Ten Years On The Road

“Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been” ~ the Grateful Dead

Despite being aware that April 14 would be my ten-year anniversary with WordPress, the nice, congratulatory posting in my notifications tab took me by surprise.

In the past, these anniversaries have come and gone with little more than a glance, a moment of reflection, and recommitment to another year of writing. But ten years is ten years, and something more in the way of acknowledgment seemed appropriate.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to republish three of my favorite posts, interspered with new material. This one, slightly revised from 2013, describes how the title of my blog — The Task At Hand — came to be.

In 2007, wanting to learn how to post images to the web, I established a page in the blog section of Weather Underground. I’d joined the site during the 2005 hurricane season — the year which brought both Katrina and Rita — and I was comfortable there. At that point, I didn’t think of myself as a blogger. I simply was exploring: experimenting and learning.

My first entry included a recipe for pecan pie, with a few photos of the Texas hill country thrown in for good measure. My second post, a short entry detailing a trip through Kerr and Kendall counties, veered off into memoir. Surprised by a few positive comments, I posted a third time, and then a fourth.

Two months and a few posts later, I joined a group known as the Bay Area Writers’ League. I’d never thought of myself as a writer, but I was curious to see what people who defined themselves as writers might look like.  

As it turned out, they looked very much like me: intrigued by words, eager to tell their stories, willing to listen to the halting efforts of beginners, and open to learning from published authors.

At the January 2008 meeting, I was introduced to the concept of flash fiction, and decided to participate in the monthly contest: a challenge to respond to a photo posted in the group’s newsletter with no more than a hundred words of either poetry or prose. 

When the photo was published, I recognized a modern Sisyphus immediately. Too clever for his own good, Sisyphus may have brought his punishment upon himself, but images of his plight have compelled artists for centuries, and I thought this was a good one.

Unfortunately, as I gazed at my first challenge, I had no idea how to cross the gap between image and words without falling into cliché.

(The photo, I now know, comes from Enchanted Rock State Natural Area in Texas)

Days later, while I hand-sanded a boat rail, thinking about nothing in particular, a fully-formed line came to mind: Even the right word takes effort. 

Looking at the teak hand rail, the sandpaper, and my hands, I considered. Over the next few days, as I worked and word-shaped, recording phrases on the back of used sandpaper, I discovered — quite to my surprise — that I’d written a poem titled “The Task At Hand.”

Even the right word takes effort.
Quarried from a crevice of the mind
it stumbles into context from a surprised tongue
then slips again toward silence.
Breaking chains of metaphor,
pulled from its page by the gravity of doubt,
it defies similitude
and heaves past frail allusion,
blocking passage after passage
with its heavy presence
until turned and nudged and tried again
for perfect fit
by one who never tires —
the Sisyphean poet.

At that month’s meeting, my poem won the little contest, pleasing me immensely. When April 14 came and I registered my new blog at WordPress, there was no question that its title would be The Task At Hand. Though still a non-writer, it nonetheless seemed to me that I’d written a writer’s poem: a poem with room for all of the discipline, surprise, faith, and teeth-gritting perseverance that writing requires.

Meanwhile, back at the Bay Area Writers’ League, I followed the custom of reading my winning poem aloud at the next month’s meeting. After I finished, a fellow wearing a plaid flannel shirt and mismatched socks came up to me. “So,” he said. “This your first poem?” I said it was, and that I’d just started writing. “Then let me tell you something,” he said. “That poem’s like a suit of clothes that’s two sizes too big. That’s ok. Don’t worry about it. You keep writing, and in a few years you’ll start growing into it.”

Remembering his words today, I smile with new understanding. He didn’t say, “In a few years, you’ll have grown into it.” He said, “In a few years, you’ll start growing into it.” He was right.

After about two years, when I changed the tagline forThe Task At Hand  from A New Writer’s Search for Just the Right Word to the slightly different A Writer’s On-going Search for Just the Right Word, I received an email from a reader who asked an interesting question.

She wrote, “Whenever I search for your blog, my first instinct is to look for The Task at Hand – A Writer’s On-going Search for the Perfect Word. I couldn’t help wondering why you chose right instead of perfect. I look at perfect as having more of an emotional component to it — the satisfaction that it is just the perfect word with the perfect feel. The word right carries with it a sense of correctness or strictness. I was just curious about your thinking.”

The question intrigued me. My first impulse was to say that nothing in our world is perfect: no person, no flower, no performance, no meal. Imperfection is woven through the fabric of life, and to demand perfection in words is to risk bloodless writing.

But it also occurred to me that the phrase itself matters. “Just the right word” suggests not only the end but the means: the process of writing itself. Hearing the phrase “just the right word” takes me back to the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. In the version I learned as a child, Goldilocks tries out the Bears’ porridge, chairs, and beds, finding them in turn too hot, too large, and too hard. Only after going on to experience too cold, too small and too soft was she able to say of her final choice, “This is just right.”

For years, it’s seemed to me that Goldilock’s experience is a wonderful analogy for the experience of writers who sit and sift through piles of words, rejecting one and then another as being too long, too short, too foreign, too street, too archaic, too hip. Eventually, whether from a dictionary, a doodle, or the crevices of the mind, a word emerges. With a sigh of deep satisfaction the writer eases it onto the page, saying, “There. That’s just right.”

It’s critical for beginning writers – or accomplished writers, for that matter — to recognize the truth that a search for just the right word signals neither inexperience nor inadequacy. Even the best among us hint at the necessity of that search, leaving the record of their words to nourish us as we continue the process of growing into our own.

The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph.
                                                            ~ from “Little Gidding” – T.S. Eliot

Those Almost-Photographic Plates

In a world still characterized by four-digit telephone numbers, 78 rpm records, and vacuum tubes that had to be carried to the hardware store for testing when the radio or television wouldn’t work, my first camera fit right in.

A Christmas gift, it was a simple Kodak Brownie — perhaps the Brownie Holiday, but more probably the slightly newer Model 127. Of course it required film, carefully loaded into the camera one precious roll at a time. There were knobs to turn, holes to match with tiny, mechanical teeth, and a certain amount of ruined film that went along with the learning process, since childish excitement often meant forgetting the first rule listed in the Brownie 127 instruction manual: “Take the camera into the shade.”  Continue reading

The Brief Resurrection Of Dale T

Lydia Ann Channel Lighthouse ~ Port Aransas, Texas

None of the roustabouts, deck hands, or dock workers along the middle and upper Texas coast seemed to know how Dirty Dale got his nickname, and Dale wasn’t telling.

Gracie, who’d given up life on an oil rig to put her cooking talents to work in a land-locked café, served him breakfast every morning. She insisted his name came from his good-natured willingness to pursue every female in sight. Certainly, no matter how oblivious, uninterested, or irritated the object of his attentions, Dale’s confidence was absolute. Sliding into a seat next to an unaccompanied woman, he’d murmur, “Hey, darlin’. I’m here to improve your life.” Most didn’t feel the need for improvement, but he remained willing to try.
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A Celtic Legacy

The widow Mackinnon and Mrs. Neil Ferguson ~ St. Kilda, 1909

From Oban to Skye, from the Outer Hebrides to St. Kilda they traveled: two Aberdeen photographers intent on capturing and preserving the life of a remarkable people.  The beautifully colored lantern slides of  George Washington Wilson and Norman Macleod,  an iconic collection put into book form by Mark Butterworth, were produced in the late 1880s, fifty years before color photography came to Scotland. Continue reading

A Small Creature, But A Great Grief

To say the end was unexpected hardly would be true. For months there had been signs of age taking its toll; in past weeks there had been increasing restlessness; discontented murmurings; howls in the night.

Still, that it would come so suddenly took me by surprise. After our usual morning routine — I always drank my first cup of coffee while brushing her into a state of purring contentment — I arrived home in early afternoon to find Dixie Rose staggering and in pain, suffering from  partial paralysis.

Within half an hour we were in her veterinarian’s examining room. Still unable to walk, totally non-responsive to the probings of the vet, and showing no signs of her usual combativeness, she seemed exhausted. Possible causes were outlined, but certainty would require testing, or more invasive procedures. In the meantime, she would continue to suffer.

The decision, of course, was mine; it was more than a little comfort that the veterinarian agreed with the wisdom of the decision. After eighteen years of healthy and happy companionship, it was time to let her go.

How the loss of such a small creature can leave such a large hole in a home — a heart — is a mystery, but as so often happens, Mary Oliver offers words to help fill that gap, from her time “In Blackwater Woods.”

 

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars
of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,
the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Comments always are welcome.

On Not Being Late To The Party

Late winter wetlands

As lingering autumn wildflowers succumb to January frost; as grasses shrivel and shred; as trees offer up their branches to importunate winds from the north and are rendered bare, a certain impatience begins to stir.

Winter is winter, after all, and bland, monochromatic landscapes can oppress the spirit as surely as long months of ice and snow. When fog insists on shrouding those same landscapes and gray, glowering skies refuse to lighten, questions inevitably arise: how long will it be until we see the change we long for? How long must we wait until this gray, dismal time gives way to spring?
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Taking The De Longpré View

“Pansies in a Pewter Vase” ~ Paul de Longpré

Tough and resilient, pansies bring a welcome touch of color to winter on the Texas coast. Beloved of landscapers and gardeners alike, the flowers tolerate cold, snow, and ice; even after days of freezing temperatures they recover quickly, and will bloom until the rising heat of summer wilts them away.

Some pansies, of course, never fade. Many years ago, I found a Paul de Longpré watercolor, “Pansies In A Pewter Vase,” at an estate sale. Entranced by the combination of pretty flowers and a beautifully constructed wooden frame, I brought the piece home, and hung it near my desk. Eventually, the artful signature led me to wonder: Who was this de Longpré fellow?
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