Early on, two things shaped me and, I suspect, destined me to write. One was my birth, and the second the mumps.
Watching and remembering. So—birth. It was a dark, stormy day from all accounts—lightning everywhere on the Illinois plain. I was breach and blue. The doctors told my parents to watch my early development, concerned about brain damage. For sixteen months, I proceeded to scare my parents witless. Until one day, bored and thirsty, I stood up, walked into the kitchen, and asked for a drink of water, as in spoke in a sentence—all firsts. My mother dropped the glass in her hand. I watched it fall and shatter.
I had sixteen whole months to loll around and observe. Sixteen months to make sure when I stood, I was ready to speak up for myself. Yes, I sat wherever I was set. But I had fun, kept my own counsel, didn’t look stupid crawling around on the floor making silly slurpy, meaningless sounds. As a result, my memories begin well before my first birthday. When I was six months old, I watched my sister run away from home, her belongings strapped to the back of her tricycle. Frankly, I was glad to see her go. She teased me—a lot.
Since then, I have never stopped studying people, animals, trees, the sky, and….
Listening and hearing. The mumps. I lost the hearing in one ear. It never bothered me. I think because I was so young. It’s a U-shaped loss, so I can hear dog-whistles and stealthy sounds in that ear, just not anything anyone says. It’s handy when you’re in a house full of snorers. Trust me.
Hearing in a crowded room is easy for other people because they don’t have to sift a voice from the background jabber. They can look around the room, check to see if any other conversations are as lively. But they may miss the raised eyebrows, pursed lips, quick smiles, or rolled eyes that are the reveal. To hear, I cock my good ear towards the speaker and lean into a conversation. I listen to cadence, tone, emotion, hesitations. Sound is precious to me.
Employing them. So, the ability to sit quietly, listen, and watch undistracted has to be an asset for a writer. At least, I keep telling myself that. For instance, I’m sure we’ve all imagined something sinister afloat while relaxing at a favorite place. If not, I highly recommend it.
You’re at the beach. A man scrunching through the squeaky sand catches your eye. He is rushing toward a flight of stairs, his pant legs flapping against his shins, his hair ruffling in the onshore breeze. Overhead, clouds bunch, dark in their bellies, readying to rain. Water thunders against rocks, spuming into the air. A kestrel screeches as it rides the thermals. Its beady-eyes locked on the rocks below. Floating in kelp, an otter wonders—just wonders, like they do, and watches a body rocking, cradled in a tidal pool.
You’re in the mountains.My book Saving Calypso takes place in the High Sierra, a place I adore:
A redwood, a hundred and fifty feet of emotion, tossed its head. A hawk flew. A rabbit beat-feet across the pasture toward the newly turned dirt for this year’s vegetable garden. A shadow cruised at the edge of the timber then cut across the open field. Rafe Bolt slapped a brace of rabbits on the porch boards at Jessie’s feet. She put her hands behind her head and sighed at life’s perfection.
Words as motion, sound, feeling, life
Next time something unusual catches your eye, stop, watch, and listen as though you’re half-deaf and were a bit slow to stand, walk, and talk. It will be time well spent.