My "ocean-longing" comes to life in mid-spring and lingers for the next six months. All summer, depending on my degree of homesickness, I either dodge network weather spots given by reporters standing somewhere in Ocean city or else hover by the TV trying to look beyond the reporter to catch any bit of the town. Mostly I walk away from the brief broadcast blinking back tears.
I think about OCNJ all day over the warm months, wondering naively why I'm not there. How can this be? I was supposed to live there! I decided that long ago while still in high school. I would teach math at Ocean City High School. I would grade the papers at the far end of the Music Pier, (see pix)
and use a clam shell to keep the ocean breeze from stealing them away. And I would have a horse, stabled who knows where but not on the island.
Based on dozens of OCNJ photo albums and carefully dated loose pictures, my last visit must have been in the early-mid eighties. How then can it be about three decades since I last visited my beloved Ocean City, my true earthly hometown and the place I was supposed to be living for the rest of my life? On one hand, it’s a puzzlement.
But it does have a rational answer. In the mid-1980’s, I began haunting speculative fiction conferences instead of “visiting home”. Armed with the unpublished author’s essential “One Minute Elevator Pitch”, I s/t/a/l/k/e/d/ searched for either a publisher or literary agent who would take on my Narenta books. I could afford either my yearly visits to Ocean City or annual searches at SpecFic conferences for someone who would publish my books. Not both.
That wasn’t a great trade-off, but it would work out okay in the long run. After 2 or 3 years of persistent A. manuscript submissions by mail, B. attending conference writing workshops and C. “publishing industry-related” panels in pursuit of publication, someone would offer a contract for my books and I could resume visiting my beloved town. Win-Win.
ABOVE: Millenium Philcon programming summarized
Who knew? If the books brought in enough extra income, maybe I could afford to make my home in Ocean City after all! Maybe I would write drafts of new Narenta novels on the Music Pier. A much better prospect than my original dream of grading high school papers!
Why the abrupt change in my focus? To answer that, we have to back up to the 1970’s when I began writing. I had something I needed to offer to others but especially agnostics like the one I had been before 1970. The direct approach wouldn’t do it. At least proselytizing had worked on me only to the extent I ran from it.
Instead, this scared little agnostic was “infiltrated” by the words of such fantasy authors as C S Lewis, George MacDonald and Charles Williams. I delighted in retelling myself the most meaningful fragments of their stories and eventually what I felt were the best parts of my own stories. Remembering, feeling again with each retelling, the awe at the touch of God's presence--like in Lewis's The Horse and His Boy.* Or being touched by the mere title of Dorothy Sayer’s book, “The Consciousness of Battle”. And learning through sweet experience (and oddly enough my own writings) that Charles Williams had it right when he wrote of the Joy of the Obedience.
Others--like the me I used to be--needed to know about this! Others, wary of argument but open to a subtle hint in a work of fiction, for instance tucked within the camouflage of fantasy. Or as some author named L/o/u/i/s Lewis called this subterfuge,slipping ideas "past watchful dragons".
Even while writing fantasy, I can convey only a hazy glimpse of what it felt to be overpowered with awe at the touch of a Presence. A Presence that I profoundly felt but could neither hear nor see. So filled with awe that to this day I can only characterize it verbally with inadequate and misleading phrases like “overpowered with awe” and “My spirit bowed within me”. There are no words fitting for what cannot be described. “Words are clumsy.”** No easier to communicate is how, years later, I was suddenly surrounded by Love--Love that finally irrevocably cast out my longest fear. A profoundly “real experience” demonstrating within me for all time that the “clumsy words” written down by Julian of Norwich (and later paraphrased by T S Eliot) “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well",*** are true beyond hope. Have always been true.
"My spirit bowed as I felt the Holy Presence, and I drank it in ... breathed it in ... and rested."
~~ Grace Adolphsen Brame
A decade ago, I asked the leader of the “Written Remains” writers group why she had given it that name. I wish I could quote her answer but, in essence, she said that we authors create characters, emotions and whole scenes in our thoughts but in the end only a collection of keyed-in words on a screen remains.
She was talking about writing fiction in general. About the inevitable frustration authors experience when we try to record even a fraction of our inspiration. We are given visions of evocative settings and histories and cultures, all populated with characters none of whom existed an hour earlier but who now live vibrantly in our thoughts. Past a certain point, we "see" new character details rather than choose them. First, we wonder about our characters' pasts--and then we know, often in more detail that we will never need for our story. Writing fiction resembles pruning more that using Miracle-Gro. Eventually, as she said, we turn to our keyboards to transform whatever we can into mere words. Words are too clumsy.
The limits of language are never more frustrating than when our initial inspiration is mysteriously gifted to us. Gifted with such inspiration, we must use it. Not "must use it" because it's an obligation but "must use it" because we cannot do otherwise. That kind of inspiration fuels creativity to a white heat. So gifted, so burdened, speculative fiction authors in particular don't, or rather can't, stop coming up with new details once characters and plots mature. We may even be drawn to try our hands at the “subcreation”**** of whole worlds. I think, I hope, God smiles at our efforts. Charles Caleb Colton wrote, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."
Yikes! My apologies for straying so far off topic!
Given what I had experienced and its profound ramifications, I feel obligated to “pay forward” whatever I can in the hope of helping a new generation of wary doubters. Not by offering a detailed description of my experiences--I still can’t do that even inside my own head—but by sneaking fragments of those moments into the lives of my characters. Speaking of characters, the peskier ones sometimes "tell me" things about themselves I never would have guessed. In my wip Da Boid da Tree-Rat n da Loser, I suddenly "knew" that a main character had himself experienced awe and delight when he was only seven.
What does this mean? When I reread my work, I find hints of varied experiences tucked into Seabird and Earthbow, and my later WIPs: The Gryphon and the Basilisk, Marooned and Da Boid da Tree-Rat n da Loser. Sometimes, I know I did that bit of tucking after laborious attempts at wording and many revisions. Sometimes, mysteriously sweet, I read a sentence or even a scene and think, When did I write this? or How could I have written that? This happened all the time when I first started writing. Less now but then my output is also less.
I began my first Narenta fantasy novel Seabird in 1979, followed by Earthbow in the very early 80’s. I moved on to The Gryphon and the Basilisk, simultaneously postponing my annual trips to Ocean City until my earlier novels found a publisher. The “finding” didn’t happen until the end of 2006, when David Wood sent me an email beginning, “God is a card sometimes.” Gryphonwood Press published Seabird in 2008 and Earthbow two years later.
It’s now January 17 2014. I stopped attending conferences a couple of years ago. The only attractions they still offer are the nightly bardic circle filksings. Being part of a bardic circle, singing half the night away, is beyond great! I miss the comraderie terribly. But not enough to spend approximately $1500-$2000.
I still haven’t returned to Ocean City. During the decades since my last visit there, convenient public transportation has pretty much evaporated between where I live and my seaside “hometown”. Every year, when the ocean-longing comes on me, I spend days searching the web, looking for a way to get to OCNJ and back without a car (I no longer drive) and without resorting to the nearly $1000 charge to hire a town car for the short trip there and back.
I am after all retired on disability and living on a pension plus social security. For decades, trying to get Seabird and Earthbow published cost me thousands of dollars for conference membership, my hotel room, food and transportation. But I’ve never taken a penny of the novels' meager earnings once they were finally published. Not that I'm above that! I mean, why bother? Neither Seabird nor Earthbow have attracted more than a handful of readers. I’m fairly sure that I’ve purchased at least half of the copies sold—as gifts for friends or acquaintances and what were supposed to be ARCs.
Why so few sales? What's lacking? Any form of useful PR. Pretty covers, great descriptions of my novels, and uniformly good reviews at Amazon mean nothing when potential readers have no idea that my books or even myself exist. If only readers were clairvoyant! Anyway, what’s a few hundred dollars back in royalties, compared to the over fifteen thousand I spent on conferences--to say nothing of the emotional rollercoaster created by those futile decades of effort? Sure I could use the money. Semi-disabled senior citizen on a pension & social security, remember. But all I ever wanted was to be read--actually being given a chance to pay forward to others those same precious hints of love and awe I had been given.
This summer, I will be returning to my seaside hometown. After much worry about my budget compared to all the expenses, I came to the conclusion that I had better go while I can still fully enjoy the visit. I’ve had a balance problem all my life and it seems to be getting worse--to the point that I’m worried for the first time ever about falling on the boardwalk.
I used to bike from one end of OC's 2.5 mile boardwalk to the other and back most mornings, pausing en route only long enough to take pictures. Totally out of the question now. My legs are too weak--to say nothing of the accumulated damage to my knees after decades of falling.
Two years ago, I was diagnosed with AMD (macular degeneration). So far, thank God, my central sight appears to be unchanged! AMD blesses some people with snail pace degeneration like this. Then maybe some time later—or not—that same person’s central vision can deteriorate within months. There’s no way for ophthalmologists to predict what will happen with any given patient. I suspect that others diagnosed with AMD are, like me, praying for advances in stem cell research.
AMD is my real spur for visiting Ocean City now while I can still enjoy it. If nothing else I’d like to still see well enough to search for the little shop in which I discovered my actually-nothing-like-a-seabird-on-a-cha
p.s. Funny story. Maybe three months ago now, I had Paratransit take me to a local shopping center so that I could take care of some bank business and shop for shoes. I had built enough time into my schedule to enjoy the semi-rare treat of eating out.
I settled on Boston Market. Not far into the meal, I found a broken rib bone in my "boneless" chicken pieces and then a second bone. These were on my fork—not in my mouth or throat. I mentioned this to the manager who apologized profusely. Only days later did it occur to me that I could have ranted and raved and sued Boston Market. And, perhaps, some time this very year, I might be moving to my true hometown for the first time ever.
Guess I’m not litigious. Or maybe I’m just stupid. ;-D
*"Who are you?" "Myself" said the Voice, very deep and low so that the earth shook. And again "Myself" loud and clear and gay. Then the third time "Myself" whispered so softly you could hardly hear it, and yet it seemed to come from all around you as if the leaves rustled with it. Shasta was no longer afraid ... but a new and different sort of trembling came over him.
*****“She felt drawn to one case in particular, where a necklace with a frosty silver pendant like a soaring osprey glimmered. … Wow, the necklace was huge. The distance between one wing tip and the other must be four, five inches. Cool how the chain was fastened to the wings.” ( SEABIRD (paperback) / Seabird (kindle) Chapter One--An Invitation, p.22.)
BTW, I suspect a shorter version of "Ocean-Longing" will appear in my Tree House Tales collection, coming out some time in 2014
Speaking of Tree House Tales, here are the last few stanzas of my
Shhh… shhh… shhh…
The shy foam dithers,
A longer crest creeps closer.
Bright and dark together
Shifting, shifting, shifting.
Voices of Sirens call me landward
Called by bright songs,
Down a secret path I go,