It was dawn and the beach was deserted—just me and my heron. I shambled along the water’s edge, half-asleep, moving east toward the sunrise. About two blocks into my walk, at about Avenida 14, I noticed another denizen of the dawn start to make his way down from the houses to the water. Our paths intersected, and before I could offer a greeting, the man blurted out, “I like your stuff.”
Ha! Now if you have ever been unfortunate enough to see me before my first cup of coffee in the morning, I’m sure you understand my alarm—and perhaps his.
My immediate response was to look apprehensively around me—were we really totally alone on this vast beach? Why yes; yes we were. I then looked down at my own disheveled self, and muttered the most eloquent of greetings—“Uh.”
See, I was still wearing the XL t-shirt I had slept in and the black cutoff sweatpants that I bought when I was twelve. Cinched around my waist was a tattered green barbeque apron with big pockets stuffed with Walmart bags (for collecting trash) and seashells. I hadn’t brushed my teeth or hair since Tuesday, and I’m sure there was black mascara goop in the corners of my eyes—the only evidence that a cosmetic of any kind had ever graced my face.
He must have registered (and been amused by) my alarm and discomfiture. He quickly reiterated and explained—“I like your stuff—your WRITING, I read your newspaper column. I enjoy your sunrise posts. We are Facebook friends. I really like your writing.”
I was simultaneously flattered and embarrassed. And also a little rattled. This is new for me—this being known without knowing. I don’t object to it, mind you. But I haven’t yet figured out how to gracefully deal with running into folks who know way more about me than I know about them. Like my name for starters.
A couple of days ago, I was waiting in line at my favorite lunch place (Wild Roots in Gulf Breeze) and a pretty 30-something woman walked up to me and exclaimed, “You’re Sharla.”
Hmm. Well yes. No argument there. But it took me a second or two to figure out why this stranger was telling me something that I’m already pretty likely to know. She went on to compliment me on my book and then she mentioned a couple of things that indicated that she had actually read the thing. That always just floors me—still. People I don’t know have taken the time to read my stories, and then actually retain something worth talking about. Wow.
This makes me very happy. This makes me want to continue to do the hard work of writing, of telling the truth, of putting it all out there, warts and all. The responses I get, whether in person or on my blog, that make me the happiest are usually ones that show that I have infiltrated that awful “I thought it was just me”club. Or whenever someone replies with a simple: “Hmm. I never thought about it that way.” I always reply to such responses eagerly.
Sometimes, perhaps a bit too eagerly.
A couple of years ago, I posted a story on my blog that didn’t make the cut for my book. My editor thought that the story—a humorous, yet ardent argument against corporal punishment for children (spanking)—was, “not so relevant” in this enlightened age. “Isn’t it illegal to spank a child?”
I wish. But alas, here south of the Mason Dixon line, the proverbial “rod” is not spared. I see parents whaling on their kids everywhere—at Walmart, the park, even on the beach in front of my house.
My story was well-researched, slightly edgy, and cogent. It also managed to be funny, which was really a coup, considering the subject matter. (Click here—And I Turned out Alright—if you want to read it) When I got a response—from, let’s call this reader “Ellie”—I was very eager to discuss (and perhaps defend) my anti-spanking stance.
Ellie had reached out to me on my website on the leave-a-reply form but confessed that, alas, at 65 and a bit of a shut-in, technology was something of a challenge. No prob, I thought. Here’s my email address and phone number.
I was curious about what an elderly-ish woman would have to say on the topic. Her child-rearing days were surely over. Perhaps she was very involved in her grand-kid’s lives. Maybe I could actually make a difference! I couldn’t wait to hear back.
Eight paragraphs and 700 words later, I had to go take a shower.
Turns out my imagined gray-haired grandma in her rocking chair—this Ellie—was in fact Elliot, a “borderline, intermittently suicidal, submissive” man who had recently “spent more than $4,000.00 on the spanking services for professional female dominants.”
And there’s not much more I can directly quote from his lengthy, weirdly well-written letter—if I want to keep my website and blog postings PG-rated. Suffice it to say that the details—the many, many details—were sordid. But the tone was so friendly, I was really creeped out.
There’s a great James Taylor lyric from his song, That’s Why I’m Here: “Fortune and fame’s such a curious game. Perfect strangers call you by name.” And while I am by no means “famous,” it is odd at times (and at no time odder than this) to be called by name by perfect—or in this case, disturbingly imperfect—strangers. Elliot used my name not only in the salutation of the letter, but also in the body, as though we were old friends—“My spanking history runs into volumes, Sharla, but a couple of things. By the time I was 13…”
And on and on and on. And finally, the coup de grâce—a link at the bottom of the page to click on, apparently, a picture of “Beaver Cleaver and his beloved mum.” Uh, no thanks, Ellie. I think I’ll pass.
Social media is to credit, or to blame, for all this familiarity. We get to see what everybody looks like whether they’re famous or not, and we are encouraged to interact with them. But writers, until recently, have not been among the most recognizable of celebrities, no matter how successful. I mean would you be able to pick E.E. Cummings out of a lineup, or Paulo Coelho or even Emily Dickinson? Probably not.
But then, they probably didn’t drive a baby-blue Mini-Cooper covered with a couple hundred flower power decals—their name stenciled in cursive under both side mirrors. Clearly, I’m not interested in traveling incognito. And the truth is, it delights me to be recognized occasionally for the one thing I have done with passion and diligence (and hopefully a little talent) since I was a child. I’m just not used to it yet and am distressed by my own lack of eloquence when I’m off the page—and say I am, instead, in the parking lot of Publix during a deluge.
I was too lazy to dig around in the back seat for my umbrella and thought I’d just dash in and pick up some cream and paper towels before heading home. As I pivoted out of my car, I heard my name called. A trio of soggy shoppers approached me, and the gentleman who had called my name introduced himself, rain dripping from his ears, and began to tell me how much he was enjoying my column. His wife (presumably), hustling across the lot to their car, hollered back, “I’m sure Sharla has better things to do than stand in the rain and chat!”
Ha! She was wrong. The truth is that Sharla had absolutely nothing better to do that afternoon, or to be honest, any afternoon. That 20-second encounter made my day—my whole week really. Writing is such a solitary avocation, and my inner critic had been especially brutal that day. A little encouragement goes a long way. I wish we all remembered that.
I’m not sure how I replied to his kind words—probably with my trademark “Uh”— but I hope he reads this post and knows that I went home and got back to work on a story that had had me stymied for a week. Thank you.
Seneca said, “You can tell the character of every man when you see how he gives and receives praise.” I’m pretty good at giving it I think. It’s the receiving part that I need to work on.
But for now, well, uh…
Follow me on Instagram or Facebook (@sharladawnstoryteller) for images and musings from the beach at dawn. Also, pick up a copy of Island Times from any of a dozen or more Pensacola Beach shops and restaurants—enjoy my column—Sharla Dawn at Dawn.
“Vices” is now available on Kindle and other eReaders for just 5.99. You even have the option of “gifting” the digital version by clicking the “Give as a Gift” on Amazon.com and entering the email address of the recipient. Of course, the paper version (still my preference) is available at the buy-three-get-one-free rate from this website (Shop).
Books are also available from all these gracious local retailers:
At the beach:
69 Via DeLuna Dr.
Pensacola Beach, FL 32561
In Gulf Breeze:
832 Gulf Breeze Parkway
(Publix shopping center)
Gulf Breeze, FL 32561
In East Hill:
1208 N. 12th Ave.
Pensacola, FL 32503
(at the front register)
5109 Bayou Blvd.
Pensacola, FL 32503
89 Central Square
Santa Rosa Beach, FL 32549
Page and Palette
32 S. Secton Street
Fairhope, AL 36532