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.

 

 

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.

Three generations of coastal interaction

Jax Beach winter days separate the tourists from the locals. Tourists enter the water without a wet suit. Locals do not.

IMG_7047On a warm winter day a couple of weeks ago, when the temps were high enough that the locals were only wearing light jackets during their beach visits, I watched an older man, his son, and his grandsons near the surf. The grandfather was a local, dressed in jeans, jacket, and hat, and wearing shoes. He stood a few feet back from where the water met the sand, smiling as he watched the others.

The son, barefoot with long shorts and a shirt but no jacket, was standing ankle-deep. He appeared to be straddling the line between comfortable and pained, looking back at the grandfather occasionally but mostly keeping his gaze focused on his sons.

The grandsons were nearly waist deep in the surf, jumping each time a wave crashed into them, apparently unfazed by the temperature of the water or the air. They were wearing jeans/shorts and t-shirts, all quite wet.

Having lived here a little over a year now I instantly knew–grandpa was a local, and son and grandsons were…

“Tourists,” my husband said, shaking his head and smiling. As we left the beach, grandpa, son, and grandsons, remained three generations of coastal interaction, from all in to just getting feet wet to opting for observation from dry land.

In this regard the coast has an awful lot in common with creativity, art, and writing. Some watch and enjoy the view, some dabble in the shallows along the edge, and some dive right in. Each has their place and purpose.

Which are you?

Out there somewhere?

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 Are you out there Mary Lee?

Cue the Jaws theme music…

Local news has been excitedly giving shark play by play for the past week. Two female great white sharks tagged by Ocearch near Cape Cod last September have been pinging just east of Jacksonville. The smaller shark, 14 ft long Genie, has stayed well off shore, passing her time along the Gulf Stream. But the big girl, Mary Lee, who is 16 feet long and weighs more than 3000 pounds, has been hanging out much closer to shore, actually pinging within the surf late in the day on January 7th. That’s when Ocearch notified local police and Mary Lee became the topic of conversation around town, almost as if she were the first shark ever to visit our shore.

That’s also when I became addicted to the Ocearch tracking website. Imagine how thrilled I was to discover that when Mary Lee pinged closest, she was just off shore from where I typically access Jax Beach! If only I’d been walking then I might have seen…well nothing actually, because it was dark when she was that close.

I’ve seen a lot of interesting things in the water as I’ve walked the beaches here over the past year. I’ve seen dozens of dolphins, feeding and playing in the surf, and scaring uninformed people who can’t tell the difference between a dolphin fin and a shark fin. I’ve seen what must have been a good sized sea turtle but I was too far away and it was too dark to be sure. And one especially wonderful evening during high tide I watched a couple of manta rays feeding just a few feet away from where I and several other beach lovers were gathered at the water’s edge, oohing and ahhing and reassuring some idiots walking by that no, really, those were not sharks.

I know a lot of people have a strong fear of sharks, and I’m not interested in a close encounter with one myself, but they are not every unidentified swimming creature in the sea, or the only ones to avoid. Jellyfish, for example, can be very unpleasant, but there aren’t near as many movies about them and I don’t hear a lot of people pointing and yelling “jellyfish” when they see something in the water.

Sharks are clearly made out to be the bogeymen of the sea, but the sea is their natural habitat and they are doing what sharks were born to do–swim and eat. They are merely one more type of ocean and coastal life to observe, no different than the dolphins, sea turtles, pelicans, gulls and osprey.

There are plenty of sharks out there that we don’t see or hear about, many more than the two great whites that Ocearch recently named and tagged. Local surfers complain about a bull shark that frequents the area near and just south of the pier. We also have black tip sharks in these waters, but for the most part, this apparently isn’t a place where a lot of shark encounters occur. It may be a long time, and a lot of walks, before I get a glimpse of a shark in local waters.

That’s ok. I don’t mind waiting. They’re out there, somewhere, along with their untagged friends. The great thing about Mary Lee pinging near the Jax Beach shore is the reminder that just under the surface, just out of range of our everyday experience, is a world we cannot see without effort, risk, or technology.

Beneath those beautiful breakers there is a world of life that carries on without our observance or assistance. It is the same with creativity, be it any type of art, music, or creative writing. Behind those layers of paint, that sculpted curve in clay, that delicate note, and that well-turned phrase, is a combination of observation and imagination, born of the knowledge that things aren’t always as they seem, and the courage to explore and express what is found.

 

Second pass changes

My beach walks consist of parking the car, crossing over the dunes and heading straight for the water, and then walking along the shore for a couple of miles, turning around, and walking back. I almost wrote “retracing my steps” instead of “walking back,” but that would have been inaccurate. My steps seem to disappear almost as quickly as I make them in the ever shifting sand.

Although I have been taking these walks nearly daily for more than half a year, I continue to be surprised by how much changes in the time it takes me to cover the same ground twice. Whether the tide is coming in or rolling out, whether the wind is blowing sand or not, whether the beach is crowded or nearly empty, change is constant along my route.

In those early walking days I often made the mistake of procrastinating. If I saw something interesting to take a photo of, or investigate, or maybe a shell to pick up, I would hesitate and tell myself I’d do that on the way back. But I quickly learned that putting it off usually meant losing the opportunity. Maybe whatever it was washed out to sea before I returned. Maybe someone else picked up that shell. Maybe a gull carried something shiny away. Whatever the case, waiting until my second pass meant missing the moment.

During a walk last week I started thinking how much this is and isn’t like the process of converting a first draft of a piece of writing into a second draft.

Sometimes a second draft is such a considerable change from the first rough attempt that it is nearly unrecognizable. Shiny things and beautiful landscape from the rough draft are discarded or at the very least altered enough so as to appear new. Sometimes a second draft nearly obliterates the first one, taking the raw material and rearranging it as severely as a gust of wind or strong wave rearrange sand and sweep baubles away.

The difference lies in who or what controls the change.

With the coast, nature is absolutely in charge. Wind, waves, and rain sculpt the sand and deposit goodies on the shore. Yes, humans are part of that nature, but I am not directly in charge of the creation at large. I’m just an observer.

When taking a second pass at a writing project, however, I am the creator. I decide what stays and what goes. I mold the raw materials into the shapes that I imagine. Even so, I sometimes find myself surprised by the differences of the second pass.

Of course there are exceptions. On this morning’s walk I noticed a shell with friends attached to it at the water’s edge. I was only about half a mile into my walk, just hitting my stride, and decided not to stop to take a picture. I told myself I’d snap a pic on the way back if the shell was still there. As I passed it a wave covered the shell and my feet and I figured the shell would be long gone when the water receded.

Thirty minutes later it was right where I left it, waves still lapping at it occasionally. The lighting was less than ideal and I didn’t take a great pic but here it is…

Similarly, when I opened the file for the rough draft of this post, I found it already said most of what I was thinking. I just needed to add an ending.

Today was one of those days when the second pass didn’t change that much after all.