Searchlights & Signal Flares


Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What do you want to learn next? (05/15/07)



Featured writer: Susan Bono



Contributors this month:
Christine Falcone
Claudia Larson
Don Edgers
Jordan E. Rosenfeld
Lily Owyang
Susan Bono


After the Falls

by Susan Bono

I love Niagara Falls. I'm a sucker for its tourist traps: the Daredevil Museum with its battered barrels and old photos of the Great Blondin cooking an egg on a tightrope strung over the gorge; the Spanish Aerocar carrying sightseers over the Niagara Whirlpool since 1905; the unsinkable Maid of the Mist and the Journey Behind the Falls, where folks can watch the rush of water from inside tunnels of dolomite.

But while these kitchy attractions appeal to the girl who once traveled the deserts of Nevada and Utah watching for fading Burma Shave signs, it is the water itself that inspires, excites and frightens me now.

I have stood on the banks of the Niagara River and been afraid. So much water is being forced through the gorge it creates standing waves up to twenty-five feet high. I've felt the dizzying magnetism of the falls as I clutched the observation deck railing, convinced the current could somehow suck me off dry land and over the green lip of that cataract.

It's been a good eight years since I've been to Niagara, but whenever the demands of my creative life threaten to overwhelm me, it's as if I'm back at its brink again. Only this time, there are no railings to cling to, and the river is pulling me in.

Whenever I lose control, I ask myself, how can this be happening again? A sane person would have read the signs, employed some common sense and stayed at a safe distance from the edge. I normally think of myself as a cautious person, but in these moments, I'm like the first-time skier who manages to end up on a Black Diamond run in whiteout conditions.

I have to learn that being an artist doesn't mean I have to keep offering myself to Niagara without so much as a life jacket or safety rope. If I were some daredevil emerging triumphant from her barrel to the sound of applause and a place on the bestseller list, maybe my choice of swimming spots would make more sense. But to guarantee survival over the long haul, I need to move farther downstream when I want to get wet, to places where the river slows down and spreads out. It will still be Niagara, deep and green and tasting of limestone. There are mysteries and dangers even in those calmer waters. Considering the source, I can learn to count on it.

Susan Bono is looking for shallow water in Petaluma, CA.

What do you want to learn next?

  by Christine Falcone

I'd like to learn to play the saxophone, chess and how to golf. I'd like to learn about plants and their medicinal uses, how to sew or knit. But all of these things take time and patience, two things I don't have a lot of. I'd like to learn how to manage my time better, to set a writing schedule and stick to it. And I'd like to learn how to be more patient, with myself, with others, and with life in general. I'd like to climb right up onto the belly of patience, as if it were a lion lounging lazily in the sun, walk around on that soft, velvety pelt and inspect it for fleas, groom the thing as if I had all the time in the world, not worry about where I had to go, who I had to pick up, the fact that, one day, I'm going to die.

I want to learn to be as fluid and free-flowing as the wind blowing through the branches of the Monterey Pine outside my window. I'd like to be an invisible force like that, something that moves the earth, lifts our hair in tentacles around our heads, ruffling the oily black feathers of the crow. I'd like to bow and bend like the branches of that same tree. I'd like to learn how to lose myself, fly away like those same black crows vying for the rights to some nut or seed. I'd like to learn to be as unselfconscious as my cat as she sits grooming herself, one lithe, fur-covered leg lifted high in the air like a dancer during warm ups. I'd like to learn how to fall across the floor like a beam of sunlight, illuminating the ordinary planks of oak, making them, for just a moment, look like the beautiful tree they once were. I'd like to learn to be full and quiet like the big round moon, her body a pearl adrift on the endless ocean of night. I'd also like to learn to move with her pull, surrender myself like the sea, come and go like the tide as called. I'd like to learn how to grow like the irises pushing themselves up through loamy earth towards the sun. I'd like to learn to assert myself in that way. I'd like to learn how to play again, become like my four-year-old daughter lost in the magic of some fantasy. I'd like to learn how to share better, how to lose more gracefully. I'd like to become better at surrendering, at turning myself over, offering my pale underbelly to the sky. I'd like to learn to forget everything I know, return to a point of emptiness, aware only of the fact that I know nothing.

I want to learn how to live in a world with all its shades of light and dark, with all its injustices and wars. I want to learn to peel back the grief and sorrow, hoist it off my shoulders, lift it over my head like a soiled shirt. I want to learn not to fear life's fragility. The thing I really want to learn is how to live like a four-year-old who's just been told she has cancer. How does she find the way to joy again? I keep seeing her face, her big eyes, her bobbed hair parted and clipped neatly to the side with a barrette, her yellow dress kissing the tops of her skinned knees, and she's got her bag packed, a hard, brown suitcase with Hello Kitty stickers on it. Where is she headed? She's got a road all her own to walk. It's like she's come into the world to die. And haven't we all? Sometimes, it feels impossible to keep walking around laughing and dancing, cooking and kissing, knowing that one day, it's simply going to stop. But at the same time, it seems wrong not to. I want to write about being strong, having the courage to fight, racing like a soldier headlong into the line of fire. We're all in the trenches, but some of us are on the front lines. We've got our hand-grenades and ammo, we've got our stockpile of supplies. But we've also got our own human bodies to cart around - these miraculous bodies that breathe and sleep and make love and eat cherries. How do we accomplish all that we have to accomplish when there's so little time?

I want to learn how to resist gravity. I want to learn to hug my family tighter without constricting them. I want to learn to love without attachment. I want to learn not to worry so much, to let my mind unwind like a ribbon from a spool. I want to learn to dig deeper, to burrow in the rich, dark soil of my life like the gopher tunneling through our front lawn. I want to learn to fall in-love with life every day, to wake up with the sense that anything is possible. I want to learn to be better at remembering that it's not how much time we have, it's what we do with it.

Christine Falcone is a writer and a mother in Novato who'd like to learn how to get her novel, This Is What I Know, published.


What do you want to learn next?

  by Claudia Larson

A bowl of sky capsizes over me while bird songs link me to the land. I want to learn to love myself in that natural way, in the way that clouds pouf their way into the sky and prairies stretch out for miles beyond the curve of the earth. I want to remember the exhilarating leap off the chicken house roof and the satisfied, safe landing thud of feet on the ground. I want to learn to throw hope and dreams and desires into the air like shiny confetti and marvel at the shapes they take on my skin, in my hair, on my feet, in the grass. I want to learn to wade in disappointment, swim in grief and feel them enter my pores with wisdom and compassion and kindness. I want to learn to love myself in the way my friends, in the way my family love me. I want to learn that the lump in my throat, the exuberance in my eyes and the touch of my hands are all the same and that they connect me to every person, every particle of this earth, every undiscovered black and white hole in the universe.

Claudia Larson tends to her heart in Sonoma County, CA by way of North Dakota.


What do I want to learn next?

  by Don Edgers

Just out of curiosity, I'd like to stumble upon a workable alchemist-formula to convert lead into gold. In the arena of spiritualistic literature, maybe I could learn to channel John Steinbeck. But in the "real" world I'd like to learn what the messages on my computer really mean. I'm not too swift when it comes to learning foreign languages and some of the messages my computer throws at me might as well be in Sanskrit! When I consult with my highly literate son-in-law about these messages, I hear, "Simply blah-blah-blah --- do you understand?" I always lie. I feel guilty claiming to have graduating high school, let alone owning two university degrees. My Masters Degree should probably be in Computer Illiteracy.

I was absolutely ecstatic when I'd learned DOS and WordPerfect. Then Microsoft bundled Word into my PC, and I had to learn how to navigate in that word processing software. Now I have a voice recognition software program (Dragon Naturally Speaking 8®) which supposedly types the words into my Word documents as I say them into a microphone which attaches to my head like a hands-free phone. During its preliminary trials, it worked wondrously. However, I need to learn the voice commands necessary to make corrections, etc. I am a slow typist, so this software program should speed up my word processing considerably. I'll start using the software to do my next book.

I'd like to learn to discipline myself to quit spending so much time on the computer. My wife of 42 years claims I'm addicted to using the computer - rightly so.

Learning to write children's literature appeals to me, so that goes onto my "Learn to do next" list, also.

I'm going to have to get off the computer - a pop-up message just warned me (in Sanskrit) that "ÔÕڛڝٳ." Maybe it's John Steinbeck giving me the formula to change lead into gold!

Don Edgers, a retired high school teacher lives and writes in Port Orchard, Washington. His 2nd book “An Island in Time II: Coming of age in the 1950s” is being published by authorHOUSE this summer.

www.anislandintime.com


Jordan E. Rosenfeld



What do I want to learn next?

I'm afraid to tell you. Really. I'm embarrassed. It's "the thing"—you know, the thing I've always wanted. Since I can remember. Ego driven or not. Selfish as it may be. Not really a thing—a state of being, a reality. A level of existence. What do I want to learn next? I want to learn what it feels like to negotiate the fine print with an expensive lawyer over my first publishing contract for a novel. Then I want to have the privilege of being frustrated with my editor who will inevitably make suggestions—that's a frustration I look forward to facing. Then I want to learn how exhausting a book tour can be—how it's really just a lot of work—I embrace the idea of being totally beat from such an experience. Then I want to learn what it feels like when someone disagrees with the content of my book and sends me a ten page missive about why it should never have been published. I look forward to what it's like to learn that you can't please every reader.

If you're scratching your head wondering what the heck I'm talking about then you're not paying attention. I want it so bad…I want it so bad that I even look forward to the worst of it.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld chalks up her strange mood to revisions for her first non-fiction book, due any second.


What do I want to learn next?

  by Lily Owyang

Learning, I recognize, happens in stages. Many topics catch my imagination, stir my curiosity like the languages of Arabic, Russian and Chinese and their unique writing codes. I am tantalized by the secrets and stories lodged within.

On the other hand, travel unlocks other temptations; the chance to live in another place, steep myself in a particular culture, and learn more about the people, art, and architecture of a region. So, I ask, how long can I feed off this level of fascination?

Delve into a subject, plumb its depths and move towards deeper learning, I urge. I look into a pool of experience siphoned from the lessons of a previous life. During the many years devoted to music and performance as a classical pianist, I engaged with every facet and aspect behind the creative act, and took risks to dive deeper into understanding. The piano provided me the means to decode and interpret the music and composer's intent. I worked at shaping each musical phrase, paid attention to dynamics and sound, and made every effort to best serve the music. Along the way, I learned to anticipate frustration, disappointment, and regrets in exchange for the joy, and satisfaction that comes from breaking through with clarity and insight.

Now, my attention turns to writing and learning the craft and discipline behind the art. Through words and especially in the act of writing, I discover I can access experience that to me, seems more direct, personal, and express them with more candor. I struggle to find the right word, search for a distinctive voice, and mold sentences to best capture mood, describe character, and scene. In the resulting wake, I succumb to the power that propels what I want to learn; to catch a glimpse of the rich complexities of life, and to participate in the mystery of human connection.

Lily Owyang lives in Geyserville, CA. and comes to writing from a variety of roles in previous careers. Her focus now is to learn more about the art and craft of writing, and to take new risks in exchange for discovery and insight. E-Mail Lily Owyang

After the Falls

  by Susan Bono

I love Niagara Falls. I'm a sucker for its tourist traps: the Daredevil Museum with its battered barrels and old photos of the Great Blondin cooking an egg on a tightrope strung over the gorge; the Spanish Aerocar carrying sightseers over the Niagara Whirlpool since 1905; the unsinkable Maid of the Mist and the Journey Behind the Falls, where folks can watch the rush of water from inside tunnels of dolomite.

But while these kitchy attractions appeal to the girl who once traveled the deserts of Nevada and Utah watching for fading Burma Shave signs, it is the water itself that inspires, excites and frightens me now.

I have stood on the banks of the Niagara River and been afraid. So much water is being forced through the gorge it creates standing waves up to twenty-five feet high. I've felt the dizzying magnetism of the falls as I clutched the observation deck railing, convinced the current could somehow suck me off dry land and over the green lip of that cataract.

It's been a good eight years since I've been to Niagara, but whenever the demands of my creative life threaten to overwhelm me, it's as if I'm back at its brink again. Only this time, there are no railings to cling to, and the river is pulling me in.

Whenever I lose control, I ask myself, how can this be happening again? A sane person would have read the signs, employed some common sense and stayed at a safe distance from the edge. I normally think of myself as a cautious person, but in these moments, I'm like the first-time skier who manages to end up on a Black Diamond run in whiteout conditions.

I have to learn that being an artist doesn't mean I have to keep offering myself to Niagara without so much as a life jacket or safety rope. If I were some daredevil emerging triumphant from her barrel to the sound of applause and a place on the bestseller list, maybe my choice of swimming spots would make more sense. But to guarantee survival over the long haul, I need to move farther downstream when I want to get wet, to places where the river slows down and spreads out. It will still be Niagara, deep and green and tasting of limestone. There are mysteries and dangers even in those calmer waters. Considering the source, I can learn to count on it.

Susan Bono is looking for shallow water in Petaluma, CA.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono

Columnists:

Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

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