Wednesday, August 14, 2019

A Trip to the Capital

I went on my first trip to Washington, DC when I was a senior in high school. It was my first time on a plane, my first time east of metro Denver, my first visit to a major city (surely places like Seattle, Portland, and Salt Lake didn't count?). We stayed in a hotel and rode around on tour buses with students from three other states, hitting the highlights: the Capitol, the monuments and memorials (except the Washington Monument, which was closed for maintenance), the Natural History and Air and Space Museums. We were there during the time of the first Gulf War, so the White House was closed to tours, but we had lively discussions about free speech during a time of war (you can guess which side I was on). Everything was so new, so exciting, so different, that I bought about 200 postcards and took a similar number of photos (in the days of 35 mm film).

I've been back a few times for work, each time taking in a little more of the city: an Art Nouveau exhibit at one of the Smithsonians, Pakistani food in Georgetown. Once I was passing the White House during my lunch break just as they were about to close off the tour line. I hestitated, considering skipping the afternoon round of meetings, but my sense of duty took over and I went back to a long, boring meeting at EPA headquarters, about what I don't even remember, and have been kicking myself ever since.

We'd planned to take the kids to visit their nation's capital for years, but never got around to it. Then this summer came and I realized it was almost too late—one kid was about to fledge into the world and who knows if he'd ever want to go on a vacation with us again. Coincidentally, C's stepbrother, who lives in DC, made a casual comment like "you should come see us sometime," and we took him up on it (be careful with those casual invites).

We had an amazing time. We hit the highlights: the Capitol, the monuments and memorials, including the new FDR and MLK memorials (George Washington still closed for maintenance; I'm beginning to think it's a hologram), the Natural History and Air and Space Museums, the National Archives. We did not bother looking into White House tours, but had a moment of mourning while looking at the white columns from the ellipse. We also fit in some nature (Constitution Gardens, Botanic Gardens, and National Arboretum), spent a weekend in Baltimore with a pirate cruise, a view from the observation deck, a visit to the other Washington Monument, and food from Little Italy. We ate empanadas at a street food event and injira in an Ethiopian restaurant.

Most impressive, educational, and moving were the five-plus hours we spent in the Museum of African American History and Culture. It was a lot to take in—sobering, uplifting, and really, really unsettling. Humanity has such a range—from brutal and barbaric to magnificent—it's hard to wrap your brain around. While I was looking at a display that included a book by Toni Morrisson, a woman turned to me and said, "Do you know who Toni Morrisson is? She died yesterday." I thought of Beloved and how much that book affected me. 

The kids were the perfect age for a vacation this rigorous and educational—they took in a lot, barely complained, and, most importantly, I didn't have to worry about them falling under a subway. They've also studied enough American history to understand the significance of what they were looking at.

We stayed pretty much ignorant of current events during our trip, preferring to look at our country as if it were frozen in amber, and yet news of two mass shootings worked its way into our bubble. I wonder how long before we have a memorial, a museum, devoted to the victims of the mass shootings that have become woven into the fabric of this troubled nation. What year will be on the exhibit that depicts the day our "leaders" take action to end to gun violence?

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Friday, August 9, 2019

On the Nightstand ~ Late July 2019

Usually my stack of reading is at least partially made up of books written decades (or sometimes centuries) ago—partly because I like buying used books and partly because I've been on a program to catch up with reading all the books I *should* have read by now. July was a bit of an exception, with three titles published in the last year and the others a decade or less old (which to me is new).

I started my mornings with a handful of poems from Another Way to Say Enter, a collection by my friend Amanda Johnston. Amanda's poems are smart and sassy, they play with language and form, they are by turns humorous and heart-wrenching, and they never fail to strike a nerve.

Nature Writing
For our fall selection, my naturalist book club chose The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart, but not finding that title at the local bookstore, I picked up Wicked Plants instead. (I'm more interested in poison than alcohol anyway.) It's a bit slow-going, because it's not written in a continuous narrative, but rather in short (2-4 pages) passages about individual plants. However, it's an intriguing look into the more dangerous members of the plant kingdom. Also, I kind of love that Amy Stewart both writes about the natural world AND writes mystery novels. (I haven't read the Kopp sisters series yet, but I plan to.) And I just found out she paints, too. So basically she's living my best life.

I read Thirst by Heather Anderson both because I'm writing my own hiking narrative (still) and because I love reading adventure memoirs. The book tells the story of Anderson's fastest known time hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. Though I'm more likely to score a slowest known time on any hike I do, I still found it a page-turning read and it gave me insight into why someone would want to hike 40+ miles per day and an understanding that such an endeavor is not necessarily (in Anderson's case anyway) a stunt.

I really enjoyed reading my friend Aaron Hamburger's latest novel, Nirvana is Here, a tale about a gay, Jewish high school student finding his identity, coming to terms with his sexuality, and coping with sexual assault in the early 90s Nirvana era. Ari, the narrator, is so engaging and his desire to find his place in the world is so relatable that rooting for him all the way, and dying to find out what would happen—another page-turner!

I also devoured Whispers Beyond the Veil by Jessica Estevao, about a young woman who grew up as part of a traveling medicine around the turn of the 20th century. She runs away from the show after a tragic incident, in which she was inadvertently complicit, seeking out an aunt in Old Orchard Beach Maine, where she establishes herself as a spiritualist medium, but where her past comes back to haunt her. I've almost finished rereading the entire Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels oeuvre and I'm looking for a replacement. Estevao *might* fit the bill—I liked the characters, setting, and storyline, although there could have been a little more spine-tingling-ness to the supernatural element. I'm excited to read more by Estevao.

I'm terrible at keeping up with reading the magazines and literary journals I'm subscribed to. I thought by keeping one—this month it's been Ecotone—on the nightstand I might have a better chance of reading it all the way through. I'm making slow progress because I'd almost always prefer picking up a novel or book-length narrative. Although when I do pick it up, the short stories, essays, and poems are always first-rate and worth reading.

What's on your nightstand?

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Slow Down, Summer!

This is the time of year I start to panic. Midsummer should be all about sun and fun, but as July creeps to a close, I think, "Winter is coming. My kids are growing up. I'm getting old. We're all going to die!" 

That's not true. I actually start freaking out when the lilacs blossom in early June. It hurts too much knowing they'll only be around a couple of weeks. Each subsequent bloom and fade is one step closer to THE END. 

It doesn't help that this year, in addition to the back-to-school sales that seem to start before the previous year of school has ended, I'm being bombarded with dorm-shopping listicles. I haven't even made it to the beach yet, and we're talking clip-on lamps and shower caddies? It just doesn't seem right.

This is the point in the essay where I say something wise, about how the caterpillar in the photo above doesn't worry about the first frost or hungry birds or an early death. It just spends its days munching milkweed, splitting its skin, and emerging bigger and stronger, working its way toward that final split, the spinning of its gold-trimmed chrysalis, the metamorphosis, the trip to Mexico on delicate but strong stained-glass wings. A lot can happen between here and there, but the caterpillar makes the most of the days it has.

But I don't feel wise like a caterpillar. I feel petulant, like a child who doesn't want to leave the park. Only unlike a child, I start worrying about the moment I'll have to leave as soon as I get to the swings, when instead I should just pump my legs and fly through the wind, for as long as I can. But really, what I really really want, is for every day to be a summer day.

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Thursday, July 25, 2019

Learning to Sail

This week I've been taking sailing lessons. I've lived in Maine for more than twenty years and have only been on a sailboat once before, and I spent most of the time napping in the cabin. I wouldn't have even thought of sailing now except that a friend had signed up for the lessons and invited me to join her.

The first day, we helped rig the boat, learned words like sheet, halyard, and boomvang (which I hold dibs on for a band name if I ever take up music), and manned the jib while our instructor, Will, maneuvered the boat out into open water. We hadn't had any classroom instruction, and, though Will did his best to convey the relationship between the boat, the sails, the rudder, and the wind, it was a lot to take in wile putting it into practice. When it came my turn to skipper, a gust of wind caught the mainsail with the sheet cinched tight, we heeled over, and, feeling like I was sitting in one of those rocking chairs that tips over backward, I forgot everything Will had told us.

Water began to pour into the cockpit, and I looked up in time to see Will sitting on the gunwale, arched over backwards in a vain attempt to counterbalance the tilt of the boat. "Release the mainsheet," he said through clenched teeth. I did, the boat righted, and we spent a long time bailing the water out.

The next day we had much calmer breezes. A bit too calm, as we petered out in the doldrums near the end of our lesson. Day three there was a chance of thunderstorms, so we stayed on dry land, practicing tying knots and studying the points of sail. We were learning backwards, but on a boat you have to take what Mother Nature tosses your way.

By day four, I started to put all the pieces together—tiller, mainsheet, wind direction, points of sail—and managed a successful man overboard drill (rescuing Taylor, the moldy boat fender) and docked the boat.

From our first day, I was struck by the many variables involved in sailing—the wind, the water, the boat itself, gravity, waves, the sails, the lines, the shore, other boats—more moving parts, I thought, than any endeavor I'd ever before attempted. Then I remembered writing. There's plot, character, narrative arc, emotional arc, description, dialogue, point of view, theme, structure, rhythm, word choice. All must work together to keep the whole sailing smoothly.

A couple weeks ago, my sails were full and I was gliding effortlessly, making revisions to my book, starting a new essay. Then I had to change direction to work on projects for other people, and though I tacked fairly smoothly, when I finished the other projects, my bow nosed into the wind, and I found myself in irons, sails luffing. I'd lost momentum, and, moving backwards, my rudder steered the boat in the opposite way I wanted it to go.

My only choice is to scull until my sails catch wind—that means put my butt in a chair and pick up a project, even if it looks about as appealing as a swamped boat, and fiddle with it until I start to pick up speed again. I fully intend to bail out that essay—but I will probably wait until my sailing lessons are finished.

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Thursday, July 18, 2019

Goodbye First Car

Earlier this week I had to take my car to the mechanic for some repairs. I brought M with me so he could clean all the stuff out of his car, which had joined the 100 or so other Volvos in the bone yard out back after it died two days before graduation. After we'd cleared out the tennis rackets and school notebooks, loose change, rearview mirror ornaments, and yerba mate cans, after we'd taken off the license plates and removed the registration from the glove box, I gave them a few minutes alone together.

The black wagon was only "his" car by dint of an overindulgent father and a mother who prefers not spending all of her time carting kids around. Yet once he had the keys in his hand, he started calling "my car," and no one contradicted him, except for a perceptive and indignant younger brother.

We didn't intend to send M to college with the car, and so the parting would have happened even if the engine hadn't blown. Knowing this did not make the moment of goodbye less poignant. There was a summer's worth of transportation needs to consider, aside from the fact that it was his first car. A boy's first car is a big deal. It means freedom, especially where we live, miles from the nearest sidewalk, bike path, or bus. Like a tribal coming-of-age custom, driving is the bridge from childhood into manhood.

I have before me for this summer and the fall (and quite possibly the next ten years) the project of clearing our house of the trappings of childhood—the story books and stuffed animals still crammed in the twins' closet, boxes and bins of blocks and Legos and wooden toys piled in the basement and garage, bicycles to match every stage of childhood, pint-sized lifejackets, three-quarter length sleeping bags, Matchbox cars, plastic dinosaurs, wooden trains.

Each of these things is weighted with memories, with hopes and possibilities, disappointment and fulfillment. We imbue material items with too much value and emotional power in our culture, and I tend toward the sentimental. C doesn't help, with all his talk of "save it for the grandchildren."

The car was easy, for me—being pronounced dead at the mechanic's shop, letting it go entailed little effort, no rereading of pages or stroking worn fur, no packing into a box and delivering to the thrift store. The car is not connected to that time, long gone, when my children were children. But for M, too young and too practical for nostalgia and more interested in the future than the past, this more recent parting will likely hold significance until he hangs his wooden pineapple from the rearview mirror of another car.

This post went out last week to subscribers of my newsletter, along with some bonus material. You can subscribe here.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

On My Nightstand ~ June into July 2019

I like to have a lot of books from different genres going at one time, each genre lending itself to a different time of day.

Now that work is done for the season and I don't have to rush to get anywhere by 8 a.m., I'm enjoying a morning reading routine. First, I read the day's entry from's Naturally Curious Day By Day by Mary Holland, followed by a handful of poems. I'm still working my way through Balancing Act 2, an anthology of Maine women poets. If I have time to linger over breakfast or, even better, in bed, I read a little nature writing. Edwin Way Teale's North With the Spring has followed me into summer, and I'm still enjoying his apple blossoms and warblers.

If I have time to read during the day, usually at lunchtime or while kids are warming up for a soccer game or if I'm sitting in a waiting room, I often pick up nonfiction. This month I've been reading I Miss You When I Blink, a collection of essays by Mary Laura Philpott, which I learned about on the #amwriting podcast and discovered in the book store when I was wandering around with a coupon and no specific purchase in mind. I always enjoy collections like this that demostrate that your life doesn't have to be dramatic or traumatic in order to engender good nonfiction writing. Interestingly, the essays in the first half of the collection wander through a little of this, a little of that before finally coming to the crux of Philpott's story, which is that, in her early 40s, she found herself vaguely but distinctly unhappy, despite all the trappings of a good life.  It's a scenario a lot of women I know, including myself, have dealt with and are dealing with. A series of choices and lucky breaks that lead Philpott out of the doldrums and into a new city, a new job, and a more satisfying life made me kind of want to hate her, except that she's such an endearing narrator that's impossible. 

Reading nonfiction during the day makes me feel responsible, like I'm kind of working. If I want to be a rebel, I'll pick up fiction. My friend and grad school mentor Aaron Hamburger recently came out with a new book (more on that in a later post), and I realized I'd never read his previous novel. I have a bad habit of buying lots of books a readings and book signings and adding them to the "to-read" pile, where they get lost in the crowd. So before I went to the reading for Aaron's new book, I pulled out Faith for Beginners, a story that takes place during a Midwestern Jewish family's trip to Israel. The protagonists are the mother, Mrs. Michelson, and her younger son, Jeremy, a gay man in his early 20s who's experiencing a delayed adolescence. As the two of them make their way through the searing heat of Jerusalem, they are each forced to confront their personal shortcomings as they reach inside and find hidden strengths. It's a humorous, touching, and very human tale.

I'll usually read a chapter of either my nonficton or fiction book at bedtime, and then, before I go to sleep, I like to read a bit of murder mystery, suspense, or ghost story. My taste in this area tends toward the cozy and gothic. I eschew gratuitous and graphic violence. I need there to be a real who done it puzzle. I like suspense. I like informative. I like a bit of romance and a happy ending. Yes, I'm describing Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels. But I branched out a little. My mom sent me Murder With Peacocks by Donna Andrews, a madcap murder mystery involving three weddings (the narrator is the maid of honor and chief cook and bottle washer for all three), a flock of peacocks, and several assorted bodies. It was an entertaining ride, though I don't think I did very well keeping track of all the aunts and uncles and cousins who made their way into the story. In early June, I attended a crime writing conference and came home with an armload of books by Maine authors. The first of these that I've read is Crime and Punctuation by Kaitlyn Dunnett, the first in the Deadly Edits series, which cracked me up, since I spent the winter as an editor/proofreader (and murder did cross my mind on occasion). This book falls into the cozy who-done-it category (complete with old house and cat), as the narrator, having returned to her hometown after retirement, tracks down the killer of one of her clients.

What's on your nightstand this month?

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Paddle Away With Me

I slide the kayak off the roof racks and balance it on my left shoulder—it weighs less than the double stroller I heaved in and out of the back of my car for three years—and ease the boat into the water near the culvert. Bullfrogs thrum in the wetland across the road, and green frogs twang on the edges of the pond. A small painted turtle hovering in the shallows dives away at my approach, and I hope I've frightened it away from any ideas of crossing the road.

I bought this boat on a whim a few weeks ago. I was mad because I'd been made to work on the Sunday of Memorial Weekend, and the sporting goods store was having a sale. So I decided to treat my ill humor with a little retail therapy on my lunch break. Only it wasn't a whim, because for years I've thought how nice it would be to have a little kayak for exploring the ponds and bogs and swamps near my home. But I thought that if I had one kayak, I would need five, plus some enormous vehicle in which to tote both boats and family.

The boat glides through the tall rushes of the outlet channel and out into open water. Usually I like to paddle along the northern shore, nosing among the pickerel weed and lily pads and watching whirligig beetles twirl, but today I've been staring down a threatening thunderstorm, and now that the dark bank of cumulonimbus clouds has passed on, I have only half an hour before I need to hurry home, cook dinner, and drive kids to their soccer game. So I paddle straight across the pond, heading for the northern shore.

It's easy to forget, when you're a mom, that you can do things by yourself. By "can" I mean both "are cabable of" and "are allowed to." The latter makes some sense; after years in which peeing alone is a triumph, you tend consider the people you gave birth to extensions of your own body. "Whither thou goest" and all that. But the former is crazy. Motherhood is a job that requires the knowlege of a complete set of encyclopedias, the organizational skills of a NASA ground crew, the control of a drill seargant, and the patience of Mother Theresa. Yet somehow raising children makes us feel unequal to other tasks. How much of that feeling is inherent, I wonder, and how much dictated by society?

I paddle northward, into a wind that rumples the dark surface of the water, calling gelatinous core muscles into duty. This pond is only two miles from my house, and it's small, only about 22 acres in area and 18 feet at its deepest point. But there are only five houses on its shore, all on the southwest corner. With the road and the houses at my back, I might be paddling into the wilderness. The eastern shore is edged in hemlocks and, beyond, a wooded hillside. To the north stand the spindly forms of larch trees, rising from a sphagnum bog. Tree swallows perch on the bare upper branches of the larches, chittering and making forways over the pond to snap up bugs.

Sheep laurel grows dense along the boggy shore, bright with magenta blooms. Turqoise pond damsels dance along the edge between water and land. I nose my boat between two hummocks to get a closer look at a pair of alien-shaped pitcher plant flowers and notice a small pink blossom, then another and another and another. Calopogon orchids have come into bloom in the last two days.

I take photos and make a few quick sketches, but all too soon duty calls me back across the pond. I paddle straight and steady, the breeze now at my back, my abdominal muscles remembering that they once had structure. I lift the boat out of the water and onto the car, cinching it down tight, and drive home with the wind blowing through my hair.

This post went out last week to subscribers of my newsletter, along with some bonus material. You can subscribe here.
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