Enter stillness to practice listening

IMGtreesBerkshires2On a stretch of highway near Great Barrington, MA, I was called to stop at a dirt road framed by trees (pictured above). On one side a cemetery hid in the shade and on the other a green, grassy lawn stretched into the sunlight. The road felt majestic like the trees were tall knights guarding a secret passage. And the road’s existence itself felt hidden, especially to me as someone who wasn’t from the area but rather enjoying an extended stay one hot July.

Very few people traveled the road. It was quiet. Surrounded by these tall, beautiful trees I felt an invitation to be still, to listen.

When I look at images from my time on this small stretch of road, I’m reminded of one of my favorite poems by David Wagoner, Lost, from Collected Poems 1956-1976, Indiana University Press.

It begins,

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.

Reading the poem alone brings a sense of stillness and calm but above that it captures the knowingness of the trees and what exists in the space of the present moment. 

Read the entire poem on the Writer’s Almanac site.


Books that fill the sky with color

IMG_MayaAngelouSky (1)Some books fill the sky with color. Some authors leave a distinct hue, their indelible mark in the space beyond the clouds. When Maya Angelou passed on May 28 in 2014, I watched a gorgeous sky(pictured above) take shape at sunset in Salinas, Ecuador. The clouds stretched across the sky and shades of pink lingered before giving way to gold then yellow then orange.

It was her sky that evening, a majestic tribute in her honor. That evening I began a Maya Angelou reading marathon of sorts. While familiar with her poetry, I hadn’t read her autobiographies. I started with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which opens with a vivid scene of a young Maya in church. She evokes feelings of displacement and not being enough through a description of an ill-fitting, faded lavender dress.

“It was old-lady-long too, but it didn’t hide my skinny legs, which had been greased with Blue Seal Vaseline and powdered with the Arkansas red clay.”

She goes on to compare her skin to the color of mud, the minister’s wife has a long yellow face, and then a green persimmon or a lemon catches her between the legs after she trips on her way to the bathroom. Angelou manages to work every color of the rainbow into her story.

By the time I finished reading all of her autobiographies, she had taken residence in our home on the beach. I felt her presence in the hammock, in the bedroom with the green decor, and at the kitchen table. We had many visitors come and go during that extended stay but the one person I felt most connected to was Angelou.

Her stories were like the clouds in the sky floating in and around me, coming and going. Now each time I think about Salinas, I can’t help but remember her life experiences. For me Salinas belongs to the ocean, the sea lions, the sunsets, and Maya Angelou.

Allow space to create

Rustic Writers' Retreat Hike

A cow stands guard at a clearing in the woods in Mount Vernon, New Jersey.

I noticed the cow standing guard at a clearing in the woods. He had wandered into the forest and watched as we trekked to an area of moss-covered rocks. It was sometime after 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning. I had led a group on a hike during a recent Jersey City Writers rustic retreat in Mount Vernon, New Jersey. About 11 of us were staying in a farmhouse for a weekend writing immersion.

Could we be as diligent and disciplined with our writing as the cows were with their grass chewing and grazing? Could we return to the same field day after day? What these cows had was incredible amounts of space to go about their work and that’s what we were attempting to create for ourselves. But creating space to write requires more than just showing up to a retreat, your chair, laptop, or notebook for that matter. Landing in a scenic, quiet setting doesn’t instantly bring words to the page.

You have to allow for the space that comes from just being. You have to let go of all the distractions that keep your mind cluttered and allow for that clearing in the woods to manifest inside. I found that the moments I spent hiking through the woods, observing the night sky, or just listening and watching the cows as they pretended to be busy were just as valuable to creating space as sitting down in front of a blank screen.

Where a graffiti astronaut roams

Sculpture or time machine portal for graffiti astronauts?

Sculpture or time machine portal for graffiti astronauts?

I ran into one of my characters from a short story on a walk through downtown Jersey City not too long ago. He stood still at the corner of Second and Hudson Street. Despite his steely silence, he spoke to me from the words and letters painted on his torso. This wasn’t your average José, this was a character that had once been written about in the New York Times. In that 2001 article, he is described as a “Man of Steel.” But instead of the blazon, red letter S on a superhero’s chest, this man of steel has a graffiti green letter N on one leg and a letter S on the other. A necklace of white graffiti stretches across his shoulders. I have walked by him many times in recent years but on this day in late October 2013 he took on a new shape and form—that of a graffiti astronaut.

“Graffiti astronauts,” is the title of a collection of short stories I am working on. When I saw the sculpture it was as if a character in my head had manifested on the street before me sheathed in metal.

The "Longshoreman," sculpture in Jersey City.

The “Longshoreman,” sculpture in Jersey City.

“This is what a graffiti astronaut looks like,” I thought.

When I took a closer look, however, I noticed that artist Steve Singer had long ago named the sculpture “Longshoreman.” Commissioned by Candlewood Hotel and Suites, the piece was installed Oct. 26, 2001. The sculpture represents Jersey City’s past when long shoremen worked the waterfront on tugboats and ships that lined up at the moorings. This was during the industrial and manufacturing age in the 19th and 20th centuries when many railroads ended at the Jersey City waterfront and factories dominated the landscape.

I wasn’t around for the Jersey City of that time, but when I walk along the waterfront through various neighborhoods, I pick up on clues—like this sculpture—that offer glimpses into what once was.

Then again, this could be a TARDIS disguised as a sculpture that serves as a time and space travel machine for graffiti astronauts. That would be awesome!

Characters drawn in graffiti


Sea-earth-mother goddess

Street art: Banos, Ecuador

Astronaut family

By the time we arrived at the road named after Juan Montalvo, a famous Ecuadorian author and essayist, the dawn’s mountain mist had given way to gray morning light. The streets in Baños, Ecuador were mostly empty and quiet that Sunday morning as my husband and I made our way to the thermal pools. Without a map or a guide, our desire to get to the healing mineral baths served as our compass.

We headed in the wrong direction at first, waited for a bus, then walked uphill, then hailed the bus down, then walked uphill some more. As we walked through the center of town, I stopped often but not only to ask for directions rather to look at the amazing murals and graffiti along the way.

On one wall a sea-mother-earth goddess slept while her baby volcano spouted clouds of pink and purple. On another wall an astronaut family glowing pink held hands walking in one direction perhaps on a trek of their own. From faces to cryptic letters to aliens, the drawings told a story about life in the Northern foothills of the Tungurahua volcano. I felt a part of that tale if only for a brief moment – a quirky character wearing socks and sandals – trekking up a mountain, sometimes lost, but with a destination and purpose in mind.

Socks and sandals

A character manifests

Wish you were here, and here, and here…

View of Costanza, Dominican Republic

View of Costanza, Dominican Republic

How many words can you fit on the back of a postcard? Given that the address, stamp, and printed text take up space, you may just fit 25 to 30 words in the narrow white square on the left, and that’s if you write in a tame-sized cursive. Despite the brevity of the handwritten note on a traditional postcard, the image on the front offers a context for the recipient whether it portrays random people sunbathing on the beach in Venice, Fla. or a panoramic view of Montreal.

The postcard leaves out a lot of details – never meant to reveal the true nature of an experience – it offers no more than a snapshot. And who is to say that the snapshot isn’t pure fiction? Perhaps, it conveys an imagined sense of what we hoped a trip would be like for those back home but not what really took place. There wasn’t a postcard for the time I was knocked over by a huge wave at Point Pleasant only to surface without my bikini top or for the time I was bedridden for days from food poisoning in Costanza, Dom.

For many, the white dialog box on Facebook and Twitter has replaced the postcard tradition. Gone is the lone, unknown surfer catching a wave. Now, it’s you, caught on camera, white water rafting down a turbulent river. The expressed sentiment, “wish you were here,” has been replaced with, “look at me.” Despite the fact that you aren’t visualizing all 432 friends or followers as you trek up Machu Picchu they end up going along for the ride once you start uploading images step by step. But what do you say to all those people? “Thinking of you,” doesn’t seem plausible.

Instead you combine images and text to weave together a narrative. You leave footprints of text that form an online trail or tale rather – a story for the friend or follower – your very own postcard fiction.

Postcard greetings from Galapagos

Sorting through postcards at Post Office Bay

Sorting through postcards at Post Office Bay

When I arrived at Post Office Bay, which is located on the Galapagos island Floreana, I had my postcard all ready to go. The issue was whether it would go anywhere at all. Without a stamp or an official mail carrier, I had no idea whether my postcard would ever leave the confines of the small wooden barrel I had left it in. If I had been a sailor during the late 1800s, then I may have stopped by Floreana to drop off a letter bound for Europe. Back then a sailor depended on homeward bound ships to deliver mail picked up from the island’s rudimentary wooden barrel post office.

I thought the trick to getting my postcard sent, other than it falling into the hands of a tourist who lived near the addressee in New Jersey, was to write something unexpected. Some of the postcards I read left behind by tourists who had arrived before me said things like, “I left this card for you at Post Office Bay. If you receive it someone who also visited Post Office Bay picked it up and delivered it to you. It also means that I was thinking about you.” One postcard contained a love letter addressed to a woman who lived near Niagara Falls. I thought the message was intimate, rather personal. Not a generic, “wish you were here!” – like the others. The sender professed his love, saying, “The times we spent together are the happiest of my life. I only hope that we can carry on…” It was the message that moved me. I held onto that postcard and tucked it away into my backpack.

Within a few weeks after returning from Ecuador, my relative showed me the Galapagos postcard I addressed to her. It had evidently caught someone’s eye. The fellow traveler didn’t hand deliver it but rather sent it via regular post.

It read, “May whoever reads this postcard receive infinite happiness, joy, and love…If this postcard reaches its destination then Freddy and I will return to Galapagos.”