Free Write Friday: Cliff

Note: This week I’m trying something new with the free write – a prose poem incorporating synesthesia. I was inspired by a Till writing workshop I recently attended, presented by poet Jane Wong. As always, feel free to use the photo above as a prompt for your own free write. Consider joining me in experimenting with an unfamiliar format this week. 


Crackling of palm tree, fronds brushing carmine in the breeze. Squawk and tweet of birdsong, just beyond ear’s reach, punctuating high above. The turquoise wash of crashing waves below, colliding onto ebony rocks stoic as the spray recoils, resorbed by the expanse. Memories of jumping off, sound muffled, then expanding beyond into the greater sea. I climb the cliff, handholds of familiar crevices. I swim into the current, decades of tracing the reef map a mind’s fingerprint of coral phalanges. Thick blades of grass underfoot infuse the yellow taste of papaya. Nenes swoop in, then saunter through air thick with humidity. Specks of snorkelers flap fins, return to lie beached, their skin leathered like dragon fruit. Cloud shadows caress the ridged mountains, marking them like a bruise, feeding them with rain. One drop, then two trickles. The sea turtles gulp the air then dive into dry sweetness. They disappear but I never saw them, only heard shells cracking from a memory decades old. Momentary waft of plumeria, ginger, coconut, lilikoi, banana leaves suspends in the air just long enough for it to roll on my tongue, breathe into my lungs, absorb through my skin leaving an imprint, marking me home. 

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Free Write Friday: Pier

Tourists flock to the historic pier, smart phones in hand, they extend their arms to capture snapshots of pink faces with emerald mountains regal in the distance. They stroll down the concrete walkway, flip flops flapping, gazing side to side. 

Slender sailboats dot the bay, punctuating the azure waters. Vacationers cool down with a swim or awkwardly attempt use of a boogie board to ride a wave. Children kneel on the beach, legs caked with sunscreen, industriously patting at the wet sand to form castles with heaped towers and scooped moats. 

On the other side of the pier sunset catamarans embark where the river meets the bay. Crimson kayaks coast toward the ocean at the outlet, stand up paddleboarders glide along the shoreline. In the distance, pods of surfers catch wave breaks in the hazy early dawn light. 

A roof offers shade at the end of the pier. People linger at the edge, waiting to see if the local fisherman will make a catch. Teens taunt each other to jump off the blocky corner. Signs warn: “Shallow. No Diving.” But they’re not seen, or ignored. The clear waters allow visualization to the sandy depths from high above.

Eventually, the revelers will meander back. Maybe grab a carne asada or fish taco from the food truck for lunch. Sitting on the south side of the pier, a half moon of ridged mountains astound. The pier juts silently into the breathtaking panorama.

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I’m at a long weekend writing retreat so, ironically, won’t be posting a free write today. The space is lovely, set on a converted farm. I’m looking forward to writing workshops, long stretches of sitting in silence and conversation with the best kind of people. May your weekend be filled with the same. 

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Free Write Friday: Pain

I notice it gradually, while exercising one morning. It’s a familiar routine, but that day bending over to touch the floor, leg lifted behind, I can’t hold the pose and my back gives way. The pain is insidious, then persistent. I go to work, hobbling throughout my day. Coworkers ask: What happened? Do you need something? Then they suggest: Try my chiropractor. Try downward dog. Here’s a hot pack. This is the only thing that helped my sciatica years ago. They’re all trying to be helpful but I can only wince. I can hardly walk. The pain is shocking, debilitating.

As a physician, I see people in pain every day. Pain from overexertion, pain from chronic illness, pain from medication side effects, pain from heartache. But to experience it myself, the slowing of body, the unexpected twitch of muscle with a movement, the limitations imposed by a body that isn’t working as it should, by a body that is a conduit for pain rather than a vessel for function: it’s humbling.

I don’t exercise for a week, then two. It’s hard to explain to others who only see me as able-bodied. They don’t realize. I shuffle as I cross the street; my husband and children walk casually ahead, so far ahead, on the crosswalk. I feel slow, I feel invalid. I get massage therapy, apply heat therapy, ingest ibuprofen religiously. The pain, initially searing in my back, flares unpredictably, shooting through my hip as I rise from sitting, as I twist to respond to a question, as I bend to pick up my baby from her crib.

A week into the flare, I just want to lie in bed, not get up, not go out. Though I am loathe to just lie there. I resent the creeping sluggishness. I want to defeat the lethargy and, simultaneously, be enveloped in it. I can suddenly see how people succumb: to numbing medications, to despair. Pain steals all functionality until the pain is all that’s left. And then it becomes your only companion. It is a cruel tease. One day or moment might feel a bit better, hope rises. Then, cruelly, it dissipates as the pain roars back.

One day I wake and can sit up without wincing, can walk with only a slightly antalgic gait. Everyone asks: How are you feeling? I feel tentative. I feel better. I feel anxious that it might come back, might return to level me again. I’ve learned now, it’s taught me. Pain is a presence, but also a thief.

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Free Write Friday: Bridge

She likes to sit under the bridge after her appointments, down by the canal. The benches at the corner are a little too breezy, she brings a cardigan when she remembers. It’s right by the trail, the one that weaves through half the city, along the waterfront, through the industrial and suburban outskirts. 

She sits facing the water. She likes how the curve of the worn wooden bench feels beneath her. Cyclists whiz behind, along the paved path; she likes the sound of the spokes on the wheels lightly clicking as they pedal by. Sometimes there’s a rollerblader, a scooter. She hears the footfalls of joggers’ shoes, light conversation of two coworkers strolling on a lunch break. 

Across the way are small houseboats, some modern, some quaint, some barges. Kayakers and yachts pass under the steel bridge. When the big boats glide by she can hear their engines whirring, working hard to pull them along. A small fishing dingy passes and she thinks about how it’s dwarfed by the steely grandeur of the bridge, rusted sheets of metal bolted in, criss-crossed throughout. 

The locks are further down, she hasn’t been for years. She took the kids once, should take them again. It’s a marvel, really: all that water rising up, draining down. Carrying the fish, the seaweed, the boaters along with it. Each year the salmon run brings a viewing crowd to the locks; it’s a destination.

She hears the traffic on the bridge overhead and the next bridge down. Today the birdsong is bright and clear, outshines the highway traffic. It’s not rush hour, but still, it’s perplexing, that nature would reign in this way. 

She likes to see the American flags hung on the sail boats; a bolt of red, white and navy set against the creamy hull, the bluebird sky. She likes to see the freeway across the lake, all the cars gleaming in the sunlight and wonder: where are they going, where have they been? She likes to consider the seagulls gliding overhead, hovering on the wind; sometimes they’ll suddenly dive or take off, as if they just remembered someplace they need to be. 

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Free Write Friday: Speed Boat

My three-year-old calls it a speed boat, and it is. Wind whipping our faces, hair swirling behind, strands winding around each other haphazardly. It’s their first time on an inner tube. A long braided rope tethers the inflated donut to the sleek new vessel. The sunny long weekend, barbecue in our bellies, exuberant friends all contribute to the exhilaration. 

Even so, I’m surprised at my six-year-old’s enthusiasm, eagerly egging on the captain to go faster, faster, weave serpentine over the murky waters of the strait. She learned to swim, and swim well this year. But the bouncing motion, unpredictable and jolting, makes me cringe, watching her from afar. Any moment she could bounce high, bounce right off, face stinging into the green waters, choking on the unexpected douse. Gripping tight to the inner tube though, her smile is so wide, so unabashed, so gleeful. I can’t help but exult with her. 

My skin sun-kissed by salted air and pummeled by the wind, I feel taut, relaxed, satisfied. An early summer glow to the late afternoon, washing away months of rainy Pacific Northwest grey, particularly gnawing and extended this year. I rest into the warming sun, the exuberant children, the rush of air past my ears, pressing into my chest as we speed along, parallel to the rocky shore. 

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Free Write Friday: Relics

I’ve pulled them from the attic before, stored them in the basement closet. Now the youngest is standing, feeding herself, almost one. She doesn’t need the propping, the overhead entertainment. She’s outgrown the bedside crib, the Jumperoo, the molded foam seat that kept her back upright.

The equipment is garish or cutesy. It’s plastic and bright. It’s overwhelmed our home, fixtures that fade into the landscape, the background of a cluttered family environment. Still, it’s hard to say goodbye. 

I know it all needs to be tossed, given away. After three babies, or more since many were hand-me-downs, the stuff is all worn, outdated. I see the new moms today with sleek strollers that keep the baby situated as if sitting on a dais, the stylish bouncers that blend into a post-modern home. Our items are now obsolete in function and style. One of our old baby-propping cushions has been recalled for safety concerns. There’s no reason to keep these things around. 

I remember my oldest baby, now in kindergarten, loving the bouncer, thick legs pumping, broad smile punctuated by a high squeal of delight. Her wispy infant hair swaying with the movement like thick reeds of seaweed undulating with the tide. 

I remember my middle baby, he didn’t like to be confined; any seat with openings for his legs was too constricting. Instead he squealed for release, wouldn’t sit down even in his high chair, ate his meals standing on the floor or on our laps. 

I remember my youngest baby, how we couldn’t find one leg of the baby swing when we pulled it from the attic, rendering it useless. We borrowed another one whose motion was too gentle to soothe her squeaking cries. Eventually we gave up on the swing altogether. We finally found the missing leg long after she was able to sit up, roll over, stand on her own. We disposed of the swing, no longer needed. 

I gather the rest of the items slowly, sequentially, as they expire from their usefulness. I contemplate the memories held within with each passing on. There’s a sentimentality to these baby relics, covered with slobber, patted with the chubby hands of three active babes over the years. 

As I sort through, I wonder what the contraptions will be like when my babies have babies; how they’ll differ, how they’ll tap into the enduring infant affinity for jumping and rocking, squeezing and swinging.

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Free Write Friday: Waiting Room

It could be a doctor’s office or a therapist’s office or masseuse’s office or dentist’s office. Everyone rushing in, stops suddenly. This place is only meant for halting. It’s a purgatory of sorts. No one makes eye contact. You could be here for a tooth extraction, a horrid cold, a spasming back muscle, a debilitating anxiety that usually keeps you holed up at home. You don’t want to assume why others are here, so you ignore each other. 

Looking around, there’s a water cooler, an assortment of tea bags set out on the table: peppermint, earl grey, African red bush. The best flavors are depleted, the black tea bags overflow. It’s silent, save for the buzzing of the fluorescent lights overhead, plastic rectangular panels alternating with popcorn ceiling. 

A waning lamp sits on a corner table, the time on the small clock is wrong and it’s aggravating. Shouldn’t a waiting room of all places keep correct time? A laminated wood coffee table is centrally located with magazines stacked too neatly. Who keeps them all so organized, so appealingly kept? Choosing a magazine is like a Rorschach test, wondering if others will judge the decision, if you can live with it yourself. The intellectual rigor of The Economist or the gossipy superficiality of People? The organizational practicality of Real Simple or the envy-inducing travelogues of Condé Nast? Maybe you’ll just scroll, head down on your phone, where you can maintain anonymity.

You sit too straight backed on the worn leather couch, waiting. You should slouch back, relax. It’s increasingly challenging to sit in silence, in stillness, in this incessantly rushing world. You distractedly peek out of the corner of your eye. The wide leaves of the adjacent plant are drooping, yearning for a drink of water, clearly neglected. It makes you wonder at the reliability of this place; shouldn’t plants be tended to just as people are? You guiltily realize, your own office plants are just as wanting. 

Someone opens the door, a stocky middle-aged man. You don’t look at him directly but glance up through your lashes just a moment, long enough to take him in. He’s calculating, surveying the room, deciding if he should grab tea, a magazine, where he should sit. He falters, then grabs a Time magazine. You try not to judge, but you do. He must be serious. But when he sits down, he takes out his phone, scrolling through intently, waiting for his turn. 

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Free Write Friday: Night Out

You invite an old friend, a friend from high school, one who you’ve recently reconnected with because of the kinds of things that bring people together in middle age, when life is not as polished, but laughs are more appreciated, tears are more warranted. The venue is near your old college alma mater. Neither of you partied much at the time, and now, twenty years later, you’re even more out of touch with where you should go to enjoy a drink together before a concert.

So you meet up at an old haunt, a place college boyfriends frequented to play shuffleboard, drink beer, eat bad food late at night. You laugh together, but there’s also a weightiness to the night out, the kind that middle age mothers can’t escape. You both have children at home, professional jobs to keep, mortgages to pay, the worries of a changing world order, of elderly parents, of home maintenance and friends in distress. So it’s hard to let go, even in this place of millennials, of libations, of inebriation and escape. 

You drive to the venue up the street, a remodeled theater. You think the last time you were here it was a movie theater. You were a teenager and your boyfriend took you to see Titanic. You had a poster of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in your room at the time. Or maybe it was Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. You were so young. The crowd here today is old, unpolished. You feel comfortable. The singer is thin and taller than you expected. She sings in melancholy tones of melancholy topics: love and loss and loneliness. You stand, sway to the beat. You like the darkness and the warmth of being so close to so many people who aren’t really aware of you; the mutual anonymity and perplexing intimacy of a crowd. The singer strums her guitar, your feet ache in a satisfying way. 

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