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

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Thank you

In about two weeks, I will be traveling east for four months. My book, Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea, will be published on January 23rd, 2012, eleven days after I turn 60 years old. It promises to be an eventful year with wide, loopy, learning curves. Even as Red Ruby Heart is published, I am writing the sequel, and will be grateful to have the privacy and comfort of an upstairs apartment in the West End of Portland, Maine, courtesy of two irreplaceable and beloved friends. Bob will travel east with me and the little dog, stay for about two weeks, then travel back to the gallery. I will visit him in February, then return to Maine. I look forward to seeing dear friends and family, but I will miss Bob very much.  

As I indicated in the last blog, I do love western South Dakota. Every coyote sighting, every deer encounter, every time I see a hawk or an eagle, or drive the nearly deserted roads through a slice of Wyoming or to Piedmont to horseback ride badly, I am grateful for the Black Hills, for the prairie, and for the sky. When I was a child, I think that this is the landscape I imagined living in. I loved babysitting my five wild cousins in the nearby farming community of Woolwich, where I rambled fields and woods, not as myself, but as a creature fueled by imagination. I may have come by it naturally. My great-grandmother, Katherine (Kate) Morse Rogers lived on a farm in Phippsburg, Maine. She died the year I was born, and I'm told that I look very much like her. She, too, loved horses and the country. I think about her from time to time and wonder if I may have taken on some of her attributes. At any rate, I will miss being here, although not being here during the relentless howl of the wind may be an okay thing.
The patient, gentle Tigger.

I have people here, now, that I will miss. Friends I've made. A writing group that amazes me with its warmth and kindness, and a knitting circle that makes me giggle!  I will miss my friend, Meg, who is solid, feisty, and wise, and my friend, Jenny, who personifies everything joyful. Andi, who took it upon herself to write a long, welcoming email to a lonely eastern woman, thus assuring her passage into the ladies who lunch (well, okay, we drive about 50 miles a shot to do it, but hey...) group. Judi is my riding instructor, and patiently teaches me as she watches me 'ride' the dauntless Tigger, a bay thoroughbred/quarter horse with the temperment and manners of a hoofed saint. I worked at the Tri-State Museum when I first arrived in Belle, and the kindness of the museum director, Rochelle, and my co-worker, DeEtte, were essential to making me feel welcome. I am especially grateful to the Bearlodge Writer's Group (www.bearlodgewriters.com) in Sundance, Wyoming. I am honored to be amongst these folks, who operate with encouragement and wisdom, and a generous eye to what works and might be better in each piece of work that we peruse.

It has taken me a while to understand the heart of this country, and I'm still learning about it. Our politics are mostly, very different. Most of the folks I've met belong to a church and that organization is important to their lives and to who they are. My spiritual side is based on the sky and the earth, and with what I believe to be godlike, which, being intangible to me, cannot be explained. I live in the middle of American history, not as it was taught to me, but learning how it really was and is. Bob likes to say of those of us who saw the west from our living rooms in front of the television (Ah, Little Joe. Ah, Heath and Nick. Ah, The Wild, Wild West), "The West. As it never was." I am living the West, and it is what it is.

I've often felt superfluous in South Dakota, that odd woman who walks her dog at various times during the day. Why isn't she working? Who is she? She's not from around here. Well, that's a bit of a comeuppance for a small-town woman from Maine, who used to ask the same questions of new people, and who used to think the same things of them. But I've asked myself the same questions of the residents, here. Who are these people? What makes them tick? Which zipperheaded ancestor dragged their family onto the plains (fueled by eastern propaganda that promised some kind of paradise) and settled in a flat-lined sea of grass, building a life with tools mainly kept in working order by a stubborn, relentless drive to succeed and settle and to make a home here?

Many of the answers to these questions and more have been found in the above-photographed pile of books. It started almost as soon as I moved here. My book club back in Portland, Maine read Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, and I empathised with the plight of an eastern drawing-room woman who fell in love with a western engineer and lived in mining camps, much to her dismay. I vowed not to regret my life, nor my decision. Meg suggested I re-read the Little House on the Prairie series, and I have, and found them more profound in a very simple way. I read Buffalo for the Broken Heart by Dan O'Brien, and Great Plains and On the Rez by Ian Frazier, another outsider fascinated by this place. I read The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin and felt sorrow and horror for the loss of lives due to the bibilically-proportioned weather. 

But I really began to 'get' South Dakotans and the people of these plains when I read Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains by Hermosa rancher Linda Hasslestrom. It's one of the most fascinating reads ever. She keeps a 365-day diary of her life on the ranch, and every entry is filled with details of her work, her thoughts on being a rancher, and weather, lots of weather. Pat Frolander (currently the Poet Laureate of Wyoming), penned a book of poems called Married Into It. She, like me, is an outlander who has adapted to her world here. Gaydell Collier's recently released Just Beyond Harmony is another good read by a woman born in the east, but who thought west. I also loved Horizontal Lines: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere by Debra Marquart - a North Dakota native, blues singer, wild child turned professor, and Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris. 

These books, and the people I've met, and the land, this hard-assed, clear-eyed, no apologies land, have sustained me for the time I've been here. I look forward to my return, after the hard winds have died down, and the spring begins to crack open the hardpan and the plants begin their journeys. Not everything blooms here, but that which does, is hardy.

Prairie Smoke. Photo by Robert Clements

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sheep Mountain

Sheep Mountain, in the southern unit of the Badlands. Photo by Robert Clements.

For some reason, well, for the reason that I'm technically challenged, I find it hard to get onto the blog lately. Not because I have nothing to say, or share, or blather on about, but because I can't match up emails to passwords. Today, I did it. I wrote the combination down - I feel like a safe cracker - and now I hope I will have more luck.

But I've been anxious to get onto the blog, because some extraordinary shifts have happened to me since I've come back and settled in for a spell. They have to do with larger things than me. With understanding that something within me responds to something outside of me in unconscious ways. As a writer, I know this, because I make up characters that surprise me every day with who they become. But this is different. This is my unconscious reacting on and responding to the person that I am. It includes the writer and the animal lover, and the partner and sister and daughter and friend and the thousands of widgets that make up the whole board of morganopoly that is me.

Sheep Mountain from another view. Robert Clements Photo.
All of this occurred to me after Bob and I visited Sheep Mountain, which is located in the South Unit of the Badlands. It's not the 'popular' tourist destination, which is scenically stunning and colorful and located near Wall. Sheep Mountain is a place unto itself. If it were a setting for a movie, it would be shown in the part when the heroine has lost her horse, or her mind, and is wandering through canyons of upthrust rock underneath a cloudless, pitiless blue sky that stretches across forever. It is an ancient, ancient, place. That timelessness gives it the power that it has. It is beautiful, yes, but it is not pretty in any sense that is obvious. This place has been there, done that, and came back with the geological, anthropological, archeological, and mythological teeshirt. 
Teeth in the ground. RC photo
We drove for two hours from Wall to get there. We saw a bobcat along the way and the sky and prairie and hills that are part of this Dakota. We photographed rows of tiny hoodoos - rock mushrooms that happen when the stone underneath a plate on top of it crumbles. We drove up powdery hills onto a high plain and gazed at vast gulches of rock teeth sticking up from the rock gum that is the ground. It was dazzling. Colorless. Bone white and stark. So stark. While Bob took photos, I came close to the edge of the world to look down and across, and up to the sky. The combination of starkness, the silence, the vivid blue, the shadows, and the geological perspective made me humble. Being an introvert, I couldn't voice what I felt, and I don't think I should have, anyway. It's never good to try to describe something that is beyond description.

We drove through part of Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation, then up to Hermosa and through Rapid City to get home, eventually. And we settled in for the night. Or so I thought. But my mind had wrapped itself around the fact that, yes Virginia, there ARE things bigger and older and greater than you, and it surprised me with vivid, vivid dreams wherein I was looking for shelter, any shelter, and there wasn't any to be found. And I woke up, changed.

To fall in love with a person, or with a place, it is important to demystify it. Only when you see its true nature - like those barenaked rocks and the undaunted sky above it all - can you decide whether or not to commit to it. So, it's with great surprise that I find myself in love with where I live. It only took about a year and a half, but I can say, for sure that I love this place. I think Sheep Mountain gave me a vision (oh don't get all moogly for heaven sakes, I'm still as Yankee, dry-witted, and practical as ever) and with that vision, the gift of itself. It caught me with my pyschic drawers down, which is something that has never happened to me before. 

Bob Dylan sang, "You've got to serve somebody." Well, yeah, I guess you do. As yet, what I serve is nameless, but I recognize its power. Maybe it's the earth or the sky, or both. Maybe it's the willingness to even contemplate it. Maybe it's understanding that the universe spins itself into wild dances of unbridled rapture and sorrow, and that I can either stand by the sidelines and watch, or I can choose to be part of it all. All I know is that, ever since I've had that experience, joy has re-entered my life, and I hope that it unpacks its belongings and sticks around for a while. 

Tilted road to the sky. Photo by Robert Clements.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

This One is for Devon

  • Two goats, one hat. Photo by Robert Clements.
I've been an on-steroids hummingbird migrating back and forth between Maine and South Dakota since July 6th, and I haven't settled enough to have any deep thoughts. Okay, I seldom have deep thoughts, but I haven't had cohesive thoughts. Mainly, observations and jumbled thoughts and feelings about the craziness of life since May. And it promises to become more nuts as we move along.

July travel to Maine. Not as bad as I expected, and way too fast for a Massachusetts state trooper who waved me over from the middle of the highway (!) at the bottom of a long drop in the Berkshires wherein I came in first (I win!) down the hill. The new car with the bigger engine took some getting used to and cruise control is now my friend. We drive faster in western South Dakota, and the roads are largely deserted. I have gotten used to a clear view and don't like folks in my way. Anyway, the little dog with the mournful eyes in the back seat saved me some money on the ticket, as the trooper has a small Japanese house dog. Thanks, Rua. Songs for the road: Joe Bonamassa - Dustbowl and Live at the Royal Albert Hall. Thanks, Joe.

Maine Homecoming. Joyful, sweet, humid and hot. It's hot and dry in South Dakota. Different weather. A different palette, as a friend says. I never have craved lobster, but I did this trip back home. This tells me that I've become a bit of an ex patriot. Loved seeing the family and loved what friends I connected with. I'm still coming to terms with the fact that I can't see them all. It's a Catch 22 - want to see friends, but want time on my own terms. But I've talked about that before and it's a pipe dream chasing a windmill tucked deep inside an illusion.

Wedding. my nephew got married at home, and it was a joyful, beer-laden - wine-laden in my case -  experience. Music? Rap, mostly, with a few oldies thrown in for those of us who stopped advancing musically at hip hop. Lots of fun. Bob had arrived by that time and was over his airplane sickness. It was good to have him back East. We went out to dinner a few times, saw some beloved friends, and generally got fat before traveling back home.
From my sister's garden. Cosmos, in a tizzy about the upcoming nuptials.
Back to South Dakota. Another ticket (not mine), though, this time in Maine. Cruise control and a radar detector. And a flat tire in Indiana. If you have to get a flat tire, it's nice to get one there. Good, helpful Hoosiers. Sweet little town with many hanging plants. Flat fixed, and on to Madison, Wisconsin, to paradise in the form of a gracious friend with a pool and a large house and again, more food than we should have eaten but did. Cherry butter, anyone? Cheese up the wazoo? Crazy corn? And once again, entering western South Dakota, a massive, snarling thunderstorm forced us under an overpass with several other vehicles.  Yippee. Home.

Bikers. Lots of them in early August, buzzing like pumped-up bees. We returned because we figured they'd want some art, and some did, but mostly, well, no. Many of them come from places where they are someone completely different from the persona they adopt while they git-their-motors-running in South Dakota. Nice folks, most of them. Noticed lots of 'trikes' this year. Three-wheelers for those who are, a.) getting older and less able to handle two wheels on the hard top, and b.) getting older and less able to handle two wheels on the hard top. A four-day street dance was held right in front of the gallery. Next year, I'm grabbing the feckin' mike away from whomever was trying to sing out there. Really. It's not too late to start my rock and roll career, as long as I can get into my jammies and go to bed right after the gigs.

Maine. Again. This time for five days of family and a very few friends. My beloved sister decided to have a larger party - the wedding reception was small - so she invited everyone she ever knew. I flew home this time. I definitely need a neck pillow for my next trip, to Toronto next week, because a.) I'm getting older and my next hurts and, b.) I'm getting older and my neck hurts. The party was fabulous and loving and warm. My niece scattered black and white photos amongst the tables. Some of the bittersweet images gave us all a glimpse of those no longer with us, but no less with us at all. Oh, where are they now? I hope they're all happy, and that they knew how much they were loved. Anyway, one of the fun parts of the party was that my sister invited her high-school gang of friends, women I basically modeled as the main characters of Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea. They are fun, fearless, in-life, and hardy. They've, collectively, had many things happen to them in their lives, both good and bad, but the upshot is, they keep on going, and they all shine. Fabulous women. Long may they run.

Home. Flew back and got off the plane to Bob and Rua and my car in the parking lot, very late at night. The first thing I noticed was the smell of the air. Sweet, sage and grass. Stars and stars in the big, wide sky. South Dakota is like a Crazy Horse, sweet and calm, terrible and mythical. For the first time since I've come to the prairie, I felt as if I was coming home. I could stay here for a while, I think. Besides, when I travel back to Maine, where my heart ticks for always, I can always have lobster from Gilmore's Seafood.

Gorgeous morning at the lake in Ontario.
Toronto. This happened after the home entry. Flew for five days to Toronto, to visit my dear friends the Moss Beebes and to meet my friend, Beth, there. We drove to a lake far up into the north of Ontario, where we wrote and wrote, drank wine and ate chocolate. I walked the dog and jumped into the water on the last morning there. We watched Dr. Who and I read The Sea Captain's Wife by Beth Powning. Highly recommend it. This time, I found my own way back to Belle Fourche in the Santa Fe, in the dark of night, the prairie lapping the sides of the car, cruising under the star-studded sky. And NOW I'm home for at least three months! October coming up. It'll be weird not to help Dad with the acorns in the yard, but I need to settle. I need to write a book.

Time to settle down for a spell. First frost due tonight, September 29th. 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

When Life Hands You Lemmon

The largest Petrified Wood Park in the world is in Lemmon, South Dakota.
May was.  Well, it was.  My family was shaken to its core with the sudden death of a beloved Uncle.  I flew back East to attend his funeral and to give a eulogy on behalf of the cousins who were lucky enough to grow up with him.  He was special.   Really, you hear that, but he was truly unique within a rough-and-tumble Irish/French family.  He stood apart, both a gentle man and a gentleman.  I don't believe we understand yet that he's gone, but we will as time marches the feck on, glancing back to say, "Oh, did I drop something?" then shrugging and moving along in the insouciant way it does.  My uncle left me and his eldest daughter the ability to find four-leaf clovers at a glance.  I've found several since his death, but I stop at each clump I see to check it out, to see if I can still do it without him in this world.  Grieving someone is a random act of remembering this and that about them and falling apart with sorrow over those little moments.  It's also realizing at some point that that person truly meant it and isn't coming back.  I know one of my cousins reads my blog, and I'm sorry, honey, if I've made you cry.  We are all so tough, and so tender.  The pastor of his church came up to me after the service and we talked about what a wonderful person he was.  I said to him, and I believe this, that I'm not sure where he came from, but they wanted him back.  And they're lucky to have him.  Better take care of him or there will be hell to pay from the Callan clan, and it won't be pretty.

And again.  May was. Two acquaintances and a dog friend left this mortal coil, back in Maine.  It's so odd to be this far away when things irreparably change.  Do they really happen, if I'm not there?  Oh, yes they do. It's difficult to move into a new life when the old one pulls at my heartstrings and my memories, in the ways that May did, yet time on the prairie is moving along. 

The elements out here are so very vivid and so in one's face, that somehow they supersede time with their brilliance and their insistence that one pays attention.  Fawns are dropping, calves are turning square and bulky, the rubbery legs on colts make me cry, they're so beautiful, and the sky is cupping the blue palm of its big working hand over everything beneath it.  And it's so green!  All that rain has made the usually brown and sere hills positively verdant.  It's such a joy to drive along nestled between that emerald.  It reminds me of that time in Ireland when I rented a tiny car and drove to Donegal.  That time when I stopped along a stretch of road on cliffs that led to a beach with a backdrop of foggy mountains.  As I stood there, a seagull coasted up on wind currents and we were eye to eye for a moment.  I look for signs when I travel, or spend my little drive-abouts in search of a direction.  This seagull signaled some sort of sea change.  When I returned from Ireland, I set my course in another direction.  And that is the way I've gone since then.

I received royalties for Rubinrotes Herz, Eisblaue See in May, amidst everything else.  I was, frankly, shocked and kind of delighted.  So shocked and delighted that I bought a Hyundai Santa Fe.  The Santa Fe (licensed Florine) and I are getting used to one another.  The other night she brought me through a prairie thunderstorm with little fuss and no skids.  I am selling the little 1992 Nissan Sentra that brought me out here last fall, despite everyone's dire predictions that she would break down.  She's been getting me around just fine, but I want to feel a little taller and a little more air-bagged in case something happens when I drive east, although it would be almost a straight line if it weren't for those big lakes in the middle of the country.  It's pretty boring and awfully safe to drive 80 and 90.

Me, Rua, and Florine the 1992 Nissan Sentra - Bob's shadow. 
But here, again, the Nissan is regurgitating memories.  It belonged to my mother, who drove it for years after she got her license when she was 69, after my father's failing eyesight caused him to hang up his car keys.  My brother, Mikey, who has been gone for lo these 17 years, helped her to pick it out.  She drove it until she suffered a stroke while driving it - how did she know something was off - "Well, I couldn't control the speed," she says.  So, the little Nissan went to my brother, Mickey, who gave it to one of my nieces, who drove it up to Baxter State Park for a season.  Tonight, I will vacuum out the remnants of pine needles and Maine dirt, plus prairie sod and mud from the dog.  I'll transfer what makes sense and trash the rest.  I have taken the St. Christopher's medallion my mother carried in the car, and I'll probably take the booster cushion she sat on, too.  Dog toys, a dirty towel, and that's all she wrote.  Someone will drive her away and I hope she has a wonderful life.  Now, my South Dakota vehicle will move me forward, when I'm not in reverse.

She moved me forward to the northern town of Lemmon the other day.  Why?  I don't know, I wanted to visit a town named Lemmon.  (There is also a town named Tea, but I haven't gotten the urge, yet.)  I drove 170 plus miles along a wide western highway, almost deserted at times, with the loneliness and wonder that vast landscapes can dredge from one's soul on either side.  Sometimes, there were cows and occasional deer and antelope.  It was prairie windy, butte solid, with a touch of the prehistoric whirling through my brain between songs on the radio.  I took Rua, and we made one pit stop along the road in Hettinger, where the last great buffalo hunt took place, and where Custer passed through, or passed gas, or something.  Not a fan.  Can you tell?

So, we drove into Lemmon, and headed directly for its claim to fame.  Lemmon has the largest petrified wood park in the world.  Over the years, formations made of wood and native stones and minerals have been built and formed into castles, walls, pyramids, plinths, and other stuff that's both fascinating and weird.  The imagination is a wonderful thing.  The things we think up to do to leave a mark on the world is truly mind boggling.  So it was in Lemmon.  I sat on a wrought-iron bench - the only thing in the park that wasn't cemented together into a shape - and ate lunch, little dog by my side, watching June spin its second Friday through its damp fingers, watching time pass, watching time captured in this little park.  Then I took my dog, who wasn't supposed to be in the park but was, anyway, climbed into the new car, purchased by something I made up which has evidently left a mark in Germany, and drove along the bottom of North Dakota before dropping onto the top of South Dakota and heading back down to Belle Fourche, where time has its own meaning.

I'm driving East in July, with the little dog.  I'll spend ten days with my family, and then Bob will join me and we'll visit friends and loved ones.  My nephew is getting married on July 30th and it promises to be a good time.  We'll all be a little more fragile, and a little sweeter than we were when we were last together.  We'll memorize faces and moments to hang on to, and then Bob and I and the dog will drive back West before the motorcycle rally in August.  I hope that he'll reach over the console and cup his big hand over my own hand, often, because I love the shelter that feeling brings, and I love the warmth in that simple gesture.  And maybe, just maybe, time will petrify for just a bit and we can all breathe easier because we know we can love, and that we're loved, and that time, despite its relentless, thoughtless trudge, has no freakin' say about that. Because, well, love just is. 

Bob and me, after climbing Bear Butte, in South Dakota. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Cranes, bluebirds, meadowlarks, and turkeys

Meadowlark - photo by Robert Clements

This is my first spring on the prairie, and the grass is greening slow but sure.  The days are getting warmer, more or less, unless the wind blows.  The wind blows a lot.  As I was walking - excuse me - bowing my head and ploughing into a 40-mile an hour gust this morning during the dog walk, I was remembering the words to the song, "They Call the Wind Mariah".  I loved that song - overdramatic as it was - "Mariah, blow my love to me, I need her here beside me...Mariaaaaaahhhhhhh....MarEYEaaaaaahhhhh... They call the wind Mariah."  I wanted to come west where the rain is named Tess, and the fire, Jo.  Well, here I am.  But I'm not calling the wind Mariah.  No sirreee.  I have a few names for the bluster and guster that blew past me this morning on a greater mission, but I'm not going to use them, here.

So, anyway.  My sure spring marker in the East was spotting groundhogs along the sides of the highways.  Fat, sleek groundhogs munching on slim green grass.  (My sure mark for summer back East are individual shoes along the sides of the highways.  Who lost one shoe?  Why?  What were they doing?  Is there one foot inside?  There is so much about culture and, indeed, life in general, that I don't understand.)  Groundhogs aside, and my beloved East aside, I wondered what would be my marker that spring has truly arrived here.  I've been finding out for a couple of weeks now, that it's birds.  Birds that return.  Birds that fly over on their way to a touch down further down the road, hopefully aided by that brat of a wind.  Birds that call and sing and hop and fly and get down to business.  I love hearing them, seeing them, wondering how these tiny, delicate forms - well, okay, Canadian Geese are as delicate as a tossed, or lost, size 13 sneaker baking along the side of the highway - survive all that flying and migrating to come back here to the prairie to mate and raise younger generations of little but mighty fledglings.

First back, the robins.  In February, no less.  Gutsy, with an odd sense of timing, they flocked in brown and red numbers to Belle Fourche, where I've heard their calls - honestly, I swear that some of those calls have contained some curse words to accompany the prairie 'breeze' - for some weeks, now.  They encouraged the Blue Jays to get loud, as if they needed encouragement.  "Thief!!!"  "Thief!!!"  Then, some black-capped Chickadees, Maine's state bird, came out into the open.  The hawks and eagles have been here all winter, as have the owls.  A bald eagle on snow is stunning.  A bald eagle taming the wind is awe-inspiring and enviable. (Take that, Great Plains blowhard).  I admire hawks for their tenacity and for their beautiful brown and red plummage and snowy bellies.  Owls, I respect just because they're owls and because they make no sound when they fly.

Then of course, skeins and skeins of the afore-mentioned Canadian Geese and flocks of ducks - both brought hope, and the Geese brought noise and some rowdiness to the surrounding fields and man-made and natural ponds and small lakes.  Lots of jostling goes on amongst the geese.  I imagine them catching up on their journeys, gossiping, and finding old friends or rivals. 

With more sun filling the expanse of sky, longer these days, Bob and I have taken to doing something I really love to do.  Ride around in the pick-up.  If life had gone one way, I would have chosen to do it for a living.  Riding around, yep.  Well, in my dotterish years, I sit in the passenger seat, sometimes with my feet on the dash, and we talk, or listen to the radio - Tom Waits takes up a lot of space, as does Bob Dylan and anyone else vaguely country-folky, pick-upish, and road-weary - and we ride down gravel roads, head out on highways leading in all directions, up hills leading to the edge of the end of the world, down hills to bottoms filled with creeks, Cottonwoods, and deer.  Bob takes some of his best photos this way.  We stop, snap, and move along.  Sometimes, Rua and I hop out and walk aways.   

The other day whilst riding around, we saw a field filled with turkeys.  Hundreds of turkeys, strutting along, heads to the ground, pecking away at what the snow hadn't frozen or driven to despair.  That was a sight to behold.  But there was more to come a couple of nights later, when we stopped the truck to explore along the sides for a little bit.  Bob saw an bluer than blue Eastern Bluebird - many species of birds overlap here - and we saw two yellow and speckled meadowlarks.  They aren't elegant birds, or even pretty, but their song hustles in spring like no bird can.  I miss my Northern Mockingbirds and their sassy imitations of other birds, but the Meadow Lark's song is original, not copied, and it's beautiful and filled with light.  "An Exaltation of Larks", or just one lark, cannot help but lift the winter-weary heart.

Sometime later, out in the distance, sounding like geese with frogs in their throats, came a great chorus of many, many birds and we looked up, and the sky was filled with black shapes flying in undulating wedges.  I immediately identified the song of the Flying Monkeys from the Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum lived in South Dakota for a while), but these were not harmful or scary creatures.  Flocks and flocks of migrating Sandhill Cranes gracked and squawked their way overhead and to the left and right of us, long legs floating behind them, great dark wings making small work of the sky.  I have never seen this migration, and it was thrilling to watch them and to wonder at their numbers.  Where were they going?  It would soon be night, and they needed to find a destination, which the prairie, in one way or another, would surely provide.  Respite on their way to bring spring to their seasonal home.  Shelter from They Call the Wind Mariah

Sandhill Cranes on their way to somewhere else - photo by Robert Clements

Monday, March 21, 2011

Oh this beautiful day

Molly Frances Leopin, October 2010, Morse's Mountain, Sewall Beach, Phippsburg, Maine
March 21, 1979.  A beautiful spring day in Bath, Maine.  I was 27 years old.  The morning began green and blue and warm, after a long winter.  My sister and I were living at home with my parents - she pregnant, with a future husband in the Navy in some port across the Atlantic - me because I was in between house and home.  I had traveled to England the summer before and was still coming to grips with the fact that I was back in the United States without a dream to my name.  Living with my parents back then was humiliating for me and possibly really annoying for them, but it was financially necessary.  Soon, I would step out again to hoist another flag, tilt at another windmill, get involved with the wrong guy, but for now, my sister and I were hanging out at home, waiting for the baby to be born.  The baby - we didn't know if it was a girl or boy - was named Jamie, no matter what.  It was due anytime, which was plenty all right with my sister.

We had attended Lamaze classes together, but we hadn't taken them seriously, because that's who we were back then.  Irreverance was, and is, a major personality trait in our family.  We giggled a lot, and I tried to listen, but I hoped that when the time came, that Mother Nature would understand that I was a useless goofball, could offer nothing useful to my sister, and would perform a quick birth miracle.

I worked at the Patten Free Library then, employed through the CERTA program as an assistant Reading Is Fundamental coordinator.  A fabulous woman named Barbara King saw through my intense shyness like a bullet through the fog and hired me, much to my surprise.  Her confidence in  me meant the world to me, and still does.  She was a marvelous person, tiny, feisty, quick, and fierce.  I loved working for her, and with the others lucky enough to be part of her entourage.  She was an important catalyst to motivating me forward.  I've learned that if I meet someone who scares me a little (in a healthy way - you know what I mean) it's probably important to get to know them better.  She did, she challenged me, and she changed me forever.  I lost touch with her and I'm almost certain that she is traveling in other worlds now, but I think of her, often.

At any rate, I was working at the library when my mother called at around noon.  "You'd better get up here," she said - she was a nurse and was on duty, "your sister is going to have the baby any minute."  I finished my yogurt, climbed into the latest of several ready-to-break-down-at-any-time vehicles I owned back then, and booked it to the hospital.  While I drive along in my memory, let me tell you how my sister got to the hospital, because it's so freakin' Yankee.  Most of the morning she felt constipated, she told me later, and couldn't go to the bathroom.  When she figured out that what she felt was some sort of labor, she told my father, home for his lunch.  He walked home from downtown every day, where he worked at City Hall as a custodian/messenger/general goodwill ambassador, for a lunch of soup and crackers.  No variation, always the soup and the crackers.  Then, back to work.  My sister basically rocked his world when she told him she thought she was in labor.  "Wait until I finish my soup," he said, calmly did just that, and they went up to the hospital.  By the time they got there, she was pretty far into the process, and that's when my mother called me.

I parked and went into the building, where I was directed to the labor room, which looked nothing like the big, sunny white-sheeted room I'd pictured in my mind.  Is anything ever how you picture it?  It was small, dark, and there was my sister on a gurney with a couple of nurses and her obstetrician.  I barely had time to register this when she pushed and a long, bluish-gray missile shot from her body.  It immediately turned pink, and it smelled like blood and birth, which didn't help my stomach, but that didn't matter, as I was immediately in love.  She was a girl with lots of dark hair and a frown under a teeny nose.  And she wasn't Jamie, at all, it turned out.  She was Molly.  Is anyone ever who you thought they were after you meet them?

The rest of the day passed in a haze.  I didn't go back to work.  I went to tell my friend, Barbara, because it was Barbara's birthday, too.  Then I passed the time in a euphoric state driving around taking in the light, feeling something I'd never felt.  I've never had a child.  I am the nutty aunt to several blood relative children, and to several of my friend's children, but somehow, I forgot to have my own, or the time or inclination wasn't right.  So, no, I don't know how it feels to be a real parent, but the first months of Molly's life come pretty close to how it maybe feels.  I was the one she went to when my sister couldn't cope anymore.  She was a good baby but she wanted to be heard, and loudly.  She calmed down for me, probably because I wasn't so invested emotionally and physically.  Her presence changed the family dynamics, made us different people, nicer to each other, more loving.

She's grown into a lovely woman with a wide circle of friends.  She's an athlete - first girl to make the Babe Ruth All-Star team in Bath - a coach, an artist, a double-dog owner, a fabulous friend, a lover of children and all things young and small.  She has an easy-going nature and a big laugh that hasn't changed since she was two.  What she has meant to me, I can't really say and I certainly can't write about.  I just know that ever since her birth, March 21st has meant something incredibly special to me.  Happy Birthday, Mollsie - long may you run!                  

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The silence of the hogs

Snow on the prairie, February 27th, 2011
 It's 2 degrees, which is downright balmy.  Ish.  It's above zero for the first time in days.  Belle Fourche is actually located just this direction of the Black Hills and sits in a pocket of relative warmth.  Some people call it the banana belt of South Dakota, which means that disastrous weather is not as common as it might be elsewhere in the state. 

You have to talk about the weather out here because it's a serious, serious matter.  I'm reading The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin (Harper, 2004) right now.  It's creative nonfiction along the lines of The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, where the lives of real people in overwhelmingly life or death situations have to be somewhat imagined to describe the horror of a given moment.  I have to say, I'm impressed that settlers managed to tame - a relative term again - this place, at all.  I'm surprised anyone survived it.  The German/Russian contingent that pioneered their way Westward after being kicked out of Russia by Alexander the Great (after Catherine the Great had invited them in to farm the Steppes), were used to tough circumstances.  But yowza, tough doesn't quite measure up to what they found on this green and golden, blazingly beautiful, but desolate land.  Droughts, grasshopper plagues, floods,and  blizzards of biblical proportions raged through the Dakotas (and still do today; however, weather reporting, proximity to food and shelter, modern transportation and means to snow control have vastly improved the situation) in the 1880s, when settlers were arriving in droves, sent that way via advertisements and speculative ventures that promised land if a claim could be staked and worked for 5 years. 

At any rate, they didn't expect the vulnerability of the prairie to bugs and severe storms.  A series of blizzards swept the state throughout most of the 1880s.  In 1887, millions of cattle were killed during what was termed (rather charmingly) as The Winter of Blue Snow.  Havoc wreaked over a whole winter, or a series of winter, were bad enough.  But one blizzard, in 1888, killed scores of children, farmers, and anyone caught out on a falsely-warm January 12th (my birthday) day.  That day, warm after severe cold, was cause for celebration.  And hundreds of restless, home bound children set off for their prairie schoolhouses.  Farmers and ranchers set off to see to livestock and to do chores they had not been able to do for weeks.  Many of them didn't dress for impending winter weather.  Some of them were kept home because their Mamas thought the day was 'eerie' in terms of the color of the sky - a copper cast - the mugginess of the air, and the quiet. 

Enter the perfect storm - warm air streamed up from the south, while stupendously cold air from the north met it in the middle of a third cold front coming over The Rockies.  A maelstrom issued that resembled a giant, driven-by-hell cotton-bale with streaks of lightning roiling along the ground at a tremendous speed, with a roar - after a minute of complete silence - that sounded like am approaching train.  The ground storm sucked up what snow there was and pummeled it into cornmeal-sized ice that proved deadly.  The storm was called "The Children's Blizzard" because many teachers let the children out for the day to head home after the storm struck.  Cold, wind force, ice that clung like a mask to exposed faces and bodies, disorientation and lack of visibility, took their toll.  And children, and adults who were out and about, perished.

Bob told me a story about his childhood, in which an early March blizzard in 1966 forced him to stay on at a cousin's place for three days, until his father rode up on horseback to take Bob home so that he could help with the chores.  When they dug out the hog barn, a huge chicken-coop-type structure that was completely snowed-in and over, 89 of the 90 hogs appeared to be sleeping, lying on their sides, steam rising from their bodies, all suffused in an eerie blue light cast by the nine feet of snow on the roof and surrounding the hog coop.  But all but one hog had died of suffocation.  That one pig, that lucky pig that managed to breathe in what air was left, managed to shake it off and stagger to its feet.  The weirdness of this whole scenario gives me the shivers.  My Eastern upbringing finds this weather-driven brutality a hard thing to comprehend. 

We had such different childhoods, Bob and I.  Although he finds that my beloved East Coast trees tend to block the view, the shelter they offer is immeasurable in terms of survival.  Having lived through some of the winter here, and been privy to the vagaries of the temperatures and storms, and having actually been isolated to one place because the major highways have been closed to travel, I am agog with the fact that people managed to stick it out.

I have learned not to be foolish.  I walk the little dog in subzero temperatures, and sometimes we only go out because she never learned to use the toilet.  (My cat has, by the way, and I'm so proud of him.)  Some days, the dog and I play inside.  But sometimes, we venture out until her paws get too cold.  And I know when to go in, now.  Below zero is nothing to play with, particularly ten or so more below zero in a prairie wind - a nasty creature with little mercy.  I have learned to respect the temperatures, and I have noticed that when I'm out too long, I tend to have mood swings when I go back inside.  My speech is slower, I'm crankier, and it has taken more energy than I thought it would.  So, it's above zero today, but it's still cold.  I will walk the dog tonight for about twenty minutes, tops, and then I will go inside to our warm place, eat barbecued pork sandwiches put together by my descendant-of-tough-pioneers baby, drink some wonderful Pinot Noir picked out by our sweet friend, David, and we'll watch too many episodes of The Sopranos while the weather does what it will, outside, where it freakin' belongs.

Monday, February 21, 2011

How I got that story...

October woods, 2011, Quaker Point, West Bath, Maine
I've been thinking lately about mentors.  I don't know what sparked that, but if we had a list of random thoughts that stray through our brains on a second-to-second basis during a 24-hour period, those thoughts might stretch to the sun and back.  Or at least to Rapid City. Since I typed Rapid City, for instance, these are the thoughts that have wandered through the murk.  Rapid City - is neither (Jerry Seinfeld).  Randy Newman.  Sail Away. Snow and sun.  Wish I could play piano.  Well, sit down and do it.  Where are people going today, it's a holiday?  President's Day.  Lincoln.  Ford.  I want a CRV.  Honda.  

Mentors.  More specifically, those people who see a glimmer in you that you hope and wish someone would identify and validate.  Something inside that you dearly want to come to light, that you think is true about you, that constitutes what could be the best part of you.  I've always been a writer.  But Lordy it's lonely on that page.  And when I was first starting out, the fact that I wrote was secondary to day-to-day survival.  Writing?  Really?  How about getting through the day intact - creeping past, dodging through, and swerving from missiles shot from the slings and arrows of mundane chores, baffling homework, and the sometimes harsh reality of my childhood.  How do any of us survive?  More specifically, how does something as tender as an imagination survive?  Why can I still make up people, give them life, make them real on the page - how did I save that within myself?  I did some of it, myself, in the best ways I knew how.  I listened to music.  I put the speakers next to my head and snuggled down to listen to Tommy by the Who.  (And by the way, I still have A plus hearing...go figure...).  I embraced dance. I remember dancing alone in the living room of my house long after everyone had gone to bed.  I wandered through the woods with our Irish Setters and made up someone else's life.

And I had wonderful childhood friends that loved to make up stories.  We acted out our stories, and we wrote them down and drew pictures of what they looked like. We fed each other's sparks, and we still do that. And there were adults, specifically one aunt that kept me from going crazy when I was in my early teens. I babysat my younger cousins, and when she came home, we'd sit at the kitchen table and I would talk to her late into the night.  I don't even remember what we talked about, but her warm brown eyes kept me on the planet and, unconsciously, on some sort of creative path that I had yet to find.

I remember two anti-mentors (because oddly enough, sometimes criticism is the best kind of mentoring) who told me that I had copied assignments when I knew I hadn't.  That was frustrating, and unfair, but I also recognized that I was good enough to warrant notice. Another anti-mentor, a French professor who was overly harsh with me, because she knew I was capable of so much more.  I learned French that year, whether I wanted to, or not.  Still another taught me that I needed to take care of myself, to learn to foster relationships with people who filled me up, not drained me or made me feel small.  I'm grateful to her, and I wish her well.

A Creative Writing class I took was taught by a gentle writer/teacher who took me aside and said, "This story is almost good enough to be published."  That still echoes, after 30 years.  Another creative writing class.  A different teacher.  My stories were praised to the skies by other students, which was great.  But the teacher said, "What if you went deeper?"  Again, something that has stuck with me as a writer, something someone thought I was capable of doing.  Inner fodder to chew over (I live amongst cattle now after all.  Fodder is a word that does crop up, as does 'crop').  Another mentor, a quiet, intense therapist who, at the end of our time together, left me with the word "Kindness."  And how right she was.  It takes copious amounts of energy to stay angry.  Much more energy than it does to let things go.  Letting things go lets so much more in.   

Finally, I met thirty-two mentors in my MFA program.  It was such a revelation to me to sit in the same room with others who made up stories, who populated pages with characters that sprang from somewhere that had been saved, nurtured, and realized within themselves, as well.  How did we all get to that day, that place, listening breathlessly to the program director as she explained what would be happening in the following weeks?  Book groups, writing groups, classes, encouragement from someone(s) we trusted.  Each of us has a story, the one that we tell to ourselves, the one that we share with our family and the one that we keep about our families to ourselves, and the stories that we share with the world.  We find each other, sniff each other out, search for our tribes, and keep in touch.  We seek out places that feed our souls and visit them again and again.  We read, we listen, we observe and absorb. 

In the end, belief in oneself is the ultimate mentor.  But to believe in oneself, one has to somehow be acknowledged by someone else - no matter if it's one word, a look, the work of someone else admired, or a tiny crumb of a gruff but tender whisper that says, "Yes, you are a writer.  Now, write, for chrissake ."          

Friday, January 28, 2011

Driftwood and Bone

Driftwood and Bone - Robert Clements

I have a new writing space, and this is the very first piece of writing, here in this new place.  I'm listening to 'I and Love and You' by the Avett Brothers.  Plus a little from the soundtrack of 'Deadwood', the cuss-crowded, yet brilliant, television show.  I began to put East Coast music with West Coast pieces back in August, just as I began to combine my life here with who I was back there.

The space is a small, windowless, charmless office in an office building.  It's a little extra room off an Engineering firm that has downsized because of the economy.  I got it for half price.  I am here because I have been easily distracted in the gallery, by light, by love, by noise, by pets, by my own inability to settle in, by the easy access to the kitchen.  I've missed this part of me something awful.  Because, when I do this holy thing, the thing that feeds my soul and fills my head and heart, this act of faith that combines imagination with living dreams, I feel most alive.

 Bob expressed some concern that he had driven me out of the gallery, that somehow, because I can't write there, he had let me down.  Well, let me say this.  If I was not writing, it was no one's fault but mine.  One does what one needs to do to create, be it to find a room of one's own, or to choose to shut out surrounding noise and distractions in a gallery, or coffee shop, or in a house with children.  I own my own discipline.   It would be a crime to blame my failure to flourish creatively on anyone else.

We've had some business and a great deal of interest in the gallery, in ways we never thought about, but make perfect sense.  We've had two separate groups of women come in during the early evening to listen to Bob give a lecture on how and why the gallery is here.  I love listening to him, although we're both a little shy and self-conscious about other people's interest in us and the venture.  But people are kind and curious, and the gallery at night is lovely, lit up and shadowy in just the right places - warm and inviting and gracious, and in this small, dusty town, a bit of warmth and graciousness in the middle of January is a mighty fine thing.  Bob is becoming the 'go to' guy regarding the restoration of historical photographs, as well.  This town is proud of its Western roots.  In the late-ish 1800's, Seth Bullock, yep of cuss-crowded Deadwood fame, convinced the railroad that he would give it some land off his ranch to set down tracks to transport stock back East.  So, Belle Fourche became a major cattle shipping point.  And the town boomed, for a while.  Many of the families that settled here are still here, and they want their pictorial history preserved. Bob does a great job of doing that.

Shack wackiness has taken hold in the Clements/Callan Rogers household, though in a (mostly) affectionate way.  We are playing Scrabble on the most constructive nights.  We've been watching the football playoffs.  I am a Packers fan - don't get me wrong, I'm forever a Patriots fan - but, um, they lost to the Jets, who lost to the Steelers, and the Chicago Bears lost to the Packers.  So, I am looking forward to the Superbowl.  I spoke to my Dad on the phone last Sunday - we actually have real conversations - and he was surprised that I had taken to football, so.  "Well, not much else to do," I told him.  But the height of this January-ness came the other night when Bob and I were sitting on the sofa, watching American Idol - (Don't be sanctimonious - you have your cringworthy vices, too) when Bob said, "What did your cat do today?"  And I told him, and we laughed, and he's going to Minneapolis next week to see some dear friends and I'm staying here with the pets, the gallery, our awesome helper, Victoria, and the television remote, which I will use when I am not writing in this awesome little nothing of a room.   Or maybe I'll clean house.  Or record the cats' doings...  Or sing loud in the gallery, which has some fine acoustics. 

One of my favorite pieces of art in the gallery is the piece shown above.  The driftwood, once a tree, is from the East Coast, the bone is from something that was once alive - the little finial is decorative, and the dried sunflower came from our walk in sunflower fields that were shining like gold by the side of a gravel road sometime last summer.  I love that Bob's artistic sense combined these elements into something so simple, yet so elegant.  It reminds me of Picasso's bull, made out of bicycle handlebars and the seat.  It's imagination at its finest - at a child's level, where all things creative are possible, and dreams are more true than anything else.