Sometimes the writing gods are on duty, and extraordinary conversations overheard fall into my lap without any effort on my part. I’m not one who sees writing as an “open the vein” sort of exercise in frustration and pain anyway, probably because I have avoided editing, self-editing, or corrective opinion of any kind as I present myself in print. Those of you familiar with my work (?) know that I court the spontaneous, serendipitous, shapeless reflection; I woo the slightly goofy muse, and she obliges by the pound.
The which is to say that as I drove to town this morning, I stumbled on a story about a the prospective creation of an energy farm in a neighboring county in Oregon. Yes, yes, renewable energy, responsible stewardship of the planet, high-minded conservation all well and good, but … the proposed hydro-electric system would plant poles and wires smack in the middle of an Edenic chicken farm overlooking the Lost River. The owner of the farm, Jon Hobbs takes the well-being of his chickens seriously. As a treat in the deepest months of winter, Hobbs chucks bales of alfalfa next to the chicken houses for his 3000 plus chicks, understanding that even alfalfa gets old after a while. As reported on NPR, Hobbs admits, ““The chickens love alfalfa, but if it gets a little stemmy, then they’ll come over and say, ‘You gotta do better than this, Jon.’ They’re very spoiled.”
Hydro political cackling aside, Hobbs, concerned about the effect of incursions into chicken heaven, describes the life of the chicken in terms even I can understand. “For a chicken the perfect day is the day just like the day before.”
I get it, and it brings me to a sudden and unexpected realization: I’m with the chickens on this one. In my impetuous youth (until I turned 50), I hungered for endless variety, spontaneity, unexpected twists and turns, the twistier the better. Then, as it must to all men, the twists started to come home to roost, forgive me the cheap humor. I am not currently indicted, I do not have an attorney on retainer, no bracelet on my ankle. That’s a good thing. My kids know I’m a phone call away; my wife can plan her life several weeks in advance. We watch different shows on Monday than we do on Wednesday, and I might experiment with new ways of cooking zucchini (sautéed in olive oil with tomatoes and my carefully guarded blend of herbs and spices), but there’s something like a heady blend of gratitude and acceptance in our relatively consistent lives. Perfect? No. The usual responsible adult stuff (taxes, leaking roof, aging dog) comes along, but these are what are called quality problems. Lots of gratitude.
So, the day began with chicken wisdom, closely followed by a conversation with a friend about her experience growing up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a region so distinctly itself that it boasts one of the few remaining stop-you-in-the-middle-of-a-sentence accents. You’ll know a Yooper by his/her/their Yooper English or Yoopanese (look it up if you don’t believe me), and by the words only Yoopers know. “Ya, dat’s some good swampers, eh?” My friend was easy to place when she announced that she had lost her “chook” when she “went store”. Swampers, rubber boots with leather uppers; chooks knitted winter hats.
Not to digress, but words used for the generally knitted, usually woolen hat without brim pretty much indicates where you’re from, i.e. watch cap, ski cap, stocking cap, toboggan, wooly hat, snow hat, beanie, toque, poof ball hat, tossel cap, chook.
Ok, yup, I digress.
So, my friend’s dilemma (no chook) lead to stories about her father, a barber with a sense of style and humor. Once a year he would offer friends and family a free haircut, sculpt their hair with idiosyncratic care, sending them home with a topknot or bare head with side chops, this back in the 1950’s when uniformity of hair was pretty much demanded of males over the age of thirty. They came back in a day or two, shaved everything off, and started over in preparation for the next year’s barbering. Pretty nifty, I replied, only to learn that her dad was even more inventive than I could have possibly imagined.
Those of us who remember the days before credit will remember what a huge deal it was to arrive home with a new car. Same for this family, and to celebrate, the Yooper barber painted the house the color of the new car, and this back in the days when nobody drove a Vanilla Shake, Tahitian Pearl, or Glacial Glow, essentially white car. Ambulances were white. The milk delivery truck. Mail truck. We live in a grayscale car universe today, but in 1956, dad might have arrived home with a two-tone red and white car, or a wagon with wood panelling. Either would have made for a fairly distinctive home decor.
I sat astounded as the story spun out, silently cheering that barber, when it struck me that my days are often exactly like the day before, except for the stories waiting to be told. There are a bunch of lousy and painful stories out there, of course, and the distress with which many people live is not to be ignored, but there are sustaining and healing stories as well, and not just on mid-afternoon tv.
Traditional stories pull us in with an opening line – “A great while ago, when the world was full of wonders …”, “At a time when men and animals were all the same people and spoke the same language…”, “In a place neither near or far, in a time neither then or now…”. I spent a few years trying to develop some skill as a storyteller, didn’t get very far, but learned that if I felt the urgency of the opening lines, the story told itself. The key, as is evident in the lines presented above, is to give the story some space and some time.
My best attempt began in this fashion, “Once in the city of the Sultan, An-Nasir Salah ad-Din a wretched boy was born …” Pretty good opening and it allowed me all kinds of room to paint pictures, introduce characters, and finally get down to a star-crossed love story with an ironic twist at the end.
I haven’t thought about that story in a while, and it’s brought to mind some others I wouldn’t mind telling again, especially the ones about the selkies and the White Snake.
So, here I am, at the end of a day very much like yesterday, but now brimming with stories.