After my early first marriage ended, one of my first boyfriends, a college writing instructor, told me he decided not to be a writer because he had seen an amazing display of lightning but was unable to describe it in writing. He was blocked, stuck. I remember how he looked when he told me—his eyebrows drawn together in concern, a serious expression on his face while his clenched hands opened and closed, dramatic gestures underscoring his words. He seemed in existential pain. He was a serious young man by nature. Earnest.
“If I can’t describe streaks of lightning, how can I be a writer?” he implored of me. I don’t recall reassuring him. In fact, I remember wondering if he should even teach college writing if he could not write a simple description. At the time I was still an undergraduate after having been a teenage mother, yet I felt superior.
The lightning shot up and broke open, like a golden “Y,” the prongs reaching for the … All across the Midwestern sky, glittery threads dangled and dissolved, dangled and dissolved, above the flat prairie, like. . .. The prairie provided a wide canvas. A low horizon, a broad frame. An electrical discharge, pouring light. More negative space than clutter.
My writing-teacher boyfriend played classical guitar. He was intelligent, thoughtful, kind, and gentle with my son. He probably would have been a good stepfather, better than the second man I did marry. But I could not sustain interest in a man so tortured by his inability to write about lightning. A man who could not find a way to put lightning into words.
Dancing ice-white threads. Strands. Cords. Bolts. Streaks. Cutting. Slicing. Flickering. Flashing. Through the trees, off the back porch, light opens the sky. Above the rooftops the absence of dark allows for silhouettes. Buildings, lamp posts and telephone poles. A pot-bellied water tower on stick legs. A bolt spears the …
You need to observe quickly if you are going to see lightning, really see it. Though, I remember my mother, an artist, telling me you could get every detail right and still miss the essence. The more I wrote about lightning, the more I thought that maybe I couldn’t write about it as well as I thought.
Lightning bursts around the car. Dashes of radiance rip across the windshield. Shapes illuminate. Scenes appear and vanish. The lightning is shaped like . . .
I moved to a town near the beach. My writing-teacher boyfriend quit teaching college and met a woman who loved him. He wrote me a letter telling me he could imagine me walking along the beach, my hair blowing behind me in the wind. I thought that my hair—though quite long at the time—was too curly and clumpy to blow in the wind on the beach in the manner he described. He told me he had become a minister. I thought he made the right decision.
The lightning unfurled over Lake Michigan like an electric lasso being cracked against the dark sky…, No, not like a whip, like a lasso. The lightning unfurled and looped back in on itself. The sky above the lake provided a wide canvas. Black and white. White on black.
Many, many years later—after Michigan, after the boyfriend, after the second husband–I find myself in a pool of hot springs in southern Colorado with two strange men. Thunder ripples in the distance. I mention that perhaps we should get out. The big man with no hair, ginger-colored skin as sleek as a seal, says we are in no danger. The other man says he was hit by lightning twice when he lived on a farm as a boy. He says that when lightning strikes cows, it burns their eyes out, leaving charred sockets. The other man says that when he worked at a nuclear power plant, he and a group of other workers were walking between two buildings when lightning struck the ground and spread quickly, like mercury. Sixteen men were struck that day. He jumped up on a bench and was spared.
I wonder if I have ever seen lightning without searching for the appropriate adjectives, metaphors, and images to get it right, trying to write about it, if I have ever looked at lightning without being afraid that I will not be able to distill the vision into words. I thought I was so clever. Now, I wonder if—in fact—I have ever really seen lightning at all, its essence—it appears and disappears so quickly.
© Garnett Kilberg Cohen
[This piece was selected by Jacky Taylor. Read Garnett’s interview]