I’ve been reading back issues of Tiny Lights and found this gem by Suzanne Byerley, published December 2000. Even though this was written twenty years ago, it’s a perfect piece to share with you in these days of restlessness, as we wade through difficult times to find inspiration and energy to write.—Marlene Cullen
“Steps” by Suzanne Byerley.
I find myself restless. I prowl about the house in my slippers making sure the cats are behaving themselves, sorely tempted to turn on CNN and see if Florida has picked the next president yet. Maybe I’ll lay out a game of solitaire or fumble through that little Bach prelude my daughter mastered when she was six. What is this wild drive to diversion? Why not just sit down and get at what makes me happy? Why not just get busy and write?
Because the steps to the desk are like slogging bootless through the deepest muds of winter. It is only after the first sentence has made its way through the synapses, the words clicking into place like pictures in a one-armed bandit, that I can begin again.
It’s always more daunting when life intervenes, as it has lately, when loss comes crashing in. I’m not sure how to climb up from long silence to sight and voice again. Was I ever a writer? I must once have known how to polish a paragraph. I have vague memories of once or twice finding just the right word. Maybe rereading the last poem or story somebody praised will bolster my confidence sufficiently, but today when I look, it seems obvious some alien being wrote those words, not me.
Still, this is the day I’ve promised myself was mine, so I stumble to the bookshelf to search out some shred of insight. “The eye must be alert; must see the influence of one thing on another and bring all things into relation,” says Robert Henri in The Art Spirit. As if my eye could ever do that. “The background as put in in the beginning may have been excellent, but the work that has gone on I front of it may demand its total reconstruction.”
That hits home, I feel like so much has gone on that I’m in need of total reconstruction. I think of the Henri paintings I saw last month at the tiny American Impressionist Museum in New Britain, Connecticut, when I sneaked a week away from teaching to visit my daughter, Tanya, and grandson, Andrew, and smell the leaves of a real autumn. I have always thought Henri’s book one of the best for artistic inspiration of any kind, and it was pure pleasure to look on his few paintings there in an old mansion with the October sun streaming through the window. How many times had he gone back to get a painting just right? Had he said to himself, “I like what’s in front but the background’s all wrong,” as I have often said of my own emerging story, “too much detail” or “not enough glue?”
I slip Henri back into his place on the shelf and pick up the framed snapshot of my mother, my father, my brother, and me. I am three, smiling on the knee of my father, my legs crossed. I wear the wine-colored beret my grandmother has crocheted with a row of white angora around the edge. I remember the softness of the angora, the scratchiness of the wine-colored wool. On my feet are sandals, almost hidden in shadow.
And I think of the sandals I took with me from my mother’s house last year when she died. I had left my shoes in a motel by accident. A bit reluctantly, I picked up Mom’s from the floor of the closet I was emptying and put them on. I wore the sandals far into last winter, soothed by the contours of my mother’s feet cushioning my own. In this snapshot, though, her hair is black and thick and she is smiling, I notice, the same smile I thought I caught on the face of my grandson last month. My grandson, just the age I was in this photo, sitting on my father’s knee, sandals on my feet.
I just told my students yesterday to contemplate shoes. Shoes of theirs or of someone they knew. A baby’s sneaker or a grandfather’s slipper. A shoe tossed a few feet from a body buried in an earthquake or twisted on a village road in Israel. An old man I know wears one shoe with a four-inch sole to try to even the discrepancy in the length of his legs. He walks with a great, rolling gait, his eyes full of secrets.
How much for granted we take our locomotion, our ability to stroll or skip or dance through life. Andrew and I danced last month for the first time, wildly, in the preschool parking lot strewn with oak leaves. When my father broke his hip a year before he died he could not longer walk, let alone dance, but back in the Roaring Twenties when he was still in his teens he had been a dance instructor, and he began my lessons early. His shoes were always shined. When I close my eyes I can see the gleam and flash as he laughed at my bouncing and taught me a new step. As I stand here, I can hear the sweet and rhythmic “shuf, shuf, shuf” they made gliding across the room. I am shaken by the sound. And I see beyond the past to the joy of Andrew, so thrilled with music, so filled with movement that he can’t stand still.
I put the snapshot back on the shelf, go into my closet and put on my mother’s sandals, marveling at the touch of them, warm as her hand. Then I come back to my study and turn to the desk, ready now to put my fingers to the keys. How do I begin again? With feeling. With love, or joy, or pain. Out of strong emotion the words begin to flow. Don’t interfere once they start. Don’t bring too much brain power to bear on them. Use that great rush which comes from sadness or surprise from memory, from what is real. That rush which clears our eyes just long enough to glimpse the connection between past and present, between longing and desire. All of us have experienced it. We writers lie in wait for it, not always patiently, not always willingly, never with the easy confidence that it will come again, always grateful when it does.
“There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual,” Henri reminds me. “Such are the moments of our greatest happiness. Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom. If one could but recall those visions by some sort of sign. It was in this hope that the arts were invented.” Yes, that’s why we write, to capture those moments. And it’s in that first rush of feeling that the capturing is done.
I’ll interfere with the word order later. I’ll clean up the background later. There is always plenty of time for rewrite, for perfecting. But not just now. Just now, I’ve conquered that aimless restlessness, taken those first trusting steps and begun again.
Originally published in Vol. 6 No. 2 of Tiny Lights, A Journal of Personal Essay, Susan Bono, Editor-in-Chief.
Suzanne Byerley (1937-2013)
M. Suzanne Hartman-Byerley, beloved writing teacher, accomplished writer and unflappable co-director of the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference, influenced most of the writers living on the North Coast today. Recipient of a Hopwood Award and a Fulbright scholarship, her short stories and poems were published in magazines such as Woman’s Day, Family Circle and the Kansas Quarterly.
After Suzanne and husband, Andrew, moved to the coast in l987 to run the Mendocino Gift Company, she taught writing at the Redwood Coast Senior Center and wrote for Coast and Valley and other publications. In 1996, she became co-director of the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference and an adjunct professor at College of the Redwoods. She founded the “Good Words” reading series and helped revive the Todd Point Review. When she and Andy moved back to Ohio in 2004, she continued to inspire writers at the Conneaut Community Center for the Arts and the Andover Public Library.