When you’re writing, sometimes surprising things spill out. This little prose poem was completely spontaneous; it didn’t follow any plot line nor was it the product of any forethought. It came from a moment of pure presence with what I was doing. I looked at it on the screen, slightly amazed, and decided to leave it in.
Recently published in Ponder Review, Vol II, Issue 1.
My grandmother’s hands tore helplessly at the tissue paper surrounding the new dress in its box. I leaned in and folded back one leaf of the paper, so she could better see what she was doing.
I had bought her the dress, a dark green knit, because in the nursing home all her dresses that hadn’t been stolen were covered with food stains, pilled and frayed. I had taken her to lunch at Peddler’s village, to the Cock ‘n Bull, where she sipped her frozen daiquiri through a straw and ate a ball of butter whole, perhaps thinking it was cheese. I didn’t mention that it wasn’t cheese.
Trying on the dresses after lunch – none of them like she used to wear; the styles had changed, and this was a long way from the dress shop she had patronized in Albany for 27 years – I noticed that her slip was gray and wanted mending. There was an unclean smell about my grandmother, an old, sour smell. I knew they bathed her regularly in the nursing home, or at least I hoped they did. The smell must have been coming from the dirty slip, but I remember hearing that death has a smell, and for many hours, even after many cigarettes, I couldn’t get that smell out of my memory’s nose.
And now, a week later, I was collecting her to take her back to Philadelphia for her 90th birthday party, packing up her meager things so that she could overnight in my grownup house, trying to find her toothbrush, the bed jacket, clean underwear – all jumbled together in the several drawers of the antique dresser we had moved into her room.
I knew that she didn’t know where she was going, or why, but I hoped her mind, long past complete utterances, was also beyond worry. She followed my instructions meekly, like a guilty child.
When she pulled off the sweater and trousers, neither of which belonged to her, I was surprised to find her naked below, the small pale V sandwiched between loose thighs and the hanging flesh of her abdomen – gray, wrinkled, vulnerable. In our great old age, almost 90, we step backwards, I thought, stripped of our minds, our memories, even our dignifying pubic hair. Why wasn’t she wearing panties? Her bra was in place – someone must have to help her into that; her arthritic hands, once pianist’s hands, could never fasten the hooks of that bra.
There was the faint smell of urine hanging in the air of her room like an acrid fog. And, as I turned away to hide my sadness, fumbling through the few possessions I had gathered for our trip, it occurred to me that she must finally be incontinent. I found some panties – not her style; she had always worn open-leg panties, and these had elastic around the thighs – and held them out for her to step into.
First the mind, and then the body goes, the bare little wedge of pubis now hiding a urethra that betrays her. I helped her into the panties, her swollen hand supporting her weight on my shoulder, and then I made her sit down on the edge of the bed to stretch on the pantyhose. She never used to wear those either, always a girdle with garters. Even if she were staying at home all day with no one coming to visit, Grandma would pull her girdle over her plump hips, slip into her all-in-one, fasten up the nylon stockings, put on a nice dress and the single-strand pearl necklace that was her signature.
She never put a worn garment back into the closet, so that everything there smelled fresh and new.
While she was struggling to get the pantyhose straightened around her hips, I looked in the cabinet under the sink in the bathroom she shared with the occupant of the room next door and found a box of disposable diapers. I packed it to into the bag for home, not certain if I could ever insist she put one on.
Next, I helped her into the slip I had washed and mended, and finally I gathered up the dress and held it over her head. She lifted her arms up straight like an expectant child, and a small uncertain smile touched the corners of her mouth. A new dress. This much she understood. I guided her arms into the sleeves and pulled the dark green knit around her, straightening the shoulders over the narrow bones. I led her to the mirror above the dresser, fished my own comb out of my purse and arranged her fine, pale hair. The eyes reflected back at me were expressionless. Did she know whom she was looking at? Did she remember the music?
I put my arm around her shoulders and squeezed gently, putting my cheek next to hers in the mirror, trying to smile through the constriction of my heart. “You look beautiful,” I said. And, for just the flicker of an instant, the distant memory of a smile in her eyes, I thought she recognized me.
© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2018
Published in the Spring 2018 issue of Sky Island Journal, this is an excerpt from the forthcoming memoir, Evelio’s Garden: Memoir of a Naturalist in Costa Rica.
Now, in the still, moonlit nights, insomnia has company.
Wup, wup, whoo, whoooo.
An owl challenges the jungle of the quebrada by the house. Everyone marvels at how tranquil our place is, but they’re used to the noises of cities and towns. Out here the sounds drop into the night silence like thunder.
It begins with the owl. From our quebrada he calls to another in the quebrada to the south. A small echo coming back, saying what?
Crickets playing a triad – two tones perfectly spaced at a third – offer a metallic accompaniment.
The cicadas who screamed at sunset have already exploded and left their empty shells in the crannies of the trees.
A distant dog barks.
Later, no matter what the moon, a pack of coyotes hurls its protest at the stars. Little Flor – separated by millennia from her sisters – still remembers to howl in tune.
In the ceiling, all night long, the bats are chirping fussily over their busy comings and goings. There is the muffled beating of wings against the small, dusty spaces.
A gecko rustles across the skylight, and I hear the flat-footed thump of the cat’s paws on the kitchen counter, a better vantage point for contemplating the gecko’s tempting silhouette in the moonlight.
Even later, a small but insistent mew from the cat: she wants out.
The pump decides to gurgle, even though no one is drawing any water.
The breeze, blowing from the volcano, sighs back and forth like the ocean, and the great crossed limbs of the guanacaste tree groan against each other like two quarrelsome lovers in their sleep.
A lamp burns in my tiny room as my pen scratches across the page. It attracts an abejón that buzzes his frustration against the screen. There’s a hole in the screen, but he hasn’t found it yet.
In the small hours a far-off rooster crows.
Later, at five – right on time – the King of the howler monkeys roars in the dawn. He knows when the sun is about to rise. The rooster hasn’t figured it out.
Night sounds in the campo. I never feel alone. As I look out the window above my bed, lights out at last, I see the pale moon and constellations swinging through the bowl of blue and, distantly, ever so faintly, I can hear – beyond all the chirping and chatter of nearby things – the music of the planet tilting toward the sun.
(An earlier version appeared on this blog in the series on the use of our senses in writing.)
Leaving one ship and waiting for another to take me across the Atlantic, I spent a few unexpected days in Savannah, Georgia. Excerpted from Journey to the Joie de Vivre: Lessons to be Learned on the Road if We Look for Them.
I left my hat behind on board. Is this another of the depredations of age, to litter the planet with our detritus as we wander half-witted along?
I didn’t get ashore until 9 o’clock last night, but I was lucky to grab the taxi that had just delivered my replacement passengers from the airport. The cab driver, a large man with a slow drawl, sympathized and then began to intone facts about the city. I had little patience for all that and have to admit that I interrupted him to say I was tired, annoyed at myself and hurting, and that I probably wouldn’t have time to enjoy much of Savannah. In the same slow drawl, he said, “Well, people around you can’t feel your pain, so we can’t know, can we?” Humbled, I apologized. Lesson for today.
My hotel room looks like a post-Civil War bordello with high, velvet-tufted headboards, flocked carpeting, dark satin curtains, a plastic snakeskin-covered chair, a mirror the size of a ’57 Pontiac, two oyster shell bathroom sconces made doubly hideous by the mirror behind them, furniture designed to look like old sea chests and an absolutely bewildering array of electronics on the large granite-topped desk (I called the hotel engineer to come disconnect everything). Evian water is available for five dollars a bottle. The “pillow-top” bed was so soft that I ended up sleeping on the floor. I piled up the plastic bed cover and two fake fur throws and stretched out with a pretty comfortable pillow and slept quite well, actually, but this morning I reported to the desk that there was no way I could continue to stay in a room that didn’t have a decent mattress and that I had requested an orthopedic mattress when I made my reservation.
The very nice young woman at the desk went to work. She searched nearby hotels to see if there was a room with an orthopedic mattress. Then she searched nearby hotels to see if they had extra beds in housekeeping and finally she came up with a roll-away bed that I can use here in the same room that’s somewhat firmer than the wallowy mattresses on the two double beds, although hardly orthopedic. I was supposed to have a river view, but because I arrived a day early (unbelievable – I had no idea what the date was), I’m stuck now on the ground floor, looking out at a parked SUV and, beyond that, some live oaks and shrubbery along the boulevard. It’s a pretty day.
After ten years since my last visit, I find myself feeling a little intimidated by the United States. I went out this morning to walk around in search of a bank where I could change dollars back into euros. Nothing doing. Not unless you have an account. But at the bank I asked for a little café where I could find something light and perhaps a glass of wine. The town is crawling with restaurants, most of them pubs or hamburger joints smelling of fries. But as I was following directions to another hotel restaurant I found a little Japanese place where I had a very nice sushi and sashimi lunch and part of a Kirin beer (served in a 16-ounce bottle and there was no way I was going to get through all that).
Back in my room, waiting to lie down and rest for a while. I have to keep ice packs cold in an ice bucket, , since there’s no minibar in this room. I thought I had arranged for every single room on this itinerary to have a minibar, as well as an orthopedic mattress, but I seem to have failed on both counts in this place, and it’s hard to imagine they would charge me full price for sleeping on the floor last night, but they might. I wish I didn’t have two more nights to stay here, but maybe tomorrow I can get out and do a little horse-drawn carriage tour of the city and get down to the riverfront. There is certainly no view from here.
Savannah is a walking city, with broad boulevards divided by wide, lushly planted parks, no commercial clutter to offend the eye and only bevies of tourists in their shorts and walking ténis. Clean. Talking pedestrian crossing controls. Brick-lined walks. Only one beggar in all the blocks I walked! The legions of unemployed are hidden away. In a pharmacy where I sat down to wait for some information, I asked a broad black woman if there was a restroom, and she curled her lower lip contemptuously and shook her head. “Not in here. Try the Starbucks across the street.” Which I did, and desperately wished I could still drink coffee – the aroma was so overwhelming! I learned that there was a 5-digit punch code – changed regularly – to get into the ladies’ room. For “express check-out” at the pharmacy I needed personal help – I’d never used one before. Everyone is super-friendly, though. It’s easy to interact with people with openness and humor. Deciding to try my luck at a jewelry store, I was served by an attendant who had lived in China for six years and taken away as her “souvenir” an adopted little girl. How lovely! She despaired at the provincialism of many of her acquaintances who have never been out of Georgia. My Costa Rican passport had opened the door to that conversation, and it was delightful to connect with her – she found the perfect little earrings and a shy bangle that will make me feel a little dressier in the evenings, as I’m wandering around Europe.
This morning I learned that the port agent had been unable to locate my hat, so I had to go off in search of another one. I’ve also managed to misplace my comb, so yet another errand to do. The desk suggested I hire a pedicab, which turned out to be a great idea, mine pedaled by a young college graduate named Stefan, who led me to the perfect store for the hat, then to the same pharmacy I’d been to yesterday, and finally on a wonderful tour of the old city – elegant period homes and historic public buildings all lining a bewildering array of parks filled with live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. It was charming. The pedaler was charming. At the end she said she’d enjoyed “hanging out” with me. I returned the compliment! She dropped me by an elevator down to River Street, where I asked the first person I saw to recommend a place where I could get a salad and a glass of wine, which turned out to be a Greek café right behind him. Fisherman’s salad, house Chardonnay and a nice chat with two chubby older ladies (older than me?) who were on a bus tour from Indiana (!).
Tomorrow morning, I board my next ship and all this hopping about from place to place will stop for 17 days. The Atlantic!
Preparing to leave the United States again after such a long absence, I reflect that Savannah has certainly been a soft landing (it sure beats the Miami airport). The only exception was Homeland Security, what civilized people elsewhere call Immigration and Customs. Because I had to leave my cabin early so that the steward could clean it for the next passengers, I waited in the E Deck lounge where I knew the officials would be gathering. They crowded the room in their black uniforms with their side-arms and shaved heads and stiff military bearing, and they were courteous, but officious as hell. The kid in charge – I say “kid’” because he couldn’t have been over 30 – was wearing shiny black gloves that looked like something out of a sadomasochism catalog. He was just a little young for his job, and so a little extra authoritarian. With a touch of irony, I answered all his questions with the final word, “Sir.” The Coast Guard guys, who really are military, were much more relaxed and friendly. One found the phone number of my hotel on his cell phone, and the other, so as not to disturb me on the sofa, did his paperwork at the coffee table on his knees. As I was released to go, I leaned over and whispered in his ear, “You’ve been such a gentleman, you can get off your knees now.”
Copyright © Sandra Shaw Homer, 2016
March 6, 2018
Writing prompts can produce some surprising prose: stream of consciousness, things previously unknown to us or felt before, anecdotes, even poetry. One such prompt in a workshop I attended turned into a flash fiction piece that eventually found a home in a literary journal. Besides, prompts are super practice: we should try to do one every day. If we can’t come up with one on our own, there are websites full of prompts. Here’s one that cropped up in a workshop for two.
The music of the river adds a sense of continuity to our stories. We are all one, but accidentally separate – thus our reaching out to connect, to feel part of one another. Green – a thousand shades of green all blending into one forest on the banks of this musical river: magical river, swollen with the rains, tumbling into the lake that binds us.
It is a geography of one-ness, and through it I feel God singing, inviting our spirits into the cosmic dance.
I have found heaven here – in this country, among these people – in this endless green that fills me up. There are other beautiful places on this blue planet, but none for me like this, none that has reached inside to pull out my small gifts – the gift of connection most of all, connection to the earth, the green, the eternal river and, finally, the fearless connection to myself.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” was the question, always full of exciting possibilities. But I knew, always, that I wanted to write my way into the one-ness, the connection to others, my own human truth.
The green is so soothing, the deep-throated river hypnotizes me under the synchronous songs of the cicadas, the howls of the monkeys. This is the color of the music that I must share.
© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2018
From one of my all-time favorite writers of nonfiction, here are some excellent tips for all writers:
- “You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages.”
- “Readers are not supposed to notice the structure. It is meant to be about as visible as someone’s bones.”
- “Often, after you have reviewed your notes many times and thought through your material, it is difficult to frame much of a structure until you write a lead. You wade around in your notes, getting nowhere. You don’t see a pattern. You don’t know what to do. So stop everything. Stop looking at the notes. Hunt through your mind for a good beginning. Then write it. Write a lead.”
- “The lead – like the title – should be a flashlight that shines down into the story. A lead is a promise. It promises that the piece of writing is going to be like this.”
- “I always know where I intend to end before I have much begun to write.”
- “Editors are counselors and can do a good deal more for writers in the first-draft stage than at the end of the publishing process.”
- “If I am in someone’s presence and attempting to conduct an interview, I am wishing I were with Kafka on the ceiling. I’d much rather watch people do what they do than talk to them across a desk.”
- “Display your notebook as if it were a fishing license.”
- “Writing is selection. When you are making notes you are forever selecting. I left out more than I put down.”
- “I have never published anything on a science that has not been vetted by the scientists involved.”
- “Writing has to be fun at least once in a pale blue moon.”
- “If you look for allusions and images that have some durability, your choices will stabilize your piece of writing.”
- “In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day — yes, while you sleep — but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists.”
- “With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of — at least ninety-nine to one.”
- “If something interests you, it goes in — if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got.”
- “Forget market research. Never market-research your writing.”
- “I scoop up, say, ten times as much stuff as I’ll ultimately use.”
- “Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.”
I’m going to recommend his latest book, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, before I’ve even read it!
It’s rare to run into a writer and coach living just down the road who gets excited about my travel memoir, Letters from the Pacific. (I mean, we’re in remote Costa Rica here!) Happily, Amy Brooks was delighted to interview me for her podcast , Voice Pen Purpose online, instead of at her kitchen table (she has three lively boys). Thus, it is easily available to the anyone in the world who cares to listen, without distractions. Which I invite you to do. It’s a fun interview. Enjoy!
By Amy R Brookson, October 10, 2017
I was stuck in my house during a recent hurricane and the only truly transportive distraction I indulged in was Homer’s “Letters from the Pacific.” I read by candlelight (no power) and forgot about the pounding rain and angry winds outside my hillside home. Her imagery is crisp and clear. The details both poetic and informative. I’m now fascinated by the idea of international travel via cargo ship. When can I go, too? This is an easy book to recommend; to either those interested in an exterior or interior exploration. Keep exploring, Shaw, and then tell us all about it!
“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.” – George Orwell, “Why I Write”