Time & Silence, Color & Light: On Being a Writer Now

I often walk the small public shoreline near my home. This particular beach is cold but lovely, washed with multicolored stones, swells of coarse grey sand, and rags of jewel-toned seaweed lacing the land to the sea. Seabirds and shellfish are common sights, salmon and eagles a bit less so, and rarely, harbor seal pups sleep on the sand while their mothers hunt.

Each time I walk, I try to remind myself to be present and content with the beauty around me, but I often find myself naturally searching for something. I scan the sand for seashells, shards of colorful sea glass, a surprising stone, or even an image to collect and share with friends and family online. My search is both causal and methodical. Every few steps, I check the ground, I look up at the sky, I look out over the water, I look down again. When the weather is wet or windy, as it is in the fall, I’m often alone. A few times -very few times- on this journey, I’ve found something of interest or extraordinary beauty in the sand. Once I found a complete and empty moon snail shell twice the size of my fist. Once, a bright orange bobber. Another time I found a clear glass teacup, miraculously unbroken. Until recently, my favorite find was a small silver key on a rusted loop.

Then two weeks ago I came to the beach on an overcast autumn morning. The water was relatively calm and the skies were streaked with silver. A handful of other people walked in pairs through the gloom. I had thirty minutes to myself before I’d be needed for the day’s business. Life had recently been hassled and harried so I walked with relief, and I searched for calm, for peace, for any object or idea to hold. Then, in my usual rhythm, I looked up and discovered a rainbow arcing delicately across the water. The golden light of morning sun hit the distant rain clouds at precisely the right angle to send a bright beacon of color shining out across the sound. My body and mind lit with joy. I felt instantly giddy and goofy with wonder. Like I’d never seen a rainbow before, or a beach. I snapped a hundred pictures; I barely dared to look away until the entire rainbow had faded to a happy memory.

“Now that,” I said to myself, “was an excellent treasure.” And it was, but the morning wasn’t finished with me yet. I walked with new energy and excitement. I couldn’t wait to tell my friends and family about the rainbow. I couldn’t wait to post online for more distant people to enjoy this pretty moment. I looked down, more from habit than for longing.

There, peeking out of the sand at my feet was a bright silver object. A pocket watch. Its cover was engraved with intricate designs and apparently untarnished. At first, I thought it must have recently been dropped. I looked up and down the beach, but I was completely alone. I knelt and studied it. Tiny pieces of seaweed were draped across its rim. It looked so new, so shiny, it seemed like a toy. Maybe, I thought, it isn’t a real pocket watch. Maybe it’s just a costume piece. I took a picture before I picked it up. Real or not, I could hardly believe in its existence.

I lifted it from the sand. It was real, even heavy in my hand. Its chain was still attached. With some effort, I opened the cover and saw that sea water filled its face and had gently damaged the design there. The time was 9:21. 

I looked down again, trying to understand what I’d found. That’s when my eyes fell on the morning’s last gift: three brass rings, connected by a slender black string- a simple wind chime I’d seen hanging in homes and shops before. I picked it up too. There was no center in the chime, no beads to hit the bell-like circles, but otherwise, the chime was perfectly in tact.

So there I was, standing on my little beach, holding the watch, the chimes, and the memory of a glorious rainbow. I’d never felt more lucky or alive and my first impulse was to write.

I didn’t. That was a few weeks ago, before a great deal changed in my life and in the country I call home. I’ll spare you the details (you already know), except to say that the worst part, so far, has been a deep despair, grief, and anxiety pervading most of my liberal social circles. We lost the election, we lost the chance to hire the first woman president, we lost the chance to make significant social change, and our opponents elected an offensive, greed-ridden, racist narcissist to lead the nation. Dark times, as they say, are upon us.

The effect of all this on me, personally, has been profound. I’ve never been so emotionally invested in an election and never felt such total uncertainty about the future of my family, my community, and our globe. At the same time, I feel a resolve to work harder than I ever have before. To tell the stories and write the words that matter most, however and whenever I can.

I know this may sound vain or selfish to many of you, but I’m an artist. It’s taken me a long time to be able to say that out loud. I’m not necessarily a good one, likely not a great one, but it is who I am. Since early childhood I’ve tried, through language, to connect with and inspire others. I studied English in college to do this. I left teaching English to do this. I hired childcare to do this. I’ve joined communities and traveled across the country to do this. I’ve written four novels and dozens of short projects trying to teach myself how to do this and how to do it better.

This is all to say that the election, and my visit to the beach that day has left me with new clarity. I don’t know how we’re going to move forward, but I know what I personally have to do.

The pocket watch is Time. Of course it is.

The day after I brought my treasure home and gently rinsed and drained it, I carefully wound it. You might not believe this, but it worked, ticking softly on my palm. I looked up the markings on the inside and learned that it’s a Russian watch, probably about fifty years old. It stopped working about an hour and a half later, but I know a clockmaker who I’m certain will be able to restore it and I intend to keep it in working order.

My Time is precious, and as a writer, it’s one of the only ingredients I need to do my work. I’ve spent so much of my life on not-writing, and I don’t regret that, but as I get older, and as calamity strikes again and again, I feel much more urgency. No more internet before writing. No more social media first thing in the morning. No more news or chatter or banter or business before writing. No more days without written words. These are my new commitments to myself. This is how I will honor Time.

The bells are Silence and Sound. Again, Silence is one of the most essential ingredients to my work. The clamor of this campaign year and election has been deafening. For many, this noise is important, even life-saving. Outcry is one way of surviving and I honor that. For me, the echo chamber of my social circles means that the noise I make usually bounces back in praise and agreement. There’s very little true dialogue and when there is, it’s often public and impersonal, unsatisfying and watered down. Silence is what I need to delve deep into the worlds of my work, hoping that my efforts can result someday in a powerful and resonant Sound. A Sound that might matter to strangers, as well as to the people I already know and love.

That leaves the rainbow. The rainbow can only be itself, I think. Beauty, light, hope, a moment when things weren’t as dark or grim. I hope my work can shine that way someday for someone, but I know that ideals are there to inspire us, not to be achieved. I’m not afraid to fail, but I’m certain I will if I don’t recommit myself to honoring the time and silence I need right now.

We’re moving back into our house tomorrow after almost a year away for renovation. Tonight, coincidentally, there’s a supermoon. When the sun rises and the truck is unloaded, when we finally get down to the business of unpacking, one of the first things I will do is set up my writing space. I will hang up that wind chime, place that pocket watch nearby, and work on my next novel. There are a thousand other ways I could, should, would spend my time, but this is the work that calls me. I hope, in the days ahead, I can stay true to that calling and deliver the best my life can offer. May we all have the time and silence to hear whatever calls to us, and the strength to answer.


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