“You can have talent, but if you cannot endure, if you cannot learn to work, and learn to work against your own worst tendencies and prejudices, if you cannot take the criticism of strangers, or the uncertainty, then you will not become a writer. PhD, MFA, self-taught — the only things you must have to become a writer are the stamina to continue and a wily, cagey heart in the face of extremity, failure, and success.”
“How to Write an Autobiographical Novel”
It’s November, suddenly. There’s electricity in the air, a sense the storm is coming, wires buzzing. Maybe the feeling builds with election day tomorrow. In Oregon, we vote at home and mail-in the ballot to be counted, or save a stamp by dropping it off in a designated box. I voted days ago. Campaigners trudge up the steep hill to knock on the door and set the dog barking while I’m trying to write. They leave garish oversize flyers wedged in the door that flutter away. It’s November, again.
A high pressure system will shove out the rain and bring nighttime temperatures down into the 20’s this week. Today I finally cut back the leggy dahlia, geranium and fuchsia foliage dangling from their pots on the deck. I cut the potted pink rose to stubble. Perhaps they will overwinter another year, if the weather is kind enough, perhaps not. I’ll cover them with old sheets against the frost and hope for the best.
Work done so many weeks ago comes full circle to fruit and seed.
I packed this blue moon in my suitcase. I bought it at a dusty little shop in a town overlooking the Sea of Cortez.
It is thick, but light, a crescent of wood. The face is covered with hammered silver milagros, tiny votive charms offered at shrines at the feet of saints. Here is an arm, and there a leg, hearts and horses, a tiny metal child. I hung it on a wall in my kitchen.
Milagro means “miracle.”
I think of the bedeviled refugees fleeing north through Mexico toward the armed soldiers we are sending to greet them. I do not think these are enough milagros.
Romanesco is a flowering vegetable, something like a cauliflower yet nothing like it. The head is spiked and spiraling, a natural fractal, each row a Fibonacci number. The weather must be cool, but not cold, damp, yet not wet, for the buds to thrive. I roasted the head whole, doused in olive oil and garlic, finished with an over-exuberant shower of bread crumbs. This is a vegetable.
The gourds and squashes on display at the farmer’s market are dismaying. There are ghost pumpkins and Cinderellas, butternuts, spaghettis, delicatas, and acorns. I’m not a fan. (No, that’s not strong enough. Since being forced to eat pureed squash as a child before being excused from the dinner table, I detest them all.) Every morning I drink a few ounces of carrot juice spiked with ginger and tumeric for my dose of orange vegetable. Last week I baked pumpkin bread studded with raisins plumped in cassis liqueur and ate a slice. Enough.
The tomato plants are withered haystacks with a last few hard green fruits. I’ll pick the stragglers in the next few days and spread them on a tray to see if they’ll ripen inside. I’m dubious; I doubt there is enough light left to muster a blush. I’ll use them as one would tomatillos, chopped and stewed for chili verde.
October is winding into the dark. There is morning frost on the roof and brilliant afternoon sunshine, but the days are leaping short. The honey locust relinquishes tiny fluttering leaves and the nastursiums shed their pea-size seeds. The season is over. What is not claimed, is left in the fields to the wind.
It was a summer of subtraction: a thousand roots torn up, hundreds of branches cut and chipped, trees topped or felled, bone white holly wood stacked to dry for new year fire. Sammy, the dancing black cat, passed over at solstice. She, who skittered over the roof after squirrels, caught lizards, chipmunks, snakes, and grown jays to bring inside the house unharmed and release for play, grew old. Shore up fences against the winter wind and clear the gutter drains. I will keep the shoe box used to save Sammy’s prey on top the bookcase a while longer.
October starts a new count; the rain year began on the 1st. Soon after, a winter storm blew in from the northwest and took the leaves off the dogwood and shook the oaks. The fir sway and whisper together.
There is no moon tonight, it’s drained away and returned to darkness approaching the sun. A mirror, a pool, a puddle, seeking reflection, a black moon. Each month is a moon, with some added sprinkles, a seed, a struggle, fruit or frustration, an unwinding, a letting go. This new moon marks the end of all the late summer sorting. The season of weighing gold and grain after casting away the chaff is here.
Summer evenings I sat on the back porch and watched the planet Venus slip lower in the western horizon at twilight. Now she disappears from sight, fallen under the earth from the night sky, until joining the sun on October 25th. She rises as the morning star at the end of the month, a slim crescent, on All Hallows.
Crossroads and thresholds, liminal spaces we’ve arrived at or stumbled upon, another outcast stepchild in a fairy tale trying to solve the riddle of the Sphinx.
The equinox arrives Saturday evening, 6:55 Pacific time. Days and nights will balance, light and dark equal for a moment. Folklore says one might balance an egg on end during an equinox, but I’ve never done it. The moment passes while I’m distracted slicing a pear and the egg swivels and topples. Persephone descends to the underworld, the cloaked seed sleeping a seeming death. Six months ago, at the spring equinox, the light strengthened and grew. Seed pods burst and pushed into the air, leaves unfurled with Persephone rising. Now comes the time to let go. The harvest moon is nearly full.
I have wandered and worked in the sun. In the dark and rain is the best season to write. Then I prop the door closed with a cast-bronze winged pig, enough to keep the heat from the oil radiator inside, yet wide enough for the dog to push her head through and, if she’s inclined, shove back the doorstop to shoulder through and lie down at my feet.
I have a small chandelier in the corner of my studio with battery-powered tea lights that still flicker without dripping wax. (Or threaten fire, if I forget them. An amazing feat of technology, this.) I brew a thermos of strong chai and stir in a spoonful of honey. In the dark and the rain, there’s less to see out the window other than the stony shades of sky and bare branches. The eye is released to turn inward, awaiting the shy wild shape of the work.
“What is over, I can never finish.
The angel of work is sweat.”
I pulled the hood of my sweatshirt over my head this morning when I took my coffee outside. It was cool on the west side, with the sun breaking on the trees across the creek valley, yet not clearing the eastern hill across the road. Taste the first bite of turning, with the temperature dipped into the 40’s. Feel the urge to buy a three-ring binder and a wooden ruler, dust off my field hockey stick for afternoon practice.
The rufous hummingbirds will migrate south. They are slight and coppery, deviling the year-round Anna’s hummingbird when they appear in the spring. I wonder at such a fragile creature flying thousands of miles, like Monarch butterflies traveling to Mexico. I wonder how they navigate the Siskiyou range to cross into California. They will disappear soon, suddenly, with the cooler weather, take flight and no longer duel the Anna’s for sugar water and flower nectar.
The basil bloomed and, finally, I couldn’t pinch fast enough to forestall it. I made pesto. Grinding the herb with garlic and pecans, cups of olive oil, I forego adding parmesan and stack the containers like firewood in the freezer. The cheese does not freeze well. It will be added later, in winter when I cook, when I’ve forgotten the scent of summer.
The cantaloupe is trellised. Mercy nibbles at the leaves while I water and eyes the melons. Soon.
The chimney is swept. No mummified squirrels were discovered, unlike in other years.
My contributor copies of Cutbank #88, University of Montana’s literary journal, arrived in the mail. I looked at the cover illustration of corn and lobster and thought it odd. Maybe it’s a crawdad, which makes more sense for a landlocked state, except the title of the image is “Beach Snack.”
The work of the summer season is ebbing, so the crowd at the Labor Day sale at the hardware store gathers up nails and paint, deck stain and waterproof tarps. We’re racing the rains now.