Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Bowls of Flowers

Three Augusts ago a niece of mine was getting married. When she and her fiancé began planning the rehearsal dinner, I was able to offer them the use of one of the public rooms where I work.

The morning of the dinner I worked with the gentlemen from facilities in setting up eight round tables. Tablecloths hung neatly over the seats of the metal chairs.

I did not remember hearing anything from my niece or my brother and his wife about flowers for the tables. Amid all the wedding planning that they had been doing on their own, how easy it might have been to let something minor like that slip.

I got into my car and drove to a local market that had an extensive outdoor nursery. Eight hanging baskets of white impatiens fit into my hatchback for the short ride back to work.

Wicker baskets could effectively hide the clay-colored plastic pots, I thought. I headed to a nearby bargain basement. Before I could find eight identical wicker baskets deep enough for the impatiens, I came across a stack of ceramic serving bowls, each the same deep red orange.

In a short while I was back at work. I had placed each of the eight plants in its own bowl. The line of orange bowls, the row of white blooms made me stop. The calm regularity touched something inside. They might possibly prove unnecessary for the evening's tables, but I recognized that I had done something that provided me a distinctive pleasure.

I walked into my apartment yesterday after work. Twenty-four hours after Hurricane Irene, the windows were open and sun filled the quiet rooms. The previous week I had used one of the red orange bowls from three years back for flowers to celebrate the successful completion of a work deadline.

The bowl of flowers made me stop. The calm and regularity touched something inside. Three years of conscientiously building a new life, and I have learned to recognize more surely the things that provide me that distinctive pleasure.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Lugustrum and boxwood and arborvitae.

Hydrangea and coleus and begonia. Sometimes zinnias and caladiums. One rare summer, sweet peas climbing up a trellis.

Childhood gardens hold sway over our hearts and memories. If there is a photo that brings any of them back, it brings them all back. There are mysteries about why only some things grew in the summer gardens my mother planted. Governing the front yard were landscape principles lost in generations of family gardeners long past.

So I have three pots of coleus on the edge of my side porch. They started a year ago as shoots from one summer annual that continued to flourish near my kitchen window through autumn and winter and spring.

Early this summer I bought the three clay pots and a bag of potting soil. I transplanted the shoots from their transitional jars of water. I placed the pots outside, a little unsure whether they would survive real air, real sun, real rain. Daily I carried my watering can down the stairs to the side porch connected to my apartment.

They take their mid-August bow before my camera.

They are all that remains of the begonia and hydrangea and caladium around which my mother dug her hand shovel decades ago.

The black-and-white photograph inspired an earlier post on Writing Cabin. Please feel free to visit it.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Summer in the Old West

This was one of those years in the Territory when Apache smoke signals spiraled up from the stony mountain summits and many a ranch cabin lay as a square of blackened ashes on the ground and the departure of a stage from Tonto was the beginning of an adventure that had no certain happy ending…

“Stage to Lordsburg” (1937) by Ernest Haycox has a well-paced opening sentence. The images are the commonplaces of a Western tale, and their accumulation is unexpectedly calming. I sense I can sit back, seated once more in the darkened movie theatres of my childhood. The black-and-white landscape before me and the characters who ride across it or walk in its moonlight will make only familiar demands.

All this while the coach went rushing down the ceaseless turns of the mountain road, rocking on its fore and aft springs, its heavy wheels slamming through the road ruts and whining on the curves.

Since the story is the basis of the 1939 movie Stagecoach, I obviously expect to read about the movement of a coach. I am not surprised that the author writes about the sounds of the wheels along the mountain roads. With nothing but the written word the author creates sounds that I seem almost to hear. With nothing but the written word the author plausibly re-creates for this armchair reader the discomforts and sudden motions of a kind of carriage in which I have never actually traveled.

When he came back to the yard night lay wild and deep across the desert and the moonlight was a frozen silver that touched but could not dissolve the world’s incredible blackness. The girl Henriette walked along the Tonto road, swaying gently in the vague shadows.

I am taken by surprise. This writer knows where he is taking his reader. The short story that first appeared in a 1937 issue of Collier’s Weekly would claim an hour at most of a reader’s time. To claim the full hour, a writer like Ernest Haycox had to know what he was doing. Haycox is not a name that has entered any literary canon that affected my reading lists in college or graduate school. There are other reasons to write then? Well, yes, says the history of American cinema.

Henriette sat with her eyes pinned to the gloved tips of her fingers, remembering the tall shape of Malpais Bill cut against the moonlight of Gap Station.

Ernest Haycox had created a quiet, composed character travelling in a “dove-colored dress” and named her Henriette. Dudley Nichols, writing the screenplay for John Ford’s Stagecoach, recast the complex Henriette as rough-and-tumble Dallas, played by Claire Trevor opposite John Wayne’s Ringo Kid. No one wants John Ford’s masterpiece different, but Henriette is worth meeting.

There was this wisdom in her, this knowledge of the fears that men concealed behind their manners, the deep hungers that rode them so savagely, and the loneliness that drove them to women of her kind.

The writer who created Henriette seventy years ago is good reading, I reckon, on a summer morning of vacation.

Excerpts from “Stage to Lordsburg” (1937) by Ernest Haycox collected in Stephanie Harrison’s Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen (2005)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Provincetown 2011

It is fun to leave a place by water.

The 7:30 ferry had just pulled away from the Provincetown pier. I took my BlackBerry out onto the windy deck for a final picture of the day.

Let me record that early evening sky – and nothing else of yesterday’s gamble. I had taken a chance that the day could be merry and easy. I get to keep its memory that way.

Monday, August 1, 2011

August Morning

It is the first of the month. I wrote the rent check at the kitchen table this morning in the quiet between 5 and 6 o’clock. It is a familiar time to me in these rooms.

Without straining, I let part of a dream return.

I am sitting at another table in last night’s dream. I am explaining something to a small group of people around me. Among them and seated directly across from me is Anne, a woman in her eighties whom I have known for almost thirty years. Every meeting with her over those years, not one of them planned or expected, she has been gracious and centered. She is listening to me now with her usual attention.

I have reached an important part of the explanation. Is it the plot of a fairy tale or myth or heroic fantasy? Whatever it is, I know clearly what I have to say next, but emotion makes speaking difficult.

I look across to Anne:

“You have to go to your deepest fear – or your hardest sorrow. That’s the door. You go in there if you hope to make it through.”