The following is an condensed (just slightly, by me) excerpt of one of my favorite stories by Annie Dillard. It's in chapter six of The Writing Life. I have felt close to this story as an artist, particularly, and, overall, as a human, becoming awake, to whatever extent I am blessedly able to do so.
Paul Glenn was a painter, a strong-armed, soft-faced, big blond man in his fifties; every summer he lived down on the beach. He was a friend of the family. One summer morning I visited him, and asked about his painting. We sat at his kitchen table.
His recent easel painting, and his study of abstract expressionist Mark Tobey’s canvases, and his new interest in certain Asian subjects, his understanding of texture in two dimensions, and…….. had gotten him experimenting with dipping paper into vats of water on which pools of colored oil floated. He had such papers drying on the kitchen counters. Some of them looked like a book’s marbled endpapers, or fine wallpaper - merely decorative. Some others were complex and subtle surfaces, suggestive and powerful. Paul Glenn was learning which techniques of dripping the colors on the water, and which techniques of drawing the paper up through the colors, yielded the interesting results. He had been working at it for six months. How he was going to use the papers was another matter, and the crucial one; he could cut them into collage material, he could fold them into sculpture, he could paint over them and into them. He was following the work wherever it led.
The next summer, we returned to the island. Paul Glenn had spent the winter there. I visit him in his house on the beach in late June. He was tan of face already, and perfectly sane - witty and forceful, if a bit soft of voice.
I asked Paul how his work was going.
“You couldn’t have known Ferrar Burn,” he said.
We were sitting at the round table by the kitchen window…..”He died twenty years ago. He was a joyful man, and a calm and determined one. He brought his family out here…..out here to this island, where there’s nothing but what you can find on the beach or grow.
Evidently Paul did not want to talk about how his work was going. Fair enough.
“Ferrar was striking…..He and June build that cedar shack up at Fishery Point. It was her study. Their house was near the woods-nice timbers.”
Paul knew that I knew all this……I was fresh from the mainland, a little too bright and quick. He laughed openly at what he could easily see was my impatience; we had been tolerant friends for a few year.
“One evening,” he went on, “Ferrar saw a log floating out in the channel. It looked yellow, like Alaska cedar; he hoped it was Alaska cedar. He rowed out to get it.”
Everyone on the island scavenged the valuable logs, for building. If the logs did not wash up on the beach, it took a motorboat to get them in; they were heavy in the water.
“It was high tide, slack. Ferrar saw the log, launched his little skiff at Fishery Point, and rowed out in the channel. Sure enough, it was that beautiful Alaska cedar, that pale yellow wood-just a short log, about eight feet, or never would have tried to get it without a motor. I guess he thought he could row it in while the tide was still slack.”
“He tied onto the log”-such logs often have a big iron staple hammered into one end- “and started towing back home with it. He had about twenty feet of line on it. He started rowing home, and the tide caught him.”
From Paul’s window, I could look north up the beach and see Fishery Point……
“The tide started going out, and it caught that log and dragged it south. Ferrar kept rowing back north toward his house. The tide pulled him south down the strait here” Paul indicated the long sweep of water in front of his house- “from one end to the other. Ferrar kept rowing toward Fishery Point. He might as well have tied onto a whale. He was rowing to the north and moving fast to the south. He traveled stern first. He wanted to be going home, so toward home he kept pulling. When the sun set, at about nine o’clock, he’d swept south the length of this beach, rowing north all the way. When the moon rose a few hours later-he told us - he saw he’d swept south past the island altogether and out into the channel between here and Stuart Island. He had been rowing through those dark hours. He continued to row away from Stuart Island and continued to see it get closer.
“Then he felt the tide go slack, and the he felt it coming in again. The current had reversed.
“Ferrar kept rowing in the half moonlight. The tide poured in from the south. He kept rowing north for home-only now the log was with him. He and his log were both floating on the current, and the current was bearing them up and carrying them like platters. It started getting light at about three o’clock, and he rowed back past this island’s southern tip. The sun came up, and he rowed all the length of this beach. The tide brought him back on home. He wife, June, saw him coming; she’d been curious about him all night.”
Paul had a wide, loose, smile. He shifted in his chair. He raised his coffee cup, as if to say, Cheers.
“He pulled up on his own beach. They got the log rolled beyond the tideline. I saw him a few days later. Everybody knew he’d been carried out almost to Stuart Island, trying to bring in a log. Everybody knew he just kept rowing in the same direction. I asked him about it. He said he had a little backache. I didn’t see the palms of his hands.”
Paul looked into his empty cup, pleased, and then looked through the windows, still smiling. I started to carry my coffee cup to the sink, but he motioned me down. He wasn’t finished.
“So, that’s how my work is going,” he said.
“You asked me how my work is going,” he said. “That’s how it’s going. The current’s got me. Feels like I’m about in the middle of the channel now. I just keep at it. I just keep hoping the tide will turn and bring me in.”
Some of my thoughts: In reference to the matter of flow, of surrender, the subject of a recent conversation, this story could bring forth the question, also a subject in that dialogue, literally, of swimming upstream. As was mentioned in relation to salmon, sometimes swimming upstream is simply how we get to our destination and we keep paddling, working hard, persevering toward a particular place. This story is ultimately a tale of flow (as a letting go, an acceptance of what is occurring and persistence. Ferrar is rowing against the tide, in an adventure, that unlike a salmon's journey, is exceptional, rather than rule. And the surrender is pressed right up against perseverance. Rather than letting himself be carried out to sea, he takes action, rowing north all night, as he is strongly carried south. Is this a paradox? Rather, it is a juxtaposition, like so much in life; we are often letting go and persisting in the same scenario.
As an artist, I have experienced this many times. Currently, as a coach and artist, growing my practices, my I am taking many tangible steps; I am also accepting the flow, enjoying and being nourished by this journey, trusting the timing of my various shifts and expanding perceptions, enjoying my development.
Whether Ferrar was afraid, relaxed mentally, or strategic, calm and simply pragmatic,, holding his vision of getting back home (or a combination of these) is a mystery. I am finding all of these characteristics present as I live and grow.