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.
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.
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.
My essay 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 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.