(I’m hiding away at a writing retreat, madly writing, so this one’s from the archives–from last April, when spring had fully arrived and I could enjoy sitting outdoors. Re-reading it gave me hope that spring will come this year, too, because it sure hasn’t been too spring-ish out there yet!)
I’m waiting at the Nanaimo ferry terminal, sitting outside in the sunshine, sipping a chai latte and inhaling salt air. Life is good. As soon as I got off the bus outside the terminal, I knew I couldn’t stay inside during the hour-long wait before boarding, so I bought my ticket, then went back outside. A stone bench surrounding a near-empty flower garden beckoned. Puddles sat on the smooth surface of the bench. I swiped my hand through the puddles, sending a spray of water onto the ground and creating a damp-but-passable seat for myself. I spread my raincoat on the bench and sat down. Now, the coolness of the stone leaches through my jacket and my jeans. I take a deep breath of brackish air and look around.
A kayaker paddles by.
A white sailboat drifts along.
A small tug chugs past.
Two Canada Geese fly overhead, and gulls squawk on either side of me – sea birds in stereo.
The ocean is calm, almost glassy, and a slight breeze moves my hair and brushes across my cheek. The cool air chills my fingers as I type. I pick up my tea, grateful for the warmth of the cup. The tea, almost too hot on my tongue and throat, is spicy and satisfying. The smell of the tea’s cinnamon and nutmeg mixes with the earthy scent of the dark, wet soil in the garden bed behind me and wraps around my shoulders like a favourite blanket.
A ship’s whistle sounds, long and low – the incoming ferry. I notice a woman taking pictures as the ferry rounds the point into the harbour. Her camera lens is huge. She supports it with one hand as she looks through the view-finder. A man beside her has a pretty fancy-schmancy looking camera, too, and a boy – maybe fourteen or so – captures the scene in the harbour with his cell-phone’s camera.
The smell of boat gas reaches me, blending with the sea air and the hint of citrus zest from the orange a guy is peeling where he sits a few feet from me on the cold wet bench. Two more people – young men this time – hold up cell phones, snapping photos of the incoming ferry. I can only assume most of the people around me are not as accustomed to island life and ferry travel as I am. That, or I’m failing to appreciate the wonders in front of me – no, that’s not it. I’m definitely appreciating this hour of waiting!
The Queen of Cowichan plows its way toward the dock, engine growling, water churning up as the captain reverses the engines. Workers in orange reflective vests stroll toward the end of the dock to greet the ferry. A green-white swirling mass disturbs the glassy blue calm of the water in front of me, batik-like in its beauty. Rapids of white rush under the dock ahead of the massive boat. The BC flag above her waves gently in the breeze. Chains rattle. Ramps clank into place.
To my right, a float plane bobs, preparing to take off. Then, as it speeds across the water, the buzz of its propeller crescendos until it takes flight. It banks over the harbour and disappears into the distance.
Click, click. More photos. More cameras emerging from pockets and bags. Pictures that will be great memory-sparkers, so nice to have, but how does the lens capture the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the textures? It doesn’t. I love taking pictures, and having pictures, but there’s so much a photo can’t tell me.
This is all to say, remember to use all the senses in your writing. Don’t just give me the snapped-on-my-cell-phone version of the setting. Let me smell it, touch it, feel it, even taste it. Then I’ll really be there. I’ll really experience it. And I’ll remember it.
[Later...] I sit in the stern, watching where I came from fade into the distance. It feels almost sad, sitting this way, as if I’m leaving for a long time (which I’m not). I’m tempted to move to the bow and face forward, toward the mainland, but the ferry’s crowded. Chances are, the seats up front are filled. So I stay where I am, glancing frequently out the window at the flat sea, the blue sky spattered with grey-white cloud, the snowy island mountains shrinking the farther away we sail. And I fight the non-sensical bite of nostalgia and try to focus on editing this post.
[10 minutes later] Okay, it pays to sit in the back. A huge pod of dolphins was just playing in the ferry’s wake. I went out on deck to watch until they were mere specks rising and falling on the distant surface. There must’ve been at least thirty of them (the captain said there were maybe fifty, but that may have been generous… I don’t know). What joy replaced the sad I’m-leaving feeling! No photograph could completely capture that joyful freedom of the dolphins, that salty breeze drying my lips and tangling my hair, that wash of happiness on my soul.
Engage the senses and the emotions, and you will create more than a picture. You’ll create an experience.