Thursday, August 16, 2012

To be hungry

A rogue seagull sighting

Sometimes it's very hard to sit down and write an article. In fact, it never happens that way. Instead, when I have an idea it comes to me not in front of a computer screen or at a convenient hour in front of a desk, but while I'm out, moving, in the moment, or in between sleep and awake. During those times, I do all I can to stay disciplined enough to jot down the idea before it escapes me.

All too often, these single-phrase ideas are mostly useless. I go back and read them and wonder, "What could I possibly have been thinking with this one?" Or I laugh at myself and say, "I'm glad nobody else will ever see this." I think this is a common practice for most people though, so I don't let it get to me.

The truth is, to get into the good stuff, the things you really want to talk about and have a strong opinion about (what other people actually want to hear), you have to dig through all the crud on the top of your brain. To get into the meat of the issue, the concept you can cling to and make something of, you must be harsh. You must be willing to discard, tear down, and rip up conventions in order to find your own angle to a subject. Once you do that, tear down, rip up, and create an angle, you'll find yourself much more connected to the idea you want to discuss than ever before; you'll have adopted the topic -- be it politics, design, engines, computers, or forestry -- it’s now more than an issue to you, it's a passion.

Monday morning I pulled out a notebook and started writing about how the air changes as the seasons do. I scratched and pecked and crossed out and stumbled and hit a couple of nice passages I actually liked. I fought, forced, and finished it, then submitted it for proofing. Before long though I found myself on my hunches and scratching my head. Something wasn't quite right with it. I didn't like the way the whole thing came to a conclusion. Maybe it was too melancholy, or the end didn't quite jive with the central message - I'm still not sure.

I worked on a few other things to finish out the day, hoping the feeling of inadequacy would pass, but it didn't. I decided it was time to skip town. I had wanted to swim for well over a week, and I had reached the boiling point. I hopped in my car, drove out to the lake, ran to the shore and dove straight in. I paddled and kicked and ducked under, and I didn't stop until I reached the other shore 200 yards away. I let the demons out, fought the premonition in my gut. By the time I got across, I was tired and dizzy, and a single thunderhead in the sky had started sprinkling. However, the late afternoon sun was still shining, and boy did it feel great on my shoulders.

I looked around and noticed the lake was deserted. I was alone except for the water, the loons, and my breath. Then I spotted something. Up in the sky, circling where at other times I've seen an Osprey, was a white bird. It wasn't the Osprey, the flight pattern was wrong, and it wasn't a Common Loon, the markings and size were way off. The bird circled past the far side of the lake and disappeared. I stood and looked for it a bit longer, but having recovered by then, I jumped back into the lake for the journey back across, to kill the last of the gut demon.

Upon reaching the original shore, I was so tired that I grasped at the land as though I’d never leave it again. I laid down on a dock to drip dry and soak up some rays. As I lay there, a shadow passed over me; I sat up. There it was again, the bird I didn't recognize. Somewhere in the back of my head a voice kept screaming "Seagull," but that couldn't possibly be it, right? This bird was circling the lake for fish, alone, quietly... quietly! I stood up.

The bird came back around for another pass, this time much closer than any previous loop, and as I saw it from the side I noticed the hooked beak and the black-tipped wings.

"How about that," I spoke aloud to myself. "A seagull fishing a trout lake. A lone seagull, hunting for food - must be an outcast, must be a rogue seagull."

As I stood there, still drip-drying in the slowly sinking sunlight, smiling up at this brave (or foolish), winged rat, I thought about how many bald eagles I’ve seen chewing on carcasses in the ditch along roadsides. I watched the gull circle the lake, flapping, fighting the feeling in his gut he shouldn't be there. More than that, he didn’t have to be there. How much easier would it be to invade a populated beach and dumpster dive like his friends? He could be eating potato chips, or candy bars, or cheese stuck to leftover fast food wrappers in a parking lot somewhere.

Instead, he was circling a lake. The gull was hungry, and he needed to find food. He wasn’t sitting in a parking lot to caw, waddle, and beg for it, he was out in the wild (amazingly), searching for fish, dead or alive, but fish nonetheless.

That’s all it took for me. All at once, the ill feeling was gone; I knew that everything I had written earlier in the day would not be used. Immediately I knew what I would do. I would wake early on Tuesday and write about this seagull. I would scrap the stuff I didn’t feel right about. Because, like the gull, I had a choice. I had a choice -- an opportunity to change things I wasn’t happy with, to go in search of fresher food, and I would do it because I was hungry.

I was hungry for something better, something truer, something more pure, correct, straight, and immediate. I should have ran out to that lake and swam across it when I had wanted to a week ago, but I didn’t, and so I ended up writing with all that crud on the top of my brain still. The article on Monday wasn’t a passion; I did it because that’s what I do on Monday mornings. I’m just lucky the gull showed up on Monday afternoon to remind me anyone can do the right thing.

“Truth isn't always beauty, but the hunger for it is.”
- Nadine Gordimer
See you out there,
A woodsman in training.

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