I quit writing this summer.
Each time I opened a document, new or old, my inner critic won. Sometimes I closed documents without saving them.
I avoided my notebooks, partial manuscripts, and poems.
Something inside me whispered that my unpublished words were worthless. That no matter how much time I spent arranging them on the page, they would always be worthless.
But then I went to the 2016 Hampton Roads Writers’ Conference.
Where I remembered why I started writing in the first place.
I remembered how stories haunt my dreams and daydreams. How the convection of my imagination brings characters and scenes to the surface over and over again, how writing these characters and scenes frees my imagination to create more characters and scenes.
I remembered the shiver of recognition when lines and phrases turn to music in a poem. It doesn’t happen in every poem I write, or even in every tenth poem, but when it does happen it’s magic.
I remembered how satisfying a difficult revision can be, both during and after the process. Like solving a puzzle or riddle. Pieces falling into place, sometimes falling into unexpected places. Creating order out of the chaos of previous drafts.
This insight was alchemy, the combined effect of a series of excellent presentations and workshops.
I can’t praise these presenters highly enough:
- Charlotte Matthews – White Space: Your Poem’s Red Bull™
- Mary Burton – Writing Your Novel One Draft at a Time
- John Robert Mack – Eliminating the Excuses
- Robert J. Crane – Writing Literary Crack: How to Keep Your Readers Coming Back Over a Long Series
- Charlotte Matthews – Brain Dead: Writing in the Total Absence of Inspiration
- Lt. Michael Lovely – Creating a Believable Crime or Murder Scenario
- Lt. Michael Lovely – Body Talk: Lying, Loving, and the Real Language of the Body
- Lt. Michael Lovely – Police Procedures and Investigations: Insights into a Cop’s World
I’m grateful to Hampton Roads Writers for putting together such a wonderful conference.
If you write, no matter what you write or why you write, check out one of the writing conferences near you.
Especially if you’ve quit writing.
The Nostalgia Shelves started with three bins of old books and a stack of tired posters. Many were as old as I am, and the wear showed. They were, literally, loved to pieces. Torn, faded, and stained, none of the items could be saved intact. So I dug out my scissors and bought some Mod Podge.
All of my old favorites found new purpose in the Nostalgia Shelves. Their stories are alive again.
What’s more, the horses have a new home.
I don’t have a “before” photo, but the “after” is definitely lighter and brighter.
And the unhoarding continues…
Every so often, time slips sideways. One week it’s May, and the next week July scrolls into August. I have photos and bills to prove that June actually happened, but it happened in a blur of travel, home repairs, and unhoarding.
My unhoarding saga began after Mother died, when the extent of her hoarding (and mine) could no longer be overlooked.
Mother’s hoard was generational. Parts of it accreted as she raised five children, other parts were passed down from two much-loved grandmothers, a formidable mother, a pair of admired aunts, and a somewhat difficult mother-in-law. With each obituary and burial came new photos, letters, books, furniture, glassware, doilies, and quilts.
The women who raised Mother had filled their homes with small treasures, and, because each of them had very real memories of hard, empty years, they treasured everything. Everything held a story, and all of the stories were passed to Mother (who had no siblings) for safe-keeping.
Fighting her own memories of hard, empty years, Mother made room for everything, stuffing her house to the eaves with family history. She made room in her heart, too, and genuinely loved this patchwork collection of heirlooms.
She loved it, that is, until it overwhelmed her.
The hoard took over Mother’s house, just as my hoard was taking over mine. In her house, as in mine, cabinets were jammed full, drawers wouldn’t close, shelves bowed under their burdens, one entire room was given over to storage.
In the wake of Mother’s car accident and death, as I helped my siblings sort and pack five generations of Mother’s belongings, I resolved to make a change. I didn’t want to carry on this tradition, the death ritual of dividing the hoard. Treasures or not, I no longer needed or wanted most of the stuff I had been hoarding.
Resolve is one thing, doing is another. And unhoarding is ridiculously hard work. It got even harder after I scraped off the easiest layers — books I was never going to read, clothes I was never going to wear, dishes I was never going to use. Then came the emotional stuff. Tattered childhood books. Scarred toys and threadbare stuffed animals. Memory-laden trinkets and gifts that warmed my hoarder’s heart.
I spent hours and days and weeks putting off decisions, moving containers from one room to another, painting around them as I dithered. Some days I was tempted to ship them all off to thrift stores, unopened and unsorted. Other days I fought an urge to unpack everything, to binge on dusty memories.
But I don’t want to live in a box of memory. To be owned by the past. So this summer I’ve been cleaning and repairing toys and stuffed animals. Some few will stay with me, others will go to thrift stores. What can’t be salvaged will be recycled or sent to the landfill. (After being photographed, of course.) I’ve also been cutting up old books, calendars, and posters for use in current and future art projects.
Some memories I’m voluntarily discarding, others have been lost in the commotion. But the house gets lighter and brighter with each newly emptied container, with each completed project.
And it feels like an even exchange — memories for light. Time for time.
I think Mother would approve. I think all of them would approve.
Fortunately, the herons aren’t shy.
Well, most of them aren’t shy.
The rainy day suited other foragers, too.
I’m hoping to visit again soon. In the meantime, yesterday morning I met two friends at Pleasure House Point, where we enjoyed a walk that started in fog and ended in sunshine.
This was my first visit to Pleasure House Point, but it won’t be my last. As the fog lifted, I fell more and more in love with the mixed terrain.
And with the wildlife. Here again, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were the stars of the show.
There were plenty of other attractions, all equally beautiful.
We even caught a glimpse of a Clapper Rail, a new bird for me. (I sent one of the photos to our local wildlife columnist for identification, because I couldn’t convince myself that it really was a Clapper Rail.)
I’m eager to return to Pleasure House Point, and to see my friend’s heron nest again. But first on my list are unfinished projects in the house and yard. Then I have a couple of short stories to write. And poems to submit. And manuscripts to revise.
The list goes on, as lists tend to do.
In 2012 I wrote a blog post about the Unknown Birds folder in my photography archive. The folder was over-full and impossible to navigate.
I needed a better system.
The obvious solution was to separate my Unknown Birds folder into a series of known bird folders.
At first I tackled the problem in my usual way, with books and bookmarked websites and a notebook to keep track of everything.
I still find sparrows, warblers, and chickadees endlessly confusing.
But my Unknown Birds folder is almost empty.
Still unknown. Probably a warbler, possibly a Tennessee Warbler?
Almost. The above bird is has defied all of my attempts to identify it. (It also defied most of my attempts to photograph it, which is why my best photo from the encounter is poorly lit and out of focus.) So I’m asking for help. Can you identify my unknown warbler? Is there enough information in the photo for a definitive identification? Please comment, especially if you can correct or confirm any of my other identifications!
Finally, the following photos are evidence of what happens when I get over-excited about a visitor in the yard and forget to check my camera settings…
There’s more wrong than right in these photos, but I kind of love them anyway.
I visited with friends last Saturday, sampling dishes of couscous and sweet potato frittata and chia seed pudding. After eating, we took a stroll around my friend’s yard, which slopes down to a watery area. A watery area with a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron!
My friend has seen these birds in her yard several times in the past, so we weren’t caught completely by surprise. Even so, I was very excited. (And very grateful that she had suggested I bring my camera.)
We watched for a while as the heron hunted in the shallows.
Then we wandered on, exploring more of the yard.
When I was leaving, as we all stopped on the driveway to say our goodbyes, the heron flew into a pine tree in front of the house. To our amazement, it crept out onto a branch and settled into its nest! Right in the front yard!
I’ve already packed my tripod in the car, so I won’t forget it next time I visit. The nest is too high for steady video, without a tripod…
I spent much of Tuesday dodging rain, popping in and out of the house with my camera, hoping to catch a photo of our returning hummingbirds. The hummingbirds didn’t cooperate, but the yard’s other birds were quite willing to pose.
During one session of waiting and watching, a brief disturbance in the pear tree was followed by a grackle landing in the grass.
Just before I snapped the above photo, I caught a glimpse of what looked to be a rather large moth disappearing down the grackle’s throat. See all the fuzz on its beak? That’s moth fur. A few moments later an intact wing (and parts of other wings) drifted out of the tree’s upper branches.
After I finished photographing the wing, I noticed something else in the grass. Another moth!
I haven’t seen a Polyphemus moth up close since I was a child. This one seemed stunned, letting me take photos with my macro lens from every angle. I have a suspicion that the grackle had just eaten her mate.
She didn’t have any visible wounds, but she was clearly unable to fly. I let her climb onto my hand, then snipped a twig from the pear tree–something familiar for her to rest on as she recovered from whatever shock had knocked her to the ground. While she rested, I took a few more photos…
The Polyphemus Moth page at the University of Florida’s Featured Creatures site explains the origin of the moth’s name: “It is named after Polyphemus, the giant cyclops from Greek mythology who had a single large, round, eye in the middle of his forehead (Himmelman 2002). The name is because of the large eyespots in the middle of the hind wings.”
When it became apparent that my moth wasn’t interested in leaving her new perch, I propped the twig in my butterfly box and moved her into the garage.
I meant only to keep her safe until an approaching storm had passed, and planned to release her after dark. (Polyphemus moths are nocturnal. Also, they don’t feed as adults. Their sole occupation after emerging is to mate and, in the case of females, lay eggs.) But my moth had plans of her own. By the time the weather cleared, she had begun laying eggs.
I didn’t want to disturb her during such important work, so I left her to it. By morning, I was the stunned one. So many eggs!
I’m planning to put most of the eggs back in the pear tree, when she’s finished laying.
Most, but not all. I can’t resist keeping a few. For documentary blog purposes…