Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 13, 2013

On the Cliff Walk

Peter and I just got back from spending a few days in Maine for our thirtieth anniversary. When we got to the waterfront inn, Peter wanted to close his eyes post-driving for a bit, while I left to smell the salt air and stretch. I walked on the beach in a soft rain, then headed up a path bordered by rugosa roses. A woman with long windblown gray hair and a face that looked as if it had been etched by perhaps eighty years of weather stood in the path with her eyes on some pink blossoms. I smiled, and she smiled, but she didn’t step aside. She turned back to the roses and said, “I’m looking at how sturdy the stem is and how the petals are so soft.” I nodded, then made a move to scoot around her, but she was sort of wide. We said something else about the roses and the weather, then she told me she’ll be teaching a drawing class at the senior center tomorrow and maybe they should draw these leaves. “Aren’t they interesting? But I’m not sure they have green pencils.”

The thought of no green pencils in an art class took my breath. That was when I met her eyes. We spoke a few more words before going our separate ways.

On the drive to Maine, I’d been describing a book I’d just read to Peter. A character had done a lot of different things, but at the end, I felt I didn’t know her much more than I had in the first chapter because she’d skimmed from action to action with little suggesting that much mattered.  I don’t need a Greek chorus wailing or an intruding Victorian narrator pointing out what’s praiseworthy or a shame, but I want a sense that the author is tilting something like a small mirror that catches the light from time to time, suggesting stories behind stories, catching shadows from the action, perhaps the shifts in a moral or emotional life. Every action of an attentive person has strands that can build tension, for how often do we act with conviction that we’re doing something perfectly right and wise? A character’s reflections can pull in readers who add their own responses to the braiding between events and a character’s sense of whether her choices are right or wrong, apt to lead to trouble or happiness.

Talking for a few minutes with this stranger, who may or may not have been a little crazy – I’m not sure if there is a senior center without green pencils where she teaches – didn’t give me a whole story, but it made me wonder: Why is she saying this to me? Is it true? Where is she going now? Does she have a home? Is there a shortage of pink pencils, too? She wasn’t trying to sell me something. She just wanted me to look at the roses and then to look at her. She reminded me of who I am and how I’m like her, a feeling I sometimes get from books.

I’ve been thinking about what and why I write, which is in a voice as quiet as this woman’s, and sometimes with a point as vague. Can we just look at the leaves, thorny stems, and falling, flimsy petals and ask someone to join us for a moment? Can I write as I listened for those minutes, without worrying about time passing or what anyone but two people think, listening as we do to someone we expect to lose soon, so  that listening seems a brief but taut holding on?



  1. My enounters with strangers are never as elegant or profound. How much you wrung from those few seconds! As writers, we spend so much of our time trying to reach “realized mind,” as Natalie Goldberg says. But how do we sort these comments that are “flang” in front of us (as most of the people I meet say)? Questions. Not many answers, but worth considering…

    • Candice, I think of you as having enchanting encounters, though maybe more with tracks and traces people have left behind. But some of the best conversations are with old plates and peeling wallpaper.

  2. Is it the last part of keeping someone, that listening? Like your reader above, I have questions too, wondering about your own walk and the why of it, as in why walk that way? I always believe that things happen for genuine purposes, though we may not understand why You could have smiled happily and moved on, yet you stayed, and came away with a little gift of that moment. I liked reading about this, Jeannine!

    • Thank you, Linda! When someone’s words or manners cling a bit, it’s interesting to ask why, even if we can’t ever entirely know.

  3. I am so grateful for this, Jeannine. I’ve printed it out and will keep it by me.

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