Low Country Ladies
For months, writing has been a challenge. I’d been hoping for a revival. It’s supposed to be easy now. The big obstacles have been removed. The things that were supposed to be what kept me from it are no longer around. But still. For months. I puttered. Wandered. Lay around. Just plain did everything else.
It got so difficult at times that I’d begun to wonder if I was given some degree of business acumen because it’s all I’ll ever do. If somehow, I’m meant to be unhappy. To be trapped like an indoor cat inside the gray walls of a cubicle; to know my art, and have it live forever just outside my reach. I’ve even wondered if maybe the whole writing thing is a self-indulgent delusion I’ve concocted to make myself feel special, when really I’m just like the rest of the world. Slogging away, mired in mediocrity, and this <wistful look into the bleak distance> is all there is.
I’ve sat at my desk, in my apartment, and stared at the wall, unable to push out a single creative thought. I’ve pressed my fingertips into my temples, and the pads of my thumbs into the corners of my eyes and squeezed, as if I could somehow extrude the ability to write through my ears or some other orifice. Once or twice I even got down on my goddamned knees, clasped my hands together, and did something that looks like praying, but was probably more like begging. I’ve wept there on my knees till I couldn’t even breathe saying over and over, “Please let me write. Please. Let me write.” And then I waited too passively for the magic to come in.
It wasn’t writer’s block. Or maybe it was, and I just don’t know what writer’s block is. It was more like … what. Person block. I had life block. Existence block. Writer’s block, to me, means something like getting to a point in a story and not having anything else to say. In writer’s block, there’s a significant connection maintained between writer and project, and they engage in a mutual torture. What I had was the utter, relentless inability to be in the same room with the thing.
All the carrying on I’m describing might seem crazy if you don’t have something to relate it to. The thing is, I know what I am. I’m a writer. People spend their whole lives trying to figure out what they are. Actor? Mother? Sales person? But I know exactly what I am. Despite basically zero notable publication, and one thoroughly insignificant first place win in a short erotica contest, I am a writer goddam it. If I never publish this book or any other. If, in six months, I just chuck it and go back to school to become a fucking veterinary assistant, I’ll still be a writer. My tragedy has not been in the finding, it’s been in the doing. Until I got to Ossabaw Island.
Each morning when I woke up in the clubhouse I looked out the window of my second storey bedroom. From there I saw the avenue of oaks; the never-paved dirt path that leads straight, then arcs into an almost primordial forest; the vast field bordered on one side by palmettos, and on the other by a split rail wood fence. The view I admired would have been the same exact view a person standing in my position would have seen fifty years ago . It would have been the same a hundred years ago as well. Two hundred years prior (cue the swell of the Gone With the Wind soundtrack), the field would have been abloom with indigo, but otherwise unchanged.
After rousing myself and warming my hands at the space heater, I’d get dressed and head downstairs. Say good morning to the others. Fill my thermos with already-made coffee. Then I’d take my leave, coffee in one hand, computer in the other, a piece of jellied toast in my mouth as I pulled the clubhouse door closed behind me and hollered goodbye. Then I had my walk across the cool sprawl, not quite lawn, not quite field, toward my writer’s cottage.
I walked past a crumbly building that was originally a smoke house, then a stable, then a garage, then an oyster house, and now just an empty building. It was a short walk, but served well to separate my workspace from my living space. At my cottage, one of the few habitable structures on the island, I’d stand on the porch and lean against the rail to have a smoke before I got started. When finished, I’d stamp it out on the bottom of my boot and store the butt in the plastic of the cigarette pack. Then I’d head up to my writing room.
When I arrived in my room, I’d raise the blinds to look out unobstructed. Flick on the heat. Stand around till the edge was taken out of the air, till I could feel the tip of my nose again. Then I’d take my coat off, and sit down to write. An amazing thing happened then.
There are a hundred ways to make sense of it. I was out of my home environment. There was no laundry to do, there were no dishes to wash, no checkbooks to locate under a pile of books or newspapers or bills. I came from concrete everywhere, and a view of the housing projects, to wood everywhere, and a view of a former plantation field, where wildlife was kind enough to wander into my view, act naturey in silly ways, and then go on their way. I was reminded how much sky there can be. It was reassuring to be outnumbered by trees and pigs and birds at least for a few days, where I was able to remember that we’re really the least of it where nature is concerned. Not to mention that the place is magic. It’s haunting and gloomy. Strange and beautiful. Its history is as varied as its inhabitants, and it’s had nearly four thousand continuous years of residents.
And then, of course, there were the ladies.
Twice a year Ossabaw Island hosts writers and artists. There were eleven of us there together. Mostly women, who after dinner plunked a pig skull and a fistful of marshgrass on the dining table, and everyone dug out their charcoal to sketch (while I painted my nails or baked a tart…
…or returned to my own work somewhere else). The women were of varying ages, and each day they lugged their easels and oil paints miles into the wilderness, and stood in the surprisingly biting Georgia winter to try to capture the particular glow of Low Country sunlight through the Oaks.
After a few days I began to think the removal of my writer’s block (or whatever) had as much to do with their loving company as it had to do with the island itself. Always nearby, always interested in how I was doing. Always curious about the progress I’d made that day, and what I might get into the next day. Available for endless conversations about our projects, eager to discuss their own. They carried a unique femininity, and an unimposing wisdom. They were a reminder that women of a certain age can be many things, in many ways.
Before I left each morning, Judy would call out things like, “Good writing!” in a sing-song Tennessee lilt. Judy spent hours at the dining table, working on a clay sculpture of a tabby slave cabin.
She has long gray hair, and wears it parted in the middle, and tied at the base of her neck. Her accent removes the silent W from the word writing, and adds an O in there somewhere. Judy is radiant. Easy to laughter. An eternal looker at the bright-side of things. Being in her presence quieted my petty little inner complaints about my moment to moment. Just being near her made me want to be better.
There was also Glo who “a long time ago” used to be Gloria.
From a few paces away, buckled into her all-weather gear, she looks like one tough broad. Till you look into her face, and you see all the softness there. Her eyes are blue like robin’s eggs, and she never uses them for anything as jaunty as glancing or glimpsing. She looks purposefully at everything. Her crazy-ass carnival eyes always seem bright and ready and certain. She’s quieter than Judy. For me, her manner carries great power, but only because she seems entirely disinterested in possessing any sort of power at all. Her manner, too, carries great serenity. There’s something wonderfully vulnerable about Glo. She’s exactly who she is, right on the surface. She doesn’t hide, how people do. It’s clear that she struggles, that she’s not had an easy time. I was drawn to her right away.
In the mornings, before I left, Glo might say, “You going over there?” referring to what I’d turned into my own private writing studio.
“Yep,” I’d answer.
And then Glo would give a single nod. Then return to what she was doing. As if there were a right answer and a wrong answer, and I’d given the correct one.
So, back to writing. I’d spend all morning doing so, and when it felt like time, I’d leave my things in the cottage. Stand to stretch my body. Crack my knuckles, bend over to let some life into my lower back. Have another cigarette somewhere. Go back to the clubhouse for lunch. Chat with the ladies. Read on the porch. Or explore some nearby part of the island.
Then, when I felt fresh again, I returned to my cottage. I’d go upstairs where my room was already warm. Sit down. Get going right away, like it was nothing. Pick up right where I left off. Read a few lines, and then type type type till I’d filled pages. I listened to the robot voice read back to me things I’d already written. Heard the flaws in it without feeling like it was hopeless. Just went through those old words and tidied them up. No big deal. As if it had always been that way.
As if I didn’t even know the feeling of wanting to scream at the top of my lungs from frustration, throw myself through a sheet of drywall, dive cartoon-like out a window, break all the pencils within reach, smash a few piggy banks, tear dishtowels to shreds, rip the shower curtain from its hooks just to see the rings spin and spin around the rod. As if I’d never lay face down on my couch back in Brooklyn, ashamed and dejected, watching something as stupid as an action movie while my book sat unfinished, upstairs, on my desk, taunting me like a mother fucker.
On Ossabaw, I wrote for hours and hours. Till sunset beckoned me to the South End, where dead trees lie uprooted and petrified in the middle of a beach.
Or to Middle Place, where the sun sets behind nautical miles of uninterrupted marsh, tidal creeks and sea.
I wrote till my stomach turned over with hunger. I wrote till I remembered the rest of the world existed, and then I’d go join it again. The work itself was still hard, as it should be, but the getting there was not.
It was the ghosts of four thousand years, urging me on. It was the silly Sicilian donkeys, who allowed themselves to be intimidated by armadillos in my line of sight. It was the energy of the history — slave cabins just 100 feet away, built with the thousands of years ago oyster shell dinner waste from a tribe of Native Americans so old there’s not even an English name for them.
It was the knowledge that Margret Atwood herself, among others, wrote novels in these very rooms. And of course, it was the ladies.
One night I skipped dinner to continue plowing through a chapter I’d for month’s marked: ‘come back to this’, ‘redo’, or ‘fuck me. this sucks’.
Hours later a friend stopped by with a flashlight. (The walk back is unimaginably dark. On a cloudy night you can’t even see your feet.) She said, “At dinner, when they realized you were missing, I told them you stayed to write, and they all carried on about how wonderful. And said ‘good for her!’ and ‘bless her heart!’ and cheered.”
She joked, “Imagine if there were always a bunch of Low Country ladies in a house nearby cheering you on.”
When she said it, she laughed. But my chest tightened a little and my throat clumped up.
She left a little while later, and I went back to work. Later, I turned off the heat, shut the lights, straightened up and left. I crossed the lawn-field alone. Clomped through inevitable piles of donkey crap very aware of some shuffling and squeaking in the brush to my left as I walked. (Feral hogs? Fighting armadillos?) I went into the house. Wiped my boots. Appeared in the living room.
“How was it, kiddo?!” Judy called out, brightly and crisply, as if she sat there waiting for me the whole time.
“Yeah, how was it?” Glo also asked, in her softer more tempered tone.
“Brilliant,” I sighed. Slumped into a wicker rocker, still wearing my coat. “I’ve had problems with this chapter for months. For months and months. Just kept making notes to come back later. And today, I said fuck it. Decided it’d have to happen eventually. It’s inevitable, right? So I jumped in. And I wrote the shit out of it.”
Glo smiled and looked up with her wide open face. “Isn’t that terrific.” It was not a question.
“How woooonderful,” Judy crooned.
They giggled at my foul language. Clapped and raised their hands in pleasure at my breakthrough.
I smiled and watched them celebrate for me. Like my personal accomplishment had brought them personal joy. I thought, I’d like this forever. The angels, just beyond the screen door, welcoming me home.