Common Reader Program Art & Creative Writing Contest Winners
Cultivating a sense of “enough” in a culture of more
First Place / Stroke of Hunger
Stroke of Hunger
by Dara Marquardt
Traffic trembles at an unsteady gate. Hawks circle overhead like wayward kites. Wings stretched, black toys catching sun. The scent of water, the scent of autumn, leaves all spent, whispers in as trees put their pajamas on again. City bustle zips up, the time between sun and snow a time of work. Shops accessorized with towering ladders, with scratches of paint scrapers and men hauling buckets and tools.
It’s a time of preparation.
As summer nestles into the pocket of autumn, waiting for the reaching fingers of hard frost, for the grip of winter, there is an absent space. A sense of a stomach that’s neither full nor hungry. A time between torpedoing down river current in a kayak and jostling through Christmas shopping.
It’s a time when bears roam, searching, prying, hunting out what they need to carry them through winter. A time when gardens are harvested and trash barrels destroyed. It’s a time when a desperate grab for more, one more meal, one more dinner, one more set of calories becomes instinct. As far from leisure as it can get.
But shops are filled with pyramids of oranges. Quaking seas of green and red apples, smiling from produce aisles, waiting to be tasted. Pumpkins, plastic, Cinderella, sugar, inflatable, line market entrances; an ode to candy. An ode to slipping on a new skin and pretending to be someone else for a night.
But after the candy is unwrapped and eaten, the costumes hung up, the face paint washed, faces are revealed again. Faces that will look not backwards to study the footprint of a full summer, but forwards, to turkey basting and peppermints. To luggage packed and presents wrapped. To credit card swipes and donning new hats that flash a new year. The fresh year to be welcomed with champagne and feathery kisses.
A time when hawks will lull and lilt, black wings extended, soaring winter skies as they soared summer sun. Gracing snowflakes as they graced fluttering umber leaves. They’ll still feel wind caress their feathers, their legs drawn tight, their bones as weightless at the birth of morning as they are in pregnant night.
Eyes flick to them, arms bound in bags, feet stuffed in boots, and think,
They must feel so free gliding in the air like that.
But hawks don’t peer down, the world shimmering in onyx lenses, and wonder if the bustle below feels free. If the bustle knows the trembled gait of wind slipping through wings. Hawks don’t think this. Hawks don’t fly with full shopping bags.
In a quiet slumber, others sleep, dreaming of the fog of green leaves. River babble from warm days past, a remembered lullaby. Their bodies still, their hearts slow drums. Others rest, their bellies full.
Still, shop shelves will twinkle with oranges and strawberries, blueberries and grapes. Still, the carts will roll, rickety and jostled, produce bags filled, displays lining market fronts changing. Rotating. Ushering out yesterday and bringing in tomorrow. Onto paper hearts and shimmering boxes of waxy chocolate. Onto colored eggs and hollow chocolate rabbits. Onto lawn ornaments painted rainbow colors. Until summer looms again, a hot shadow to sweep it up.
Bears will open their eyes when frost retreats, gummy blinks startled by daylight. Their eyes adjust, tongues long and hot, teeth gleaming, hungry. Their stomachs lead them from their nooks, from their burrows, towards berries sprouting supple and bitter. Towards trashcans overflowing. Back to pavement. Back to forest. Winter turns over in the palms of time, becoming the memory of a river lullaby. They’ll wake with spring and search for food.
But the city sized plate is always full. Overflowing with schedule commitments, digital dates. Bursting with accessories and options, choices and clothing. The city is so full it doesn’t remember hunger. But the palate craves a different flavor. A flavor tasted when the hawk wings spread. A breath of wilderness, a desire to be. Some run to the rivers, trek to mountain tops, search for the drink that will quench the thirst but it won’t come in glass or plastic. A sense of wild and a notion of full only strikes when bustlers bustling realize the brush that paints the hawk has colored them too. The stroke of hunger rumbling in the belly of the bear has danced across their composition. That hunger is innate, within, constant.
The flavor of strife.
It’s as internal as knowing when hunger has been fed, instead of aching at having eaten too much.
Second Place / News Crawl
by Jose A. Alcantara
You can keep your breaking news, your eyewitness exclusives.
Keep your royal weddings, your celebrity breakups, your sex scandals.
Keep your startups, your hostile takeovers.
Keep your trade rumors, your batting averages, your starting lineups.
Keep your forecasts, your advances, your declines, your bulls and bears.
Keep your price hikes, your gas shortages, your Ten Days Only Sale.
Keep your outbreaks, your tornadoes, your flash floods.
Keep your political intrigues, your latest military coup.
Keep your crime statistics, your polling data, your talking heads.
Keep your diet fads, your miracle foods.
Keep your product rollouts, your newest razor blades, your latest iPad.
I’ve got other news.
Come, walk to the meadow with me.
Drop to your knees.
The flowers are whispering again.
If you listen they may tell you what they told me.
Third Place / Clean Underwear Day
Clean Underwear Day
Today is clean underwear day and I am pretty excited. I have waited until more than half the trip was over because I knew day five would be a sweaty one and I wanted to preserve the clean pair just a little longer. It’s not that these new undergarments are special – they’re nude-colored, Patagonia, mid-rise – rather the ritual and symbolism of it all. Putting on clean underwear in the middle of a backpacking trip is kind of like brushing my teeth, or, if I’m going really crazy, flossing. Hand washing with soap is another luxury, essentially equivalent to showering. These are all behaviors that mark time in the wilderness.
Last night I got up to pee during the evening on three separate occasions, marking my territory and an evening filled with several cups of tea and hot cocoa. Unzipping my sleeping bag let in the cold night air, mildly annoying when I had achieved a cozy temperature inside. Out on the slick rock, the canyon walls rose up around me, framing a small triangle of starlit sky. The finite space seemed filled with infinite twinkles, both Orion and the Big Dipper sneaking into my view. Worth getting out of my sleeping bag for sure. Like so many little things out here, extra effort or mild discomforts often yield high satisfaction.
And, changing into clean underwear is pretty nice. It’s hard to fully appreciate it without not changing underwear, I suppose.
But, I don’t travel to the so-called “backcountry” to have an underwear changing experience. Rather, I journey, more often than not with teenage students, to soak up the visceral learning afforded by simultaneously harsh and beautiful surroundings, physical exertion, and relative simplicity. It is a privilege, I think, to choose to feel cold and have to struggle through fumbling fingers and dripping nose to light a stove while the rain attempts to thwart my best efforts. It’s not “glamping,” but luxurious in my freedom to only deal with the present moment and nothing else. I don’t need to figure out the liability for my worker’s compensation claim, navigating the tricky realm of lawyers, claim’s adjusters, and case managers. I don’t need to finish a million to-dos on my ever-lengthening list, I don’t even need to fit in a shower. I get to be fully present in whatever moment I’m in.
Out here, I am transformed by challenge – by watching as a flash flood clambers through the spot where our tarps once stood, by long days with scraped legs and salt-stained cheeks, by endless laughter in the face of adversity, because, what else are you gonna do? I am transfixed by the slowly creeping light of dawn, the cascade of water over a high desert-varnished spout in red rocks, the bright crimson of a piece of chert. And I am revitalized by the growth I see – in my travel companions and in myself.
It is enough to watch my student learn to trust her feet on the surprisingly grippy slick rock. It is enough to watch another’s awe at the ancient ruins we’ve visited. It’s hearing the stoic certainty in her voice as she says she will definitely come back here, with family or friends, to adventure again in this landscape. It’s when I recognize just how much I am able to trust others—and myself— and take each day as it comes.
How can I maintain some sense of this stability and simplicity as “frontcountry” life swirls around me?
Perhaps it can start with celebrating each day’s clean underwear.
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Henry G. Maxwell