Monthly Archives: December 2013

Out Yakking About

 

photo (3)In harm’s way and unharmed. On ice and not slithering around. Down beside the stream, right to the  edge where the squirrels and otters cavort. In the pines, striding over snow and the ruins of snow. I’m as sure footed as a back-country adventurer in my YakTrax, their tension coils as thin as a pencil secured beneath my boots.

Although I’d never turn my back on skiing, I like this unfettered way of going—no bending to retrieve a pole you’ve dropped at your peril, no leaning to tighten a binding you can’t quite reach, no spending $95.00 for a ride to the top of the lift to be in crowds. Initial outlay for yakking about: $20.00, thanks to the brains of some Himalayan Sherpa.

Today, along the banks of Parley’s Creek, I spotted a small creature nicking under brush. Maybe an otter. At the right hour I could catch a glimpse of a fox. I’ve seen deer this low. And birds as well as small creatures abound: it’s a riparian corridor. The creek is pristine, the water is as dark in the shade as that mahjong tea we used to drink. Then the sun hits it and the colors of sand and rocks and moss swirl together. Golden light sparkles off the snow and ice and water.photo (2) - Copy

I look over at my yakking buddy. Her cheeks are rosy; she has the robust smile of an adventurer. I know I look the same. We’re laughing as we march about with gusto, not mousing down a sidewalk in a city park, scared of falling, like we did before Christmas Yaks.

It’s exhilarating—going where you want to go. Anything that sets you free dazzles. I’m as happy as I was when I made my first run down Alta’s face. That would be fifty-seven years ago. Still finding peace outside under blue skies, in sunshine, in love with winter sports.

 

The Dying Goat

 

I have been graceful. My ankles are delicate, and they move me from here to everywhere. This freedom of movement is what I will miss when I am not here anymore. It has helped me escape from dangers, made me feel clever and supple and capable. When others saw me as moving, I saw myself as skipping and dancing. I see better when I am moving, and become aware of my surroundings, as I must leap over some things, under others, and around anything in my way.

If I am still, I lose sight of myself. I often go to a reflecting pond, and use it as my metaphor for a quietness that I can’t achieve on my own. In the moonlight I can see myself in the water and  I become it, and its depth and containment become me. I search for myself inside it, as if it were a seeing stone. I never felt part of the many goats I ran with, and our rhythms were different. They plunged forward, while I didn’t even know what forward was. What is here that I will miss? What still unknown will I miss when I am gone? Oh, I know. I know. It is the joy of discovery along the way to a “where” I didn’t know existed. I don’t want to be still, to have no new thing around me. I’m not ready to give up my leaping and prancing. Help me please. I’m not ready. It hasn’t been enough. I’m not willing. Not yet.

                                                                                                                           Francine Timothy

I have convinced my friend Francine to let me post her piece, “The Dying Mountain Goat.” Few pieces of writing have commanded my admiration as this one has, and not because Francine is in her ninth decade or because this is her first venture into creative writing, but because it is wonderfully conceived and wonderfully written.

 

 

 

 

The First Keys

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I have to say I burst out laughing when I came across the first sentence of mine to make it into print. I was in a rare sorting and hurling mood and there it was in a notebook of newspaper clippings I’d kept–nine words, every one of them wasted:

“The moment of reality is always immediate to comprehension.”

Say what?

You don’t have to be a writer to know that everything is wrong with that sentence. For one thing, there is no meaning in it. And there are no images. There is nothing but a lost chance.

Cicely Tyson took that kind of fluffle out of me in two hours. I interviewed her when she was a participant in the Salt Lake Film Festival (it later became the Sundance Film Festival). By then she’d won an Emmy and had been nominated for an Academy Award. Oh yes, I was intimidated, but I jumped in.

The first thing I did was thank her for coming to Utah. She knew what I meant—knew I meant thank you for forgiving the Mormon Church its past policies toward Blacks. “It was the only thing that drove me to come,” she told me when I was through with my own mumblings about the issue that had kept me from feeling at home in Utah. “I understand,” she said in a barely audible voice. There were tears on both sides of those words.

She went on to talk about the role she had played a few years earlier in, “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitmann.” I listened as earnestly as I’d ever listened to anyone. Of course she was riveting, but she also made beautiful sense.

“I had to age my body eighty years for that role,” she said. “And what did I have to work with? My God, I wish I could be this person—that’s what I said to myself, become this person.”  She combined intensity and composure in a way I’d never seen. “And the key? Go back to your only keys—the five senses.”

She named them–called them out as though they were holy words. Her elegant hands and painted nails played their part, stressing, emphasizing. She was deliberate. She made deliberate a potent virtue.

“Sight. Feel. Smell. Sound. Touch. Keep them at your fingertips. Even this thumb,” and she extended her hand so that it was most prominent, “even this thumb had to be old. How was I going to do that? The keys at my fingertips—the five senses. I asked myself how this thumb is going to look at 110, how is it going to feel.”

I went home and made a list of the five senses. I was particularly intrigued because I had been reading about how the mind learns. It isn’t an abstract process, scientists were saying. The data we take in comes to us through the senses. And yes, sure, I was aware that writing should be vigorously connected to the physical world, but it had never been so clear to me. Listening to her, I could see how to do it.

I taped my list to my typewriter. It was ragged by the time it got to a computer. It stayed there until those five words were the first keys for me too.

 

 

The Chicken Factor

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A few months ago following an interview with Doug Fabrizio on his NPR RadioWest program, someone asked me how I write. I had just finished A Thousand Voices: a Memoir, which had been the subject of  the interview.

“How do I write?” I repeated. “Just barely.” I got the long silence I deserved and I tried again, telling her I’d skip the early stages, which are mysterious and certainly undefinable. “When I have produced a stretch of writing,” I said, “I take it to my chicken coop and read it to my hens.”

“You’re not serious?” she said.

“That’s the point—not too,” I told her, which is very good ground for a writer who is looking at the finish line.

Doug had asked the most interesting question of all in our discussion. It was posed in his inimitable, amusing way. “When did you know A Thousand Voices was finished? You said it was under your bed—was it really under your bed? Did you just take it out and work on it for a stretch and then there was a moment when you knew it was finished?” We were both laughing at the picture that came to mind, and I told him it was under my bed and yes, I’d take it out and work on it, and there did come a moment when I knew it was just as it needed to be.

I went on to tell him about deploying the chickens, pointing out that I’d had them before they were trendy or I wouldn’t mention it. More laughter; Doug is wonderful to laugh with. I went on to describe how I’d take a few pages out to the chicken coop—one friend calls it the chicken palace—there wasn’t much deprivation for any of us. I’d read what I’d written to my three chickens. If they could keep a straight face, I’d continue. Believe me you know when a chicken is taking you straight. If I could not myself keep a straight face, I’d go back to work.

I did think further about what transpires between the chickens and me. I somehow know a passage is good if it sounds smooth and mellow and natural in that soft environment. I know it is memorable if the chickens make their wonderful Koo kakoo krii kakoo sound. It would mesmerize me, calm me  and I could hear it. That was my final audience before I turned it over, I told Doug.

On the drive home from the interview, I thought of E. B. White and the concept of chickens as editors. Will they ever call me a silly hen? I remembered E. B. White saying hens are not silly; they are alarmists. That was a certain measure for me: were the chickens alarmed?

KUER, RadioWest with Doug Fabrizio (9/19/12)

Dear Life

Alice Munro Here is Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro’s last paragraph in her last book, Dear Life. It makes as good a case as any for why people of all ages and dispositions find in her a voice that assuages some of the loneliness, the mystery, the ineffable quality of life:
“I did not go home for my mother’s last illness or for her funeral. I had two small children and nobody in Vancouver to leave them with. We could barely have afforded the trip, and my husband had a contempt for formal behavior, but why blame it on him? I felt the same. We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do—we do it all the time.”
We do it all the time? Don’t we? Do we? That’s what the discussion in my book group was like. Enigmatic, tough, Alice Munro is a sturdy choice for this year’s award.

The Shores of Willard Bay

1466083_544900982260348_1289154870_nOn the trip home from dismantling my mother’s house in Idaho last week, I stopped for a walk along the shores of Willard Bay. I was seeking comfort, and it was there in the golden grass and gnarled sage brush, the distinctive scent of juniper and the architectural elegance of cottonwood. I heard the sound of birds on the wing—that beautiful rustle of feather as they fly up. When I got to the shoreline, I listened for the lap lap of water meeting earth. The sun made the bay’s surface shimmer, blue reflected on grey-blue.

I noticed the wonderful interactions on the trail: a grouse scooting out of the way, mourning doves cooing and bobbling along not far from me, a squirrel whipping up a tree with a nut. I bent to study a touch of  red. I thought it was the last of October leaves caught in brush. It turned out to be a plant in its fall transition—half turned red, half still green. It looked like Oregon grape but with a maple leaf.

I’d been walking in grass an hour earlier—the flat, regular grass of a park. It didn’t do one thing for me. I suppose I know why we started cultivating, clearing, cutting back, but why did we go so far? If I’d wanted to measure just how far we’ve gone, I could have driven across the causeway to Antelope Island, not ten miles away as the seagull flies, and seen Utah as it was a hundred years ago. There bison still roam, bighorn sheep watch you from the mountain crags, redtail hawks cry overhead, pronghorn antelope browse out in the meadows.

The natural world—its variety, its spontaneity, its surprise. We’ve mowed the restorative powers out of an awfully lot of it. We have to go out of our way now to see a grebe drink from the lake—that quick action, no throwing the head back like other birds.

I was lucky enough to see one at Willard Bay and to let it remind me, despite my sorrows, how good life can be.