All in a day’s walk, or, that time I saved a shark

At first I thought it was dead. Maybe it was something discarded by a fisherman. Maybe it was half eaten by gulls with just the good side tuned my way. I couldn’t tell. I was still too far away to see detail beyond a vague fish shape carried in by a larger wave and deposited on the sand as the water receded.

A few steps closer and it was clearly a full fish. Then it was clearly a little more than a foot long, smooth, and gray, with eyes on the outer edges of a flat, curved head. I was staring down at a baby shovelhead shark.

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As soon as I saw what it was, I did what I always do when I see something new (or newly dead) on the beach. I took a photo. I don’t know if it was the shutter sound or my presence but something caused the shark to move. No longer a limp carcass on the sand, the shark lifted his head and twisted toward me, just as I took a second pic.

What happened next was a series of hilariously uncharacteristic actions on my part that slurred together into a surrealistic event that I would sum up in five short words when my husband walked up to me several minutes later.

“I just saved a shark!”

“What?”

First, I should explain that it’s not unusual for members of our family to rescue creatures of all sizes and habitats that find themselves lost, in need, or otherwise distressed. Our first family pet was a malnourished shelter rescue kitten. There was that summer when my husband and son managed to keep our front yard mowed while simultaneously protecting a nest of baby rabbits. And our daughter has repatriated many a stray praying mantis, butterfly, lady bug or beetle that found its way into houses or pools over the years. Since we relocated to the Sunshine state, frogs, toads, and lizards have been added to the list of hoppers and crawlers that we’ve scooped up and released back into the wild. At the beach we’ve returned more than a few stranded starfish to the sea, and this spring my daughter plucked a crab from a boxed in corner and helped him find the sand again.

This is what we do. Usually, however, it’s my husband, daughter, or son that does the actual scooping, plucking, grabbing, and releasing, not because I am squeamish but because I am slow. I’m either late to the party altogether, or wasting time assessing the situation while someone else swoops in and takes action.

But when the baby shark lifted its head, alerting me to the fact that it was alive, I was the only one around. Hanna Beach was empty for at least half a mile south–the direction I’d just walked from–and a glance north revealed my husband was still well out of shouting range. I was on my own.

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Balancing my iPhone in one hand with a sand dollar I’d liberated from the shore earlier in my walk, I reached down, gently rolled the shark onto its belly, and grabbed him right behind the first dorsal fin. As I picked him up he swung his head side to side, trying to wiggle free of my grasp. Apparently he didn’t think being up in the air was an improvement on writhing in the sand. By this point, however, I was determined to put him back where he belonged, so I tightened my grip and followed that with the most logical next step. I spoke full sentences out loud to a baby shovelhead shark.

“Hold still! I’m taking you back to your home.”

It worked. Or he’d been out of the ocean way too long. Or both. Whatever the truth of it was he remained still for the rest of our journey. I waded knee-deep so that he wouldn’t immediately be washed back ashore, placed him in the sea, and let go.

At first nothing happened. Then he listed to his left side and I thought I was too late. But suddenly his tail flipped sideways, he righted himself, and he swam back and forth in front of me a couple of times. Instinctively, I stuck my hand back in the water behind his tail and made that shooing motion all Moms make to encourage slow children, dogs, cats, goats, toads, or anything else that needs to pick up their pace.

“Go!”

Baby shovelhead shark took off, his fin breaking the surface briefly past the next wave before he disappeared into the Atlantic. After wading back out of the surf I watched the coastline until my husband caught up to me and we both felt sure the shark was safely out to sea.

The remarkable thing about that experience was how unremarkable it was. Sure, that was the first and only time I’ve carried a shark (of any kind or size) back out to sea, but it wasn’t the only interesting thing about that day’s walk, or any of the other hundreds of walks I’ve taken on these northeastern Florida beaches.

Also on that walk, I found the sand dollar I mentioned earlier, and had a delightful conversation with a young woman and her preschool daughter about the creature that lived in a whelk shell that they’d found and her mother had to eventually bury back in the sand so her daughter would leave it alone. Routinely we watch dolphins play out past the sand bars and osprey and pelicans hunting along the shore. We hear gulls squabble, at each other and sometimes at us. We’ve seen manta rays almost close enough to touch. We’ve had interesting and sometimes outright bizarre conversations with fishermen, walkers, and shark tooth hunters from all over the country and just down the road, including a man who’d cycled to Jax Beach from LA.

It’s not unusual for something unusual to happen on our walks. It’s weird if a walk is routine.

I don’t know if interesting and offbeat encounters happen to our family because we are creative people, or if we, as writers, poets, dancers, and artists, bring our altered perspective to otherwise mundane situations and make them more than they might be on their own. But I like to think that these experiences are there for all to have, if they make time to fully interact with the world around us.

What I’m sure of, though, is that these experiences are critical for creative people to have if they want to continue building worlds from words, paint, motion, pixels, or clay. Before you can write what you know, you have to know. And more often than not, knowing comes from doing. Living. Experiencing.

Make it an everyday thing.

photo (4)Edited to add link to First Friday Link Party for Writers. 

It’s beach o’clock somewhere

I’m not one of those people who believes there is a best or proper time to go to the beach. I love the quiet early mornings, the noisy, blinding bright afternoons, and when sea and sand are blanketed with that blue tint from a cloudless sky reflecting the last of the sun’s daylight. Mornings or afternoons, midday or sunset, sunrise or late night under the moonlight, any time can become beach o’clock for me.

Sunset, Jax Beach

Sunset, Jax Beach

As with each time of day, every season, offers its own flavor, a unique blend of sights, smells, sounds, and cast of characters. Orange beaked black skimmers warm up the bland winter sand cluttered with shells and sea glass, seaweed carpets roll spring into summer, and sun worshippers share sand space with castle-makers, kite-flyers, and  hungry gulls through the long lazy summer and fall.

Just as the beach varies what it offers, my reason for going to the beach fluctuates. Sometimes I’m simply looking for a workout with vacation scenery. Sometimes I’m seeking sights, smells, and sounds capable of drowning out whatever is clogging my thoughts that day. And almost always…no, definitely always…I am seeking creative inspiration from the comfortably relentless give and take of the sand and sea.

My creativity ebbs and flows like the coastline. There’s no right time of day, no perfect season, no proper schedule that works for me, and, I suspect that’s true for many writers and artists. One painter may swear by the natural afternoon light and refuse to paint at any other time or on cloudy days. Another writer might be convinced that the only appropriate time is early morning, before the sun or anyone in the family is up. While that singer doesn’t believe in approaching the mic until late at night.

We all have our best times, and, for some of us, there’s more than one. Like walking the beach at different times or in other seasons, for me writing in the morning, afternoon, evening, or night offers a variety of appeal. When it’s all about business, I usually prefer to write in the afternoon and evening. But when it comes to telling stories, true or imagined, nothing beats the dark until the story takes hold and then I tend to disregard circadian rhythm or clock.

I encourage you to do the same. Create when and where inspiration smiles at you and don’t worry about when that is. Or, if you can’t let go of the belief that there is a right time for everything, remember that the creative community is global. It’s beach o’clock somewhere.

 

Ferry Art

I don’t read much when I’m nearing the end of a long writing project, preferring instead to focus all of my energy on reaching the end. The first thing I do when I finish, however, is cram words into my brain as fast as I can, probably in a subconscious effort to replace the ones I’ve recently pulled out. The first book I read after completing my latest work in progress was The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin.

We all remember that Icarus was warned not to fly too high, but we often forget that flying too low is also dangerous. In his book, Godin talks about the perils of following a course that is deceptively safe, and that behavior that used to be considered unsafe may actually be the best path to take after all.

Godin is talking about choosing nonconformity, creativity, and making art even, and especially, in seemingly mundane situations. He writes about art being an attitude, and claims that if we break new ground, perform our work tasks creatively, and make human connections, we are artists regardless of what our job titles might be.

I know someone who is a perfect example of Godin’s premise. Ok, I don’t know him personally. I don’t know his name, or where he lives, or anything about his family or friends, but I blew him a kiss the last time I saw him.

He works on the ferry between Mayport Village and Ft. George Island, directing vehicles onto and off of the deck, pointing each to its proper position to fit as many cars, trucks, and motorcycles as possible onto the boat for each crossing of the St. Johns River. I don’t know how long he has worked there. I’ve only taken the ferry a few times, whenever we drive up to Amelia Island. But each time I see him, he transcends competence and efficiency. He performs.

His hair is gray but his eyes are young and mischievous. His smile is river wide and contagious.

Like his colleagues, he makes eye contact with the occupants of each vehicle as he indicates the left, right, or center, easing them bumper to bumper in four parallel rows, every 30 minutes. Just shy of a mile later he directs everyone back onto land and begins the process all over again. This could be a dry, matter-of-fact experience for all involved, but it isn’t when he’s working.

He communicates not just with each driver, but also passengers who return his gaze. With exaggerated gestures he waves each to their space, and, minutes later, on their way. He smiles, and sings, and shouts. He shuffles and dances in and then out of the rows. He salutes and shrugs and spins.

He definitely makes an impression. He absolutely makes a connection.

When I blew him that kiss he caught it first on his cheek, and then on his heart, acting as if I’d made his day.

I hope I did, because he made mine by transforming an ordinary situation into a creative, endearing, memorable few moments that I can’t talk or write about without smiling myself. I don’t know what his job title is, but Godin is right.

He’s an artist.

 

 

“The End” is my beginning

A couple of weeks ago, a few days before family arrived from out of town, I typed “The End” to a book manuscript I’ve been working on for 16 months. That’s a little long for me. Usually I finish a manuscript in just under a year. But I also started a business in 2012 so admittedly I was busier than normal.

A few days later I printed out the rough draft and stacked it on my working table (mostly because my desk was, and still is, covered with things that need to be scanned/filed/shredded, which is why I have a “working table” in the first place but that’s another post) and that is where the draft remains, not because I dread the first edit, but because I don’t.

I enjoy the first edit more than writing the original draft. Why? Because once the first draft is done, I have something tangible to work with. It’s no longer an idea, a dream, a possibility. It’s there. It exists. I don’t see a rough draft as a completed project. I see it as a foundation, a structure, a base for what I’m about to build.

Contrary to the stereotypical writer, I don’t become terribly attached to anything in my first draft. I don’t have to wrestle with the necessity to “kill my darlings.” The words that make up my first draft are just words. They can be rearranged, exchanged, hauled off to another section, or discarded altogether. That’s all fine with me as long as when I am finished I have created what I imagined before I typed “chapter one.”

Words are only one of the ingredients of that creation, just as sand is only one of the ingredients of a beach. By itself, it’s just sand. But sculpted by water and wind, creatures on top of and beneath it, and the hands and tools of people, the sand becomes anything from castles, to turtle nests, to dunes. As a writer I am the sea and the air, the life above and below the surface, combining and recombining words to create the landscape of my story.

It’s during the first edit that I do begin to resemble some of that writer stereotype. I become a bit obsessed. I become so focused on the book, the book, the book, that I put off everything else, things like chores and social opportunities, or any other use of my free time, sometimes even those daily walks on the beach. Clearly my priorities get out of whack.

Knowing my tendency to develop tunnel vision during the first revision, I’ve left my manuscript undisturbed so that I could cross some important items (like hosting a family visit, completing first quarter business administrative duties, and uploading a few website changes) off my task list. With that done, I can safely devote my attention to that stack of paper on my working table. But first, just in case I get lost in my work, I think I’ll take a walk.

Dolphin Plaza entrance to Hanna Beach, Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, Jacksonville, FL

Dolphin Plaza entrance to Hanna Beach, Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, Jacksonville, FL

A Visitor’s Perspective

Family visited us last week for the first time since we relocated to Jax from the landlocked Midwest. We took our hosting duties seriously and packed as many local sights and sounds into the five days we had together, and of course, we started with the beach.

The beach, in our case, is a series of beaches along the coast that together form about six miles of walking, biking, surfing, sun worshipping and beach combing bliss. Those miles are divided into four distinct beaches, named for the communities they border. There aren’t any lines in the sand separating one from the other, but each has its own feel and we’ve already developed favorites. On their first full day visiting, my in-laws walked with us on the two strips of sand where my husband and I spend most of our beach time, a southern stretch of Jax Beach and the beach at Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park.

Seeing our familiar sights through their visiting eyes was an unexpected treat. They pointed out and admired features that feel like home to us. Their visiting perspective provided a fresh view of what has quickly become our common everyday surroundings.

A visitor’s perspective is exactly what is needed for editing the first rough draft of any writing project. The best revisions are born of a wide-eyed reading conducted as if those words you wrestled onto the page are telling you something you’ve never heard before. Without that visitor’s perspective, you won’t know which words to cut, or what to add. Whether you’re a new writer, or someone who has produced and published for many years, you must develop the ability to approach your completed writing as if it’s a change of scenery after a long drive.

Sunset, April 1, 2013, Hanna Beach, Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park.

Sunset, April 1, 2013, Hanna Beach, Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park.

Skimming Creativity

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Over the last year and a half, I’ve learned how to walk along the beach without disturbing the gulls that gather in bunches up and down the coast. At first they flew whenever I got near them, but after awhile I discovered that if I approach quietly at a steady pace, and avoid making eye contact, most of the gulls (Ring Billed, Common, Laughing, or Herring) tend to walk toward or away from the water just enough to clear a path for me through the middle of the flock.

They might complain. The Laughing Gulls almost always do! But only the most skittish gulls take flight, frequently joined by the terns, and they usually fly only a few feet before dropping back down into the sand as I pass them by.

Black Skimmers are a different story. They visit our beach only a few months each winter and they fly as soon as I get anywhere near them, permitting me to accumulate numerous blurry photos that feature their tail feathers.

Last Friday as I walked north along the shore I repeatedly approached a flock of Black Skimmers. Before that day, I hadn’t seen more than four or five together, but this time over two dozen were gathered at the water’s edge. When I came within 10 feet of them they took flight as a group, first out over the water and then arcing back to the sand a little farther up the shore. When I caught up to them again, they took flight once more out over the surf and back to the sand a little farther ahead. This pattern was repeated a couple more times until the Black Skimmers dropped back into the sand with a similar size group of Sanderlings and a handful of Laughing Gulls.

As I approached this mixed flock, the Laughing Gulls squawked a bit and sidestepped into the water, the Sanderlings chattered and trotted farther inland, and the Black Skimmers once again took flight all together but this time they flew the opposite direction. Once out over the surf, the Skimmers turned south and flew behind me. For a moment I thought they’d figured out that I wouldn’t disturb them any more if they let me get past them and then dropped back down with the gulls and the Sanderlings.

But that wasn’t their plan. Instead they circled behind me on the right, flew up alongside me on the left, and then on up ahead, landing beside the water once more about 20 yards in front of me. We resumed our previous pattern with the Skimmers flying on down the coast each time I approached and remaining just out of reach, until I arrived at the walkover where my car was parked and left the beach. As I got into the car and headed home I wondered how many times we would need to do that same dance before the Skimmers got used to me like the gulls and terns have, and simply moved off to one side, complaining, as I passed by.

Creativity frequently eludes me much like those Black Skimmers. I’ll catch a glimpse of a new idea, a fresh connection, but as I approach it takes flight, wheeling out over the ocean of thoughts in my head, and sometimes circling back around me before landing just out of reach. I have to be careful not to make any sudden moves, loud noises, or eye contact, until the new idea and I have had a chance to feel each other out a bit, grow accustomed to each other, and convince ourselves that neither poses a threat. Only then can I get a good look, and maybe even snap a photo or two.

Have to Laugh

Did Laughing Gulls get their name from the sound of their calls? Or do they get their name from the fact that it’s hard not to laugh when we hear them?

Laughing Gulls, Hanna Beach

Laughing Gulls, Hanna Beach

I’ve cleared my business schedule this week so that I can focus on a self-imposed writing retreat, right here at home. The rules are no business-related writing. No conference calls or meetings. No client deadlines and no sales activities. Instead, I am spending the entire week focusing on a personal writing project, in hopes of pounding out a significant word count and bringing the end of this manuscript in sight.

To kick off my writing week properly, I spent an unusually warm Monday afternoon at Hanna Beach. As I walked I was already running phrases and paragraphs in my head, writing before the writing, which is a common practice for me. I had a good pace going and noticed that I was approaching a flock of gulls but didn’t pay much attention to what kinds had gathered. Instead I was watching a handful of pelicans diving repeatedly just offshore, when suddenly I found myself smiling and then laughing out loud.

The flock I had caught up with was mostly Laughing Gulls and they were separating left and right to create a path for me to walk through them. They were also complaining about it. Just as I made eye contact with one gull, he (she? it?) threw back his head and called Ha Ha Ha so loudly that the gulls near him stepped a little farther aside.

I had to laugh. I always have to laugh when I hear them calling.

Spring is coming and when it does, a group of Laughing Gulls will gather here at the apartment complex where we live and squabble with the crows about who gets to perch on top of the community center building and proclaim themselves King of the Complex. Each morning, with the sunrise, the squabbling will begin and I’ll wake up to the Ha Ha Ha of the Laughing Gulls. After experiencing that last spring, I know there will be many mornings when I’ll have to laugh with them, and isn’t that a great way to start the day?