I was blown away by a book this evening. Alone here at the farm...but for a puppy who was busy chewing a pillow at the time...I sat on the porch with a glass of wine and began a book called CROW LAKE by Mary Lawson.
Mary Lawson, the author info tells me, is a Canadian who lives in England. I sat there wondering what it is abut Canadian women authors. Maybe this is a huge over-generalization, but I have found Canadian women authors...Carol Shields*, Margaret Lawrence, Margaret Atwood, among others...to be the writers who have most compelled me with their fiction in recent years.
Canada is, of course, a huge country with vast areas of isolation. I remember traveling by train across Canada in 2001, and as the twice-a-week train chugged through a one-street town - where it did not stop, where it never stopped - a man standing in a second floor wndow turned, dropped his trousers, and mooned the passengers watching from the train windows. I remember wondering about that man. Did he look forward with glee to those Tuesday and Thursday events? Or were they a chore (man looks at watch, groans, says: "Oh god, it's almost 3 o'clock; gotta go pull my pants down again")?
Not much to do in a place like that, and less, I suppose, for a woman. Does it make an intelligent woman introspective, creative, observant, literate?
Mary Lawson is all of that and more.
Thinking of my own young self, in an attenpt to answer the question - often asked - of what made me a writer, I have often thought that it was the combination of introversion and dislocation. In other words...I was always very shy (introversion) and my family, because of my father's work, moved frequently (dislocation). Without the outgoing child's ability to fit in quickly, make new friends easily, I was much more given to being an observer (a necessity for a writer), a ponderer, and a recorder. Of course coming from an educated and literate family, and eventually acquiring a good education, played a role as well.
But I am thinking now about the vastness of the Canadian landscape; there is such a feel of that, in this book CROW LAKE (though I have only read the first 50 pages), and of implacable fate in the lives of these land-rooted people.
It just occured to me to google Mary Lawson and I found an interview, in which she says: "The community I grew up in was larger than Crow Lake, less isolated, much less homogeneous, and less remote, but it was isolated enough that people depended on each other, and took care of each other. There is a downside to small communities of course – they are hell on earth for those who don’t fit in – but I remember it with affection, and Crow Lake is in some respects a tribute to it."
She says a lot else, as well, and I will go and read the rest. But in the meantime I just wanted to say that it is a wonderful moment to be sitting alone on a porch at sunset and to realize you are reading an amazing book.
* Yes, it's true that Carol Shields was born and grew up in the USA. But her adult writing life was in Canada.
Here is the start of a list of THINGS YOU CANNOT DO WHEN THERE IS A PUPPY IN THE HOUSE:
1. Use a mop of any kind. The puppy thinks it is a combination of toy and invader, and must be chased, attacked, growled at, and grabbed.
2. Take a shower with any privacy. Of course you can take a shower. But every thirty seconds the shower curtain is pulled aside and a furry head looks in to make sure you are still there.
3. Leave the New York Times on the floor. The puppy goes into shredding mode.
4. Sleep past 5 AM. Sun Up = Puppy Up.
5. Feel sad, bored, lazy. Impossible with a puppy around. Can't be done.
Last night Alfie didn't wake me with his "wanna pee" whine until 5 AM and I must say that I liked that much better then the prevous 2 AM and 3 AM calls, mainly because of the light outside. At 5 AM the sky is lightening a bit in the east, over the lake. At 2 AM, particularly on a moonless night, it is VERY dark here in the country, and as I make my way by Braille around the grassy peeing territory, I am very aware that we have had both bears and coyotes prowling this acreage.
I liked it out there at dawn. There were birds on all the feeders, the grass was dew-covered,and the sky was pink over Long Lake. It felt as if it would be a fine new day.
I didn't know this at the time, but at 4 AM this morning my dear friend Deborah (I'll add a photo of her)was taken into surgery at Mass. General Hospital and given a new transplanted heart. Deb was born with a congenital conditon that had virtually destroyed the heart she had, and since age 45 - nine years ago - she has been living on borrowed time, but with enormous grace and optimism.
There have been some complications, I'm told, but the new heart is functioning, and someone whose name we do not know has given Deborah - and her beloved husband, Jack - a chance at a life together they would not otherwise have had.
I have an organ donor card in my wallet. I hope everyone who reads this will make certain that they do, too.
The puppy woke me up this morning at 6:22 AM (Why is it I always glance at the clock when he gives that little yip that means "Take me out so I can pee"?) and it was (still is, at 7:15) pouring rain. Darn! Tha gardens will love the drink of water, but why today? Today I am having between 50-60 people here for a 50th anniversary celebration. And though there are rented tables and chairs set up in the barn, and enlarged old photos of the anniversary couple thumbtacked to the walls inside the barn.....we had envisioned the barn as the place for sitting-down-to-eat-in-the-shade, a respite for people roaming the lawns and enjoying the view of the lake and mountains. Now the view is gone completely, hidden by rain. I will have to slog out through the deluge to pick the flowers that will become bouquets on the tables. The rain is tap-tapping on the metal roof; and it is DARK today in the barn. With the wide doors open at both ends, on a nice day, breezes and light flow through. Not today, though, unless the weather does a quick turnaround in the next 4 hours. People are due to arrive at noon.
We will make the best of it. But DARN.
Happier note: in the mail I have received an advance copy of a YA book to be published by Atheneum next March: "The Opposite of Music" by Janet Ruth Young. I first read this in its earliest stages, a partially completely manuscript, when I was one of several judges selecting new work to be awarded the PEN New England Childrens Book Caucus Children's Discovery award (an award now named the Susan P. Bloom Award) several years ago. The book-in-progress had a different title then - and I can't even remember what it was - but I do remember that in introducing the author at the event where she received the award, I said that while reading it, I had thought: "I wish I'd written this!" Not in envy but in admiration. The book is so well structured, so innnovative in its form; and I am happy to see, reading the finished product, that it has not lost those qualities.
I very rarely - make that never - write blurbs for books. You know what a blurb is, right? One of those quotations on a book's jacket that says something like, "I couldn't put this down. What a page-turner!" and then is signed by someone who too often is a close friend of the author.
Just for the record, I am not a close friend of Janet Ruth Young. I've only met her once. But I do admire this book and I feel, a bit, as if I was in on its early stages and am now so happy to see that it has grown into such a fine finished novel. So I will be glad to write a few words of well-deserved praise to help send it out into the world.
Also in the mail, I rceeived an odd request; a teacher - or maybe it was a school adminstrator - sent me a blank audiotape, with a request that I recite and record the Pledge of Allegiance - then it will be played at their school to lead the students in that daily patriotic recitation. Presumably many people have been sent a blank tape and I suppose many of them will folow the instructions and return it with their recorded voice. But I couldn't. I'm returning it still in its unopened package. For one thing, I am at my summer home and do not have a tape recorder (actually, I don't think I have one at my "real" home, either). That's a reason, but also an excuse, I suppose. The truth is, I just don't feel comfortable with such a project.
Liberty and justice for all. Yes. If only it were so.
It's always a lot of fun to meet young readers, and here I am with Bobby DiFronzo, age 16, in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, day before yesterday. I knew his mom years ago and went to visit her when I was in Florida on Saturday (I'm now back in Maine)... and Bobby showed me the school project he had done on "The GIver" when he was in sixth grade. The really nice thing is that he had saved it all this time! Or maybe his mom had. In any case, it was great to see it, and him...and his brother Jesse, (who didn't get his photo taken.)
I went to the Portland airport yesterday morning without having heard the news of the terrorist plot against the airlines. So it took me by surprise to find, in that small airport, huge slow-shuffling security lines, and people discarding toothpaste, sunscreen, toddler's juiceboxes, etc. Dutifully I jettisoned my stuff and boarded a plane that left Portland an hour late, still giving me enough time to make my connection in Atlanta. But the Atlanta airport was also something of a zoo, and a zoo with thunderstorms as well, and my 5:20 flight from there to Panana City dindn't take off till 10:30 PM. Finally, though, I am here, with my granddaughter...she and I are sharing bunk beds (I get the bottom!) in a condo on the beach...and my daughter-in-law...just for a couple of days, and then I fight my way through the travel situation to go back home, pick up my puppy, and go back to work.
My granddaughter was born here when her dad, a USAF pilot, was stationed here at Tyndall USAF base. I flew down then to meet her when she was two days old, in 1993. They returned to Germany when she was five months old and now her mom has brought her to see where she lived as a tiny baby. She doesn't remember the house, of course; but amazingly she does have some memories of the house we rented in Seaside, FL, when she was two and a half. Her dad had been killed the previous spring, and we came then to have some quiet time together, and for Margret to see some of their many friends who were still in the area.
My memory of that rented house is also a memory of a children's book and my first very profound awareness of the role that literature can have in the lives of children. Nadine was two and a half, just learning to talk, and learning in two languages simultaneously. Her mother is German and her father had been American, so they had always spoken to her in both languages; and after he died, her mom spoke English to her - her mom's family speaking German - so that she would continue to have both.
During that visit, her mother went out to dinner with old friends while I babysat. It was the first time she had left Nadine since her papa had died, and when it grew dark outside, the little girl began to cry and cry. I had taken a lot of picture books with me to that rented house, and that night she chose the one we read again and again....she, shuddering with sobs, whispering "read it" to me each time we came to the end, and so I would begin once again at the beginning. The book is called "Owl Babies" and it is by Martin Waddell. Such a simple story, of three baby owls who wake in the night to find their mother gone. Two are filled with ration and logic, explaining to the terrified littlest one that she is out hunting for their food. But the frightened little one wails again and again, "I want my mommy"...the same thing my granddaughter was feeling that night. Each time the book moved toward its wonderful ending, with the mother owl swooping in and enfolding the babies in her huge wings, I could feel my frightened and grieving granddaughter relax in my lap with the knowledge that her own mama, too, would return.
It has been such a long time since then, and the same child who sobbed then is now a tall, beautiful, and self-assured almost-13-year-old. She says she has vague memories of that house, the house where we read "Owl babies" again and again. She doesn't remember her own fear, or the reassurance of that book; but she remembers the porch swing.
I remember a porch swing—it was on my grandparents' porch—from my own early childhood. I wonder if there is something about that repetitive motion, that soothing rhythm, that embeds such a memory.
OKay, so it is only August 9th. Summer isn't REALLY ending yet. But it starts to feel like it, around now. Last night was the last concert of the chamber music festival. When I got home and took Alfie out for a walk, there was an almost-full moon, and the air was cool.
Yesterday he had his first playmate for a visit: a German Shepherd puppy named Sophie, who came to visit with my friend Kay; and it was Alfie's first time off the leash, as he and Sophie wrestled and ran for almost an hour (then the two of them collapsed on the porch and slept, so that Kay and I could eat lunch with no dogs wanting to investigate the sandwiches).
Sophie lives down the street from us in Cambridge so will come to play in our yard often after summer DOES end and we go back home. Alfie has not yet ever seen his "real" home, just this farm where he is learning to chase chipmunks and to be wary of the underground electric fence.
German Shepherds are smarter than Tibetan Terriers, I mention with a sigh. That is why German Shepherds are guide dogs, and drug-sniffing dogs, and police dogs, and win at Las Vegas, and get tenured positons at MIT. Tibetan Terriers...well, they are just fluffy stuffed animals who are a little timid about their own shadows and who like to curl in your lap.
If, god forbid, they were divided into Reading Groups, Sophie would be working her way through Tolkien, but Alfie would still be sounding out Frog and Toad.
Still, they had a great time wrestling, and Alfie did ward off the attempted grab on HIS rawhide ball.
And in the fall, when real life starts for him, Alfie will go off to school. It makes me think of new shoes and hair ribbons, and a lunchbox. September always felt like such a time of new starts for me each year when I was young. This year, I thought each year, I really WILL keep all my stuff in order, and won't doodle on the pages of my notebooks, and never lose my milk money. That never turned out to be true, but each year I did love the promise of it, the possiblity of it.
I've been cleaning out the barn. We're having a large party...50th anniversary for my son's parents-in-law (my son married the daughter of friends of mine; how nice is THAT?!) and here is this huge space, open at each end—when we roll the giant doors aside—for a breeze to come through; and the walls are perfect for tacking up photos, etc, so there will be tables set up, and lots of food, and friends and kids and dogs and the whole wonderful thing that happens on family occasions.
Also in the barn is the Mickey-and-Judy room, the little theater, where last summer my granddaughter, Nadine, and her friend Annika, both of them 11 years old at the time - visiting from Germany, put on a puppet show which they had written, rehearsed, and for which they had made the puppets. The amazing thing was that Annika spoke no English at all. Nadine speaks both English and German - she always has, since when she was acquiring lnaguage she had an American dad (my son) and a German mom. Nadine's dad died when she was two. But after that her mother spoke English to her so that she would keep the language of her American family.
At any rate, here they are (Nadine on the left) with their puppets after a wildly successful performance of "The Bad Prince" during which Annika read her English dialogue phonetically and beautifully. There were fourteen people in the auidence and each of them gave the show a rave review. The sign above the puppet-theater-window, which is hard to read in the photo, says THE LIVELY VIRTUOSO THEATER ARTS COMPANY, FOUNDED 2002.
The sock puppets, a little moldy, are in The Green Room still, along with the HISS, BOO, and APPLAUSE instructional signs. So I've been smiling with nostalgia as I clean the barn.
Nadine is in the USA again this summer, but this time in Florida, so that she can see where she was born thirteen years ago this fall. I'll fly down Thursday to see her and her mom. Now she is a Lively Virtuoso at ballet, horseback riding, and violin, and I think so often about how proud her dad would be of her, how proud we all are.
Last night I left Alfie in his crate and went off for a couple of hours to a chamber music concert. It is one of the fine things in this area, in summer, the Sebago Long Lake Music Festival every Tuesday night, and last night's concert was no exception except that is was SOOO HOT that I suffered for the performers on the stage during a Mozart string quintet; between each movement they each had to wipe their faces and necks. And the theater, Deertrees Theater, a historic and quite wonderful place in the woods (Harrison, Maine) gave out bottles of water to each member of the audience as we entered.
When I got home, it was still very hot (I had left two separate fans blowing on the puppy's crate); there was a half a moon, and when I took him out on the lawn to pee, Alfie expereinced shadows for the first time: his and mine, quite long across the moonlit lawn.
It reminded me of a passage in my book GOSSAMER when the protagonist, Littlest, experiences the same thing:
They tiptoed across. Littlest noticed her own shadow n the moonlight. "My goodness!" she said. "I didn't know we had shadows!"
"Of course we do. All cretasures have shadows. It's a phenomenon created by light."
A phenomenon created by light. What a fine phrase, Littlest thought. She twirled suddenly on the rug and watched her shadow dance.
Alfie didn't dance. But he growled and charged and then stopped, startled, when his shadow moved and charged in return. It was fun to watch. I was struck as I am so often by the capacity for wonder in the young, as they discover each new thing.
I seem to recall that there is another passage about shadows across a lawn in my way-back (1980) book AUTUMN STREET (and if people ask, as they sometimes do, which of my own books is my favorite, AUTUMN STRET is the one I usually name). I don't have that book with me here in Maine so I can't check the passage but I think it describes (from a child's viewpoint) the shadows of tall bushes looking like furred creatures reaching their paws across the lawn.
They had predicted close to 100 degrees here today, before the heat wave ends tonight, so I was dreading one more day of misery; but this morning it is raining (and for Alfie that was one more new and startling thing when I took him out: (lots of head-shaking and eye-blinking) RAIN! so perhaps the heat will end sooner than expected.
One of the next new things that Alfe will encounter is the underground invisible (electric) fence. it is there to keep him safe, of course; but I dread the prelimary training which involves what the invisible fence company euphemistically calls "corrections." It is electric shocks, folks, make no mistake about that! But it works. Bandit never crossed that border, nor does my son's golden retriever, Tillie. It is just that like so many learning experineces, it is painful.