When Living Isn’t Enough

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Thomas Mann wrote that a writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. Could there be a better definition? While others use words to communicate, writers understand that words hold greater magic, that when pieced together in just the right combination, words give us passage into our deepest selves. We write to discover what we know. We write to set ourselves free.

I often think of words as blackbirds wheeling above a wire. I know I can coax them down; I’ve done it before. I know they will settle into a tidy line, and that this line, while not perfect, will at least be coherent. As I am no Shakespeare, this process will take an absurd amount of time, and some of the birds will have to be shifted around many times. Eventually I’ll recognize that I have exhausted my potential, which is when I stop and click save. One more idea wrested into words, one more swipe at the great mystery. Tom Stoppard wrote: “I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.”

Others might pity writers, might call it tyranny, this compulsion to hunt down the meaning of our experiences. Why isn’t living enough for us? I don’t know. I need to write about that.

How peaceful it must be to be done with each day when the day is done. All this sifting and sieving, this endless analyzing—I can’t say I’m any happier for the effort I’ve expended (nor a penny richer, but that’s another blog). And many times I wind up with nothing. Words are tools and sometimes they come up short, sometimes they fail me. Or I fail them.

Scant recognition. Slight compensation. Dubious value. Impossible odds.

Life is short. Mine will be over long before I’ve learned how to live it. You’d think I’d just stop this mad chase. Go play. Have fun.

Maybe I will. After.

 

 

Photo credit: derekbruff via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Pangolins

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From a frog’s snug wetsuit to a llama’s wooly shag, animals are bestowed with the wrapping they require. Even when the efforts seem excessive, we must conclude that every species has been thoroughly considered, and who are we, anyway, to question Creation?

The first time I saw a picture of a pangolin, I was reminded of pharaohs, of ancient tombs and golden riches and all we do not, cannot, know. Almost every inch of a pangolin’s body is covered in sharp over-lapping scales; no other mammal sports such armor. What is there about this creature that warrants exceptional protection?

There are eight species of pangolins, four in Asia and four in Africa. Ranging in length from a foot to a yard, they are heavily hunted for their meat as well as their scales. All are consequently endangered and may well disappear—one more puzzle piece forever lost.

Nocturnal animals, pangolins spend their days curled up in deep tunnels or hollow trees. They feed on ants and termites, which they dispatch with their long, thin tongues. Like giant anteaters, the tongues of pangolins are rooted in the thorax and can extend nearly a foot and a half. They are short-legged animals and use their formidable claws to dig into ant hills. Because they do not see well, pangolins are gifted with a keen sense of smell for locating their prey. Some types hang by their tails from branches and scratch away tree bark to expose the insects beneath. Discriminating diners, they will ignore all but a few types of bugs, sensing perhaps what is good for them and avoiding junk food.

Pangolins are loners, meeting only once a year for mating purposes. Unlike most animals, males, which are larger than females, do not search for them. The males employ a passive come-hither, leaving their calling card in the form of urine or feces, which the females readily find. If competition is involved, males will bash each other with their tails until a victor emerges. Gestation lengths differ depending on the species—anywhere from 70 to 140 days. Most give birth to one six-inch pangopup at a time. Four weeks later, the pup emerges from the burrow, riding on its mother’s back; mother and offspring stay together for two years.

The keratin scales of a baby pangolin are soft and white at birth, hardening and darkening within just a few days. There is an international ban on their trade, but pangolins are widely poached for their scales, which are ground into powder and illegally purchased. In East Asia many people believe, without evidence, that the scales can cure various human diseases, another example of the way we exploit and imperil whatever strikes us as extraordinary.

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When threatened, pangolins curl up in a ball and tuck their faces under their tales. They also emit a foul chemical from glands near the anus, similar to skunk spray. Left with a spiny, smelly ball, would-be predators soon lose interest. Unfortunately, these excellent defenses do not work against humans.

Is humanity a failed experiment? Given our swathe of destruction, it would seem so. We have brains enough to redeem ourselves, but probably not enough time. Everything in any case is destined to expire.

Why are we here? Why is the pangolin the only mammal suited in armor? Nature just bounces these questions right back, as if she’s holding out hope, waiting for us to see the big picture. What if pangolins were put here to amaze us and we were brought in to admire them? What if our mission is that simple? What more than esteem does this old earth need?

Photo credit: string_bass_dave via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Photo credit: Wildlife Alliance via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Lovers and Loners, a Short Story Collection

Thanks to my publisher and dear friend Mark McNease at MadeMark Publishing, my second collection of short stories, Lovers and Loners, is now available on Kindle. Those with other types of electronic tablets can simply download the Kindle app to their device. The paperback edition will be out in just a few days.

The stories in this new collection feature female protagonists who struggle for footholds in a shifting world. “Parasites” involves a widow who agrees to have dinner with a man she believes is a killer. “Manatee Gardens” explores the relationship between a mother and daughter who discover common ground at a marine sanctuary. In “Chasing Zero” a woman with a mysterious illness loses her hold on the callous man she adores. “Odds and Ends” follows a woman running errands on the last day of her life.

Lovers and Loners is a study of the human predicament: our eagerness and despair, our hidden fears and stubborn hopes, the blunders we make and the ways in which we are salvaged.

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All At Once

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Most of the time our feelings are produced by our thoughts. We think of a person or situation, and our bodies respond with love, anger, fear, regret, despair, disgust—there’s no end to the places our minds can take us.

But sometimes the obverse is true. For just an instant, we are brushed by a fragment of memory. We pause, transfixed, thrilled not by the memory itself, which never coalesces, but by our closeness to it. We scramble after this phantom, try to fix it in time. Too late. It was gone as soon as it arrived, like the rainbow flash of an abalone shell before the dark waves rush over.

For me, these sensations occur most frequently in the spring, as if the earth, in her exuberance, is churning up my secrets along with her own, reminding me that nothing is lost. Akin to deja vu, this experience involves more certainty than suggestion. We are not stirred by a sense of the familiar but seized by our own lives, summoned to wakefulness. For a second or two, we exist in a portal, the distinction between past and present indiscernible. That fragment of memory was not an idle daydream; it was a clue, a means to the truth. We live all at once and probably forever.

Photo credit: Doreeno via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA