21 May 2012


It has been too long.

There's a point on I-26 East where the pavement changes from interstate-grade blacktop to the grainier, red-tinged stuff indigenous to the southeastern Coastal Plain. That's where I know I’ve hit the home stretch. From there, it’s less than an hour to Folly.

I came by one evening last November, so I know it still exists: the road, the island, the “downtown”–a double handful of shops, restaurants, and a motel or two where the road runs out right in front of the one big hotel–and Ashley Street, which runs the length of the island in both directions from Folly Beach Road.

In November, I spent 30 minutes on the beach, got a sandwich in town, and had to leave. It wasn’t easy. As usual, I didn’t get away before dark. This time, I have four days. And I intend to milk them for all the peace and regeneration they’re worth.

I park the car in front of the rented house on the east end of the island. (It’s really northeast, but let’s not quibble.) I get a lift to the bike rental place on East Huron, next to the post office, then ride the bike back. Three miles on a beach cruiser is a piece o’ cake, even as out of shape as I am after a winter of desk work and babying my arthritic knee. Without the bike, I’d be stranded at the house or forced to drive everywhere; I can’t walk more than a block or two, but I can ride for miles. Just as in my asthmatic, “don’t pick her, she can’t run” childhood, the bike is my salvation–my ticket to freedom.

It’s a writers’ retreat weekend, a working vacation. I know there’s not going to be a lot of beach time, and that’s okay. It’s just being here that’s important.

The second day, I do get away for a couple of hours and ride down to the center of town for a swimsuit. If I’d left my suit at home twenty years ago, I’d have been looking for a bikini to cover the essentials; at 5’6” and about 115 pounds, I was on the trim side of “not bad,” with only a modest quantity of essentials to cover. These days, not so much. I need a one-piece, preferably with a control panel. Chalk it up to the desk work, okay?

I don’t find a one-piece suit. I do locate two great sundresses that together cost about the same as the one swimsuit I try on. (It covers the essentials; it even has a skirt. Unfortunately, it comes in two pieces, and it doesn’t cover the part that requires the control panel. In spite of its lovely, tan-enhancing milk-chocolate color, I put it back.)

The sundress find is not the most remarkable thing about the ride to town and back. On the way up, I’m almost to the intersection of Huron and Folly Beach Road when I see a woman waiting for a dog to finish his business. She smiles, and I smile, and I almost say, “Bonnie?” And then I wonder why I didn’t. For another block, I debate turning around and going back to say, “Bonnie?”

Bonnie was the landlady, the owner of the house where my friend Sara lived. Sara had the ground floor apartment, and Bonnie lived upstairs. But Bonnie wasn’t just the landlady–she was one of us. There was a whole crazy tribe of “Folly Beach Wimmin,” a dozen or more who came and went: gay and straight, with and without kids, young and not-so-much, bone-skinny and comfortably pudgy. We stuck together, we stuck up for each other, we hung out on the beach and took turns greasing up each other’s kids with sunscreen. We set the boom box on the tailgate of Bonnie’s truck in the driveway and played Joan Jett and Bonnie Raitt, loud, half the night. We walked up Ashley Road to the Sand Dollar Social Club all together, in a comfortable, arms-linked, intertwined gaggle, and when we got there, we drank beer together, shot pool together, danced together or with the guys who lived on the island.

I think in all my life, that time and place–then and here–were the first I ever was able to just be. No pretense, no expectations, no history–just what you see is what you get. There is strength in numbers. It’s never been truer to me than in those days on Folly.

So I ride the same way the following day, hoping to see Bonnie again. I’d texted Sara 10 minutes after seeing the woman I almost spoke to; later, she’d respond yes, Bonnie is still here. But that’s not the street where she lives, so maybe I didn’t see her after all.

Still, I ride six miles. Not bad for an out of shape, arthritic old lady.

The third day, after the morning workshop, I ride farther still. I swing by the bike shop to ask the guys to pick up the bike tomorrow instead of this evening, and then I circle back down Huron, up 6th, and west again, all the way to the end of the island and all the way back. When I return to the main intersection, I cut to the right, over to the beachfront road. I find “my” beach house out there–my dream hideout. It’s painted a deep ocean blue, but uneven–faded in big patches, as though the wind and the surf and the salty air have caused the color to run in places. It’s on the beach side–bad for hurricane insurance, but perfect if, like me, you’re just about crazy from homesickness for the smell of salt water.

I ride through deep puddles I’m sure are tidal pools. Some nights, the tide does push to the top of the dunes, only partly regenerated after hundreds of years of hurricanes and only a couple of decades of real concern about beach erosion. That erosion has been slowed now, by careful cultivation of native flora–gaillardia, palmetto, beach roses and scrub pine that burrow into the satiny sand and stand firm against the tides. But the ecosystem is still fragile, like most of them anymore. One good, solid smack from a Hugo or Irene, and we’d be back in 1989, staring at naked beach instead of low dunes and tall houses.

So ten miles on the third day, with all the looping back and cutting over, on a moderately heavy one-speed cruiser with fat beach tires; I know I’ll feel it in my legs tonight. In fact, I’ll feel it in every muscle I own from the hips on down–and that’s a good thing.

Back at the house, we have a workshop session on the deck. We have our own pier over the dunes–walking on them is no longer allowed–and down to the beach. It’s a great place to sit and watch “Pelican TV.” The pelicans that nest here, on the east end by the lighthouse, lumber across the threatening sky–an early tropical storm has been hovering just a few miles out for three days, not budging–and occasionally drop to skim the air just inches above the cresting waves where there might be fish. When a pelican spots a target, he takes a massive nosedive, straight into the water–graceless, goofy, inelegant. Pelicans are all business. They aren’t made for “pretty,” they’re built for getting the job done. They’re live-action comedy on the wing.

Our group has dinner at Locklear’s, at the pier beside the one largish hotel on the island. We dine outside, watching the wedding party that comes and goes down the pier, the bride in her off-the-shoulder gown (not too much of a meringue) and the groom in a white oxford shirt, khakis, and flip-flops. They all look comfortable, and it seems quite appropriate to me. If I ever go to a wedding on the pier at Folly, I’ll expect the groom to be wearing flip-flops. (In fact, I notice after a while that she's wearing flip-flops, too. Smart girl.)

Three of us walk out on the pier after dinner. Martha and Calvin go to the end; I stop a little over halfway to rest. It’s close to sunset, and there’s one last surfer this far out. I see several closer to shore, catching waves as they break, but this guy wants one that will lift him up and carry him farther–carry him, I think, all the way in. He finally gets it just before we leave the pier. I look back over my shoulder and see him skimming the crest, maneuvering gently to the right or left to stay with the wave’s momentum as one section breaks, then another. It looks to me like the most beautiful applied physics–like you have to know where the power is behind your wave, and you have to be able to track it, or you’ll be lost.

There will be one more workshop tonight, one more discussion in the morning.

One more night to turn out the porch light so the loggerhead turtles can dig their nests in the dark at low tide, in the wee hours of the morning. One more night of sleep on the couch, where I can listen to the surf and be awakened by the sun coming over the lighthouse point.

One more morning to sit on the deck and watch the darting, glowing tropical-green lizards with their vivid orange throats.

One more short bike ride, this one to the lighthouse point; when the sand gets too loose to pedal, I park the bike and climb a nearby dune to see the structure standing off the island, on a rock jutting from the water.

This last morning, the breeze is light. The storm has finally shifted, developed a little circular motion and moseyed south to go inland over Savannah instead of up by us. The sun is out, the air still cool but warming fast. It all smells bright, washed–green.

I’ll grab a sandwich and a beer at Woody’s. Then it’s back to my other world, back to the highway and the traffic and eventually (Tuesday) to the daily commute.

But I have a new story started, three more critiqued and edited almost to where they need to be–and my hunger for the smell of salt water has been sated, at least for a little while.

I can carry this with me: the work, yes, the progress and accomplishments, and also the sensation of my muscles stretching, pushing a heavy bike’s pedals and making it move down a beach road, the heat of sun through clouds canceling out the chill of a 15-mile-an-hour wind on my skin as I pedal east, the little start of almost-recognition of a stranger who might actually be a friend.

The tranquil, impulsive, breezy, humorous, determined but unpressured spirit of Folly: I think I have enough bottled now to keep me going for a little while.

14 March 2012

Sand in my shoes

I have a few favorite places in the universe. With only one or two exceptions, they're firmly linked in my mind to times with my kids. When the older ones were small, I would sometimes pick them up from school on a Friday afternoon and make a beeline north from Raleigh, NC, to Washington, DC. I had a lovely friend, Margaret, who lived in the southeast quadrant of the District, in a lovely reclaimed row house three or four blocks from the Metro. We'd arrive about 9 or 10 p.m., and I'd park the car somewhere on the block -- and not move it again until we had to leave on Sunday. We spent whole Saturdays in the Smithsonian, Sunday mornings cooking breakfast for Margaret, sitting and talking, pretending we need never leave, and Sunday evenings driving back to Raleigh after dark.

Margaret was a remarkable woman, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries to China. They were among the last to leave during the Chinese civil war; Margaret's father was one of the few westerners trusted enough by both sides of the conflict that he was allowed to take food and other essentials back and forth, between and behind lines. I loved Margaret and her stories; Bri and Sean loved Margaret because she loved them back, unconditionally and without expectation. I did okay on the "unconditional" front, but I had lists of expectations -- and every child needs someone who loves them just for who they are, not who they have the potential to become.

Another favorite place was the San Francisco Bay Area. Last year, I drove back with Sean and spent an afternoon driving around my old neighborhood in San Jose. It's still there, just bigger. It still felt like it could be home; the little house where we lived when Bri was born was still there. (It wasn't yellow anymore, but it was there!)

And then there was Folly.

Folly Beach is one of the barrier islands on the South Carolina coast at Charleston. When Bri and Sean were in middle and high school and Mitch was very small, my dear friend Sara (Mitch' godmother) lived there. She's a pediatrician, and at the time, she was practicing in Charleston and staying in a little place on Folly. The tourists hadn't discovered it yet, for the most part. There were some summer places, but mostly, it was little houses and little businesses. It was quiet enough we could leave the kids at the house on a Saturday night and walk up to the local bar, three blocks or so away in the center of the island. They would watch rented movies, and we would have a couple of beers, shoot a little pool, dance to the local band, and walk home. Folly Beach was farther away than D.C., but we never left before dark on Sunday anyway. Usually, we arrived back home around 3 or 4 a.m. on Monday -- always with sand in our shoes, and often in our shorts.

Late last fall, I made a quick trip back to Folly. My sister had to make an unexpected trip to Charleston and needed someone to drive her, and after several days of doctors and surgery and stress and worry, I had to do a little something for my head before going back home. So I drove 20 miles out of my way to spend a few minutes on the beach at dusk, then have supper and drive back. It was worth the time and effort, every bit of it.

Folly has changed, of course. Its little commercial district is a little slicker, a little more "high-end." I couldn't identify the house where Sara lived; it may not even be there anymore. I know the dunes that were washed out during Hurricane Hugo (1989) have been replaced by another row of summer houses. Silly people... But the soul of the place is still there.

In a couple of months, I'm headed again for Folly. I'm attending a writers' retreat -- four days of blessed, beautiful work. Four days of focus on what's real and important and essential to who I am and what I do; four days of walking the shoreline at dusk, getting sand in my shoes; four days of breathing in salt air and letting it flow back out as perfectly chosen words.

Three or four years back, I started drafting a story set on Folly Beach. It's finished in my head (in fact, it's one of those stories that began with the end), but I haven't been able to track the middle yet. Maybe this spring, back at the source, I will.

22 February 2012


It’s one of those days.

When I taught a Junior Achievement class called “Real Jobs, Real World,” I used to ask my high school students to imagine they had the job of their dreams. It supported the lifestyle of their dreams. They loved every minute. (I cheated a little – I emphasized the part about “of your dreams” with a video of stunt cyclist Danny MacAskill practicing his moves, riding his bicycle off a wall and up a tree, among other things.)

Then I asked them if they thought, when they had that job, that there ever would be days they just did not think they could go to work. I asked them if they thought MacAskill ever felt that way. Always, the answer was, “No.”

This was the unit on motivation. It was the reality check, the “think it through” class. I wanted them to choose carefully, because I know about those days. No matter how much you love what you do, sometimes it just doesn’t come together. Those times, you need a reason to get up and do it anyway.

I love to write. I love to tell stories, to surprise, to make my audience laugh or weep – maybe even get mad. I want them to feel more than they did before. In the best cases, I may be able to shed a little bit different light on a subject, get one person to see something just a little differently. But some days, the latest twist of the new short story drives me crazy, or the layout of the Wire won’t work. Some days, I have no earthly idea what to say in this note, and I fear it will be pure drivel. Some days I question my ability, and some days, I just flat don’t want to do it. But I do. Even if it’s drivel, I write something.

This morning, I heard the news on NPR of the death of Marie Colvin in Syria. Ms. Colvin was a journalist – a woman who wrote. She spent much of her adult life on the front lines of war, recording what was happening, particularly to the civilians caught in the crossfire. She was, as are all war correspondents, well aware that her job could cost her life, but she kept doing it. She lost an eye to shrapnel in Sri Lanka in 2001; she put on an eye patch and went back to work. There were stories she was put on this earth to tell, and no one else could tell them the way she would.

This morning, NPR anchor Steve Inskeep asked one of Ms. Colvin’s colleagues, London journalist James Hider, why she kept going back. Before the poor man could answer, I was shouting at my radio (it’s a bad habit, I know), “Because she was a writer!”

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure there are no Marie Colvins in my house. I haven’t yet run across a story I’m willing to die for. If ever I do, you’ll be the first to know.

But I get it. If you’re a writer, you just do it. Even on the days when you’re pretty sure you can’t, you do.

I think we’re special, we women who write. We tell stories our own way – stories no one else can tell. We bear witness to the little details of the heart as well as the sweeping horrors of war. Even the best of us – like Marie Colvin – probably wake up some days thinking, “It just is not worth it. I can’t do it today.” And then – if it’s our dream job, if it’s what we believe we were put here by the Universe to do – we knuckle down and tell our stories anyway.

Days like today, I feel very small. Marie Colvin exposed the tragedy and the lies of war up to – even on – the day she died. The best I’ll ever do is maybe get someone to stop and think twice about a dearly held preconceived notion.

But I also feel honored. Marie Colvin was a woman who wrote. I belong to that universe, too. My stories are smaller, less earth shaking (an understatement if ever there was one), but they are from the heart. And my stories, for the most part, are short fiction – but they bear witness to the truth as I know it.

This is one of those days I’ll remember when I have one of those other days, when I wake up and think, “Not today.” I’ll think it, sure – and then I’ll put on my shoes, make my cup of chai, and go do my job, telling stories. Being a woman who writes.

13 February 2012

January rocks, but February ROLLS.

It's starting to come together already.

As I've said many times, I don't do "resolutions." They're wishes with no accountability - but I do use the transition from one year to the next as a time to evaluate where I am, where I'm going to be, and how I'm going to get from point A to point B (or C or D or E).

My first-priority goal this year was to get a book in print and on the market - and since the novel is going slowly (as I'm told novels do), I decided last week to pull a handful of my best short stories and create a collection.

I have an editor, and I have a publisher. I need readers! Specifically, I need half a dozen volunteers who are willing to (1) read short stories and (2) return them to me with comments (3) in a relatively short window of time. The comments need to be honest and straightforward -- I need to know where the weaknesses are BEFORE I send them to my editor!

So far, the list includes a ghost story, an "I hate my life and I'm running away" story, a lost child story, and a family "dramedy" - you know, one of those darkly humorous stories where the punch line to each section is something on the lines of, "OMG, Mother - you DID NOT just say that!" There also will be a rock-and-roll band story with a touch of (possibly supernatural) conflict and at least one story that considers a serious social issue from all possible sides and offers no solid answers. (I want people to think. No, that's not right - I want people on both sides to feel, even fleetingly, what those on the other side feel.)

Do I have any takers? If so, respond to this post -- I'll be in touch! 2012 is rolling fast! :-)

11 January 2012


What inspires you?

For me, it's easier to define what doesn't inspire. Prime-time TV. Fox News. Whiny people. Mean people.

The flip side -- what's truly inspiring -- is less easily identified. I just know it when I see it. Or when it hits me. (Yeah, sometimes it hurts.) Some things are obvious, like books or articles by my favorite authors, or art, or music. A zen koan that lands exactly where it fits best, when I least expect anything at all to fit. The taste of a new dish that I expect to be good, but that turns out to be blow-me-away, unforgettably delectable.

A color. A texture. A skein of variegated yarn that begs to be touched, worked, transformed into something useful.

A couple of weeks ago, I started idly noting the odd fixtures of my daily commute, and before I knew it, the notes and observations had begun to evolve into a poem. Who would think a person could be inspired by the stuff that comes out of the power company's waste-disposal smokestacks? But the color of that stuff just shouted a particular turn of phrase that wouldn't be quiet.

Real inspiration isn't just a good idea that takes root. It's an idea that locks itself onto your creativity and won't let go. Like a snapping turtle -- it won't turn loose until it thunders. You have to use it; you have no choice. If you don't, it will drive you crazy, like the stupid pop song that gets stuck in your head.

01 January 2012

The big picture

Several years ago, I quit making New Year’s resolutions. For me, they were just “to do” lists with all the time in the world and no accountability. However, the end of one year and the beginning of the next can be a time to reflect on where I am and where I’m going, evaluate my progress toward larger goals, and redirect as needed. This is the time to clear the clutter, decide what’s important right now, and commit to bringing that to life. It’s the time to discard what’s slowing me down and start fresh in living life well.

For years, I tried to build more structure into my goals. I wrote them down and posted them on mirrors and bulletin boards, created deadlines and to-do lists, and pushed myself to adhere – and inevitably, ended up frustrated, behind schedule, and mentally and physically drained. In recent years, I’ve learned I can only deal with so much structure before I start to feel boxed in and out of touch and seriously uncreative.

Let me explain: If you’ve had a child with ADHD, you know how intently teachers, administrators, caregivers, and mental health professionals all push the “structure” thing. Gotta have expectations. Gotta have accountability. Gotta have routine. But when the expectations, accountability, and routine become inflexible, you’re headed toward a major meltdown. If you focus exclusively on managing the ADHD, you stifle the child – and the end result is never pretty.

For me, the balance is the “big picture.” I have intended results and drop-dead dates on my calendar – and I try to ensure everything doesn’t come due at once! But I keep the day-to-day activity flexible. Once I start a project, I try to stick with it until I get to a good stopping point, but I know I work best if I have more than one project going. I need something to switch to, in case I get bogged down. I can work toward goals, but if the “pogo stick of thought” needs to bounce down a different sidewalk, both my intellect and my mental health absolutely require the flexibility to do it.

If I make a to-do list, it’s only to break out the steps involved in one short-term project, like updating all the email addresses in eight sets of documentation with five documents per set, or cooking a holiday dinner with minimal stress. (Yes, it can be done!)

The keys to making it all happen are, first, taking time to make sure the “big picture” is the one I really want in my heart of hearts – which takes time and careful contemplation, which is what December is good for – and second, accountability, which is the point of this note. I’m about to tell you what’s in my big picture. Once you know, in my mind (the part that belongs to the Recovering Preacher’s Kid who grew up in a fishbowl, always aware that everyone was watching), that makes me accountable.

A friend of mine, life coach Stacey Vicari, sends her clients and former clients a workbook toward the end of each year, and encourages us to use it to help clear out the clutter – mental and otherwise – and refocus on what’s most important to us. It’s an important exercise. When I look back at the one I did three years ago, I’m amazed at how far I’ve come in establishing my identity as a writer. When I joined Women Who Write, writing was something I did. Now, it’s become the center of who I am.

I haven’t finished this year’s workbook yet, although I’ve evaluated where I am now, in terms of self, spirit, career, family, leisure, health, and finance. And I’ve roughed in my calendar, which points me toward where I want to be when next year’s workbook arrives in my email. My goals this year – the “big picture” things – are (1) publication, (2) not just self-identification, but a degree of public recognition as an author, and (3) completing multiple challenging bike rides.

And getting the 2012 Christmas tree up before Dec. 24…

Happy New Year – here’s to productive “fresh starts” for us all!