The old house

I got word last night that the old house is being sold. Not this old house in which we live, but the house of my grandmother, a ramshackle Cape Cod in the hamlet of Tug Hollow where my father was raised.

Although I never lived there, the place looms large in my memory. I spent many hours with my grandmother poring over its contents – the piles of bound Harper’s Weeklys, the portraits of ancestors, the letters her sons wrote home during World War II.

I have used its four walls in novels and stories. I dreamed of living there. I dreamed of writing there.

My grandmother, Mary Angeline Woodmansee, and her first husband, Henry H. Thayer, bought the house in May 1925 from James Kennedy and Marie DeVere. They paid a few hundred dollars.

Although rundown then, the house would have been at its best in May. The lilacs must have been blooming, the maples birthing their first fragile leaves. The barn had yet to be blown down by the Hurricane of 1938. There probably was a chicken coop, a root cellar.

They must have arrived with hope, Mamie and Henry.

My father was nearly 2 that spring, his brother Sam 4. Their siblings Leona, Henry H. Jr., and Betty would be born in the house; so too would the youngest, Sylvia Louise, who lived only a few months before dying in her sleep on Dec. 10, 1932.

Most of the land was taken up by a bog. The house perched on a high point level with the road, and the land steeply descended behind it.

The well was almost in the road. That road was dirt, with so little traffic that a passing car would prompt my grandmother to cry out “Hark!” and run to the window.

The old house would remain in the family for more than 70 years. Like the Witness Houses of Concord and Lexington, it saw the boys go off to war, and thankfully return. It watched Henry leave and a new man take his place.

It sheltered my grandmother as she made home brew in the cellar, baked her famous pies, and wove rugs on an antique loom. It saw her age from her comely 20s and 30s to stout middle age and then a stooped old age.

And it watched itself be replaced by a new house on the best part of the property, which my grandmother’s second husband built for her in the 1970s.

This is all externals, the literal house where a family lived, grew up, and scattered. It is not the house in my mind.

I have roamed through its memory many times. Sometimes the rooms are as they were: my grandmother’s white iron bed with the clip-on light; the tiny bathroom made from a closet; the Glenwood range that provided the only heat.

I have imagined myself writing there. Even now, though the house will surely be torn down, I can picture it: a spare sort of cabin, not a place to live, but a destination, an escape.

A writing cabin needs little. A wood stove to take off the chill in fall and winter. A writing desk – any flat surface will do. Windows that let in the light.

But it is not a place for frippery. Henry David Thoreau discovered this at Walden Pond. “I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was undusted still, and I threw them out the window in disgust.”

You can visit a reproduction of his small house across the street from Walden Pond in Concord, and its simplicity is immediately apparent: there are replicas of the famous three chairs, “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” A cot; a small table; a green desk; a hearth. That is all.

By Thoreau standards, the Tug Hollow house would seem commodious indeed. But it was a tight fit for a family of seven. The real estate ad lists only “one bedroom and one bathroom,” discounting entirely the second-floor space under the eaves where my father and his siblings slept.

But as a writing cabin? A thinking space? It is just the right size. A cozy parlor with a wood stove. A bedroom for napping. A squat kitchen for making a cup of tea or warming up soup.

I will never get to write in that house. My father inherited it, as it turned out, but reasoning that I already owned a house and my sister didn’t want it, he sold his half of the property. I learned of this after the fact.

I already have fulfilled one fantasy of redoing an old house, the one where I grew up, and there is neither money nor spousal patience for another. I have a lovely office with book shelves and a desk and a red upholstered chair.

But the Tug Hollow house will live on in my heart, along with the smell of lilacs, the drumming of rain on the roof, and the crackle of burning wood.

The Tug Hollow house, 83 Dawley Park Road, Richmond, from the road.

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In the desert

After the writer finishes a long, involved piece of work (novel, script, memoir, what-have-you), a pause sets in. 

It should be a comfortable rest period. You know the cliched metaphors: recharge the batteries. The ebb and flow of creativity. Hibernation.

It does not feel like rest, however. Or being recharged, slipping slowly out to sea, falling asleep.

It’s more violent. Like being tossed off a moving train. Capsized into the ocean. Falling out of bed.

For weeks, months, years, you have been living this work. Carrying its story around in your head. You looked forward to the hours you would spend in the other world of your creation. Sometimes you have even dreamt about it.

Now, it is gone. 

An ordinary person might be relieved. A nonwriter might say, Well, relax then! Take it easy! Enjoy life!

I am convinced that most writers do not think this way. That they relax into their creative minds, into words and other worlds, not away from them. That to a writer being untethered from any narrative is a disruption, not a relief.

Not much is written about this after-writing time. Writers’ diaries, advice magazines and craft books are full of discussion about how to write well, where to get ideas, and how to avoid writer’s block. 

But this period of which I speak is distinct from writer’s block. It is not lack of craft or even ideas that characterize it. Writer’s block implies that a project has been begun, a narrative started, and then suddenly stopped the way a dam blocks water.

This hiatus is more of a desert than a dam. Geographically, the desert is marked by long stretches of arid land, lack of water, and sparse vegetation and animal life that have adapted to the harsh climate. In the same way, a writer’s desert is desiccated and extreme.

A writer who suddenly finds themselves in this desert is not a native species. He or she is away from the lush garden of their usual creative state and are ill-equipped to adapt. They may eventually walk out  of the desert in the way lost campers sometimes do, dusty, thirsty, maybe even near death, but alive. 

But what if they don’t?

The fear that marks the writer-nomad in this after-writing desert is that they will not escape. That never again will the Eden of creativity inspire them. That the task just completed can never be repeated.  No more books, plays, biographies, poetry collections. 

That they will continue to live in the desert, stuck between oases.

So it is useless, I think, to counsel the writer who is between projects to relax and enjoy a desert stroll. No sane person would choose to spend months under the hot sun in Death Valley, waiting for the one day of the year when the rains come and desert flowers bloom. No. For all but the most intrepid, the goal is to get the hell out of there as fast and as safely as possible.

What’s that up ahead? Is it the shimmering waves of heat over a desert highway? Or just another mirage of civilization?

The only way to find out is to keep walking. By which I mean: putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard every day, until the possibility of another project begins to take shape. To dabble in short, quick works, like an en plein air painter chasing the light. To literally walk, if that is your wont. To read, if that is all you can manage.

Do not expect to enjoy the nonwriting. Do not feel guilty if the completion of your magnum opus has left you depressed, restless, uncertain, anxious, or any of the emotions that flood in when the writing ebbs. Accept that walking across the desert is the price you for living a year or two in another world, a lush and vivid place that already has taken on the feel of a dream.

The writer and naturalist Donald Culross Peattie came to the Mojave Desert at the outbreak of World War II. At the trip’s outset, he and his wife set up crude housekeeping in an adobe shack at a friend’s ranch. Peattie arrived haunted and conflicted over the state of the world and his own part in it; the first thing he did was to unplug the radio, but he could not unplug his mind. How could a naturalist justify his existence when all able-bodied men were being called to serve their country?

In this literal desert, however, Peattie continues to follow his life’s work of observing Nature and writing about it. By the end of his journey across the West, he has come to terms with himself. In The Road of a Naturalist, he writes: “I do not know how to justify my way of life, any more than I know how long it can continue. I can only say that this too is reality; this too is truth, this also is the business of a man, and its own wage.”

Crossing the desert, the writer loses sight of her own purpose. Neither does the writer know how long it will take to embark on a life’s work again. All the writer can do is keep moving.

First published in 1941, Donald Culross Peattie’s The Road of a Naturalist was reissuedvin 2013 by Trinity University Press.

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The year of the home library

When most public libraries closed for months, I turned to my own book collection – adding to it, mining it, rereading it. The year of the pandemic was the year of the home library.

My office has two walls of books, and they spill out into two more bookcases in the hall. These are the riches I dreamed of as child, when visits to our tiny village library ignited a love of words. And they would sustain me in ways I could only imagine when the lockdown began during the second week of March.

At first, I had so many books backed up on my to-read list that even a pandemic seemed insufficient to get through them. I still had books to review (that supply would soon dry up) and a stack of volumes to study for my biography of Caroline Hazard.

But by May, all the pages of duty had been turned. One evening, restless and with nothing to read, I wandered upstairs to see what I could find. Scanning the shelves, I longed for a certain type of escape – into comfort and familiarity.

I turned to May Sarton.

Re-reading the journals At Seventy (1982), After the Stroke (1984) and Endgame (1992), I re-entered Sarton’s familiar world in York, Maine, where her cat Bramble and dog Tamas accompany her on winter walks; where hundreds of daffodils bloom each spring; and where the writer and poet struggles with twin impulses to engage with the world, through readings and travel, and retreat from it, writing in her upstairs studio with a view of the sea.

And so began my excursion into my own book collection. I thought I knew what I had amassed and why, but these shelves contained many surprises. Some were old favorites that still had something to say. Others had gone unread for years though I had been unwilling to part with them, as though I knew someday they would open their secrets to me at just the right time.

I had owned Dream Catcher, Margaret A. Salinger’s memoir of J. D. Salinger, since it was published in 2000. But I couldn’t get past the early chapters, which felt flat and detached, an attempt to analyze how World War II combat and years of anti-Semitism may have led her famous father to retreat from life. But now those pages came alive.

I had just spent two months with Anne Morrow Lindbergh, whose diaries and letters live a few shelves way from Dream Catcher yet must have sent out invisible threads of connection. Lindbergh’s early memoirs had touched a cord within me at 14, but now I devoured all of them, from the double tragedies (the kidnapping and death of her first son, Charles Lindbergh Jr., in 1932, and her sister’s death two years later) to the World War II years, when the couple’s isolationist views made them pariahs in intellectual circles. In War Within and Without, it became clear that while Anne did not believe her husband was anti-Semitic, it is hard to defend that view today.

The Lindberghs, I discovered, not only were deeply affected by the war, they shared other commonalities with Salinger. Both were hounded by the press and retreated from public view, Salinger to New Hampshire and the Lindberghs to England and France. Both Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Salinger felt misunderstood by critics and tired of the attention and demands that publishing brought. Even more curious, the couple shared close friends with Salinger, Judge and Mrs. Learned Hand, among the few people the reclusive author let into his circle.

Other treasures awaited on my shelves. I finally finished Katherine Towler’s Snow Island trilogy, set in Rhode Island, which brought me a shelf up to Norman G. Gautreau’s novel about Maine fishermen, Sea Room. One poet’s biography, William Carlos Williams: Poet from Jersey by Reed Whittemore led to two others, The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke by Allan Seager and The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens by Paul Mariani.

Some of these neglected books were gifts. My friend Arline had given me three books in Jacqueline Winspear’s historical fiction series about Maisie Dobbs. I thought I would read them “some day” and then the pandemic turned into an endless string of “some days.” What a treasure awaited in these tales of a detective (she calls herself “a private inquiry agent”) working in post-World War I London. Winspear breaks all the writing rules with her lush descriptions, long flashbacks and recurring characters. Which is to say, she gives us everything true readers savor and editors these days frown upon.

Of course, I added to my library in 2020. Once started on Anne Morrow Lindbergh, I had to find the three of her journals I did not own. Three Maisie Dobbs mysteries led to two more (there are 15 in all – I’m going to need a bigger bookcase). In an antiques store I spotted a bright yellow cover in a box; it turned out to be Ada Clapham Govan’s charming memoir, Wings at My Window (originally published in 1940), about how bird-watching saved her from depression after the deaths of two of her three children.

Govan’s memoir sent me a few dozen books down the shelf to Gladys Taber’s The Stillmeadow Road, her classic about sharing life with her friend Jill in a Connecticut farmhouse. Filled with loving descriptions of the natural world, it is a tribute to both companionship and the quiet pleasures of solitude.

Of course, not all the books in my home library have been read. Others await rereading after long years closed. Even now, some book somewhere is sending out a tentative signal to another, whispering shared confidences. “Maybe,” it is saying, “she will discover us together.”

Ada Clapham Govan’s inspiring story invites the reader to look out the window and engage with their feathered friends, an appropriate activity during pandemic isolation.
The diaries and letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh still speak with a clear and eloquent voice on the powers of introspection.

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Going home for Christmas – in a card

Away from our world of political discontent and pandemic disaster lies another place, of snow-covered hills, fat red cardinals and horse-drawn sleighs. Come with me, then, and enter the Christmas card, a place of country farms and villages, perfect and isolated as a snow globe, where each December arrives dressed in the same snowfall as the last, and no hallmarks of civilization – UPS trucks, utility wires, or blow-up plastic Santas – can ever intrude.

I speak of a certain type of card, with no Madonnas, St. Nicks or elves. The dominant image is a white country house. Cape Cod or Colonial, it typically features a small porch or ell and multiple chimneys emitting a wisp of smoke. Its windows glow with yellow light, and the sky – which ranges from a pale pink to smoky blue – suggests dusk. There’s an outbuilding or two, a wood shed or barn, red of course, and a trail of fencing outlined in white.

The smaller details vary but might include powdered evergreens, snow-dusted berries, and in the foreground two cardinals – a papa (red) and mama (bisque).

If there are people, they are: sledding downhill; skating; riding in a horse-drawn sleigh; or (most popular) dragging home a freshly cut Christmas tree. In one card (Thomas R. Nelson, Hallmark), a lone boy in a tomato-colored parka and blue hat pulls a tree behind him, his dog tramping ahead; in another (Paper Magic, Bill Breedon), it’s a boy and his father, the boy toting a small hack saw.

The prototype card is the Currier & Ives etching, “American Winter Scene,” which features dozens of people, including ice skaters, sledders, and two horse-drawn sleighs.

The one sign of civilization allowed is a (snow-capped) mailbox, Rural Free Delivery being the only acceptable connection to the outside world. For how else would you get your Christmas cards?

Although the farms might sport a red ribbon here and there, these images are devoid of commercialism. No presents under a tree, no tacky icicle lights hanging from the eaves. If you can ignore the fact that Christmas card publishing is a $7.5 billion industry, the message is that the true holiday is about home, not money.

I save these cards from year to year and post them on my creativity bulletin board after Thanksgiving. Their scenes remind me not only of simpler times – perhaps my childhood idea of Christmas, not its actuality – but of the people who sent them: my mother (two cardinals, her favorite bird); her sister, my Aunt Marg (the aforementioned Breedon painting, the whole scene illuminated in gilt); my sister (one lit-up house, two lines of fencing, three outbuildings). They are all gone now, but their Christmas greetings live on.

Not surprisingly, some of these cards I myself picked out – I found them among my mother’s things when she died: A farmhouse with the Christmas tree lighting up the window and a snow-covered pile of wood; the Nelson card with that lone boy bringing home his tree. These are the New England images of Christmas I carry in my heart.

And this was the dream my father carried in his: a farm in Vermont, dusted with snow and heated with wood, far from a paved road or pesky neighbors. No wonder the images still speak to me.

Outside my window, a real Christmas card unfolds. Thick snow blankets the ground and continues to whirl down. Juncos, chickadees and a lone red cardinal flutter on the ground beneath the bird feeder. The road is empty of all but the occasional plow. And in the distance, I can almost see a small figure dragging home his tree, and a pair of horses pulling a sleigh.

The classic Currier & Ives etching, “American Winter Scene,” features all the Christmas card images that would become cliches: horse-drawn sleighs, skaters, sledders, and the bucolic farmhouse waiting to welcome the frolickers home.
The classic image: bringing home the tree.

These are the New England images of Christmas I carry in my heart.

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The small celebration

When I was 12 years old, our Thanksgiving shrank from my grandmother’s wildly excessive extended family celebrations to a turkey dinner at home with the four of us – my father, my mother, my sister Andi, and me. The year was 1972. 

My grandmother was getting older (69) and she and her husband, my step-grandfather, had moved from his Cape Cod farmhouse to a new one-story ranch. She no longer had room to host all of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Gone were the two turkeys, the sideboard laden with pies (squash, mincemeat, apple), the mounds of vegetables (potatoes, squash, turnip, carrots, green beans).

I recorded the change matter-of-factly in my five-year diary. “Today was Thanksgiving Day. Andi and I did the dishes afterward, and Gosh! were there a lot of dishes! Granny had Thanksgiving at Arlene’s and Sam’s.”

Sam was our uncle. In subsequent years my grandmother would go to Sam’s or another relative’s; one year my Aunt Betty took her to (as Granny put it in her diary) “Plymouth Rock” for the holiday. She still invited us up for Sunday dinner, when we would cram into the tiny dining room in her new house – two or three aunts or uncles plus the four of us. But her tradition of making Thanksgiving dinner had ended.

I bet she missed those days. I know I did. There was nothing wrong with the four of us having our own dinner. My mother made a decent turkey, along with the requisite mashed potatoes, carrots, yam casserole (topped with melted marshmallows) and, for her and my father, turnips. There were rolls and gravy and a pie or two, although my mother did hate to bake pies, and you knew to stay out of the pantry when she was wrestling with dough.

My sister and I actually enjoyed doing the dishes – the large yellow Pyrex bowl that held the mashed potatoes; the aluminum roasting pan flecked with turkey skin; the glass plate stained with cranberry sauce. We took turns washing or drying while we traded information about family members or my father’s latest story from his childhood.

Still, something was missing. My grandmother, for one, who spent most of her Thanksgiving urging people to eat more. I missed Aunt Betty’s booming voice, Uncle Sam’s cigar-puffing and story-telling, Uncle Junior’s antics, Aunt Leona’s deep, mischievous chuckle. They didn’t always get along – you wouldn’t put Betty and Leona in the same kitchen – but together they added up to more than the sum of their parts. They were a rollicking Thayer sideshow, complete with Parcheesi playing, Junior’s soft shoe as he awaited his turn at the outhouse, and a thundering laugh track. 

But they were all getting older. I was the youngest child; some of my cousins already had children of their own. I did not realize it then, but the holiday traditions that seemed so inviolate then were as evanscent as steam from a serving platter.

Soon enough I was married with children and inviting my parents to our house for the holiday. I loved those years, when we sometimes had both sets of our parents, my sister, and one of my brothers-in-law in addition to our three children. They echoed the Thanksgivings of old, which seemed so perfect in my memory. But these, too, were only snapshots in time.

This year our Thanksgiving has been reduced to three: my husband, my middle son who lives with us, and me. My daughter and her fiance are staying home; so is my oldest son and his wife. They are all out there in the working world, exposed, and they know it’s prudent to obey our governor’s coronavirus order. 

Just as I did on my 12th Thanksgiving, I will enjoy the small family I have. But the dining room will not be as full, the laughter not as loud. We will sense, as I did in 1972, the diminishing that comes when the whole family cannot be together.

The author’s grandmother, Mary Thayer Perkins, in 1985, more than a decade after she had stopped making Thanksgiving dinner for her extended family.

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The dark days of 2016

When Election Week arrived in 2016, I already was a nervous wreck. Not because I feared the outcome – on the contrary, I was convinced Hillary Clinton would win. I had other things on my mind.

My daughter and I voted together that Tuesday. At 21, Mary was casting her first presidential ballot. We walked out of the polling place wearing our “I Voted” stickers and took a selfie.What a proud moment to share with my daughter, voting for the candidate we assumed was about to become the first woman  president of the United States.

The euphoria was short-lived.

The next day, one of my students at the community college approached me after class. In a whisper she told me she would not be returning to school – she and her mother are Muslim and escaped Syria to come here illegally. Her mother speaks only Arabic. She was convinced that under a Trump administration they would be arrested.

I was beside myself. In the assistant dean’s office, relating this, I broke down. The community college where I teach English is a haven, and the classroom is a sacred space. That this fine young woman – who had fled a civil war to come to America and get an education – so feared our incoming president that she would drop out of school made me both furious and frustrated. 

Later, in the cafeteria, I sipped hot tea and poured my anxiety onto the page. “How anybody – any human being – could think of treating people like cattle – they are human beings,” I wrote. “ … all the waste, Hillary who knows so much, who is so wise and calming, all of her knowledge and experience repudiated.”

But something else was on my mind. “My thoughts are disjointed today. I have to take Andi to the doctor, and I’m afraid the news won’t be good.”

Andi was my sister. At 65, she lived alone in a two-bedroom apartment that appeared neat but was crammed with knickknacks, books, and a spare of everything (in one cupboard I would later find seven flashlights). She had never married, and her longtime boyfriend had disappeared four years earlier, an apparent suicide. Her closest friend, Angel, lived upstairs. Every Monday they watched “Dancing with the Stars” in their respective apartments while talking on the phone. 

“She is a skeleton,” I wrote. “Having difficulty walking. That she agreed to go [to the doctor] is probably a sign she has even more symptoms I don’t know about. She said she barely sleeps. I brought her groceries Tuesday. The larder was bare. She said she’d been eating ice cream for breakfast. When I bring her food she always immediately eats something. She walks very gingerly down the stairs.”

All summer, Andi had grown more and more reclusive. She ceased her two favorite activities, hiking and thrift shopping. At first, her weight loss seemed intentional, and when she brought me clothes that were too big for her (“They’ll fit you”), I was a little irritated. 

In early October, I visited her after the infamous Trump “pussy tape.” In those heady “Me Too” days, I was haunted by the memory of being attacked by an acquaintance in college. “He threw me down and I barely got away from him,” I told her, and she froze in mid-step, finally settling her too-thin body into a kitchen chair. The same thing, she said, had happened to her, at a church event when she was 15. She told me the harrowing story she had kept to herself for 50 years.

Now she was so sick she could not vote. Something had to be done.

That Thursday I showed up at her apartment. She could barely walk and confessed she had fallen while walking downstairs to unlock the door. When we arrived at the walk-in clinic, I put her in a wheelchair. By evening, we had the worst of all possible news: Andi had an inoperable tumor. The cancer was advanced; it had entered her bones. She was being sent by ambulance to Women & Infants Hospital in Providence for more testing. 

She would be quickly discharged (as uninsured patients often are) and moved into our living room. Although the doctors said she might live a year, she died Dec. 6, less than a month after her diagnosis.

Those dark days are all mixed up in my mind. At school, I waited for my student to return, but she did not. At home, I washed Andi’s hair and made her scrambled eggs just the way she liked them. Cousins came to visit. Doctors gave advice over the phone. While I sat at the dining room table grading papers, Andi languished on our love seat in an Oxycontin cocoon.

“Maybe this illness is so terrible so you are distracted from its essential meaning: the end of a life,” I wrote a week after her diagnosis. “The loss of my sister. So instead we grow weary: fill our days fretting about all the things that need to get done, the laundry, the diabetes testing, the cooking, the doctor’s appointments, the grocery shopping.”

For most of my life, I had had only one sister. And though she was so much older – nearly nine years – we grew closer as the years went by. Who else understood our Swamp Yankee parents and their strange ways? Who else knew all the family stories and jokes (and, I suspected, secrets)? Andi was my link to our late parents and my childhood. 

So many times since that election I wished I could talk to her. With each new Trump insult against women, people of color, Democrats, the FBI, or anyone who dares to speak out against him, I have imagined picking up the phone and dialing her number. I pictured us watching CNN together, as we sometimes did, and finding solace in our shared outrage.

As we wait for the results today, my mind is back in those dark days of 2016, a time that will be forever linked in my mind to two losses – of the terrified student who wanted a chance at the American dream, and the sister who never got to the polls. 

Andi at a company Christmas party, vintage 1980s.

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Horizons far and near

The other day I rehung my whiteboard from vertical to horizontal and began to ponder what that meant.

Horizon is one of those words that has layers of meaning, whose connotation is at odds with its denotation. It’s from the old French orizante, which in turn can be traced further back to the Greek horizōn (kyklos) to bound, from horos – boundary. 

The horizon is what fences us in, forms the boundaries of our world. It is the vanishing point, the edge, beyond which we cannot see.

Yet we don’t think of it that way.

The horizon invites us to travel. It broadens our world rather than constricts it. We equate it with exploration, journeys, the promise of some El Dorado beyond our shores. 

I probably first learned the word horizon in elementary school, where it adorned the cover of one of our reading books. The Scott, Foresman Co. – the same outfit that published the Dick and Jane books, by which I learned to read – published a series of readers for elementary schools in the 1960s, the titles of which all related to journeys: Wide Horizons; Open Highways; Cavalcades.

I remember them viscerally but not in detail. They were large-format books with a series of stories, some factual, some fictional, many of which were supposed to impart some lesson, build our vocabularies, and strengthen reading comprehension. 

Besides their sometimes insipid content, the books turned reading into a chore by ending each selection with a series of questions or prompts designed to measure our recall and understanding.

Even at 8 or 10 years old, I understood these titles to be metaphorical, although I did not know the term. Reading was an adventure! It would take us on journeys to other lands, other peoples! 

There was a certain absurdity to the whole idea of widening our horizons with this pap. And as a child who had never even been to our state capital (Providence), my horizons were limited indeed.

In a literal sense, I couldn’t see far. Our old farmhouse was ringed by trees and a few other houses. My bedroom had a north-facing window, which looked over my mother’s garden and my father’s sawmill, and a west-facing one toward the winding road, a window so low you had to crouch to look through it.

When we occasionally ventured out, we did not travel far – to my grandmother’s house in a nearby hamlet, to the A&P for groceries, into town on Fridays so my father could visit the imposing, marble-floored bank.

The ocean lay just 10 miles to the south, but we rarely went there. In time I would grow to love the sweep of blue water that appeared to vanish into nothingness. But as a child it was a rare treat.

So of course whatever lurked in these books was unfamiliar. Whether their stories depicted fairy tales and foreign lands, or the seemingly ordinary suburban world of the 1960s, they were exotic to me. 

My father did not wear sweater vests and sit around smoking a pipe, as these “Dads” did, nor did he have a vague white-collar job to which he trundled an attache case every day. His work was physical, demanding, and ever-present. He came into the house sweaty, sunburned, and trailing sawdust from his pants cuffs. My mother scrubbed his green work pants with Lestoil to get out the pine pitch. 

She, too, did not conform neatly to the Scott, Foresman type. Although she wore aprons and toiled away in the kitchen, she would rather have been reading a novel or watching Mike Douglas than frying hamburgers or rolling out piecrust.

If I became an inveterate reader, it was not due to Scott, Foresman. I broadened my horizons with real books borrowed from the library. At first my mother took me to the one-room village library, where I selected Beatrix Potter and Dr. Seuss books for her to read aloud. Eventually I devoured the Nancy Drew series and children’s novels by E.B. White, Lois Lenski, and Mary Norton. 

These books did take me on journeys – the series by the pseudonymous Carolyn Keene brought me to a strange 1930s world where teenage girls drove roadsters and ate something called luncheon. E.B. White evolved naturally from Beatrix Potter’s trouser-clad rabbits. Lois Lenski introduced me to rural Florida in Strawberry Girl, and Mary Norton created a miniaturized world in The Borrowers series that was all too familiar to a powerless 11-year-old.

What was the difference between these books and our “readers”? Maybe it was simply the fact that I chose them. Taking them out of the school context, with no questions to answer at the end, also sparked the metaphorical journey that Scott, Foresman tried to replicate. 

Many of the Open Highways, Cavalcades, and Wide Horizons stories were by accomplished authors, like Corneila Meigs and Robert Louis Stevenson. That mattered little if they were assigned rather than discovered.

Eventually I traveled, literally and figuratively. In high school I finally saw Boston and New York, as an adult New Orleans and San Francisco. 

And my reading has taken me around the world. I have sledded with Sir Ernest Shackleton, climbed icebergs with John Muir, rafted down the Grand Canyon with John Wesley Powell. I have gone back in time to the London of Dickens and Pepys, the moors of the Bronte sisters, the Lake District of Wordsworth. I have been to the South Seas with Maugham and Stevenson, to India with Jhumpa Lahiri, to the Korean islands with Lisa See.

Today I live in that old farmhouse with its limited views. But with the right book, the horizon is always wide.

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Looking at three poets

When I think of this summer years from now, I will remember the squash. They held on longer than last year but now they are starting to die, eaten from within by borers and from without by caterpillars. We pick off the yellow pests daily and drown them in suds, a ritual inherited from my mother. I can see her now, snatching at Japanese beetles and dropping them into a jar of water and Ivory soap shavings.

We’ve had three summer squash, one zucchini, and two large squashes that turned out to be the decorative ones I planted. How depressing. Who can’t grow zucchini? 

This has also been the summer of poets. I read their biographies with a student’s eye, hoping not to be disillusioned. William Carlos Williams, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens – the giants of the 20th century. But of course I am, disillusioned that is.

Williams, whose work I’ve taught and admired – the great physician doctor looking out the sickroom window at a red wheelbarrow, scribbling poems on prescription pads, ushering his English grandmother into an ambulance – is not brilliant enough for his biographer, Reed Whittemore. He’s also fixated on T.S. Eliot, whom he hates with a vitriol all out of proportion to Eliot’s weaknesses. Williams, who famously said that “The Waste Land” landed like an atom bomb and blew up every other poet’s work, should have just kept doing his own thing and left the emigrant to his adopted country.

Roethke of course was mentally ill, which anyone reading “In a Dark Time” could have figured out, but  Allan Seager’s generous biography, The Glass House, paints a picture of a man so focused he could continue to write and correspond from his hospital bed. But maybe I didn’t need to know that he slept in a cocoon of blankets, sweating so much he went through dozens of pajamas a week.

Which brings us to Paul Mariani’s The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens. Williams I have loved as an adult, Roethke I discovered as a teenager, but Stevens? Other than that he worked for an insurance company in Hartford, he made little impression. Yet we read him in ENG 253, and I dutifully marked up “Sunday Morning” and “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” (“Carpe diem philosophy,” I jotted on the latter.)

Reading The Whole Harmonium and Mariani’s delicious analysis, I puzzled over why I never connected to Stevens. “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” has no clothes, I thought wryly. But why? Was it his obscure language, his opaque references? Because Mariani makes me want to like him; his criticism is perhaps more than Stevens deserves.

I was struck by how Stevens privileged imagination over reality. He believed, Mariani wrote, “there were realities like summer nights which so closely resembled the way we imagined summer nights to be ‘that in their presence, the realist and the man of imagination become one’” (249). I had to stop reading for a bit after that. What is the function of imagination? It is what makes us human. It also helps us create our own reality; think of it simply as consciousness with point of view. And what is memory but an act of imagination? That is, a reimagining of an experience we already have begun to order and re-order each time we revisit it.

Personally, Stevens is often an ass. In Key West, he gets in a fistfight with Hemingway, who knocks him for a loop. Those “business trips” to Florida, sans his wife, are little more than an excuse to carouse on an expense account. When his family objects to his marriage he cuts them off, cold, and then later acts surprised when his daughter asserts her independence just as he had. And within his challenging poetic vocabulary and arcane metaphors is contempt for his readers: He admits to one interviewer that he doesn’t care if they don’t get it.

But I keep coming back to that quote about the imagination. Take our squash, for example. Williams would see it as a repository for his observations: So much depends/upon … Roethke would get down and dirty with the roots, crawl around with those borers and hand them back to us in all their primordial squirmings. But what would Stevens do?

He would not, I think, rely on conventional symbols. He would not just tell us about the dew on the blossoms, or even the soft smear of yellow the dead caterpillar leaves on our fingers. He would find something else, not as dark as Roethke perhaps, and more inscrutable than Williams. Whatever he found in those dying tendrils, it would be uniquely his own. It might nod at reality (our sensory experience of squash) but privilege imagination (what else is on his mind this summer day?). If it seems like a puzzle, that’s only because we’re out of tune with him, he would say; the reader will or won’t figure it out as his wont. What he would not do is give us a dying vine that is predictable, superficial, and benign.

You don’t have to be a poet to take some writing lessons from all this. It was Stevens, after all, whose poem “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” informs Jane Smiley’s “13 Ways of Looking at the Novel,” her seminal text on writing with its exhaustive analysis of not 13 but more than 100 novels. 

Stevens was a poet of imagination, not reality, yet that may be the only reality we have. Knowing this, we can enter his fictive world more readily, and find the poetry on our own.

Further reading

Mariani, Paul. “The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens.” Simon & Schuster, 2016.

Seager, Allan. “The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke.” McGraw Hill Book Co., 1968.

Whittemore, Reed. “William Carlos Williams: Poet from Jersey.” Houghton Mifflin Co., 1975.

Roethke, Theodore. “In a Dark Time.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43347/in-a-dark-time  

Stevens, Wallace. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45236/thirteen-ways-of-looking-at-a-blackbird 

——————–. “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45234/the-emperor-of-ice-cream 

______________. “Sunday Morning.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/13261/sunday-morning 

Williams, William Carlos. “The Red Wheelbarrow.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45502/the-red-wheelbarrow 

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My own private cafe

I miss writing in public.

Like my favorite cafe, Dave’s Coffee, where an iced tea and a chocolate chip cookie over a couple of hours could get me to 1,200 words on my novel.

Set in an 18th-century saltbox house on a rise above Route 1 in our small beachfront town, Dave’s is no Starbucks. The bathroom door barely locks, the floors are bumpy and scarred, and the beehive ovens hold bottles of coffee syrup instead of cordwood. 

In the summer it’s crowded with people coming in off the highway for a bathroom break and a latte. The line is often out the door. Even on a rainy day in winter, it can be hard to find a seat.

On my last day there, in March, I had the place mostly to myself. The staff busily wiped down tables and doorknobs. We all knew the shutdown was coming, but we were trying to stall it as long as we could. 

All I love about Dave’s – the funky décor; the tables so cozy you could follow anyone’s conversation if you were so inclined; the friendly staff – lends itself to neither sterility nor social distancing. In fact, my favorite cafe is the opposite of social distancing. It’s a nest of people familiar and strange, all crammed together, a combination that helps me to enter a writing trance. 

I have written in other places. The cafeteria at the community college where I teach. The grand reception room at our regional library. Neither is open now. It will be a long time before I can write in public again.

So instead I’ve tried to make writing spaces at home. Because I do so much freelancing at my desk, I don’t always look forward to writing there. Sometimes I move to my red office chair, although it’s hell on the shoulders. Or the patio, where an umbrella creates some shade.

But as of this afternoon I have a new writing nook. It’s faintly European – a small table and two metal chairs, set  in the middle of our flower meadow. My own cafe among the coreopsis and black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne’s lace. 

Unlike the patio, this space is hidden from the road. It’s just far enough from the house where I feel like I’ve entered a different world. And I am surrounded by beauty – purple tufts of bee balm, a darting catbird, sunlight dappling the black walnut leaves.

No conversations for eavesdropping; my iced tea, I confess, is from Dunkin’ Donuts. The only buzz is from the bees. But I think I’m going to get some work done here.

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American lit of another syllabus, in another lifetime

In my sophomore year at Keene State College I took Eng 253, American Literature. Because I save everything, I still have most of my notes, tests and papers from that class; because I now teach literature, I am interested in what I learned then; and because the academy’s approach to the subject has changed since 1979, I am curious about what I was taught.

The instructor, Professor Richard E. Cunningham, was a stickler. He served as dean of the college a few times, and he was a scholar of the old school – according to the syllabus, he would flunk you if you missed more than three classes. I vividly remember that when I skipped class to circulate the student newspaper one week, upon my return he gave me an icy stare.

About that syllabus: It was one page, a list by class date of the authors we would discuss and dates of tests (what he called “examinations”). That was it. Oh, and we had to write one 5- to 7-page paper only vaguely mentioned at the bottom.

But what a list it was. We read five novels: The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway, The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald, The Sound and the Fury by Faulkner, The Professor’s House by Willa Cather, and Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis. (I should say 4.5, because I never made it all the way through Elmer Gantry.)

That was not all. There was poetry: T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” e.e. cummings, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Edna St. Vincent Millay. 

William Carlos Williams was at the bottom of the syllabus and got crossed off. Even the toughest professors sometimes don’t get to everything.

My class notes are detailed, fairly neat, with only occasional doodles. Cunningham introduced each author with some contextual information and a brief biography. “Eliot was conservative; man must control his feelings – unbridled emotions are evil,” I wrote. Edna St. Vincent Millay “was flip in public – a pose” and “fits into this advanced feminist world” of the 1920s and 1930s. Willa Cather’s books “dealt with rugged character of pioneers, mostly immigrants[,] then began to write about the past.” They were “a conservative response to the times she lived in.”

Cunningham was erudite; he could talk about anything; I don’t remember him reading from notes, as some professors did. Some of the names he dropped, such as Joseph Wood Krutch, I had heard of, but others, like Frederick Lewis Allen, I jotted in the margins to look up later.

Even when he gave me an A, there was always a “but.” The review sheet for one test listed 11 possible areas we would be expected to discuss, in four essays and more than a dozen short answers. 

Here are some examples: “Discuss the East-West motif in Gatsby.” “Discuss the view of the South in The Sound and the Fury; how does Faulkner depict the Southerners?” “Show [the] thematic function of three allusions in The Waste Land.”

My paper was on Faulkner’s Sartoris. Only the rough draft has survived: “In Sartoris, Faulkner’s third novel, he uses the character of Byron Snopes to contrast the changing role [sic] of the Southern male and female and how the old chivalric ideals of Southern romance have been debased.”

Most of the class discussion was thematic, but we were expected to have a command of such terms as naturalism, realism, and imagism, and figurative language such as metonymy, synecdoche, simile and metaphor. 

Here are some American writers we did not read: the Southern writers that I loved, including Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers. Any writers of color, including Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Claude McKay and Langston Hughes. 

If anyone had questioned Dr. Cunningham’s selections, his response probably would have been that he selected the most influential writers since 1900 (in fact, the class had a discrete time period that I’ve forgotten). 

That they were, in fact, probably the same writers he had studied at Notre Dame and the University of Illinois in the 1950s and 1960s did not concern him. In fact, a revolution was taking place right under our noses but you would not have known it – influential writers like Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison and Erica Jong were on best-seller lists, not syllabi.

I do not condemn Dr. Cunningham for his choices, however. His approach could have been broader, but it could have been worse (he at least had some women in there). 

While he could have explored Faulkner’s attitudes toward race further, he did not shy away from the racial and feminist themes in any of these works. 

He noted “Hemingway’s treatment of women as mindless,” the anti-Semitism of Jason in The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner’s romanticization of the black servant Dilsey as “anti-intellectual,” natural, an idealization.

My approach to a similar introductory literature course isn’t perfect either. I include far more women and writers of color than Cunningham did, including Sandra Cisneros, Ralph Ellison, Claude McKay, and Julia Alvarez. But I’m still teaching many white 20th-century writers, including Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Theodore Roethke, and Eugene O’Neill. (And I always leave room for William Carlos Williams.)

Some of these texts are problematic. Faulkner and O’Connor use derogatory terms for black people as a matter of course; Faulkner, as part of his realism, O’Connor satirically. But should we subject students to these words, even when foregrounded with context? Other writers, including Roethke, have been criticized for ignoring race altogether. 

Each semester I ask my students what they think. I introduce them to the idea of the Western canon, and then ask them to evaluate the works on the syllabus. Their answers are not the only criterion for what I include the following semester, but they are taken into account.

These introductory literature courses are like overstuffed suitcases. What do we absolutely need to bring on this trip? What did we leave home last time? How have our needs changed? 

The instructor still needs to pack in all those literary terms and “isms” while exposing students to as many writers as possible. The suitcase always feels too heavy to carry. But each time we unpack it, we learn a little bit more about what it should include – and what to leave home next time.

Notes from the first day of English 253, Sept. 5, 1979.

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