Saturday, January 7, 2012

Of Dragons' Tails and Corn Bags

We saw in the New Year in the best way possible: sitting outside around a fire with our close friends Margo and Gerald. By the time 2011 was down to its last hour, the night sky had cleared and the stars had grown bright. Gerald came back from taking the dog in and announced that the Big Dipper was prominent in the northeast; I joined him in the yard and picked out Orion in the south.

When the New Year came, we all kissed our spouses. There were fireworks on the horizon in several directions. Warren and Gerald poked the fire until we could safely leave it to burn out. We said our goodnights, exchanged hugs and best wishes, and then my dear husband and I drove home in 2012, smelling of wood smoke and friendship.

The next day, I read a line in an old New Yorker that the "happiest civilizations had existed in the age of Homer, when the starry sky was the map of all possible paths." Certainly it seemed that way the night before as we watched the stars wheel by.

I have been reading the Byron Blakely biography of the writer, John Cheever. It is not the first biography of Cheever I have ever read, but it is the best. It presents an intricately detailed and ultimately sympathetic portrait of Cheever, who was a very complex individual on his best days. That alone is an achievement. But what Blakely does particularly well is make the reader see the beauty and structure of Cheever's prose. It is akin to Blakely placing a hummingbird in your hands for the briefest of seconds and then telling you to release it to the garden.

One such hummingbird is this excerpt from Cheever's essay, "A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear." Cheever is describing the ascent and descent of an imaginary popular writer and criticizes the final works thusly:

You might say that he had lost the gift of evoking the perfumes of life: sea water, the smoke of burning hemlock, and the breasts of women. He had damaged, you might say, the ear's innermost chamber, where we hear the heavy noise of the dragon's tail moving over the dead leaves.

I have read those two sentences over and over for the last few days. I read them and smell the ocean. I read them and recall the smoke of New Year's Eve. I read them and hear the dragon's tail moving over the dead leaves.

I have written very little in the last few months. Chalk it up to any number of reasons: the press of life, family issues, Warren's and my schedules, niggling little medical problems that have put me in medical offices, the needs and demands of others, a lingering and persistent depression threaded through the holiday season. I pick up a pen to write, then set it aside. My inner ear is not damaged, but I am not listening well. I am mistaking the rumble of the weekly garbage truck for the heavy noise of the dragon's tail.

As I often do when in this place, I am scaling back everywhere I can, cutting the daily demands down to the smallest size possible. I am focusing on the small moments: writing letters to close friends, cooking savory meals, paying attention to the intense blue of the daytime sky when I am outside. My smallest moment occurs each evening when I warm a corn bag in the microwave and then read with it on my lap. (Corn bags, for the uninitiated, are large pieces of terry cloth (bigger than a washcloth, smaller than a dishtowel) sewed first to make a sack, partially filled with dried field corn, and then sewn shut.) A warmed corn bag has the weight of a fat puppy and the smell of a corncrib on a hot day. It radiates heat and comfort far beyond the physical. When bedtime draws close, we warm up several such bags and throw them under the bedclothes to take off the chill. I often drift off to sleep with the smell of harvest time lacing the air.

2012 holds great promise, I hope and believe. For now, though, it is just beyond the tip of my pen. For now I can only trust that I am building up a store of ideas and impressions and sentences. Somewhere there is sea water. Somewhere there is the sound of the heavy dragon's tail moving over dead leaves. Somewhere I will return to writing.


Terri said...

I have found it is best not to force these things. One day, the sound of the dragon's tail will come roaring. As for corn bags, I've never heard of them before. Are yours homemade? And how much corn do they contain?

April said...

Yes, the corn bags are homemade, although I first saw them in a local store. I don't know how much corn they contain--probably about 2 cups worth. I use an 11x11 inch dishcloth for the sack. (I have a friend whose husband farms, and he gave us a sack of field corn a few years ago, so the corn was the easy part.)

see you there! said...

It is difficult when our creative spirit is dampened down for whatever reason. I hope your pen will soon be flying over the paper with ease.