Taking a Firm Hold on the Moment
She wrote this for the Current to introduce herself.
“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.”
-William Shakespeare, from “Richard III”
Like Elvis Presley sang in the 1962 musical, Follow that Dream, I am not the marrying kind. That said, I will admit to a penchant for reading the wedding announcements in The New York Times. I am intrigued by the chronicles of coupling, even those who are only so compelling that I skim the lines—from the boring executive bluebloods to the lesbian and gay couples to the aged widows who found each other at yoga retreats in the desert. My favorite love stories however, the ones in which I savor each word, are the rare ones—the couples who met randomly on a beach or in a queue and felt an intense connection, or who were high school sweethearts who went on to have separate families, and then did not see each other again for a decade or many more. When they did meet again, it was as if their brief interludes all those years earlier were a mere foreshadowing, a hint at what the future might hold.
That’s how I feel about Ocracoke.
I first came here barely a few years after I lost my legs, and nearly my life, at the age of sixteen. The long jaunt down highway 12 was a whim, a marijuana-fueled bolt to the outer banks, and an escape from all that I had suffered. What I recall is hazy, a stay at Blackbeard’s lodge; I was so dolorous in my own skin that I could barely leave the room. Always an early riser, I would look outside the window and see the radiant human bodies, on bicycles, on feet that I no longer had, traversing the back road, meandering to places of introspection. I longed to be among you, and had no idea how to be that way. I spent whole days trying to muster up courage to wander in the world, getting stoned to numb my sensitivities. Some days, toward early evening, I would gather up enough courage to wander past the lighthouse to Pamlico sound, and I would find the water, the vast womb of it, and just as I would begin to feel the heartbeat, the courage that comes from facing the truth, I would retreat back to the four walls, and feast on what I had left of what I had packed: Progresso soup cans and saltines. When I ran out, I hadn’t the courage to find food. I nearly went hungry from fear.
I returned to Ocracoke that way, each time, like shell hash, a little more rounded, grounded in my temporal space in the ever-shifting sand, for several years. Each year my tenaciousness grew, more healing took place. My last year here, my daughter was nearly a year old. I have a photograph of her in a live oak tree on the lawn of the Ocracoke Coffee Company. Cecilia, my daughter, who is now a sophomore at the Ocracoke School, was a chubby babe, and I, an adoring mother, who still had an arduous road to hoe.
In the decade and a half since then, I have been most content to live in remote places—on the high cliffs of Donegal, Ireland, on an isolated peninsula in Greece, secluded in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia. In such forlorn geography, it is quite difficult to run from yourself. My forays from those homes began with a heart intent on self-destruction. They were filled with turning points and milestones and stories of Homeric proportion. There may be no better teacher than observation, and by listening to the narratives of people I met along the way—shepherds and soldiers and mothers from so many cultures—I eventually learned that suffering is as ubiquitous as it is unique.
Once, my travels took me to Bosnia-Herzegovina where I had the good fortune to commune with landmine survivors. One night in a hotel in Tuzla, I was ill with exhaustion, and watched a large gathering of people who had survived the genocide, break into spontaneous dance. The fiddler in the corner of the room, the cellist—their arm movements hastened as bliss filled the circle of dancers. It was as if they were determined—the musicians and the dancers alike—to stomp and kick and laugh the torrential memories from the room, to take a firm hold on the moment. The sorrow was still present. Even as the walls and ceiling filled with crescendo and joy, tears streamed down the dancer’s faces. And yet the immeasurable ecstasy of that dance seemed to hold more weight than the four years of siege that they had all survived. None of us is without a cross. I learned that pity and grief must fold in their time. I learned to love myself so that I could love others—so that I could dance.
I finished graduate school. I taught for several years. I had another child, a son, who is in Ms. Claudia’s second grade class. I came back to this island. And I could give you a list of reasons why—to finish my first full-length book for a very patient agent, to rest from a full teaching load, to break in new prosthetic legs—but the truth of why I came here is not yet known to me fully, a sentiment that I have heard again and again from many of the people who live here. Some mornings, as I ride my bike back from a swim at South Point, still bikini-clad, I think of how far I’ve come from that young woman who could barely venture from the walls of a room at Blackbeard’s Lodge. Maybe the island is a measuring stick of how far I’ve come, maybe it is a launching board, or maybe it is a safe haven. Radiant folk still inhabit the island, and for whatever reasons I may be here, I am grateful to be among them.
In Mary Oliver’s poem, “When Death Comes”, the following lines speak loudly to me: “When it’s over, I want to say: All my life I was a bride married to amazement. / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.” Again, I love the coupling. Silly though it may be, I think of this island, my brief interlude with it so many dark years ago, my reunion, as a coupling as close to the concept of matrimony as I may ever come. I can imagine how the article in the wedding announcement might read:
Neither was ready for one another when first they met. They raised separate families; they continued to learn how to love and weather storms. And when they reunited, so many years later, it all seemed to make sense—that initial awkward encounter was no longer covered in fog. A light that had always been there now beaconed clearly.
In Steinbeck’s, “The Winter of Our Discontent”, I have long admired the following line: “It's so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.” Love and place are always the stories of greatest loss. I am drawn toward the wedding announcements, toward the sacrosanct landscape of remote places, because they are just as much stories of hope and beauty as they are of survival. How much greater might my grief had been had I never known the tactile pleasure of warm sand under foot? How much weaker would my joy be had I not learned to revel in every moment with what/whom I love and may always lose?
Loss is the glossy, wan underbelly of the fish—love, the luminous scales, the delicate webbing of a dorsal fin, the iridescent striations. Love weighs more, but a fish must be whole to swim. Of course, what do I know? After all, I am not the marrying kind. I ain’t nothing but a hound dog who knows what it is to be grateful for a morning visit to the coffee shop porch where one can find cheap biscuits from delightful malcontents.
Kelley Shinn is a graduate of the Hollins University Creative Writing program, and has taught courses on creative writing and narratives in medicine for the last seven years at various universities in Virginia and Ohio. In 2006, she was the winner of the Melanie Hook-Rice Novel-in-Progress Award. Excerpts from her upcoming memoir, Devilstrip, which is a reflection on Kelley's experience of losing her legs at the age of sixteen and subsequently communing with landmine survivors a decade later in Bosnia-Herzegovina, were nominated last year for a Best American Essay and multiple Pushcart Prizes. She will be offering beginning and advanced writing workshops on the island throughout the winter months. Anyone interested, please email her directly at email@example.com.