Sunday, November 18, 2012

sing around the campfire, pt. 2, or an ant, a leaf, a feather — there's a story in there somewhere

this fall day had me thinking about something i wrote long ago.

' in strictest confidence'

running
through a shower
of autumn tears
shed by seasoning trees
snuggling, thick-sweatered and listening
as fall whispers
her first, crisp secret
makes me want to be
a tattletale.

— seb '77 

i wrote the poem as a sophomore in college while taking my first creative writing class. i had the best professor in the world, who on the first day sat us on the front campus of our small woman's college and told us to find a poem.

find one? lord. this would be impossible. the only poetry i had written up to that point was about jim croce's too-early demise, or a pretty awful attempt at a love poem to my boyfriend that i am sure i copied from some song i'd heard but felt the lyrics needed to be rewritten.

i remember sitting there by a huge old oak, studying the grass like i used to do as a child, when i invented tiny cities of people living like ants below the weeds and moss in our side yard. 

that day i found an ant, an amber ant as i recall who scurried, a lot (i was into verbs then, as now), and he meandered, and required a lot of adverbs (which i later learned to lose, thank goodness.) 

but something big happened that day. that fall, in that class, i felt as if someone had taken the stitching out of the top of my brain so all my inside thoughts could pour out. nobody had ever given me that kind of permission before. and pour they did, into stories and poems and half-started novels. i wrote some pretty bad stuff, but some things i am still proud of, like the poem up there, and i found myself lost in time, doing exactly what i had gotten into trouble for in school and at home — daydreaming, my head gently floating with the clouds. imagine. being given permission to do that! and it was bliss.

this month, our entire parish has been reading one book — Joan Chittister's Following the Path. It's a simple book about how God equips us for special work, about how it's a pretty good idea to pay attention to the signals we get from God along this path of ours. she writes about decisions we make as young adults, when we can make them for ourselves for the first time — and the forks we take in the road in those years that change everything, sometimes in a moment. 

i'm way past that one, of course, but wouldn't you know, just when i hit the age of the speed limit on a country road, she poses a question: when was the last time you lost yourself in something you loved so much that you lost all track of time?

i can remember it happened in that class, and in other writing classes i've taken over the years. in a weeklong writing residency back at that same college 15 years ago. it sometimes happens on a rainy afternoon when my head is stuck in a really good book. happened when i was having a good conversation with a friend or my kids (so rare) but whenever it has happened, most often, words have something to do with it. i can tell you it never once happened in math class.

a few weeks ago, it happened again, in the middle of doing something i thought i would hate. i went back to camp. yes, 40 years after that most harrowing of experiences, my friends of the friendless forced me to face my fears. 

this time, i volunteered to do something i love, in hopes of warding off any homesickness that might come about from sharing bathrooms and bunkrooms with strangers — writing of course! but when they scheduled it for 9:30 PM!, i politely (i hope) said that nobody (not me anyway) wanted to take part in a writing class when it was practically (my) bedtime.

when morning broke, a whipping rain meant i could have a morning class after all. so i gathered up my idea bag and hoped someone in addition to my FoFs would be there sitting on the other side of the table from where i stood.

a few ladies dribbled in, strange but hopeful faces, and then my FoFs walked through the door and i felt a little bit safe. answers varied for why they came, but most have felt that pull of the story, somewhere in their lives. they just didn't know how to find it.

before camp, we'd been challenged to make a headdress for that night's competition, and so i had a bag full of colorful feathers in my grip. each woman took a feather and as she studied its form, i hoped (prayed) i could be like my favorite professor and coax a story out.

i started with a simple question, really. one that works if the writer is five or 55. look at the feather. what does the color remind you of?

the writers made long lists, but among them were these jewels, one from each:
  • a cashmere sweater. a favorite sweater. bought in ireland. which the writer did NOT want to write about!
  • a hurricane warning flag. (the writer is a sailor)
  • a cat collar. (for a cat whose name is Tina Turner)
  • a daughter's tea set. (just recently passed down to a cousin who is hoping for a baby soon)
  • a mother's iris garden (similar to irises this gentle-natured writer had beheaded as a girl when challenged by a friend to follow suit)
  • a green sweater. (the writer knew her mother would not it consider 'servicable')
  • a old Renault (no more reliable than the husband who bought it)
  • blown glass (in an historic home the writer decorated)
  • a grown son's 4-year-old red sneakers (from a mother who taught that son to appreciate really great shoes as a way to show his personality)
  • thunder clouds (clouds that later brought trees down at a single mother's home while her daughter was home alone)
and so they wrote those stories. or at least started them. and shared them. and we talked about what we loved and what we were curious about, and i tugged tightly at what was holding the story in until i could see in their eyes that it was coming right on out of them and onto the paper. 

the cashmere sweater was the go-to garment for comfort and for feeling beautiful. for years. the sailor had only ever written a really great grocery list but she had a novel in her head, so why not begin each chapter with a provisions list? Tina Turner, it turns out, was the first cat the woman now known as the 'cat lady' in her town had ever rescued. and green sweater? my dear friend had just spent days cleaning out her mother's closet before moving her to a nursing home, and she found a strapless 40s-era dress that must have been more than serviceable once upon a time. the stories grew on.

over two hours later, i looked at my watch, lost, i had been, in not my story, but theirs. after class, i had trouble calming down, i felt such energy from this trading of tales, from helping these women see something new.

it wasn't until later that i realized i hadn't felt so lost in time in a very long time. but this two hours on a rainy saturday morning far from home reminded me how much i love poking my head around not just my story, but others' stories, too. (that night, they asked me to tell the story at the campfire. imagine! and i told my first camp story, which helped, in a way, to finally get over it. for the record, they GASPED when i told them of my mother almost leaving me in her dust. so sorry beety jean.)

this week i paid a short visit home, and found the poem about the leaves hanging in the same place where it has been for all these many years — on the wall right next to the washing machine. (that Christmas my friends and i were in a counted cross-stitch phase, and i had stitched the words out for my mother as a gift. she hung it right where she spent large parts of her days back then, and now, come to think of it. penance for the camp thing? maybe.)

and so i am back at it, the thing that makes me lose all track of time. it's a meandering story, but i've found that it's in the meandering where the story usually lies.

i'm late for supper. (fixing it, that is.) i'd be late for most things, if i gave into the words and let them meander whatever path they choose.








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