Proximity Magazine 2017 Essay Prize Finalist
My essay “Gleaning” was selected as a finalist in this competition and I’m honored to be included in such an accomplished group of creative writers. The theme of this prize issue is WORK:
“For its second annual prize issue, Proximity was looking for true stories that explore the theme of WORK. Work defines our lives and our livelihoods. Work is labor. Work is art. Work is paid or unpaid, public or private or under the table. Work is at the heart of healthy relationships. Work puts food on the table. Work takes us out of our comfort zones. Work is political.”
August 4, 2017: Proximity editorial team announced the nine finalists for 2017 Essay Prize. Judges Adriana E. Ramírez (Essay) and Ted Conover (Narrative Journalism) will select winners (and a few additional finalists) who will be included in our October prize issue; all finalists will be included in a forthcoming anthology.
The first time I landed, I crossed by water. We sailed at night from the boot of Italy, running east in rain and wind, across the Ionian Sea. Our ferry tickets were deck-class only, and what scarce shelter the deck afforded was already claimed. I pitched my free-standing tent. We wrestled our backpacks inside to weight the tent against the ship. All night the nylon flustered and bucked against the wind. My sister and I cringe in the dark on the hard deck, fearing we would kite overboard in the gale. A clear dawn broke through the cypress trees on Corfu. I fell asleep, finally. I dreamt the throbbing ship engines were the heartbeat of a great beast beneath me, cradling me over the waves.
There are not enough words for purple, I think. Of those few choices English offers to name the fusing of primary colors, most are artifice. Along that inside passage, the purples of sea and land waxed dark at noon entering the Bay of Patras. Great stone breasts of islands were illuminated by the rising sun on the water to port, shapes shaded aubergine and heliotrope diminishing to violet. The diesel exhaust of the ferry smokestacks was swept away by the wind, yet the lingering back-scent was rich like earth–earth and the wine-dark sea.
Who will teach me to write? A reader wanted to know.
The page, the page, that eternal blackness, the blackness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless[…]: that page will teach you to write.
—–Annie Dillard, “The Writing Life”
Friday night we went to visit colleagues in the tasting room of their distillery. It’s not far off the highway, tucked into a commercial-industrial complex, and the parking lot was dark with rain and largely empty when we arrived.
The tasting room tables are adapted from oak barrels with blocky wooden stools for seating. The bar is intimate and flawless, behind which racks of small tasting glasses were stacked. Bottles of their flagship vodka, navy gin and aromatic gin lined the bar.
We brought along a case of our quinine tonic, an assortment of each of four craft brews building on a cinchona bark base, to pair alongside the various liquors. The bitter taste of authentic tonic balanced against the lavender and angelica distilled in craft gin is a complex combination of sensations and flavor. There’s a renaissance of distilling going on here, following close after the explosion of craft breweries.
The warehouse in the back is two-stories with a loft office. A great copper and steel still dominates the space. The piece was designed and built to the distiller’s specifications. He named her Ginger. One day, he warned me, the copper will cloud. She’ll gain a patina, just as we all go gray. I thought of deep-sea divers as I looked down her porthole, and the vapors of alcohol rising through the pipes like drops of enchanted seawater. A giant genie’s bottle, a still is, weaving intoxicating and deceptive promises. Be very careful what you wish for.
April collapsed at my feet, folding like a soggy paper fan in the dark and rain. This morning I looked up and saw it is May. The grass is long and thick. The buds of the honey locust, often the last leaves save the oak, open fists of gold. Rosemary is blooming and the rhododendrons shine like starfish.
A black crow flies east against a white cloud, blue sky.
I spent many hours with my father these past weeks. Following his surgery at the end of March, he grew weaker rather than recovering, and needed constant care. By early April, he was admitted to the hospital for several days, tests and treatment. Recovery has been slow, yet steady. We celebrated Easter and his 85th birthday at the middle of the month.
Some hours, while I sat with him, I read from “Home” by Marilynne Robinson. The author’s spare language with lines as clean as an Amish chair is often difficult for me to grasp. I re-read a paragraph several times to take its meaning. Perhaps it’s a difference in vernacular, a syntax of rhythms that is unfamiliar to me, or the gentle piety of Midwestern pastors. I’m still working my way through the book.
The idea of grace Robinson returns to is like chaining psalms. “Assuming a posture of grace,” is a phrase I pondered during the month of April. With a posture of grace, first comes the possibility of forgiveness. And with forgiveness, then comes the possibility of understanding. I return to the idea as I stand in the garden, pulling up long blades of grass and see the grapes leaves are unfolding. The new green leaves are edged in rose.
“On the River Verge” is a play in contrast between similar words (coral and corral, for example) as well as the tension between the wild and the domestic.
For your enjoyment, and meditations on the theme, here is the piece.
The latest issue of Thoughtfuldog, a literary and lifestyle magazine, is out. My article about writing spaces is included in the April issue. Check it out at