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Saturday, February 27, 2010

On the Water, Part III

Some of the most beautiful scenes of our Sunday on the water were along the palm-lined mouth of the Weeki Wachee River and adjacent salt marsh sawgrass coast and palm hammocks past Bayport.

Among pictures I failed to get were those of manatee greeting us as we made our way upriver. Unlike dolphins, these ungainly marine mammals don’t leap through the air in graceful arcs, though they do glide silently through the water alongside a boat in much the same way. And I must say that the old river and ocean hands in the boat, while they may not have my eye for the funky, are aces when it comes to spotting manatees. They also know where all the osprey nests are.

Well, because the tide was high on our return to Hernando Beach (where we caught a ride back to Aripeka), and because Captain Steve has been boating in these waters for thirty years, he was able to take a shortcut from one channel to another between two little islands. Thrill ride! Shrimp boats (the chief shrimp fishing in these parts is for bait shrimp, I’m told) were going out as we were coming in, and I would have liked to get pictures of those serious watercraft, but our sharp turn into the channel caught me by surprise, and it as all I could do to hang on.

And now that a week of heavy socializing is behind us and we’re caught up on laundry, the Pack of Three (like Gang of Four or Group of Seven) is getting back to its quiet routine. Sarah loved all the company, but she was happy to see the dog park again, too. Now, if only we didn’t need the furnace indoors and heavy jackets outside! It’s all right. March will blow in soon.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

On the Water, Part II

Here’s something that struck me on our Sunday cruise: It is that people who have spent 20 or 30 years or more in these waters, along these shores, give themselves permission when out in a boat to speak of other matters. They know so well the surroundings that are mesmerizing to me that most of what I am devouring with my eyes is unremarkable to them. A school of dolphin out on the Gulf or a manatee in the river will still interrupt talk of real estate prices or the never-resolved motor-vs.-sailboat debate, but in between the conversation could be taking place in a bar or on someone’s patio. And that’s fine. But for me being on these waters is like nothing else, like nowhere else, and to make the most of being there on Sunday I found myself as far back in the stern as possible, where the engine noise reduced the voices of the others to a distant murmur. As they gave themselves permission to be elsewhere in their conversation, I gave myself permission to be absent from that conversation. A guest, not a hostess, I let myself enjoy the breeze and brine more quietly and more directly. No one seemed to mind.

So, back to our day on the water. After coming out the channel from Hernando Beach, back into the Gulf of Mexico, with Captain Steve at the helm, we covered another roughly parallel stretch (very rough parallel, you understand) to the mouth of the Weeki Wachee River near Bayport, where again we were met by friendly dolphins.

This bit of shore reminds me of the mouth of the Suwannee, though the latter is one of the longest rivers in Florida (its source is up in Georgia in the Okefenookee Swamp and the Weeki one of the shortest, coming only from the springs west of Hwy. 19. Doesn’t it look different from Michigan? Can you wonder that I wouldn’t want to miss a thing along the way?

We saw many birds, from gangs of salty, bachelor cormorants (at least, I imagined them to be bachelors) to old senior citizen pelicans to a young nest-building couple of great blue herons, preparing for a venture (perhaps not their first) into family life.


We saw lots of dogs, from friendly Jack on land to old-hand boat dogs.

And here was my favorite house on the river, simple and old-fashioned. Years ago there would have been vastly fewer houses, and most of them, I imagine, would have looked like this.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

On the Water, Part I

It was the perfect way for a Pisces to spend his birthday! Dolphins swam alongside Captain Steve’s boat as we made our way out the channel from Aripeka.

This part of the west coast of Florida consists of a coral shelf extending far out from shore, and the general rule is that you gain a foot of depth for each mile out you go, which means you have to go out two miles to get two feet of water, so it’s absolutely crucial to stay within channel markers on the way out (green on your right) and back (red, right, return).

I’m from Michigan. Freshwater is my natural playground, and when it comes to boats I’ve always been more interested in paddling along riverbanks and exploring shorelines than in being miles from shore. Even out on Lake Michigan, open water has never called to me as it does to some. [link “Mother, Mother Ocean”] But being out on that vast, watery expanse on a bright, clear day, with enough clouds to be interesting and enough breeze to be refreshing--it’s not bad at all! A friend of mine once told me her children found Michigan’s Upper Peninsula “boring,” because it was miles and miles of “nothing but trees.” As far as I’m concerned, there are no two tree-lined miles the same, and I never tire of U.P. scenery, a comparison that came to my mind Sunday, out on the Gulf of Mexico, where all around us there was nothing but water and sky. Boring? Not at all, since for 360 degrees we had unobstructed views of imitless shades of color and ever-changing effects of light. Look into the sun or away from it, back toward land or out towards Mexico, up at the sky, across or down into the water--every look revealed something new, no two moments alike.

Steve and Michael and David and I set out from Aripeka, going west into the Gulf, then paralleling the curve of the coast before taking another channel back in to Hernando Beach, where we picked up Sean, Pam, Brenda, Willie and Sandy. The canals of Hernando Beach are crowded with houses that provided lots of little visual surprises.

Back out again, then, past the dredge boats, back out onto open water under open skies. This was such a beautiful day, and I have so many pictures that I’m going to stretch the saga out over three posts, ending here for today. There will be birds in the next post, not just water and sky.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

For Me (I Speak Only for Myself), Art and Theory Don't Mix

...Nothing is ever exhausted or definitely explored within the creative process. The same object engages us in endless variations day after day.

...We tend to flee from repetition with fear that it will absorb our spirits.

...Don’t be afraid to do the same thing repeatedly. The practice will reveal that creation pervades everything. ...Nothing can ever be repeated in an absolute sense. There are always nuances that go unnoticed when we see our lives as monotonous drudgery.

-Shaun McNiff, Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go

(Why bagels with this post? These were mindfully made and prayerfully eaten.)

I cannot imagine ever calling myself a Buddhist. Sitting za-zen is foreign to me, and “living in the moment,” as an ideal, runs counter to the way I see human nature (that most amorphous and malleable of existential concepts!), with consciousness providing a temporal gap between external stimuli and the response of this complex organism, the human being, in which choice and freedom can emerge, consciousness by its very nature permeated with memory and anticipation, remembering the past and imagining the future. And yet, un-Zen, skeptical, hyper-conscious philosopher that I am, the books on art that speak to me with the most meaningful voices are those written by artists, such as Frederick Franck and the author quoted above, who approach art as meditation, as a losing of subjectivity (self) in seeing objects and interacting with them wordlessly.

Is this surprising? Would it seem more natural for a philosopher to approach art analytically? Ah! Of all my graduate school philosophy courses, the ones that tortured me most were classes in aesthetics, and I can analyze the reasons for my discomfort, because I not only find reasons paradigmatically amenable to analysis—I find that reasoning, of all human activities, cries out most loudly to be analyzed, for it is usually in our thinking that we go astray.

(1) First of all, from the very beginning, analysis struck me as completely inappropriate in the realm of art, its vivisection—it always felt like that to me—treating something living as if it were something dead. The poem I had to analyze in high school French class was one I chose because I loved it. After taking it apart, line by line, word by word, I gained an interpretation but lost the poem. The same thing happened in graduate school to the poem in English I had to analyze for my first “Theory of Art” class. After that I didn’t want to analyze poems—particularly poems I loved. (Caveat: I realize this may say more about me than about literary analysis and that many people find their appreciation and love deepened rather than destroyed by close reading, as my own close reading of important fiction or philosophy texts adds to my enjoyment. So my rejection of analysis is not tout court, and perhaps my second reason for discomfort will shed light on why that is so, in an indirect way.)

(2) Another source of my reluctance to analyze art came from the nature of art theory, where each thinker in turn (as one studies the philosophers’ views of art in historical survey) put forward a thesis on what art is as if it were a unitary category! Worse, all of these theories made claims for the goal of art, as if there were only one. They took it for granted, that is, that all artists were aiming in the same direction, coming closer to the bull’s-eye or missing the mark according to their degree of talent and skill. Married to an artist and having had artist friends since adolescence, I simply could not accept this unstated premise on which every aesthetic theory was constructed. It was too tidy, too articulate, too finished to be true to any artist’s life and work. The very act of generalization, I still think, is more a demand of theory than of understanding art, which is not one activity but many, multiple in terms of media and in terms of those engaged. I am beginning to suspect that the same is true of interpretive theory, but I’ll leave that question aside for now.

(3) What was my third reason? It seems to have slipped around the corner while I was looking at something else, but I think it was that theories of art, with the refreshing exception of John Dewey’s pragmatism, began with finished products. Here is this statue, this poem, this symphony, etc., the philosophers would say, and then they would ask what all had in common, because if all are art, they must share something (whatever lacked that something would not fit the category ‘art’), and the answer to that first question set the stage for the claim that the artist had aimed at creating that very whatever-it-was in the object. Again, too neat and tidy, my heart would protest unhappily. (This stuff really made me miserable. I’m not kidding.)

The poems I wrote for many years of my life were certainly not a process of envisioning an endpoint and then working toward it. More often a poem began for me with a single phrase scribbled on a paper napkin or the back of an envelope. More phrases would follow. Somehow they would come together, awkwardly stitched at first, then some of the threads ripped out, pieces discarded and reworked, finally groomed and stroked until the poem itself told me it was done. And as my mind held no image of finished work beforehand, neither was there a purpose given in advance. Why did I write a poem? Not “in order to” achieve something else and certainly not for some large, general purpose. (Of course, the philosophers can say here that the artists don’t need to be conscious of their own reasons. Copout! With an assumption like this, no disconfirming evidence is even conceivable, and the theorist gets a blank check to spend.) No, I began my poem because the phrase whispered in my ear and begged to be written down, as if it were saying, in the words of the song, “Take all of me. Why not take all of me? Can’t you see I’m no good without you?” Except that there was no you or me, no consciousness of self or other.

(4) That’s it! That last sentence there brings back to me the reason I had thought to give as my third and will now call my fourth, and that will bring me back, miraculously, to where I began. (I swear I did not plan this out beforehand! Do you believe me?) This last reason has to do with the spiritual nature of art. That is how I see it, how I feel it. A chain of reasons is an intellectual construct, the most appropriate subject for analysis. Analyzing historical events, too, whether in our own lives (as problems in ethics) or globally, across the ages, can teach us a lot, helping us make decisions for the future, and there are many situations where the question “Why?” is important. At other times, however, no question can be more wrong or less to the point. I think spiritual journeys are very rarely a search for something, e.g., a Holy Grail. More often they are more a journey away from the known and into the unknown. Direct artistic engagement, however small or amateurish, takes one on this kind of spiritual journey. (Important question: am I guilty here of generalization, and if so, is it any different from the generalizations of analysis?) John Dewey’s great contribution to aesthetic theory was the realization that activity is central to the making of art. That is, he focused on the making, rather than on the product, and at that point in my graduate class (the professor’s capstone, which told me that he too found Dewey’s picture more satisfying than those of his predecessors) I breathed a big sigh of relief. Still, as I recall, even Dewey proposed a (single) purpose, arguing that art was essentially a problem-solving activity.

Well, it doesn’t matter. Scientists don’t pay much attention to what philosophers say about science, and artists probably pay even less attention to what philosophers say about art, and that’s fine. To each his own. But artists and philosophers may have more in common than they realize. Most philosophers like to think they are uncovering hidden structures, as do scientists, but my own feeling is that philosophy, like art, is as much creation as exploration and just as individual to every practitioner. The difference is that the philosophers, engaging in intellectual activity, bring consciousness to the fore, while the artists, spiritual practitioners, must leave consciousness off to the side somewhere or stay stuck and not get anywhere.

Today’s post has been a very analytical presentation of my thinking on the subject of art, and all of this will go back in the box when I pick up a pencil and a pad of paper to draw, even when I walk out the door into the sunlight, into the waiting world of water and fish, birds and green plants. I will want to be there, not stuck in my head.

Years ago, when David and I were first living together, I used to try to stay quiet when he was working, even avoiding the room where he stood in front of his easel. Then one day he said, “You’re not bothering me. You can talk to me while I’m working. I’m painting, not thinking.”

I don’t advise interrupting a working novelist or a composer or a poet with conversation, and some painters do prefer solitude. I include this anecdote merely as a hint to how thinking interferes with “doing art,” just as it interferes with meditation. This truth extends beyond the visual arts. Even in writing one must make choices with every word without thinking about making choices with every word. To find something new, it is important to become lost.

Now, out into the world!

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Rose By Any Other Name

Sunday brought me an unexpected "Valentine's Day gift" when I walked with Sarah down to the bridge over the South Fork of Hammock Creek and spied a roseate spoonbill high up in an Australian pine. It was huddled close to a stork, and in the same area but scattered more widely were three or four great egrets. Unfortunately, even with my zoom I couldn't get close enough to the spoonbill for a good picture, and the spoonbill wasn't giving me a good pose, either. Still, it's the first I've seen around here, and while I have never been one to favor the color pink, I couldn’t help thinking what an appropriate sighting this bird made for the day.
An unmistakable bird of south Florida’s mangroves and freshwater estuaries.... The light pink wings and back of immature birds deepen gradually over three years when adults take on a much brighter pink, highlighted by an orange tail, bright red rump, shoulders, and chest patch, and black skin on sides and back of neck. The broad, flattened bill is distinctive in all ages.

- Herbert W. Kale, II and David S. Maehr, Florida’s Birds: A Handbook and Reference (1990)

According to this book, spoonbill population in 1990 was on the increase, even as their habitat was being lost. “The survival of this species,” the authors note, “depends upon maintaining its shallow feeding grounds.”

Spoonbills as a rule don't hang around this far north. They belong in a warmer climate and prefer south Florida and the Bahamas to our rough-and-ready Nature Coast. Since they visit these parts only occasionally, you'd think this one would have come later in the spring rather than during furnace weather. Maybe the other night’s fierce wind blew the bird here against its will?

Whatever the reason, its visit was a nice bit of serendipity for us, as our bedtime reading is still Inagua (we’re about halfway through) a true story set in the Bahamas, and it was only a couple nights ago, just after I'd read during the day the wonderful little natural history book called Mangrove Island, by Marjory Bartlett Sanger, that we reached the chapter of Inagua in which the narrator follows a flock of spoonbills up a mangrove-lined creek inland from the ocean. The chapter had lots of discussion on mangroves, reinforcing what I’d read in the other book, to which David added a mangrove experience of his own, years ago near Miami. You do not want to get caught up in a mangrove swamp after dark, let me tell you! The narrator of Inagua was nearly devoured by mosquitoes, no one would ever have found his body, and it was all because he couldn't resist following those siren spoonbills--they are that spectacular.

See here for pictures that really tell the story.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Be Some Old Dog's Valentine!

Weiser and David both want me to add that the title of this post is not to be taken metaphorically. Weiser is the old dog.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Picking Up Books, Then Pencil

One of our favorite books, David’s and mine, is the small French novel Pluche, by Jean Dutourd. The narrator and main character, a painter, suffering a frustrating dry spell in his studio, has the idea of experimenting with writing for a change to see if that will bring his painting back to life. At least it will occupy him until he is happily painting again, and so the book begins. The story is set in Paris, and along with the narrator’s musings on art and artists we see him interacting with friends, relatives and strangers, all of whom come to life on the pages. If I had this wonderful book with me, I would quote my favorite passage, but alas! It is back in Michigan.

Pluche came to my mind as I took up my sketchpad and pencil. Sketching for me could be thought of as avoiding the work of writing, but it is winter, I’m “on vacation,” I’m giving myself the luxury of exploration and even failure, so when my writing went dry after a couple of productive weeks I thought I'd let it go for a while. But the fact is that I have been avoiding sketching lately, too, in part (I’m guessing) since “going public” with it on the blog. Imagining how other people would see my little drawings seemed to freeze my hand when what I want, what I have loved about drawing in the past, is being able to lose myself in seeing and responding.

Enter another book: Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go, by Shaun McNiff (Shambhala, 1998). “You probably think this is silly,” I remarked to David, showing him the title. I’d found the book at our little branch library in Weeki Wachee and couldn’t resist checking it out. No, he didn’t. (I should have known he wouldn’t.) David approves and applauds any path that leads me back to work, and it doesn’t matter what the work is, either—it’s only my wanting to do it that he cares about. Well, this little volume is crammed with encouraging words and wonderful little tips, all having to do with getting the work going. Nothing about technique(s), but plenty of other books deal with that.

One basic idea, reiterated in every chapter, is that of moving from one art form to another, one medium to another, letting different materials and movements free the natural process of creativity. Another large thought that permeates the whole of the book is the author’s resistance (I love this!) to generalizing about a single way to go about making art or living life. Neither drawing nor writing (to choose the two forms that interest me most) can be reduced to a formula. “The good life,” whatever the Greeks may have thought, takes many paths, also. Not all painters must run off to Tahiti. Not all poets must live as hermits.

In individual chapters, artist-author-teacher McNiff focuses on complementary ideas. The chapter “Mistakes and Distortions” reminded me of something I used to tell my beginning philosophy students—that they should welcome “getting something wrong” because it was a sign they were really engaging with the material and thinking for themselves, not just memorizing terms. In science, also, evidence that invalidates a theory is what moves knowledge forward. When we get something right, there can be a tendency to pass on without digging deeper, without reflecting. But “mistakes” are more opportunities to learn—they can also open new directions for art and life. I say “for life” because the author’s concern is always broader than art. “Do you obsess about errors when you make them?” This is a very general question about how we think about our lives. But then came the suggestion that sent me rushing for my sketchbook: “Intentional distortion is a wonderful way of increasing spontaneity.” In other words, try to make your drawing not look just like its subject. Wow!
Try making a human face, a body, an animal, an object, or a street scene with the goal of distorting and exaggerating the subject matter. As you continue to paint and draw in this way, you will find yourself making gestures that are uniquely yours. The figures and objects from which you work become stimuli for your creation, and you are freed from any obligation to copy exactly what you see.

Improvising rather than copying, he says, your movements will be “bolder, more decisive, and more individualistic.” The distortion prescription is just what the doctor ordered for those of us who tend to be overly cautious and constrained.

One of my long-time drawing gurus, the one who gave me courage to pick up a pencil in the first place, is Frederick Franck, and the guiding theme of his books is drawing as meditation. Not surprisingly, McNiff also likens art to meditation and prayer, addressing the question of finding time for creativity: “Just as the religious person makes time for prayer during the day, the expressive person makes time for expression.”
When I create a successful painting or drawing, there is a sense of satisfaction. I may want to show the image to another person, but the primary sentiment is a feeling of completeness that takes place between myself and the image and the environment in which it was made. I innately long for this type of successful outcome. If the work is eventually exhibited, appreciated, and recognized by others, this is fine, but as I get older, public or external recognition for my paintings feels increasingly secondary. The primary emphasis is creative exercise and the intrinsic enjoyment of the act. And often the process of creation is unenjoyable, tormenting, and frustrating, just as prayer may open the difficult and confusing struggles of life [my emphasis added].

Can you imagine people feeling that their prayers, spiritual exercises, and meditations must be exhibited in a gallery or commercially published? This simple distinction between primal exercise and commercial production describes the most fundamental values of my approach to making art.

What a great question, isn’t it? How would you feel revealing your most heartfelt prayers to the public? Okay, I have no pretensions to be “making art” in my little sketchbook. Nevertheless, I am now, this morning, making a vow to be more faithful to the practice, to use my pencil (I have several but one favorite) on a daily basis, not simply carry it around to be ready for that perfect day and perfect scene. At the same time I need to return to the privacy of drawing as meditation, to free myself of worrying about how others might see my attempts. So, no more of my drawings here on the blog!

It’s okay, you won’t be missing much. There will still be photographs, anecdotal bits from our daily life, and reports on books I’m reading, issues of regional relevance (especially when I can somehow connect Florida and Michigan) and whatever other flotsam and jetsam may be occupying my mind. Who knows? That last category, left intentionally as loose as possible, so loose as hardly to constitute a category, may even touch on how the other writing project is going. I’m not ruling it out.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I Go to Paris, France, and Meet a Famous Actor

David is always meeting famous people in his dreams. They have drinks together, go to dinner, have great conversations. Not me. My typical dream is vin très ordinaire, a very unremarkable house wine coming to the table in a plain, unmarked carafe, events and cast of characters alike. My best dreams are visits with deceased friends (“She looked great!” I’ll David happily), the most tedious peopled with boring strangers. But now I’ve had a break-through: I have met a famous person in a dream, and it was a very satisfying experience! Not that there was romance. (There was no romance.) We didn’t even get along very well, under the circumstances. Truthfully? He was trying his best to extract himself from the situation. But there we were, face to face, and I was speaking French with him, so even now, too close in time to the event (the dream event), I can’t use the word “Actually” there in place of “Truthfully” because the French actuellement means :at this very moment,” and at this very moment I am tapping out a report of my dream, not actually dreaming, and I can say without hesitation that staring at words on the screen of my laptop are nothing at all like looking into the dark eyes of film star Daniel Auteuil. For yes, it was he, and we met in Paris. I am so pleased!

David and I were staying in a hotel. I was going up to our room, and David was going out, and he handed me my camera as he left. Stopping at the desk, I put down purse and camera, forgetting them as I walked to the elevator. Later, when I missed them and remembered where they were, it hardly seemed an emergency. After all, they were at the desk and would be there whenever I went to retrieve them. --But they were not! One of the “girls” had taken them home! I berated the man and woman now behind the desk, asking how they could have done such a thing and demanding a home telephone number for the “girl.” I was very upset and had raised my voice, to put it mildly. Just then a man beside me predicted that I was going to start crying. I pulled myself together and, turning to him, said with great dignity, in French, “J’ai décidé ne pas pleurer (I have decided not to cry).” At that, his expression changed to admiration--this was not yet Daniel Auteuil but a very nice, helpful Frenchman—and he complimented me on my dignity. I told him that I had found it in French films (???), and he was so impressed that he began to scrawl a letter on hotel stationery that I was to take to the nearest PTT office lost-and-found. (I can’t remember if the PTT usually has a lost-and-found counter and don’t know why the hotel would not have taken care of this simple matter themselves, but we are dealing with dream logic here, don’t forget.) There were two other sheets of paper with the letter he gave me, and on one of those that I saw a photograph of Daniel Auteuil, and the sun broke through the clouds. “He’s going to help me?” I rushed out and ran down the sidewalk to the government building indicated.

This is the moment even dream logic cannot explain, and even as I was dreaming I realized—as the dreamer though not as myself in the dream—that this could only be an amazing coincidence, that it could not be Daniel Auteuil’s job to arrange for the return of my belongings, but there he was! I was thrilled, almost but not quite, beyond words. I showed him the letter and accompanying papers. He took a step backward, his dark eyes opening wide. He shook his head and waved his hands to indicate there was a mistake. Who was that man with him? His agent? I went on the attack, accusing both of them of not wanting a famous star like Daniel Auteuil to have anything to do with a woman his own age! I told Daniel Auteuil that I was very disappointed (très deçue) to find that he was not at all special but a very ordinary person, “comme tous les autres.”

“And did he help you?” David interrupted as I was recounting this dream to him. I had wakened him from a sound sleep to share my experience before it evaporated completely.

“I don’t know. I think that’s where I woke up.”

“What was he wearing?”

“I don’t know. I was looking at his face!”

And he looked, I am happy to say, exactly like himself. Just as, on my first day in Paris, it looked exactly like Paris, but being there was completely unlike seeing pictures, and meeting Daniel Auteuil face to face, even in a dream, was completely unlike seeing him in a movie, however silly that sounds.

Why would Daniel Auteuil make an appearance in my dream? Star in my dream, as it were? Probably because only 24 hours before, I had been reading a Maigret mystery in which the murder victim’s body was discovered in her family house in the Paris suburb of Auteuil, but all I can say about that is that if I’d been asked who I wanted to meet—Georges Simenon, Inspector Maigret or Daniel Auteuil—there would have been no contest. C’était comme il faut, exactement.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Connections and Odd Bits

Today will be a catching-up day of postscripts to earlier posts. The picture above was sent to me by Northport, Michigan, friend Steve Gilbreath (also known as the Fearless Leader of our early winter Ulysses study group). The man raising the flag in the picture is Big Steve’s grandfather, William Sydnor Gilbreath, “a pioneer,” Steve writes to me, “for ‘good roads’ and the first manager of AAA Michigan in 1916.” Steve says it’s been a mild winter so far in northern Michigan (it was not mild earlier on, while we were still there, Steve!), but he wonders if being the grandson of W.S. Gilbreath might get him a condo in the new SunWest development. He also sent this link to a fascinating history of Florida Roads, and I’m beginning to wonder now if the “couch road,” as David and I call it, was ever part of the original Dixie Highway or was simply given the name later, as a tribute, when the designation disappeared from public use.

(Although Florida highways history is the main subject of the link Steve sent, other early roads appear in the story, among them the east-west Lincoln Highway, which later became Route 30, a two-lane highway I had to cross as a first- and second-grader to get to school and later used as my back roads route home to visit my mother, before it was widened and lined with housing developments and shopping centers filling in old prairie farmland, heavy traffic and new traffic lights forcing me over to I-94.)

Another reader, the writer of Throwaway Blog, commenting on the stretch of Dixie Highway in Michigan (the designated road began at Sault Ste. Marie), sent this link to a list of Michigan roads of the 1920s and 1930s. (The following two pictures, dmarks, are for you in return.)

I wondered why Blue Star Highway and Red Arrow Highway, favorites of mine in southwest Michigan, were not on the list. Blue Star was designated after World War II, but Red Arrow's history is more complicated, its designation changing over time. (You can tell I haven't sorted it out yet.)

And, back once again to Florida and development along the Nature Coast, I received e-mail from a new reader, somewhere in our winter neighborhood here, who sent me a link to a group opposing the SunWest development.

What I’m reading: Two hundred pages into Ronan Bennett’s The Catastrophist, the story shifted briefly from the Congo to the United Kingdom as the narrator recounted the story of his parents and his own early years. Ever the bookseller, I could not help being caught up in this passage:
I wandered down Chancery Lane and up the length of Fleet Street to Ludgate, and near St. Paul’s I found a dusty old bookshop where, out of idle curiosity, I picked up a nineteenth-century French novel. It had been a very long time since I had read fiction. I stood on the creaking bare boards of the floor and glanced over the first couple of pages with only passing interest, thinking at the end of each paragraph to put down the book and go on to explore the history shelves. Instead I kept reading. It seemed to me that I knew the people in the story, knew them firsthand. The more I read the more I recognized their voices, the way they walked, the houses in which they lived. I knew their banality, their pretensions, their selfishness. It was almost as if the story had been set in the world of my childhood. Why had I not read this before? Why had no one told me?

In my dreams last night something strange had happened to the ceiling lights in my bookstore. The way to switch them off and on was with simple strings hanging down, like the strings one used to see hanging down from bare bulbs in basements (including the basement of Mrs. Arnold’s old bookstore in Traverse City), and one of the strings had been so inconveniently long that I’d cut it shorter. To my surprise, this act on my part somehow shortened all the other strings, which now hung out of my reach, and I had to go about the bookstore with a chair, clambering up to each light individually to switch it on. A bookseller’s dream, hardly noteworthy--except to me, to think that I would dream of my Michigan bookstore during our Florida winter. I am like the Mole, unable to give up his new, adventurous life with the Rat but still feeling the pull of his modest little home.

So I was sad to hear of closing of a long-established bookstore in Gainesville. Florida. July 2010 will mark the 17th anniversary of Dog Ears Books, but there is no assured future in this business or any other human endeavor. It is what it is until it is no more. I’ve worked hard and have been fortunate so far with good landlords and enough of a loyal clientele to keep going.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Come For a Walk with Me

Sleeping late is not like me, but I have been sleeping so well the past three weeks that only once did I wake at 4 a.m. Other mornings Sarah has gotten me out of bed but rarely before seven. Usually, after Sarah and along with coffee, writing was my occupation for morning after morning. I say was. I wrote every morning, not suspecting that inspiration was seeping away, ebbing like the tide, until two stories in process had gone flat and dry. What now? Delete 5,000 words and begin over? Begin something else? Read another book? Take a break? Saturday morning I decided to take a walk.

After a pouring rain that kept her inside for most of the day before, Sarah was happy to get outdoors before sunrise. Ground and air were full of smells for her to investigate.

Cats preened as they waited for weekend fishermen to appear.

A small heron (sorry, no picture of it) floated effortlessly over Hammock Creek on its way out to the Gulf, while woodpeckers and kingfishers took up posts over sheltered water. Everywhere around quiet little Aripeka life was swooping and singing, and being out in it felt wonderful. Does “heaven” really lie offshore, as the sign on Norfleet’s store proclaims? It’s not right here?

A soft breeze caressed my face, as I walked north, Gulf to my left, sunrise to my right. The Florida sawgrass coast evokes the Illinois prairie in my mind’s eye. Can you see it?

On the prairie, farmhouses, barns and shade trees form islands in the vast ocean of plowed fields, whereas here the offshore Gulf hammocks stand out like sentries of land in unbounded fields of water.

The sunrise was here, there and everywhere--in the east, naturally, where one expects it, but also in the light creeping over the sawgrass to the west and in the clouds overhead and in their reflections in the water at my feet.

Looking back at these pictures and recollecting indoors the sensations of a beautiful morning in the open air, I can’t help thinking that inspiration’s departure, whether its absence be temporary or permanent, left beautiful gifts in its wake. And if I write no books, there will be no dearth of books to buy, to read and to sell. Others, more talented than I, will make sure of that.