Once, a long time ago, for a short time, I was a fly fisherwoman. Fly fishing, like so many other things, was a short-lived pursuit that began as a lark, took hold for a bit, and then petered out, partly through changed circumstance, partly through competition from other activities, and mostly because I thought of it as a pursuit, a race with a prize at the end.
But for a while, a short while, once, a long time ago, I loved little more than rising before dawn to drive two hours west, on virtually deserted state highways, to a clear, cool river in search of trout. It was time that belonged only to me, a kind of unfettered time impossible to appreciate without the perspective gained from not having it.
I was young then, in my 20s, and time was simply time. So I used that otherwise unfettered time to fish and, when I wasn’t fishing, to read about fishing. I devoured Nick Lyons and John Gierach. I lingered over Norman Maclean. And in this brief window, between 1993 and 1996, while I was green and unencumbered, fishing and reading, I found Harry Middleton, a little-known writer, and his poignant (and unfortunately final) book, Rivers of Memory.
To say that I’d forgotten Rivers of Memory would be untrue; it wasn’t forgotten, merely shelved. It is one of only four fishing-themed books that I’ve kept in the years since my fishing escapades, the other three being The Habit of Rivers, The River Why, and A River Runs Through It, the last of these being the only of the three that I’ve since read again, and more than once, because the writing is flawless and the narrative is my preferred kind of heavy. The other two books I’ve kept purely for sentimental reasons, a permanent fondness for the friends who gave them to me.
Until a week or so ago I would have told you that I kept Middleton’s book, a collection of short essays describing his bygone days fishing, because it connected me to my own memories of that time in my life. I thought of it as a touchstone, one that has rested for more than a decade on the same shelf in our little home library, with Grendel and The Meadow on one side, The English Patient and Love in the Time of Cholera on the other, all of them books I consider to be companions.
A week or so ago I was running my finger along the books on that particular shelf precisely because it was companionship I sought. I’d been trying to get into a new book, picking up and putting down several different volumes, all of which came with good reviews, none of which piqued my interest in the first 50 pages, all of which are now stacked on the floor by my side of the bed, all gathering dust while I pretend I might one day give them a second chance.
So I went to my little library in search of something comfortable and familiar, and my finger came to rest on the thin, still-pristine copy of Middleton’s book, the one I’ve kept for 23 years because it struck some chord that still resonated, even though I couldn’t tell you why. We crept into bed, my book companion and I, next to the lightly-snoring man and deeply-snoring dogs, to get reacquainted.
Maclean wrote, in that now-famous line that he was haunted by waters. I have been haunted, it seems, by the ghost of Harry Middleton, a southern writer and editor down on his luck in the early 1990s, having been dismissed from Southern Living. Unable to find a paid writing gig, Middleton was living with his family in northern Alabama and working three jobs.
In between his night job on the garbage truck and his morning job stocking grocery shelves, in the quiet hours that belonged only to him, he wrote. And in his writing – those short, lovely essays that aren’t really about fishing at all – he planted a tug of longing, the kind that strikes deep and then ripples and ripples and ripples across time. I wish he had written more; but in the summer of 1993, a few months before I first picked up Rivers of Memory from a display table at David Kidd Booksellers, Harry Middleton died, suddenly and unexpectedly, of a suspected aneurysm. He was 43.
An article popped up in my news feed recently, alerting me that blogging is dead, that video content and apps are what’s hot now for anyone active in the online content game. If in pursuit of an online audience, the article counseled, do not waste time on a blog.
I’d had a similar conversation a month earlier over dinner (cocktails) with a writer friend, a woman considerably younger than I, the pair of us two clear bookends on so-called Generation X. I have the view ahead, into the world of Baby Boomers; she has the view behind, into the realm of Millennials. Or perhaps it is she who can see ahead and I who can see behind; such is the conundrum of generations.
In any event, my friend, the young writer, is the mother of a pre-kindergartener, swimming in the abyss of that particular phase of all-consuming motherhood while also working outside the home and also struggling to write – struggling mostly because of time restrictions but also out of earnest desire to maintain relevance outside the cesspool of mommy blogs into which her work is sometimes drawn, purely (undeservedly) because of its current subject matter.
She is a talented writer, and also very successful in the larger, non-mommy-blog universe of blogging, speaking at WordPress events and serving as a resource for others wanting to join the online party. So I’d asked her, after we ordered our food: Where do you think all of this is going next?
Video content, she responded quickly, without having to give it any thought. She went on to elaborate: 500 words is the max anyone will read, and they don’t even want to read that much; they want to see it, to hear it, to engage in a different way. Blogs that are just writing are dead.
Too bad for anyone who writes out of compulsion to write, we agreed; and we ordered a second round of drinks.
The advice, centuries old and eternally true, is to write what one knows – to write from real life, real experience, real observation. This is the advice any writing teacher will give, whether that teacher is mother, to her daughter, or Mrs. Rutherford, to her fourth grade homeroom, or Anne Lamott, to anyone who’ll listen: butt in chair, shitty first drafts; you know the drill. Take what’s inside, the thinky-thoughts and feely-feelings, and put them on paper (or computer), because doing so might help world make some sense and will, at a minimum, give that internal monologue a place to call home.
If I had been thinking consciously, planning ahead, that’s certainly the advice that would have risen to the top: write from experience. But if I had been thinking consciously, planning ahead, I would have weighed down that simple advice with other, more complicated additions: begin with the end in mind; select an identifiable theme; isolate a clear voice; structure a beginning, middle and end; define the audience. Et cetera. The simple truth is that if I’d been thinking at all, I’d never have gotten started; never.
But I wasn’t thinking; I was taking care of a small business matter that I was ill-equipped to handle and in a hurry to fix: tidying up the content that lived at the URL bearing my name, a destination I worried some enterprising classmate might stumble upon given our new class directory circulating on the occasion of our 25th reunion and providing everyone’s full contact information.
Since most of my fellow classmates had spent the quarter century doing headline-making, Earth-saving, ground-breaking work, while I had spent the same quarter century doing, by comparison, absolutely nothing remarkable, I thought I would replace the boring, outdated, unimpressive remnants of my old consulting website with some fresh content showing that I at least still knew how to operate a camera, given that my degree was in art & archeology, with a concentration in visual art.
Yes, it sounds as ridiculous to me now as it probably always has to you. Yes, in retrospect I, too, recognize that starting a blog – one completely lacking in content, focus, style, voice or defined-audience – in 2012 (well past the time to do such a thing) was geometrically more foolish than leaving up outdated content related to real, actual work I’d done. But also in retrospect, now owning my position as a woman of a certain age, I realize I haven’t nearly often enough said: oh, fuck it.
So, I started a blog, one with a ramble of pictures and wandering posts about neighbors and children and food and cameras. 55 weeks later, still going, I woke up one day with a head full of words about my mother; and I wrote them down. And then those words, and the responses to them, gave the tiniest bit of shape to the words that came next, and next, and so on, for another 153 consecutive weeks, right up to today, with only two or three unannounced interruptions, still without much clear definition, often on tangents, and occasionally down murky rabbit holes.
Four years, writing,
that Ina Garten is the best resource for reliable recipes, but Alice Waters is the best resource on food;
that parenting is hard, and marriage possibly harder;
that if one really damned good cup of coffee is the quest, an Aeropress with tin of illy dark roast is the treasure;
that my father was dear, and flawed;
that salt is the secret to a good salad;
that failing to allow oneself to fall hopelessly, recklessly in love, even if only with a dog, means missing out entirely on what it means to be a human;
that plot is easy, but words are hard;
that the impact of any single person is often clear only later, after, when time allows memory and perspective to run together, into a trickle, and eventually, perhaps, into a single, if haunting, stream.
Most mornings, when the sky is light but the sun still hidden, I sit on my porch and listen to the world waking up. I have not always been a morning person, quite the opposite. But like my mother did many years ago, I’ve had to readjust, to fill out the shape my life currently occupies, full from dawn to dusk with errands and obligations and responsibilities and decisions.
But in the early mornings, wearing the soft grey robe I rescued from my daughter’s Goodwill giveaway bag, time belongs to me, in the good company of birds, morning joggers, the tip-toeing stray tabby cat with her white-socked paws, and, more often than not, a light breeze.
The breeze carries the scent of early summer, because on the outside edge of the porch stand the remains of an ancient gardenia bush, now in full bloom on its sparse, spindly branches. From where I sit, looking out through the wide, square opening of our old brick porch, the fragile gardenia is framed from behind by a magnificent, massive magnolia tree in my neighbor’s yard.
When we moved into our house, a decade ago, the gardenia, which then was two bushes growing together, was full and lush and dripping with perfume. The magnolia, behind it, across the street, was tall, to be sure, but not quite reaching its house’s rooftop and still with open space underneath, good for small children playing hide-and seek and stretching their small limbs to climb.
The years, several overly-hot summers, several overly-cold winters, have been less kind to the bush than to the tree; but both bush and tree are still here. They, too, occupy the shapes their lives now require, shapes that have changed right before my eyes, though too slowly to see each small transformation, of the bush, of the tree, of the children who climbed there, before their limbs grew big.
Those children will wake soon, I realize, watching the cat paw at a cricket. They’ll rise, and we’ll start our busy day, with its errands and obligations, biding time that belongs both to no one and everyone. In only a few minutes, this quiet, early morning will be over.
But for now, sitting on my porch, while the light is soft and the air cool, I let the morning wash through me, enjoying the pursuit of nothing.
Food | Week of May 30, 2016
Multi-Grain Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
Summer Chef’s Salad with Grilled Pork, Chicken & Chimichurri Dressing
(quick fix: substitute rotisserie chicken and/or smoked pork from a BBQ shop)
Oh, yes. Just… yes. You and the stray tabby with the white socks and our views of why we do what we do and what matters and of course, what we know. How could we not know that exactly this is absolute perfection?
I’m going to re-read this one. Thank you.
So, A. thanks; and 2. (this is a running joke between my sister and me – one I think you’ll get and enjoy) I suspect you’ll have to re-read because it is, I’m afraid, overly long. I ran out of time to make it shorter, figuring I could always go back and edit more later, and again, and again. It’s a fucking blog, that’s what I keep repeating to myself, a blog, not anything carved in stone, or even written in Sharpie. Happy weekend to you, friend.
P.S. I will tell you sometime, face-to-face, with wine, about all the times the tooth fairy neglected her duties at our house. She was a terrible damned tooth fairy, and I was overjoyed when the time came for her to fly the coop.
Oh, no! I love the length. (Because of course, I hoard, even words but really…) Because it is suddenly summer here and everything has slowed and we’ve gone north to where everything smells of salt and last year’s dampness. We are slow and drinking wine on the porch and set loose from any schedule. Such a precious thick-blooded, drowsy feeling. Like your piece. Don’t edit.
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Love, love, love this piece. From the companionship of a good book, to the comfort of the written word, to the peace and value of quiet stolen moments in the morning that only a mom can know, your words are true and honest. Your essays (and Mama Art’s!) have kept me company many a quiet morning, nourishing me before that to-do list rears its head. Blessings. ❤
Wait- Mama Art? I need to check her out. And once we get Dawn to chime in we’ll have a mutual admiration convention. May we please meet on the porch at Jenny’s place to listen to the peepers (or whatever?) I’m drinking Prosecco tonight… because beach day. (And thank you, Stacy.)
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You know I am all for a get-together with some wine. And I’d gladly have you all on my porch, though I might also suggest Rome, preferably in October. Hell, if we’re going to travel to get together and drink wine, let’s do it up. And yes, many thanks to you both.
Of course, it just takes Dawn a lot longer to get here… or anywhere related to writing… lately! But, come I do, because the writing is so gorgeous and the women so divine. Wine in Memphis, Massachusetts, on my deck, or in Rome, I’d go just to see your beautiful faces, and share words in real time. Please let’s make it happen! And Jen, don’t edit one word. Don’t remove a single word. I don’t care about trends or what “most experts say;” I savor each one that you write, along with those Mama writes; they make my world so much sweeter. xoxo
Good morning Jenny…. I know you wrote this yesterday, but I read it today. I sit here with my cup of coffee at my desk, listening to my dog lightly snore and read your beautiful words. They spoke loudly to me and I am just a tad envious of the time you have managed to set aside to write in the midst of your busy life with kids, husband… etc. I make excuses and keep thinking “maybe tomorrow” when I look at my blank screen and can’t think of a single thing to put there.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I think I may have to go and find Middleton’s book now and read it. I am always reading or listening to something but lately I am having a hard time connecting to anything also. Maybe his words will help inspire again.
Have a wonderful holiday weekend! 🙂
And good morning to you! I’m afraid I’ve steered you (and others) to an expensive treasure hunt. Middleton’s final book is apparently quite collectible and commands a handsome price from resellers. Perhaps your library will have a copy (it’s always good to support a library!). I will also recommend to you another favorite: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (which is widely available and reasonably priced). I dare you to get through half of it without abandoning the book to head to your computer and write. It’s very funny and highly motivating. Well wishes to you in your morning musings, your weekend, and your writing. Always a pleasure ‘seeing’ you here.
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So much to say, Jennifer Malarkey. First, who are these classmates, if not you, who are the movers and shakers? Second, Anne Lamott-LOVE-Bird by Bird-the best! Third, I need my mornings while the coffee is hot and before the house stirs. Fourth, I will rage against the dying of the light by inviting every teen I teach to explore their thoughts and enter the Universe of Discourse. Fifth, Fly fishing is the luxury of time. Sixth, I will continue to anticipate your blog in my inbox and relish the quiet time to read and share and recognize my experiences and self in them. There is more but morning comes early, and I must to bed.
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