During the past year I learned to incant Leonardo da Vinci’s maxim that “a piece of art is never finished, only abandoned.” It’s a whisper behind the left ear, while I hold the printed final draft, until I utter it out loud under my breath. The thing, the piece, the carved and shaved shape has bones or it does not. It will stand, or it will not. I know when I am done with it. I know when I have worked the vein for what it will pay, and when it’s time to launch it or leave it.
To submit a piece, to the blind dark and elements, is to launch a paper lantern bearing a flickering candle into the current of a swollen river and watch it swirl, guttering, away. I am amazed if the lantern floats far enough to find someone to take it up downstream.
I am very pleased to have one wayward vessel selected by Cutbank Literary Journal to be recognized as a runner up in their Big Sky, Small Prose contest. Thank you to the team at the University of Montana, Editor-in-Chief Bryn Agnew, and contest judge Zach VandeZande for recovering “A Posture of Grace” from the open water.
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.
Early February whispers a promise. Whether it is fulfilled, or not, is in the fortune of storms spinning up in the gulf of Alaska plundering down the Pacific coast.
Several years ago, February brought a vicious ice storm and froze the early false cherry blossoms. This year, the crocus are blooming, the primrose and the early daffodils. The buds on the Oak trees swell and the sky is the brilliant blue of new denim.
The passing clouds across the sun only heighten the brilliance of the solar climb up from the south. We reach the time when the light quickens and grows stronger, faster, each day until the equilibrium of the vernal equinox.
Wind and water, waiting in silence, contemplation and observance, a great blue heron watches.
From the Legge translation of I Ching Hexagram 20:
“The Chinese character from which this hexagram is named is used in the sense of both seeing and being seen. The theme is the sovereign and his people — how he shows himself to them, and how they in turn perceive him…In the Judgment the ruler is portrayed as a worshipper at the commencement of a sacrifice. He is the great Manifester.”
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.