A Little Night Music

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.)

 

Savannah Interlude

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

Photo by SSH

 

 

Another Five Stars for Dr. Wao

March 6, 2018

Format: Kindle Edition

Writing Prompt: Green

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.

Green

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

Photo by Marten Jager

Writing Advice from John McPhee

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!

Podcast: Writing Letters from the Pacific

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!

Photo by SSH

Letters from the Pacific Earns Another Great Review

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!

Photo by SSH

 

All Writers Are Vain . . .

“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”

Photo by SSH

 

The Challenge of Describing Incredible Things

In one case technical — and I am NOT a techie — but the engine room tour on my first freighter voyage begged to be described.  It was sensory overload — far too many details — and without creating endless lists of things, the challenge was to make it interesting, speed it up and come to a crashing finish.  Tell me if you think it works:

The Grand Event yesterday was our engine room tour, guided by the voluble Chief Engineer, Karlo.  It was one of the most impressive sights any of us had ever seen (although hot and noisy, even with earmuffs).  From the keel to the topmost access hatch, it rises 10 stories high, and aft-to-forward takes up 30% of the entire hull – add in the fuel storage tanks along either bulkhead, and it uses up more space than the cargo hold.

Lila had the good sense to bring along a notebook, and her jottings added to my memory and a further interview with the Chief, produced some remarkable statistics.  The eight-cylinder twin-turbo-charged main engine produces 35,000 horsepower at 91 rpm, and Karlo assured us that newer ships (this one is only nine years old) can produce up to 105,000.  To convey the scale of this monster, we saw two new replacement pistons hanging aft of the engine, still wrapped in plastic, each measuring five meters high, and we were told that the 7.5 meter diameter propeller weighs 45 metric tons.

At full speed, the Louise burns 110 tons of fuel a day, on “economy speed” 70, at $350 to $400 U.S. per ton.  Depending on conditions – currents, depth, wind and weather – it takes an hour and a half to move this fully-loaded ship up to her maximum speed of 23.5 knots per hour.  That’s a lot of inertia.  I didn’t ask how long it takes to come to a full stop.

Because bunker fuel is as thick as asphalt, it needs to be purified by means of an on-board centrifuge and then heated at 145C. to the correct viscosity before it can be burned.  The sludge that remains after purification is pumped into tanker trucks in port.  No unprocessed fuel, oil, or bilge contents go into the ocean.  (Neither does sewage.)  Because of European and West Coast U.S. environmental regulations, in addition to the 3,500 tons of bunker the ship has to carry low-sulphur fuel for use in those ports, as well as gasoline to use dockside.  With her tanks topped up, the Louise has a range of 15,000 nautical miles.

In addition to the main engine, there are four diesel-run generators, producing 440 volts at 60 cycles for a total potential of six megawatts (newer ships can produce up to 6,600 volts) and a desalinization plant that produces 25 tons of water a day.  This multi-staged water-maker, which includes mineralizing and treatment with ultraviolet light, produces all the water used on board for cooling, hydraulics, plumbing and human consumption.  The Louise takes on no fresh water in port.

Impressive also was the workshop and spare parts storage, including every kind of machine tool, a huge lathe, untold numbers of hand-tools – each in its numbered slot on the walls – shelf after shelf of steel boxes filled with every kind of fitting the ship’s engineers could possibly need, paints, chemicals, and numberless drums of oil.  As Karlo pointed out, there’s no handy machine shop out here in the middle of the Pacific.  He described for us, too, all the backed-up back-up systems for running the show, all computerized and far too complicated to recount.

In that vast space amid the hellish din of so many thousands of mechanical parts moving simultaneously at high speeds, surrounded by a labyrinthine complexity of ladders and hatches, kilometers of insulated wires and pipes snaking in every direction, valves, blowers, boilers, turbines, turbo-chargers, condensers, a steering gear the size of two small farm tractors, air compressors, a seawater central cooling system, block-and-tackle for moving heavy equipment around, and a 3,300 volt bow-thruster – with that enormous, panting, thrumming monster-engine at its heart – the steel planks vibrating beneath our feet with the eternal beat of the ship, the three of us stood open-mouthed in awe.

 

Anyone who writes faces a particular challenge with sunrises and sunsets, because it is so easy to fall into the cliche trap.  How to be original?  How to make the reader share in the wonder?  Here’s an attempt:

I woke early and pulled the curtain back from the porthole in time to see the sky just pearling up before sunrise.  I quickly dressed and climbed to my usual perch on the top step to F Deck, facing aft, a little northeasterly.  It was slow in coming.  First a faint pink lined the clouds, then a golden light gradually deepened along the horizon, and puffs of cloud over the indigo water turned from mauve, to rose, to bright pink.  The horizon clouds opened to form a rose-tinged bowl, scalloped like a seashell, and suddenly the sunlight poured into this bowl like molten gold, too brilliant to look at.  I watched for half an hour, at the end of which I fully felt the blessing of this diurnal gift to the planet.

Both these pieces are excerpted from Letters from the Pacific, my first travel memoir.

© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2017

Photo by SSH

New Nonfiction Piece in Cleaver Magazine

In the hall, all is pandemonium. Even the ambulatory patients are incapable of making it to the fire exit on their own. The staff is operating on adrenaline and rote training. At the exit, I hold the door open for the wheelchairs and aides guiding the patients on foot. One grand dame holds up traffic by asking me what I’m laughing about. There is a twinkle in her beautiful gray eyes. Perhaps she sees a joke and wants to share it. Perhaps there really is a smile on my face. Someone from behind gently pushes her forward. Feeling a little useless where I am, I ask one of the aides what I can do to help.

“Check the bathrooms!” she gasps.

Read more . . .

© Sandra Shaw Homer 2017

Photo by SSH