Jan 5 2011

Cactus as Compass

Melissa Crytzer Fry

I have to confess that the winter season in the desert has made my pursuit of “fun things to see” a bit challenging. This time of year the desert seems to be in slumber, with animals lulled to silence and plants painted by the stroke of the same dull, muffled brush – in withered, washed out hues.

A discovery last week, however, made me realize that there truly is something new to be seen every day, if only we open our eyes and look. Like this barrel cactus, for instance.

This barrel cactus appears to be wrapped in “hair,” strands radiating from the thick spines that seem to insulate and safeguard this already-protected plant (animals know to steer clear of the fish-hook barbs). The barrel cactus is also known as the compass barrel because of its habit of leaning toward the southwest. Click to enlarge. Scroll for close-up photo below.

My discovery of something “new” in otherwise familiar and ‘drab’ surroundings made me think that our lives aren’t much different. We drive to work, run errands, tackle everyday tasks, parent, do our jobs the same way – often on autopilot and often completely unaware of our surroundings. At times, the world around us can feel mundane, boring, same-old-same-old. But is it really? In 2011, I challenge you to notice something every day. Whether you’re in the office, amid nature, on the train, on horseback … Look around. Seek new sights. Listen. Feel.

Why? Because if you’re not enjoying the journey, you’ve already lost the race.

For Writers: Believe it or not, the image of this cactus inspired several writing lessons and thoughts as I plan for 2011. Rather than pick one, I’d like to share a few.

  • As writers, we need to look at the world in the same way – eyes wide open, constantly in search of ‘material’ for our novels. Whether it’s the speech patterns of the New Yorker sitting next to us on the plane, the weed growing out of the middle of the concrete against all odds, the way our neighbor’s dog cocks its head … we need to look at everything around us with fresh eyes. All of it is novel fodder.
  • The barrel cactus is known as the compass barrel, due to its growth in a southwestern direction. What’s your writing compass telling you this year? Focus on freelance? Focus on novel? Focus on nonfiction? What are your goals? How will you keep your compass grounded?
  • In the close-up image of the cactus, the hairy white yarns protruding from the barbs really look like thread to me. It made me think about how I’m going to thread my writing goals together – freelance and fiction – along with my personal goals. The way the threads seem to “grow” from each spine also brought to mind the question of how I am going to grow as a writer this year? How will you? Attendance at conferences? Reading more fiction? Setting daily word-count goals? Seeking critique from more writing groups and mentors? Becoming active on Twitter? Writing a blog?
  • And, finally, I’m curious what your take is on the “feel” of this cactus. In some ways, it says “comfort” to me – with the hair serving as an insulated protective covering and the almost soft bird-nest-looking center. In other ways, though, it says confinement: wrapped tight, entwined like a ball of yarn. What do you see?

10 Responses to “Cactus as Compass”

  • Taqiyyah Shakirah Dawud Says:

    It reminds me of a loosely knit or crocheted warm-up. Cozy but not confining. As always, I savor your photos and insights, Melissa, thank you.


  • Sharon Bially Says:

    Awe. Such a simple ingredient for peace, contentment and creativity, but not always so easy to be in touch with. While traveling over the holidays I was constantly awed by new discoveries, and it stuck with me for a few days after returning, but now the old “been-there-done-that” glasses are blocking the view. Thanks for the reminder that we can actively take them off!


    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Isn’t that the truth …. how quickly the awe can dissipate and the clouded glasses go back on.


  • M. McGriff Says:

    Great advice! A new year is always the perfect opportunity to reevaluate our lives, taking ourselves out of that mundane race and see what opportunities are around us or if we’re even racing in the right direction!

    That cactus looks really interesting by the way!


    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Ah yes… whether we’re racing in the right direction. Well put! Thanks for reading :-).


  • Rachna Chhabria Says:

    Hi Melissa…the barrel cactus reminds me of a spider’s web. Actually it can be compared with crochet threads that have been left loose. Though I did not know the name, this cactus is a favourite of mine.

    Love the idea of letting the writing compass guide us.

    I hope and pray both of us achieve our writing goals this year. 🙂


  • Shari Lopatin Says:

    Hey Melissa,

    First off, thanks for retweeting my blog entry today. I came to check yours first thing after work. I really like your perspective, and you’re right, it IS very in line with my recent entry! Amazingly enough, I’ve been going through my own version of those contemplations. I’m starting to see the threads weave together to build my “brand” as a writer via my blog and all the marketing techniques I’m learning about, via social media. Then, the plan is to use that as the platform to launch myself into pure creative writing and journalism, free from any one job. How nice would that be?

    Your post really made me think, and I’ve been bad at remembering to observe lately. I don’t know if I can really “see” something every day, but I’ll start off aiming to really “see” something every week, with my goal to be every day. Thank you for this post. Very insightful.

    P.S. I just subscribed to your blog.


  • Hallie Sawyer Says:

    Hello dear. Enjoyed the post immensely. Except for that cactus (the first picture).) It looks like a tarantula emerging from some kind of wooly womb, legs first. I can barely look at the screen. 🙂

    My writing goals are everything you mentioned. Get my freelance career started, finish my novel, attend a workshop, read more books, and so on and so on. It’s a little like going to Kindergarten for the first time. There are so many things I want to do and I am excited to do all of them.

    Can’t wait to see what you accomplish this year. Love the post!! Happy Friday!


    Melissa Reply:

    Girl, you ARE freaked out by spiders, huh? You made me look at that photo again, and I just can’t ‘see’ the spider (though I appreciate your beautiful imagination :-).

    Agree that achieving all those goals can feel like baby-steps all over again. We’ll get there, though. And it will be an exciting journey for sure!


    Hallie Sawyer Reply:

    Nah, I am just teasing you about the spiders. I was being silly. 🙂


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