At the start of the summer, the end of the school year, who isn’t full of the instinct to self-improve, to start new protocols, to switch things up? Maybe it’s the long days or the explosion of nature into bloom. Remember the musical Carousel? “June is bustin’ out all over”? That feelin’. I was ready to bust out of Baltimore, too, with things heating up, summer coming on too strong and too sudden.
First, I thought of doing the 100 Day Project: Create something every day for 100 days and post it on your Instagram account. I don’t have an Instagram account, but that’s not the point, the point is to make something—anything! Then I thought maybe I’d work my way through The Presence Process, a book by Michael Brown which instructs us how to breathe our way to emotional integration over the course of ten weeks, releasing, slowly, our attachment to “a manufactured identity,” all those strategies we use to sedate and control our inner discomfort. As we learn to breathe through ancient, unintegrated emotion, we develop the strength to face, unflinchingly, whatever real horror may be coming down the pike.
The day after school got out we headed to the beach. I packed The Presence Process which, by the way, first came to the beach with me five years ago. I’d started it with a big head of steam but wasn’t quite ready for the practice portion of the program which required a commitment to 10 teetotalin’ weeks. No frozen margaritas? No way.
It’s a ritual to begin beach vacations with a trip to our favorite bookstore for fresh reading material and journals. I wandered away from the novels to find myself, as usual, in the aisle housing the self-help books. I homed right in on The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, a classic of “creative recovery.” I should probably ‘fess now to buying the first edition when it came out in 1992, abandoning the 12-week program about a month in, and eventually giving the book away. The 25th Anniversary Edition had an Elizabeth Gilbert blurb on the cover. She promised the book would help me see what’s holding me back and show me how to move forward. I took the bait. This time, I thought, in line at the checkout, I’m going to do this thing, startin’ tomorra.
The weather was lousy, good reading weather, in theory, but I couldn’t quite settle down. The second night, hard rain and high winds set the house talkin’—bangin’ doors, rattlin’ storm shutters, papers rustlin’ on the dining room table. A zephyr had infiltrated the house, like a genie in a bottle. I got up to secure the windows.
Two simple practices form the core of Cameron’s artistic “recovery” program. We commit to writing three hand-written pages about absolutely anything first thing each morning, and we schedule one Artist’s Date per week with our very own self. She calls the morning pages a “spiritual practice.” You get all the bitching and moaning out of the way, sort of like clearing the storm drains. Cameron says, “It is very difficult to complain about a situation morning after morning, month after month, without being moved to constructive action.” Then again, I don’t know; if my journals are an indicator, it’s actually pretty easy to complain about all kinds of situations decade after decade, perhaps even a whole lifetime, without ever being moved to any kind of action at all.
The day after the night storm, I started the Morning Pages. We aren’t supposed to reread our morning pages, and we are certainly not to share them around, but here’s a little tease from day one: “We’re all getting older. I don’t think we’re necessarily growing up. I think we’re still stuck in our childish, reactive ways.” This is followed by a three-page rant about one of the usual suspects.
Later that day, out walking on the beach, I witnessed a near-drowning—a teen girl in the surf calling “Help!” Three of us stood by, weighing the situation, in up to our ankles. An intrepid woman in a floral print one-piece was the first to take decisive action. With sudden urgency, she splashed out, plunged into the breaking waves, and made her way to the girl. The water wasn’t deep and soon they stood together, hand in hand, clear of danger. I continued on my way, adrenaline coursing.
I passed a fisherman who was reeling in across the sand something that looked like a toy-size collapsed tent flapping in the breeze. A quarter mile later I passed a second fisherman who stood with another of these strange, trapezoidal UFO’s belly up at his feet, its gills pumping air. I asked him what kind of fish. He said, “Not a fish, more nuisance than anything. A skate.” I pressed on, choking back a wave of unintegrated emotion, thinking again of that silly June tune: “With her little tail a-swishin’/Ev’ry lady fish is wishin’/That a male would come/And grab her by the gills!”
I’d scheduled my Artist’s Date for the next morning. We, I and my Inner Artist, who’s closely aligned with my Inner Child, according to Cameron, would be going to the bird sanctuary. Gordons Pond, Cape Henlopen State Park. The goal of the Artist’s Date is to feed us with new images, the staple diet of our imagination. Maybe I’d be rewarded with snow geese or other exotics of the avian kingdom.
At 7 a.m. I entered the park with serenely, anticipating joyful communion with the natural world. Feeding time, I wagered. Walking past marshland, I picked up a hungry cloud of deer flies. They began to feed through my light sweater and pants. I’ve long had a vexed relationship with deer flies which ruined so many summer day rambles through the woods and fields of my childhood. I made it as far as the first observation deck then turned and jog-walked back to my car, arms a-flailin’, in full retreat.
I drove to the bookstore. It opens early. Maybe it wasn’t too late to salvage this first date. I found myself once again in the aisle dedicated to those who are prone more to self-improvement than self-acceptance. “Spirituality” bled into mysticism—books on witchcraft, the Tarot, the chakras. I found a reference book, Animal Speak, The Spiritual and Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small. “… All animals speak to those who listen.” Preachin’ to the choir, I gave the book to my date.
In the bird sanctuary, I’d passed signage that helped me to identify a bird that had mysteriously kept pace with me for a mile or more on an earlier beach walk–a gull with a distinctive black hood. A Laughing Gull. He’d land maybe ten or fifteen feet afield, pick at the tideline, then take off again as I closed in, flirtatiously, it seemed. It was the only bird to be seen anywhere near the beach, which was also free of people at that hour. There could be little doubt that it was keeping me company—otherwise, wouldn’t it just fly off to another stretch of shore where it wouldn’t have to deal with me? What had it been trying to say?
The book advised that “The appearance of a gull usually indicates lessons or abilities in proper behavior, courtesy, and communication.” The Laughing Gull, I imagine, has something to say in particular about tone, reminding me to laugh, to wear it all a bit more lightly.
I began to wonder about that gasping skate, but there was no mention of fish in the new reference book. Perhaps there just wasn’t enough room to include fish, especially such marginal characters as skates. Nor was there any mention of deer flies, though they, too, seemed to carry some urgent message. The chapter “Insight Into the World of Insects,” held only the vaguest of clues: “Seldom does anything cause as strong emotional response in humans as a close encounter with insects.”
Later that day, I sat on the porch, surfing the web, following another lead or dead end–archaic nautical log books, wind force terms–baffling winds, doldrums, squally–words to describe the creative process. I was searching, searching for something, a through line in the explosion that is June. In mind’s eye, I kept seeing that woman in her floral one-piece–so large, so strong–splashing in, taking action while I stood there up to my ankles, watching, waiting.