Proximity Magazine 2017 Essay Prize Finalist
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).
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.
On a Monday morning, not long after rush hour, August 21st, there will be a total eclipse of the sun. The eclipse shadow will traverse the United States, making landfall in Oregon and exiting in South Carolina. [See NASA detailed eclipse maps]. At 10:18 AM landfall from the Pacific Ocean is near Lincoln City, over Salem, the state capital, onto Madras and John Day in Central Oregon, through Ontario on the border with Idaho.
Eclipses typically occur twice each year, a lunar eclipse paired with a solar one, within two weeks of each other. The lunar eclipse of the full moon, paired with the eclipse of the 21st, occurs on August 7th. A solar eclipse occurs when the new moon crosses between the sun and the earth, casting the moon shadow down to earth and revealing the solar corona.
The Oregon Department of Transportation expects up to a million visitors for the eclipse event—adding one-quarter to the existing population of the entire state. And it will be an event. Camping sites and lodging in the eclipse path have been snapped up by solar tourists. Locals already are advised to prepare for crowded roads and traffic jams once the celestial show is complete, and to plan ahead for gasoline, groceries and gawkers. Crafters are working overtime cranking out commemorative tchotchkes for eclipse visitors to clip on keychains or open beer bottles. It seems the shadow fall will puncture the pre-eclipse carnival and, as the moon wanes across the sun’s face, the tourists will be back on the freeway.
This morning my neighbor came out in her nightdress to water the flowers in the brick planter in front of her steps. I try not to notice and sit very still. The sun is breaking over the hill and filtering through the birch leaves. I think I am a tabby cat, mottled and camouflaged, in the dappled light. I don’t have a nightdress to wear out into the morning.
It goes to the head, this golden haze of pollen and drifting cottonwood. It’s fairy dust. The trees and grass release their magic as the day grows, to be caught in the wind and blow south. Some afternoons, especially near the river, it seems as though it’s snowing. My eyes itch with it. People sneeze and scratch. They try antihistamines which only makes them thirsty and angry. It’s easier to try to think in the morning. Later in the afternoon, there’s a full lulling need to sleep, to drift into some new fairy tale, succumb to the spell cast by the gold dust.
The garments worn in flying dreams
were fashioned there—
overcoats that swooped like kites,
scarves streaming like vapor trails,
gowns ballooning into spinnakers.
–Stuart Dybeck, from “Windy City”
Dawn comes early and I can’t hide. Each May morning waking, dream-washed and clean, to a day of exuberant green dressed with dew. There is just one more moon between now and the solstice, a round high summer moon coming to mark our longest day in the northern latitudes. Then the days grow shorter again.
I have often thought the seasons were mismarked on the calendar. If, unmoored from the tyrannical grid of weeks and months, we found more names for the light of days and nights, would we not be less surprised and dismayed while the seasons passed?
My new seasons might commence on the cross-quarter days, those landmarks between solstices and equinox. There would be waxing and waning phases to portions of the year. This scheme might look something like this (in the northern hemisphere, of course):
February 1 First Spring
March 21 Full Spring
May 1 Summer
June 21 High Summer
August 1 First Fall
September 21 Full Fall
October 31 Winter
December 21 Low Winter
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.
“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.