two young men walked up the beach in front of our umbrella and chairs, books and beach paraphernalia. The group caught my eye, so out of character they seemed. I poked my husband – Hey, look at that! – and he glanced up from his book. The young men followed in the wake of a small dog. A fluffy brown and white shih tzu, button-bright eyes, a pink bow on her little head, prancing, pulling a big guy forward on a taut lead, she convinced us: she was in charge and she knew it. I remarked the young men’s expressions: proud, unashamed, confident. When globe-and-anchor tats on muscular biceps came into view, I recognized the men as Marines. From nearby Camp Lejeune, I guessed.

I’m a sucker for shih tzus. If the breed tolerated being alone all day, like goats, I’d have one. I once located a local breeder, pestered him online for weeks, chose a tea-colored puppy, and considered names. Shih tzus are not named Rover or Butch.  I favored Laphroaig. Then at the brink, I recovered. At my age, I don’t need to babysit a two-year-old for fifteen years. I changed my mind, with regrets. But I’ll stop people on the street to get up close to a shih tzu.

I walked over to the Marines, knelt near the dog, and held out my hand – dogs like to sniff your hand before you get in their faces; they appreciate the respect – and said something predictable like, Ooooh soooo cuuuute. What you’d expect from a shih tzu fawner.

The two Marines were proud to tell us that the dog was theirs now, left to them by a buddy who’d shipped out to Iraq.  She’d recently attacked a bunkmate’s weimeraner, leaping two feet to its neck, holding onto its collar with its tiny teeth, bobbing and jerking around its neck as the larger dog took off down the street, yelping and trying to toss the shih tzu into traffic.  They had to catch the weimeraner before they could pry the little dog loose, still gnawing and growling.  The shih tzu was furious — some real or imagined affront, they assumed — and the weimeraner was a nervous wreck.

Well, we’re laughing and they’re laughing, and I’m stroking the dog’s sweet face and fixing her ribbon and she’s licking my hand, and I ask the usual question, “What’s her name.”

There was a quiet pause, shiftings from foot to foot, the stealing of glances right to left, clearing of throats.  I looked up.

“You’re not going to like it, ma’am,” said one Marine.  Such polite boys, such gentlemen.

“Ah, come on.  I can take it.”

“Bad Ass,” one said in an apologetic tone.  “Her name’s Bad Ass.”

I love Marines.

“Hello, Bad Ass,” I said to the tiny dog.

Everybody loves to hear their own name on the lips of others.  She rolled over on her back, and I scratched her tummy.  When she’d had enough, and she knew when that was, she jumped up, offered a quick bark, pulled on the lead, and led her Marines down the beach.  They hardly had time to say their cordial good-byes, which all Marines offer the ladies.

I take the new ornaments out of the box and hang them on the tree, close together.  A Marine and a shih tzu. The Marine is in camo; the shih tzu is wearing a pink bow. They hang among colored lights, gold stars, silver bells, Santa faces, gold and silver balls, various reindeer, a cat ornament that looks like the orange “Morris” cat we used to have, and Eli.  My husband walks up behind me. He sees the Marine and the shih tzu.

“Hello, Bad Ass,” he says to the small shih tzu.  Then, just in case, he plucks Eli off the nearby green limb and moves him to the far side of the tree.  Just in case.




A property manager’s attention – or lack of it

In the kitchen, I have it in my hand – the key to the down-the-hill house, the house we rent out – along with my veggie lunch in ShrinkWrap, my briefcase, my MacBookPro, a third draft, and, for fun, a Brenda Miller story. I hang the key off a finger; a neon yellow plastic tag hangs from it.

In the mudroom, I slip into clogs and see that my jeans have shrunk an inch in the dryer. What did these jeans cost per square inch?  I do the math, and I don’t like this. I set the house alarm I don’t like and remember the screaming horn that brought the Fire Department up the long, narrow driveway when I burned a rue. Fireman in suits — more neon yellow — carrying ready hatchets with red beaks.  Fleshy can-do faces.  I like firemen.  I slam the back door and notice our wild turkeys have dug dust holes.  I like turkeys.  I decide Brenda Miller’s convinced me to rewrite a troublesome scene. I like Brenda Miller.  I check my watch and count on my fingers how many writing hours I have left today.  I put a move on.  My briefcase is heavy.  Today, I’m toting my Rodale.  I like my Rodale.

On the porch, I see the maroon mums need water and decide I can write until 5:00 if I settle for an omelet for dinner and call it some fancy name. Gruyere has a nice ring. And maybe I’ll take a chocolate tart to Connecticut next weekend. It’ll be a hit. And I have homework over which I’m already building up a self-depricating, blank-page terror. Walking across the driveway, I make a note to call the eye clinic. I must do something about the two little awnings (read: eyelids) I live under. I play out a predictable argument with BX/BS — “It’s not cosmetic,” I say.  “I don’t do cosmetic.” I don’t like BX/BS.  I punch in the garage door code, numbers I sometimes can’t remember. Why can’t it be a birthday or the house number? I have an idea for my writing assignment.  I like how my right brain works.

My Highlander roars into action and I remember my old Camry, low on the road. Faithful. Only 200,000 miles.  But I like sitting higher now, and we need it for beach trips. Can I say that out loud? I compare the gas mileage … but I do recycle. I drive down the hill, take a left, take another left, and park behind Tom from Richland Glass who’s waiting with a new mirror the painters cracked – we should have had them pay for it. I say “Hello, Tom” and reach for the key to the down-the-hill house.

Attention is an unappreciated phenomenon. In my studied experience, it comes in several shades, like a painter’s palette, subtle, observable.  Or if you like, several types, like a worker’s tools.  There’s attracted attention for watching a BBC mystery, for reading the Weekend section of the WSJ, for reading a new John LeCarre spy thriller. Call that a chisel.  There’s focused attention for designing new spreadsheets, studying a new menu, ordering a chenille throw from Restoration Hardware.  Call all these concentration, the electric drill. We feel like we’re getting somewhere.  We like to think we’re good at this.

But, look.  Both are attention that’s taken. Outside.  As when, jerked around by my likes and dislikes, my interior drama, my head thrashes around in the past and future, making stuff up.  Stuff I like.  In milli-seconds, I’m saying.  Milli-seconds.  I’m a walking, talking, dreaming head, five feet and six inches off the ground.

Then there’s attention that is not beholden. When I relax and drop down into my body, it is there. Naturally.  It arises in silence.  It slows me, it clarifies impressions, it grounds me, it freshens impressions, it is free.  I know where I am.  I know what my hands are doing, my feet, my mouth.  I see.

But, please understand, I forget. Taken by jeans, mums, turkeys, eye-awnings, garage door codes, mirrors, writing hours, writing assignments, where am I?  Well, I’m not here.  So when I reach for the key with the neon yellow plastic tag, where is it?

I have no idea.

The locust does not survive

At seven, the men from Timber Tree arrive.  They come in a truck with a cherry picker, and a crane with a fifty-foot reach.  Six hefty men, with rope, hoists, and chainsaws. speaking three languages,

The tree is a locust.  We have old photos:  my husband and his siblings just children, my father- and mother-in-law proud, the just-planted locust a sapling in the side yard.  The anomaly developed later. The teenaged tree branched into a perfect V, one thick leg pushing east, the other due west.  Fast growing, big trunked, and loose-leafed, the adult tree towered over the house in not-so-many years.  Later photos show just that. My husband grown and in his Easter suit, the locust’s mighty trunk in the background, the V far above his head and unseen.

A family favorite that tree, one of two big ones planted near the house.  The locust had a job to do:  shade the house, serve as perches for birds and squirrels.  Wait.  Have you ever seen a sixty-foot locust?  The shade is dappled, and the leaves are small and lacey, and they dust at the sky in a soft breeze, and the trunk seems to be much ado for the little it produces higher up, and dead limbs fall out of it all year round, and the roots push up volunteer saplings in the yard.  Birds don’t seem to nest in them:  not enough cover, too much movement.  But they are as lovely as a young girl in a green summer skirt, trailing ribbons.

Trees are friends.  My own childhood favorite was a hollowed-out cypress that a low tide could be reached in my bare feet.  At high tide, only by a green rowboat with rusty oarlocks.  But it was mine.  I gathered Spanish moss for cushioning for the deep hollow, so big I could fit into it, along with my books and my lunch of apple and peanut butter and Pepsi.  Once or twice when I forgot the boat and read through afternoon, I either swam home or waited for the tide to change.  Pintails, mallards, and black duck swam and dove.  Once I saw a cottonmouth, intent for the far shore, its back stamped like footprints.  Last time I was in that Pamlico River town, the cypress was still there, but smaller.

Today, I look out the kitchen window at the locust.  The eastern leg of the V has shaded the kitchen, the dining room, and the master bedroom upstairs; the western V, a lovely patch of Bermuda grass, and a border of rhododendron and azalea that bank the top of the long drive down to the road.  A suet cage for the red-bellied woodpeckers hangs from the trunk. A little perch gives them a place to stand; my mother-in-law wouldn’t have a bird inconvenienced. The swinging bench, rough of wood, without paint, faces northeast into Massachusetts – “a beautiful view,” she said often, urging people to sit there.  If you took her advice and find your partner’s rhythm, you ha a fine view over Rhode Island’s woods into Massachusetts.  A five-layered tree line, green to blue to gray to mist to sky.  But I never saw my in-laws sitting there.  They didn’t sit.  The bench belonged to the squirrels by adverse possession.  My father-in-law would look at their leavings and say, “They’ve been before us.”  Still, he loved that locust.

My daddy was a tree lover.  His favorites were long-leaf pines.  Back in the early 1950s, he dug a hundred of them out of the Croatan woods, stuck them down into Maxwell House coffee cans, and set them out in the yard of our new house.  “The cans will rust out,” he said.  And they did.  By the time I was struggling with Algebra I and looking for prom dates, those trees were way above the rooftop and waving their fragile arms straight out, looking for all the world like giant green scarecrows.  But they were lawn trees.  Landscaping.  Daddy’s real love was his apple and peach trees.  He pruned and sprayed and canned.  And he counted the fruit..

But it’s the locust that’s to be taken down today.

My father-in-law saw the problem with the V and called the tree expert.  Back in the 1980s, big-tree Vs were treated with steel rods, like those braces small children used to wear to keep their legs apart after hip surgery.  The locust didn’t seem to mind the rod and screws.  It wrapped its bark around them as if it knew it needed the support. The tree looked to be permanent – medical problem solved – and my mother-in-law, who never saw a square foot of earth without thinking of some growing thing perfect for the space, planted vinca at the base and let violets roam free.  In the greenery, she nestled a granite birdbath.  The area became the local hangout for birds perched on specialized feeders stocked with gourmet seed.  A small pair of binoculars and a copy of The Guide to North American Birds sat on the kitchen sill in case new bird flew in for supper.   The upside-down nuthatches took an instant liking to the bark.

The workmen unpack their surgical tools.

Until today, the steel rod’s been a perch for the local covey of doves that share our yard.  The brace can serve a dozen or so when, late in the afternoon, they gather on the rod high above the birdbath, chased there by the raucous jays, but contemplating a cool dip.  When sufficient in number, they drop to the vinca, hop up onto the stone birdbath, and begin the evening ritual of dousing and flapping, dousing and flapping.  They’re good about taking turns.

Me, I’m a worrywart. I checked the trajectory of the eastern leg of the V when we moved into the house up on the hill.  It’s not that my glass is half-full.  Rather, it’s that I like to consider all the possibilities as if checking the V and the rod after an ice storm or nor’easter might be helpful.

“If that rod goes in the night,” I said to my husband, “we’re dead in our bed.”

When Hurricane Irene approached, I asked him, “Should we sleep in the guest room?”  The other side of the house seemed safer to me.




I watched the Weather Channel for wind speed.  Then I paid the tree a visit.  But what do I know about tree crotches?

Daddy watched the hurricanes too.  Hurricane Hazel, who blew her bitchiness right over our house back in 1954, arrived at sunset, howled all night, took down several of Daddy’s long-leafed pines, and damaged others.  He was just sick about them.  Mama was less concerned – she liked more light in the house – and my brother, who had to mow around every tree, appreciated fewer interruptions on the lawn.  What I think is that Daddy wasn’t so worried about the pines as he was about the house, and he wasn’t so worried about the house as he was about the apple and peach trees.

Today, I know that it was Hurricane Irene who finally defeated the locust.  Fully leafed out and heavy with rain, the crotch gave way.  The next day, we found a deep crack running from the bottom of the V down into the heartwood beneath.  We called Timber Tree.

The workmen unloaded their surgical tools.  I watch from the kitchen.  The chainsaw begins to buzz.  It will buzz all day and into evening. First the lacey canopy, which the crane lifted up and out and over the woods and down.  Balanced on rope, still alive, still green, it offered dappled shade even as it traveled its high trajectory to the brush pile.  The cherry picker reached up; the crane reached even higher.  Workmen were everywhere with ropes, pulleys, saws. They were quiet men, sharing a small job vocabulary in English and Spanish and Hmong:

“Further out.”

“One more wrap.”

“Heads up.”

“Take that one next.”

Then much later, the legs of the Vs themselves, further down, closer to the heart.  Sawed off mid-thigh, lifted by crane, they resembled amputated limbs aloft.

That part I couldn’t watch.

Branches lay in the yard.  And logs.  Too many to count.  The tree men will come tomorrow to grind the stump.

There’s more light in the kitchen now, and the side yard has opened up.  We’re thinking of a river birch if anything at all.  Last week, a dove sat on the tuft of vinca, looking for the birdbath.

To Irene, much obliged …

The copper beech, our upside-down octopus in brown and green, has roots-to-China sturdiness, and stood firm in the gale.

A good Chardonnay is good at any temperature.

I am careful with water, with food, with my MacBook Pro battery. I think ahead.  I consider consequences.  Four sheets of toilet paper will do.  (Did I actually write that down?)  The smaller red onion.  Fewer spinach leaves.   The laundry chute doesn’t need a foot of wet dishtowels tossed down into it, so hang them out to dry.   What is “conservation” anyway?

Ancient candlesticks in the sunroom, the kitchen, the dining room.  A lovely glow.

Two bathtubs full of water – our “wells.”  The indoor plants – we’ve taken them from the wilds – need water too, and we can’t forget them.  And the birdbath.

The refrigerator/freezer:  40 degrees is the cut off.  Under 40 – fine, eat it; over 40 – toss it.  So much food ….

People from far away call.  They care.

My laptop, my imagined freedom from being “shut down” creatively, is now at 47%.  Careful!  And pick up a pen, silly woman.

Raking debris works the upper body and raises blisters on the palms.  I don’t like to do this.  I’m lazy.  Can somebody else to this?  I’m interested in my own comfort.  I need to see this about myself.

I need to figure out a way to wash my hair, dry it, put that goop in it, style it.  My hair is on my mind more than I’d like to admit.

Ice is a (relatively) recent phenomenon.  But today, where to get it?  Who has it?  Should I get in the car and go out on a search?  Or conserve gasoline?

Shoulders that usually are coat-hanger tense relax when given a welcomed three-day reprieve from Fox News.

We have dinner by candlelight.  We talk.  Nice.

The Coleman stove – hissing, whispering yellow-blue under a pot of water – brings memories of camping at Mount Desert Island and a promise to return there next summer.

Two candles – one his, one mine – carried up the dark stairs, placed on bedside tables, and blown out simultaneously provides a Downton Abby moment.  How quaint and fun.

I glance, from habit, at the digital display on the range, the VCR, the clock.  But it’s the grandfather clock in the library that’s the faithful presence. “Well, the clock works,” he says.  Interestingly, it was built in the 1800s.   I like that.

When the lights pop on, part of me is delighted; part of me is sad.   I think about my hair … and Fox News.  A return to old habits.

But for new impressions, thank you, Irene.

Writing again, finding “the zone”

Returning to writing after a couple months away is like going back to the gym.  It’s hard.  “The zone” has disappeared, and I have to search for it, work for it, find it again. It’s not fun.  I don’t like it.

I pick a day.  Then warm-ups help.

Read somebody I like, preferably something I’ve read many times — this morning, Somerset Maugham; old, fusty to some, but restful, rhythmic; a short novel about place and characters who are not in the beginning introspective, and then are forced to be.

Read something I’ve written; read it aloud, and don’t change a word; just listen.

Write a twenty-minute free-write on something banal.  Say, ripping off pantyhose.  Or fishing a mouse out of the pool. How’s that? Lift the spirit, get down, work the muscles, let the words run from the right brain through the fingers and flow onto the page. Feel that? Wow! I have an occasional smile now.

Ah! Read John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story for inspiration, for wisdom, for craft, or just because he makes sense. How does anyone write without a good, recent dose of Truby?

Then the day’s real work-out:  read the scary story, the one I’m working on, the dark monster, the one where the middle’s a muddle. Read it from beginning to end, read it aloud, punch up Verdi in the background, keep some distance, put one little checkmark next to each jarring bump-in-the-road. Read on. Read on. And don’t frown.

Have veggies for lunch. Check the Weather Channel for Hurricane Irene.  (Are the Outer Banks safe?  Should I stack the lawn chairs, bring in the wind chime?) Look out a window. Follow the chipmunks and the hawks. Take a walk around the yard — left, right, left, right. Move.

Then, start with the next chapter and write. One word at a time. “The zone” returns slowly.  As does the joy.

Staying in “the zone” means no more month-long breaks. And it’s good to be back. But getting here’s a bitch.


Rising Sun

Up at four to avoid any northbound traffic out of Northern Virginia, we’re relieved to be on I-95 without traffic.  A rare treat.  Saying this is a blunt reminder of the hell of driving south along the same route in summer daylight.  This morning the clouds are too low to be called clouds and too high to be called fog.  An odd elevation for the gray-white stuff.  An exit sign up the road from D.C. says Rising Sun.  A small town, I suppose.

Aptly named, for there it is.  That molten, orange ball of fire and heat rising over the cloud/fog.  The highway rises to meet it.  We can see forever. Mist settles in the green ravines, roadside.  We are silent, awed.  Rising Sun.  There must be a story behind the naming of that town, even if it’s only literal, a reminder of what is daily witnessed there:  the birthing of a new day.

I’m watching the rising sun burn off the cloud/fog — move over! — and I’m feeling a familiar itch.  We’re halfway to New England – the Outer Banks a sweet, languid memory – and I smile at the return of this craving for lists that prepare me for activity.  Don’t tell:  I began a Stickies list a couple of miles back.   And with it, my left brain began to churn out plans, dates, schedules.  I have things to do!  My shoulders take on that forward thrusting lift I’ve come to understand as the ready-fire-aim of my anxious style.

Vacation is over.  It lasted all the way to Rising Sun.  A new day and I’m scratching that familiar itch for action.


photo credit: alex france

Except in memory, nobody likes a land breeze

The slat walk from the cottage to the beach is of rough 1x4s nailed down with a half inch between them to allow for torrential run-off.  (Don’t take your car keys or coins out there, and watch for splinters and raised nail heads. Ouch.)  Most walks are washed away by hurricanes every two years, so expense is spared.  Halfway out, two built-in benches push out to either side to create a kind of dune-top pavilion – though uncovered, it’s good for morning writing, coffee drinking, and day planning, and for twice-daily pelican watching and surf judging, and for cocktail drinking and early evening thunderstorm watching.  Thunderstorms:  that sudden drop in temperature, that new scent of fresh cloud-water, that sky darkening, that release.

But this morning, we walked to the benches with our coffee and, together, said, “Land breeze.”  To look at, the ocean’s at its loveliest in a land breeze:  with the wind in their faces, the waves pause at their cresting, revealing their deep translucent-green bellys.  They toss back their foaming heads of hair, and throw themselves gently forward.  Unlike in an ordinary wind, in a land breeze, they seem to have life and statue.  They seem to laugh, to enjoy the roll to shore.

Still, nobody likes a land breeze at the beach.  The light wind out of the north blows across Bogue Bank, bringing fleas, house flies, horse flies, and mosquitoes out of the salt marsh at our backs and onto the beach.  Swallows sense the wind direction early; they dart in and out of the water oak and yupon, sucking up a good breakfast.  In the dunes, the sea oats stand sword-stiff.  When the wind dies at noon, the ocean’s as flat as a millpond.

The beach is bleached-out white, scorching hot, and silent, except for the drone of crickets in the dune grass and the tiny wave break at the shore, where sanderlings demonstrate their disappointment by searching someplace else for lunch.  I’m lathered up with #30, my best nod to my dermatologist.  I’m sitting under the umbrella in my low, striped chair, my feet in the water, remembering the land breezes of my youth.

Gran’mama would patch the salt-corroded screens with squares of new screen cut to fit with kitchen scissors.  With white thread, if she couldn’t find black.  With red or yellow, if she couldn’t find either.  After several seasons, the screens looked like patchwork quilts of lapping mesh in varied vintage.  She’d replace the screens grudgingly:  she always was as tight with money as bark to a tree.   The screens kept out the mosquitoes and flies of all sizes, but sand fleas flew right through them.  There was no place to go to escape them, and there was no place to go to get cool. Sleep was impossible.   Three days of a land breeze and everyone was cranky and scratching bites.  We hated land breezes.  Late in the day, we’d search the southwest for thunderheads, waiting for release.

Nowadays, we sluice in the ocean, retreat to the house, shut the doors, and turn up the A/C.  But we still await the arrival of the thunderheads and remember the laughing surf of early morning.


photo credit: trotsie

The brown pelicans of Bogue Bank

To my mind, the brown pelican is an intelligent bird, and well evolved.  I’m no expert, but I can surely observe their goings-west in the early morning to feed off Bear Island and their goings-east in the late afternoon to roost on Shackleford Banks.  I’m just an all-day-sitter-on-the-beach, but I wait for these twice-daily migrants.  I watch for these grand and graceful birds.

Here on Bogue Bank, the pelican flocks in small groups of five to three times that.  Fewer than in the past, but I’m not complaining about this summer’s sightings.  It flies with its beak pointing direction, its pouch hanging, and its dark, side-mounted eyes straight ahead.  Its delta wings stretch out forever; its finger-feathers are majestic and reach out to test, guide, and taste the air.   They’re a statement indeed.  The bird knows about vacuum pockets, spacing, and the airfoil.  And the responsibility of out-in-front leadership.

We can laugh.  But it’s true to the careful observer.  Lead Bird (LB) works hard against new, blue air; its “wing man” (or “woman” — please) flies two bird-lengths back and at LB’s four o’clock position.  Don’t Air Force jets do this?  I picture a wind tunnel where scientists watch birds do it, observe airflow over and behind the wings, then copy what birds know.  The pelicans know where the slots – I think that’s the word – appear behind the wing, and that’s where the next pelican flies.  In the slot.

It’s something to watch, this silent passage.  Everyone’s eyes come off their books, their friends, their children; they look up and follow.  Taking the air lift above the cresting wave in the morning and the air lift up the dune in the afternoon,  even the pelican’s wing-flap is without sound — and used only when needed.  Powerful, efficient, imperturbable.   In the morning, the birds’ shadows glide cleanly over ocean swells, and close to their bellies; at dusk, the shadows race across the geometry of rooftops, scale the sides of beach cottages, zip up chimneys.  And they are gone, specks in formation moving toward the horizon.  I watch until they disappear.  A gift.

Remembered rhythms

Ask me how many excuses I can conjure for not keeping to my (usually disciplined) writing schedule in the summer.  Count them:
It’s too hot, too humid, too buggy.
There’s too much yard work, and I’m tired.
I have to pack for the beach, and make lists.
The hawks are too loud.
The chipmunks are distracting.
I can’t get a wall plug at Borders.
My writing room’s too …. quiet? isolated?  stuffy?
I have three emails to answer.
The printer won’t work.
I have to research … hmmm … the surfacing and swarming habits of black ants.
We’re out of mesclun.
I have to watch the hawks teach their youngsters to hunt, or the racoon paw at the bird feeder, or the fox stalk a mouse like a cat.
I’m stuck in the late-middle of a scary manuscript that has me stumped, and I need a p&j sandwich and a Tazo chai tea.
The summer pop lit book I’ve started is too heady, not trashy enough for summer.
Cold, winter reading it is.
Rain’s coming across the field, and I have to be here for that.
After that release, I’ll probably need a nap.
But mostly — and here I reach the truth — my body remembers the rhythms of childhood when we stashed paper and pencil, multiplication tables flash cards, and Weekly Readers in drawers for the summer, threw on shorts and sleeveless shirts, retrieved sand buckets and little shovels from the shed, and took out fun books by the armfuls from the town library across the causeway.
Creativity went into making mud pies for sale on the tar-hot street, surviving days of  battle against brigands in the dunes, lolling in the tide pools with the minnows, making drip castles, digging to China, and daring aerial tricks on the front porch swing that worried the old folks and shook the cottage.
Even today, I bow to this remembered rhythm of the body.  My stack of library books is right here, packed:   among them the latest Kiran Desai and Sebastian Junger, older John Fowles and Salmon Rushdie favorites, an Ondaatje I must have missed, and an E. O. Wilson on … yes! … ants.  And Patchett.
That scary manuscript that has me stumped for now?  I’ll print it out and ponder it through August.  It’s the hawk-watching and the afternoon-napping and the reading of lyric Ondaatje and the beach combing that will work it free — the rhythmic way forward.

Going south …

Here’s what I know for sure:  those of us who’re driven by the desire for something we don’t have lean forward in our chairs, our cars, our projects, our families, our friends, our lives.   We lead a tough life.  Statistically, according to surveys conducted by those who don’t know what they’re doing, we’re a quarter of the population.   Be your own judge here.

I mention this because my family will go to the beach for two weeks later in the summer.  Two weeks!  Such anticipated luxury for the land-locked.  Particularly for the land-locked who grew up at a Southern beach house and miss it.  Terribly.  Longingly.  And whose enjoyment of what is today is thwarted by missing what’s not now available full time.  Oh, sorrow.  Some of us really have it bad.

So, what do I do?  I make lists.  I begin the lists on a clean, new legal pad, one page per topic.  What To Do The Month Before, What To Do The Week Of, Menus and Ingredients, What To Take (divided into categories, i.e., clothes, kitchen, linens, electronics, books, beach stuff, the wok, the Chinese Five Spice), What To Buy at the Beach (another umbrella), The First Trip to Food Lion (gin, tonic, limes, extra ice), The First Trip to Mrs. Willis’s (shrimp, king mackerel, flounder), and so forth for ten pages of expectation-on-the-page.

These lists are created with a joy for the anticipated.  Clearly, I’m missing the present:  the unmatched loveliness of a New England summer day, the green hillsides and cool deep woods, the groundhog in the clover, the fox in the pine grove, the Red-tailed Hawks teaching their offspring to hunt for scurrying chipmunks in and out of stone walls, the climbing roses that survived the spring’s inch worms and are taking over the fence alongside the pool, in salmon, pink, scarlet.

Why is this?  I want to go to the beach, that’s why.   I get out of bed in the morning, leaning into it.   I can hardly wait.  Some desires I’m willing to give up; some I’m not.  The beach is one of them.

And New England’s crisp country silence will always be here for me, or so I tell myself.  I believe my own stories.