My sister Catherine and I were walking along the bumper-to-bumper beach highway and turned onto a road running next to some birthday cake colored cottages. We followed an opening in the trees to a huge sundial, maybe 15 feet tall and 30 feet in diameter. Curious, we looked to where the shadow fell. The point was about three quarters of the way between the Roman numeral V and VI. I checked my cell phone: Yep, 5:38 pm.
As we continued our walk on the narrow shell path between white picket fences, we talked about shared memories from childhood. She is older by six years – and decades more, as life experiences go. Her photography business led her to the British Virgin Islands and, for a time, she resided on a mansion-sized yacht owned by a wealthy Arab oilman. Her primary responsibility was to immortalize his kids’ childhood with her Nikon.
A distinct memory I have of my second oldest sister was from a summer when I was in high school and she visited our childhood home. I was curled up on the living room couch with a book and she mistook my reclining position for lethargy. Catherine convinced our mom that I needed some culture in my life. Within a few hours, they had booked a flight for us to New York City – three days jam packed with museums, art galleries and Broadway shows. I launched into a classic teenage protest, until they promised to let me go roller-skating in Central Park.
Since that summer, the photographer and writer sisters’ lives have intersected at pivotal times, even though distances separate us. We relate on a deeper level now, having both experienced our share of loss: me – life-bearing body parts to cancer; she – a home and a big chunk of her livelihood to a hurricane.
As we walked, Catherine and I talked about how the curly oaks along the path reminded us of our family coast house on St. Teresa Beach. When the shell path opened up to a Parisian-style courtyard with a boardwalk running through it, memories suddenly came flooding back. It was that very spot – the Seaside Institute – where I attended a three-day writer’s workshop in the winter of 1998, staying at Catherine’s “pink house” nearby. It’s where the seed was planted for the kind of writing I am doing today.
I looked around and noted that the architecture around the educational center had been upgraded, but the backdrop was the same: A cocoon-like setting for creatives.
I told Catherine how I studied under fiction author John Dufresne that winter and nonfiction authors Susan Neville and Madeleine Blais. The latter two helped put a name to the type of writing that was surfacing in my magazine pieces: Creative Nonfiction. They explained that this relatively young genre meant using literary devices such as scene, dialogue and a personal voice in true stories. Another instructor described it as “nonfiction with extra imagination.”
Turning that corner into the courtyard was like returning to the womb, where I was given a new identity, a life plan. A future.
My experience at Seaside nearly 20 years ago introduced me to a summer workshop in Baltimore at Goucher College, which had recently launched the only exclusively Creative Nonfiction MFA program in the country.
I was now a graduate of that program and returning to this beach community for another three days. Only this time it was to sign copies of my book about a Hurricane Katrina rescue-turned-therapy dog, which started as my thesis for the Goucher MFA.
Like the points on that giant sundial, my journey had come full circle.
Catherine and I continued on the gravel road leading back to the pink house as the sun was setting behind us. I couldn’t help but feel that same sense as when a really meaningful movie ends, or when I’ve just finished a good book.
It’s over, but it’s not. The sun will rise in the morning and start the dial again.