Sunday, August 12, 2012

Hi dear Blog.

I am traveling much of this month, and I will get back to you once I've settled into the regular fall schedule. While I've been away from blogging, WOW have I gotten a lot of revision work done on some of my longer stories.

I'll be back!


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

what gets left behind

“Take them. Take them. Otherwise the little plants will die.” Mimi presses a flat of 16 tomato seedlings into my arms and I say sure. Sure. I thrust the flat onto the deep dashboard of the minivan, watching a handful of black ants stream from the undersides and into the creases. The rest of my car is full: a bookshelf. Two boxes of paper and office supplies, fancy scissors and markers and crayons. In the passenger seat, three rosemary bushes, sage, one fragrant thyme, a start of spearmint.

“I grew the tomato plants from seed. They are small.” Yes, only as tall as my thumb, and it’s nearly July, and no tomatoes will ever grace these poor foundlings. Days ago, Jim wrapped pallets of their belongings for the container ship, and I get the feeling they’ve not slept since then.

I say no to a luxury air mattress with only one leak which could easily be repaired (I have one of those already, in exactly the same condition.) I say no to a document scanner that is no better than the one I own already. I apologize that I can’t take another load to Goodwill, can’t find a home for a perfectly-good working sewing machine, can’t take on multiple steps to get good stuff into the hands of people who might need good stuff.

They will leave for the airport in ninety minutes, and they need showers. They refuse cold beer—they are that serious.

What I came for is the outdoor fireplace, now filled with ash—they’ve been burning papers they won’t need, she says, night by night, while deciding what things they will need for the rest of their lives in Costa Rica. Shedding America, layer by layer.

She panics when I look at the huge metal bowl of ash. “But we have no place to put the ash!” I ask if I can’t simply dump the ash in the woods next door, and she says no, something about the landlady. I can tell that her English is tired by the way she searches for words, places her hands on both sides of her head. Jim comes out of the door and panics, oh my gosh we didn’t even empty the ash! I bring my own hands down, an epiclesis, bringing down the Holy Spirit to soothe, to calm. I tell them I can find a bag, I can clean it, I don’t mind at all. I brought gloves, I say. “We use a, a thing to scoop out the ash…” I find the large metal spoon next to the fireplace and determine the direction of the wind, so I can get to work. I line a box with a grocery bag, and shovel ash with the spoon.

After I nestle the scrolled metal base, the bowl of the fireplace, and the screen cover into the backseat, Mimi asks if I can help her empty the frig. Thank goodness I brought empty boxes. After asking, “do you want these? Can your family use these?” I say, give me everything. Mimi shrugs and says, “well, we all need containers, right? If you don’t need the food, you can just use the containers, then I don’t have to think anymore.” I nod: that’s the best way. Let me take it all, take all the worry, all the decisions I can bear away in a few boxes. My effort is not much, not as much as they need. They tell me someone is coming to pick up the last loads, later.

We talk a little—not much, not sentimental. A month ago, my daughter insisted before her eighth grade graduation: NO TEARS. And it took effort, but I did what she wanted. Good training for today. My friends—soon to be my Costa Rican friends—are too tired for weeping, and I must let them go with a simple hug, sweaty, not too close, after I cram the box of food into the last inches of space in my van.   

“You will remember us in fire,” she nods at the fireplace in the backseat of my van. “I like that. You will remember us in salads and soups. I am glad your children will remember us everywhere.” 

I am tired and spent, myself, but I think to lean out the driver’s side window, for one last word. “You have been a blessing, from the first time I met you until now.” A last wish for safe travels, and I am on my way, holding a flat of tomato seedlings against the dashboard with one hand and driving toward remembrance with the other.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Summer reading

The paperbacks curl in this humidity. I tell myself the covers will flatten—they will—but the buckling pages make me panic a little. All these beautiful words, sentences, paragraphs, transportation into the minds of other people. What a strange way to make a life, reading, writing, encouraging others to do the same. Sometimes I wonder why I don’t teach people to make stuff, instead. Sometimes I DO teach people to make stuff, and often as we make stuff, we talk about books.

Frederick Buechner says, “some of my best friends are books.” I could ask why it’s so, for me, for him, or I could just nod. 

What are you reading? What's next on your list?

My June reading list:

The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard, by Erin McGraw
Still, by Lauren Winner
Animal Vegetable Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver
Edge of Dark Water, Southern murder mystery, tense and terrifying writing. Will find the author name. 
Bayham Street: Essays on Longing, by Robert Clark

Plus books for my classes: Cry the Beloved Country, Mere Christianity (it's been awhile), and a giant text about writing in higher education, titled Engaging Ideas. The latter title is surprisingly accessible, and even a little exciting.

I'm eager to get to the new Debra Dean book, plus my yard-sale book finds: What is the What by Dave Eggers, and The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett. It might be the summer for The Sparrow.

I'm also working to reacquaint myself with the Audubon Field Guide to New England, so I can better name the flowers, birds, and river creatures. (Moon snails, ew. Egrets, lovely. Spotted jewelweed, an old favorite.)

What new book friends have you recently met? 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

letter from a late-June heat wave

I want to rush at this letter with arms thrown open: we are well. Our house is so suited to summer. All of our school schedules have ended, for this one week, and we are home, sleeping late, eating meals on a whimsical non-schedule, walking the hallways barefoot and mumbling.

Swimsuits are still draped on the porch railing, though the 90-degree weather surely baked them dry hours ago. We are fine in our un-air-conditioned house, as long as the wind blows. Like now, the trees rustling, the wind moaning over the metal fence posts and rain-spouts, the pipe-organ of the neighborhood playing strange chords high and low.

Yesterday the thermometer stretched to nearly a hundred degrees, and then the wind stopped, mid-afternoon. We packed our kids plus three more, and drove to the beach, fingers crossed for a parking space, for mercy. When we returned home for a late dinner, still no wind, and when we decided to sleep, still no breeze. My son came by to chant, I cannot sleep. My daughter, too, said the birds would not stop singing, and I swear the birds sang all night. (Is it the warmth that signals their singing? Not the light? They sang all night, or I dreamed them singing all night.)

We parents are trained to survive lack of sleep, but children do not recover this way. They are spending the day in bed, with books and music (one of them), or continuing to nap off the swelter.

While I was standing in the icy blue ocean, yesterday, as ever I found myself singing a melody line of thanks, smelling the salt-cucumber scent of summer with Innocence Mission in my head. And again at night on the downstairs couch, under the blessed ceiling fan, a melody of gratitude for all that is, and for rest (or even a half-rest) of birdsong and sweltering heat.

Sometime in the wee small hours of morning, the breeze kicked up again—Scott rose from the second couch, across the room, and left for the bedroom upstairs. I woke late to this quiet.

One child rustles through, now. Scott leaves for errands in the air-conditioned car. A second child wanders by to ask about a box of muffins our houseguests left.

SO MUCH to unpack from these last few weeks, huge events, gatherings of friends and acquaintances, visits with writers and artists. Concerts. Speeches. Ceremonies. And maybe best of all, quiet times sitting with friends, with nothing terribly important to say.

Much more to write, but for now, cool drinks call.  

Thursday, June 07, 2012

june morning, graduation nears

I let the oregano go, this spring, and now it’s taller than my knees. The thyme is overgrown with stray grass, flowering, going to seed. I trimmed the rose bush down to almost nothing last fall, tired of the thorns and barrenness, and here its long arch has fallen across the front yard, covered with burgundy blossoms.

When I walk my son to the bus stop in the morning, I praise the family on the corner for leaving so many weeds growing around the mailbox, the fringes around the trees, the tall grass. I am happy that the elderly neighbor’s children don’t fuss too much, anymore, and a spray of wild beach roses arches like a waterfall from between the tall spruces, alongside another spray of grapevine.

I envy the manicured lawns, the well-tended perennial beds. The Joyful Noise landscaping truck arrives on Wednesday and makes its way down the street, around the corner, marking property lines like a Bingo card, mowing diamonds and squares into the nearly-million dollar properties.

We grow white clover around the pitcher’s mound, and the muddy home plate won’t grow anything. We keep planning to buy a hammock, but we don’t know how to hang it. We’d need tiki torches for the bugs, and where would we put them? I bought lettuces for the window box, but I forgot to buy potting soil. I will. When I get a minute.

The children grow like weeds.

He dresses himself for the choral concert, now, without my help. He dons a tie in lovely spring greens and sky blues, and when he sings the high notes, he closes his eyes like a choir boy. Then he grabs his cleats and runs. The next day he crafts a cow-shaped sculpture from brown wool, then throws it across the table—it’s supposed to be a bison, he says. It’s perfect, I say. It just needs more shoulder, here and here, just like your drawing. I pull out some shiny curls of mohair, hand-dyed by someone, somewhere, and we add the shoulders, the beard, the tail, the horns. He smiles and starts crafting a box for the diorama, figuring out the balance of sky and grass.

She needs help with the hair dryer, she says, and I oblige. She could learn to do this herself, but there is plenty of time for independence, later. Even though we can’t talk while the dryer is blasting, we are eye to eye, faces close and thankful. She needs help with the new earrings, real pearls, real garnets, a consignment shop find. She promises to pack a pair of socks and flats to school, but she walks out wearing heels, swearing she is comfortable.

I’ve not pulled back, yet, to survey the endings of our life with the little school, the weed-children who have outgrown the desks, the swings, the small stage. They strut and preen, while the first-graders look up with dreamy eyes.

We parents watch, listen, marvel. Who ARE these children?

Maureen, yesterday, asked plaintively, “When will I see you, next year, when our kids don’t go to school together?” Beautiful Maureen. I was just picking up my vegetables and milk from the farm co-op, thinking only about the next minute and not about next week or next month, let alone next year. We will plan something, I say, aware that I plan very little, and then I remember, “you live near our favorite beach—it’s not that far.” Like weeds, I hope these moments can grow untended, unplanned. Her son once coached my daughter in sword-fighting, for a play, pledging he’d “put the man-stink on her,” her wee ponytailed self. She stunk well in that play, shouting about horse-piss in her best Shakespearean English.

Forgive me the imprecision of this post, friends. A shower just washed through and sent me rushing to close windows—just a veil of rain, the river still shimmering blue in the distance. Must eat the toast I left standing in the toaster. Must shower. I find the stack of Innocence Mission CDs, and turn it up on high, as Karen Peris sings “Where Does the Time Go.” Must buy pocket packs of tissues. I can do this, can live with slender green stalks, stretching, thriving.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

starship oak table

I haven’t yet adapted to story revision in my new place—it’s been a year, with my tiny wooden school desk in the corner near the spiral staircase, and I am still figuring out how I do this, here.

In the three-room condo, I understood exactly what to do. First, everyone would need to clear out of the house for hours, so a schoolday offered a perfect opening. Next, I’d need to shake off the trauma and mess of their leaving process by clearing the dishes, stashing the unfolded laundry, making the beds. Then I’d wash the oval dining table and shove it into the living room, lengthwise against the bay window, where the table formed the wings of my biplane, or the console of the Starship Enterprise. I propped the laptop up, grabbed my three-legged stool and spread pages of essays across the expanse of oak. A candle, maybe, would restore some sanity, if there was time. I might add the geranium from the window above the sink. But the extras didn’t really matter: once the table was in place, the pen was running.

I worked, circling and underlining with my 8-color pencil. I could wander to the bathroom, throw on a little makeup while still mulling a sentence or a storyline. I could sweep the kitchen, unload the dishwasher, pace for a moment and then return to my console at the center of the world. If I was smart, I set the alarm for 1:30, giving me time to get dressed, grab cashews and a water bottle, shove the table back into its normal location, and leave to pick up children, still working, still half-gone to the world.  

Oh, the days I flew! The hours, soaring! Whatever the results, the work felt symphonic and magnificent, right up to the mommy-mommy-mommy’s in the school playground. If I could only get them to go to the park, I could extend the hum of editing and revision for another hour, and get some sun and fresh air, too.

My house, now—my desk suffers an embarrassing problem: it’s too damn beautiful, here. The clam-diggers are busy at every low tide, mocking me with their productivity. The wind turbine, too, creates energy all day. Really Loud Birdsong, something I never considered as a problem. I need to be careful about sleepwalking while my head is still in a story—the spiral staircase is lethal. I can’t shove the dining table to my window, and the kitchen does not lend itself to a meditative mindset. Coffee shops are too loud and the music is unpredictable: I really do need to be home, to work, and I really need solitude. I know of many basement-writers, but I can’t do windowless spaces.

While the revision space has not worked out, yet, this gorgeous upper room is so rich in beauty, and in that way it’s good for my soul, through and through. I wake with the sun, slowly and happily, and the birdsong is a dream. Parenting teenagers, too—mostly, they leave me alone in the afternoons while they do their homework. It’s possible to work a little, even with them home!

I’m trying, now, to revise in my reading chair. I shove it toward the biggest set of windows, and I bring my lap desk with me. Often I arrange stacks of working papers on the end of the bed, behind me but within reach. It’s not perfect. I’ll keep trying.

One story sent to The Sun. (Done!) One blogpost-in-progress, two sent. (Two-thirds done!) One essay dropped off with two friends, awaiting comments, and then I will send it off, too. One essay deep in revision. Two summer classes secured (more-or-less: I am hired, now waiting for enrollment).

I need to keep combing through the files on my computer, remembering the stories I’ve abandoned someplace in mid-revision. I need to cull some posts from this blog and connect it to my website, and connect the website to Facebook and Twitter.

Meanwhile, I’ll watch that shower of maple helicopter-seeds, and the hummingbirds in that flowering bush. I’ll get back to revision, tomorrow.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

wild asparagus

 Found these on my evening walk-- I've been looking for weeks! I think I need to learn more about how to look for asparagus. Quite a few stalks had already gone to seed. But the rest are very tasty.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Tuesday, spring green morning

Gentle rain, here. I will brave the damp to go pick some lily-of-the-valley, in a moment. I can see the tiny white bells from the second floor window. Glad, also, for the violets which seem to be spreading everywhere.

I woke at 2:30 a.m., thinking I was still revising a story I’d put down hours before. I woke again at 6:30 in the morning, half an hour later than I intended, planning to put that motivation into the hard copies and the colored pencils I use when I revise stories. First I needed to cook oatmeal, make coffee, walk a boy to the bus. Then I learned that Maurice Sendak died, and I needed to listen to the stories on the radio.

But I did write a cover letter and print a hard copy of 1) story to send to The Sun magazine. Even though I am not good with the U.S. Post Office. Stamping the SASE, now, and sending, today. Maybe alongside a stack of packages I’ve sworn to mail soon?

2) A story published online this week, with 3) a second connected post going online soon.

I am deep in the “wild revisions” of 4) a shorter story and 5) one really long essay, trying to keep my paper copies straight as I literally cut and rearrange pieces. Circles, slashes—so far it’s all in good fun, and I don’t realize how out of control the process feels, until it’s 2:30 in the morning and I am bolt upright in bed. Remind me to finish these submissions before I start to revise everything I’ve ever written…

What else can I tell you? I turned 50 on a quiet day, and my family took me out for a night of Celtic singing and fabulous food. The kids agreed to take off their hats and to stop insulting one another, mostly. My friend Emily is helping me to tweak the website. I just interviewed to teach high school kids for the summer. My house is a wreck. My garden is… not really a garden yet. But the writing is going well.

So, most days I just want to scrawl the words “I am so boring,” on my blog, on Facebook. Thanks for enduring, with my boring self! I am working my way through the clothesline of submission goals, and maybe finding work, too. Boring. But moving along.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

saturday morning, as the wind finally settles

When I used to write letters, I would stop at six full pages of script, fearing I might overwhelm the person to whom I was writing, and of course I was right to fear. I go long, often, when I describe. When friends wrote me back, I would carry letters around in my pocket, reading and rereading, feeling the companionship of that particular friend, that hand, writing on that page, to me. I miss those days. No post online is the equal. But I try anyway.

In effort not to exhaust you, let me sketch a catch-up list:
  • Google my full name and you should find my new website.
  • Moved to a rental house on The Great Marsh in Ipswich, last year. Unless something marvelous comes along, we will live here for the next five years.
  • Surprisingly at home at Christ Church. I am done teaching church school—done for a long time, though I do think The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd might have saved my life in my time at our beloved St. Mary’s.  
  • Kids: I love parenting teenagers. They still love us so openly, which is a gift. However, I’m posting less public writing about them, as their need for privacy grows.
  • Scott is well and busy, enjoying sixteen years of teaching junior high students. Happily distracted by baseball season. He is also writing for the alumni magazine of his school, and he’s good!  
  •  Money is an ongoing question, while parenting, teaching part-time, and writing. While this question gnaws at me, this seems like this is the moment in which we live. So many people are wrestling with mortgages, income, student debt. I hope I can write into this, in a way that other people can embrace. 
  • I love teaching my two sections of incoming students each fall semester. I felt I was at my best, as an educator, last fall.
  • Temped full-time in the editing department at a gorgeous corporate publishing headquarters in January, February and March—great company, but the work itself was so dispiriting. (For the last three weeks, I inched away at a 500,000 item spreadsheet of date formats that needed corrected. Hell. Just hell.) We were glad for the money.
I am writing, revising, working on stuff for publication, thinking about the future and thinking about loving this place where we live. I need to put in a garden, soon. I need to unpack from last week’s trip. I need to be a more disciplined lover of God, but God is very patient, very present with me. In six weeks, kids will be out of school for the summer. I am applying for a summer school teaching job, and they are applying to be volunteers at a day camp for four weeks.

This is the point in the letter when I would become bored with the natter of talking about myself. Will it surprise you if I say I’m taking a notebook outside to write by hand, now? Saturday morning, and the wind has kept me awake for two nights, whistling through windows, shaking the walls. Kids are sleeping late, because they need to. Coffee and sunlight and a notebook, my friends. And maybe a novel, too? So much good in the world.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

the clothesline over my desk

8:20 a.m. 

For my 50th birthday, I asked for the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing. Now I am home and back at my writing desk, distracted by the thank you notes I hope to write, blissfully interrupted by memories of good conversations with people who love books, people who write books.   

I return freshly determined to submit my stories for publication in literary journals. One of the challenges to story submission: it’s important to know the publication, to see a sense of “fit” between the story and the journal. And the differences between journals are subtle. I invested a few hours at the festival visiting booths sponsored by literary journals, leafing through pages, trying to get a sense of each publication. 

I could aim my work to smaller publications with more likelihood of success. Or I could aim for exquisite journals, where my story will be added to the slush-pile of unsolicited work, where the submission guidelines say I should not expect to hear from the magazine for six months or longer.

I need a visual record of what I’m doing, where I’m sending stories. I could easily spend a day crafting a lovely bulletin board, the dream board in my imagination. But the need to get started is far more urgent. I rush through the morning house, ignoring the mess and disorganization. (Why are the pliers in the pencil jar by the phone? Is there an unpaid bill hidden in this stash of old mail? Don’t look in the frig, don’t look in the frig, don’t.) 

I return to my writing desk with a length of yarn and two pushpins I wrenched from the wall. I make a clothesline across my window. I write the name of a story on a 3 x 5 card, along with the name of a journal, and secure it with a clothespin—the clothespin still bearing the crayon marks from some long ago rainy day project. Two cards pinned. Now I must riffle through more story files for two more stories that are ready for final edits. My goal is to submit four stories by Friday morning, though some submissions require hard copies, envelopes, post office visits, and I am not good with the US Mail.

11 a.m. 

Now eating my forgotten breakfast of rice with golden raisins and cinnamon, now wishing for another cup of coffee. I have a clothesline. Cards are pinned to it.

Story 1 I will send the hard copy without looking at it, because I remember it as perfect.

Story 2, Smoke Rings, begins with two boring sentences. Printing a hard copy so I can do some final edits. Still wondering which publication.

Leafing through files for stories 3 and 4, and I found a gem! Already published on Catapult magazine’s site, An Un-Quiet Existence. If you go look at it, look at the current edition of Catapult, as well. 

Now I’m off to look for more unpublished stories in my files. 


Thursday, January 12, 2012

happy 2012!

I shall return!

I enjoyed teaching this fall, then enjoyed Christmas break with kids. Much to talk about.