Gravel bar: my favorite hiatus phrase. So far. See photo, at left, of the view from our Fourth of July campsite in the heart of the Olympic National Park’s Hoh Rain Forest. Who knew that in the middle of one of the shadiest, mossiest, wettest places on the planet we would find a sun-drenched spot called Five Mile Island on one of the Hoh’s 50 or so miles of braided gravel bars?
We splashed our sweat off in the icy water and set up our tent. Then we sat in the sun and read, trading back and forth an unlikely pair of books: War by Candlelight, Daniel Alarcón’s luminous stories of Peru, and What Darwin Really Said by Benjamin Farrington.
Truth: the real reason these two books made the backpack cut was because they are slim. But they delivered.
Alarcón is a master of the first line that hooks you, helplessly:
“They’d been living in the apartment for ten days when David was first asked to disappear.”
“The day before a stray bomb buried him in the Peruvian jungle, Fernando sat with José Carlos and together they meditated on death.”
“Every year on Mayra’s birthday, since she turned one, I have asked Sonia to marry me.”
Then he reels you in, and sends you flying from the gravel bar to New York, to the Amazonian jungle, to Lima. Alarcón’s genius is to slip from sight, to leave us alone with his characters and without any overhanging awareness of his authorial presence—so that, at the end of the story, you the reader are as devastated, or uplifted, or both, as they are.
Meanwhile, there was Farrington, the late Irish professor and historian of science, eager to give those of us who never got around to reading The Origin of Species a brisk review of Darwin’s life and importance. Published in 1966 when Farrington was 72 years old, it’s the kind of book that makes you wish you could curl up with the author in front of a shilling-operated gas fire, light his pipe, pour him a cup of strong tea, and have him read it to you. But sitting on our gravel bar by a river milky with glacial runoff in the midst of an ancient forest? That wasn’t such a bad setting either, for lines like:
“The trouble began when Darwin, absorbed in elaborating his doctrine of natural selection, lost interest also in the wider culture which had once delighted him.”
This is from a chapter called “Darwin and the Poets,” in which Farrington argues that Darwin’s intellectual development suffered from his increasingly monomaniacal focus on his theories at the expense of everything else in his life.
Maybe what old Darwin needed was a hiatus. As prolific writer Anne Lamott might put it: I’m just saying.
However. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to some mixed feelings about this Restless Nest hiatus. After two years of weekly radio deadlines, I feel a little unmoored, much as I loved being able to bask on the gravel bar without worrying about what I would write next, and when I would write it. Just as I loved the trip I took to Boston in June for my college reunion: I didn’t “have” to write about it, I just got to do it. (OK, that trip did inspire me to write one little piece for Minerva Rising’s blog about a painting in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts that is like an old friend to me.)
Mostly, I like this feeling of being alert to everything around me—without an agenda, an angle, beyond scribbled descriptions in a notebook.
What I could be doing, of course, is writing ahead. But I’ve rarely done that with the Restless Nest. Maybe it’s that name: without thinking too hard about it, I’ve gotten into the habit of writing it restlessly; thinking on the page. I want it to reflect the week in which it’s written.
And that’s what I’ve missed on this hiatus: thinking on the page. I haven’t done enough of it. For me, it is the best way to think.
But I like that I miss it.
Except when I’m basking on a gravel bar, hanging out with some pretty great guys: Alarcón, Farrington, Darwin and of course my fellow basker Rustin Thompson, aka the Restless Critic and now also Crosscut’s Digital Prospector. We’ve been seeing a LOT of movies during this summer hiatus and unlike me, Rustin has been writing constantly—don’t miss his recommendations for the large and small screens!
Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.