This month the citizens of our island are reading Steinbeck's Cannery Row, and those of us who write have been invited to write 2000 word stories about our island in the style of Steinbeck.
Always game for a challenge, I picked up the book and began reading, thinking it would be fun to do some emulating. But that turns out to be a much more difficult task than I had initially imagined.
What I remember about Cannery Row (which I read long before I self-identified as a writer) is that it's about poor folks living on the bad side of town. I had not registered -- or at least had not remembered -- Steinbeck's passion for detail.
Here are the first two sentences of the novel:
"Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses."
Talk about being present to your surroundings: who among us sees with that much precision, with that much attention to the senses and textures and structures that mark our immediate environments? The chances are that there's someplace in your town that has some of these characteristics: do you know where it is? Do you notice it? Or do you avoid it -- the way the people of Monterey must surely have avoided Cannery Row when it looked like that?
And what would it mean to draw attention to that aspect of your town, to the grimy underside that folks long to pretend does not exist? Or would it instead be possible to bring the same kind of attention to a less seedy part of town: would it have the same impact?
Faced with all those questions and challenges, it's probably not surprising that I decided -- instead of writing -- to play hooky and take advantage of the unseasonably gorgeous fall weather yesterday to go to Sequim, a sunny little town about an hour and a half from my island. I had a photo assignment there, so I drove over with my husband, took the pictures, and then went up to Hurricane Ridge in the Olympics for some fresh mountain air. It was a gorgeous day, and the view went on forever (as you can see).
But it wasn't a view with a lot of detail; it was actually incredibly restful and simple, pure as the air we were breathing; almost like finding a little pocket of spirituality and peace in the midst of a fairly chaotic lifestyle. So I share it with you here as an antidote to the Steinbeck passage, knowing that it, too is a poem. But there's a scent, not a stink, of mountain air and cedar trees; a noise of restless jays, a quality of light, a tone; once a habit and a nostalgia -- for my mountain-climbing husband -- and now a dream, because he doesn't do that any more. And there's none of the gathered-and-scattered-ness that marks Steinbeck's second sentence; at least, not that I could see.
At the end of our visit, my husband insisted on taking the dog out of the car, and then sat on a bench with the dog, looking out over the mountains, instead of taking him for a walk. "Why aren't you taking him out into the meadow," I asked. "He must surely need to pee."
And my husband replied, "He just peed a little bit ago; probably doesn't need to do it again. I just thought he shouldn't come all the way up here without having a chance to smell the mountains." And there they sat, the two of them, breathing. It was lovely, and very dear.