“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 the 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.
The sun turns and slants south, a rising late summer light heavy with dust, a sultry white sky rimmed with smoke. Ferocious maws of flame chew through dry tinder mountains near Redding, California: fire gnawing forest, suburban lawns, homes and bones. Ash rises in mushroom clouds.
Birch leaves turn gold and drop, skittering and rattling across the road; the first leaves to green in the spring, the first to let go. The trees clatter. The blackberries are early this year. In the evenings, a doe leads her twin spotted fawns to the berm across the road to feed on the ripe berries.
In the full height and completion of summer, we arrive at the cross-quarter, here between the promise of the summer solstice and the inevitable falling away at the equinox. It’s in my bones, this season, the time of ripeness and venom. My mother broke a tooth chewing ice the night I was born.
When I walk out on the hill with the dog, hat brim low over my eyes against the morning sun, the ground is cracked and sparse with weeds. The grass withered and died. Wasps skim over the sereness. I watch my feet. Yellow jackets hover at the hose nozzle. They are early this year, angry.
I set up the trap on the top deck where they menace and hunt. It’s a simple jar filled with water and a drop of soap. The jar is intersected by a funnel fixed with bit of chicken for bait. The wasps are drawn in by the scent, but cannot find their way out again. They drown, their own nature betraying them, like most clever traps.
The first lesson in a blackberry battle: You will bleed.
Do not scoff, believing you are nimble and strong, accept that it will be so. The only question in this contest is how much.
It’s been a kind and fruitful spring, enough sun, gentle rain, birds beginning to sing before sunrise (in what seems the middle of the night), a fortnight until solstice and the long day. If you are patient, and sit quietly, you can hear the green thrum in the garden.
Blackberries sent out their runner cane, from some secret mother root of all blackberries, and overtook my father’s yard. Tangled knots of brambles, tough wooden thorns that pierce new leather gloves, thick canes climbing the low limbs of the surrounding trees: this is the dragon. We are late. The new cane blooms into berries and the bees work the flower. A slow unwinding of the serpentine knot to salvage the roses.
Begin by circling the edges, testing.
When caught by the hair or the shirt sleeve, bitten by the dragon, resist the panic to tug away. This only tightens the grip of the beast. Lean in to the talons, against your instincts, and duck away. You were impatient.
You will bleed.
Stack the cane and hammer it with the flat of a rock rake. Roll it into a bale. Hammer again. Break the cane.