Where will it take me/ what shall I do?*

long island surf

Image from the NYPL Public Domain Digital Collection

During these falling and ebbing tides, a riptide can carry a person far offshore. For example, the ebbing tide at Shinnecock Inlet in Southampton, New York, extends more than 300 metres (980 ft) offshore.

–from Wikipedia

Now they tell me.

After I was swept out to sea on a rip current in Southampton, NY (yes, it was as scary as it sounds), the first thing anyone said to me at the writer’s conference (after “Oh My God!”) was “Write about it.”

I’m now two weeks past my fight with the ocean (where the ocean almost won), and I still don’t know what to say about the experience. Not really. I keep thinking I need to process it, but writers generally process things by writing about them.  Perhaps language is stronger than a nine-foot wave?

But that nine-foot wave that began my ordeal is all I can focus on.  I keep seeing it and remembering how instead of trying to swim through it, I turned around and tried to run from it, taking the full force of its power that knocked me over and began to drag me away from shore, filling my mouth and eyes with sand and salt and something viney, maybe kelp.

It’s that gray-green wave I keep seeing when I close my eyes, that creeps into my dreams and pulls me away from everything I know, making figures indistinct, small, if I can recognize them at all.  I am looking for new language to describe this feeling, but it’s as if the gray-green wave is pulling me towards every cliché you’ve ever heard about drowning—drowning in self-pity, drowning one’s sorrows, this drowning woman grasping at straws, etc.  Nothing seems real to me, but that gray-green wave.

And yet, the weird thing is, the fear and doom I feel now is all after-the-fact.  When I was in the moment, gasping for air and feeling helpless but trying to fight my way out of that current, fear and doom were not what I was thinking about.  I never thought, You’re going to die. Instead, I was angry.

Maybe that was adrenalin at work, my way of not losing my head—by focusing on my anger. Anger because misgivings about the waves had troubled me before I went in—I even wrote about them in my notebook while I watched the water.  Anger that I didn’t listen to my gut which said, Don’t do this, don’t go in, even between the safety flags. Anger for knowing how to swim well, and yet not being able to right myself and break free from the tumbling surf.  There is a kind clarity in anger, I suppose, and I was level-headed enough to quit struggling and to take the blessed hands that wound up hauling me to shore.

But now that wave haunts me, even four hours inland.  I didn’t go back to the beach after that day—I couldn’t.  I didn’t even want to see the water again—which is irrational and yet somehow petulant, as if the ocean betrayed me—who loves the ocean beyond most things (except cats, my mother, and Jesus)—when I’m the one who betrayed my own good sense to stay safe.

*****

I am looking at Google Maps of Coopers Beach, and from overhead the beach looks like nothing special, and the crests on the waves hardly as imposing as an eyelash.  Perhaps someday I will be able to view the experience through the transformative lens of art, and write the poems that I am meant to write about it.  For now, I think I will just end this post here—without details, without a timeline, without anything beyond the memory of that nine-foot gray-green wave.

 

*Lyric from Robert Palmer’s song “Riptide”

Some Thoughts on the Pecularities of Inspiration

Inspiration is a tricky, capricious thing.  Or is it?  There are those who’d argue that inspiration isn’t capricious at all–that it hovers “out there,” waiting to be actively courted, waiting for any of us as writers (or artists or musicians, etc.), to grab hold and begin to use it.  We just have to see that little sparkle that alerts us it’s there.

Sometimes, it eludes our notice.  Sometimes the sparkle hits us in the face like a baseball–though I can’t say I’ve taken too many baseballs to the face in my life, and certainly not lately.  (I’ve taken my share of tennis balls to the face–but that’s beside the point.  This is not a post about sports injuries.)

I’ve always said I’m not an ideas person.  I don’t see possibilities and connections the way I wish I did (the way geniuses seem to).  Inspiration might stare me in the face sometimes, and I’m off looking at a bird that’s soaring by, or a tree whose branches waver on the wind in some melody I can’t quite catch.  (Hello! Inspiration yells, why do you think I put that bird and tree in front of you? You dummy!) My point is, I’m not paying attention.

So inspiration, I think, is really about paying attention to your surroundings, getting caught in a rhythm, and adapting yourself to what that rhythm means.  How do we do that?  As poets and artists, we’re supposed to be hypersensitive to our surroundings anyway.  Aren’t we supposed to feel more deeply than the rest of society?  Aren’t we supposed to notice the certain play of light through the leaves on  the cherry tree outside our door and be moved to lyricism?  Well, maybe.

Maybe for some people, that actually works.  For myself, I think being in tune with that rhythm means to cut out a lot of extraneous noise from my life so I can actually hear that rhythm, see that sparkle.  Of course, everyone always says this.  And it’s hard.

For me, disconnecting with the world means disconnecting from the news, and Facebook, and stupid binge-a-thons on Netflix, and my Sudoku habit.  It means reading more–whether it’s new journals that have arrived in my mailbox, or reading the other authors’ works (fiction and nonfiction too, not just the poetry) in the journals that my own work appears in.  It means allowing myself the pleasure of reading a Phryne Fisher mystery (thank you, Kerry Greenwood, for giving us Phryne) so I can indulge in language used well, and fall in love with a place and characters who are real.

I know this is not new.  For heaven’s sakes, Wordsworth was saying the world was too much with us back in 1802.  But the world is hella more complicated in 2015, which makes it all the more essential to get away from it if we want to be true to our art.  (Or at least, if we want to recharge our flagging art.)

I’ve been thinking for a quite a while that I’ve needed to go to a writer’s residency somewhere.  I had actually even applied to one for the summer–and mistakenly believed I’d get in–and of course, everyone knows, throwing all your eggs into one basket is the surest way to making scrambled eggs.  But even if that didn’t work out, there are other residencies, other writers conferences that can help me to reconnect with writing.

I think a residency is one way to actively court inspiration.  Meeting with new writers, inhabiting a new space for a while, getting out of the routine of our daily existence–this is all about finding that new rhythm.  Certainly not everyone can afford the luxury of a writer’s residency (I mean, I can’t really either, but whatever)–but those rhythms are all around us.  We can hear them when we disconnect. We can hear them when we start reading one of our books from our never-ending “books to read” pile.  We can hear them when we sit on top of Stone Mountain, or if we’re taking a walk on a wooded path.  We can hear those rhythms everywhere if we give ourselves a chance.

Inspiration wants us to find it.  It does expect us to work a little, of course, to get outside ourselves a little, so we can see it, and benefit from what it has to show us.  Inspiration wants to include us.  It wants us to get into its rhythm.  We don’t have to be “ideas” people to get access–we just have to be a little more open-eared and flexible.

And maybe that seems harder than it really is because we’re too tied to our devices and routines.  But I for one am going to try to slip into that rhythm, because it’s calling me.