February is a long month, even with its 28 days, even without a full moon falling in the calendar. It’s snowing. Flurries shake the plum blossoms unfolding among the black branches, mingling and compromising snow with flower. Spring wrestles with ice, the flounces of her skirts stained with mud.
The month is named for the Roman festival of purification—februum. Julius Caesar purloined a day from February to extend his own month, July, to 31 days. Augustus followed suit, not wanting to be outdone, with August. February, named for an idea and not a god or goddess, was an easy target. March, with its patron being the god of war, was out of the question.
In the western calendar, we now have the ninth month, September, still named as the seventh (septem), October the eighth (octo), November the ninth (novo), and December the tenth (deca), all because the Roman emperors declared themselves gods and inserted themselves, decisively, into our idea of time.
Early February whispers a promise. Whether it is fulfilled, or not, is in the fortune of storms spinning up in the gulf of Alaska plundering down the Pacific coast.
Several years ago, February brought a vicious ice storm and froze the early false cherry blossoms. This year, the crocus are blooming, the primrose and the early daffodils. The buds on the Oak trees swell and the sky is the brilliant blue of new denim.
The passing clouds across the sun only heighten the brilliance of the solar climb up from the south. We reach the time when the light quickens and grows stronger, faster, each day until the equilibrium of the vernal equinox.
I was honored that a creative nonfiction piece was short-listed for the Barry Lopez Creative Nonfiction Award by Cutthroat Journal of the Arts in December.
Although I didn’t win, the recognition helped keep the creative fires burning during the dark days around solstice. Writing, by essence and definition, is a solitary and harrowing pursuit. Some days, I feel I’m casting long out over the water for rainbow trout; other days, I’m just spitting up hairballs. Thousands of thousands words written by writers about writing. Do sculptors and painters and composers complain as loudly and as often about their work?
I’ve been reading little stories by Neil Gaiman. From them I learned that to finish a story, to finish the piece, is the magic. In the drafting, the imps will come to lure you away to the kitchen sink to peel carrots for dinner. You must resist.
I read recipes for cooking chickpeas and learned to add baking soda to the water to dissolve the skins.
I read Smithsonian magazine’s features on the year 1968, John Steinbeck’s collected essays, and Reddit/r/politics. Yesterday I learned from CNN that frozen iguanas are falling out of the trees in Florida because it’s so cold. Yet, I circle the blank page. So many words in a narrowing funnel of intention. There’s nothing for it, but to go back again. Leave the carrots in the sink.
Today, there’s not much on offer, save a short excerpt from the short-listed piece:
I may have been six, my brother not yet five, when we loaded into the old Ford and headed out to the reservoir. It was late November, a bitter winter day. Rain slashed sideways and rocked us inside the old Ford parked beside bent stands of cattail. We were hunting ducks. There were mud flats left exposed when the water was drained before the winter rains, mud littered with pull-tabs and bottle caps. We climbed out of the Ford and trudged out over those flats toward the water. I pulled the drawstring of my hood down tight. Barney charged the gulls loitering along the water’s edge. I remember huddling together under my father’s rain poncho, shivering and waiting for a flight of ducks that never came.
The dog doesn’t wait for the sun to rise, though the birds still keep their roost until daylight. Mercy, the sly-eyed pirate, is awake and singing for breakfast in the darkness. These hours of daylight are short before the winter solstice, further shortened by the pall of bitter mist. Night brings a shroud of ice, freezing fog until, and unless, the sun breaks through at noon, weak at its low southern meridian. Tree trunks are flocked with frost. Maybe the vapor will lift, maybe not.
The winter solstice marks the moment the sun halts its southward march and hangs, hugging the horizon. The word solstice, a noun, derives from the Latin and means simply Old Sol stands, and there he hangs. Located, as we
are, halfway between the equator and North Pole at the 44th parallel, the southern decline is sharp.
If I see the moon, it is low in the west and bitten, growing shadowy like the sun ranging south. The fog encases the hollows between hills, and the hills themselves. In the northern hemisphere, darkness deepens, while creatures burrow into the earth for warmth and we shelter under down and fleece. The new moon comes before the solstice like a bell. For now, waiting in faith the wheel turns again, to ascend again, lift like cloud and mist off the hill top.
The fall issue of Watershed Review dropped today and it’s packed with fresh fiction, poetry, art, and creative nonfiction. I’m delighted to have a short lyric prose piece titled “Sorting Skins” included in the nonfiction section of this issue. And it IS short. Sarah Pape, managing editor of the review, was a pleasure to work with, from acceptance through proof stage.
As of today, I’m 233 pages into my novel, and approximately 3/4 finished. I’m slogging through word-by-word to finish the draft by the first of the year. One. Word. At a Time. After playing with short pieces, like the Watershed work, this project is tapping into a sustained-other-world to hold and spin out the narrative, no varnish. One of these days, I’ll post an excerpt. In the meantime, here’s a short synopsis:
Nocturne: Three Dog Night
When a sheep rancher and her dog are brutally massacred, suspicion falls on the neighbor’s rescue dogs. To protect her dogs from being blamed and destroyed, seventeen year-old Sammi flees with them across the state toward the high mountains. As Sammi desperately tries to elude the state police and forensic biologist pursuing her, she crosses paths with the otherworldly beast spreading carnage, and his master. Sammi must fight for her own life, as well as the lives of her dogs, against dark immortal forces.
It is the season of the fiery way, the via combusta, which falls in late October and early November, marking the end of the growing year, the withdrawal from expression to introspection.
In the northern climes, the harvest is in, the fields rest, and days grow short. The cross-quarter day arriving, All Hallows and Samhain, marking the descent from the autumn equinox to the winter solstice. The season of darkness, mist and ice. Abandoned cobwebs are highlighted with dew. The veil between the many worlds thins and stretches.
The outdoor Farmers’ Market is preparing to close up shop for the season. The last corn and peppers, onions and shallots, potatoes and beets are heaped on tented tables. The whole rounded head of a sunflower is set out for sale, studded with seeds.
Watershed Review accepted a short piece I wrote for their fall issue and I’m delighted. It’s under 200 words, a lyric essay that bends toward being a poem, but not quite? What do we call these short hybrid works?
Most of my creative nonfiction pieces average 2500 words, or a fraction of this one. This one fit on a single page. In many ways, the very short work is harder to capture and contain than the rambling prose built into sentences that then block into paragraphs. In longer works, there’s an expansive luxury of holding forth and spinning exposition into broad tapestries. The short works are cunning little samplers with unfinished raw edges. The play is the thing, yes?
The moon is waxing to full next week, the harvest moon, rising gold to mark the fruit of a year’s labors, a tired garden. The harvest moon follows the autumnal equinox, at least in the northern hemisphere, when the length of darkness outstrips the light, when the crops are stored in cellar and silo, and the gourds and pumpkins are the last shine in the field.
Last night was a celebration and reunion, so I walked the yard gathering a platter to share: Grape leaves and grapes, new winter kale, fingerlings, sweet savory, nasturtium. These framed the Spanish meats, a French cheese, and fresh mozzarella from our local dairy. Nasturtiums are sassy. They taste of pepper.
A new season is upon the threshold, still around the corner, but casting a long shadow, breathing a dew soon to harden to frost.
Six months ago, I resigned from a job working in a shabby cubicle with a stunning view to the east. I rarely turned around from my dual monitors to look out the window, not unless there was a rainbow or a police take-down at the transit station. Even then, I only turned because other staff rushed into my cube to lean against the credenza, chattering and pointing and leaving fingerprints on the glass. I spent too many years in different cubes, in hindsight all remarkably the same. I write at home now. I spend long moments lost, gazing out windows.
My writing desk is upstairs in the southwest corner of the house. Spencer Butte is framed outside the windows, looming sometimes, like an iceberg daunting the bow of a ship. This corner enclave is where I write longhand, with black ink in a book of unlined paper, on most mornings. I notice my handwriting has improved these past six months, where it was nearly illegible when I started the book. I thumb through the pages, and volumes, and see this practice has also given me a steadier line across the page.
Last week a tattered summer lingered as the temperature rose into the ‘90’s. The valley sucked back up the smoke from dozens of wildfires, sickly yellow white and smothering, as another stagnant high pressure front sat over us. A few days of relief with the winds from the Pacific like a deep exhalation, and then the creeping return of the smoke down from the mountains. Numb and anesthetized, stunned by weeks breathing micro-particles of ash, the streets were quiet, the schoolyard empty at the noon hour.
Only the moon brings rain, sure as she shifts the tides.
Spinning down from the Gulf of Alaska, bright and cold, the dark of the moon brought cloud. Then rain. Aching sweet petrichor, the perfume of grateful stones washed, the turning leaves sighing in the showers, the new moon brought sheets of rain. This week the temperatures are 30 degrees cooler. Snow is falling in the mountains. Though this moon-borne storm may not be enough to extinguish all the fires raging in the west, it is enough. I shook the dust off my raincoat and Mercy and I walked the damp paths in the oak savanna up the hill. I thought on the path of the solar eclipse, marking the past new moon, of the fires in Oregon, and the floods in the southeast. Shadows fall.
Tomorrow is the Equinox, when we ride down the dark turning wheel of the year, when Persephone retreats, exhausted, with the seed into the earth. It is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, bringing reflection of the past year and contemplation of the one to come. The feast day of Archangel Michael approaches in a few days. On Michaelmas, folk wisdom records, the last blackberries turn bitter, for the Devil has pissed on them.