When Old Rules Meet New Situations

It seems the receptionist stepped out for a moment

It’s an old joke, but in certain circles it still gets a laugh:

“What’s the difference between a boatyard and a bar?”
“In a bar, someone might be working.”

To a degree, the joke’s rooted in reality. Boatyards have their share of hard workers, but they also shelter a variety of reprobates: scam artists, hustlers, and hard-drinking, hard-living sorts who aren’t necessarily subscribers to the Protestant work ethic. Skilled but not always schooled, they drift through coastal towns like so much flotsam and jetsam, rarely noticed or remarked by those who comb along life’s beaches.

On the waterfront, skilled craftspeople, under-employed shrimpers, undocumented workers, refugees from corporate boardrooms, and dedicated boat junkies ebb and flow with the tides. In the easy-going camaraderie that develops, there’s more than enough room for the idiosyncratic and quirky, the lazy, the listless, and the flatly mysterious drifters who show up from time to time.

By the time I began working in local yards, Varnish John had been around for years. Although not precisely a drifter, an aura of mystery surrounded him. He didn’t seem to frequent the local cafés or bars, and I never found him sitting in the sheds after work, drinking beer and swapping stories with other workers.

Despite his constant presence,  no one seemed to know his full name. When asked, he’d say only that he was from ‘up the coast.’ Tall and slender, showing only slight traces of youthful dissipation, he favored jeans and faded cotton shirts; he considered tee-shirts too informal for work at ‘the office.’

Despite his age — generally assumed to be around seventy or seventy-five — he seemed impervious to difficult weather conditions, working gloveless in winter and sometimes barefoot in summer.  Still, his brightwork was as beautiful as any I’d seen. He worked for only a few select customers, and during his occasional months-long absences, we always assumed he was in the islands, varnishing some elegant beauty of a boat in warm, Caribbean breezes.

Break time in the Boatyard

When in the yards, John rarely had much to say. He’d nod in passing, but avoided the easy banter typical of such places. In his own way unsubstantial as a wraith, he seemed wrapped in silence.  Always polite, he never invited approach. He simply ‘was’ — like the ospreys or herons watching from the edges of our world.

One day, bending over a trawler’s rail with my brush in hand, I felt a sudden presence. Looking up, I discovered John standing a few feet away, watching. I assumed he’d have nothing to say, until he surprised me by commenting on the weather and asking a few questions about my varnish and my brush.

Unwilling to stop working but not wanting to be thought impolite, I answered his questions as I moved down the rail. As I reached the rail’s end and straightened up, he said, “Good. You didn’t stop. Everyone wants to talk, so you have to learn to work and talk at the same time.” Then he turned, and walked off down the dock.

It was the first of many such encounters. John would materialize, watch, offer a pronouncement, and leave. Sometimes he offered technical tips so casually they hardly were noticeable. Some people were using this solvent rather than that; a different caulk might not mildew so badly.

Both practical and cautious, he insisted a shower, clean clothes, and a new brush were mandatory before final coats of varnish. Over time, as he taught me to varnish on clean winds blowing from the water, to recognize the first tendrils of winter fog, and to guard freshly-applied varnish with a vengeance, the truth of our relationship slowly dawned. I had a mentor.

One afternoon, in the course of a conversation about rebuilding businesses and communities after Hurricane Ike, John revealed one of his inviolable rules for life:After the big ‘un, you start where you can start, and do what you can do.”

At the time, his words seemed ordinary, and perhaps even trite. But over the years they’ve continued to resonate, particularly since they’ve applied so well to every circumstance of life: from the  realities of recovery from actual hurricanes to the wholly unexpected and utterly frustrating set of circumstances one of my vendors calls ‘the supply chain storm.’

Not every storm is as predictable as a hurricane, and I didn’t see the most recent one coming. Just after Memorial Day, when my car’s air conditioner began blowing warm air, I assumed a service call had to be added to my to-to list. Then, the AC began working again: until it didn’t. In fifteen minutes, it went from cold to warm and back again several times. When the ‘check engine’ light came on, I did the only reasonable thing and drove directly to my dealership. While I sighed over the need to leave my car while they ran their diagnostics, I accepted the offer of a complimentary Uber ride home, and prepared to wait it out.

The next day, the storm made landfall in the form of a casual phone call from my service representative. “It’s not the AC,” she said. “It’s the coolant bypass pipe. It has to be replaced.” “Great,” I said. “When will the car be ready?” After an extended pause, she said, “We don’t have the part in stock. We’ll have to order it, and it’s on backorder.” Suddenly nervous, I asked the obvious question. “How long is this going to take?” “Oh,” she said, “it should be here in three weeks.”

Yes, it’s a real sign. Danbury, Texas understands life.

As I outlined the list of difficulties presented by three weeks without a car, the service rep was sympathetic, but the options were limited. No loaner car was available, and the daily cost of a rental was exorbitant. I was going to be on my own.

When a friend working in the same marina offered to pick me up each morning and bring me home from work, that solved my most serious problem, and other friends took me to the grocery store. Still, I hadn’t been that grounded since I was in high school, and I wasn’t pleased.

When I called the dealership for updates, I learned that a shutdown of Toyota plants in Japan might be involved. Then again, the part might have been shipped; it might still be lingering in a container off a west coast port. When I pressed, a new date sort-of-certain was offered for completion of my repairs: June 25th, or perhaps the end of the month.

That’s when I remembered Varnish John, and his admonition to “Start where you can start, and do what you can do.” I started by getting the number of the required part — 162680T090 – Pipe Water By Pass — then did what I should have done much earlier. I went online, and began searching.

The next morning, I talked with a very helpful man at a Toyota parts dealership in Olathe, Kansas. They didn’t have the part in stock, but could get it. If I wanted to expedite things, the part could be sent air freight, and I could have it the next day. Of course I agreed. Never mind work; expeditions to places like Walden West demanded expeditious shipment.

For once, everything went smoothly. The Olathe dealership received the part in only hours, then forwarded it via FedEx Air Freight. When it arrived at my house the next morning, a friend took me to the dealership, where I handed 162680T090 to the Parts Manager. The service tech retrieved my car from the dealership’s back forty, and by that evening Princess and I were on our way home.

I still smile when I remember walking into the parts department with the water bypass pipe clutched in my hand, and the amazement expressed by the parts manager “How did you do it?” she asked. “We couldn’t find that part anywhere, and yet here you are. How’d you manage it?”

“Easy,” I said. “I started where I could start, and did what I could do.”

 

Comments always are welcome.

This Hour, and That One

Sunset on the prairie

After lying dormant for months, the familiar complaint rises again, grumbling across the land as the days shorten and nights grow cold. Repetitive and predictable as the season, the end of daylight saving time and the need to reset clocks surprises some, but irritates others: primarily those who care not a whit which official time prevails, but wish for an end to the continual changing of clocks.

Most consider ‘falling back’ or ‘springing forward’ nothing more than a relic of the past, like barn-raisings and butter churns. Over the years, the practice has been justified as a means of saving energy, protecting school children, and ending our nation-wide vitamin D deficiency, but definitive answers to those and other questions are no more possible than enlightening people who truly believe that we’re going to lose an hour of daylight when the clocks are changed.

Since I work by the sun and not by the clock, the lack of answers doesn’t bother me. Like my grandparents, I work from ‘kin to cain’t’ — from the hour the first bird takes flight into the dawn until the last light fades against the hills. Gauging the hour by the slant of the sun, I pace myself accordingly.

Still, living in the midst of a clock and calendar world, I need to take that world’s realities into account, including this weekend’s transition to ‘standard’ time.

At every time change, I remember a friend who took the mandate to change her clocks at a specified time so literally she would set an alarm. If the authorities said it should be done at 2 a.m., then 2 a.m. it would be. She had no desire to miss meeting her civic obligation.

She did it that way for years, and for years I gave her a hard time about it. She wouldn’t be swayed; she truly believed that, if only everyone in the country would set their clocks in the middle of the night as the experts advise, the world would be a better place.

In all the time I knew her, I never dared confess my approach to the end of daylight saving time. Not only do I avoid changing clocks in the middle of the night, I don’t bother resetting them before I go to bed, and I don’t adjust them while making coffee in the morning.

Instead, I consider the hour we ‘gain’ as we ‘fall back’ to be a gift from a minor god: a little chunk of time left lying at the edge of my life, waiting to be disposed of as I please.

Every autumn, I save my hour of reclaimed time until I need it, or find a frivolous use for it. While others busy themselves resetting clocks, I watch from the sidelines with a smile on my face, secure in the knowledge of the secret hour tucked into my pocket. Eventually I make use of that hour, but only then do I reset my clocks, putting myself more or less back in synch with the rest of the world.

Sunrise on Matagorda Island

Years ago, when different work meant different expectations, it wasn’t so easy; I had to make an effort to be on the same schedule as co-workers. Even now, there are practical limits to how long I can keep my extra hour; it isn’t feasible to keep it for Christmas shopping in December, or an especially pleasant February afternoon when a trip to the prairie becomes nearly irresistible.

Still, the ability to choose a use for that extra hour can become a delightful exercise.

Imagine, for example, that you’ve spent an afternoon doing paperwork, or laundry. At five o’clock, you decide you’ve had enough. You pull out your extra hour, declare it four o’clock, and sit back to relax with a book.

If you’d prefer a leisurely, late-afternoon walk, it’s just as simple. Tuck your extra hour into your bag and set off at a brisk clip until you feel yourself tiring. Then, take out your hour and slow down, secure in the knowlege that you’ll arrive home for supper with time to spare.

Over the years, I’ve used my extra hour to repot African violets, read The New Yorker, watch the sunset, and brush the cat. I’ve spent it talking with a friend, and browsing a bookstore. Once, I took a nap. I’ve used the time early, and I’ve used the time late. What never varies is using it with full awareness that it is my hour to do with as I please. If I choose to save it until Monday morning and dedicate it to an extra cup of coffee or sweeping the patio, so be it.

It’s a game, of course: this pretending that I have a time-treasure hidden away in my pocket like a shiny new dime. But it’s a game that provides multiple pleasures, and having the time tucked away is only the beginning. Deciding how that hour will be spent is the point. As Annie Dillard reminds us in her book, The Writing Life:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.

Each year, in the deciding and in the spending, I re-learn Dillard’s lesson: what is true for an hour is true for a day, and as those days add up, they become the sum and substance of our lives.

On any given morning, the time spread out before me as I rise looms larger than any play-hour, but it’s no less my time, and my responsibility to determine how it will be spent. Decisions already made — to be employed, to seek education, to raise children, to work within the community — necessarily predetermine much of our day’s course, but bits and pieces of time  remain ours alone: hours waiting to be used for creation, renewal, reflection, and relationship.

Despite our plaintive cry — I wish I had more time! — we have all the time there is. “There is no shortage of good days,” Dillard continues. “It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample, and its passage sweet.”

Sunset on the bayou

As we move from equinox to solstice, leaving the summer’s light and moving again into the darkness of the year’s bleak end, it can be easy to believe that the days themselves are shrinking: that our hours have shriveled, our minutes crumbled. But time is ample, enduring in daylight or dark; pouring into our lives from eternity’s store; waiting to be disposed of as we will.

Of course, time’s flow can be neither stopped nor reversed. In the words of Tennessee Williams:

[Time] is slipping away while I write this, and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, Loss, Loss — unless you devote your heart to its opposition.

 

Comments always are welcome.

A New Year’s Raid on the Inarticulate

 

The sky lowers, and the horizon disappears. A turning wind attempts to blanket the moon with sea-born fog, shrouding the contours of its face. Impassive, harshly brilliant above the fog, it rises ever higher behind fast-scudding clouds, lighting the transition between old and new: between one year and the next.

As midnight approaches, a lingering few stand silent, shrouded in a fog of thought, tangled in life’s web, caught between the land of no-longer and the land of yet-to-be. Perhaps a passing, shadowed thought suggests itself even to revelers in the street:This is the way of life.

Armies rise. Nations fall. Children squall into existence even as their elders sigh away toward death. Beyond the farthest reaches of the galaxies, unnamed stars explode with pulsating light while on our own shy, spinning globe, rotting leaves and the stench of steaming mud evoke a season’s final turn.

Amid these cycles and rhythms of life, against a backdrop of continuous change, torrents of words flow on: a steady sluice of syllables seemingly uncontained. For those who read, and especially for those who write, this flow of language brings solace. Like the river it resembles, language connects and cleaves, cleanses and comforts: nourishing the creativity taking root along its course.

Still, for poets, novelists, and essayists — for every story-teller or myth-maker stepping into or hesitating around this outpouring of words — another truth clamors for recognition.

Words, too, partake of life, rising and falling as surely as any civilization. Syllables rearrange themselves; paragraphs take on life; sentences fade into obscurity. True to their own rhythms and seasons, turned this way by time and that way by circumstance, words sometimes slip away and are lost: out of sight, out of mind, out of imagination.

Standing between last year’s language and next year’s words, T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” whispers of an experience every writer knows:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow…
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow…

Within the context of his poem, Eliot’s words carry particular meaning. But for writers of any sort, they perfectly communicate an imperfectly understood truth. Words are not solely ours to manipulate. We do not own words. We are not their masters. However faded and frayed they may be, no matter how lost to consciousness, no matter how twisted beyond recognition or firmly consigned to out-of-the-way corners of our mind, words demand respect, and words will have their way.

When the shadow of wordlessness comes upon us, when we sense our  language has grown old and tired as the visions of our spent imaginations, we can be tempted toward a  misunderstanding of words. Confronted by blank pages, we fuss and fiddle, attempting to revivify that which refuses to be reclaimed. When a loss of language comes, no formula or key, no magic phrase, no sturdy discipline or aligning stars will guarantee the continued liveliness of our words. Last year’s words belong to last year’s language, the poet says, and there the matter seems to end.

But of course it does not end, for next year’s words await another voice. Emerging words, nascent paragraphs, sentences and phrases filled with light lie waiting in the shadows of the coming year. Not yet written, still unclaimed, resonant as the tolling of the midnight bell and brilliant as a half-glimpsed moon, they are, in fact, our new year’s words.

Whether and how we will give them voice remains uncertain. Perhaps we will succeed. Perhaps not. But among those who have dared to ford the swiftly-flowing stream of language, some have sent back bulletins from a newly-discovered territory, granting us guidance for our path:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years —
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres —
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition.
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
                                                                     “East Coker” ~ T.S. Eliot

 

Comments always are welcome.

Living Outside The Lines

Apricot. Bittersweet. Burnt Sienna. Cornflower. Maize. Mahogany. Melon.

Those of us who grew up between 1949 and 1957 may remember those colors with special affection. Clear and vibrant as the bits of nature whose names they bear, they are classic Crayola colors: part of the box of forty-eight crayons that became one of my childhood’s greatest treasures.

Before 1958, the year the box containing sixty-four Crayolas was introduced, the forty-eight piece box was the big box: the box you received as a Christmas gift, or for a birthday, or because you’d contracted something like measles that would keep you in bed for a while. Continue reading

Seeing With A Grateful Eye

Flower Garden and Bungalow, Bermuda ~ Winslow Homer (1899)

Years before I encountered my first palm tree — decades before I dove into the watery azure, lapis, and turquoise ribbons connecting tiny and often unnamed Caribbean islands — I lingered in shadows of tangled bougainvillea and tumbling poinciana: a world of tropical dreams limned by Winslow Homer’s art.

One of America’s premier watercolorists, Homer moved from New York to Prout’s Neck, Maine in the summer of 1883. While his love of the New England coastline is obvious from his paintings, he often vacationed in Florida, Bermuda and the Caribbean. His unique vision of the islands, combined with mastery of his medium, resulted in exquisite renderings of sun-drenched homes, synchronized palms, and great, vivid falls of blossoms that seem to scent even the printed page. Continue reading