walking towards a definition of an essay
Dew becomes frost;
shrubs, busy with birds,
tremble and speak.
Essays are hard to pin down, like the experience I had with a stag beetle in entomology class. I went out each weekend with my bug net and collected insects, only to put them in a killing jar laced with poison. I identified each insect, wrote its scientific name on a small piece of paper, pinned the insect through the center of its body and the small piece of paper with the insect’s name floated below it, also stabbed on the pin. The insects were all mounted on a large slab of styrofoam. Insects in the same Order were grouped together. Looking at the pinned collection, nature seemed so logical and orderly, nothing at all like the buzzing swamps and thick forests where I had collected them. This is the role of a biological education: to sort the bewildering array of life into manageable and identifiable groups, and to give all of the groups names for the students to memorize. In a similar way, students of literature learn to group writing into fiction and nonfiction, poetry, plays and essays. One morning, though, I looked at my insect collection and a stag beetle was lumbering away from the other Coleopterans, making his way towards the Lepidopterans, the pin still through the center of its body. It refused to die, refused to stay with the other beetles. That stag beetle was an essay, unhappy with its grouping.
Traditionally, essays were arguments from a personal point of view. The five-paragraph essay is the most familiar and the form generally taught to students. The first paragraph introduces the thesis and the three supporting subtopics. The second through fourth paragraphs elaborate on the subtopics, and the fifth is the conclusion. Boring.
I want an essay to jump from paragraph to paragraph with faith in the unconscious thread that spins from the gut of the writer. I want an essay to read like a morning walk, or a bush full of flapping birds, hinting at a haiku. I want that stag-beetle-form-of-an-essay, one that is struggling to get as far away as possible from the other essays pinned, labeled and dead.
Amazing Slinky Fact Number One. Each Slinky is made from 80 feet of coiled steel.
Confucius said, “If an urn lacks the characteristics of an urn, how can we call it an urn?” I learned this in college, not in class, but while skipping class. (Senior year at Auburn University and my advisor advised me to take rural sociology, and I took it and the class was so dull I could feel my brain melting and dripping from my ears as time froze still like dew on a cold morning.)
The beauty of Confucius’ saying is in the second phrase—how can we call it an urn?—which implies there are urns that lack the characteristics of urns but are still called urns. Confucius was not talking about urns, of course. He was talking about everything except urns. You can insert any word in the place of urn, for example love. If love lacks the characteristics of love, how can we call it love? There’s brotherly love, there’s love of life, there’s true love, and then there’s battered women who still claim they love the men who beat them. You could insert marriage into Confucius’ saying and you could argue that there are married couples who lack the characteristics of marriage-hood but are technically married, and there are gay couples who cannot get married legally but possess all of the characteristics of being married. You could insert any word in place of urn (even the word essay) and then ponder what is the definition of that word. Maybe all definitions have fuzzy boundaries; there are many urns out there that aren’t truly urns.
It’s my morning walk with Elwha, my dog. Truman stops me. “That can’t be right. How cold do you think it is?” He wears a green sock hat, and I remember he once was a merchant marine.
“Cold,” I say, hands shoved into coat pockets.
“I have two thermometers; one says twenty and the other says…less than twenty.”
“Hey wait here, I gotta present for you.” He goes inside. Elwha sniffs a bush, pees on it.
Truman returns with a small clay bird.
“Is that right?”
“Yep.” He knows I work with owls in the summer as a seasonal wildlife biologist.
“I got two of those. That one and another with its wings stretched out.”
Shuffle. Silence. A distant kinglet calls, softly.
“Them Indians sure doing a job at the graveyard.”
“Yep.” For the last week the Elwha tribe has been expanding the small graveyard, cutting trees, clearing the salal.
“I went down there and told them I did a painting they might like. Thought I’d trade them for some fish like I do with the Quilayutes. I brought one of them inside to show it to him and,” shrugs, “ahh… Then I said I’d sell it to him for a hundred—hell the frame’s worth two hundred—but…” more shrugs.
A winter wren chips in a snowberry bush.
“Come on in, I’ll show you it.”
Inside. Warm. Nancy, his wife, sits in the half-dark.
“It’s hard to see it well in this darkness.” But he won’t turn on a light.
The painting is of a tribal canoe full of fisherman on top of a large wave, an eagle above. The frame is heavy, old.
“Got the frame from a painter-friend who just died. He was only fifty. Took too many pain pills. He was a recovering alcoholic, like me. We have to be careful…”
“It’s a nice frame.”
Truman shows me a painting he’s working on: a man in a boat. You can see beneath the water and there’s a fish swimming just below. The man in the boat doesn’t have a fishing pole, doesn’t know the fish is there, and he appears to be neither happy nor sad. The trees enclose the lake border. You cannot see into the forest: the trees are like walls. In the corner of my eye I see Nancy smiling, though her gaze is floating somewhere between the floor and Truman, and I wonder what kind of love still exists between them. A different kind of urn than me and my wife?
Outside, it seems colder than twenty. Truman crumbles stale white bread for the birds. “Nancy used to work at the hospital, but after they removed that tumor from her brain, she’s not all there.”
I nod, though I’ve heard the story several times, almost every time I see Truman.
“You ever see a weasel?”
“I think it was a weasel that got one of my birds. Feathers scattered all over. Them weasels are small.”
“Yep. Smaller than a squirrel, but feisty.”
“Yeah.” He laughs. “Feisty.”
“Where are we going, Kevin?”
“To hell if we don’t change our ways.”
Kevin was a budding alcoholic by the age of thirteen, like most of us were back then. We’d get beer and take off into the night, drinking. Kevin was usually driving. It was Florida, hot and muggy. We’d park by the causeway, shut off the car lights and drink. We were in high school. Star Wars (the originals, not the prequels), mullets and Rubic’s Cubes were hip.
Kevin could do the Rubic’s Cube, and he could do it quickly. A lot of the younger kids could also solve it, while I could never figure it out. I grew up with Slinkies and gyroscopes. I couldn’t seem to wrap my mind around that puzzle.
Kevin met his soon-to-be-wife in high school. “I’m gonna get my man off the bottle,” she claimed. The last I heard of them it was rumored she said they both got drunk and vomited at the same time. She reportedly said this with the gleam of love in her dark eyes.
Amazing Slinky Fact Number Two. In space, under the effects of zero gravity, a Slinky does not behave like a spring or a toy but as a continuously propagating wave.
We walk. That’s our job for half the year. We blame it on our dog. He’s old. Won’t walk on his own. But we love this dog and the walking makes him happy. Most of the time we simply walk him down our road. Place Road. A quiet, dead-end street. We either walk towards the Elwha River, passing the old tribal graveyard and then Truman’s house, or the other way where it ends at Chris’ house.
Kim gravitates towards the morning walks, and I towards the evenings, though this morning was cold, and for no good reason, I was up early, so I took the early walk. We walk him four to seven times a day, and each time, the old dog acts like it’s the first time he’s ever walked here, as if nothing in his life ever becomes dulled into a cliché.
I envy the dog.
Elwha once meant elk to the natives that named this river, now it simply means Elwha.
In a steamy jungle of Vietnam, a man clad in cammo reaches into his pocket, produces a gleaming coil of metal, smiles. He tosses the slinky into the air and it opens in flight, extending like a hollow steel arm, draping over a high limb in the canopy. Yes, communications soldiers in Vietnam used Slinkies as makeshift radio antennas.
I climb up into the attic, sit on the carpeted floor, open my MacIntosh Powerbook I bought used for thirty dollars from a Port Townsend woman in a wild print dress. Actually, Kim paid her for it. Kim met her halfway between Port Angeles and Port Townsend at Sunny Farms last summer to buy it—I was twelve miles up the Elwha (the river, not the dog or the tribe), hooting for spotted owls at the time. I’m a wildlife biologist. I’m paid to do these things, like hooting for owls or catching frogs.
The computer is old. It buzzes like the swarm of mosquitoes in the high-country of the Olympic Mountains in July, which makes me think of long-toed salamanders—their smiling larvae floating in small blue-eyed pools, the adults with a startling yellow stripe down the back. Ambystoma macrodactylum. No, their toes aren’t that long.
1943. Richard James, a nautical engineer, was experimenting with springs in an attempt to develop ways to keep shipboard instruments steady at sea, when one of the springs stepped down from a shelf. It didn’t fall, but kind of walked down. I can imagine Richard’s cocked eyebrow as the motors churned in his skull. Later, Richard reportedly remarked to his wife, Betty, “I think I can make a toy out of this.”
I have manuscripts I send out. I bundle them inside envelopes and toss them into the gaping dark mouth of a blue mailbox that sits outside of Goodwill like a steel Buddha: plump, content, mysterious. These envelopes cross the states and beach themselves onto editors’ desks. And they reject them. I get the self-addressed envelopes rebounding back weeks or months later. Sometimes, there’s no answer at all, as if I’m shouting into a dark well that swallows my voice. (I sometimes speak my name into that dark slit of the blue mailbox that always appears empty just to hear my echo.) At any one time, I have essays, poems, short stories, a novel, a nonfiction collection, all stretching away from me like Slinkies.
Then, it’s time to walk the dog again.
Richard—the scientist that he was—did not jump into the toy business, instead, he spent two years determining the ideal steel gauge and coil to use. He settled on a blue-black Swedish steel, and Betty, perusing the dictionary, came across the word slinky, a Swedish word meaning traespiral—sleek, sinuous.
She saw it in her backyard. Later, I got the call.
“Do you know what I saw?”
“No.” It was Marjorie. She was enthusiastic.
“A Baltimore Oriole! In my backyard! In the apple tree!”
I imagined her smile at this. I’m a biologist. She’s a poet. We were in a writers group for several years. She grew up in the Depression, but her mind is still sharp as the edge of a page.
“That’s a good sighting.”
“I know it is. I called Bob at the Audubon society. I described the bird to him. He said it was a rare sighting!”
“Have you ever seen a Baltimore Oriole?”
In her poems, she always gave short flashes of the information she gathered while researching her idea. She liked to catch me on some obscure fact of nature that I did not know.
“Yes, but not out here. Only in the east.”
“It was the most beautiful bird I ever have seen.”
Again, I imagine that smile of hers. Then, I imagined the poem she will write about this bird, this spark of color suddenly appearing in her apple tree in downtown Sequim.
Richard and Betty James founded their Slinky Company with $500 dollars. To date, over a quarter of a billion Slinkies have been sold.
My first Slinky experience was in 1972. I carried it to the top of a set of stairs. There was a moment of hesitation—maybe even a lack of faith—that this would really work. It’s the same feeling when I sit down with the germ of an idea, pondering whether I should put it into words, whether the idea will flow. A similar feeling lurks somewhere in the back of the minds of a couple getting married, taking that first step off the edge.
With a gentle push, the steel became organic, walking step by step. Indeed, the mere shape of a slinky suggests a DNA’s coil. Eventually, after playing with the toy for several weeks, a kink developed somewhere in the eighty feet of steel and the maimed slinky could no longer walk. In the same way, essays can develop a kink along their coils of thoughts, become wounded, hobble, and eventually, refuse to take another step. So can love, so can marriage.
1960. Richard James suffers a mid-life crisis, leaves Betty and their six children. He abandons the Slinky Empire and joins a religious cult in Bolivia. Previously, the company was struggling because of Richard’s liberal donations to support this religious sect.
Betty rescued the company from its debts. She created the famous slinky jingle—It’s fun for a girl and a boy. She quit using the Swedish steel, replacing it with silver-colored (and cheaper) American metal. Betty also created Slinky Jr., Plastic Slinky, Slinky Dog, Crazy Eyes (glasses with Slinky eyeballs) and Neon Slinky.
1974: Richard James dies in Bolivia.
2001: Betty James is inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame.
Last week, the first heavy snowfall hit the mountains. From downtown Port Angeles, it looked like winter up there: blue mountains making me think of blue Swedish steel. And those long-toed salamanders—when the snow falls and blankets them—simply stop moving, freeze solid as ice cubes, wait. And I climb up into the attic, sit beneath a single light bulb and a buzzing computer screen, and type my way through winter.
Maybe cult is not the best word. Maybe they were simply an exceptionally enthusiastic bunch of Episcopalians. Details about the Richard James’ religious group are scanty. In any case, it was an evangelical Christian sect that Richard joined; it was Betty who called it a cult, and almost all references now claim the great Slinky inventor joined a cult. (If a cult lacks the characteristics of a cult, how can we call it a cult?)
Richard convinced Betty to attend a religious meeting once, where people testified their sins. She found the experience “mortifying.” And what sins could the Slinky inventor have had? Turns out he was a philanderer. Betty knew this but stayed with him for the sake of the children.
It is unknown what Richard did in Bolivia, and Betty has said little about this. It sounded like missionary work, for he was busy printing religious pamphlets to give to Bolivians to convert them to Christianity. Betty received letters from Richard urging her to repent and asking her to join him in Bolivia.
She didn’t. She stayed in Philadelphia, stayed with the Slinky, and those eighty-foot coils of steel.
I’m walking home from Truman’s. It’s a cold morning, probably less than twenty degrees. A poem was congealing in my head—
Dew becomes frost;
shrubs, busy with birds,
tremble and speak.
—a haiku forming like frost (though the syllable count is not correct for some people’s definition of what constitutes a haiku, and therefore may be another of Confucius’ urns)—before Truman pulled me in and out of his home.
I’m thinking of the frozen long-toed salamanders in the mountains, and how, come spring, when the snow melts, those salamanders simply thaw out with no ill-effects and start walking again, like a slinky pushed off the top step.
I’m thinking of the story of Slinkies that I discovered serendipitously, while surfing the web for something entirely different. I cannot recall what I was originally searching for, but now, Slinkies are resonating in my thoughts like a continuously propagating wave.
I’m thinking of a childhood friend named Kevin who once explained how to master the Rubic’s Cube. “Don’t concentrate on one side at a time. Consider all eight sides, simultaneously.”
I’m thinking of Marjorie glancing out her Sequim window, witnessing a splash of color in her apple tree, that Baltimore Oriole appearing from nowhere like a dove unfolding from a magician’s bundle of silk scarves.
I’m thinking of Truman’s painting: the man in the boat, unaware of the fish floating below. I first imagined this was a self-portrait, but maybe it’s a portrait of us all.
I’m thinking of Truman’s wife, Nancy, staring towards the floor as if Truman and I were in that boat, and she could see what was below us in the dark water.
I’m thinking that all of this is somehow linked but worried that it all might kink up—like my childhood Slinky once did—and refuse to walk.
I’m thinking that the words love and essay are fuzzy-edged concepts at best and maybe all words become clichés as they are used over and over. But sometimes—like that beetle I pinned down for entomology class that came back to life and lumbered away from its group of Coleopterans, the pin through its chest making it nearly impossible to walk, but it was doing its best to get away, find a new space—yes, sometimes a word won’t stay put, neatly labeled with its nearest relatives, but strikes off in a new direction and ends up in a new place that somehow makes sense. Like an essay that refuses to read like an essay.
Yes, essays should be more like Slinkies and half dead beetles with pins through their chests, and maybe love should be, too.
Life itself can become as familiar as the apple tree you’ve seen from your window your entire life—so familiar that you can fail to even notice it anymore. But if you keep paying attention something brilliant may alight in its branches, a bird with hollow bones and painted feathers that ruffle the very fabric of your thoughts—like steel becoming alive or a game of Rubic’s Cube when suddenly several colors line up in a row—and your mind shifts in a simple but extreme way. That’s what an essay should do. That’s what love should do. A subtle but dramatic shift in perspective, like dew becoming frost and bushes trembling and speaking on a cold morning when you’re simply walking the dog down the road and back.