Sunday, August 12, 2012

Hi dear Blog.

I am traveling much of this month, and I will get back to you once I've settled into the regular fall schedule. While I've been away from blogging, WOW have I gotten a lot of revision work done on some of my longer stories.

I'll be back!


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

what gets left behind

“Take them. Take them. Otherwise the little plants will die.” Mimi presses a flat of 16 tomato seedlings into my arms and I say sure. Sure. I thrust the flat onto the deep dashboard of the minivan, watching a handful of black ants stream from the undersides and into the creases. The rest of my car is full: a bookshelf. Two boxes of paper and office supplies, fancy scissors and markers and crayons. In the passenger seat, three rosemary bushes, sage, one fragrant thyme, a start of spearmint.

“I grew the tomato plants from seed. They are small.” Yes, only as tall as my thumb, and it’s nearly July, and no tomatoes will ever grace these poor foundlings. Days ago, Jim wrapped pallets of their belongings for the container ship, and I get the feeling they’ve not slept since then.

I say no to a luxury air mattress with only one leak which could easily be repaired (I have one of those already, in exactly the same condition.) I say no to a document scanner that is no better than the one I own already. I apologize that I can’t take another load to Goodwill, can’t find a home for a perfectly-good working sewing machine, can’t take on multiple steps to get good stuff into the hands of people who might need good stuff.

They will leave for the airport in ninety minutes, and they need showers. They refuse cold beer—they are that serious.

What I came for is the outdoor fireplace, now filled with ash—they’ve been burning papers they won’t need, she says, night by night, while deciding what things they will need for the rest of their lives in Costa Rica. Shedding America, layer by layer.

She panics when I look at the huge metal bowl of ash. “But we have no place to put the ash!” I ask if I can’t simply dump the ash in the woods next door, and she says no, something about the landlady. I can tell that her English is tired by the way she searches for words, places her hands on both sides of her head. Jim comes out of the door and panics, oh my gosh we didn’t even empty the ash! I bring my own hands down, an epiclesis, bringing down the Holy Spirit to soothe, to calm. I tell them I can find a bag, I can clean it, I don’t mind at all. I brought gloves, I say. “We use a, a thing to scoop out the ash…” I find the large metal spoon next to the fireplace and determine the direction of the wind, so I can get to work. I line a box with a grocery bag, and shovel ash with the spoon.

After I nestle the scrolled metal base, the bowl of the fireplace, and the screen cover into the backseat, Mimi asks if I can help her empty the frig. Thank goodness I brought empty boxes. After asking, “do you want these? Can your family use these?” I say, give me everything. Mimi shrugs and says, “well, we all need containers, right? If you don’t need the food, you can just use the containers, then I don’t have to think anymore.” I nod: that’s the best way. Let me take it all, take all the worry, all the decisions I can bear away in a few boxes. My effort is not much, not as much as they need. They tell me someone is coming to pick up the last loads, later.

We talk a little—not much, not sentimental. A month ago, my daughter insisted before her eighth grade graduation: NO TEARS. And it took effort, but I did what she wanted. Good training for today. My friends—soon to be my Costa Rican friends—are too tired for weeping, and I must let them go with a simple hug, sweaty, not too close, after I cram the box of food into the last inches of space in my van.   

“You will remember us in fire,” she nods at the fireplace in the backseat of my van. “I like that. You will remember us in salads and soups. I am glad your children will remember us everywhere.” 

I am tired and spent, myself, but I think to lean out the driver’s side window, for one last word. “You have been a blessing, from the first time I met you until now.” A last wish for safe travels, and I am on my way, holding a flat of tomato seedlings against the dashboard with one hand and driving toward remembrance with the other.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Summer reading

The paperbacks curl in this humidity. I tell myself the covers will flatten—they will—but the buckling pages make me panic a little. All these beautiful words, sentences, paragraphs, transportation into the minds of other people. What a strange way to make a life, reading, writing, encouraging others to do the same. Sometimes I wonder why I don’t teach people to make stuff, instead. Sometimes I DO teach people to make stuff, and often as we make stuff, we talk about books.

Frederick Buechner says, “some of my best friends are books.” I could ask why it’s so, for me, for him, or I could just nod. 

What are you reading? What's next on your list?

My June reading list:

The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard, by Erin McGraw
Still, by Lauren Winner
Animal Vegetable Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver
Edge of Dark Water, Southern murder mystery, tense and terrifying writing. Will find the author name. 
Bayham Street: Essays on Longing, by Robert Clark

Plus books for my classes: Cry the Beloved Country, Mere Christianity (it's been awhile), and a giant text about writing in higher education, titled Engaging Ideas. The latter title is surprisingly accessible, and even a little exciting.

I'm eager to get to the new Debra Dean book, plus my yard-sale book finds: What is the What by Dave Eggers, and The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett. It might be the summer for The Sparrow.

I'm also working to reacquaint myself with the Audubon Field Guide to New England, so I can better name the flowers, birds, and river creatures. (Moon snails, ew. Egrets, lovely. Spotted jewelweed, an old favorite.)

What new book friends have you recently met? 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

letter from a late-June heat wave

I want to rush at this letter with arms thrown open: we are well. Our house is so suited to summer. All of our school schedules have ended, for this one week, and we are home, sleeping late, eating meals on a whimsical non-schedule, walking the hallways barefoot and mumbling.

Swimsuits are still draped on the porch railing, though the 90-degree weather surely baked them dry hours ago. We are fine in our un-air-conditioned house, as long as the wind blows. Like now, the trees rustling, the wind moaning over the metal fence posts and rain-spouts, the pipe-organ of the neighborhood playing strange chords high and low.

Yesterday the thermometer stretched to nearly a hundred degrees, and then the wind stopped, mid-afternoon. We packed our kids plus three more, and drove to the beach, fingers crossed for a parking space, for mercy. When we returned home for a late dinner, still no wind, and when we decided to sleep, still no breeze. My son came by to chant, I cannot sleep. My daughter, too, said the birds would not stop singing, and I swear the birds sang all night. (Is it the warmth that signals their singing? Not the light? They sang all night, or I dreamed them singing all night.)

We parents are trained to survive lack of sleep, but children do not recover this way. They are spending the day in bed, with books and music (one of them), or continuing to nap off the swelter.

While I was standing in the icy blue ocean, yesterday, as ever I found myself singing a melody line of thanks, smelling the salt-cucumber scent of summer with Innocence Mission in my head. And again at night on the downstairs couch, under the blessed ceiling fan, a melody of gratitude for all that is, and for rest (or even a half-rest) of birdsong and sweltering heat.

Sometime in the wee small hours of morning, the breeze kicked up again—Scott rose from the second couch, across the room, and left for the bedroom upstairs. I woke late to this quiet.

One child rustles through, now. Scott leaves for errands in the air-conditioned car. A second child wanders by to ask about a box of muffins our houseguests left.

SO MUCH to unpack from these last few weeks, huge events, gatherings of friends and acquaintances, visits with writers and artists. Concerts. Speeches. Ceremonies. And maybe best of all, quiet times sitting with friends, with nothing terribly important to say.

Much more to write, but for now, cool drinks call.  

Thursday, June 07, 2012

june morning, graduation nears

I let the oregano go, this spring, and now it’s taller than my knees. The thyme is overgrown with stray grass, flowering, going to seed. I trimmed the rose bush down to almost nothing last fall, tired of the thorns and barrenness, and here its long arch has fallen across the front yard, covered with burgundy blossoms.

When I walk my son to the bus stop in the morning, I praise the family on the corner for leaving so many weeds growing around the mailbox, the fringes around the trees, the tall grass. I am happy that the elderly neighbor’s children don’t fuss too much, anymore, and a spray of wild beach roses arches like a waterfall from between the tall spruces, alongside another spray of grapevine.

I envy the manicured lawns, the well-tended perennial beds. The Joyful Noise landscaping truck arrives on Wednesday and makes its way down the street, around the corner, marking property lines like a Bingo card, mowing diamonds and squares into the nearly-million dollar properties.

We grow white clover around the pitcher’s mound, and the muddy home plate won’t grow anything. We keep planning to buy a hammock, but we don’t know how to hang it. We’d need tiki torches for the bugs, and where would we put them? I bought lettuces for the window box, but I forgot to buy potting soil. I will. When I get a minute.

The children grow like weeds.

He dresses himself for the choral concert, now, without my help. He dons a tie in lovely spring greens and sky blues, and when he sings the high notes, he closes his eyes like a choir boy. Then he grabs his cleats and runs. The next day he crafts a cow-shaped sculpture from brown wool, then throws it across the table—it’s supposed to be a bison, he says. It’s perfect, I say. It just needs more shoulder, here and here, just like your drawing. I pull out some shiny curls of mohair, hand-dyed by someone, somewhere, and we add the shoulders, the beard, the tail, the horns. He smiles and starts crafting a box for the diorama, figuring out the balance of sky and grass.

She needs help with the hair dryer, she says, and I oblige. She could learn to do this herself, but there is plenty of time for independence, later. Even though we can’t talk while the dryer is blasting, we are eye to eye, faces close and thankful. She needs help with the new earrings, real pearls, real garnets, a consignment shop find. She promises to pack a pair of socks and flats to school, but she walks out wearing heels, swearing she is comfortable.

I’ve not pulled back, yet, to survey the endings of our life with the little school, the weed-children who have outgrown the desks, the swings, the small stage. They strut and preen, while the first-graders look up with dreamy eyes.

We parents watch, listen, marvel. Who ARE these children?

Maureen, yesterday, asked plaintively, “When will I see you, next year, when our kids don’t go to school together?” Beautiful Maureen. I was just picking up my vegetables and milk from the farm co-op, thinking only about the next minute and not about next week or next month, let alone next year. We will plan something, I say, aware that I plan very little, and then I remember, “you live near our favorite beach—it’s not that far.” Like weeds, I hope these moments can grow untended, unplanned. Her son once coached my daughter in sword-fighting, for a play, pledging he’d “put the man-stink on her,” her wee ponytailed self. She stunk well in that play, shouting about horse-piss in her best Shakespearean English.

Forgive me the imprecision of this post, friends. A shower just washed through and sent me rushing to close windows—just a veil of rain, the river still shimmering blue in the distance. Must eat the toast I left standing in the toaster. Must shower. I find the stack of Innocence Mission CDs, and turn it up on high, as Karen Peris sings “Where Does the Time Go.” Must buy pocket packs of tissues. I can do this, can live with slender green stalks, stretching, thriving.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

starship oak table

I haven’t yet adapted to story revision in my new place—it’s been a year, with my tiny wooden school desk in the corner near the spiral staircase, and I am still figuring out how I do this, here.

In the three-room condo, I understood exactly what to do. First, everyone would need to clear out of the house for hours, so a schoolday offered a perfect opening. Next, I’d need to shake off the trauma and mess of their leaving process by clearing the dishes, stashing the unfolded laundry, making the beds. Then I’d wash the oval dining table and shove it into the living room, lengthwise against the bay window, where the table formed the wings of my biplane, or the console of the Starship Enterprise. I propped the laptop up, grabbed my three-legged stool and spread pages of essays across the expanse of oak. A candle, maybe, would restore some sanity, if there was time. I might add the geranium from the window above the sink. But the extras didn’t really matter: once the table was in place, the pen was running.

I worked, circling and underlining with my 8-color pencil. I could wander to the bathroom, throw on a little makeup while still mulling a sentence or a storyline. I could sweep the kitchen, unload the dishwasher, pace for a moment and then return to my console at the center of the world. If I was smart, I set the alarm for 1:30, giving me time to get dressed, grab cashews and a water bottle, shove the table back into its normal location, and leave to pick up children, still working, still half-gone to the world.  

Oh, the days I flew! The hours, soaring! Whatever the results, the work felt symphonic and magnificent, right up to the mommy-mommy-mommy’s in the school playground. If I could only get them to go to the park, I could extend the hum of editing and revision for another hour, and get some sun and fresh air, too.

My house, now—my desk suffers an embarrassing problem: it’s too damn beautiful, here. The clam-diggers are busy at every low tide, mocking me with their productivity. The wind turbine, too, creates energy all day. Really Loud Birdsong, something I never considered as a problem. I need to be careful about sleepwalking while my head is still in a story—the spiral staircase is lethal. I can’t shove the dining table to my window, and the kitchen does not lend itself to a meditative mindset. Coffee shops are too loud and the music is unpredictable: I really do need to be home, to work, and I really need solitude. I know of many basement-writers, but I can’t do windowless spaces.

While the revision space has not worked out, yet, this gorgeous upper room is so rich in beauty, and in that way it’s good for my soul, through and through. I wake with the sun, slowly and happily, and the birdsong is a dream. Parenting teenagers, too—mostly, they leave me alone in the afternoons while they do their homework. It’s possible to work a little, even with them home!

I’m trying, now, to revise in my reading chair. I shove it toward the biggest set of windows, and I bring my lap desk with me. Often I arrange stacks of working papers on the end of the bed, behind me but within reach. It’s not perfect. I’ll keep trying.

One story sent to The Sun. (Done!) One blogpost-in-progress, two sent. (Two-thirds done!) One essay dropped off with two friends, awaiting comments, and then I will send it off, too. One essay deep in revision. Two summer classes secured (more-or-less: I am hired, now waiting for enrollment).

I need to keep combing through the files on my computer, remembering the stories I’ve abandoned someplace in mid-revision. I need to cull some posts from this blog and connect it to my website, and connect the website to Facebook and Twitter.

Meanwhile, I’ll watch that shower of maple helicopter-seeds, and the hummingbirds in that flowering bush. I’ll get back to revision, tomorrow.