flashes of silver
fish plash beneath clacking palms:
season of the fins
sweet budding branches:
brush back the flying darkness
comb through tangled stars
ease across the evening sky:
waiting for the moon
Nature, as they say, abhors a vacuum. Confronted by any sudden or unexpected absence she rises, turns and looks about, seeking remedy, overcome by her own irrepressible urges to fill, replenish and restore.
Ironically for coastal dwellers, it’s Nature herself who often empties out their lives by means of great, unpredictable weather systems that arrive complete with names and histories. The storms are spoken of so often and with such familiarity they could be members of the family: Carla. Andrew. Gustav. Hugo. Ivan. Gilbert. Opal. Katrina. Rita. Some are massive, maintaining their destructive momentum for hundreds of miles. Others are smaller, with more localized effects, but all arrive as harbingers of emptiness, desolation and loss.
Galveston’s most recent losses came courtesy of Ike, a storm apparently determined to consume not only a city but an entire coastline. In some places, he left great piles of debris – homes, boats and businesses splintered and collapsed, heaped up and tumbled down, a beach-comber’s horror. (more…)
On the Texas coast, summer shimmers into being when she will. The calendar declares June 21 to be ”the first day of summer”, but anyone who spends time outdoors knows the truth. In mid-May, store shelves begin to empty of Gatorade. Not long after, bandanas appear, and straw hats. Yard workers stop in the shade of fresh, green growth to wipe their faces and soon everyone is sweating. By June 1, even the Ladies Who Lunch begin to sweat. They don’t “perspire” or “glow”, as proper Southern ladies should. They sweat right along with the yard crews, and they do it at 9 in the morning. Before many more days pass, it becomes too hot to walk on docks or boat decks barefooted and that, my friends, is summertime, no matter what the calendar says. (more…)
Long ago and far away, when temperatures were measured with metal feed-store thermometers hung next to mops and buckets on the back stoop and heat indices weren’t yet popular, we had our own ways of calculating summer heat. Summer meant mirages shimmering above the black-topped roads, imaginary pools of water swirling, receding and evaporating before our eyes as we traveled. In the heavy, breathless night, sleep became impossible. As trees murmured and complained, cots were dragged from houses and we lay beneath the stars, lulled into dozing and then on to dreams by the comfortable chirring of crickets.
Eventually the grass – soft, feathery blades that tickled our feet and stained our clothing – began to crispen in the fullness of summer heat. Here and there, sprinklers appeared, four revolving metal arms that whirled ribbons of life-giving water across lawns with a soft, rhythmic schlush. We ran through them, slid past them, then collapsed giggling into them when we miscalculated and collided with a friend. As the play grew more exhuberant, knees began to skin and the occasional howl of protest rose over our delighted screams. Just as protests began to overtake delight, doors flew open and a mother, grandparent or neighbor would yell, “You kids dry off and go find something else to do!”
There always was something more to do. Sometimes we hopped on our bikes and headed for the little gas station where glass cases overflowed with penny candy: root beer barrels, tiny wax bottles filled with ghastly syrups, orange slices and soft, pliable circus peanuts. No one liked the licorice bits with hard pink and white coatings, but we always bought candy necklaces, candy cigarettes with tiny pink “flames” and Necco wafers, bargaining for our favorite flavors with all the savvy and ruthless determination of commodities traders.
Twice each week the BookMobile parked in front of the grade school, and we chose new books to read. One week was set aside for Vacation Bible School (grape Koolaid and graham crackers with chocolate frosting), another was devoted to Camp Hantesha (night-time raids on other cabins and tin-foil dinners) while a third was reserved for Craft Camp, otherwise known as Popsicle Sticks Run Amok.
In short, summer was a time to explore and try new things. During the summer, we learned to throw a ball, ride a bicycle or roller skate. As we grew older, the challenges of summer became tinged with excitement and anxiety as we set ourselves larger goals: walking with a friend to an uptown movie, daring the high dive, or navigating the stacks of the “big” library on our own.
If we hesitated, it was our own timidity which held us back, and not that of our parents or caretakers. The rules were general, and common sense prevailed. Wear your shoes on a bicycle. Be home by dark. Don’t eat all your candy at once. Never swim alone. Don’t fight. Beyond that, we were on our own.
The pinnacle of summer was July 4th. It was the High Holy Day of Play, and everyone took part. In the morning, the community parade circled the town square. Afterwards, parents lolled about on porches or busied themselves in kitchens while we ran to the schoolyard to swing or hopscotched our way around the block. Boys tossed balls to one another while the girls played jacks or helped set the table for the yearly feast.
When the time for the picnic arrived, no one was picking at arugala or chicken grilled with a nice lemon-tarragon glaze. The traditional menu never varied: hot dogs and hamburgers on white buns, sweet corn, thick-sliced tomatoes, potato salad with celery, egg and mayonnaise, baked beans, brownies and pies. We ate our fill, and left the rest for late-comers, snackers or Aunt Janet, notorious for needing “just one more spoonful” of beans or potato salad. After sitting around on an outdoor table for six hours, there probably was a risk attached to the mayonnaise-laden salads, but we didn’t think of that any more than we thought about the dangers of our evening’s entertainment - boxes of red, white and blue sparklers that we’d burn before we headed off to watch the town’s display of aerial fireworks.
It was a news spot on a local radio station that released this flood of memories. A representative of a local hospital was urging the usual pre-Fourth of July caution about fireworks. In the course of her remarks, she commented that no child ever should be allowed to hold a sparkler. As she said, a sparkler could damage an eye, or burn a hand. As she didn’t say, but perhaps believes and certainly implied, the thoughtlessness of allowing a child a sparkler might well bring down the whole of Western Civilization.
Listening to her, I was astonished first, and then appalled. Living in an area of serious drought, I have no quarrel with restrictions on fireworks, or even their ban. However accidental, burning down an apartment complex or half a subdivision doesn’t fall into the category of celebration. But fireworks safety in the absence of rain was not her concern. Her intent was to discourage every parent, in every circumstance, from allowing their child a traditional pleasure of Independence Day celebrations.
Certainly, we live our lives differently than we did in the 1950s. Many of the changes are a direct result of increased knowledge, better judgement and the desire for healthier and happier lives. Other changes seem to be no more than an expression of the “Nannie factor” in our society – the desire of self-appointed experts or general busybodies to control the behavior of those around them. As C.S. Lewis wrote “In Freedom”,
Lewis’ “omnipotent moral busy-bodies,” kind, well-meaning, benevolent folk who would control and repress us “for our own good” are nicely pondered by Ian Chadwick in his essay on Conformity. As he puts it,
Such concerns may seem far removed from sparklers, sprinklers and over-the-hill potato salad. On the other hand, as warnings against “this” product or “that” activity increase on a daily basis, I wonder: are we in fact becoming a nation of Nannies, Lawrence Durrell’s “old women of both sexes” warning one another away not only from legitimate risk but even from the richness of life? The nation I love always has been a nation willing to allow its citizens to celebrate and live as they will – worshipping, parading, remembering, reciting and above all participating in rituals that sparkle and sting like the reality of freedom itself.
As the practical philosopher Erma Bombeck said, “You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4 not with a parade of guns, tanks and soldiers who pass by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die of happiness.”
In a world of sprinklers, sparklers and unrefrigerated mayo, can we slip and fall on the water-slicked grass that bends beneath our feet? Of course. Can we over-indulge in over-exposed foods and suffer the consequences? Of course. Can the sun or the sparklers burn, the bicycle tip, the bone break, the puppy nip or the cat scratch? Yes, and yes, and yes again to everything that “can” happen in a world that doesn’t take “care”.
But too much of the wrong kind of care can lead to paralysis and disengagement, particularly when what passes for care is little more than fear. For those who fear what “might happen”, for those who hunger to control what cannot be controlled and prefer to deny that brokenness, contingency and pain of various sorts always will be a part of life, there never can be enough care.
“Don’t you care about your children?”, they ask. “Don’t you care about your health?” “Don’t you care about security and acceptance and the approval of others?” Yes, yes, and yes again we say - we do care. But we care as much for life and freedom, for speaking our own word and celebrating the gifts the world holds for those who love her.
In simple fact, some of us choose to worry less and participate more and most of the time, for most of us, nothing happens at all. We run through the sprinkler without slipping. The sparklers light up the night and the last bit of potato salad gets eaten, just because it’s there. The children fall asleep, and we tend to them in the darkness while the world sighs everyone home: safe, and sound, and free as the birds that cry through the deep summer night, careless and carefree at once.
Becoming a varnish worker isn’t difficult. If you have a vehicle to serve as a combined corporate headquarters, warehouse and service fleet, about $400 for capital and operating expenditures like varnish, sandpaper, brushes and power tools and a wardrobe of stylish second-hand tees, I could get you started today. After years in the business, I’ve plenty of tips to share and I’d be happy to let you serve a few months’ apprenticeship. That’s more than enough time to understand the basic techniques of the craft and begin to develop the good, short-term weather forecasting skills that will be critical to your success.
Things will go even more smoothly if you already possess some important personal qualities: infinite patience, a tolerance for frustration and a sense of humor to help keep things in perspective when your fresh coat of varnish is ruined by fog, pollen, insects, rain, wind, dust or The Yard Crew From Hell, that charming band of brothers who decide to rev up their gasoline-powered leaf blowers just as you’re putting away your brush.
If you’re especially lucky, you’ll internalize what we call “The Rule of Good Enough” early in your career. I never have seen a “perfect” coat of varnish. No matter how glossy, how reflective, how beautifully deep the shine, there always is something - a gnat, a bristle, a patch of dust, a tiny bit of wood the brush missed – to tempt the compulsive toward a re-do. It never helps, of course. You may get rid of the gnat only to discover a determined spider has schlepped across your work. Better to look at wood that’s 99% perfect and say, “That’s good enough.”
Why someone would want to varnish is another question entirely. The work of stripping and sanding is boring and repetitive. Weather is unpredictable and can wreak havoc with a schedule, not to mention cash flow. I happen to like the isolation and solitude, but not everyone does. And it is, after all, physical labor. There aren’t many varnishers who head to the gym after work. There’s enough climbing, stretching, leaning and lifting in the course of a day to keep anyone flexible, and if you park far enough from your current project, you can get a little walking in, too. Simply put, boat varnishing is a 19th century job in a 21st century world. Boat owners on the docks may be twittering and texting within an inch of their lives, but the varnishers, riggers, carpenters and mechanics aren’t - their hands are too busy with the tools of their various trades to take time for electronic gadgets.
As for that question – “Why varnish?” – I always laugh and say, “For the perks, of course.” I may not have medical coverage or a 401K, but there is that just-back-from-Barbados-tan, a crazy assortment of folks on the dock to provide entertainment and a shoes-optional dress code. Instead of tracking office politics, I kibbitz with ducks, herons, egrets and coots. Osprey and pelicans float above, while mullet, drum, jellyfish and crabs drift and skitter through the water. My solitude is sandwiched between the bloom of sunrise and sunset’s poignant glow, while I think my thoughts and devote my energy to making something beautiful.
In truth, the positives balance out the negatives nicely, at least until full summer arrives. For most people, summer means a little laziness, a bit of travel, the pleasures of indolence. I experience summer rather differently. Summer means scorching boat decks, so hot that bare feet are impossible. Eyes burn from sunscreen, and the freezer fills up with gallons of water. The heat and humidity of the Texas Gulf Coast can be so intense that sweat drips off elbows and chins onto those fresh coat of varnish, frustrating because it means unplanned, unpaid extra work.
But by far the worst thing about summer is the way its heat drains away energy, At the end of the day, it can be a struggle to do more than shower, plop into a chair and stare off into the middle distance. A woman I know calls summer “the cereal season”, because cereal for supper takes the least effort to prepare. At the height of summer, we all begin to experience “seasonal slovenliness” as dust collects, laundry baskets fill up and drooping plants beg for their own drink of water. We all have good intentions, but the longer days and unrelenting heat can produce an unshakable lethargy.
Physical tasks aren’t the only chores to be put off. Creativity and imagination suffer from heat exhaustion, too. As the temperatures rise, the ability to focus for long periods of time declines. Thinking about my blogs, I have no shortage of ideas. Thoughts continue to swirl and the impulse to shape words into form is there, but actually sitting down to write is another matter.
I’ve been thinking about this a good bit. Any act of creation requires time and energy – the very energy which summer drains away. Certainly, I’m one of the lucky ones. I have the freedom to rearrange my schedule, to begin work early and continue work until late, seeking respite from the heat of the afternoon. Not everyone enjoys such luxury. The world is filled with people who spend their days in manual labor throughout the year – farm workers, construction crews, roofers, lawn care workers. Constrained by necessity to work for others, they lack even minimal control over their days, and they, too, come home exhausted.
Some say these communities of people have no stories to tell, that they are dull and uninspired, lacking in creativity. I once was told of an English teacher who had her Anglo students write an essay each week but didn’t require essays from Hispanic students. Confronted on the issue, she seemed genuinely astonished, asking, “But what would they (the Hispanic students) write about?”
It’s an old attitude, neatly summed up in the assertion that certain people are better equipped for creativity - by education, by natural sensitivity, by intellect, training or talent, while the masses are mute by necessity. Despite his apologists, D.H. Lawrence gives voice to this assumption in Phoenix II when he says,
What is vivid here is the worst kind of prejudice, and a particularly sad kind of literary elitism. In fact, the people who tend our lawns, build our roads, harvest our crops and roof our homes may have some of the best stories in the world waiting to be written, if only they weren’t so exhausted and by necessity focused on the basic requirements for life. In the world of “just folks”, hints of wonderfully creative communication abound - with the yarn spinners in cafes, the musicians in the bars and juke joints, the jokesters on the job site, or the story-telling mother on the porch with her children gathered around.
When I see a construction worker, a roofer, a farm laborer or a fellow rolling out barricades for a highway project, I wonder, “What story would he tell if he had the time, the freedom, the energy?
When I see a mother walking her children home in the heat, a housekeeper washing windows in the full afternoon sun, a woman struggling toward a laundromat with an unwieldy bundle of clothes, I wonder, “What verse might she write, if she had solitude, silence and rest?”
Out on the docks, the summer heat continues to rise as the fish drift deeper and the birds grow silent, tucking themselves ever more deeply into the dappled shade of their trees. Watching and listening to the silence, I wonder: given a respite from their labors and the freedom to rest in the shade, what songs might our hidden birds sing?