It is the season of the fiery way, the via combusta, which falls in late October and early November, marking the end of the growing year, the withdrawal from expression to introspection.
In the northern climes, the harvest is in, the fields rest, and days grow short. The cross-quarter day arriving, All Hallows and Samhain, marking the descent from the autumn equinox to the winter solstice. The season of darkness, mist and ice. Abandoned cobwebs are highlighted with dew. The veil between the many worlds thins and stretches.
The outdoor Farmers’ Market is preparing to close up shop for the season. The last corn and peppers, onions and shallots, potatoes and beets are heaped on tented tables. The whole rounded head of a sunflower is set out for sale, studded with seeds.
Watershed Review accepted a short piece I wrote for their fall issue and I’m delighted. It’s under 200 words, a lyric essay that bends toward being a poem, but not quite? What do we call these short hybrid works?
Most of my creative nonfiction pieces average 2500 words, or a fraction of this one. This one fit on a single page. In many ways, the very short work is harder to capture and contain than the rambling prose built into sentences that then block into paragraphs. In longer works, there’s an expansive luxury of holding forth and spinning exposition into broad tapestries. The short works are cunning little samplers with unfinished raw edges. The play is the thing, yes?
The moon is waxing to full next week, the harvest moon, rising gold to mark the fruit of a year’s labors, a tired garden. The harvest moon follows the autumnal equinox, at least in the northern hemisphere, when the length of darkness outstrips the light, when the crops are stored in cellar and silo, and the gourds and pumpkins are the last shine in the field.
Last night was a celebration and reunion, so I walked the yard gathering a platter to share: Grape leaves and grapes, new winter kale, fingerlings, sweet savory, nasturtium. These framed the Spanish meats, a French cheese, and fresh mozzarella from our local dairy. Nasturtiums are sassy. They taste of pepper.
A new season is upon the threshold, still around the corner, but casting a long shadow, breathing a dew soon to harden to frost.
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.
Five months ago, on the 7th of April, an early morning windstorm brought down an 80-foot big leaf maple. It was an old tree, its trunk over five feet in diameter, so old that there is no city record of its planting. It survived a vicious ice storm in December, a snow storm in January, and untold storms in the years of its growing and leafy shade across High Street. The core was rotted, but no one knew it until it toppled diagonally and strafed the office building across the alley. Windows were smashed, gutters and roof mangled, the awning and wrought-iron railing on the steps destroyed. The damage from the fallen tree has taken five months to repair, in slow painstaking steps, multiple subcontractors working their respective disciplines coordinated in precise order, windows boarded up with plywood blocking the light inside.
For weeks the building was fronted by a scaffolding to allow workmen to move across its face. Various vagrants or travelers, sidewalk people or refugees, tried to take up residence under the cover of the scaffold walkway to sleep, drink malt liquor, or smoke a blunt. To replace the dormer window at the crown of the 1909 building required a small lean workman to crawl into the attic space, chase off the lingering sparrow, and hoist the window up from the ground. It has taken hours and days of frustration and patience to rebuild from a wanton capricious damage. Today the last piece, the newly forged wrought-iron railing, goes into place.
I have wrangled these repairs, nearly wept in vexation at the complications and delays. Yet, as I learn about the incalculable damage in Houston and Louisiana, the on-going rampage of Hurricane Irma passing from Florida north toward Georgia, I find myself ashamed. No one was hurt by the falling tree, no one lost a life, a limb or a loved one. In truth, I’ve learned how suddenly disaster happens, and how slowly we heal. In deepest sympathy for all those struggling, and all that was lost in these last few weeks,
The Pacific Northwest is burning. Wildfires fringe the forest and Cascades to the south and east. The valley filled with smoke, particulates rising off the chart to hazardous levels. More than 100 day hikers in the Columbia Gorge were evacuated after sheltering in place overnight.
The red sun framed inside a votive. Only the moon can bring rain.
I remember being a mouse. I lived in the yard at the temple of Ganesha and stole grains of rice from the temple-sweeper’s cupboard for our supper. I remember the dogs of the village as large and swift as thunderstorms, how the scent of jasmine blossom perfumed my entire nest, the musk of marigolds. I had a pretty dove-colored wife. We had 57 children. We lived beneath a crack among flagstone paving the temple courtyard. It gave onto a small hollow wedged between the courtyard and the outer wall that we stuffed with leaves and hair and bird feathers. It was very dangerous during monsoon, twice we nearly drowned when the den flooded, and we clung to the dung box to keep from being swept away. But we always returned, dug the mud out, and found new bits of cotton and chaff to stuff into the corners to continue our life.
Paradise is a walled garden. A lumber yard is burning to the north. It will burn for several more days. The pillar of smoke was visible for 20 miles on Sunday, when it started. Forest fires continue to burn to the east, ignited by lightening or coals from careless campfires, a smoldering cigarette.
Last week temperatures rose into the 100s. The valley sucked in the smoke, a great white inhalation, a stifling breath thick as burning fog, and we simmered without the maritime flow from the Pacific. Sunset burned crimson and orange. We watered the garden, the flagging pots of geranium and fuchsia in the morning, the cantaloupe with its new swelling melon, the grapes and herbs in the evening. Outside the gate the grass shriveled and dried, burned by sun and smoke. Wasps circled the mouth of the hose. There was no dew.
After five days, the wind shifted and the high pressure system broke. Something turned. There was a tilt, a shift, a soft mist from the west, and the leaves from the birch began to release and skitter across the lawn. I think of firewood and oiling my boots. I picked the blackberries and wild plums from the hill, simmered them down and bottled the juice. Yesterday, I picked bunches of peppermint to hang from the herb rack and dry for tea. Black flies circle under the eaves, willy-nilly, into the webs of great brown spiders. Paradise is a walled garden:
Xenophon, a Greek mercenary soldier who spent some time in the Persian army and later wrote histories, recorded the pairidaēza- surrounding the orchard as paradeisos, using it not to refer to the wall itself but to the huge parks that Persian nobles loved to build and hunt in. This Greek word was used in the Septuagint translation of Genesis to refer to the Garden of Eden, whence Old English eventually borrowed it around 1200.
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).