Writing fourteen chapters of a novel for young girls, begun almost two years ago, is the main job I’ve given myself for our time in Florida this winter, and finally I can report that I’ve spent a couple mornings at that pleasant though demanding task. My other jobs here are housekeeping--interesting and enjoyable at this leisurely pace and even a mild sort of adventure, thanks to sources of fresh produce and cheap imported packaged foods not available back home in Northport--and Sarah. Sarah is also a pleasure, of course, as are shopping, cooking and writing.
Besides these pleasant jobs, I’m also indulging myself with as much reading as possible, which is neither task nor distraction. It is a serious activity, though I’m throwing myself into it like a glutton at a wedding reception. Or, like the greedy dog in the fable, dropping the bone in his mouth to grab the bone he saw reflected in the water, I keep laying aside a perfectly fascinating book to grab at another, equally compelling. Since those mentioned in my last post, I’ve brought home two book-related books, The Archivist, by Patricia Cooley, a book I picked up for its wonderful cover (a stack of books, obviously old ones) but bought for the promising content, and The Bookseller of Kabul, by Åsne Seierstad, a book with such exciting opening pages that I keep thinking it would make a great evening read-aloud book, if only we weren’t already so engrossed in People of the Deer. Anyway, The Bookseller of Kabul is a library book, so I don’t dare save it to read aloud after Mowat. And my point (yes, I have one)is that I almost always have a stack of three or four books with me, wherever we are, but over and over I let myself be distracted, and so the daylight reading goes slowly.
The possibility of fun with David is always a distraction, as it has been for years. If he suggests a drive down to Tarpon Springs, am I going to put up any resistance? But much lesser proposed expeditions meet with the same compliance. Shall we go out for coffee or ice cream? Yes, yes, yes! Can Sarah come, too?
Then—and this may sound silly—there are the birds. There are cormorants, herons, egrets, pelicans, terns, but I love especially the stately, patient waders, so intent on their own jobs that we watchers don’t even exist for them. We are sitting in a park, all settled into beach chairs in the shade, and my book lies open in my lap, forgotten because--there are herons in the shallows! Will we ever sort out these feathered beauties, though? All egrets, iI have some hope, now that the library has yielded up to me John Netherton’s North American Wading Birds, but I’m not expecting miracles of myself. All egrets are herons, but not all herons are egrets. Some species have morphs of different colors, and in many the immature plumage is the color of the mature plumage of another species. Besides, just as birds distract me from reading, other things distract me from learning the names of birds.
(Another book that came home with me from the library today was Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continents Natural Soul, by Scott Weidensaul. The thrilling chapter on wild Florida rings very true to me. Weidensaul wrotes that “the real South—the truly wild South—is still out there, if you know where to look for it, often surprisingly close to the schlock and profligacy of the modern age.”)
People-watching cannot be resisted! This was true Wednesday afternoon at Hudson Beach, where an endless parade passed before our eyes, every adult or couple or child radiating a story we would never know. Fascinating, however, to speculate! One old woman clutched a stuffed animal as a younger woman pushed her in a wheelchair, while nearby four young girls, ages about three to thirteen, focused intently on building sand castles. The Ages of Woman, all at once, right in front of us.
The sound of other languages pulls at my attention, too, demanding to be heard. Rarely in Northport do I hear anything but English, so hearing foreign conversation reminds me that I am somewhere else. The language spoken is largely Greek on the sponge docks at Tarpon Springs, but in the parks there it may as easily be French or German or Italian, Russian or Spanish. Being able to hear Spanish-language radio is a joy, and I can’t resist trying to read women’s magazines published in Spanish, picking out meanings of unfamiliar words from context and pictures.
We are having a stretch of rainy weather, however, so I may get more writing and reading both accomplished in the days ahead. The birds are a good example for me to follow. They always get their work done.
Those of you reading in northern Michigan may be interested in this e-mail I received from Michigan Writers (I'm only quoting part of it):
Please join us for the winter reading of northern Michigan's literary journal, featuring the presentation of the annual William J. Shaw Prizes for Poetry. By the way, this year's winning poems were chosen from by far the largest pool of entrants in our history. We'll gather at Traverse City's premiere hub of community activity, Horizon Books, at 7 p.m., Friday, January 30th.
Another literary note: John Updike has died. This is my opportunity to urge everyone to read his too-often neglected novel (I haven't even heard it mentioned in radio tributes, but this link includes it), In the Beauty of the Lilies. You'll be glad to reach the end but glad you read the book, as it captures the 20th-century American zeitgeist better than any other book I know.