Messages in a Bottle

Flannery O’Connor with editor Robbie Macauley in 1947 (Wikimedia)

Even among the literati, mothers can be difficult to impress. In a letter written to author Cecil Dawkins in 1959, Flannery O’Connor congratulated Cecil for being paid $1,000 for a story — a figure that more than doubled Flannery’s current top payment of $475. Somewhat wryly, Flannery added:

Your sale to the Post ought to impress your mother greatly.  It sure has impressed my mother, who brought the post card home. 
The other day she asked me why I didn’t try to write something that people liked, instead of the kind of thing I do write.  Do you think, she said, that you are really using the talent God gave you when you don’t write something that a lot, a LOT of people like? 
This always leaves me shaking and speechless, raises my blood pressure 140 degrees, etc.  All I can ever say is, if you have to ask, you’ll never know.

I still laugh when I read that passage. Shortly after my first computer arrived, my mother began nosing around it like a wary dog circling a snake, asking questions of her own. “What are you going to do with it?”  I didn’t know, and said so. “Well, how much did it cost?”  I did know that. Despite reservations born of experience, I told her. The disapproving silence thickened. “You spent all that money for something, and don’t even know how you’re going to use it?” 

Clearly, she regarded my computer as nothing more than the newest version of the hula-hoop or Mr. Potato Head, and I was her idiot child, consumed with a child’s breathless longing to possess the same toys as my friends.

As the months passed and my mysterious toy began demanding ever more time, her perplexity increased. She’d come to understand the practicality of email and the profitability of eBay, but the hours spent on my new blog confounded her. “Why are you still on that machine?” she’d say, peering over the top of her knitting. “Who reads those things, anyway?  Why not do something productive?” 

Since she refused even to sit at the computer, I began printing out occasional blog posts for her to read. She’d murmur some nice, motherly compliment, but usually ended by asking the question that would have made Flannery O’Connor’s mother proud: “When is somebody going to pay you for all this?”

Equating dollars with quality is natural enough. The first and only local writing group I joined once published this food for thought in its newsletter:

“Never give your writing away. If you don’t receive payment, your writing is worthless.”

Everyone in the group believed that, and for months I fussed over the issue, unable to refute either the logic or the assumptions of members who kept asking, “When are you going to start doing some real writing?” The question of worth was everywhere, and many of us in an online writing group recognized the dilemma expressed by Becca Rowan as our own:

 I find it all too easy to sink into pessimism about my own writing. “What’s the point?” I sometimes find myself thinking. “Who cares what I have to say? Why bother struggling to find just the right word, to come up with the perfect idea, to create an evocative image?  What difference can it possibly make to the world?”

Reading Becca’s words, I sensed her effort was justified, as was mine.  I remained convinced  my writing was worth the hours stolen from sleep; the decisions to forego evenings out; the end of television and social media. I simply didn’t know why.

Eventually, I found the beginning of an answer in an off-handed remark made by a woman with decades of experience in the classroom. “Teaching is like throwing out words in a bottle,” she said. “Sometimes you’re lucky, and the bottle reaches shore.”

Her metaphor seemed apt: as much for blogging as for teaching. Like a message in a bottle, each post is tossed into the currents of the great cyber-sea to bob, tumble, and drift about until safely reaching shore, or being broken and destroyed on the rocks. 

For blog-bottle throwers, of course, letting go is everything. Whatever the content of the bottle’s note, its words and images will have no opportunity to touch people, to clear their vision, to bring comfort, to elicit a wry smile or a sigh of satisfaction until the bottle is set free to travel.

It does take time for bottles to bob their way to the beaches of the world.  It takes even more time for someone to find them, and sometimes it requires pure luck for the message to be plucked out and read. Today, I can’t help being amazed by how many of my own metaphorical bottles have been pulled from the surf and preserved in one way or another.

A woman in Salisbury who’d put her own writing on hold felt an implicit challenge in one essay, and began writing again.  A St. Louis executive found a lesson for the workplace in Godette’s choice of inspiration over competition.  Roger Stolle, owner of Cat Head in Clarksdale, Mississippi reprinted some reflections on their Juke Joint festival in one of his newsletters. The Moon Lake Improvement Association included my story of a visit to Uncle Henry’s roadhouse in the history section of their site. An astronomer added The Comet Watchers to his links.

Each of these connections pleased me, but nothing represents the satisfactions of blog-bottle tossing as well as my experience with “Search Pattern,” a poem written in response to the death of Roger Stone.

Safety Officer aboard the sailing vessel Cynthia Woods during the 2008 Regata de Amigos offshore race from Galveston to Veracruz, Roger lost his life while saving five crewmates from death after their sailboat capsized.

He was well known in the local sailing community, and while I’d never met him, I was deeply affected by his death.  While the Coast Guard conducted their search and rescue mission, and during its sad aftermath, there was little else I could do, so I wrote a poem titled “Search Pattern.”

Due north from south
then south again
the heart flies,
anxious in its unexpected space,
winging over absence
with an osprey’s climbing curl,
unfettered but forlorn.
From east to west
frail rising hope streams light
across conviction’s shattered hull;
love’s fruitless oars, adrift
beyond this longing reach
float half-submerged,
splintered as the fragments of a dream.
What life remains,
preserved through night’s long tumult
to wash, exhausted, onto shore?
The osprey climbs.
The oars drift on.
The heart resumes its wheeling flight
due north from south,
then south again,
across a bowl of tears.

After writing and posting the poem, I moved on. Then, nine months later, I found this comment appended to the poem on its blog page:

Hi,
I am Roger Stone’s widow. I ran across this poem just now, and I want to thank you so much for it.  The introduction was so touching, too.  If I would have seen this before his service, I would have loved for you to have read it. 
I miss Roger every day, and seeing this at this time touched my soul. Thank you again.
Linda Stone

That she had found the poem at all, that she had been kind enough to comment, and that the one person I wished could read the poem had, in fact, done so seemed extraordinary. In the brief correspondence that followed, I gave Linda permission to use the poem as she saw fit.  At the time, she intended to enlarge and frame it, and then to hang it in Roger’s office in their new home – the office he never got to use.

Somewhat later, on the Mitchell Campus of Texas A&M University at Galveston, Linda Stone once again described events of that tragic day as she accepted the Coast Guard’s Gold Lifesaving Medal on behalf of her husband. The medal, established by Congress in 1874, is awarded by the Coast Guard Commandant to any person who rescues, or endeavors to rescue another person from drowning, shipwreck, or other peril of the sea.

Roger and his medal ~ U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy Petty Officer Patrick Kelley

Watching Linda receive the award on behalf of Roger, envisioning my poem gracing the wall of the office he never used, and still astonished by her improbable discovery of my blog months after the loss of the Cynthia Woods, all I could think was, “Some worth can’t be calculated.”  

I still believe that. Not every cause has an immediate effect, and not every hour invested brings immediate return. Only a willingness to take the longer, less calculating view of things allows any artist to keep tossing bottles into the sea ~ bottles filled with treasure that one day, some day, will wash onto a receptive shore.

Comments always are welcome.

A Bowl Full of Happiness

Blue Bell Creamery, Brenham, Texas – Sculpture by Veryl Goodnight

Long before I developed a childhood infatuation with Davy Crockett — Tennessee’s semi-mythical, raccoon-cap wearing, bear-killing mountaineer — a more civilized and accomplished David Crockett was being encouraged to enter the 1836 Presidential race.

In the end, Martin Van Buren won that election, defeating a coalition of William Henry Harrison, Hugh White, and Daniel Webster to replace President Andrew Jackson, but Crockett never became a contender. His hopes for a Presidential run ended after he lost his 1835 Congressional race to an attorney named Adam Huntsman: a man supported by President Jackson and Governor Carroll of Tennessee.

Disillusioned with politics and eager for a fresh start, Crockett set off for Texas on November 1, 1835, accompanied by William Patton, Abner Burgin, and Lindsey K. Tinkle. The men spent their first evening in Memphis, where they gathered with friends in the bar of the Union Hotel for drinks and celebration.

Never one to mince words, and perhaps encouraged by drink, Crockett reflected on recent events and referred again to Huntsman, who happened to have a wooden leg. “Since you have chosen to elect a man with a timber toe to succeed me,” he said, “you may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.” Continue reading

The Lady and La Salle

La Salle (1643-1687) ~ Raoul Josset

Larger than life, envied in success and plagued by failure, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle may have landed on Texas shores by mistake, but he certainly left his mark. 

Born in France a century after Cabeza de Vaca shipwrecked west of Galveston Island, and two centuries before the first shiploads of German immigrants made their way inland from Indianola, La Salle followed his brother to New France (now Canada) in order to enter the fur trade.

Once in New France, he discovered a preference for travel over trapping. Launching a first expedition to the Ohio River in 1669, he spent several years combining business with the pleasures of exploration. In 1682, he traveled the length of the Mississippi River, laying claim to the entirety of the immense drainage basin for France, and naming the territory Louisiana, after King Louis XIV. Continue reading

The Way of All Words

The sky lowers, and the horizon disappears. A turning wind blankets 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 moonlit shard of truth reveals itself to revelers in the street: this is the way of life.  What has been passes away into forgetfulness, while that which is yet-to-be stirs toward vitality.

Armies rise. Nations fall. Children squall into existence, even as their grandparents 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 mud evoke a season’s final turn. Continue reading

Goldilocks Meets T.S. Eliot

Goldilocks' Three Bowls

I try to pay attention. Truly, I do. Still, I’m constantly searching for my car keys. It slips my mind that I should stop at the grocery for milk, or swing by the pharmacy to pick up prescriptions. Occasionally, I neglect to feed the cat until she nudges at my foot, murmuring her complaint. Computer passwords dissolve into the ether, along with the names of former school chums, padlock combinations and the phone number of my favorite aunt. 

People who understand such things tell me this everyday-forgetting is unremarkable.  A little more age here, a few more-interesting things to ponder there, and the mind wanders off, unconcerned with milk, kitties or keys.

Over time, I’d even forgotten my promise to some blogging friends that I would tell them the story of the beginnings of The Task at Hand – specifically, how it received its title and tagline. Being a Janus-faced month, a time for pondering the past as well as looking toward the future, January seems as good a time as any to recount the story of those first, halting steps onto the path called “writing”. Continue reading

Taking It All Away

As parents will to children and teachers to students, most craftsmen seem to enjoy passing on accumulated wisdom in the form of pithy sayings. Some are humorous, like my carpenter friend’s reversal of common-sense advice that always leads to giggles. “Measure once, cut twice”, he intones with a straight face before we both laugh, knowing how many disasters from the past still lie scattered along that ill-advised path. Other snippets of practical wisdom are more serious and reverberate with truth. No less a wall-tender than the poet Robert Frost knew the distinction between a job and a career. He described it as the difference between working forty hours a week  and sixty, a reality some discover too late, and much to their chagrin. Continue reading