Monday, August 15, 2011

one last note from Eureka Springs

I ran out of coffee beans two days ago when I invited Chere for a lunch of mushroom/cheddar omelettes, in the culinary suite at DairyHollow. Her suite has a practical electric stove, whereas my KitchenAid Dream Kitchen has a six-burner gas stove, pans, and everything a cook could wish for. So we cooked and brewed coffee, and sat in the wicker chairs talking—like it was my fabulous living room.

So today, I found some old ground coffee in the canister above the KitchenAid coffee maker, and it will do. Made a big bowl of oatmeal as my final “hurrah” breakfast (hours ago) and now I’m cleaning up the fresh cherries and blueberries. In a few minutes, I will walk to the Grotto Spring down the road, and the lovely silence of morning will be broken. When I return, I must clean and pack and look at the instructions for checkout and leaving. I will need to go downstairs to the office and talk with people. I’m surprised how much I long to keep this silence for just a few hours more, even after eight very quiet days.

What this writing residency has given me is just that: quiet, for reading and writing and hearing myself think, and a quieting of the soul. I’ve written dozens of pages, and I’ve revisited some work from the past few years. I’ve enjoyed research about cooking writers MFK Fisher and Robert Farrar Capon—I hoped to come away with a draft of a book about these two, but I’ve only ever written much about me and my life, so I’m still learning how to approach a long project about other people’s lives and work. I’m certain this is a problem I WILL solve, over time, and meanwhile I’ve been nurturing my love of the two books I’m comparing.

(I picked up a biography of Fisher at the library, and it told me some of the details I wanted to know about her life, but these details were stuffed deep into a veritable encyclopedia of facts and family maps and awkward reading. Okay, I invested a day and a half in that fat book, to find out three or four important things, but I’m saying it was worthwhile research.)  

Some part of me wishes I could hold up a finished manuscript to show for this stretch of days, but the finishing will come later. This has been a time of renewal, a reminder of my calling to write. It’s been a rest, a Sabbath from my other kinds of work. A Sabbath from people needing me. Whatever I’ve accomplished or not-accomplished, I will return home restored by this quiet, clean temporary home, and restored by this vibrant little city in the hills.

I could tell you more about how much I love this town, but I’d better walk before the day heats up, and I’d better pack, so I can relax, read and write a bit more this afternoon.

Thanks for sticking with me, my friends. I will be far from the Ozark hills when next I write.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

the long ride from Sleepytown

My father could lift me like a feather, with his whisper, “go back to Sleepytown” lulling me. I mumbled about my teddy. “Your mother has it in the car.” In the car, then. Vacation, worth a smile before dozing.

My bunk was the back window of the sedan in a nest of blankets, my back against the glass, my teddy shading my eyes from the streetlamp. Next he would lay my older brother Burl stretched along the bench seat, already dosed with Dramamine and gone to the world. My younger brother David fit in another nest of blankets in one well beneath the backseat, with his knees propped up over the hump. When my parents settled into the front, David would feel the rumble of the engine through him, and he wouldn’t hear another thing.

And I could choose, as we left our driveway in the true Sleepytown of Farmland, Indiana. I could choose a delicious sleep, with the sounds of late night radio drifting in and out, or I could choose to concentrate hard on my parents’ quiet conversation—I was an excellent spy. Or I could watch the night stars once we were away from the lights of town. Every option seemed almost too good to be true, in the romance of vacation driving.

The romance would break when the sun began to heat the car, our limbs unable to stretch. By then we would be miles away from our humdrum lives, navigating by the spiral bound atlas, looking for a breakfast diner. The first day’s goal: a motel in Effingham, Illinois. We would arrive too early to check in, but my father could park in a shady spot and sleep while my mother took us to the swimming pool. By the time my father hauled our suitcases in, we’d be sunburned and water-logged and ready for a nap in air-conditioning.

On some years, day 2 included a tour of the St. Louis Arch, which I loved. On some other years I watched the Arch from the distant interstate, and I pined to return to its heights. Either way, we were bound for the Missouri/Arkansas border, to visit my Grandpa Ruby and Grandma Mae, in a place even hotter than Indiana in summer, and we needed to arrive by the end of day 2, so we could avoid more hotel cost.  

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

for Chris Fredericks, wherever you are

 a sketch for the Farmland Elementary crowd.

Not only did he never give a straight answer, but Mr. Fredericks, my third-grade art teacher, could stun people to silence, send a shiver up listeners’ spines.

“Mr. Fredericks, are you married?” I only heard this question once.

“Her name is Captain Midnight. She is six feet tall and black as coal,” he ended with a whisper, eyes wide as when telling ghost stories.

The questioner was my bold friend Shelley, polar opposite of my shyness, but I witnessed the whole interchange. No one said, “So what do you mean by that? Are you really married? Is she African-American, is that what you mean? What is her real name?” No one said a word. Mr. Fredericks was perhaps five-foot-eight, but larger than life—or at least larger than life in my little town.

Up to that point I had not found anyone of the male half of the species to be even remotely interesting, with the possible exception of my dad, but that hardly counts, as dad was strong enough, handsome enough, and very smart, but very interior, so as a third-grader, it was hard to feel like I knew him. Dad’s a non-fiction kind of guy, an adult, and I thought all men were non-fiction kind of guys. Something about Mr. Fredericks spoke of a story, a mystery, an adventure. He would be a good pirate.

I will admit that it does not take much effort to “stand out” in Farmland, Indiana. No pirates there, under most circumstances. He embodied difference in a dozen visible ways— unkempt hair and a sense of style, beginnings of a beard—but on a deeper level, he was playful and funny, which added up to mystique, at least in the heart of a third-grader. My brothers admired him as much as I did, but I found Mr. Fredericks not charming, really, but rather fascinating like a well-written book. It was hard not to follow his every movement around the room when I was supposed to concentrate on my art projects.

Later, my brothers and I would try to fill in the back story of why such an unusual man chose to teach in a rural backwater—how did we get so lucky? One possible clue, better for a novelist than for a simple story-teller: Mr. Fredericks would kick the wooden benches in the art room with an imposing thunk when he felt he needed our respectful attention, and it sounded like the crack of a bat. He kept a psychedelic-painted wooden leg in the closet, a spare, with a funky dress shoe and sock. And he also had a temper, when provoked, and a bit of what we would call An Attitude Problem. On the other hand, if I was teaching creativity to the dusty children of farmers and factory workers in some poverty-stricken flatland town, I would develop an attitude problem on arrival. A missing leg, a temper, a country locale: I wonder if perhaps he was a veteran of the Vietnam conflict, an ex-soldier in the process of healing. The year was 1970.

When my mother, my brothers and I registered for classes and picked up our text books for the year, Mr. Fredericks was penciling lines on the huge art room walls, using an overhead projector with a stencil of a Mt. Rushmore for activists: Lincoln, the Kennedy brothers, and a face I found out later to be Martin Luther King. Note: he was drawing on the walls, as if people were allowed to draw on walls. Privileged sixth graders would assist in developing this Peter Max-style fantasy in vivid primary colors, beams of yellow light stretching over three walls. But I was in third grade, and I was in stunned awe.

Our art teacher could not actually draw, which is strange for an art teacher. He drew lollipop trees, a circle on a stick with no pretense of being tree-like. He was talented with graphics, block prints, large-scale projects. And he taught photography so creatively I still remember his crazy lessons, with characters opening doors and giving people black eyes to illustrate how film takes in light but actually turns black.

I do know Mr. Fredericks moonlighted as a freelance photographer, and that perhaps his real mission or real joy was to photograph children producing art. He offered my parents a candid Kodak slide of me, sprawling on a sidewalk on a warm spring day, tongue poking out of the side of my mouth in concentration, crayons strewn. The light was perfect that day, and we had started Art Class outside, Mr. Fredericks with a guitar singing, Ain’t a Gonna Study War No More. In the photo, strands of hair curled across my face, just as my mother would hate it, but just as it always did. There was a fierce look in my eyes, a force of will bending the page to some inner vision—I never noticed the sneaky photographer, never heard the click of the shutter.

One winter night as we viewed a slideshow in my family living room, the carousel stuck too long at that photo of me, and it bubbled and dissolved before our eyes. I was heartbroken, my last trace gone, along with the nicest photo of me ever taken. Somehow it seems fitting, though, a self-destructing trail, for the mysterious Mr. Fredericks. He would be in his mid-sixties now, and I wonder where he went next. Somehow I bet he never taught elementary art again, or at least not in a small town. I wonder where he ended up, if he is happy with Captain Midnight, if he still has a box of Kodak slides labeled 1970, Farmland Elementary, or if his copies, too self-destructed without a trace, leaving dust motes in the light of the projector beam, a little disappointment, and a little puzzle over what on earth really happened back there, anyway. 

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

letter from the exotic faraway

Good morning!

Isn’t it miraculous how traveling peels back the surface of ordinary life? Every setting, every minute feels new like a freshly-cracked egg, and just as liquid. Anything could happen.

I’m writing from my studio, my three-room writing paradise at Dairy Hollow Writers Colony in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. While I’m still taking it all in, Eureka Springs feels to me like a mix of Rivendell (Middle Earth, Lord of the Rings) and Madrid, New Mexico—maybe with a bit of Farmland, Indiana thrown in there, too. Everyone greets one another. People talk to strangers. While the writers’ colony is located in town, the space between houses is wild and wooded. From my living room porch, I watched a fox cross the street this morning, and I saw a deer on the way to church. Neither of them looked too nervous about my presence. Public walking paths travel behind old haunted inns, past the towers of Victorian houses, right through the backyards full of cliffs and healing springs with mythical qualities. Everyplace is uphill, both ways.

My home for the next week is “the culinary suite,” a pale green and cream living room/office, arranged around a rustic fireplace of local stone. My suite also includes a KitchenAid dream kitchen, with a six-burner stainless steel stove and an array of cobalt blue appliances. Surrounding the dream kitchen is a patio. 

I arrived Saturday to an outdoor temperature of 104, so I unpacked and napped in the air-conditioning. (Folks here tell me this heat is not normal for this place—Eureka Springs is typically the cool and shady part of the state, a vacation hub in summer.) After walking through the crowded downtown in the evening, I found a small pub with a menu of “little bites.” The lettuce-shrimp wrap reminded me of Vietnamese summer rolls in Chinatown, and the olive tapenade reminded me of a favorite restaurant on Eastern Point in Gloucester, a restaurant my husband and I frequented many years ago—now long gone. Is it travel that knits all of time together into one story? Gloucester friends, one of the pub’s specials of the day was a lobster tail dinner for $65. What on earth can one do to a lobster tail to make it worthy of that investment? My little bites added up to $10.

St. James’ Episcopal serves Sunday brunch after church—eggs, fruit, and sticky buns from heaven. I met twenty new people who all love Dairy Hollow writing center, and they all wanted to know about what I am writing. I almost got to meet a retired author of Harlequin “super-romances,” but she was busy with the altar guild. (I am so NOT a romance-reader. This near-miss might be providential for her and for me. What is a super-romance? Anyone? Another of my writing companions enjoys a sub-genre called “cozy mysteries,” which include recipes. Who knew?) The church feels much like St. Mary’s Rockport, a place filled with artists and people who chose to live here instead of living anyplace else on earth. When I returned to my studio, I worked on research, journal writing and just catching up with myself. Went back to the pub for lettuce shrimp wraps and tapenade with my two colony compatriots—shared a bottle of wine and talked about our work. A nice introduction.

Then I hunkered down yesterday—all the world was waiting for rain to break this miserable heat wave. Spent the morning writing, reading, researching. Spent the afternoon finding a ride to the grocery store (good coffee, rice crackers, juice, pinot grigio). After my first Dairy Hollow dinner, more work and a little knitting. It took me a few hours to realize how silent this place is, aside from the cicadas, and to remember how much I love silence and solitude as a respite from my regular day-to-day life.

The rain came in the evening, pummeling, pounding, an all-night deluge. I woke to 72 degrees, outside—my online weather forecast said the cool temps would only last an hour, so I found the shortcut path through the woods and walked downtown. Most stores are closed on Tuesday and Wednesday. So I’ll make a date for the yarn shop tomorrow. Meanwhile I returned drenched with sweat from walking uphill both ways again.

Later this week I’ll tell you more about the project I’m working on. For right now, the temperature is climbing again, and I’m watching the butterflies on the porch. I tossed this morning’s coffee over ice and I’m sitting with my feet up on the hassock, my stack of books, and my notes. This time is a gift, and I’m enjoying myself and enjoying my work greatly.