Thursday, March 28, 2013

Spring Flowers are Not Delicate

Photo credit:

Daffodils. Forsythia. Their names suggest freshness and delicacy. They come, tender and yellow and lovely, out of the soil or from old stalks, when the air warms up. One is tempted to think they are weak in their fragile courage. After all, doesn't the summer heat scare them away?

This year, when the weather has been halting between extremes, this lesson has come home to me: these flowers are anything but fragile. Two days ago it was 30 degrees. I, softened by the warm weather and too many years in this temperate climate, could hardly stand the sharp wind. My winter coat was at the dry-cleaners and I had only a thin jacket to keep off the cold. A couple of hours out of doors without sunshine and I was miserable. The daffodils … they suffered too. They looked droopy, their yellow heads hung down, and I thought they were doomed. But come a little warm sun and they perked up again. They're bright and healthy today again.

The tiny yellow forsythia blossoms, so delicate they seem to be made of butterfly wings, should be dead, too, by my logic. It's frosted the windshield more than once since they made their appearance on those old bare stalks. And yet here they were again today, looking unfazed by the weather's whims.

I could go on. Other people probably have known this all along. I'm sure there's some perfectly logical, ecological explanation for all this. The flowers have adapted for this cold weather; they're able to endure swings of temperature common to springs the world over. They have to be or they wouldn't have survived. Yes, yes, of course, all that must be true. And yet, in some fundamental way, I mistook delicacy of beauty for delicacy of constitution. No doubt men (like me) have been doing this for endless ages. And so I register my fault.

But even more, since in the rhythm of nature I experience spring as a dawning of hope, a promise of newness after the barren winter, I take a lot of solace from those resilient blooms.

No, spring flowers are not delicate. They are as tough as an old tree. And so is their promise.

I'm not the only one thinking about this:
The daffodil: a hardy bloomer, heralding spring

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Editing as Following the Story

stream in the redwoods
Photo credit: inajeep
I've made no secret that I'm perpetually reworking a story I wrote several years ago (See Snow White and Her Shepherd). Recently I took it up again, after another break. Some parts still aren't jelling for me. But after all these several rewrites, what more can I do?

What I've come to see this time through the story is that I've gotten better at what feels like an essential skill of my craft: following the story. Seem obvious? At the rewrite stage, this is very difficult to do. There's a kind of inertial drift to the story. It goes this way, because it's already down on paper this way. And something in me has tended to resist upsetting the order or the drift of the words already there. One has to get past that readerly impulse that treats a story as a thing complete, wrapped around in cellophane, observable but beyond shaping. "Following the story" is different than reading what you've already written. It may mean ignoring what you've written.

The whisper of the story comes, for me, by way of nagging sensations of doubt. What is my hero doing here? What happened to the wound he received on page 12? Why is this land lush and green and not dry and wind-blown? Or why is it built up like a medieval fortress when it should be earthy and wild?

The key, the thing I feel I'm getting better at with practice, is the capacity to trace the offending element to its root and excise it. But rarely can you get away with a surgical removal. The thing that's offending is bound up with your original misperception of the story. In taking it out, you are changing the fabric of the whole. And so, at least for me, you have to begin following the story forward again, from that point. You have to listen patiently for every change that your excision requires, as you read, edit, rewrite, rework, mold the materials of the story.

But it's this constant listening, this ear to the story, to following its course as you would a fragile stream in a thick wood, under heavy brush and leaves, not knowing--again--where precisely it will take you. It's the admission that you're following--not reading, but searching out the story again. That's key.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Gunmen in the Park

The last words you want to hear at a public park, out with your children, especially these days: "Put your hands in the air."

It took me a moment to register this. I'd heard the sirens--they aren't that uncommon--and I'd been watching my boys play on the "fort" some fifteen feet away. The policeman's voice came from over my shoulder, and I turned my head to look.

"Hands where I can see them," he repeated. The officer was big, and more sirens were screeching behind us. I followed his gaze and then I saw them. My children were between me and three young men in black and fatigues, standing with their arms raised. I stood and walked to the play set.

"Boys, come on down from there," I said, calmly. Maybe too calmly. I didn't want to scare them. But the park, a bustle of happy cries a moment before, had gone quiet as a museum. My boys were transfixed, too. Then my youngest slid down, while the other stood his ground, watching it unfold.

"Come down. Hurry up," I said. The reality of the situation was starting to set in. The tallest two youngsters, boys really, wore long black trench coats, and they were not thirty feet away. And my oldest was still between me and them. I tugged him off the play set, corralled his younger brother, and crouched down behind the laughable protection of a chain ladder countless children had used to climb into the "fort."

The police officer had raised his voice again and he was now nearer the youngsters. I don't remember that he had a gun drawn. I don't remember a taser. I do, though, remember the moment he reached them and took their guns. They were long, assault-rifle-looking guns. And he said something like, "You scared people."

toy guns
Image from
I don't know what happened after that. The guns, I think, were toys, or maybe BB guns. The tallest kid should have known better; he might have been in eighth grade, and he had a long, blank face--maybe surly, maybe annoyed, but not obviously sorry. The middle child was maybe in fifth or sixth grade; he was the one with the fatigues. The youngest was only a small child, maybe a year older than my second-grader.

It took a long time for the situation to dissolve, though, I do know that. The police cars sat for several minutes with their flashers pulsing, and more still without them. The arresting officer took the young men behind a building and, presumably, to his cruiser parked out of sight. He was carrying their guns, and I was left with the boys, wondering how soon was too soon to let them play normally.

Meanwhile, as I held on to them, reassuring them, explaining that it was only a mistake, keeping my voice steady because … oh my God, it could have been something a lot worse … I realized something I hadn't before: only after the crisis had passed did I understand what could have happened. Like most people, I assume more innocence in the world than evil, even after all I've watched unfolding on the news. I just don't have it in me to expect mass murder. Neither did anybody I saw in the park that day. Nobody fled in a panic. And I can't say I'm sorry for that. In fact, I think it's those of us who don't expect it or think it's normal who will ultimately press for the real changes that are needed: an end to bullying, an end to hate-speech, to stock-piling and paranoia, to the glorification of violence. Sensible gun regulations. Kindness in public places. Care for outcasts. These are the kinds of changes that could make for a world where I won't have to do more than I did in the park that day.

And, as it turns out, when you think about it, I was right, wasn't I? Those boys weren't bent on killing us all, now were they? So maybe believing the best about people isn't such a bad place to start after all.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Border Crossing

doe in the yard
This week a one-antlered buck stood on my leaf pile, surveying the yard. Three does were with him, munching on my lawn. The eldest curled herself up by the fence. The younger ones ranged around her, one by the bird bath, chewing endlessly on a tuft of grass; the other worked her way from the bare-limbed pear tree to the ivy at the edge between my yard and my neighbors', where she, like her mother or sister, nested in the shade.

I went away, changed clothes, did something or other. And after a while I came back and they were all gone. At least I know now, I thought, why my garden fence is in such disrepair. I know what happened to that parsnip I planted in the fall. I know what the coyotes are yowling at outside my study window after the moon has risen.

It's nice to know.

This year, I'm told, was the warmest in 4000 years. It hasn't been this warm since before Moses walked up Sinai into the cloud that had led his people through the wilderness. Those were days when a pillar of fire led the people by night. But it wasn't as hot as it is now. In the decades to come, say the scientists, it'll peak record temperatures since the last ice age. Which is to say, I'm guessing, since as long as we can tell. I have the feeling, the suspicion, that the last ice age is the limit of our meteorological knowledge. What they're telling us, maybe, is that earth has never been hotter than it's going to get, at least since human life has been here.

Meanwhile, a family of deer have camped in my yard. I don't have much hope for my garden, though I'll try. I'll do my best. And I'll keep my kids indoors at night in case of coyotes.

But it seems odd that the turning of the climate should coincide with the renewal of wildlife in my neighborhood. It seems like this apocalyptic turning should be dire, and I have no doubt it eventually could (and maybe will) be. But just now, it seems only like the first harbingers have crossed back from the wild into unfamiliar places. And it's hard not to welcome them, in spite of my garden.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Winter's Long Fingers

Since last weekend, when I declared the end of Winter and welcomed the beginning of Spring, my faith has been tested.

Monday came chill, and the week unfolded colder and colder by degrees. Sleet tapped at our metal roof, and on the way to town, we saw bare tree branches dressed out in thin layers of ice. Lovely, true; but ever so cold, that damp kind of cold that is winter here in North Carolina.

Yesterday, meager clusters of snowflake fell to the wet ground. By afternoon, I was playing baseball with the boys in the yard, pitting the sunshine against a stiff breeze.

Today, seven days later, the temperature is hovering beneath freezing. And snow is in the forecast for Wednesday. And what will I do? Nothing in me, or the daffodils pushing through the ground, wishes to yield quarter to Old Man Winter. Lovely as his painted trees and delicately engraved flakes are, his time is coming to an end. What will I do? Find the good in a longer winter? Yes, I could do that. Forestall my eagerness for spring? I could try. Admit that I was too eager ... that I was wrong to welcome Spring? I could, but I won't. The birdsong won't allow for it.

I know what I'll do. I'll begin planning my garden. I'll take out the small, portable greenhouse and set it up indoors. I'll plant seeds in peat-pots. I'll mend the garden fence. I'll begin hauling the compost to the beds. I'll plant some hardy crop, and watch it grow--maybe broccoli, for once. Then, when Old Man Winter withdraws his long, cold fingers, I won't be caught unprepared.


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