Thursday, April 07, 2016

The Northwind and The Sun; A Fable Nestled in a Thread

I have always liked stories; reading them, telling them, seeing them. It is fascinating to me how something as simple as letters, pictures that represent a sound, can be strung together in a specific way to represent an idea. Letters, like dots in a Seurat painting, find an order, a sound, a pattern that creates an image of some meaningful idea our mind divined.
My mother, my sister and my daughter are artists. They can take stories and make a picture without having to use any letters. They have the patience for the tiny dots. If I tried to do that so much would be left out of the picture. I am burdened by my lack of fine motor skills . I have to depend on letters to make the words that create my pictures. I admit, I rarely get it right. There is always either too much or not enough or the arrangement is all wrong. Left, always off-center of it, I call it. I'm a Cubist teller of tales. The ideas are all there but they are all cattywampus.

I do try to center it, make sense of it but I struggle. I remind myself, often, of Hemingway's advice about the iceberg; that most of  what you write about in a story you don't actually tell. Instead, you show. But then will I think about Faulkner and all the words he needed to use to tell a story. I greatly admire his generosity with words. If Hemingway's stories are an iceberg, then Faulkner's stories are oak trees. Live Oaks to be specific. His words hang as heavy branches, laden with the burden of Spanish moss and spread wide over a large gnarly trunk, casting shadows and creating unique patterns on the ground.

In the end though I just put it all out there thinking maybe if I do, the pattern, however obtuse, will emerge because, and of this I am certain,--left off center or not-- it is all related.

There is this poem by Robert Penn Warren called Tell Me A Story. It is my most favorite poem. I relate to it initially because I like the picture the first part creates in my mind when I read it. I know that exact feeling he describes. But then I relate on a much more personal level in the second part where he commands you to tell him a story, "in this century, and in this moment, of mania." That speaks to me about every moment of every second of everyday where I try to make all sorts of sense of this world through a series of trying to connect both true and concocted stories.

For example, I will see a stranger at the pool. I will be in my lane doing my workout and she in hers doing hers. I never speak to her and  I will go about my workout but all the while I am forming stories about this woman while I count laps and the rest between sets. I might decide she is from England, no she is Welsh, though I have never met anyone from Wales. She is not married. She is widowed and I am certain she is a retired school teacher. And then I will decide she was a great swimmer when she was girl in Wales and once, on a dare she swam across the English Channel. And then I will remember when I was a child, I once said , when I was 10 that my goal was to swim across the English Channel and then I will go down a crazy rabbit hole imagining this and that and all the while I never say a word to this woman. But she told me a story.

This need, Warren talks about in the poem, about needing to be told a story (and especially the first part where he tells a story from his childhood) expounds on my belief that memory is a thread. That all our memories weave themselves into a grand fabric--  grander than just me or you-- that tells the story of us, and by us I mean the collective us.  Not just me, or you but all of us. A story--or a memory if you will, is a way we can relate this moment to that seemingly unrelated moment to you, to me, to each other and so on.

What  is funny to me is how those threads will, ever so randomly throughout your life, unwind themselves to you. Pretend for a moment that memories are colors and not personal stories. And the memory  which you recall is the color brown. It becomes in that moment and maybe for awhile the brown thread with which you patch all these pieces of your day and the people you meet together. They become stitched together in your mind with this thin brown thread. After awhile there may become so much brown stitching that all those fabric pieces you tied together look, from a distance, sepia toned and after a time, they may even look cut from the same fabric.

My grandmother Adelaide, my father's mother, had a room in her house filled with books and horse things. It was my favorite room in her house. It was a dark room with paneled walls and high windows that didn't provide much sunlight. Light always seemed to filter in from above, bright on the ceiling, darker on the floor. There was a leather couch, a cracked leather chair and lots of horse accouterments-iron horse head lamps, a footstool that was once a saddle, pictures of horses doing horse things, horse shoes, and other horse-themed decorations. My grandmother loved horses.

Three wood framed glass book cases lined one of the walls. Rows and rows of books peered out as if reading the room. Though kept behind glass, as if precious, I was allowed to pull them out and read them. Sometimes she let me take them back to Atlanta. These were musty, old books and these books were different than my  school books and the other books we had at home. They were little treasures and I was fascinated by everything about them.

A vast majority of them were grade school primers but almost all of the books had woven covers with faded print. And yes, some were of the Dick and Jane and Sally genre. The books were dated from 20's, 30's, 40's and 50's. Some books were in pristine condition and others worn so thin the covers were unraveling and pages had been torn out. The pages were thicker, wax like with bold fonts. Many had block print illustrations. Even the illustrations seemed old to me. They were in dull, matte colors and in some cases the color red was missing entirely. Often a yellowy-orange or a brown, a teal and black were the only colors used. They were primers with no primary colors.

And it was the primers in particular that fascinated me the most. I liked seeing which aunt, uncle or cousin had scrawled their name in the front. Some had those book plates that said This Book Belongs To and I would marvel at my relatives handwriting. I thought even the stories in them were old fashioned even though some of them, like Aesop's Fables, I read in my newer, modern textbooks which were printed on thin slick pages and accompanied by glossy illustrations and questions for discussion.

I hadn't thought about that room in my grandmothers house, the old books or the stories in them in years until last Saturday when I was sitting on the beach watching Ryan fish. I was sitting, staring across the waters of Calibogue Sound wanting to swim from Hilton Head to Daufuskie's shore. It was cool, windy and overcast but the weather was improving as the day wore on.

That morning I had taken a cold and windy, rain-soaked tour of the Island to satisfy the 2 hour base ride of my Ironman Training Plan.The ride turned into almost 3 hours because I got so turned around. Map reading is not my strength. The Island has only 41 square miles of land mass to claim and that is exactly what the distance of my ride turned out to be. If nothing else I was proud I found 41 miles of road and path even if some of it was from riding in circles and back tracking.

I shouldn't have gotten lost. I've been to Hilton Head dozens of times over the last 20 years and have ridden my bike or run nearly the entire Island but every single time I end up all turned about because everything looks the same to me. I think this was the intention of the city designers,  a low-country labyrinth. The area consists of pine laden twisty bike paths, azalea ringed roundabouts, brown wooden street signs a foot off the ground and all of the architecture is a variant shade of sand brown. But when you are tired and wet and cold after a few hours on the bike and everything looks almost the same and if the map you are looking at doesn't say "You are HERE!" it really is easy to get confused.

The kids, Beau, Carmella and her friend Sophie, while Ryan and I sipped beer and fished, were off on their bikes doing their own exploring of Sea Pines, the plantation where we were staying for the next 4 days for Spring Break. I was half expecting a call from them saying they too had gotten lost in a roundabout but they seemed to manage fine, so maybe it is just me. My only instructions to them was: if you come to a gate, don't go out of it and we are staying at South Beach. If they had troubles, they never said.

As I sat waiting on it to warm up the wind was blustery and the sun trying to make a go of it, I recalled the story of the Northwind and the Sun I had read as a child in one of those primers. As the fable goes, the Sun and the Northwind are bored one day and get into a quarrel over of who is the strongest. They agree to a feat of strengths to settle the dispute once and for all. Together they spot a traveler on a road with a coat. They decide whoever can make the traveler remove his coat is the winner, and thus, the strongest of them all.

The Northwind goes first. He stirs up a ruckus and he blows with all his might at the traveler,  who in response only pulls his coat tighter to his body. The illustration, I see it in my mind, is one of those with only the three colors, none primary. His mop of black hair covers his face and he is angled, pushing into the wind and arms crossed tightly pressing his coat over his chest. You can see twisted in the traveler's face his discomfort and annoyance at the wind.

Next it is the Sun's turn. And the Sun, she turns on the heat.  As the text goes on and you turn the page you see the traveler resting against a tree, his coat at his side and his face turned upwards with a look of great peace. He is happy to sit, uncloaked in the warm sun, in the shade of a lovely tree.

The Northwind admits his defeat.

I wait on the beach, for the children, for Ryan to catch a fish and for the sun to win. I too want to linger on the beach with the sun warm on my face, my hoodie at my side. I want to swim across the sound and rest on another beach before swimming triumphantly back just because I can.  But I can't because it is too cold and  I realize that the Sun and the Northwind are working together. They are not having a quarrel today at all and no one is persuading me to do anything but just sit.

As the wind blows, the clouds begin to break apart. The sun does warm me when a break in the clouds appears. I begin to anticipate the moments of cold and alternately heat and ultimately become distracted by the shapes floating and changing above me.

A lion forms in the sky. I think of a dream I had a few months ago. It has puzzled me and I think on it periodically as if the answer to it will eventually reveal itself  to me.

In the dream I am in a hilly countryside at dusk. I have climbed down a steep hill and am standing beside a river. The sun is setting beyond the forest trees that are at the edge of the grassy knoll. There are large lichen covered boulders sprinkled over the countryside. I am almost under a cliff staring at a glittering river that runs into the forest. I am watching the last bit of the day's light bounce off the shiny river stones. Along the river, I note, is the way into the forest. To my right is a tall,  black chain link fence. It is depressing and I don't see a way around it. There is no gate and it cuts off the vast and open countryside running the length of the openness and disappearing into the forest that I am facing.

After awhile, above me I hear voices and I look up. Standing on the cliff, staring out into the rolling and vast countryside that is showered in the glow of the setting sun, is a group of people. I know the people. I can't see their faces or recall any names but I know I know them. With them is a lion. A large and beautiful lion. They don't see me.

I am torn. There is a desire to go stand with the lion and the people. I want to be  with them. But I know that they cannot see the fence from where they stand and I think it is not good that they can't see the fence. They don't even know it exists. I find this troublesome.

I can see it though and I am worried about what that fence means, for them and for me. I can see the path to the forest is by stepping on stones to cross and then walking along the river's bank. It won't be easy but it is the only route.

I am worried about the forest too. I am not sure that is where I want to be either. It is dark and the world seems to disappear in there. It is unknown where it goes and where it will lead.  But I do know, because I am below the cliff and can see the fence that blocks off the vastness of the world, that straight is not the way to the beautiful rolling hills. The forest seems the only logical way.

Do I climb, hand over hand and foot to the top of the cliff where the lion and the people stand?  To stand with them and not see the fence? Will I be able to convince them to come with me?  Or if I go to them will I too just stay on the hill and stare at the vastness of the world? Or do I go alone down the river path to the dark forest?

I still don't know the answer.  I let it float out again, fading from my mind.

The kids return on their bikes, excited about everything, being noisy and running all over the beach throwing jelly fish, sand and sticks at each other. Ryan tries to catch a fish. I watch the clouds a bit more.

Sometimes it is nice to just be where you are. Thread the needle. Pull the thread through this idea and that thought, tie it off and leave it be. Feel warmed by the sun. Watch the clouds change shapes. Look out over the white capped waves that race in and out and remember that what has been forgotten will be remembered; sewn to now but this moment will never be again.