Sundial on sunny day

It’s a strange, unseasonably warm day: rainy and dismal this morning, and intermittently cloudy now. The sun is chasing the clouds across the sky: one minute bright, the next minute gray. The quality of light keeps changing, too, from iron-clad to gold-toned. I just posted my final small stone for this month’s Mindful Writing Challenge, and it was difficult to describe a day so mercurial: as soon as I’d mentally crafted an adequate description of Now, the light and tenor of the day had already changed.

Inside, looking out

I sit writing these words on the last day of the January in my office at Framingham State. I have work to do, as always, but more than anything I want to walk. What better way to experience a kaleidoscopic day shot through with a rotating assortment of glinting, metallic light than by walking through that light, illuminated?

In today’s small stone, I compared the clouds to hammered pewter, and indeed some of them are gray and mottled, capping the heavens like a lid. But at the fringes, these thicker, darker, more solidly heavy clouds fray into something more miscible: spun-sugar and cotton-tuft. On the dull, muddy ground, the rain-sodden grass is etched with spider-tracery, the weirdly wending shadows of overhead tree limbs. Students pass in sweatshirts and long-sleeves—no jackets, but no bare arms, either.

Stark

What have I learned from a month of mindful writing? Every day gives you something you can boil down to its essence, the meaty broth of experience. Every moment offers something to see.

I crafted one version of today’s Tweet in my head while I was driving to campus through windblown drizzle this morning, but by my office hour, when I had a chance to post it, that moment had already long passed. Looking back on a month of Tweets, I see not a month of days but a month of moments. Why this arbitrary decision to post a small stone a day when one could easily Tweet a small stone an hour, small-stoning rather than rocking around the clock? If my heart had thumbs with which to Tweet or text, could I emit a small stone with every heartbeat, my Twitter feed pulsing with the emphatic urge of Now, Now, Now?

Frizzy

A car passes, its engine whining, in one direction; two women pass, chatting, in the other. Right now the clouds have parted and the light is golden; in a minute, the cloudy curtain will close, and the light will turn leaden. Nature’s alchemy works in both directions on partly cloudy, late-January days: gold turns to lead, and lead turns back to gold. Given the anvil of time, what will you hammer from your days?

Will I continue Tweeting tomorrow? When the urge strikes, yes, but automatically every day, no. Having started the year with open eyes, now I’ll walk through the rest of these days, alert.

Bittersweet

January’s small stones:

1. I needn’t see the shadow of passing wings to know a hawk has been near: the hanging feeder bereft of birds tells the tale.

2. Two downy woodpeckers flit and chitter on a frozen branch, their chatter as brittle as clacking ice.

3. A blue jay calls, and the cardinals, nuthatch, juncos, and all but two house sparrows vanish. False alarm.

4. A downy woodpecker scoots around a slim limb while a male and female cardinal fluff their feathers against the cold.

5. A fat gray squirrel leaps from feeder to tree, spraying an arc of seed for the juncos and sparrows scratching the snow below.

6. A sugar-sifting of snow on my birthday. Two nuthatches scoot and honk overhead, neither looking a day older than yesterday.

7. A squirrel leaps from fence to tree, his tail curled into a question mark. A woodpecker startles, silhouetted in morning light.

Tall and narrow

8. Curbside trash bins sparkle with predawn frost. High above the streetlights, a thin sliver of moon glows like God’s thumbnail.

9. Two male cardinals are meticulously placed, each a spot of color in his own tree, each coolly eyeing the other: winter detente.

10. Two nuthatches work a half-dead walnut tree, probing for insects. Their claws scratch bark as they hop from branch to trunk.

11. With no gaudy mate to overshadow her, a female cardinal is perfectly complemented by her red bill, black mask, and olive coat.

12. A damp morning–the backyard fence green with algae. A white-throated sparrow sings, his whistle as cool and clear as water.

13. No birds at the feeder, just three fat squirrels who know they outweigh the invisibly lurking Cooper’s hawk.

14. A balmy day, humid with the souls of melted snowmen. The backyard, stripped of snow, is as bare & miserable as a fleeced sheep.

Zigzag stair-railing shadow

15. Outside before dawn, I see the ears and eye-shine of one of our cats in an upstairs window. In a nearby house, one lit candle.

16. Juncos fly into a black & white tree. A cardinal beneath the snow-topped feeder gives a spot of color to a monochrome morning.

17. Four squirrels scramble down a mazy maple, each taking his own circuitous path to the fence, where they scurry in a neat row.

18. A turquoise sky caps a fiercely cold morning. Sunlight glints on the birdbath ice, and chickadees chatter from brittle pines.

19. What unseen bit is wedged at the apex of this particular fence slat, luring a red-breasted nuthatch to hammer fearlessly there?

20. One fat squirrel on the bird feeder, a second tail-twitching on the branch above, quietly plotting strategies and trajectories.

21. A woodpecker calls, his “peeeek” as hard as the bird bath ice. Incongruously, a chickadee sings a spring song: two clear notes.

Bike rack with shadow

22. A thin film of snow squeaks underfoot. Three lines of rabbit tracks crisscross the driveway: this way, that way, and back.

23. The rising sun glows & sparkles through an opaque veil of ice crystals, the window feathered with bluish brushstrokes of frost.

24. Too cold to look for the woodpecker calling from the tall, twiggy trees behind my office, his cry as sharp as the winter air.

25. Beneath the feeder, two white-throated sparrows scratch for seed, so natty with their neat eye-stripes and clean white bellies.

26. A faint line of bird tracks wends delicately across the sidewalk, an intricate embroidery in a script I can’t understand.

27. Alerted by a downy woodpecker’s call, I look up just in time to see the sun glint golden on a passing red-tailed hawk’s belly.

28. A nuthatch zooms like a torpedo to the feeder, parries with a sparrow there, & deems the place big enough for the two of them.

29. Up before dawn or any birdsong. Underfoot, an inch of sugar-white snow crusted with ice, like walking through crème brûlée.

30. A soupy-humid day, with yesterday’s slush reduced to slop. Beneath the dripping trash bins, two flat rectangles of hidden snow.

31. An otherworldly light as hammered-pewter clouds roll in and out. High overhead, a lone gull circles on long, spindly wings.

If you’re a Van Morrison fan, you’ll recognize the allusion in today’s title. Enjoy!

Two squirrels, one mourning dove - Jan 5 / Day 5

This month I’m participating in the Mindful Writing Challenge, which basically means I’m trying to note and record one interesting thing every day, using my Twitter account to post these “small stones.” Noticing and recording one small thing every day sounds easy enough—just open your eyes—but of course, simplicity is never as simple as it seems.

Furry neighbor

I’ve settled into a routine for generating each day’s small stone. In the morning when I take the dogs to our backyard dog-pen and back, I try to notice one interesting thing I can describe in a single arresting image. My walk to the dog-pen is short: from the back door to just beyond the garage. During that short stroll down the sidewalk, across the driveway, and back—something not long enough to count as a proper dog-walk—I watch for birds at the feeder, hawks in the trees, stars in the sky, or anything else that seems noteworthy: something seen in the brief backyard space between here and there.

Feeder raider

Because I’m using Twitter to post my daily stones, I can’t be wordy: instead, I have to boil things down to their essence. On Twitter, I don’t have room to mention how this morning’s squirrels reminded me of other times I’ve seen squirrels romping and chasing; instead, I have to determine what makes this morning’s squirrel-spotting interesting or unusual. What is the kernel of experience that makes this squirrel stand out as remarkable or noteworthy? Specific details, I tell my writing students, are what make your writing believable: you want to capture the essence of “squirreliness” in your description, proving how attentive an observer of squirrel-nature you actually are. You don’t want to describe a squirrel as if you’ve never met one outside a book; you want to describe a squirrel as if you know it.

On the fence

This morning’s squirrels were romping and scurrying, scrambling from all directions down one of our backyard maple trees onto a weathered picket fence, running along the top of it one after another. That was the central image in my head when I crafted this morning’s Tweet: squirrels rapidly converging as if from all directions, scrambling down a bare, branching tree and then chasing one another, one by one, along the top of the fence—one, two, three, four.

On the fence

I just spent an entire paragraph describing this morning’s squirrels running from tree to fence, and I still don’t think I’ve provided an accurate picture. I haven’t mentioned the tail-twitching, the scrabbling claws, or the sharp chits of four squirrels chattering amongst themselves. I also didn’t mention how later, I saw even more squirrels—these same four, I’m guessing, and one or more additional ones—chasing and tumbling in the tall pines that fringe our backyard. Describing one squirrel encounter is difficult enough; describing two is infinitely more complex.

Hawk overhead

Having failed in two paragraphs to describe for you these squirrels, I give up, opting instead to create only the sketchiest of outlines: a Tweet that implies more than two paragraphs of prose could ever tell. When I craft each day’s Tweet, I first notice something as I’m taking the dogs out and in, out and in. Then I think about that noticed thing while I’m washing the previous night’s dishes, rinsing the recycling, and taking out the trash. Given what I saw, what can I say about it? Only then do I actually try to commit words to paper, except there’s no paper involved. Instead, I log into Twitter on my iPod Touch, then I skim a few Tweets before typing a short, condensed description of what I saw, ignoring how many characters I’m using and only trying to describe one central image that might express or explain the whole experience.

Gray squirrel with walnut

I do this with my thumbs because that’s how you type on an iPod Touch, as if you were texting on a phone. I never thought I’d use my thumbs to compose miniature bits of nature writing based on things I see in my suburban backyard, but I’m finding my Touch to be a perfect compositional tool for the simple reason that I don’t have to turn on my laptop to use it. Before I’ve written my morning journal pages much less turned on my laptop for the day’s work, I’ve composed the first draft of my daily Tweet, which I then whittle and hone so it fits Twitter’s 140-character limit. This act of winnowing words is what makes such Twittering useful to me as a writer: a daily exercise in concision. When you don’t have room for all your words, you pare down to your best words. This and this and this, and not a jot or tittle more.

This morning’s result? A single sentence that took me five minutes to get just so:

Four squirrels scramble down a mazy maple, each taking his own circuitous path to the fence, where they scurry in a neat row.

Callery pear blossoms

I’ve decided to start Tweeting again: just one line distilled from each morning’s walk, then recorded on Twitter and in my morning journal pages. This was a practice–just one daily Tweet–I enjoyed when I did it somewhat regularly during January’s “River of Stones,” a discipline requiring close observation and distillation. How can you present something meaningful–something crystalline–in 140 characters?

Lilac buds

It’s a subversion of typical Twitter usage, this crafting of literary lines. Twitter is a fast, ephemeral medium: old Tweets are so five minutes ago. Twitter is typically the realm of folks with smartphones who text with lightning-fast thumbs: all the news that’s newer than new. The ultimate in-the-moment medium, Twitter focuses on what is happening Right Now, not on what might make any difference tomorrow or next week or beyond that.

The act of actually crafting a Tweet–of seeing something on one’s walk, savoring it like a sweet, then mulling over and revising it, honing it down to its essence–seems absurd in such a throwaway medium. Why write slowly in a medium that thrives on speed? Why willfully subvert the process by Tweeting in a way that is frankly old school?

Hydrangea flowers

For me, the appeal of Twitter doesn’t lie in its rapidity or its reach, with celebrities gathering thousands of followers who hang on every Tweeted word. For me, the appeal of Twitter lies in its enforced brevity: the fact that like a poet you are required to count and consider every character. There is a lot of disposable chitchat on Twitter–that is, after all, what the site is designed to cultivate. But in the hands of a writer, Twitter’s space constraints are invaluable, forcing the long-winded and prosaic among us to jettison every scrap of dead wood.

I am not a poet; I deal exclusively with prose. The danger that nonfiction writers flirt with perpetually is the temptation to over-elaborate, providing an entire blueprint of a house when actually an impressionistic sketch will do. Prose states and poetry implies, and sometimes the declarative nature of prose makes it possible to over-emphasize a point, preaching on about something that could have been stated far more succinctly, and toward more effective ends.

Upward

I like the idea of transforming a transitory, superficial medium into something both crafted and contemplative. Well-wrought Tweets won’t slow Twitter a whit, but they speak toward the boldness of brevity and the purity of prose. In this, I have plenty of good models to emulate, such Dave with his Morning Porch observations, Leslee with her 3rdhouse micro-poems, and Teju with his Small Fates. With neighbors like these, I feel I’m in good company: a small band of wordsmiths conspiring to bring depth and awareness to a superficial genre, one word at a time.

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter what other folks are doing on Twitter since writing has always been more a practice than a product for me. I’m just as interested in what I learned from producing a piece of writing–what was the experience of writing it like, and what did I glean from the process–than I am in what the end result turns out to be.

Fresh growth

Whether I’m scribbling a journal entry, publishing a blog post, or tweaking a Tweet, how has my relationship with language changed or evolved in the process? Did I find a chance to use a favorite word or create a startling image? Did I succeed in capturing the kernel of a particular image that can sprout and flower into awareness in my reader’s mind? Did I achieve connection with my audience, a moment of lightning recognition: “Oh, yes, exactly!” If I’ve achieved any of these, I don’t care how or where or in what medium it occurred: the simple experience of awareness, communication, and connection is enough.

Anyone who has seen the movie Bambi might recognize the title of today’s blog-post as being the term the Wise Old Owl uses for springtime infatuation.