A monthly post about what I've been reading.
Friday, November 17, 2023
Friday, November 10, 2023
Making the decision to have a child - it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.
― Elizabeth Stone
I was in the shower when news of the Columbine shooting came over the radio. C came into the bathroom of our little apartment in Gardiner and said, "There's been a shooting at a high school in Littleton." My sister went to Littleton High School at the time. I had to rinse the shampoo out of my hair and scramble into a towel before I could come out and hear the details--different high school. Other people's sisters and brothers killed.
I heard about the Sandy Hook shooting on NPR over Saturday morning pancakes--my car at the time didn't have a radio, so I didn't hear the news on the drive home. I spent the weekend weeping and grabbing my kids, who were in second and sixth grade, to hug them at random times. I didn't know I'd been holding my breath until five o'clock Monday morning when a snow day was called and I inhaled deeply for the first time all weekend.
The call about Lewiston came Wednesday night. C's college, across the river from Lewsiton, would be closed the following day due to an "active shooter" event--at least sixteen dead, several more wounded. The next morning, eighteen dead and the shooter at large. Grocery stores and businesses around the state closed. The twins' colleges, more than an hour's drive away from the shootings, suspended classes and organized activities, because no one knew where the murderer was. No one felt safe.
Thursday and Friday passed in a surreal state of dread. There was no reason to suppose the shooter would find his way to our corner of the state--or our children's. Yet low-flying planes and helicopters passed over all day. What could they possibly see from up there? You know the rest of the story--they found his body Friday night. Self-inflicted gunshot wound. For some reason they always kill themselves after inflicting maximum damage on innocent victims, never before.
I breathed a sigh of relief when my kids graduated eighth grade. They made it through elementary school without being shot. And again when they graduated high school. We live in a country where it is an achievement to make it through thirteen years of school without being killed in the classroom or the hallways or on the playground by a man wielding a weapon of war. But getting through school does not guarantee our children safety from being blown apart by bullets fired from high capacity guns. There is still college, the movie theater, church, big box stores, concerts, night clubs, and now bowling alleys and bars.
I do not want to write about this today. I do not want to think about my children walking around as vulnerable as hearts outside of bodies. Of the child killed last week. Of the adults killed who were somebody's children. Of the children being bombed and killed and terrorized in Ukraine and Gaza and Israel. All I know is that until we learn to value life over death, human hearts over weapons of war, none of us will ever be safe.
Friday, October 20, 2023
A monthly post about what I've been reading.
My big goal for the residency was to figure out if I still have the interest and motivation to work on a project that I've been thinking about and nibbling at over the course of nearly two decades, which is to put together a compilation of writing and biographies of women who write/wrote about motherhood and nature. So several of these were books I'd collected over the years in hopes of finding writing that would be applicable to this project and either hadn't read, hadn't finished reading, or had read in a different context. These were:
Linea Nigra by Jazmina Barrera, a diary-style accounting of pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding, with a lot of literature and art intertwined as well as earthquakes.
My Garden Book by Jamaica Kincaid, a collection of essays about gardening, plants, and colonialism.
Parrot's Wood,= by Erma Fisk, an amusing and grueling account of a month in primitive conditions at a bird refuge in Costa Rica by a retired woman who got involved in ornithology and bird conservation after the untimely death of her husband.
The Curve of Time by M Wylie Blanchet, charming and often harrowing tales of navigating the coast of British Columbia in a small boat with five children after the death of the author's husband.
Shaped by Wind and Water by Anne Haymond Zwinger, reflections on a life of nature writing from a week at an artist residency.
The Natural World of Louise Dickinson Rich, a three-part account of the author's life in three zones of New England: the Piedmont of Massachusetts, the North Woods of Maine, and the coast of Maine.
I also had time for fun reading and kept going on my Mary Stewart streak, with My Brother Michael and Nine Coaches Waiting, both fantastic examples of the romantic suspense genre, as well as The Wind Off The Small Isles, which had a great setup and then sort of fizzled for me. I guess it's good to know that even a supremely talented writer sometimes swings and misses.
When I returned home, I read Rooted 2: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction, an anthology in which my essay "Faith in a Seed" appears, which was edited by Josh MacIvor Anderson and came out from Outpost19 books this summer.
Finally, in what is becoming a September tradition, I listened to the audiobook of the newest Richard Osman, The Last Devil to Die, and then I re-listened to the earlier volumes and then the new one all over again. I love these books. They're smart and funny and clever.
Friday, October 13, 2023
Before we built our house, I had a dream of a little room just for me where I could read, write, knit, sew, make art, and do yoga. But we didn't put a room like that into our house, and if we had it would have become a bedroom for one of our kids when we jumped from one two three in one fell swoop.
Over the years, I've tried to carve out a little bit of space for me here and there: a corner of the living room, (which I've frequently reorganized and rededicated to writing and other pursuits, and corners of my bedroom, where I kept my sewing machine and one writing desk or another.
A gallery of these various corners:
Saturday, October 7, 2023
About the eldest child moving back in: It's nice to have him around. He's not much trouble, and he can even be helpful. Also he's messy and noisy, and I hope that the challenge of finding a job as a recent college graduate in what was supposed to be a high-demand and lucrative field is just a temporary hiccough and not a (further) sign of the decay of our society.
About turning 50: It felt exactly like every other birthday, which is to say, no different than the day before. It's only a big number on paper.
So "life-changing" is a little less seismic that the term suggests. But I do feel my life changing, as I move into what Mary Louise Kelley calls "the third act" in her book It Goes So Fast. As fate would have it, I began Act 3 in a way that I hope sets the stage for the rest of the play.
Early this month, I had the good fortune of spending a week on a lake at an artist residency. It was the same place I'd stayed six years ago, although in a different cabin; my cabin this time wasn't as charming, but it was closer to the lake and so a fair tradeoff. My work wasn't as focused this time, either--planning a new project as opposed to major revisions on a first draft.
But once I got over the sensation that someone was looking over my shoulder tsk-tsking over my lack of productivity, I settled into a rhythm. I swam in the lake. I went kayaking. I climbed a mountain. I took naps. I stayed up reading till 2 a.m. one night and went to bed at 8 p.m. others. I chatted with artists and writers from the other cabins, visited my friend at the local library, and had a long conversation the owner of a nearby bakery who made the best croissant I've ever eaten. I read nine books, drafted an essay, made some final tweaks to the almost-finished draft of one book, and did some serious thinking and planning and even a little writing on the new book project.
And now I'm back home, and it's fall, that season of settling down to work. While I don't have a lake out my front door and I don't have the house completely to myself, I am working on making at least a little piece of each day into an artist residency--shut out the world around me and delve into reading, writing, and thinking, with a little bit of wandering and adventure, too.
Friday, September 22, 2023
A monthly post about what I've been reading.
And, finally, I finished reading Elizabeth George's first craft book Write Away, which gives very useful advice for crafting a novel in general (not just a crime novel), the most useful of which is:
You will be published if you possess...talent, passion, and discipline.
You will probably be published if you possess...either talent and discipline or passion and discipline.
You will likely be published if you possess neither talent nor passion but still have discipline....
But if all you possess is talent or passion, if all you possess is talent and passion, you will not be published.
Which is to say, sit your butt down and get to work!
Friday, August 18, 2023
A monthly post about what I've been reading.
Friday, August 4, 2023
Mountains steep as church spires. Ancient mosaics. Streams of crystal-clear water running over chalk-white rock. A Roman emperor's basement. Twisting Medieval streets. Folk-art beehives. A bomb shelter. Opal-blue lakes. Saint's reliquaries. Deep, underground caves. Bullet holes and mortar craters. Cities the color of sherbet. Butterflies. Lizards. Storks. Swifts. Seas of red roof tiles. A sea of turquoise water. A sea of humanity.
These are just a few of the things we experienced during three weeks in Slovenia and Croatia this month. C and I wanted to take a big trip to celebrate all three kids graduating and *big* birthdays for both of us this year, and we've always wanted to travel to Europe (among other places) as a family, but the timing and the finances had never aligned. With all the fledglings perched to fly out of the nest, it felt like now or never. To make the trip happen we cobbled together our savings, sold some building equipment, and gratefully accepted support from relatives.
Our choice of destination came as a bit of a surprise--both to ourselves and to those we told about it--but after consulting a well-traveled relative and watching several episodes of Rick Steves, we concluded that the the two countries would provide exactly the kind of trip we wanted to experience: a mix of nature and culture, mountains and seashore, caves and church spires, art and architecture, and both deep and recent history. I also had a family connection--a grandfather who came from Slovenia--which added a bit of a personal journey element to the trip for me.
Slovenia felt in many ways like coming home for me--the spectacular Julian alps were not that far different than my own Colorado Rockies and the forested lowlands were every bit as green as Maine. Beyond those similarities, it was a completely different world, as clean, organized, and well-run as an imaginary land. I never saw a pothole, nor hardly a scrap of litter. Every house was charmingly built, in white or cream or pale green or yellow stucco, with a red-tiled roof, wide overhangs, and second-story balconies with decorative railings adorned with geraniums. And the houses stood in neat little villages, rather than sprawling over every inch of countryside the way they do here.The capital city, Ljubljana, is a fairyland of beautifully designed art-nouveau-style buildings, where even in the outskirts, modern skyscrapers and old communist-era apartment blocks manage to look attractive. Even industrial yards and junk piles behind farmsteads looked tidy. The people we met were friendly and kind, and the cake was amazing.
In Croatia we moved into a much more populous, much more Mediterranean land, where long arm of history exerted a greater influence and left a far less orderly imprint on the ground. Over two weeks, we wound our way up and down the stone staircases of ancient, fortified cities on the coast, visiting Roman ruins and Gothic churches. The white-hot sun beat down out of a white-blue sky and bounced back on us from the limestone walls and earth, and we sought relief in Euro-style lemonade (water with pure lemon juice; no sugar, little ice) and the Adriatic, its water a mystical aqua-blue, where, with little in the way of beaches and even less in tides, you swim off of rocks that you wouldn't dream of going near in Maine for fear of being dashed to death by the waves.
What struck me on my only previous trip to Europe--ten days in Ireland ten years ago--was the way the Medieval walls and Georgian townhouses and modern buildings were woven together into a tapestry that demonstrated that time is a continuum and we are part of history. This continuum was even more pronounced in Croatia, where in Pula a Roman amphitheater still stands among the walls of a modern, industrial city, in Split, where tourists throng through the cobbled streets of a town built by Medieval refugees within the abandoned walls of a Roman emperor's retirement palace, and in countless other towns along the Adriatic coast, where magnets and shot glasses and linen dresses are hawked from the tiny first-floor shops of the towering stone or stucco buildings from which, long ago, merchants sold bread or flax, indulgences or tinctures.
It's not hard to imagine the same steep, narrow, stone-paved streets, now thronged with tourists, instead surging with donkeys, unwashed humans, rotting produce, and waste. Here in the US we tend to keep history separate from life. We might visit Gettysburg or the Liberty Bell, but rarely is our past so starkly woven into our present. And what a history--the outer wall of Dubrovnik, the Grič tunnel of Zagreb, the forts and fortifications, all play the same role, a (often vain) attempt to protect the place, and the people, from invaders. This part of the world sits at a crossroads: between west and east, north and south. It's been battled over by the Illyrians, the Romans, the Slavs, the Ottomans, the Austrians, the Hungarians, the Venetians, among others, and, most recently, by the individual republics that made up the former Yugoslavia. You can see the signs of this latest war in the rebuilt tile roofs of Dubrovnik, where armies of Serbia and Montenegro aimed for the country's cultural history (and, across the border in Bosnia and Herzegovina, at the rebuilt Old Bridge in Mostar, where Croatian army did the same).
Despite this long, hard history, which you might expect to leave the residents bitter or careworn, we met many delightful people throughout our journey: the proprietor of the tourist farm where we stayed our first four days in Slovenia and his family; a boy who guided us to our apartment in Koper; another young man who did the same in Zagreb; the hosts of several of our apartments who went out of their way to make our stay comfortable; many of the waiters in the restaurants we ate in (most of whom took great delight in joking with us and in our attempts at "hello" and "thank you"--which was the extent of our language acquisition); the woman behind the desk at the modern art museum in Dubrovnik, with whom I bonded over being a mother of three sons, including twins.
When it came time to prepare to come home, I didn't want to leave. I was exhausted by the heat and the many miles of stone stairs we climbed every day, and I really wouldn't have minded eating a few vegetables and drinking a tall glass of ice-cold well water. But I wasn't ready to break up the family party--M would be staying behind to travel for a few additional weeks, and, after we got home, the twins would be back to their self-contained ways. I was enjoying us all being together. I also wasn't ready to give up having new and interesting places to go and sights to see every day. Somebody said the sign of a successful vacation is when you're ready to go home at the end, but for me I think it's never wanting it to end.
Friday, July 14, 2023
A monthly post about what I've been reading.
Friday, July 7, 2023
Twenty-two years ago, I sat on the purple velvet couch in our sweet apartment in Gardiner--the one with the high ceilings, tall windows, and claw-foot tub--with a hot, sticky, diaper-clad baby glued to my own hot, stick body and a fan blowing directly at us in our second-floor apartment in with all those south- and west-facing windows. It was July and it was hot, and that hot, sticky baby didn't want to be anywhere but glued to me.
I'm certain that in that moment, I believed I was living my permanent reality--that I'd been glued to a hot, sticky baby since the beginning of time and I would be glued to a hot, sticky baby for all of eternity. At a time when he wouldn't even let me lay him down of his blanket on the floor (where surely it was cooler than it was attached to me), I couldn't imagine that one day he would walk and talk and ride a bike. Perhaps, if pressed, I could have acknowledged intellectually that yes, one day this little ball of sweat and misery would one day graduate college. But viscerally? No. We were as we always were and always would be, eking scant relief from an oscillating fan. I had no way of knowing that every hot, sticky day he was imperceptibly but inexorably moving away from me.
And then that day passed, and the next, and the next, and, more than 8,000 days later the inconceivable (in that moment) happened: the baby had become a man. His bald head had grown blond hair. His blue eyes stayed blue. He had learned to walk and talk and ride a bike. He had gone to school and learned to drive and traveled around Europe on his own. On the day after his twenty-second birthday, he walked across a stage and accepted his college diploma.
I brought a box of tissues with me to graduation, expecting (after a weepy moment at baccalaureate the previous day) to be a blubbering mess. But as it turned out I felt no sadness or nostalgia, but only pure joy and pride and amazement. Perhaps it was that the college had pulled out all the stops to make it a lively, joyous occasion (to the extent of ensuring--somehow; I'm certain they have the resources to do it--that the rain poured only during the night and that both baccalaureate and graduation took place in spectacular sunshine). Perhaps I was distracted by the logistics of orchestrating a large and varied group of people who had come out to celebrate with us. Perhaps any sadness I might have felt was tempered by the mountain of his personal possessions that we'd moved out of his dorm room and back into our house over the previous days.
Whatever it was that brought me that sense of peace and rightness, as he made his way among his cap-and-gown-clad peers, I knew that those long days over twenty-two short years had led exactly to where they were supposed to. I couldn't have been happier, and I didn't use a single tissue.
Friday, June 16, 2023
A monthly post about what I've been reading.
I had a lot going on in May, so it was a kind of light reading month, especially toward the second half.
I picked up What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman at a used bookstore, and I really liked it. It's about the disappearance of two little girls about 20 or so years in the past, told from multiple points of view and shifting back-and-forth between the present and the time of the disappearance, with lots of unreliable narrators along the way. Her style reminded me a bit of Elizabeth George (see below). I'll be looking for more of her books in the future.
Speaking of Elizabeth George, I read her first book, A Great Deliverance, which introduces her detective duo, Inspecter Linley and Sgt. Havers, and also introduces her style of multiple points of view. It's clearly not as strong as her future books, in terms of the character motivation and development and maintaining POV, but I like seeing how authors develop.
Finally, a book that was truly on my book stack, Jennifer Weiner's Then Came You. The premise of this book is what would happen if the egg donor, surrogate, and older sister and future mother of a baby conceived and born through egg donation, in vitro fertilization, and surrogacy were to all meet. The plot that gets them together is somewhat convoluted, and the ending is tied up in a bit too neat of a bow for my taste, but it was an entertaining story that gave a lot to think about with regard to unusual family structures.
The first book (which is the bottom book), was actually from April, but missed the photo shoot for last month's post. Trusting the River by Jean Aspen follows Aspen and her husband around the US as they travel, meet up with friends and family, and try to figure out what they want their retirement to look like. It's a book about aging, planning, looking back over a long and full life, and enduring terrible loss. I'd read both of Aspen's previous books, Arctic Daughter and Arctic Son about her times in the Alaska wilderness as a young woman and, later, with her second husband and their young son. And I recently discovered her and her husband's documentaries, Arctic Son and Rewilding Kernwood, the first about building their magical homestead in Alaska and the second about restoring it to its natural condition after the loss of their son and the realization that they were getting older and would be unable to maintain it, while meanwhile encroachment on the wilderness by hunters was making the home vulnerable to vandalism. I really admired Aspen's wisdom in both documentaries and was excited to find she'd written another book. The book is lovely and gives a lot to think about, and fills in a lot of the narrative around her life before and after the other two books. I also think it could have benefitted from a good editor, as it meandered a lot. Still, I enjoyed reading about the full trajectory of a fascinating life and I appreciated the intention with which Jean and her husband approached their later years.
Finally, I don't often pick up a book as soon as I hear about it, but after listening to two interviews with Mary Louise Kelly on NPR, I grabbed a copy of It. Goes. So. Fast., about the senior year of her oldest son. The book begins with the realization that this is her last chance to be there for her kids, after years of having to make sacrifices in favor of being an international correspondent and news anchor on All Things Considered. Few motherhood memoirs encompass the teenage years, so I appreciated Kelly going there, and I really appreciated her honesty and her laying bare the challenges she has faced as a mom over the years. It's brave for anyone to do that, but especially so for a public figure. I also love the new life philosophy I got from the book, to whit: "Why should things be easy when they can be difficult?" Amen, sister.
Friday, June 9, 2023
Fittingly, all my babies were born in May, their early days and weeks and months and years passing by like the flitting wing of a warbler, the falling petals of the serviceberry. But unlike spring, whose cycles repeat year after year after year, the progression of childhood is a one-way road. I marvel when I walk into a store that sells baby clothes and toys and books--so much STUFF for so fleeting a time. You'd be better off putting all that money toward their future college or car insurance and instead giving them a bit of crinckly paper or a cardboard box to play with for that microsecond of infancy.
For a while, the middle-childhood years feel a bit more like winter than spring, with days and weeks and months stretching out slow and taffy-like, and you begin to believe that you've been pushing the Sisyphean boulder of "brush your teeth" and "do your homework" and "stop tormenting your brother" up the mountain for eternity. But even that stage eventually passes and one day you wake up into a household of men, two actual 18-year-old MEN in your home, all simian arms and scratchy chins and rumbling baritone voices, and you gawp in disbelief that these six-foot bodies once fit inside your own (at the same time!).
My joke has always been, "He/they can't be one or five or twelve years old, because I'm not one or five or twelve years older." I'm certainly not eighteen and twenty-two years older than when my kids were born. There's nothing quite like witnessing your kids grow up to remind you that you yourself are aging. The other thing that raising kids reminds you of is your relative slacker-ness. In the first year alone, they learn to sit, crawl, walk, and talk. Meanwhile, you consider having taken a shower a major accomplishment. And it keeps going--reading, writing, long division, calculus, computer coding, Spanish, woodworking, pottery.
They just keep passing you by, each moment like a cottony aspen seed, exquisite as it drifts by on the slightest breeze, but impossible to grasp. Some years, like senior year, are like the snowstorm flurry of those seeds on a breezy May afternoon. So many moments passing by, and nothing to do but try your best to appreciate each one as it flits by, before May rolls into June and June into July and so on and on.
A version of this post went out recently to subscribers of my newsletter, along with some bonus material. Subscribe here and receive a free PDF of my illustrated short essay "Eleven Ways to Raise a Wild Child."
Friday, May 26, 2023
A lot is happening in our neck of the woods over the next few months. Three kids have birthdays (18, 18, and 22). Three kids graduate (college, high school squared). Family will visit from across the country. Parties and ceremonies and events will attend it all. And then the five of us will depart on a VERY BIG trip.I'm trying to lean into the abundance of it all, coaching myself to revel in each moment as it happens rather than feel like a steamroller is bearing down on me. My nature is, of course, to want to panic about all of the details that have not yet been resolved (hotel rooms, rental cars, house sitters, announcements, invitations, cleaning), and after 18 years of three kids' birthdays in May, my muscle memory of this time of year is wired to anxiety, even if big kids' birthdays aren't as big a deal as little ones'.
I read recently that it's not in human nature to be comfortable with feeling good. After millions of years of evolution preparing us to expect a saber-toothed tiger around every corner, we're wired to be suspicious when things are going well and we tend to short-circuit those good feelings with worry, deflection, and self-sabotage. I don't know if there's any scientific evidence of this theory's accuracy, but it makes sense. And I'm making a conscious effort to feel good about this moment in time: Our kids are nearly grown up! They've made it into/through college! We're finally getting a chance to travel after all these years! Hurrah!
I've also recently heard that it's important to be comfortable with uncomfortable feelings as well. It's natural for anxiety to arise in the face of uncertainty---and until the twins settled on the colleges they are going to attend and until we pushed "purchase" on our plane tickets, we were swimming in a sea of uncertainty. There will continue to be uncertainty until each item over the next few months is checked off our lists---until the twins are settled into their dorms and M into his first post-college job---but I'm resisting the pull to hurry through it all and get to the other side, where the answers may be known, but it will all be over. This, here, now---in the sea of uncertainty and in the face of the steamroller of life changes is where life takes place. And I don't want to miss that, either the good feelings or the anxiety.