Wednesday, August 27, 2008

day in August

6 a.m.
Wake for beach walk, stumble to find shoes, make coffee, brush teeth. Morning needs a jacket, today, and a turtleneck. Skies clear, beach full of people exercising in a group. They compete in relay races, and I slooooowly walk with my thermal cup of coffee.

7 a.m.
In a few hours I won’t believe I ever needed a jacket: the sun is already warming the living room and kitchen and I’m wishing for a better cross-breeze. But the kids’ bedroom door is closed, and so it will stay for another hour or so, while they sleep in for the last week of summer vacation.

Coffee, with Robert Richardson’s Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Breakfast, too.

10 a.m.
Arranged a series of paper grocery bags in a semi-circle around Madeleine on the bedroom floor: “Books,” she marked on one; “Art Supplies to Sort” on another. “Goes somewhere else” and “Don’t Know,” and the worst offender, “Treasures.” Behind her we placed a plastic grocery bag for trash. She asked me for help and I loaded the “Books” bag with the bookish content of her shelves, then I left her to get started. The first “HELP!” came five minutes later, with the contents of the shelves dumped unceremoniously, everywhere.

That’s how she started. I stepped in at her call, every 20 minutes or so, while I cleaned the kitchen. At noon I moved the Books bag to the front, and placed all the books in a sensible order on the shelf. We added all the American Girl books from the living room, and files for paper dolls, magazines, art supplies. A few toys. A basket for special post cards and letters. We decided 35 pencils and pens might be overdoing it, and sorted down to 6. Ditto with many other things. One diary, though eight were started. A place for the library books.

Finished with an orderly shelf by 12:30, with the exception of one mixed up bag of Treasures. (Often stuff labeled “treasures” gets ignored, then a new set of treasures collects elsewhere, then whole years of treasures are forgotten…) We’ll figure out treasures tomorrow, when we can spread them out on the dining table for a few hours.

Brendan, if true to form, will envy Madeleine’s shelf and will organize his own, probably needing no help from me. We’ll see.

1:30 p.m.
When told to “go outside” so I could mop the floor, kids whined for their books and slinkies. They offered to sit in the car while I mopped. Um, okay. They then complained about sitting in a hot car until “we almost DIED.” Hmmm.

2 p.m.
The heat is just right for one of the last beach days of summer. Water, warm; sun, high and clear. Shadows from our bodies showed the water to be full of tiny jellyfish—which glow a little in the dark, but otherwise are clear little orbs. So far none of us sports a rash, though children were (gasp!) scooping them up by the handfuls from the shore before I noticed. Wish us luck.

I packed two books, came with two moms and seven kids, and I didn’t read a page. We leave at 5 p.m, too hungry to continue.

6 p.m.
Gorgonzola and Walnut Tortellini (thank you Trader Joe!) with a fresh tomato-kalamata pesto, and edamame and red peppers on the side. It was a speed dinner thrown together from findings in the refrigerator, from the remaining bit of garlic in the basket next to the stove.

Scott is home from his first day of teacher training, full of stories, ears tired from listening.

Quiet evening, all of us worn out. Candles light the evening—it’s dark by eight, again! It really is Fall! The braided rug is returned to the clean floor. Man and boy leave to rustle up dessert, on the rare day we’ve run out of ice cream. I hope I stay awake for their return. I’ve been reading Proust in the evening, perfect before bed lyrical reading, but I think I will skip him this evening.

School starts in one week. Kids are thrilled, claiming even to miss homework. I’ve been doing homework as fast as I can: books 1-32 were completed in spring. Five more are complete and three more begun of the next 25. I’ve drafted an essay-- on cooking and eating-- for a new anthology.

It’s a good day in August. Happy end-of-summer.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

writing retreat in search of location

The outside air suddenly smells of soap, though my car is parked in a lot in the woods, near the ocean—an SUV pulls up beside me, the doors open, and many apparently very clean people tumble out of the apparently just-shampooed car. Vacation—they must be on vacation and fresh from their showers, and ready to meet the outdoors.

Lest I think THEY are the crazy ones, showering for a day in the woods and salt air, it’s me who is typing in the driver’s seat of my car, unable to decide exactly where to settle in for a few hours of writing. I could let myself into Jane’s house—she’s away in Canada, as she is each summer, and she is tickled when I “break in.” But. But she’s gone for months at a stretch and I don’t have actual permission this time, either. And that’s just enough to put me off, today. I’d be embarrassed for her extended family to walk in on me, not know who I am or why my feet are up on the coffee table in the sunroom. Still—I might. Is there a table in the backyard? Why would that be more comfortable? It’s still Jane’s space, without actual permission, without a proper schedule, without a cell phone number for her anywhere. (Okay, the number is somewhere. I just don’t know where, or if she has reception, or, or, or.)

I DO have permission to use Barbara’s studio, three days per week during the school year, but the calendar has read “summer” for three or four months, and again, I don’t have permission to unlock that quiet place either. No schedule is set yet. In the middle of the school year, if Barbara walked in on me, she’d ask if I’d like a fresh glass of water, and she’d apologize for being in her own home.

I am the same, I suppose. When I lived in an apartment inside a college dorm, I gave keys to each of my staff, and I felt that odd mixture of delight and slight discomfort when I’d find an empty peanut butter jar on my kitchen counter, and the bread wrapper still open—maybe the dishes would be freshly washed and a sticky note would read “thanks,” or maybe I’d just find fingerprints as I heard footsteps out the back door. There is not enough “home” in the entire world, and whatever the discomfort, those fingerprints were the shape of my affection and respect for those godlike young people on my staff. I provided some thing they needed, a small token in exchange for their courage and heart, working for me.

Today I’d walk my too-heavy laptop bag to a picnic table with a view, a ways down this path in the state park, but somehow I packed no food, no water, and more important, no coffee. My other alternative writing haven is the downtown coffee shop, with a view of Sandy Bay. I’ll need to manage interruptions. I’m gearing up for that, while listening to Latter Days by Over the Rhine on the CD player one more time. And typing.

You know, don’t you, that you are being used as a warm-up for other writing? Today, at least. I’ve been asked to contribute an essay for a book on spirituality and food—with a stack of caveats: if the essay is accepted, if the book proposal is accepted, if, if, if. I’m not even sure I can write “on assignment,” but some deep part of me is permanently in love with Robert Farrar Capon’s Supper of the Lamb, and again, my affection is ever-available, keys to my heart given out and I’m hoping I find Capon’s fingerprints on my counters and the peanut butter jar open, hope I can hear his footprints scurrying out the back door as I smile and wish him luck.

(He's in his nineties, and on his third marriage, but if I found his fingerprints and heard his step, you can bet I'd be chasing him as fast as I could run.)

Okay—to the coffee shop. With Capon. The Bean and Leaf has a bathroom, water, soup of the day AND coffee. WiFi is probably not a good thing, but I’ll deal with it. Wish me luck, too. Are my fingerprints on your counter? Did I finish the peanut butter off good? Go check. I am sneaking out the back door, now, a little bit more at home in the world than I was before. See the sticky note next to the dishrack—“thanks.”

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

how I spent my summer vacation

The smell of home is the smell of cinnamon and a splash of vanilla extract in the French press, along with Black Mesa, a dark coffee I purchased numerous states ago, while traveling. I begin the day with my stack of books and my laptop, at the kitchen table.

My family is home now, “put” now, and putting the long summer to an end. Scott begins school in a week, and children begin in September. We will concentrate on the school “to-do” list after we unpack suitcases for good. I am home now, too, craving routine. But still savoring family adventures and my own adventures: New Hampshire, Arizona, New Mexico, Maine, and a point on the map of New York State that measures 580 miles away, by car.

In my reading travels, I just finished a book about Leningrad in World War II, and three volumes on Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, and I’m knee-deep in a book about travel of all kinds, underworld and otherworldly. In the next month I will host guests from Pittsburgh, from Indiana, and my children clamor for a pilgrimage to New York City.

Meanwhile the salt breeze blows, and a paint crew sets up to beautify the neighbor’s house, just a few yards from my bedroom window. Kids sleep because they are in love with their own beds, despite the racket of ladders and scaffolding. Scott sleeps because we are both sleep-deprived after a week of late-night conversations, Olympic coverage, sleeping in the guest room of dear friends on the rim of Lake Chautauqua.

Chautauqua: Days of sun, sunscreen, sunburn, swimming, boating, whiffleball, Frisbee on the endless green lawn, carefree days filled with “what do you feel like doing now?” Madeleine and Jakob form a natural pairing of friends—their eyes sparkle with inventiveness and they talk books, hands gesturing as each describes a plot, or they swim and they tease one another merrily. Brendan and Simon seek whiffle ball equipment, or life-jackets, or flotation devices, and they seek the neighbor boys to play a game. Parents play some, sit back some, take turns ducking out to read a book in the shade or take a nap. There’s been no hurry for days and days—a true vacation. I can’t remember cooking at home this summer, though I know I have done so. I can’t recall that interminably long stretch of July, wondering if I’d live through everyone else’s vacations and my own student life. I just remember this sated sensation of the last month, of being filled for the long stretch of autumn and winter.

Satchmo crowds me, purring loudly and trying to shove me away from my keyboard—he is the strangest cat I’ve ever owned, chomping me on the elbow when I don’t move fast enough to suit him, pushing the laptop cord out of its socket, strange feats of strong love.

I began writing with my coffee at the table, and I end in the evening, tucked into my favorite antique bed, with a jazz saxophonist playing out his bedroom window, the neighbor boy—he’s pretty good and it’s just one more grace of open summer windows, an evening cool enough for air conditioners to be silenced. Kids are watching yet one more evening of Olympic coverage on television. And I’d better get to my homework. I’ll read about travel, tonight, while finishing my laundry and reading to the sweet salt breeze, complete with saxophone through my bedroom window.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

tiny wax kittens make friends

My daughter is a multi-talented girl, and she sculpts critters from modeling beeswax. I found these kittens on the CD cabinet, ready for a romp.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

swing as a verb

Photos from a friend. See posts below on The Swing.

Friday, August 08, 2008

staggered edges of a double life

A quiet moment emerges, a rare stretch of minutes when the children do not bicker or whine or remind me what I already know, that we are out of milk and cheese and apples, which reminds me of ten errands necessary, which reminds me of the state of our end-of-summer bank account, which reminds me of too much everyday reality… I’ve been avoiding everyday reality, or taking it so slowly that the impact seems less. I’ve been sleeping and sleeping, with my waking hours filled as Brendan practices his new finger-snapping skills (I worry about neural pathways, and whether he will snap through every stressful or boring moment of his life, surely bringing the rest of the family to our very last nerve… or maybe it’s just me.)

Nonetheless a quiet moment emerges (see me now untangle and tame those frayed edges) and I rush to the laptop—can I write? I know, I know that writing and sleeping are not conducive to interruption, that it’s better not to start at all if I will only be stopped a few minutes in. She is at a friend’s house. He is working with tiny plastic beads that melt when a hot iron is applied, crafting pieces of plastic trash with nice designs—who invents these things? Weave me a lanyard anytime, but decorative bits of carefully arranged plastic?

The naked footpads slap the hallway, as he brings his amazing double-snapping fingers in to show me, asking if I can also snap both sets of fingers without stopping. His dark-bright eyes throw merriness directly at me. His smile exposes several half-grown teeth, interspersed with several gaps where teeth are still “lost.” Corn is an impossible meal this summer, apples must be sliced. How, how did he ever get so pretty, this boy? He snaps his way out of the room, happy to get back to the un-ironed beads.

I arrived home in the wee small hours of Tuesday morning, and in the dark I didn’t even look at the window boxes on the porch—I knew the plants were all dead, knew I’d forgotten to leave instructions to water. Still in the dark I found myself staring at a spatter painting held onto the refrigerator with magnets, adoring a vase of wildflowers left for me with a note, sleepwalking into their bedroom to smell them, to turn off Brendan’s radio headset and stroke his face. I stared out the window at the fishing boats as the clock turned to 4 a.m.

I love this place and these people, love my friends and my church and many of my neighbors. And I’m not ready to be back. My head and heart whir with the conversations, stirrings, tears, landscapes of the past fortnight, which seems like a month or a year instead of just a two weeks. I’ve been traveling.

Reading a book called Bewildered Travel: The Sacred Quest for Confusion. Perhaps my extended state of disorientation is related to my reading…

Emily’s bracelet still graces my wrist, and each time I glance at it I mouth the word “sentimental” with a little edge to it. (“Sentimental” is an insult in the world of writing, believe it or not.) The coming year requires hard work, and likely I will lean hard on my closest writing-friends from this MFA program. I don’t know when I’ll see Emily again, or two other irreplaceable friends who write, who critique and help and pray for me to see beneath the surface of my writing. But I listen to their words and critiques because my attachment is sentimental first, then solid, then life-changing, as good friendship is. I can’t wonder too much when I’ll see them next—I’m too close to tears already.

The bare feet slap my way again, without finger-snapping—he’s built “a rainbow circle,” and he wants to show me, where I sit typing on the edge of my bed. I will find the iron, I say, if he can make just one more project and find me the instructions, so I don’t destroy my iron. He promises he will, as he carefully carries his plastic collection back to his work space. He places the plastic project down flat, then snaps both fingers while whistling and dancing to The Star-Spangled Banner.

We’ve been full of sleepy kisses and hugs since my return, these children and I. They are bored and fussy just like every other child in mid-August, but they missed me, missed my cooking and my craft projects and my singing along to the stereo. Last night they asked me to pick lullaby music and sing while they drifted to sleep. In my more cynical moments I’ve hoped beyond hope that they don’t think of me only as a grouch, as a boss, as the person who makes them pick up their things and hurry up. I’ve hoped they hear more than my hypersensitive hiss “I need quiet to think, you two! Let me hear my own thoughts and stop talking!” I’ve hoped they remember me singing, dancing while chopping vegetables, kissing the tops of their heads, sprinkling cinnamon into the sauce for salmon. And for a joke, I bought a little pouch with a cowgirl on it that reads “The Boss Lady Says So.”

Today I will need to find the car keys (here somewhere, I know) and take Brendan out to the bank, and maybe for a scone at the tea shop. I’ve not left the neighborhood parking lot since I arrived home from Santa Fe. I suppose I can’t put it off forever. Perhaps I’ll also open the mailbox, another traveling adventure, and maybe even buy some milk. After we iron the plastic. After I unpack five or six more things, slowly. If I unpack my suitcases, will I be forced to arrive? Maybe I should read my book instead, while he hums and arranges bright colors, before he asks me for “an-dult super-bision” with the iron.

Thank you, dear friends and readers, lest I forget this is a letter to you. I would not be in an MFA program, nor believe myself a writer, without your encouragement. Ask me questions if you’d like. I’m still a little dazed, but the more I write about this amazing experience of grad school, the more I sort it out and emerge from the fog of what seems to be a double life. I’ll need your support in the coming year—I’ll need everything everyone can give me.

Another cool rain, this one with thunder. Time to find the iron. Oh-- he's found it already. "Okay, mom," he says and plugs it in. The breeze scrubs us all clean as the thing heats up.

chilly thursday midAugust

Favorite things:

A cool, overcast day in August, high temps not even reaching seventy—I had to find pants, find socks, find a sweater, ah.

A cool overcast evening in August, when the skies are dark enough to suggest “bedtime” at eight p.m., and no one argued because it was DARK.

A sliver of an opening in the cloud cover, to show the half moon.

A mug of Good Earth tea.

A bowl of brown rice for dessert, with butter and brown sugar.

A lullaby CD by The Innocence Mission.

One week ago I was swinging on a high hillside, watching the sunset over some mountain range far to the west of Santa Fe. The rest of the evening filled with a circle of readers (my reading went well), a new film of Dante’s Inferno illustrated by Victorian paper puppets, and a return to the circle of readers to hear just a little bit more. I missed Sara Zarr’s reading (rats!) but heard a prologue to Jeffrey’s new novel (yay!) and several other powerful pieces of writing—chapters of books, poems, stories of junior high cruelty, love letters, people read every kind of thing. Too wired, I walked to the koi pond, where other conversations continued late into the night.

Two weeks ago was my first night returning to Santa Fe, a good night to say hello, move into my room. For the opening meeting, a double rainbow stretched across the peaks outside the classroom window. Then listening to the high desert night sounds outside my window.

I haven’t really “returned” yet, haven’t finished my unpacking, haven’t found a routine that makes sense yet. Kids are home and we are on no particular schedule, pausing from our books and projects to hug or find food. I’m sleeping a lot—strange, given that I slept so little for those two weeks away. I’m still holding it all close, this writer’s MFA residency. I am puzzling it.

I will write more (thank you for the nudge, Lisa!) soon.

Friday, August 01, 2008

day nine, two days to go

Good food, good company, exotic locales and the time to talk books with adults who love literature—there’s much about a writing residency to love, and love, and love. Late nights, bottles of wine shared on balconies, laughter. The classwork is challenging, the friendships rich.

Add to all this goodness a week of spectacular weather, most days clear and sunny.

Add to this a room with a terrace.

Last night after dinner I sat on the terrace with my roommate—the first stretch of open evening we’ve had. I looked up the hill above our terrace, where I saw a woman on a swing, in a huge pine tree, legs pumping as she swung the big arch, again and again. I’d not been up that hillside, didn’t know about the swing. When she stopped swinging and disappeared, I threw on my shoes to run try it myself.

Add to all the beauties of a writing residency: one long sunset with a rim of mountains, one classmate playing guitar on the hillside, one long session to swing from the tall pine until my hands grew too tired to grip the ropes.

And then a reading night, around the circle, wonderful, and a movie of Dante’s Inferno done in Victorian paper puppets. Add a few more glasses of wine, good conversation.

Today is my last set of classes for this residency, and I pack up this stack of books to send home. Perhaps by the time the books arrive home, by the time I arrive home, I’ll be ready to break away from this beautiful place. But for today I remain blissfully spoiled, and if there’s time, I’ll get to that swingset again.