Wheatfield Near Fort Pierre, South Dakota. Photograph by Robert Clements

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Archer

The mare and her foal and me near Irene's Tree. 

We've moved into the last portion of autumn and are heading into winter here in the place that time and Democrats forgot.  Belle has some snow, some ice, and confusing signals with bright sun and bitchy wind.  Hat or no hat?  Most of the women here, I notice, do not wear hats, at least not outside.  Also, most folks do not appear to walk their dogs.  Bob and I went to an open house up the street, and someone mentioned that they had seen me walking my dog.  "So, you just get bundled up and take her on a long walk?" she said.  She seemed surprised.  Yes, I do.  And my blue felt hat sits halfway down my face.  I look goofy, but getting outside during the day is one of the pleasures of my life.  Throwing a dirty tennis ball to a happy dog cheers me up.  At least once a day, it's important to bring someone else a bit of joy. 

I am committed to this place now, in that I have a part-time job at the Tri-State Museum here in town.  It has been built around the notion that people in town and in the surrounding areas (note Tri-State - includes Wyoming and Montana, along with South Dakota) have a history that needs to be preserved.  I can't agree with that, more.  I am working with Rochelle, a wonderful woman who comes to South Dakota via Denver.  I'm working as an Aide, which denotes I do a variety of things.  I'm looking forward to it because I think that much of the work will be interesting, and I will immerse myself in at least some of the goings-on of the town and its people.

But this is a hard time of year.  Sagittarius the Archer, half man, half horse, sits in the sky and shoots an arrow straight through my heart before heading East.  I am having dreams where I've lost control and am faced with overwhelming tasks.  Little things make me cry.  I broke into a spasm of an illogical tears the other day traveling back from Wyoming, where Bob and I spent a nice Thanksgiving Day with his brother and family.  I spent a lot of time walking Rua around Buffalo, Wyoming, a tiny Western town famous for a battle between sheep and cattle ranchers.  I didn't see a lot of sheep, cattle, or ranchers while I was there.  Anyway, on the way home, there is rough landscape between Buffalo and Gillette, a clumsy sprawl of trailers and homes that serve the mines surrounding them; Western cowboy movie chasing the bad guys landscape, where folks better have enough water and a sure-footed horse or hiking books.  It suddenly brought me to tears, thinking about my family, and trees, and the ocean, and the predictability of their love for me in all of Maine's four seasons.  Poor Bob - nothing he could do, but he asked, sweet boy, he asked.  And I've been off and on, ever since.  I hope that this passes.  I surely do, because I can't see myself living in this funk forever.  I'd better cowgirl up.

We went to 'shoot' the tree last Sunday.  Irene's tree (named after Bob's Aunt Irene), near Philip.  Bob's been photographing her in all of her seasons and in all kinds of weather for several years, now.  She's held up well, considering that she is the only one of her kind in a vast field surrounded by cattle, and now, three horses.  We don't know what kind of horses they are.  They are small, about Welsh pony size, but sturdier.  Dun colored, and buckskin, and the foal is strawberry roan.  And they are sweet, sweet, sweet, and friendly.  They came over to the fence while Bob was taking photos, and I kissed their soft noses and buried my face in the mare's mane.  And for a minute, I forgot about the Archer and the oncoming winter and whatever it holds and missing my family and friends.  I sucked in horse dander and sweat, and felt the coarse hair of the mare's mane scratch my cheek.  I reached out and scratched the foal's ears, and it leaned its little exquisite head into my fingers, as if it was the only thing that mattered for that little while.  They brought me joy and I brought them apples.  Square deal, I think.  All kinds of bliss in the most ordinary and extraordinary places, East and West.   

Monday, November 15, 2010

What's in a name?

A metal chicken by any other name would be a drill. Photo by Robert Clements

I was reading a piece on the web the other day about how it's important to take care when naming your characters.  For instance, a Scotsman named Carlos might seem out of place.  Well, duh. 

But since one lives with these people all during the writing process, from conception to birth, a familiarity, a rightness with each character's moniker will aid in moving the process forward.  I was lucky for my first novel.  I'm having a bit of trouble with the second. 

Florine sprang out of my head fully named.  I reached up into the sky and pulled it down as if I'd had a balloon attached to my wrist, all along.  I named her after no one.  She just became.  Her friends, Bud, Dottie, and Glen each came from a different place in my psyche.  Bud.  A good Maine nickname (his real name is James Walter, after my grandfathers).  Dottie's named after one of my grandmothers, and after a woman who wrote a hilarious letter to the editor of a local paper.  That's how this whole novel began (see my blog entry about ideas).  Glen, well, he looked like a Glen to me.  Or perhaps he reminded me of someone I knew named Glen.  Again, the name seemed to fit.  If it hadn't have been right, it would have been struck.  Leeman is a good Yankee name, and Gilham is close to Gilliam, a big name in the Phippsburg area, where much of the book is set.

More names.  Ida - my aunt Iva; Sam and Robin - no one in particular; I love the names and wanted to use them.  Ray - the former owner of a general store.  He's no longer with us.  Funny story about Ray - one of my friends, a woman 'from away' moved to a local village during her hippie days.  She brought with her a beautiful cat named Leonardo.  One day, as sometimes happens to city kitties transplanted to the country, Leonardo disappeared.  My friend went into the general store and asked Ray if he'd seen the kitty.  Ray said, "Dead."  That was Ray, and his blunt, taciturn nature remains alive through the gruff character who runs the general store in my novel.  Bert Butts - well, he's a nod to the late, great Marshall Dodge's Bert and I.  Stinnie Flaherty I named after two guys I worked with at a grocery store early in my twenties.  Andrew Barrington - Andrew after someone I had an enormous crush on, once.  Barrington - sounds toney.  Several characters have names that are combinations of people I know; many of them some of my favorite firefighters who work in Portland, Maine.   Elisabeth Moss and Detective Pratt are named for beloved writer friends and colleagues. 

I still don't know Grand's first name.  I think it's Florence, although it might be Edith.  Carlie was Marley, but then the dog book and movie came out, and I figured that another Marley would lose her impact.  So, Carlie (short for Caroline Lee) she became.  It's a saucy name, as was she.  Susan was Suzy, but it seemed to Elton Johnish and cutesy - "I remember when rock was young, me and Suzy had so much fun...".  So she turned into Susan.  And here is a good example of how the psyche plays with our imaginations.  I swear to this - when I named this character, I completely forgot that my eventual first husband went out with a Susan prior to our courtship, and left me for a Susan at the end of our kiddie-marriage.  Wow...  I wonder what else I'm keeping up there.

Stella was Betty, to begin with.  In my mind, Betty was plump and not attractive, kind of a gossip, and a lot less subtle than she became.  I didn't like Betty, she was the woman who took poor Florine's Dad away during the most vulnerable time in Florine's life.  Then, as I got deeper into the novel, I realized that Betty was a cliche.  This character, one of the most complicated and difficult to write, and to like and understand, needed a name worthy of any number of actions.  Stella is an interesting, rather sexy name that can go one way or the other.  Stella - means Star.  Stanley Kowalsky - STELLA.... My grandmother, Stella, a hella if there ever was one. 

So, yes, simplified, Carlos the Scotsman might be a reach.  I find, as a writer, that I need a comfortable cast of characters surrounding me, with names that I recognize and can work with.  Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea is filled with folks I can work and play with, anytime.  Takes a village of well-named characters to make a book.  That's why I'm hoping that I can settle on either Sarah, Berry, or Molly, so that she can pair up with Rocky and be a good sister to Gary - who changed his own name, by the way.

But that's another story.   

Saturday, November 6, 2010


Irene's Tree - photo by Robert J. Clements

They met in high school.  He, a shy boy from Winnegance, a country/seacoast village across the river from Bath.  She, a lively, attractive, vivacious girl involved in a pinwheel of school activities.  He liked her, immediately, but she didn't like him like that.  He had warts, you see.  When they went away, she began to date him.  He may have chewed them off, but that part of the story is vague, and not pleasant to recall, particularly at the supper table.

A courtship followed, of which I have no knowledge, because I wasn't an idea in their heads yet.  Photos show them at Quaker Point, sitting close and holding hands.  He was handsome in a quiet, Yankee way.  Stubborn chin.  Plain, strong face.  She had wavy dark hair and a smile that creased her face from there and back again.  She went to college at Orono for nurse's training.  He tried Junior College in Portland, but it wasn't his thing, so he signed up for the army, which was his thing.  While she studied and apprenticed and learned to heal, he tramped across post-WWII-torn Europe, taking in the aftermath of horrors unimaginable except to those who suffered and died, and to those, both good and bad, who bore witness.  He came back at one point and they married on December 26th, the day after Christmas, in a double wedding with her brother and his bride, then he shipped out, again.

Sometime later, I was born.  He was given an honorable discharge from the army and he went to work at the Bath Iron Works as a shipfitter.  She had a heart condition while I was hanging out in the womb.    She was bedridden prior to my birth, but after a C-section, I appeared to be fine, and the heart condition went away.  She did this, twice more, then stopped.  They adopted another son later on.  He continued to work at the BIW, she worked the second shift at the Bath Memorial Hospital.  I remember riding in the car with my sister and brothers, all of us sleepy, to pick her up at 11:00 p.m. at night.  I watched the door until she came out, smiling, always, no matter how tired she must have been.

We moved in with my grandmother, a woman determined to be seventeen for all time.  Those years must have been hard for them but their marriage held strong.  We grew, they lasted, and they made it look easy, despite what must have been tremendous pressure.  Whatever crisis might have engulfed them, we children were the audience watching the play, unaware of what might have been going on backstage.  He quit his job at the BIW and took work delivering groceries before he found work at the City Hall as a messenger and custodian.  She became the Director of Nurses at the hospital.  We were proud of her.

It gets hazy for several years, as I lived my life, looping in and out for holidays and family days, zooming in to regroup after several false starts, then lurching out into the light again for another stab at zeroing in on my dreams, and on my humanity.  For a long time, I resented them, was scornful of the choices they had made, of what I considered the wronging of my childhood self.  I got therapy.  They moved into another house.  He retired.  She retired.  They traveled some, to Hawaii, to Florida, to Las Vegas (where I swear she wants her ashes scattered), to California, to the National Parks, to Alaska, to Northern Maine.  He did man stuff, like hunting and golfing.  She read a lot and went to yard sales.  Sometimes she went to Foxwoods.  They lost a son to cancer.

When he began to lose his eyesight to macular degeneration, she guided his way along the roads and highways until he admitted that he had to stop driving.  She, at 69, got her license.  I went driving with her once, for practice.  Her voice shook, she was so nervous, but she did it.  Someone had to do the driving, she said.  They played Cribbage every afternoon at 3:00 p.m., not matter what else was going on.  They invited folks for drinks every Friday afternoon.  They went to church every Saturday night.  I visted them, occasionally, on Sunday, mostly itchy to leave because I had a lot going on in my own life.  They made me impatient.  He could be cranky.  She could be shrill.  I hated her questions about my life.  Now I know they were curious about their complicated daughter.  They were the audience.  I, my brother and sister, and their grandchildren, were the play.  

This October, I went back to Maine after four months in South Dakota.  She has suffered three strokes, small ones.  Her speech and intelligence are intact, although she gets confused and tired.  Her right limbs are affected, and she has two walkers, now - one she calls the Ford, a metal, simple thing, and one she calls the Cadillac because it 's a fancy dancy do-dad with baskets and places to put coffee and magazines.  He can see out of the corner of his left eye.  He still takes a daily walk, although he carries a golf club to lean on, if need be.  He is still 'army' all the way.  Everything in its place.  One day a week is towel washing-drying-and folding day - one day a week is ironing - one day a week, recycling and garbage.  She manages her routine in her tiny, tough, yet gentle way.  Neither of them can drive, but they have many, many friends and family to do that for them.  They manage their troubles with grace. 

I stayed with them for three weeks.  I cooked for them, watched the World Series - at least the Yankees didn't win; Dancing With the Stars - why haven't they voted off Bristol Palin?; and Wheel. Of. Fortune. and Jeopardy.  I walked my dog through the local cemetery every morning in search of a fox that we more often than not found.  The leaves, when I showed up in Maine, were bright.  They had all fallen by the time I left.  I picked up buckets of acorns for my Dad and carted them across the street, where I threw them over a stone wall.  We went to lunch a few times.  I rearranged the canned goods, the Tupperware, and the spices.  My mother and I went to see the movie Secretariat along with my sister.  We all cried, even though we knew the ending - wow - 31 lengths?  I'd forgotten that.
 I consider these three weeks some of the most illuminating and satisfying of my life.  I am thankful that they have lived long enough so that anything that has bothered us has dissipated.  Our bodies are breaking down.  Stuff is leaking, drying out, or falling off.  Forgiveness and kindness are not two of these things.  I am grateful for both.

Most of my friends have lost either one or both parents; some, tragically, long ago.  Mine are still much alive.  I still have them.  They have been together almost 70 years - 60 of them, married.  They sit diagonally across from one another in their Barcalounger chairs.  She shouts at him over the loud television.  He doesn't hear, sometimes, so she shouts again.  I'm not sure it's important that he does hear.  It's the sound of her voice that lets him know that they are both in the same room, together. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Imagine Circle, Strawberry Fields, Central Park, NYC - photo by Molly Leopin

New York City and I have an interesting history.  My parents traveled there for three days after winning a game show contest.  My mother brought back two beautiful dresses for my sister and me, all taffeta and pouf.  Mine was yellow.  Mary's was lilac.  We were young, little girls, really. 

Then, Stevie Wonder's hit, Living for the City.  I remember my brother, Mikey when I hear this song.  We lost Mikey to complications due to a bone marrow transplant to combat leukemia about 19 years ago.  But he loved this song.  Every time I hear the phrase from the song, "New York City, Just Like I Pictured It," I remember Mikey.

Decades after the song came out, my friend Amanda and I decided to take in New Year's Eve in New York.  We worked at a college newspaper - I was the editor and she was the production manager.  We had too much time one night, during an overnight, and thought about how much fun it would be to tick off some of the spots throughout the U.S. that hold some sort of mythological significance.  Mardi Gras would be one; Memphis and Graceland would be another; and New Year's Eve in New York City.  Since that was the closest to Maine, we decided we to start there.  Amanda went home to Pennsylvania for the holidays.  I took the bus to New York City on New Year's Eve, and we met there.  I remember riding up the elevator to the top of the Empire State Building.  When the elevator opened, a rush of warm air blew back my hair.  "I feel like I'm in a Michael Jackson video," I said.  We wandered the streets until the big event, then became caught behind a barricade.  Amanda was almost taken out by a crush of people.  I saw her hand waving as she went down, and I grabbed it.  I remember the ball falling, confetti flying, people shouting out the countdown, and a conga line of drunk, white, college boys weaving its boisterous way through the crowd.  After that, people disappeared in a New York minute, and Amanda, who was supposed to have found us a place to stay, admitted she hadn't.  We wandered around amongst the debris of the ball-dropping aftermath, then found a taxi and had it take us to the Staten Island Ferry terminal, where we rode it back and forth all night.  For me, the Statue of Liberty is always moving from right to left, left to right, as the ferry passes it by on its way to and fro.  The next morning, we tooled along the streets of the hung-over metropolis and caught a bus to Pennsylvania, where I visited my friend, Phil.  Someday, I thought, I will write a novel about this.  

Cut to another decade - the nineties.  I was working for a computer service magazine, god knows why, and my colleague, Nancy, decided that Maine was not in her future plans.  She got a job in NYC and moved away.  Later that year, I went to visit her in her East side apartment.  I don't remember much about the visit, except that I bought a dress at a Gap and we went on a Merry-go-round in Central Park, went to the Whitney, and ate out at some mighty fine places, and then it was over. I was going to write that novel, I told Nancy. 

Fast Forward to 2001, two months after the towers fell.  I visited Nancy again, because the Mayor told us that he wanted visitors.  Nancy was between jobs, the city had suffered a grievous blow, and it was as subdued as NYC ever gets.  We had a drink in the Oak Room in the Plaza.  We decided to go to Brooklyn one day, and tried to take the subway there.  But the subway station was buried in piles of rubble, so we took another one.  The smells surrounding the bombing permeated the train walls, sour, bitter cinder smells reminding me that something terrible had happened, recently.  In Brooklyn, I bought some antiques; a stuffed mallard duck and a Devon candlestick with a saying on it.  That weekend, a plane crashed in Queens and they shut the airports down.  Nancy and I took a taxi ride with a suicidal driver that gunned it to the station.  "I'm going to write that novel," I told Nancy, and the train pulled out of the station.

2010.  I visited my agent in May.  She took me to lunch at the Century Club, a former men's club where priceless art hangs on the wall and the only sounds that can be heard from time to time are the rustle of newspapers.  We sat in a lively restaurant, and got to know one another.  I had written the novel; we had sold it to a German publisher, and here I was, due to the kindness of a teacher/author who suggested I send my manuscript to the energetic and awesome agent sitting across from me.  

I moved to South Dakota, and my agent sold my book to an American publisher.  I drove across country (see below) in part to meet with her and my new editor, and to be interviewed by a journalist from Germany for a German magazine.  I say all of the words in this paragraph in a sort of stunned awareness of its dreamlike reality.  I had written (finally) the novel.  It had been accepted.  I had lunch with my agent and my editor - who is wonderful, kind, organized, smart, savvy, and calm - in SoHo, while my sister and my niece explored the surrounding area.  Please excuse me while I say this again, because it's kind of hazy, and a bit weird, to realize the extent to which my dreams have come true.  I had lunch with my agent and my editor in SoHo...  It's not a dream anymore.  It's an adventure. 

After lunch, my family and I explored with a terrific guide in the form of Evan, a relative on my brother-in-law's side.  We roamed through St. Patrick's Cathedral, the Nike Store, Toys R Us, Grand Central Station, a former church turned into a restaurant in Times Square, and we found our way through Central Park, through the Sheep's Meadow, towards the Dakota (not my Dakota, but John Lennon's Dakota).  We passed through Strawberry Fields and came upon this sweet little circle wrapped round with roses and memorabilia.

New York City, just like I pictured it.


Friday, October 8, 2010

Riding Along in my Automobile

I drove across country last week.  2,100 miles, give or take a few turns.  I drove a bright red Kia Soul and took my dog with me.  Driving that far in three and a half days requires a zombie-like determination, mixed with a relaxed alertness that can be exhausting.  I drove for about 9.5 hours per day, covered about 650 miles per day, and will have to do it again in less than a month...  Here are bits and pieces that passed through the thing that pretends to be a brain in my head.

South Dakota is big.  The Cheyenne River breaks are beautiful.  Missouri River.  East River girl, now.  Turn right, and go downhill towards Des Moines, Iowa.  I have to pee.  Rua is being good.  Iowa is beautiful.  The fields are brown and gold, with undertones of red, yellow, and orange.  Hobbit-town on steroids.  It's hard to keep to any speed limit.  I have to pee.  Wind farms.  Are they good, or are they just hideous?  H.G. Wells. The War of the Worlds.  Ooo Laaa - martians.  Richard Burton narrating the score.  England.  Mikey, my brother.  Bob needs to photograph this.  Seal - Crazy.  No law in Deadwood - is that true?  Why do farmers leave whole corn fields untouched?  I have to pee.  Nice rest stop - walk Rua - back in the car.  Thank God for GPS.  Through Des Moines.  Next town to motel.  Nice motel, good rest - exhausted.

Up by 7:00.  Wanted to be up by 6:00.  On the road by eight.  I have to pee. Fabulous rest stop with writer's sayings - most memorable - Tennessee Williams - Death is but a moment.  Life is made up of thousands of them.  Near Iowa City.  Somehow - Illinois - zip through Chicago unnoticed, at about 10:00 a.m.  Arch spanning highway - road construction.  Not much to say about Illinois, because it's a blur.  I have to pee.   Indiana wants me (but I can't go back there).  Hazard by Richard Marx.  How do people who never go anywhere have the right to criticize those who do?  Patty Griffin.  Little Pink Dress, Hanging from her Knees...Indiana, more farmish.  Nice farms - well kept - almost looks idyllic.  Quiet lives, good sleeps.  I have to pee.  Pet Walk.  Dogs Prohibited.  Small walk with Rua - guilt kicking in because she's so cooped up.  Life time of guilt as a dog owner.  Ohio.  Cleveland - pain in the butt to get through - ninety degree turn - skyline is Art Nouveau against a gray and sprinkly backdrop.  Car working well - can't keep under 80, when on highway.  No cops.  Good thing.  Don't want to ding the car.  Don't want to get dinged. I have to pee.  Pumpkin Spice pretzels.  Elyria.  Beautiful word.  Dingy motel.  No bulbs in lamps.  Big holes in one of the towels.  Exhausted.  Bagel with cheese and chicken on it - soggy - half eaten. 

Pennsylvania.  Zoom.  New York.  Southern Tier Highway.  Awful shape.  Awful.  Awesome Adirondacks lining awful highway.  Bump, swerve, bump, bump, bump.  Travel lane driving - driving lane bad, bad, bad.  Kia Soul not happy with bumps.  Rua is even unhappier.  Whiny - sees trees, senses home.  Beautiful area, simply beautiful.  Seneca tribe casino.  Cranky drivers - all of us hating the nasty roads.  Green Day - American Idiot Don't wanna be an American Idiot...I Walk This Boulevard...This is Our Lives on Holiday...  Angry music for lousy roads. I have to pee.  Great rest stop - hard play with Rua.  Snacks almost gone.  Lollipops saving the day.  Need to eat something good.  Motel in Massachusetts.  Does not take dogs, contrary to web site indications that it does.  Always call, next time.  $25.00 for four-legged friend who will not use the towels, mess up the beds, leave trash all over the place, or load up her bags with shampoos and soaps.  For crying out loud.  Pumpkin Spice Pretzels for dinner.  No good sleep.  Understandable.  Need good exercise.  Butt feeling like melted swiss cheese.  Shoulders hurting.  Eyes red.

Morning.  Out of Smashachusetts.  New Hampster a neccessary blur to getting where I want to go.  Cross Portsmouth Bridge.  Beatles - Get Back to where you once belonged.  Think about Michel Kimball and Green Girls.  Welcome to Maine.  The Way Life Should Be.  Rua wild.  I am crying.  Trees, trees, trees and familiarity with route.  Turn off GPS.  Fast, almost want to take off.  Kennebunk.  Saco/Biddeford, Scarborough, Portland.  Staples Parking lot.  Sister.  My sister.  Dog out of car - hugs, hugs, hugs, exhaustion.  Reloading luggage, dropping off car.  I have to pee.

Home.  Somewhere back there, I crossed the mighty M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I. 

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Head East, Middle-aged Woman

I'm going East next week, to Maine.  To my family, friends, trees, ocean, recycling, brilliant leaf color, caramel apples, good wine, long talks, and so on.  I'm happy about that.  And I'm sad.  I will be away from my guy for a whole month, and I will miss him, terribly.  I've been here with him for more than three months, and it's been remarkably easy, considering that we are together almost 24 hours a day.  We're both independent people, and we work around one another in a sort of passing-during-the-day dance.  I rule upstairs from my writing desk.  He rules downstairs in the gallery and the surrounding areas.  Occasionally, one of us crosses down or up into the other's territory, and ninety nine percent of the time it's friendly territory, unless one of us is cranky.  For those of you who are familiar with me, I know that you find it hard to believe that I might succumb to a bout of the Crabby Appletons, but I'm not perfect.  I know that might be surprising, too.  At any rate, I love living with my lanky Western partner, and my life won't be the same until we're back together.

I'm also rather wistful about leaving the prairie.  I have slowly, over the summer, begun to fall in love with this place.  It might have been the sky, it might have been the hills, or the wild animals I see on a daily basis - eight deer live in a park where Rua and I walk - they know us now and don't run (far) - or it might have been the wine-sharp, clean air.  It's a combination of all of them, I guess.  It's taken some time to grow on me, although I was attracted to it upon my introduction.  It kind of had me at hello, I guess, but all great loves take time to develop. 

The finest example I have of this is my absolute adoration of all things Irish when I was a girl.  With a name like Callan, that's to be expected.  I conjured faeries and mist and rolling Irish hills, a magical place where all dreams came true.  So naturally, when I grew up and got a chance to spend a semester in Ireland, I grabbed onto it with a viselike grip.  The plane took off in Boston and we touched down at Shannon Airport, which was next to a cow pasture, back then.  I took the bus to Galway City, and every dream I had about Ireland was shattered during that trip. 

This was during the 1980s, when Ireland was still considered a third-world country.  As I rode along, I looked out at the green and misty landscape, which was actually rainy and glum, and noticed that the charming thatch cottages were weed-ridden and abandoned, and modern housing lined the road like so much dull washing hung on a line.  The people surrounding me did not speak in a lilt.  They were not handsome and beautiful.  Their clothing seemed cheap and in some cases, threadbare.  The man in front of me had a bad haircut, and the woman next to him wore a dirty kerchief over her thin, gray hair.  What had I done? I wondered.  This wasn't what I had signed up for.  But it was right there, on that bus, with my fantasies shattered and my dreams tipped askew, that I decided to love it for its truths.  And I did.  Leaving Ireland later that autumn was one of the hardest things I've ever done.  I still miss it, and I always will.  So, I believe that true love starts when one person, and hopefully, both people, see one another clearly, and love each other anyway.  The same holds true for country and place.  My new friend Jenny, who lives here in South Dakota, says you've got to grow where you're planted.  And she's right.

I feel myself rooting to this soil.  I am taking horseback riding lessons, (see last blog), and it's worked out well.  Four of us jounce along, trying to post and control our horses, trying to be assertive without being aggressive, and our teacher is great - patient and kind - as are the poor horses.  I rode an Arabian mare last week who is one-hundred years old in horse age - but she's spunky and sweet.  I look forward to these times, each week.  My passion for horses has been rekindled, in a big way.

Bob and I are also starting to get out and circulate.  We attended the 55th anniversary of the Center of the Nation museum for an evening of celebration, cake, and storytelling.  I volunteered to help.  My job was to pass out brochures to incoming folks.  A local woman named Lorraine Klinger stood across from me and she introduced me to every person coming into the museum.  It was a gracious thing to do.  I don't remember many names, but I know people now, and it's beginning to feel something like home.  Going forward, I expect to be homesick, but I hope to be homesick, with a horse.

So, where is my place, exactly?  It's up to me to decide.  As a writer, I know that place is essential to how characters react, what they will do.  If, for instance, a character is confronted in a red room, his or her reaction will be different than if they are confronted in a blue room.  Is a crisis best averted during a summer's day, or during a winter's night?  Is the narrator standing on a hill, looking down into a valley, or standing in a valley looking up at the distance she or he has to climb?  It is all a matter of perspective.  It also depends upon the amount of time that has passed, and what's going on inside of the character or narrator. 

A line in one of Dolly Parton's songs goes something like this, "Wildflowers don't care where they grow."  I believe that, up to a point.  But I also believe that by cultivating the soil in my heart, where I am and who I am with will take root.  They certainly have, here in Western South Dakota.  And I already have roots in Maine.  So, I head East and North on Route 90 next week with my little dog.  I will enjoy being with my people back home.  And Maine will always be home.  A New Yorker cartoon I've saved reads, "Maine?  What an authentic place to be from."  Yep. 

But so is South Dakota.  And I am leaving a big piece of my heart here for when I return.   


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

When I was a Horse

The Lovely Leopard Appaloosa Near Bear Butte - photograph by Robert Clements

I used to be able to canter, whinney, toss my head, two-step backward, rear, slash with my front hooves, trot as if I was royalty, and win every race.  That's when I was a horse running with about five others in my small but heartful herd.  Then, my four legs morphed into two, my herd dispersed, and I became a girl, then a woman.  I can still gallop, though, if I put my mind to it - for very short distances, and only when I'm wild and out beyond the fences of my humanity and out-of-sight of other ex-horses.  

One thing that South Dakota has done is re-awaken my passion for horses.  In South Dakota, horses are everywhere.  I see one or several of them every day; grazing, being ridden, used as a pick-up animal or barrel-racing in rodeos, and bucking off cowboys (Did you know that horses are bred for their bucking capabilities?  I didn't.)  I see their arched necks, their careless and magnificant manes and tails, the sunset gleaming off of their mahoghany/black/paint/gold/roan/appaloosa/white/bay/and-so-on hides, their long, elegant legs holding up their powerful trunks, and I want to know them better.  I want to be a part of their club.  

So ar, it's been mainly an at-a-distance admiration, as the privilege of actually knowing horses on a personal level, wherein I might ride them, groom them, and be a significant part of their lives, was stunted when I was about eight or nine.  But tonight, near Sturgis, I am going to take riding lessons, from the ground (literally) up.  I am excited, nervous, and still a little in awe.  I have my cowboy boots and my jeans, and lots of hope that I can do this.  As I wrote to my fabulous friend, Lee, I will either re-invent my relationship with horses, or I will cross this experience off my bucket list.     

For crying out loud, I hear several people saying, what is the big deal?  Hop on the feckin' horse, ride it, and shut up.  But it's complicated.  The worship I have for horses is mixed up with my imagination and awe for the coolness of these creatures, the reality that I might fall off, be kicked or break my neck, and being bullied.  

The story begins back in Maine, where I grew up, when a nearby rich girl's father bought her a horse named Baby Doll, a buckskin mare that probably was a great horse, now that I know horses a bit, but one that haunts me.  There was a corral, two older girls who were much more experienced riders, the scorn of one, my own misunderstanding of her cruelty and impatience with my presence, and my fear of failure.  I remember sitting in Baby Doll's saddle, terrified to move, afraid of messing up more than falling.  I remember my friend, Colleen, growing impatient with me, and my own shame surrounding my inability to get over my fear.  I remember going to a riding stable with Colleen, being put on a Shetland Pony, and somehow, that pony took off at a gallop for the barn, me hanging on, scared past all knowledge of fear, and then, later, a physical fight between Colleen and the bully (I will not name her) over Colleen's choice to take an inexperienced rider to the stable, and how the owner was upset by this.  I remember eventually falling away from the barn and Baby Doll - I don't know what happened to her - and I remember, finally, walking away from the bully, when a remark that I recognized as being mean upset me.  Walking away was the beginning of recognizing and respecting mySELF, but it was still painful, and I hate that it all involved horses.
There's good news in all of this, however.  In every experience mentioned above, I did NOT fall off.  And the other thing - because every story needs growth to thrive...  I remember a moment of triumph, although I cannot tell you when or where it was - it was a brief relationship with someone who knew someone with a tall, gorgeous palomino that somehow I found myself astride, looping a meadow by myself, walking slowly, and then somehow, signaling to the horse that I wanted him to canter.  And so he did, rising like a gentle wave un,derneath me, heading up a small slope in a meadow, me initially afraid, but then relaxing with his sweet pace, as I looked between his ears at the grass and the sky bobbing in front of us.  It was a moment of heaven.  And that is where I will leave you.           

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

So Much to Write About

The problem with blogs, I'm finding out, or at least my own - okay, I can't speak for anyone but myself - is that there is too much to write about. My head is usually filled with days, nights, scenes from a relationship, scenes from the hills of South Dakota, scenes from inside my fuzzy little brain, scenes from Maine. Scenes from Maine.

I'm homesick. There, it's out. I miss my house, the ocean, my friends and family, the places I love to go, my Hannaford grocery store, recycling, Sebago Lake water, and trees. I miss wry wit, dry wit, sarcasm, my friend Barbara's big laugh and her kitchen table, my mother's voice, the sound my father makes when he clears his throat, letting my dog and my cat outside and inside, Quaker Point, my sister's incredible sense of humor, my brother's shy chuckle and brilliant observations from the other side of his silence, the New Meadows River, the East End and Munjoy Hill, the walking paths my dog and I used to take every day, and so on and so on...

This was a big change. A humungatroid leap of faith, and I took it because I love Bob, but also because I believe it's important to shake up the soul if it begins to get too comfortable. It's been an adventure filled with days spent in a beautiful gallery filled with work by a fabulous artist and photographer, rides in the truck gazing at hills that roll and toss their way to the horizon, which gets snagged by far-distant buttes and mountains and hills. One night, around midnight, we went deep into the Badlands under a full moon, and honey, ain't nothing like that in the world. It's like sitting with ghosts somewhere in the middle of Planet X.

And it is true what they say about Western sunsets. It's true that the deer and the antelope play and the buffalo roam. Seldom is heard a discouraging word because people just don't talk that much, and when they do, their troubles aren't up for discussion. And the skies are not cloudy, at least all day, the wind hustles them along to other skies like a mother hurries her sleepy kids to the bus stop. And like those kids, sometimes the clouds protest and whine and whammy! Lightening, thunder, and a whizzed-off wind screaming back and shoving them harder. But generally, it's sunny, and this is a new thing for a woman used to a moody climate. Rainy days are always good excuses for not getting things done outside. Rainy days are good for indoor things. When it's sunny, one has to show up for life.

It's so very different here. The people I've met are great, and if I let them into my heart, they'd be even greater. It is all up to me, in so many ways. It's a huge responsibility, this life of mine. Geez. I recently read Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. The gist, or the point that struck me, was that the main character was an Eastern woman who loved her life in the East, but fell in love with a Westerner and became a pioneer. A couple of times, Stegner makes the point that she never truly let herself live in the West; never let herself get to know people. She always kept her distance; her memories of the East ruled her life. So, I must say, I feel that way right now, but I'm hoping that it will pass and that I will find my life here. I can't imagine not living my life fully, heart and soul, wherever I have planted myself. It won't be fair to me, to Bob, to our adventure here. But it takes time. My dear friend Claire, who immigrated from Ireland when she was young, understands what I'm going through. (By the way, a wonderful book on homesickness and Irish immigration is Brooklyn by Colm Tobin - really gorgeous book in simple prose [how do the Irish do that?]). She says she soaked her pillow many nights for a long time. "Join an organization," was her suggestion, so I'm thinking about that, but I know these things come slowly. She's a wise woman who has lived a long and fulfilling life and what she says makes perfect sense. So, I am going to take horseback-riding lessons (hey, a blog topic!), so we'll see how that goes. I'm going to a writer's conference in a couple of weeks and that will be great. Getting together with other members of my tribe will be fabulous. I always like to gather with folks who make stuff up for a living.

So, I will adapt and thrive. In the meantime, I email, and I write, and sometimes I call and get called, and I think about them all back in Maine, a lot. I set my mind to following myself through a day in Portland, or driving north to West Bath, taking all the curves and hills and as they come, in my trusty beloved Honda Civic Hatchback, the Jelly Bean. I note the chips in the paint on my stair risers in my Portland house, the backyard and its little garden. The ugly tin-man shed in the corner of that yard. I walk up the hills to the top of the East End by the new school, then cross the Promenade and take paths that lead to East End Beach, then walk the rest of the way - a complete circle - past the harbor, up the hill, past Silly's, to home. I park in the post office parking lot in Bath and meet my family for pizza. I ring the doorbell at 838 Washington Street in Bath and then I walk in, sit down, and talk over the latest trials, tribulations, and triumphs. I drink wine at a small bar with Beth, or Brenda, or walk dogs with Tootie or Jay.

I miss them all. But they're loved and happy, as far as I know. I would have heard, I am sure, if things weren't okay. They are living their lives, as I am living mine, here in this little town in Western South Dakota, on this mixed-grasses prairie backed up against the Black Hills. And I'm agog with possibilities and time, if I let it, will be my friend.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The care and feeding of characters

Me, being intense.  Also, what's up with the different-sized eyes?   
One incredibly important thing I've learned as a writer is that, by creating non-cliche characters, one has a chance to react to a real-life, personal crisis in non-cliche ways.  Let me explain.  I am a sensitive flower with a very tough-woman exterior.  I have what my mother calls, "The Look", which means I evidently possess the ability to intimidate people with my laser-beam eyes.  Mainly, I'm not aware of this.  I operate behind the face, which means I'm backstage to whatever is going on in front.  Sometimes, peoples' responses to me surprise me, and the cables and pulleys that operate my heart get tangled.  So, my reactions are reactionary.  Defensive.  Hurt.  What we used to call 'ouch-ouch' in Diversity Training.  I don't think I'm alone in this, either.  Everyone has cringeworthy moments they remember in their darkest moments of self-doubt.   

Okay, so get to what you're talking about, Morgan.

When I first began Rubinrotes herz eisblaue see, (Red Ruby....), I created a mean, nasty Daddy figure and took him to my writing group.  WARNING: DIGRESSION: One place to put sensitivity aside is in a trustworthy writing group.  It's important to take charge of your own writing and your own intent in a non-emotional fashion, and to understand whassup, before you present your piece.  Know when a piece isn't ready for the light of day and protect that baby until you've provided it with a lunchbox and knapsack and can wave goodbye to it without weeping.  Go in honestly wanting to know what folks think, and never expect it to come back to you without at least one skinned knee.   
Anyway, the Daddy figure in the book was pronounced 'cliche'.  Ouch.  But not a horrible ouch, just kind of a wince and a shrug of the shoulder to remove the demon riding on my shoulder.  What did I do with their information?  I took every response that Daddy had to a situation - cranky at the least; threatening and emotionally damaging at the most - and I turned it around.  Example:  Cliche Response:  "If you don't stop crying, I'll give you something to cry about."  Non-cliche Response:  A nonverbal hug.  Another example:  "If you say anything like that again, I'm gonna smack you."  Non-cliche Response:  "I'm ashamed of you and I'm walking out now.  I hope I don't hear you say anything like that, again." 

Mind you, I did not change who he was, a working-man with a minimum of education, a love of drink, and an easily confused emotional psyche.  New Age drumming circles weren't invented when the character was created, but I did humanize him, tried to take where he had come from and invest that in his personality and in his love for his family.  And I did that for all of the characters, particularly the ones I didn't like.  It made us all work harder, and it made for a much richer experience for me as a writer.  I wasn't bored when anyone walked into a room.  I was always entertained at what took place.

That said, when I write a first draft, I will often 'cliche' the characters to get the writing down.  And then I will change it all - the reactions, what happened as a result of them, how the narrator reacts to what is being said and done, and so on.  But it is important to me to get it all down.  I'm messing with a lot of ideas and a basic plot at this point, and I need to start somewhere.  The shades and hues of the personalities concerned take shape as I go along, as does everything else.

So, how did learning how to do this on paper change my life?  Concrete example:  I used to work as an assistant in a fire station.  One of my duties was answering phones.  One day, I picked up the phone with my professional and pleasant greeting, and a well-seasoned, gruff male voice asked for the Fire Chief.  "He isn't in," I said.  "Would you like his voice mail?"  His response was a sing-songy, impatient imitation of my voice, "No, I would not like his voice mail...".  (It really was icky, and potentially disastrous for both of us.  I could have hung up, he could have been angry)  I paused.  And then I did the unexpected - subconsciously.  I laughed and I laughed.  And he laughed, too  What a feckin' relief!  It has affected many conversations, turned emotions around, made me less fearful of a response, less sensitive.  Primarily, it has affected my relationship with Bob in a number of ways, least of which is that we are together, and I'm glad of it.  My cliche responses to his overtures may have nipped what has become the most important relationship to me in the bud.  But that's another story.  One that I'm going to try to get published.                     

Me, smiling.  Still, what's with the eyes?  Well, at least I can change the reaction.

Friday, August 20, 2010

May there be treats in heaven, Michael Collins

Michael Collins (Mikey).  Photo by Sarah Thompson
We found out that our great friend, Michael Collins, passed on earlier this week due to burst ulcers and the resulting complications.  He fought hard, but in the end he left this life behind; not before knowing he was loved and will be missed terribly.  Michael Collins (or Mikey) as he was fondly called, had a life most people would envy.  He lived in salt-bound Maine in the summer, and trod the sweet sands of Key West in Florida for the winter.  The folks in his life loved him very much.  He returned that love with slobbering kisses and enthusiastic thwacks of his tail.  He loved treats, anyone who threw him sticks in the water, his many friends and fans in both Florida and Maine, and his owners.

Michael was a yellow Labrador Retriever.  Pale and handsome, he was a well-built guy with a sweet, dignified personality.  We first met him when he was three years old, just past puppy hood and heading into adulthood.  His was a steady nature, curious but not obnoxious, intelligent but not condescending, goofy, but never foolish.  Rua, my little dog, LOVED him.  We met Mikey and his owner, Sarah Thompson, on East End Beach in Portland, Maine almost seven years ago, when Rua was about nine months old.  It was instant adoration on her part; she chased him up and down the beach, jumping up to nip at his tender soft ears in doggie rapture.  Mike grinned and took it all in his hail-well-fellow-met way.  He liked Rua; he didn't make an ass of himself over her.  For seven years, we anticipated Mikey's return around May, when Sarah and her husband, Paul, returned from Key West.  Rua always knew when Mikey had come back; we would be taking our customary walk along the Eastern Trail in Portland when, nose to ground, Rua would trace the beginnings of Mikey's long summer in Maine with her speckled nose.  Mikey and his owners left in November, which always signaled to Rua and me, the ones left behind, that winter's fits and starts were not far away. 

Portland is a big dog town - people love dogs and cater to them in many ways, with gourmet doggie stores, big dog parks where they can run, grooming specialists, doggie wash stores, and so on. I suppose it seems nuts to those who are not dog-crazy, but when you're fortunate enough to have a best friend that loves you no matter what, care and feeding of said buddy doesn't seem like too much to give back.  It is a normal thing for people to gather together in the parks or on the beach to watch their dogs play and discuss their pooches and life in general.  So far, in South Dakota, I haven't run across this group.  The dogs here work on farms.  They tend toward the working breeds; Aussies, Heelers, Border Collies, German Shepherds.  They ride into town in the backs of pick ups and wait there for their owners to finish their errands.  No butt sniffing for these dogs; they are all business.  It doesn't mean they are loved any less, mind you, it's just that they have jobs to do.  I've met a few people walking town dogs, but thus far, Rua hasn't been that interested, so we haven't connected.  But I do miss the company of my dog-people friends, and I can't talk for Rua, but I do know that she will be glad to see her friends in Maine.   

While we do love our dog people, I realize that it can an odd and, sometimes sadly, temporary society.  And while I have become good friends with many dog-owned people since I've had Rua, others have remained nameless, yet, I can tell you without fail the names of their dogs.  So while I don't know the names of Sophie's, Baxter's, Teddy's, and Rosie's owners, I do know the names of Tucker's, Trout's Tonka's, Gracie's, Dexter's, Noah's, and Oscar's people.  And Mikey's people, of course.  When dogs connect, their people do, too.  The sad thing about this little grouping of dogs and people is that when a dog dies, the person disappears, too.  I am fortunate in that I haven't had to face that, yet, but it must be an overwhelming sense of loss for the person, both because the dog is gone and because the society that was created because the dog existed is no longer relevant.  Sometimes, folks return with new dogs, and they are welcomed back, always.  When Sarah is ready, I hope that she will introduce a new puppy to the group.  Mikey would have liked that.     

Rua has had other loves, but Mikey was her first and unabashed love affair.  I don't want to sound all gooey and stupid, but something did happen here in South Dakota, 2100 miles away, on the day that Michael died.  Rua was lying in her space under the chair, sleeping, when all of a sudden she started, woke, looked at me, and whined.  And whined again.  It was unusual behavior, so I watched her for a while.  She put her head down on her paws and left it there, awake for a bit before she nodded off.  I don't know if she knows, but I do, and I will miss not having him there when we head back to Maine for a visit in October.   She will know, then, because she will look for him.  It will be strange to head for the beach and see a space where a whitish-yellow dog used to run, carefree, chasing sticks, acting for all the world as if that was all there was to life.  Who is to argue that it isn't.  Follow your bliss, Michael Collins.  Follow your bliss, and top it off with a treat on the house.    

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Where do ideas come from?

Beaver Bourget's Lobster Boat, The Odyssey, Quaker Point, Maine - photograph by MC Rogers

I mentioned my book Rubinrotes Herz, eisblaue see in my first post.  The English title is Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea.  It hasn't been published in English (yet), but high hopes abound in that area.  Why has it been published in Germany and not here, in the U.S.A.?  Because publishing works that way, sometimes.  The short version is that my agency has international contacts, and one such contact saw the manuscript, took it to Europe, and a wonderful German publishing house, which specializes in books about the sea and seaside communities and environments picked it up.  I have been fortunate to work with the most wonderful professionals during this process.  At any rate, the book is out, and so is an audio tape, and I feel as if I've struck gold.  It's all dizzying and out-of-body and fabulous.  I love that something I made up, found a voice for, and wrote down has found its way into the world. 

But I wanted to talk about how things happen.  How things begin.  How something tiny can turn into a creative work that keeps on ticking until the story is told.  Did I sit down and conjure up a voice?  Did the voice come to me in a dream?  Did my eleven-year old narrator, Florine Gilham, come to me and say, "Write my story?"  Well, no, not really.  I didn't even know she existed until a dear friend, who was starring on stage in the one-woman show Shirley Valentine asked me to be her assistant. The show can be grueling for the actress, and I was there as prop, make-up, and general backstage calming-down buddy, kind of like the post horse that accompanies the thoroughbred to the starting gate.  Well, we all know what the thoroughbred does, but what happens to the post horse after her plod to the gate? 

In my case, I was reading a local newspaper, glancing at the letters to the editor.  One such letter was written by a woman who was distraught because someone had stolen a lawn ornament from the lawn of a friend.  In perfect Maine Coastal dialect, this friend described in great detail what the ornament had meant to her friend and to that friend's family.  The lawn ornament stolen in question was one of the seven dwarfs.  Sneezy, as a matter of fact.  Trying to explain here why this combination of elements struck me so hysterically that I dropped the newspaper and guffawed is useless.  But I got the idea to write about this family, not the woman who had written the letter.  I wanted to tell the story of this family's despair and grief regarding the unfortunate Sneezy's loss.  When I sat down to type, this woman's voice came into my head loud as thunder and twice as brash.  I immediately named her Florine.  And for over seventy-two pages, Florine unfolded her life story as an adult living with her family in a trailer by the side of the road.  The voice never wavered.  It was like sitting down to tea with a really good friend, every time I sat down to type.

Later, in a writing group, one of the members questioned Florine's relationship with one of her family members, which set me to writing the backstory, to be added to what was now obviously a novella.  The backstory became Rubinrotes herz, eisblaue see, or Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea.

Florine's voice was so strong, so a part of my imagination, that I could pick up her story at any point and she would almost say, "Now, where were we?"  Or, other times, when I didn't feel like writing, I manifested her presence standing in front of me with an exasperated look on her face that signaled to me that she didn't have all day, for chrissake, get cracking.  So I did, and her story got told, and now it's being sold and happily, pretty well accepted.  In German, at least.

Voices like Florine's just don't come around that often.  And often, they are not the voices you wish would come around.  I wanted, for instance, to finish the soft-Irish-accented trilogy that I'd started years before.  It was romantic, everyone was pretty, and rock and roll was the theme.  In comparison, Florine's adult speaking voice (yes, I hear that most definitely) is a bit crowish and a little loud.  Her childhood voice is often pugnacious and stubborn.  But here's the important thing.  ANY voice is a gift.  Any voice that strong, that insistent, has something to say, and the writer should damn well listen to it.  Let her, or him, tell their story.  Let you, as the author, shape it, mold it, and mark it with a 'P'.  It could be a wonderful collaboration and partnership. 

I don't know if Sneezy the dwarf was ever returned to his place on the lawn.  I don't even know if the lawn was in front of a trailer.  What I do know is, I got a story out of it.  And that story continues to unfold.  It's a work in progress.  It's also magic, or pretty darn close to it.  Listen.  Who wants out of your imagination and on to the page?  You might be surprised.  Let it happen.       

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Biking Around Belle, Turtle Sundaes, and Mammatus Clouds

Mammatus Clouds Over Belle Fourche, South Dakota.  Photograph by Robert Clements
Biking around Belle Fourche reminds me of the freedom I drank in as as an eleven-year old tomboy with braids and cut-up knees, banging along on my one-speed blue bicycle.  I had no helmet, I rode anywhere by myself, and the uglification known as Spandex was but a stretch away in someone's imagination somewhere.  If anyone was to ask me what my favorite gift of all time was, I would have to say that bike.  My father wheeled it into the house as a complete surprise on my birthday and I can still recall my speechless state of wonder at its introduction into my life.

Now I ride a Schwinn crossover with about 24 speeds and I am, as I keep telling myself, in Belle Fourche, South Dakota.  (A side note:  Trying to make Betty in India, who was helping me with student loan changes, understand the spelling of Fourche versus the pronounciation [Foosh] was a trip in itself.  We worked it out, but it wasn't pretty.)  Anyway, Belle has several concrete connecting walking and biking paths known as the River Walk, so called because some of the paths parallel the Belle Fourche River.

Thursday night, I took the Schwinn out onto the streets.  Noticed the thunderheads hovering over the town and took note.  (Last blog - know your wind direction and act accordingly).  I took off anyway, on a thigh-calf pumping exercise that turned into sheer joy, ears stopped up with Randy Newman's Dixie Flyer sandwiched between Diesel's Sausalito Summer Nights and Patti Scialfa's Spanish Dancer.   I rode for about 45 minutes, and managed to avoid getting doused.  I parked the bike and checked with Bob re: the weather.  Coming our way or not?  Not sure.  I clipped a leash onto the dog's collar and stepped out, went down an alley, and watched the Christmas tree in Christmas Tree Park bend in half as a cold, possibly hail-laden wind plowed into the town.  Rua and I hurried back into the gallery, to find Bob gathering his photographic equipment with a gleam in his eye.

"Truck?  Storm?"  Yes.  Out we went, into the wind, with the dog and the camera equipment, and we drove to the top of a hill, and parked between radio towers and transformer stations, to watch the storm, which wasn't as bad as it could have been, at least where we were.  Somewhere Else was pounded, but not Right Here.   Again, that symphony of a sky, playing Night on Bald Mountain with lightning as cymbals crashing behind blackberry clouds, and occasionally snaking out to strike some unfortunate place at ground.  We sat and watched and wowed for a while, and Bob took some shots, then I suggested that perhaps ice cream might be a great addition.  The Dairy Queen was two blocks away - every place is two blocks away in Belle - and so we drove to the drive through and ordered turtle sundaes.

This always amuses us, because there is little else going on in tiny little Belle Fourche.  Tearing it up at the Dairy Queen keeps us off the streets.  Evidently, at least here in Belle, turtle sundaes come in a waffle-dish, and do not exist outside of those parameters.  (Turtle sundaes are vanilla ice cream with caramel and chocolate sauce, with pecans.)  We seem to confuse the drive-in clerk every time we order one.  "In a waffle dish?" the voice crackled.  "No, in a plastic dish", Bob said.  Pause.  "Chocolate or Hot Fudge?"  Bob looked to me as the key decision maker in our duo.  "Hot fudge," I said with a shrug.  Many of my decisions are made with a shrug.  Bob ordered hot fudge.  The sundaes were made, without the waffle dish - hopefully the corporate angst was minimal - and we drove away from the window and parked near the Dairy Queen.

Dangling directly over the truck were several groupings of Mammatus clouds.  Mammatus clouds, so called because they are shaped like breasts, are indicators that something wicked this way may be coming, probably in about a half hour or any second.  But we sat and ate our turtle sundaes and shot photos of these beauties and Bob commented on how he'd never seen them so well-developed and ponderous.  As time went on, they began to double up, looking more like Rocky Mountain oysters.  They paraded across the sky like a rowdy Mardi-Gras parade and headed for Hoover.  We finished our sundaes and drove home, pumped up with sugar and sauce and electricity, warmly alive in a Thursday night small-town summer night kind of way.

"What would have happened," Bob said later, "If we had ordered both chocolate and hot fudge?" 

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Adventure Continues...

My world this morning has narrowed to sitting on a small hill beside a twenty-foot long, five-foot wide pond down in a draw, in the middle of a grove of tall sturdy cottonwoods.  I am watching my dog chase frogs and jump for giant, prairie-grass fed grasshoppers.  Rua is an eight-year old Cairn terrier that looks like a Schnauzer, thanks to a surprising haircut.  To be fair, the groomer I called told me that she had never done a Cairn terrier, but I was desperate and dropped her off, anyway.  She looks downright odd, but she's happy and cool.  She trots along the mucky bottom of the shallow water from one bank to the other.  Her bushy tail slaps from side to side whenever something moves close by.  She has forgotten that I exist.  Sitting in this shade, listening to cicadas and birds battle it out in the tree crowns above makes me happy.  Rua and I have found a small, quiet place away from the big-sky sun that South Dakota foists upon all of its critters, two- and four-legged, in August.  And July.  And maybe September.  I don't know yet, but I will find out.  No one's talking about it.  They do talk about the upcoming winter.  They say, "Wait until winter."  I say, "I'm from Maine.  I know what winter is."  They shake their heads.  "No, you don't," they say.

I moved to this small town in western South Dakota in June.  I've been here about two months.  I moved here for love, at a stage in my life when I had put most thoughts of that away in a bureau drawer along with several wrinkled perfumed scarves I've acquired through the years.  (The purple one I bought in Chinatown, San Francisco, sometime in the 90s; the sky-blue scarf with the stars was given to me by three beloved friends who believe in me; the fuchsia scarf came from another friend who has become a sister of the heart; a peony-stamped navy-blue and pink scarf arrived tucked around a paper-thin china cup in an exquisite basket.)  All of my scarves have a story, as do all things worth keeping.  I tucked true love amongst them, and then I pulled it out when someone unexpected wrapped himself around my heart.

I lived in Maine, and so did Bob, for eighteen years.  He lived within ten miles of me, and we frequented Portland, Maine on a daily basis, but in separate parts of the city.  When we met, two things happened.  I thought, uh oh.  And I heard music.  I loved where I lived.  But Bob, a native South Dakotan and an artist, was headed back to Belle Fourche, a small town that can boast that it is the geographic center of the nation, if the coordinates for Alaska and Hawaii are included.  Belle has a sort of dusty, cattle-trodden, rakish past (the Sundance Kid once robbed a bank here).  Bob's gallery is located in Belle, and I visited it twice before deciding to join him here. Once, last summer during early July, and then again in February, when the winter must have been napping because it wasn't horrible.  Before I visited, Bob warned me that some people find western South Dakota's space and sky overwhelming, flat, even uninteresting.  I am not one of those people.  The landscape curves and dips and rises into the Black Hills, and takes in the surrounding buttes, gulches, and canyons.  The sky fills whatever space is left to fill.

Oh, that symphony of a prairie sky!  If I stand in one spot and turn 360 degrees, each part of the overhead has something different to offer the eye.  Thunderheads rear their cupcake clouds over the Black Hills, even as a Western sunset fades out in a blaze of glory.  a gentle blue sky sets north, while puffy, name-your-creature cotton balls dot the azure expanse to the south.  I've also seen black and boiling storms roiling at me with serious intent.  Weather here is not to be taken lightly.  Know your wind direction, and move accordingly.

August here is the kind of hot that hits your face when you open the oven door on a pan of cookies.  That's why I'm particularly grateful to have discovered this shadowy place with its little splash of water.  Sitting here watching Rua, who used to have a tree-sheltered backyard to lounge in, reminds me of childhood summers, when I had nothing to do but drink in perfumed fodder for my imagination.  That imagination is a powerful thing, and when it's working full tilt, I'm as fully me as Rua is chasing amphibians and bugs. 

I'm so homesick for my East and for my friends and family that I ache for them.  But I didn't come here bumping along a rutted dirt road like an anxious mail-order bride.  I came because I wanted to come.  Also, airplanes and rental cars can be had, if need be.  Right now, life is good.  I have a novel out in Germany that has been received well.  The title is Rubinrotes herz eisblaue see - Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea.  I'm in love with a fascinating man.  South Dakota is not a place I thought I would ever live, or even thought about that much, but I'm warming to its quirky weather and its good and Badlands.  As Bob says of us, "The adventure continues."