Sunday, July 15, 2012

It's A Long Story

I am, I’ve been told, a good storyteller. I’ve been told this enough that I’ve come to accept it as true.One should be careful about what one accepts as true.

Last week I took off a couple of days to spend some time at the beach with friends. One night a number of us gathered at a local barbecue place for supper, sat outside at a long weathered picnic table, let the wood smoke settle into our clothes and hair, and forgot about the world on the other end of the causeway. The food and atmosphere were good, the conversation better.

When we’d finished off the barbecue and potato salad and fried Oreos, our bodies tired from a long day in the sun and our brains just about empty of things like deadlines and to-do lists, we adjourned from the barbecue joint and reconvened a few blocks away at my friends’ family beach house – a remodeled ranch with just enough bunk beds to hold all the grandchildren. The collection of four girls had ice cream cones and chased the dog around the backyard and then came inside just about the time the grown-ups sat down to continue the conversations that, somehow, you just never get around to having at home.

And that’s when the stories started. Something reminded somebody of something and we laughed and that reminded me of something else and I said, "Remember when?" and, the next thing I knew, Katie Anne, the youngest of the four assorted girls, was on the arm of my chair, her face locked on mine, mimicking my expressions, smiling and scowling at all the right moments, laughing on cue.
"Tell us another story," she said. And I gladly did.

Eventually it was time to break up the party, but I promised Katie Anne that I had more stories, one really good story, in fact, and that I would share it the next day at the pool where we’d all agreed we would see each other again.

I looked forward to telling Katie Anne the story. It’s a good story. Everybody I’ve ever told this story liked it. Katie Anne would like it, too. I was sure of it.

I shouldn’t have been.

The next day, as the other girls squealed and splashed in the pool, chased each other and the sole boy cousin who had come along, Katie Anne sat at the end of the lounge chair where I had spread out an appropriately garish beach towel and listened to the story. Except this time her face didn’t stay locked on mine, she didn’t mimic my expression, she scowled a good bit more than she smiled, and she – most obviously – did not laugh.

When I got to the end, she stood up and walked over to the ladder at the deep end of the pool. "So, Katie Anne, did you like the story?" I called.

"It was long," she offered and jumped into the water.

Her mother, who was sitting nearby, and I now did the laughing. So much for being a good storyteller.

She was right though. The story was long. And long is not what Katie Anne had wanted, expected, or needed when a pool full of children was right there within reach. Life can be like that. When what you get isn’t what you want, expect, or need it can seem nothing short of long.

Notice, though, that Katie Anne didn’t say the story was too long. She didn’t offer that it was longer than necessary, desirable, or right. It was simply long. And it is in that differentiation that I found the real point of her declaration.

Life – in its entirety or on any given day – isn’t too anything. It simply is. Long or short. Exhilarating or exhausting. Confusing or enlightening. The same goes for one’s work, relationships, dreams. None of them is more than or less than necessary, desirable, or right. Attaching adverbs like too and very and overly to people and experiences is disrespectful at best and dangerous at worst. We steal from ourselves when we choose to do so.

My story was long. Just long. I’m still a good storyteller and I will tell that story again. Just not to Katie Anne.

Copyright 2012

Sunday, July 01, 2012

4224 Second Street, East Beach

This week my friend Lea found herself packing up and leaving forever a place that she dearly loves. It has belonged to her family for over 40 years and has held, not just the funky, eclectic mixture of furniture that houses at the beach normally collect, but significant memories for four generations and more than a little piece of each of their hearts. Her last night there it was just Lea and a blow-up mattress and two lawn chairs. She wrote on her Facebook wall, "Feeling like Sam in the last episode of Cheers where he is the last person left, takes one last look around, then turns out the light, walks out and closes the door behind him."

The next day she sent her friends an e-mail listing all the items that had been crammed into her car in the hours before vacating the premises. It was a long and impression list and included, among things one would expect like clothes and work items, "five brooms ... two rolls of toilet paper ... 1 plastic box of paint brushes, 1 large plastic tub of craft paints, 3 large plastic shopping bags of craft supplies ... 1 big box of things I need in my car (sharpies, paper, tape, koosies, etc) ... 1 big metal tin of books and stuff I keep in my car always ... 1 iron to give away."

One of her friends replied, "That is going to be a mess on the road if you have an accident." All I could think was, "Lord, have mercy!"

It would be a mess if Lea’s car, like a defective pressure cooker, spontaneously erupted somewhere on Highway 17 spewing brooms and paintbrushes and small appliances all over the right-of-way. It would have been a bigger mess, however, had she not loaded that car, had she not taken one last look around, turned out the light, and closed the door behind her because this is what I have observed:

There is a point in every growing season at which the growing medium – field, garden, plot, pot – becomes messy. The rows lose their delineation, the individual plants lose their edges, and it becomes impossible to identify any point as the beginning or the end. It is in that moment that the farmer/gardener/tender of soil loses control of the structure, the aesthetics, and the end result.

Example: The cornfield outside my window is now beyond plowable, its edges crowded by a jumble of knee-high grasses and weeds and its canopy of wide green fronds woven together in uneven bands like the warp and weft of the potholders I used to make on a little red metal loom. Another example: The verbena at the corner of the house that started out as six little identical plants has morphed into wild and spindly vines spread all over the ground like fingerpaint – randomly, awkwardly, all over each other and the stone edgers meant to contain it.

I don’t like messy. I like neat and tidy. I like order and organization and anything alphabetized, and so it has taken some time for me to learn that messiness can not be avoided if one wants to grow. Plant a seed and dirt will make its way under your fingernails, despite the gardening gloves. Write a story and the first draft will end up in a wadded up paper ball on the floor. Open your heart and take the risk that, like Lea’s car, a bump in the road or a crash into someone else could send everything inside flying out into the open sky.

It has taken time to learn those things, but I have learned them. I have learned them by planting the seed, writing the story, opening my heart and, consequently, scrubbing my fingernails, picking up the endless mounds of paper balls, and standing on the side of the road watching the wind from speeding traffic carelessly toss about that which I hold most precious.

The result is that I have grown. And I am still growing. And the messiness of that is something to embrace.

Copyright 2012