Saturday, November 29, 2014

Moving Parts


I’m not a big fan of moving parts.  Not in real life, anyway.

 I like plans. I like on-time. I like predictable.  We “joke” that our family mantra is Stay in Your Rut, because our rut (aka, “tradition”) includes good things, like the annual trip to Bar Harbor and the seven Christmas cookies we always bake.

So I had more than the usual anxiety leading up to Thanksgiving this year, not only because the spouse and I had a looooong drive ahead of us to New York state (think: the northeast corridor on the busiest travel day of the year), where my parents live, but because our kids were spending the holiday together on the west coast. 

 This would involve our daughter travelling from a small town in Vermont to a small-ish airport in Vermont, flying to/changing in Philadelphia (all the seasoned travelers reading this just groaned), landing at LAX and connecting with her brother, who would expertly scoop her up at that busy airport in the still-coughing-beat-up-but-beloved-blue-Subaru and transport her back to his 20-something apartment in West Hollywood. 

Meanwhile, my sister, brother-in-law and three precious nieces were driving to NY from MA, and my brother and his wonderful brood were heading out from one location in NY to the other, while all over the news reports of fires, protests and tear gas in Ferguson were competing with Black Friday ads and hyperbolic weather reports about the approaching winter storm.

Serene I was not.  Too much of my family was on the move at the same time.

So when the first half of it all went smoothly (kids connected safely in Los Angeles where fun was had and turkey from Ralph’s was eaten) and at my parent’s house we were popping yet another cork on another really nice bottle of Pinot which someone had brought (my sibs have good wine taste) I didn’t think a thing of it when my phone chimed, indicating a text.  I happily scooped it up, anticipating a message from the kids.

But no, it was my friend from Maine.  Did you know, she queried, that we’ve had no power for 24 hours, none is anticipated for another two days and the temps might dip into the teens tonight?
            
My thoughts flew to all those still-raw Thanksgiving turkeys in Brunswick.  My shivering neighbors.  Then:  my mud room.  A poorly insulted extension of our otherwise solid house, where many pipes lead, including conduits to the washer/dryer and a gardener’s sink.
            
This is when predictable flew out the window.  Because our house was locked up tight and I had not hidden or given out copies of our keys, so no good Samaritan could go inside and fire up the wood stove and keep the pipes from freezing.  So with visions of water damage dancing in our heads, the spouse and I threw our bags in the car and began the long, dark, still slightly icy drive back to Maine.
            
Somewhere along I-84 I realized I had left the house keys on the counter of that chilly mudroom.  I do that, because we usually go in through the automatic garage doors.  Which, when the power is out, don’t work.  I broke this cheery news to the spouse as we drove, and to his credit he took it all in stride, and simply asked me to get out my iPhone and Google “How to Break Into Your Own House.”
            
You’d be surprised how many interesting ways there are to break into a house.  This kept us awake and entertained for hours.
            
Luckily, in addition to 1. Not hiding or distributing extra keys and 2. forgetting the keys, we left a window unlocked (right now you’re probably thinking, These people are too stupid to live) so I scrambled over the woodpile stacked under the eaves,  climbed in through the garage, and voila!  Entry.
            
This is where the story slows and gets comfortably predictable, which is reassuring in real life but death in fiction.  Because after we got into the house we fired up the stove, snuggled into our sleeping bags before it, and all was well.  The End.
            
But as my very wise daughter observed the next day, the best stories are in the mess.
            
“Just think, Mom,” she said when I was finished complaining about the interruption to my Thanksgiving festivities, “someday we’ll be laughing about this one. ‘Remember the Thanksgiving when you and dad had to race back to keep the pipes from freezing, while me and Christian were hanging out on the beach in Malibu.’”
            
I’ve lived through 53 Thanksgivings and the only one I clearly remember was when we dropped the turkey, pan drippings and all, on the kitchen floor, and my abuela, hoping to be helpful, slipped in the grease and landed on her ass right next to the hot bird.  As we tried to hoist her up her legs kept slipping out from beneath her, skittering wildly and further spattering grease. 
            
The other 52 were fairly calm, organized affairs, and they all run together for me.  At the time they were lovely … and forgettable.
            
The best stories are the ones with sharp edges, the ones that go pop! They aren’t always happy stories with happy endings, but they’re the ones worth telling.  They’re not necessarily stories I want to live through at the time, but it’s not I’ve got a choice.  Maybe the key to surviving those, is recognizing them.
            
The other day I treated myself to a lovely, hardcover copy of Mary Oliver’s latest collection of poetry, Blue Horses, and this one surprised me.  She seems to welcome the moving parts that scare me, and I think she must be very brave.

If I Wanted a Boat
By Mary Oliver

I would want a boat, if I wanted a
boat, that bounded hard on the waves,
that didn’t know starboard from port
and wouldn’t learn, that welcomed
dolphins and headed straight for the
whales, that, when rocks were close,
would slide in for a touch or two,
that wouldn’t keep land in sight and
went fast, that leaped into the spray.
What kind of life is it always to plan
and do, to promise and finish, to wish
for the near and the safe? Yes, by the
heavens, if I wanted a boat I would want
a boat I couldn’t steer.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

My Writing Process


I talk to myself.  Sometimes out loud.  In public places.

It’s been going on for a long time.  I remember the first time I was made aware of it: I was 18.  I was standing in a friend’s house, in conversation with her and our mothers, when I realized everyone had stopped speaking and they were staring at me.  My mom looked horrified; the others amused.

“What?” I asked.

“You were talking to yourself,” my friend, Kathy, said.

“Uh … no I wasn’t,” I replied truthfully.  “I’m just listening.”

“Oh, yes you were,” my mom said.  “You were staring at the floor, your lips were moving, and words were coming out.  But you weren’t talking to us.”

I could feel my own eyes grow round.  I scrolled back in my mind to what had recently passed there.  I could not recall a single thing the others had just said … but a perfectly realized image of another person, a figment of my imagination, who had been regaling me with her story … popped up.

I had been talking to her.  That’s how vivid, how real, she had become, that I could turn off the actual conversation going on around me and slip into her world. 

I was mortified.  And yes, a little scared.  It was one thing to be the family daydreamer, the “absent-minded professor,” as I was known.  Perpetual preoccupation was an annoying, but endearing, habit. 

Talking aloud to make-believe people was another thing altogether. 

For me, writing has been a socially acceptable and necessary release of the pent up energies of the characters and stories which inhabit my imagination.  I don’t know why they are so insistent, but it has always been so.  Transferring their voices, their faces, and their lives, from my mind to the page is what we call “the creative process,” and I’ll confess:  it’s very hard and I don’t always enjoy it.  But for me, the alternative is odd behavior and (if you talk to my family) rotten moods, so I really have no choice.

For the past few months the blog tour known as “My Writing Process” has been alighting at author websites throughout the internet.  It involves answering four questions about writing, then passing the baton to several other writers who post one week later.  Author Katie Quirk invited me to get on board today, and it’s been fun not only to think about “process” (usually I just … do it) but also to discover many, many authors I had never come across before.

Katie is the author of A Girl Called Problem, a middle-grade novel set in Tanzania. She is currently working on a memoir about life with a newborn baby in India.  Originally from Washington state, Katie has taught English and writing for over ten years to students as diverse as Spanish-speaking third graders in the California farm belt, Berkeley community-college students, international high-school students in India, and Swahili-speaking journalism students in Tanzania. She currently lives in Maine with her husband and two kids.
So here goes!  I encourage you to visit Katie’s site and learn about her work, as well as check in with the authors I’m linking to below.
What are you working on now?  All my books to date fall into the “young adult” genre, but the manuscript on my laptop right now will most likely be considered “new adult.”  Meaning my audience will include readers 16 and older … but mostly older.  It is set on a college campus and involves a criminal accusation.  The working title is “Rage.”
I always like to try something new, narratively speaking, with each book, and this latest is a departure for me not only because the audience and subject matter is quite mature, but because I’m writing in third-person limited for the first time (my other books are all narrated in first person.)  I’m also alternating between a male and a female point-of-view, so … a lot going on.
How does your work differ from others of its genre?  I write realistic fiction and I embrace challenging topics.  Death, eating disorders, racism and next up, crime, if I had to list the order.  Peppered with plenty of humor.  I remember seeing “August: Osage County” on Broadway years ago and realizing how absolutely necessary it is, when dramatizing, to leaven brutal truth with humor.
Interestingly, my main characters all play sports, although “sports” was never my intended theme.  Soccer dominates, as does tennis.  It’s come as quite a surprise to me, because while I love sports and play sports, I was quite a music and literary geek in school.
Why do you write what you do?  I never intended to write realistic, young adult fiction:  it simply happened.  Now, I’m incredibly grateful to have found a creative outlet in this genre.
Young people lead with their hearts when they read, and I love getting on board that emotional roller coaster with them.  I love creating characters they love and hate, story lines they tear through, books they reread.  The books that changed my life were all books I read as an adolescent.  When I open my email and some young reader from a middle school thousands of miles from my home in Maine tells me he LOVED one of my books … that’s incredible.  It’s such a gift, such a privilege.
How does your writing process work?  The simple answer is:  I work best in the morning, after a cup of coffee and a walk with the dog.  I work best with regular hours spent at the computer, day after day, until a predictable rhythm is set.  The phone, Facebook, emails, the doorbell … that all knocks me off course, and I need to be disciplined and tune out distractions.
The more complicated answer:  I might have an “idea” for a story (for example, in my first book, Brett McCarthy:  Work in Progress, I knew I wanted to write about friends growing apart) but I cannot get started until I know my characters, and that involves writing many, many, many pages which no one will, or ever should, read.  Sometimes it is discouraging to get to the end of a day of writing and realize that absolutely none of what I produced will end up in a final draft … but I have to trust in the process and know that eventually the real story will emerge on the page.
I pick up a lot of hitchhikers along the way and also throw a lot of people off the bus.  Writing for me (and this is not my original metaphor, I borrowed it) is driving on a foggy night:  I can see only a few feet ahead of me, but I trust that if I keep moving forward I will eventually make it to my destination.  That said:  sometimes unexpected folks wave you down along the way, and you have to be open to letting them in.  Mr. Beady, in Brett, was just such a hitchhiker … a completely unexpected character … and he soon became one of my favorites.
Only this week I threw two passengers off the bus.  This was in my work-in-progress, which originally had four narrators.  Interestingly, the ejected passengers were both older adults.  They were slowing things down and distracting me with their particular problems and complaints which were not moving the story forward so … off they went.  I’m better able now to listen to the two college students who are left.
I write slowly, in a linear way.  I also know the end.  Some writers say they write to discover the end, but I write to figure out how to get there.  Maybe that’s why I take in hitchhikers:  I’m hoping they can give me directions.  Sometimes, when I’m stuck, or really having no fun at all and the writing feels like drudgery, I will treat myself to writing a scene out of sequence, some scene or chapter I’m really looking forward to, and that helps propel me out of the doldrums.  It’s also a bonus, to catch up to that scene and feel like, “Wow, that work’s already done!”
Next up:  Please meet Anna Eleanor Jordan (Anna Boll) and Sashi Kaufman, who will post on Thursday, June 5th.  Both Anna and Sashi were on the teaching faculty with me at the New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conference this May.

Anna Eleanor Jordan (Anna Boll) is an author, illustrator and educator.  She runs a school and library booking business for authors and illustrators called Creative Bookings and writes freelance curriculum for authors, illustrators and publishers.  Her poetry appears in Highlights High Five, Babybug, and Ladybug magazines.  Her illustrations appear in the picture book Fufu and Fresh Strawberries (The Telling Room.) She has an MFA and Picture Book Certificate from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MSEd from the University of Southern Maine.

Sashi Kaufman is a middle school English and science teacher in Portland, Maine.  Her first novel, The Other Way Around, was published by Carolrhoda Lab in 2014. 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Everyday Diversity


Twitter lit up yesterday with some hashtag called #WeNeedDiverseBooks.  Or maybe I simply noticed it yesterday … I don’t spend a lot of time on Twitter, and lately I’ve been immersed in putting together a workshop for writers interested in adding cultural diversity to their children’s books.  Which might explain why this caught my attention.

The half of me which could pass as “diverse” felt her skin crawl as I scrolled through all the posts. 

I applaud the intention, really I do, of those who want to raise awareness about the appalling lack of “characters of color” in mainstream publishing today.  Let’s just put it out there:  of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people.  The numbers get worse when you look at Latinos, Asians, Native Americans … and when those sorts of characters do appear, they are often as representative figures from historical legacies about the civil rights movement or slavery or the Trail of Tears.  Or kids books about Cinco de Mayo.  Or World War II Japanese relocation sagas.

The only thing possibly worse than the numbers are the cardboard-cut-out depictions of non-white characters as downtrodden victims, as “other,” as “different-but-still-cool.” 

In our admirable quest to write “diverse” books, we need to be wary of creating the Separate But Equal Minority Genre.  We need to be careful that we don’t inadvertently intensify notions of “otherness.”  That we don’t create black/Hispanic/Asian/Arab characters who are "shining examples" of diversity.  That we do, as Walter Dean Myer’s urges us to do, in his essay published in the New York Times this past March, depict characters who are “an integral and valued part of the mosaic” of our shared American culture.

I recently stumbled upon the phrase, “everyday diversity.”  It was used by a children’s librarian in Hennepin County, Minnesota, who has put together lists of children’s books which she believes are diverse as a matter-of-course.  Books in which the protagonists might be non-white … but their non-whiteness is not the subject of the book.  The books are about making friends, getting into college, losing a tooth, visiting Grandma … and the characters doing all these things just happen to be named Abdullah or Jose.

Everyday diversity doesn’t ignore culture and race.  It relegates culture and race to adjectives, to parts of the complex background which define and enrich character, which adds depth to our characters without siloing them as “the black” or “the Native American” or “the Muslim.”

One of my favorite authors, the young adult novelist, Francisco Stork, does this brilliantly.  Stork’s characters are of Mexican descent, but that cultural detail is imbedded in his stories.  It’s one of many moving parts in complex depictions of well-wrought characters who defy stereotypes.  Read Marcelo in the Real World to see what I mean.

The writer Julia Alvarez puts it this way: “Stories are about the big circle, the gathering of the different tribes of the human family. Getting down into ethnic/racial bunkers of literature totally negates what stories are about.” 

In those two sentences, Alvarez embodies the goal … and the challenge … of writing any fiction, but especially for writing for young people today. 

Here's the hashtag I prefer:  #EverydayDiversity

Friday, April 11, 2014

Reading Round-Up and the Lupine Award


Oh, frabjous day!

Yesterday was the annual Maine Reading Round-Up conference, where I was so thrilled to receive the Lupine Award for my novel, Out of Nowhere.

This was the 25th anniversary of the Lupine, and for a special treat the Portland artist, Toby Rosenberg, who has been creating our gorgeous fired-china award plates, was in attendance and handed out the awards.

The night before the conference we were all treated to a lovely dinner at the Maple Hill Farm Bed and Breakfast in Hallowell, Maine. 
Gathering at the Maple Hill Farm


Author Anita Silvey gave the keynote address, which focused on her new book, Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Children’s Book.  What a terrific speaker!  And yes, I’m heading out to buy multiple copies after hearing her talk.

The day was filled with terrific panels: unfortunately, one can’t attend them all.  I enjoyed hearing authors Lea Wait, Sashi Kaufman and Ammi-Joan Paquette discuss “The Past, Present, and Future in Children’s Literature.”
Left to right: Lea Wait, Sashi Kaufman, Ammi-Joan Paquette

After lunch, it was time for door prizes and awards, and it was an absolute thrill to receive my plate from Toby and stand with these other fabulous Maine authors.  It was especially moving to see Anne Sibley O’Brien win the Katahdin Award for Lifetime Achievement:  well deserved!  Earlier in the day we had learned that Robert McCloskey (think: Make Way for Ducklings) had been the first to win the Katahdin Award. 
Left to right: Kimberly Ridley, Rebekah Raye, Megan Frazer Blakemore, Maria Padian, Anne Sibley O'Brien, Melissa Sweet.


I left Reading Round-Up this year feeling as I always do after this terrific conference:  we are so blessed in Maine to have not only an incredible community of dedicated librarians and educators, but an extraordinary community of children’s writers and illustrators. What a privilege to live and work here!  I feel so grateful.

This year’s Lupine Award Winners are:  “The Secret Pool,” by Kimberly Ridley, illustrated by Rebekah Raye, Tilbury House (picture book winner); “Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909,” by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet, Balzer + Bray (honor book); “Out of Nowhere,” by Maria Padian, Alfred A. Knopf, (juvenile/young adult winner); “The Water Castle,” by Megan Frazer Blakemore, Walker, (honor book).  Anne Sibley O'Brien received the Katahdin Lifetime Achievement Award.  

Monday, March 24, 2014

Maple Sugar Sunday


It went down to seven degrees last night.  Seven.

         I know there’s plenty I could say on that topic, most of it grouchy, but instead I’m going to focus on the magic.  Because these cold March nights, accompanied by sunny, warm-ish days mean one thing:  sap running.

         Okay, okay, I know:  it also means slush-which-turns-to-ice-chunks and grit and mud.  So. Much. Mud.  But it means sap running, the trees exhaling and warming up … ever notice how the snow immediately around the tree’s base melts first? … and maple sugar season. 

Bean boots in their native habitat: mud.
         Every March, on one chosen Sunday, Maine farmers open their sugarhouses to the public for Maine Maple Sunday, and we get to witness the magic.  And the mud.  And the slush.  It’s completely delicious and dirty and still fairly cold and our family loves it.  This point of the season in late March is known to sugarmakers as “the frog run,” because the spring peepers can be heard at night, signaling the beginning of spring and the last of the sap.  Author John Elder has written a
lovely, lyrical book about sugaring called “The Frog Run,” and I highly recommend it.

         Anyway, yesterday was the day, and we drove to Cooper’s Royal Heritage Farm in Windham, Maine.  It was appropriately slushy and crowded and muddy.  Seriously muddy.  A line of us tramped through the mud and filed into the sugarhouse where we could see the evaporator at work.
We could also sample some of this season's syrup on ice cream.  "Syrup Nouveau," if you will.
Yum! And yes, those are chickens and manure in the background.

        
Mud
It takes roughly 40 gallons of sap, boiled down, to produce one gallon of syrup.  Most of the maple syrup in the world comes from Quebec:  about 7.5 million gallons each year.  Next is Vermont, with 460,000 gallons.  Maine is fourth in production, with 250,000 gallons. 

         Back in the day, sap used to be collected in buckets.  Now, trees are likely to be tapped using unlovely yet efficient plastic tubes and tubs.  And instead of the wood-fire-stoked evaporators, many modern sugarhouses will employ oil or propane-power to boil their sap.       
Back in the day ...
 
Less picturesque, way more practical.

         We got to Cooper’s a bit late for the pancake breakfast, but the ice cream was great.  Another favorite is sugar-on-snow:  you heat syrup and butter to a little over 230 degrees (use a candy thermometer) then spoon it over a tub of packed snow.  When it sits on top of the snow and clings to a fork, like taffy, it’s ready.
Did I mention the mud?

         Cooper’s sells maple sugar candy as well as syrup and honey and maple roasted nuts (!) so we returned home well-supplied.  And hungry.  One of my daughter’s college friends is a Vermonter from Norwich, and her uncle, the food writer Ken Haedrich, (who is a winner of the Julia Child Cookbook Award) has penned the wonderful “Maple Syrup Cookbook.”  Inspired, we came home from our day and made Ken’s Gingered Pork Medallions, which, naturally, use real maple syrup in the recipe. 

         It was so, so good.  Almost makes March bearable.

         Meanwhile, in Vermont, they were up to the same shenanigans yesterday.  My writer friend/classmate Hugh Coyle was out and about in the mud and syrup madness as well, and shared photos ... and one of his poems ... on Facebook.  I love it, and share it here with you:


Sugar Season
by Hugh Coyle
Mid-March, and the bare-wristed maples 
shake off last night’s ice to lift
branches toward struggling sun.
Slick bark glistens along the trunks,
the scars of past sap harvests
welted up near this season’s taps.
The syrup man tramps through crusted snow,
checks his levels and lines. Next week,
perhaps, this cold snap will break. He slings
one more steel bucket onto a spike,
impatient for winter’s slow apology


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Enough Already


My snowshoes finally quit.

Granted, they were old … fifteen-plus years … but the snow-slushy-gunk we’ve trudged these last couple of months in search of sunlight and exercise and walks for the dog has bested them.  The grommets that held the little tooth-like spiky grippers have popped:  the shoes flop uselessly when I attempt to walk in them.

I’m trying not to feel crazily trapped by this latest gear malfunction.  I mean, I can get out.  I just can’t go far, or too fast.  The snow is either too deep (requiring showshoes) or the roads too icy.  I’d like to drive to a groomed outdoor center, but the nearest one is up a winding, ear-popping rural road, and I’m not feeling confident about the car.  Just before the flopping snowshoes debacle was the Failure to Climb Van:  our big red Dodge simply couldn’t make it up the vertical-ice-rink driveway to our house.  Spinning wheels, gravel flying, the smell of burning rubber … luckily, neighbors let us park in their drive at the bottom of the hill.  Until May.  When it thaws.

I know what you’re thinking:  Dude.  Get a life.  This is a seriously First World Problem.    Or maybe not.  Maybe you’re thinking:  Are you kidding?  Who wants to go outside when it’s 16 degrees anyway?  Stay inside and drink coffee.  Or hot chocolate laced with Schnapps.  And by the way, stay inside and GET SOME WRITING DONE. 

Ah, there’s the rub.  Writing.  I should be gleefully tap-tapping away on the laptop, now that I have every imaginable excuse to stay indoors.  In winter, the Muse wears a fur-lined bomber hat, complete with ear flaps.  This is the season of first drafts, and completed manuscripts.  Productive days spent by the woodstove.


Okay.  Yes.  All true.  Especially the part about the Muse.  But in March, when you’re ready for the sweet wood-smokey smell of maple sugar season, and the return of birdsong, you hate looking out the window to a scene right out of The Shining.  A little too much snow, and the Muse starts wielding a hatchet.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy ….

I know I should be writing, but it’s sooooooo much more fun complaining about the doozie of a winter we’ve had.  All the falling and broken bones and ice dams (my poor brother returned home from a lovely ski trip with his family to discover water dripping through his living room ceiling, soaking into the plaster and the wood floors … ) and skidding and missed flights. 

Of course, in parts of the country where the local economy depends on snow, this has been a bonanza.  Yay for the restaurants and inns that need skiers and snowmobilers!  This stuff is like manna from heaven.  Yay.

There.  I said it.  I do love snow, I really do.  Snow is a good thing.  But you know what they say about too much of a good thing …

Enough already.

My friend, Mary, and her writer/photographer spouse who spends so much time in the Arctic he’s practically an honorary Inuit, head to St. John, in the Virgin Islands, this week.  I’m so incredibly happy for them.  They will be HOT and they will snorkel in aquamarine water, and nap on white sand, and hear all sorts of birds.  I’m so … deeply, wonderfully happy.  For them.  Yeah.


Sunday, February 23, 2014

Poem for a Monday: Faith


A dear friend’s illness, a new book I’ve been reading about Jesus, the weather … for some reason I’ve been on my knees more often of late. 

The book:  Jesus: The Human Face of God is by author/poet/Middlebury College professor Jay Parini, and I picked up a (signed!) copy at the Vermont Book Shop (Robert Frost’s favorite bookstore, in case you didn’t know) mostly because Jay was one of my creative writing teachers 30+ years ago.  I can’t put it down:  if you are at all interested in the historical Jesus as well as a textual analysis/literary approach to Christ’s teachings, this is for you.

Meanwhile, Robert Chute of Poland Spring has written this wonderful poem about faith.  Given where my head and heart have been at, it spoke to me.

Faith
By Robert Chute

I’ve never found an arrowhead,
one flinty chip of history.
Young Thoreau, they said, if he walked by
some farmer’s fresh plowed field, could just
stoop down and pick one up. As if
the spirit that had shaped them drew them
up to his attention. Stoney bread crumbs
no birds will eat, these points and flakes
led him from the town into the
saving woods and wilderness, marked
the path to a wildness which might
save us all. His faith led him on
to find what he believed. We find,
he said, what we are prepared to see.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Poem for a Monday: Snow

Winter has finally turned perfect in Maine: mid-twenties each day, snow that lasts and brightens and invites you out to walk in it, toss it, slide across it.  We're getting a little fresh snow today; buckets of it Thursday.

I walk through the snowy fields behind Bowdoin College most days with my dog, so naturally I had to choose a snow poem by Longfellow.  This lovely poem reminds me not of the many playful days I've spent in winter, but of the more somber, albeit beautiful, mood which accompanies a still, snowy day.

Snow-flakes
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Out of the bosom of the Air,
     Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
     Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
     Silent, and soft, and slow
     Descends the snow.

Even as our cloudy fancies take
     Suddenly shape in some divine expression,
Even as the troubled heart doth make
     In the white countenance confession,
          The troubled sky reveals
          The grief it feels.

This is the poem of the air,
     Slowly in silent syllables recorded;
This is the secret of despair,
     Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded,
          Now whispered and revealed
          To wood and field.

Friday, February 7, 2014

A Crime Worse Than Being Blonde


The teetering, Tower of Pisa of books on my night table has a new addition.  And it’s landed right on top:

Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch.  It has launched (with a terrific review in the New York Times) at the very same time as my first-ever-Middlemarch-reread-with-the-daughter, and how amazing is that? 

Every decade or so I pull out my old college copy of Middlemarch and hunker down with Dorothea and Dr. Lydgate and the rest of the crew just to check in and see what’s changed.  Because it does.  Not on the page:  in my heart.  My head.  My imagination.  It’s a fairly miraculous thing about this book, the way various characters present themselves depending on one’s age and stage.

What’s been really fun this month is to take the Middlemarch journey with my 20-year old daughter.  She’s in that stage of life and education where you read with a pencil, annotating madly, every sentence potential fodder for a paper.  It took me years to recover from that stage, and I’m happy to report that today I not only read without underlining, but if I get bored I skim.  Yup.  I even skip whole paragraphs.

Not only do I read for fun, but I rent the movie afterwards.  That was the reward we gave ourselves this month, after wading through all that authorial voice:  we watched the BBC Middlemarch with Juliet Aubrey (a perfect Dorothea!) and Rufus Sewell (who knew Will Ladislaw was hot?)

Here were this decade’s surprises:

1. Unlike her mother, who, at 20, wholly identified with the idealistic, yearning Dorothea, my daughter found Dorothea to be completely na├»ve and a bit too superior for her own good. Example: her not-so-subtle put-downs of sister Celia.   (We both agreed it really wasn’t all that unreasonable to want to wear their mother’s jewels.) Instead, the Daughter took the emotional leap straight to the honest, practical Mary Garth.  I did note, however, that as we watched the BBC miniseries, the Daughter was very pleased that the character of Fred Vincy was cute.  It wouldn’t have worked at all to marry Mary off to some pug … or worse, the boring Farebrother.

2. Will Ladislaw and Fred Vincy are … my son and his friends.  Young men full of energy and ideas and absolutely no clear direction and no experience.  Destined to make mistakes and learn from them.  Hopefully, these will be mistakes from which they will recover.  Thirty years ago, I evaluated them as potential partners for my heroines:  now I feel like their mother.

3. Rosamund, the Blonde.  One could argue that the whole of Middlemarch is George Eliot’s attempt to overcome some post-traumatic-stress from an encounter with a blonde.  Why else the hate for poor Rosamund?  Why else make all the admirable female characters brunettes?  Seriously: make a chart comparing hair color to level-of-villainy. 

I have rarely strayed from my initial reading of Rosamund, and always delighted in despising her … but the Daughter had some fresh insights.  She believes Eliot saves her freshest powder for Lydgate (even Bulstrode gets off lighter) because she marries him to Rosamund.  What greater hell?  Thanks to Rosamund he has to abandon his dreams, take a job he despises in Bath, dies young and … get this … she goes off with their four kids and remarries a wealthy older gent. 

Ultimately, in Middlemarch, being blonde is not half as bad as being self-important and sanctimonious.  Poor Lydgate.

According to all the reviews, Rebecca Mead does an excellent job in her “bibliomemoir” (a genre I was completely unaware of until now!) of tracing her own ages and stages with the characters of Middlemarch.  I can’t wait to dig in.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Poem for a Monday

Last week's "Take Heart" poem is by a former classmate and fellow Mainer, Douglas Woodsum.  I remember Doug back-in-the-day, when we were 20-somethings gathered around the long, oval table of our college creative writing seminar.  It's been such a delight to read his wonderful poems through the years since then.

Doug lives, writes and teaches from his home in Smithfield, Maine.  Like last week's Subaru poem, this one could have been lifted from a page out of my own life.

Splitting Wood in Winter
by Douglas Woodsum

You'll need a barn with a big door, the old-
fashioned kind that hangs on wheels, slides open
Down a track. You'll need a bare bulb, the sun
having sunk before your return from work.
You'll need a splitting maul (the ax always
gets stuck), a medieval weapon perfect
for pillaging heat from the heart of hardwood.
You can plug in the portable radio
or just listen to the hush of the swing
then thwack ... or thoonk, the soft clinks or cloonks
of the splits falling from the chopping block
onto the old, thick, scarred floorboards of the barn
You'll need your hands to rip apart pieces
still connected by strips of unsplit wood.
You'll need to load the canvas carrier
thrice, enough to survive the dead of night.
You won't need reminding, "Splitting wood
warms you twice: once chopping it, once burning it."
You'll smile, walking through the cold, back to the house,
your hot breath a harbinger of wood smoke.