Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Misbehaving Chimney

I am taking a break from mopping up the basement. It has been a busy morning here at Dark Corners, beginning with a big CRACK at around 7 a.m. What could that be? Hmmm...

We live on a county road, so a guy was here early inspecting the damage. The tree completely blocked passage, so if you were an ambulance or a firetruck and you wanted to zoom along toward the hospital, or either other end of town, you'd have to carve a less direct route along other streets. You'd be slowed down, maybe disastrously. This is a SNOW route! Serious county business. Not a problem to be ignored for long.

It is the kind of problem, too, that requires everyone to come out of their houses and stand around and discuss, and ponder, even your basement is filled with water--or, let me testify, especially then. One neighbor lost power because of the fallen tree. The lines were wrapped all around it, as if the wind had taken its best advantage of the moment of tiiimmmbbbeeerrrrr......Whipping and twisting a hairstyle. 

Someone made the powerless person coffee. Neighbors neighbored.

(Me too! It was still during the pouring hours when I got to help saw up some big branches off another neighbor's car. They couldn't, because of health problems. It wasn't heroic but it did feel like that old America where people built barns together. Oh, that reminds me...time to watch Cold Mountain again.)

Now we are moving stuff we moved yesterday to get at all the water on the basement floor. Amazing finds! All my Beatle records, my summer clothes (September is hot, right?), a pair of boots someone had left here and has longed for for years, a beautiful pair of Agnes B. suit pants, and the Christmas Rudolph action figure and tree lights. Also--a dumpster's worth of stuff that needs to go away forever.

I thought, as I always do, of Cape May, and all the hurricanes, tropicaal storms, and Noreasters I lived through there. The Coast Guard would come along New Jersey Ave with a bull horn telling everyone to evacuate. Sometimes they were in a truck, and sometimes, if the ocean had already poured over the sea wall, they came in a little motor boat. Grandad stood on the porch, drink in hand, and suggested they come join him instead. His posture of going down with the ship was mimicked along our row of houses, and all around the town. The Coast Guard seemed to respect this stalwart attitude. I think. Now it is very different, since Katrina. I also think I didn't know enough to be scared. I wasn't being given scared cues. I was a child, watching something new happen.

So we'd sit on the porch in the wind and watch the waves crash against the sea wall, counting how many flew up higher than the electric wires. I loved the wind, and being stung by the rain. (I always identified in English novels with the women who walked out into the driving rain...if you have a taste for it, there is nothing like it. It's a thrill of weather--all the water inside the body finding a kinship in the thundering water outside.)

During the Noreaster of 1962, a house near ours washed away.
The house that washed away. Our old house is behind it on the far right.


My grandmother would come to the door every few minutes. "Come inside!" She'd jerk her hand back toward the interior, and looked vexed and perplexed. Why would anyone want to be outside at such a time? Grandad and I said "Soon." Not meaning it.

Once lightning hit our house and our chimney blew to pieces. This turned out to be horrible--because, aside from storms, Grandad was very anxious. The hurricane ended and the day was blue and rinsed, the air charged with ions, the ocean requesting to be walked along, and then, even calmer, visited for a swim. We were not allowed out! What if one of the bricks slid off the roof and bopped us on the head? We could die on the spot!

He went out though, unfairly. I glared at him from the porch as he visored his eyes and looked up at the damage. "Hey, why do you get to be on the lawn?" 

"Wait for Ashton," he said--his friend, the fireman. "When he says it's safe, you can go out."

It took three days. Pure torment. 

What did I do at noon today? Called my boy and told him not to wade in deep street water, there could be electric currents from downed wires. I was out in the rain, though. Now I'm the adult.

These old photos are from the CMHS.

Postscript: It seemed as though it was over. The rain stopped; the sun shone. Then more wind, fantastical tree bending wind. A big branch took all our wires down. So much for the romance of a storm. Four days in the dark, until today when the manly men of PSEG came and hooked me up. I am lucky, but I feel very concerned for those who still have no power, or are flooded out of their houses--and as always, the animals. What happened to all my chipmunks and moles? What happens? Why am I still not convinced to turn against storms?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Mind to Mind: A Reflection on What's Personal

Here is a brief piece of video I took on the Hadlock Pond Loop last evening at 6 p.m.  It is at the top of a several mile uphill climb--a climb that had had me thinking the whole way, at least on one channel of mind (on another, I was enjoying the scent of the different firs, noticing how autumnal the air has become suddenly, admiring how flexible the shadows are--they can stretch, even at the end of the day, repeating over and over, during the whole walk down all alone, past not one other person, how beautiful, beautiful, beautiful) that what I really love most in writing is when I feel I'm behind the mask with an author, and having an encounter with the personal--the real person who is doing the writing.

But thinking this raised so many questions. What does that even mean? Why do I feel it with certain authors and not others who are just as good? Where is the locus of my interest? In the sentence? The subject? The meaning? The voice? What exactly am I responding to when I feel I am experiencing a person naked on the page?

I know, I can say for sure, it has nothing to do with confession. Most people have secrets, and some pretty intense experiences that can be expressed in the form of a headline. I have nothing against this, and am a supporter of the addiction/incest/illness memoir. These stories should be told, for many reasons, the most basic of which is that people must be allowed to say what happened to them--and what they did about it--if they choose to. Yet these stories don't automatically lead to a revelation of the personal, in the sense I mean it. A person can be detached from his own secrets, his own experiences, his own confessions, and deliver them as headlines, offerings, enticements, one upsmanships, shocks--mask upon mask. It isn't necessarily brave to tell what happened, or to state one's opinions; it's actually pretty cinchy to do, just a collection of words blurted.

So it's not that. 

Nor is it care with language, or beautiful writing.  It is possible to write beautifully but impersonally. A writer can choose a style, or hear a voice, and be true to it while not exposing himself. Some very good books are written this way. It isn't at all a flaw, or a withholding--an injecting of the personal isn't necessary. Yet it is what excites me. What does it look like? It may be the farthest subject from an author's own life. It may be the simplest style. What it is, it seems to me, is an author matching the shape of his sentences to his own deepest thinking, or deepest feeling, or most potent daydream. These all appear in the body as rhythms before they become language--so it is picking over one's sentences to correspond to those personal and unique rhythms rather than working on them to make them read well that makes something personal. 

I have observed that writing in a state of emotion can effect this. Somehow being upset can circumvent the censors that make one judge oneself too soon. When a student says to me he wants to quit a story because he feels it's too corny, I become optimistic. 

Yet thought can be in touch with rhythm, too. Henry James comes to mind--a very personal writer.

I have recently being reading Mavis Gallant. Personal to the core. I love her.

Is the voice of a waterfall personal? It sounds that way to me.

Friday, August 19, 2011

At the Helm

I am posting this photo I took the other morning of a spider web--one of dozens and dozens in the trees along the path where I walked. I'm not going to make a metaphor out of it--I already did this, once upon a time, in a poem, and enough is enough. Anyway, seeing scads of these all at once kicks any artist's ass pretty hard. Are you kidding? Forget about the Internet, or TV, or whatevs--I'm competing with this? Nature is better, and best. I bow down.

What I'm thinking about are these weird interior images and feelings I get when I'm trying to steer a story toward a particular point on the shore. Heaviness in my arms as I try and try to make the turn, but the story is still reeling out ahead, or maybe in the opposite direction. What's this all about anyway? Why can't I make it go in the direction I want--easily? Why this big drama, as if I'm Captain Bligh, turning the helm in the big storm to get around the Horn?

I carry around such vivid images of the physical work of writing--they are so real to me I don't even question them. They can hover all day.

I just got to the end of a story. I hope it's good. It has been a separate world and a respite from what's on my mind, and the bad dreams I've been having every night. I have to type it next. Another image; the three stories that need typing, and the section of the novel that goes in the can, never to be touched again. I'm dragging them all forward. Heavy chains, clanking.

I am waiting. For what, I won't say. I write what comes, dream the bad dreams, photograph the marvels. Meanwhile my body has a strong sense of what it needs to do to keep the show on the road. One of the many aspects of life that is private.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Three Angels

I learned to swim in the Congress Hall pool in Cape May. I wanted to, very much, so I could go into the ocean above my knees. For years I'd watched other people go in up to their necks, or swim along parallel to the beach. Best, bodysurf--I knew I could do it, if I could swim!
(So similar to writing, really...)

All week I have been longing for the sea, more than usual. I have a lot to think about right now, but that didn't seem why. Sometimes the only way to figure out how you feel is to jump. So this morning I drove down to Asbury Park and let things happen.

The boardwalk goes through town after town and you walk for miles before realizing it--and so I did. It was pretty empty. The beaches had sprouted lots of umbrellas, so it seemed everyone was crossing the boards rather than strolling. Oh yes--I chose to stroll, and not be all pointedly exercise-y. Exercisers passed me, arms pumping. Go ahead! Be that way. Me and the beach grass moved slowly, as the breeze would have it.

I walked back up to AP for the beaching. Cheaper--$5--and wide open. Just me and my towel. Pretty off the grid behavior among all the beach chairs and umbrellas. Back to the sand.

The tide was super low, so the waves broke on the beach; if you stood close to shore, they broke behind you, and you had sudden thrills of salt spray pelting your back. A serene, rolling ocean coming off a storm somewhere--you could feel that provenance in the verve of the swells. Maybe that was why all the children shrieked every time a wave pulled up out of nothing.

No body surfing, or parallel swimming. Just floating over the waves, sometimes getting a face washing.

I didn't shriek, but I did stay in until my teeth were banging so hard I was afraid I'd bite my tongue off. That's what you do, of course. You stay in...

Oh! Oh. Here it was, the need, what I came to think about. Here, when I stepped on this broken clam shell, or was pinched by this crab, or stepped off a ledge into a small cold pool. A few things--one being the story I am nervous in. I realized what I was writing about the other day and was so taken aback that I haven't written a word of it since. Am I really ready for that one?

You're an ocean girl.

Some things are too private to write down, even in one's own blog. Let me just tell you that no one minds if you cry your heart out on the beach in AP. It's that great there.

Two guys were selling pit bull pups, 5 weeks old, on the boardwalk. Three little angels, zonked with sun. All sorts of feelings came up as I touched their perfect heads. Several possible scenarios played out in half a second. But I'd already made some decisions, enough for one summer day. I didn't buy them.