Category Archives: Observations

Fragments of timelessness

In a land of limitless horizons, there are moments when the arrow of time seems to vanish.  A crystal point of distant horizon appears, and the clouds and wind are moving yet going nowhere.  These fragments of timelessness occur most readily in high summer, in the lateness of afternoon, or the onset of evening, when the long hours of daylight passing into twilight are still ahead and the deeds of the day are behind.  An intangible shard of temporary eternity floats out of the sky and settles all around, comforting in its insulation.  It is neither before nor after, but only “now,” a single thread of the fabric of the present.  Its essence is both so small as to be immeasurable, and so vast as to be incomprehensible.  One can feel it, wrap oneself within it, breathe it in, and partake of its singularity, but it cannot be held or prolonged.  There is no influence upon it save its own, and it will vanish as readily as it comes, replaced by the forward motion of time’s arrow.  And then one longs to meet it again.  Teton County, Wyoming.

Birthday wishes: August 1, 1939

The late Robert James Waller would have been 78 today.  He was born on August 1, 1939, in Charles City, Iowa.  In my post below on the day of his passing (March 10, 2017), I commented on him and his contributions to the world; we would be poorer without the literary, musical, and academic gifts he shared.  If the novel “The Bridges of Madison County” were all that he gave us, it would have been more than enough.

In March, Robert, you set forth on the ultimate journey.  If you could, I know you would write an essay to describe the wonders now surrounding you, and you’d share it with us, perhaps in the pages of the Des Moines Register newspaper.  I’d be pleased to see just one more byline with your name on it.  But we must be content with the words and music you left us.  And we are.

Perhaps I will see a peregrine today, or I can let my face be caressed by the warm southern winds as I hear a distant train.  There will be a waltz running through my mind.

You were my friend, and my hero.  Happy Birthday, Robert.  I would have sent a card, but I don’t know the address.

Three languages, one dictionary

On this day in 1799, a black granodiorite rock slab bearing inscriptions in three languages was found near the town of Rosetta, Egypt, 35 miles east of Alexandria.  It was soon determined that the inscriptions were more or less identical, but written in Egyptian hieroglyphics, Egyptian demotic, and ancient Greek. 

Although the stone was broken, and parts of each text missing, there was enough of each inscription to allow scholars, for the first time, to cross-translate the heretofore undeciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics.  Credit for this work has been given to French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion, although other scholars were involved in the effort. 

The Rosetta Stone, as it came to be called, was in effect, a dictionary, and it could be argued that no other discovery was more significant to the study of Egyptology.  When King Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter, the find was widely publicized because of its magnificence and nearly complete array of contents.  But from a scholarly perspective, the Rosetta Stone discovery and subsequent translations was a watershed event.

There are other undeciphered ancient languages awaiting their own Rosetta Stone.  The Indus script of ancient India, and the Rongorongo symbols of Easter Island are probably the two most well-known.  Despite much effort by scholars, these two languages remain largely unreadable.  Are there “Rosetta Stones” waiting to be uncovered which will allow us to read these ancient words? 

The thought that such an object is “out there” somewhere is tantalizing to those who are interested in these subjects.  As well, romantic notions of exploration and discoveries like these are what led to my own lifelong passion for archaeology.  The sublime thrill of discovery, of being the first person to see an artifact, a tomb, a city, in thousands of years drives many a historical researcher in their quests.

What is out there, yet to be found?  We cannot say.  My personal wish list includes The Ark of the Covenant, The Hall of Records, The Holy Grail, and Atlantis, among others.  Fanciful yearnings possibly, but the inspiration and excitement generated by the stories of search and discovery of treasures like these remains as strong inside of me now as it did when I was a boy.  And that is what matters.         

(Rosetta Stone photo in the British Museum by Hans Hillewaert)

Getting down with downloads

In my recent interview with author/artist Uvi Poznansky (see below), we talked about my writing habits.  I mentioned how, when writing fiction, I receive what I call “downloads” from the universe.  These moments of inspiration often arrive whole, and I’m given an entire scene in my mind, complete with plot, setting and dialogue, all at once as I’m working at the keyboard.  I received several of them as I wrote my latest novel, The 26th Game.

The compelling facet of these downloads, other than their arriving in totality, is that they are most often scenes of which I had no prior thoughts.  Not even an inkling.  As I work my way through a piece of fiction, many of the scenes have been planned ahead of time.  I’ve made notes on setting, scribbled snippets of dialogue, developed plot points, usually in longhand in a small notebook or on a legal pad.  But as I stir these into a readable stew, invariably, ideas that had never crossed my mind appear in the work.  This occurs in real time, as if I am merely recording them from wherever they’d already been written, out there in the ether.  I have composed numerous sentences, paragraphs and scenes, word for word, out of thin air, without ever having previously contemplated the particular idea.

How is this possible?  Some metaphysicians have said that all books are already written, and the author becomes connected to the place where these works are “stored,” at some kind of “celestial archive.”  The author merely transcribes the text, acting as a conduit from the archive to the paper or Word document.  Since I know this process happens, having experienced it countless times, for me this explanation is as good as any.  Because I truly don’t know how it works.  I only know that it is real.

The late Robert James Waller told me he wrote The Bridges of Madison County in ten days.  He was quoted as saying, “The universe just gave it to me.”  While Bob might have used different words to explain the source of his fiction, I am certain he was describing the same download process as I have.  No doubt, many other authors can attest to having experienced this spontaneous creativity.  It is part of the beautiful mystery of creation, and every author owes a debt of gratitude to the Muse, Celestial Archive, Source, Universe, or whatever name he or she chooses to call it.

This singular moment

As this August sunset unfolded over Winnebago County, Iowa, I was the only person for miles in any direction, and the only person recording this scene with a camera at this place.  There is no other record of this event.  An eternity of sunsets will follow, but this image is the singular record of this one day’s sunset moment at this one place in the heartland.  Is that important?  Would it matter if this one scene had passed unnoticed and unrecorded?  After all, it is always sunset somewhere on the planet, and sunset is nothing more than a happenstance of light source, clouds, and the viewer’s position.  There will be another one tomorrow.  Five minutes after this photograph was made, the sun was gone from this August day.  The long twilight faded and darkness came . . . but the sunset remains.  It is an image of a moment never to be repeated, a threshold at the end of this day which can not be had again.

Our “Mote of Dust”

This is a photo of Earth, as viewed through the rings of Saturn. The image was made by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, peering over its shoulder toward a home it will never see again. Astronomer Carl Sagan said it best in his 1994 essay “Pale Blue Dot,” which is condensed here: “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” (NASA photograph)

When the world was young

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was a time when many of America’s children gained their education in one-room schoolhouses.  As much a fixture of rural life as the horse and plow, the schoolhouses vanished as the number of farms dwindled, as people migrated to cities and towns, as the agrarian dominance of the country’s workforce passed away.  Most have been torn down, but here and there an isolated and empty schoolhouse remains.  If you listen closely when it is quiet and the wind is just right, you can hear the voices and laughter of children, carefree and young and full of delight at knowing the world was limitless and it belonged to them.  Ogle County, Illinois (left) and Stephenson County, Illinois (right).

Sic Transit Gloria

Many years ago one could travel nearly anywhere by train.  The journeys could be long, sometimes involving connections with other trains and different railroads, but the process was reliable.  That era has passed, as impatient travelers of today think only of destination and little of journey.  Railroad stations, the portals at the beginning and end of the train-travel journey, have slowly disappeared from small towns and big cities alike.  Now empty, the stations wait along abandoned tracks for trains that will never arrive. Weeds grow where passengers once stood. The travelers have gone elsewhere and the portals have closed.  Lee County, Illinois.

 

From Music to Words

As a writer of fiction, I am inspired by numerous things.  One of my foremost sources is music, and specifically, movie soundtracks.  Countless times I have donned headphones and immersed myself in movie music from my extensive collection of soundtracks.  YouTube works too.  The scores never fail to create pictures in my mind: settings for stories, images of scenes, even dialogue between characters, whether for short stories or novels.  This makes sense, as movie scores are written to accompany moving visual images.  And of course, the scores do more.  They instill nuance and emotion, mood and depth, energy and passion, to the movies/stories they support.  A movie without music becomes little more than a slide show.

Among the titles in my collection of soundtracks are numerous scores to movies I’ve never seen.  This might seem strange, but if a soundtrack comes from one of my favorite composers of movie music, then there is a high likelihood that it will appeal to me (inspire me) even without having seen the flick.  As well, since I use the scores as inspiration for writing fiction, my subconscious forces of creativity are free to assign any images to a piece of music as I listen, images which can be, and are often, unrelated to those which the score was originally written.  Such is the beauty and versatility of movie music.

I have a long list of movie music maestros that I enjoy, but my favorites are John Barry (Out of Africa, Dances With Wolves), Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek, The Blue Max), Hans Zimmer (The DaVinci Code, Inception), James Horner (Field of Dreams, Titanic), and John Williams (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars).  Each of these composers has a long list of film credits on their resume, more than I could include within a reasonably short blog post.  As well, there are other likes: Ennio Morricone, Tangerine Dream, Elmer Bernstein, Alan Silvestri, Basil Poledouris . . . well, this list could go on for some time.  I like to acquire albums of collected movie theme songs too, as these tracks will have a distilled and powerful emotional impact providing a great musical listening experience as well as inspiration for fiction. 

I began my collection of soundtracks with vinyl LPs (making a comeback these days), and it has grown through cassettes, and into CDs.  It’s an eclectic mix, but I lean toward sweeping emotional scores with powerful and dramatic themes.  For me, this kind of music offers a quick translation into images for the page.  Instrumental music from artists such as Yanni also does this, as long as there are no words.  No words!  My inspirational music for fiction can’t contain vocals because the words direct the listener to a specific image, and only in rare cases does this apply to what I’m writing.  I listen to music with vocals for all the usual reasons and I have my preferences there too.  

It’s an inherent paradox: music without words, to create words on the page.