It is Day Six of my eighteen-day residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. VCCA is in Amherst, Virginia, home of Sweet Briar College, and within easy driving distance of Lynchburg to one side and Charlottesville to another. I am staying put, though, happy to be sequestered here on this renovated dairy farm. We work in an old friendly concrete block barn with a cozy kitchen surrounded by small, well-appointed studios. An eighth of a mile down the lane is the residence hall where we sleep and take our morning and evening meals.
From nearby train tracks comes the low rumble of passing trains, and red-tailed hawks call from the distant woods.
There are writers and poets, painters and photographers, and printmakers and composers. In the evenings there are readings and open studios and musical offerings. There is wine and all manner of munchies, and conversation about our projects or our families or our lives back home. We come from the east and west coasts, from England and Iran, Montana and Massachusetts. We are old and we are young and we are in-between.
It is a rich, rich place to be, especially for someone like me who lives alone. We eat our meals in a common dining room. We take walks together around the beautiful old farmland and pasture now overgrown with weeds and meadow grass and filled with birds and critters we cannot see,
although the field mice have come inside. Last night one distracted me for a time with its rhythmic chewing somewhere up inside a wall, but then I got used to it and rolled over and went to sleep.
This morning was French Toast Morning. We lined up like eager school children, clutching our plates.
I am ever so grateful to be here, to be disappearing into my work, to hunker down and live in this extended way with the ongoing revision of my first draft of Chasing Light.
(Many thanks to the NC Arts Council for the NC Regional Artist Project Grant of which I am once again a happy recipient and which helps to pay for this residency.)
I am glad to say I am making progress. I’ve been working back and forth between chapter revision and the chapter summaries for the book proposal, both taking on more life, clearer shape.
Having a studio where I can dive into the work without interruption has coaxed a reticent part of my storyteller to come forward, to luxuriate in the open-endedness of these residency days and take advantage of the wide stretches of time to spin and spin and spin.
Tonight there is a lunar eclipse. It’s being called a Super Blood Wolf Moon, which sounds like some copywriter’s idea of a serious lure.
Super moon because this full moon occurs when the moon makes its closest pass to earth (perigee). Wolf Moon because it is said wolves are particularly restive and loud in January, as breeding season starts in February. (The January full moon has also been called Old Moon, Ice Moon, Snow Moon, and the Moon after Yule.)
Blood moon because as the moon passes through Earth’s shadow, reaching totality just before midnight, the moon will appear to turn red. Late tonight I imagine several of us will bundle up and trudge outside to see what we can see.
It is delicious to have another “light/dark” phenomenon to ponder as I work my way through the deeper layers of my 2017 journey that concluded with the spectacular total solar eclipse on August 21st of that year, when I watched, mouth slack, as the sun went away for two minutes and forty-one seconds (Hopkinsville being the place of greatest eclipse). For the entirety of those two-plus minutes I gaped stupidly, my brain trying to process the wonder above and around me. The black disk surrounded by the gleaming corona (crown). The sudden silence of the birds and the insects. The grass, the trees, the rocks, the people, my own two hands bathed in an eerie, other-worldly light.
After it was over, I shut my mouth again, but my brain still leaked wonder.
Last Thursday, word spread of the death of Pulitzer prize winning poet, Mary Oliver. There was a good deal of sadness and tears from the poets and writers here in particular, and others who knew and loved her work, loved her for it. Upon reading the news, I had a sudden sense that the universe had contracted a bit, that we were, all of us, somewhat diminished by her passing. She was a purveyor of wonder, an advocate for the everyday miracles we so often stumble right past or even tread on as we scurry toward whatever shiny thing in front of us is demanding our fealty – approval, fortune, fame, achievement, and other illusory baubles.
Reading her poetry, my heart always trailed after her as she took me into fields, beside oceans, into gardens, near quiet streams, to the edge of a pond, and invited me to become still enough to see.
Her work nudges me toward what to make of my own writing. What is it that I want to say? What do I want you, the reader, to hold in your hand like a bird or a stone?
I suppose I hope to be counted in some small way in that long, long line of those who point and say, “Look! See! Isn’t it all a marvel?” Poets and painters, five-year-olds and nonagenarians. Raucous birds, curious cats. I want, like them, to be part of paying attention and calling attention.
Because wonder, like life, is fleeting. Because life, like wonder, is ours to hold for but a while. Light into shadow, then shadow into light.
Here is Mary Oliver’s iconic poem, “The Summer Day.” If you have never read her, there is no better time than this moment.
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?