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

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Girl and a Yearling

Cozy doe, resting after the first snowfall in Spearfish, back in November.
A doe and two fawns are lying in my backyard this morning, long legs folded neatly, eyes half shut, chewing cud. It thrills me to see them, but I worry about what will happen to them when they leave. Stay off the roads, I want to say to them. But they probably won't, or can't as they need to get from here to there, like the rest of us.

I don't believe they ever really sleep. They are ready for flight at the slam of a car door, or a dog barking in the neighborhood, or a scent wafting toward them. One of the fawns is an orphan or has been separated from its mother. The doe occasionally flattens her ears and chases it around in a half-hearted manner. They perform this dance for a few minutes. The orphan finally settles down again, and so does the doe. I walk around the inside of my house whispering, lest they hear me and take off again. I think they're perfect, with their big eyes and long legs. If I grew flowers, or a garden, yeah, I'd probably be annoyed, but that's why God made eight-foot fences.

Another backyard beauty.
If I don't see a deer - there are two kinds - Whitetail and Mule - during the day, here in South Dakota, I consider it odd. In Spearfish, which lies wrapped in the arms of the Northern Black Hills, under the watchful eye of Crow Peak, deer are part of the neighborhood. They trek through the yards and parks and eat grass or bushes and I know that they are considered pests - some towns have initiated culls - but I still consider it a little bit magical to see them. I'm from Maine, where the woods are thick and there are countless places to hide. 

When I was a kid, to see a deer was a rare thing to be celebrated. I looked for them alongside the roads and listened for their footsteps in the woods. People and houses weren't so plentiful, so they had more habitat. We lived on a dirt road in the summer back then, and I was always on the watch for them. One day, a bunch of us kids, traipsing back from blueberry fields long since taken over by rip-rap and new owners, startled a young fawn, which bolted from its hiding place and bleated its snowy-spotted way on wobbly, ridiculously long legs, down the road. It scared us as much as we scared it, We pell-melled toward home, terrified that its daddy, who I know now could have cared less, would gore us, or that its momma would slice us with her pointed hooves. 

Once we saw a herd of deer in a field across the road while we were in the car with my father. It was a stop and stare moment, until each deer, one by one, melted back into the woods. The buck stood last, then turned and walked away into the trees. I remember the awed tone in my father's voice, and he was a man who, back then, didn't appeared to be awed by much, especially by his four grubby children. Another time, I was driving in a car with my Uncle Dick, on our way to the rural community of Woolwich, where I was to babysit my four hellion cousins. I saw a deer standing on the top of a hill at the edge of the woods, looking down on the road. "I saw a deer!" I hollered. "Oh, Uncle Dickie, I saw a deer!" To me, it was akin to seeing a unicorn. Uncle Dick loved animals, and I loved going to 'The Farm', where the possibility of seeing a deer or a raccoon or skunk or another exotic species, or of rescuing kittens and roaming the woods with a dog, was just around the corner.

I read Bambi by Felix Salten when I was probably too young to read it. No Disney version for me - this was the real thing. Yes, the deer had voices, but Salten caught their joy and despair perfectly, as well as their dignity and their beauty. I wanted to be Bambi after I read it. Well, I wanted to be a horse, too. In fact, I wanted to be a four-footed animal when I was a girl. It just seemed much more comfortable to not have to speak and to have the means to take flight. Or maybe I just thought they, horses and deer, were the epitome of grace and loveliness. I still do. 

This buck visited my backyard during hunting season. Smart move.
When I lived in England in my early twenties, I walked almost daily in Thetford Forest in Norfolk. There, I saw a herd of tiny Roe deer. Elf deer, it seemed to me. Another magic moment. These are the minutes on the planet where I feel I get glimpses into another world, where it's a privilege to bear witness to the mystery of a free and wild creature. Sightings like these are an inhale of grace and an exhale of joy.

I understand the danger that deer can be on a road - very real danger at night - and I realize that they can be destructive. And the possibility of the spread of disease from ticks and other pests increases, as deer, like the rest of us, are forced to share limited space and resources. Yet, I still look with a child's eye when I see them. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings penned one of the most powerful endings ever to her incredible book, The Yearling, regarding the relationship between a boy and his fawn, between childhood and adulthood and innocence and experience. It always makes me cry. Somewhere beyond the sink hole, past the magnolia, under the live oaks, a boy and a yearling ran side by side, and were gone forever, wrote Kinnan Rawlings. Maybe that's what seeing a deer does for me - brings back the reverence I felt during a time that has become less reverent and more ragged, the older I get. 

So, I'm glad the deer are resting in the backyard. They're giving me a good dose of awe for the day. 

Friday, November 16, 2012


If I were my boss, I'd fire me.

Biggest distraction of all. Myself. (Photo by Heather Perry Weafer - who was doing her job.)
I used to work for other people. I worked for other people for over 40 years. I showed up on time and did what was expected, with the exception of one job I had in the early nineties that expected WAY too much from everyone. I took vacations and holidays, had an office mug and some knick-knacks that either inspired me or reminded me of why I needed to work, had office buddies, some of whom are still great friends, and had great health insurance. I commuted in various little cars through rain, sleet, or snow, biked, or walked to work. I did my job, and I got paid, commensurate with experience.

Another distraction. A cute one, but a distraction.
These days, I work for myself. I get up at six a.m., make coffee for my honey, kiss my honey goodbye, take the dog out, eat breakfast, walk the dog, make tea, put the dog outside, check the computer three times in a row - Gmail, Yahoo mail, Facebook, go to the bathroom, switch on the television, switch it off, check on the dog, check on the computer again, because it's been ten minutes and something important may have come in, adjust the temperature, freshen up the tea, and walk into the office, about a half hour late. I bite my nails, then look at them. Good thing I have an emery board at the ready. Oh, wait, it's kind of worn. Time to get up and get a fresh one. I know it's somewhere, and when I find it, I'll sit back down, file my raggedy nails, and get to it.

Facebook, gmail, yahoo mail, and so on. Big distractions. 
I'm my own worst nightmare. I should document my truancy, verbally at first. Bad Morgan, bad, bad. You've been warned. You are now on a program. Then written - but of course, that would require writing, which is my job that I'm not doing because of DISTRACTIONS. It's not my fault. DISTRACTIONS. Yeah. Right. Consider this a written warning. If you're late, one more time - here's your hat, what's your hurry?

Food distractions abound.
Writers are notorious procrastinators. It's been documented by so many writers. Writing about why we don't write is another form of procrastination. We all know why we don't write. It's due to - drum roll - procrastination. My favorite piece on creative procrastination was written by Carolyn Chute for the New York Times. How Can You Create Fiction When Reality Comes to Call? Great title. Wish I'd thought of that. Wish I'd written the piece. Wish I'd written the piece and had it published in The New York Times. Wish I'd gotten paid for that. But that would require discipline, and well, I've found the emery boards. Time to check on the dog. She used to have a yard where she roamed free, but now I have to tie her because we don't have a fence, so.  The dog is fine. She's sleeping in the yard. She's doing her job. I should get to mine.

Must. Have. Tea.
Should I turn up the heat? Should I go to the bathroom now so I won't have to stop what I'm doing, later? Should I make sure the dog is still happy? Should I call my honey before he calls me to ask if he's interrupting me?

Go now? Or later?

Why is it that we put off doing the very thing that we love the most? I do the same thing when I'm writing, actually. I call it scene avoidance. When I most want to delve into THE BIG MOMENT, I write around it. What I have discovered is that everything leading up to THE BIG MOMENT, everything surrounding THE BIG MOMENT, is what's important. It's called setting the scene. THE BIG MOMENT is the climax, and then, well, on to the next BIG MOMENT.  So, maybe, I am establishing the groundwork for the psychic BIG MOMENT - the use of my imagination, which is the best part of me. It's so good I can't take it, I guess. I should get to it.

I'm cold. I'm going to turn up the heat. Then, I'll start the day.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Portrait: Flannel Coat, Covered with Cat Hair, on a Chair in the Study

Jessie Callan Rogers sleeping in the truck.

I am putting off going into my study. The day before yesterday, I walked into that room, picked up my cat, Jessie, from where he was curled like a comma on my flannel checked coat on my office chair, put him into his cat carrier and took him to the veterinarian's office, where I had him euthanized. The imprint of his little body still owns the seat of the chair and his fur is all over my coat. I don't want to change things, just yet, although I really have to move forward.

Jessie was thirteen years old. He was a fluffy gray cat with big paws, a tiny purr, beautiful green eyes, and a lovely temperament. He had a sense of humor and a gentle, adventurous side that I was constantly discovering, even as I worried about his physical reactions.

He was always fragile. He had crystals from the day I adopted him off the street. Crystals, for the uninitiated, are formed from body crud (like kidney stones) and can block a cat's urinary tract. If not treated, only catheterization may save the cat. It did in our case, but Jessie had to have special food, which he didn't like. I wrung my hands over that. He was also supposed to stay inside. I wrung my hands over that, too. Then I realized that stress is a big cause of crystals and UTIs in cats, so I decided to keep doing what we'd done before.  I let him out when he wanted to go, and fed him high-end, low ash food. "Shorter life, happier life," I said to the vet.

 When we moved from Maine to South Dakota, it was a huge change for me, let alone my tender flower of a feline. I fretted more about how the cat would react to being driven 2,100 miles than anything else. I even thought about giving him to someone else in Maine to save him the journey, until a friend suggested that he would do best with me, wherever I went. I obtained a few kitty-Prozac pills, gave him a half a pill to start the journey, and crossed my fingers.

Jessie Callan Rogers sitting in my suitcase. He loved to travel.
He was fine. Within twenty minutes of our departure, he was out of the carrier and exploring. He slept on my lap for most of the trip, and did fine when we stopped. I loved traveling with him, and we went back and forth and back one more time. He lived with two other cats in a huge gallery building and held his own while he was with them.

I did notice last autumn that he was very thin. I took him to our South Dakota vet, and he was diagnosed with kidney failure last December. Kidney failure is terminal, but terminal to me, at that time, meant I would take him back to Maine for the four winter months I would be there marketing my first novel. I would treat him there and, hopefully, he would survive for a long time. Our little core team of the dog, Jessie, and me, rented an Portland upstairs apartment from a heart-sister and her wonderful husband, and I went from book event to book event, even as I juggled any kind of cat food that Jessie would eat, plus chicken, turkey burger, hamburger - anything that kept his upset stomach busy - with plenty of available water and lots of rest.

Despite my efforts, he crashed in February, too dehydrated to defecate. I rushed him in to the Maine vet's offices, where he was hydrated. After that, I took him to the vet's offices to be hydrated on a weekly basis (I tried it at home. No freakin' way, he said, in one of the few disagreements we ever had about how we would live his life and help him to thrive) and I boarded him there if I was going to be gone overnight.

We came back to South Dakota in May and the hydration continued, along with new medication for his chronically upset stomach and another medication to keep his blood pressure down. He hated it when I squirted stuff into his mouth. I left twice during the summer, and Bob continued the treatment for me, boarding him if he wasn't able to be around for a couple of days.

About a month ago, I finally took over the hydration treatments, hooking up the lactated ringer bag and playing 'vet tech', by making it as clinical as I could. I placed a towel on the kitchen table, set him on it, and stuck a needle under his skin, running fluids subcutaneously so that they would be absorbed by his body. This worked for the first bag of ringers. I bought another bag of ringers only five days ago, along with new medicines and all kinds of cat foods. I am leaving for October, and I wanted to make sure we were prepared. Then Bob, being honest, said he wasn't sure he was comfortable giving him the fluids, so I made arrangements with the vet's office to have Bob drop Jessie off for fluids, and then pick him up and take him home. I left a credit for his care for the month.

But the truth is, during the last month, he failed in small, important ways. I kept food for him, always, and he forgot where it was kept. He would jump onto my lap for a cuddle and just stand there. He crouched in that way that cats have when they don't feel well. He slept for long periods of time. He vomited when his stomach was empty, but he wouldn't eat. He craved his morning walk-about outside so that he could eat grass. He appeared to have stiff back legs. His breath smelled of decay. He began to have accidents. Still, I wanted to keep him going for a year, till December, the date when he was diagnosed as terminal. I wanted to meet that anniversary. I was prepared to do that.

Jessie Callan Rogers, a day before he left for the Heaviside Layer.
But last Friday, when I was giving him the fluids, I pierced his thin, tired skin with the needle and more fluid dribbled out onto the towel than into his poor little body. His ribs and hip bones were prominent when I rubbed my hands over him. We'd been here, before, he and I, and we had come back. Sunday, I would give him more fluids, and things would improve.

But Sunday, I woke up and I didn't give him the fluids. And I knew that it wasn't about me meeting an anniversary to prove something to myself. It was time. Jessie had been telling me this for a month and I hadn't wanted to listen. I told Bob, and we both cried. But we didn't take it back.  I called the vet Monday morning and talked to my favorite vet tech, and we set a time. 3:15 p.m. Bob asked if he should be there, with me. No, I said. Jessie and I started together, and Jessie and I would end together.      

Jessie had a great day on his last day of life. He ate raw hamburger and chicken (some of this out of the dog's dish, unbeknown to the dog).  He saw birds in the yard and stalked them through the sliding glass door screen. I took him out into the yard and the birds flew off as he left his mark in an old garden plot. He ate grass and rolled over until his gray coat was flecked with dust and gold. I cuddled him on my lap for two hours, and when he was full and content, he went into the study and slept on my coat on the chair. I woke him up at 3:00 p.m., then drove to the vet's office, one hand on the steering wheel, one hand scratching his ear through the wire of the cat carrier. He sat quiet. He was a good passenger.

Inside the veterinarian's office, a woman with a Boston Terrier puppy waited at the counter, and I envied her and her dog their beginning. I set Jessie down and spoke to him quietly. The vet tech came in and sat down beside me with a paper that I had to sign, saying that this was my decision. I signed it. We talked for a bit about his situation. Then, it was time.

She left me with Jessie in an examination room and I dumped him out of his carrier and held him to me, thanking him for his gentle grace and his dignity, telling him that I had such a deep, quiet love for him and that I was sorry for doing what I was about to do. His vet and the tech came in then, and the vet said that he was sorry and that nobody liked to do this. He shaved Jessie's right front leg so that he could find a vein to insert the needle that would allow the deadly pink fluid to run through his veins and stop his heart. "Are you ready, Morgan?" the vet tech asked me. "It will be fast." I said, "Yes". The vet inserted the needle and blew Jessie's vein. We all took a breath and he apologized. He had to shave the other leg. Jessie never flinched. "I love you," I said to him and the vet inserted the needle, again.

It was fast. I felt Jessie relax against my hand and arm, and as he did this, I felt all the tension, all the pain, and all the things I had been making him hold on to so that he would survive so that I could love him another day, leave, and I thought, this was the right thing to do. He's gone, and he doesn't hurt anymore, and I'm glad that he had a good day. He had a wonderful life and I had a wonderful life with him. I have had animals before that I loved and kept alive, too long. With Jessie, it didn't get to the point where it was a desperate, painful situation. But oh god, it was hard. I will grieve for a long time for this sweet creature, who chose me to share his life.

I threw away the ringers and the medicine with a vengeance. I will give his bowls to the humane society. His scratching rope and his litter box I will remove, later. And I have to go into the study, because we have guests coming next week, and it doubles as a guest room. It's time to move on. And so, I'll end this piece, and I'll go into the study. It has to be done. So I'll do it.    

My beautiful cat, on his way to his next adventure.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Family ReOnion

Red hot dogs and hamburgers. Trademarks of a Maine family reunion.
I straggled back to a family reunion in August, while I was back in Maine. We have only ever had family reunions on my mother's side. My father's family was tiny, compared to my mother's family. It consisted of his mother and my grandmother (Dottie), his sister and my aunt, Ginny, Uncle Martin (uncle-in-law), and Stevie, my cousin, who was a older than we were and subject to the exasperations felt by a cool teenager forced to hang out with giggly, goofy cousins.  After Stevie made his obligatory visit with us, he hightailed it out of the house for better climes. The visit drooped after that. We siblings saw each other every damn day. Our cousins were the lifeblood of the family get-togethers.

First and second cousins. One in-law.
On my mother's side of the family, we had tons of cousins to pick from. My mother had four siblings. There were four kids in our family and we had, eventually, nineteen cousins. My aunt had nine children, with four of those kids our ages. One uncle had four wild boys a little younger than me, but they were still part of the gang. We all made up the older cousins. Each of us had a companion - a special - cousin. The much younger cousins were ignored back then.

Boston husband of first cousin and Patriot's logo.  Of course.
Oh, the wildness of cousins! The anticipation of getting together to catch up and play! First, our parents, and the aunts and uncles forced us outside. We were actually locked out unless we needed something drastic and it had better be good. Left to our own devices, we fought with each other, confided secrets, laughed, cried, scraped ourselves up, fell out of trees, off bicycles, down gullies, and off docks. We sunned ourselves, shunned each other, pitted boys against the girls, yelled and screamed, and lived out tragicomic days and nights wracked by sunburns and the knowledge that our visits would end too soon.

Leading up stairs to the sleeping room.
We especially loved going to my nine-cousin camp on a fresh-water pond scraped out by a glacial march across the state. Summers, we grew up on a tidal, salt-water river. Swimming depended upon the tide table. Mudflats were awful to negotiate, and the temperature of the water depended on the number of sunny days. But the pond was a marvel of consistent height and temperature, a wonderland of sunfish and turtles, and a battleground of inner tube fights and swimming contests. One cousin who grew up on the pond complained once to my aunt that, "All they want to do is go swimming," and she was right. We stayed in the water until our fingers were pruned and our lips were blue. Then, forced out by the adults, we played horse shoes and board games, badminton and volleyball. We took walks, accompanied by mosquitoes and the dust and exhaust fumes from passing cars. At night, we all slept in one open upstairs room, two or three to a bed. The next day, we did it all again.

This past August, I drove my rented car up to the pond camp, toting my 85-year old parents with me. They had had a spat before our ride, generated mainly by the frustrations of a forced 24-hour existence together. They sat silent in the car, except for terse words spoken by my macular-degenerated dad who gave directions that were not to be questioned. My mother sat in the back seat, her tiny form taking in the scenery. We stopped and started through the mall-ladened insanity that has become North Windham and took the right turn onto the dusty road that leads to the cottage. I took a wrong turn and had to backtrack past a new white-picket fence that divides the roads and confuses the memories. I got back on track, followed the pond to my left, turned right, then left, and found the camp.

Apple clock hanging on chimney.
The camp is small, with a front screened-in porch and three inside downstairs rooms. Cottage kitsch and genuine antiques furnish the rooms. One bathroom has served us all for generations. The screen door sounds off with its camp slam and pine needles need to be brushed off before we can enter. No one is locked out, these days. Anyone can come into the camp, anytime, for anything.

Screen, cousins, aunts, and formidable man.
When we were kids, a cribbage board or a board game covered the oil-clothed table top on the porch at all times, with raucous competition between players. This August, two young second cousins and an original cousin played a game that I didn't recognize. My second cousins welcomed me into the play, but it wasn't the same. I longed for Monopoly, or Trivial Pursuit. I longed for my special cousin, unable to attend because of distance. I looked around at my uncle, aunt, and my parents, who hold up what is left of a generation debilitated by the loss of an aunt and three uncles. Layers are peeled off in families as time dictates. They looked incredibly fragile, even as they took up their end of the porch.
Strong woman in chair.

A bathhouse down a wood-planked walkway is stuffed with Styrofoam noodles, which didn't exist when we were kids, and inner tubes - not our inner tubes, but the inner tubes belonging to the new generation of cousins, a much smaller,  more scattered group. Once, a dragon fly the size of a crow landed on the inside of the bathhouse door and kept my sister and her special cousin prisoner for about an hour, terrified that it would sew their mouths shut.  A passing boy cousin finally shooed it away.

Second cousins and an in-law
with Styrofoam noodle.
A steep hill leads down to the pond and a dilapidated dock. A diving platform has been anchored a little way off the dock; something we never had when we cousins ruled the pond. Stone steps lead into the water now. Before, we either slipped or jumped onto the sandy bottom that leads out to a composted murk of weeds and water plants. My nephew, who will be a father next spring, tried to coax his dodgy Boxer dog into the water. I watched teen-aged second cousins and a brother-in-law floating on a purple noodle play in the water while I sat on a bench with my sister and her cousin, just as our mothers had done before us.  "Come on in," my nephew urged me, and I went up for my suit.

The dock, second-cousin, nephew and boxer, in-law.
I stood in the stultified air of the upstairs common bedroom and heard the breathing of my generation as it slept away a summer night, oblivious to the fact that some day, a middle-aged woman struggling into her unflattering but comfortable bathing suit would wonder at the expiration date of youth.  I walked down the steep hill to the water, holding on to the rope that was once scorned as the crutch of the timid and lame, and stepped down the slimy rocks into the pond water.

A twenty-something niece, who only has four cousins, joined me and we swam out to the diving platform, where I struggled for a few undignified seconds to get up a ladder, then I gave up and swam past it, toward the other side of the pond. My niece and I parted the waters in front of us and noted the quiet. I remembered that the pond was filled with the roar of over-sized motor boats once, and kids screamed as they jumped off docks, and the smells of grills cluttered with red hot dogs and hamburger meat scorched the summer air. This August day was cool, with the chance of rain. No motorboat cracked the peace or threatened to run us over. The grill was located behind the came and away from the water, which took on a faint aroma of swamp, of dank age, of something not sunfish lurking in the muck far below us. I turned around frequently and looked back at the distance we had swum, at the little figures in the water and at those walking up and down the steep hill, wrapped in towels and anticipating lunch.

Diving dock in pond.
My niece and I talked a little bit during our swim, but not much. She's quiet, this one. My special cousin could out-swim me when we were kids, and she did, leaving me behind to always finish last in our quest to touch the bushes on the other side of the pond. But on this August day my niece swam beside me, and she waited while I waded through leach-infested muck to touch the bushes, like I used to do. Then she swam back across the pond with me toward grandmothers and grandfathers, fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers and their spouses, and cousins. Maybe not all of the old cousins, but some of them and some of the new ones. We swam back toward the perennial box of red hot dogs and hamburgers, which now share space with olive oil, fresh mozzarella and basil, salsa and baked potato chips, toward pine needles and slamming doors, chipped blue fingernail polish and corn-on-the-cob, blueberry cake, condiments, and sliced onions for garnish. We swam toward our family.

Corn and second cousin.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Process of Writing

Brief update. We are living in a one-level ranch-style house in beautiful Spearfish, South Dakota. As one friend said, it sounds like a place where a writer would live. Well, this writer lives here, and I know for a fact that others do, too. Love this house, love the location. Love the bird drama from my windows - the robin and blue jay fledglings, the starling committee meetings, the occasional deer and rabbit appearances - quite a show outside. The weather here tends toward the alpine, because Spearfish is located in the Black Hills, instead of on the prairie and plains, like Belle Fourche. Spearfish, in fact, holds the record for fastest rise in temperature change in the world. Seriously, look it up. Certain things I miss about Belle Fourche include the rides Bob and I used to take through the gravel roads and the Dairy Queen. Belle's DQ is superior to Spearfish's DQ.  Also, I'm keeping my hairdresser, James.

I lived in Maine for four remarkable months. Bob and I drove back to Mountain Time at the end of April, after a brief stop in paradise (Madison, Wisconsin), which I am beginning to believe is the last outpost in a barren world. Again, back here, it has taken a while for this quiet woman to adjust. Western South Dakota is truly a charmer in so many ways, but if I haven't mentioned it before, and I know that I have, it's a different culture. People here don't whine, which I have honed to a fine art and truly miss. A sign in the Aladdin General Store reads, "No Sniveling". That says it all. This is a snivel-free zone. Noted.

I go for days without talking to anyone except Bob and the animals. Bob is a pretty good conversationalist, and sometimes, the animals answer me. I'm nursing my beloved cat, Jessie, as he travels a dark road toward the great hunting ground in the ether. He suffers from kidney disease and will not recover. We have kept him alive for six months by doing the opposite of what we were told to do. He refused to eat food geared to keeping his kidneys functional, so we're feeding him what he will eat - anything from shrimp to chicken to certain cat foods that we rotate to keep his stomach filled. He's a good guy with a good attitude and I'm happy to have had him for as long as I have. The Wonder Dog is sleeping down in the cellar as I type this. She needs a haircut, but is maintaining, otherwise.

We have had several visitors in the form of human companionship for the month of June. The eldest son of a dear Maine friend dropped in on his own quest across country with his non-girlfriend (they don't like the boyfriend girlfriend terminology - it's too loaded). It was nice to see them, and to see that they are committed to their own life-style. Oh, to be young and idealistic! I hope that they do not lose the glow they demonstrated while they were here. I felt particularly useful guiding them to Wall Drug Store in Wall, South Dakota, for the donuts. Really. These are spectacular donuts. I don't like donuts, but I like these donuts.

After the 'kids' left, we had visits from my adopted brother and dear friend, Michael, who is the most optimistic, enthusiastic, talkative, curious person I know. I loved seeing this world through his eyes. Devil's Tower really grabbed him, as did his tour through the Black Hills. Michael left, two friends arrived from Wall via Washington State. They will return tonight on their way back to the left-handed coast (if you're facing the United States). Bob's siblings and cousins dropped in, as well. I got to flex my vacuum cleaner and meager hostess skills, physical and social muscles I haven't used in a long time.

Well, that's not such a brief update.

What I want to talk about is the process of writing. It occurs to me, particularly after last night, which was pretty sleepless except for the chapter arrangements for the new book that marched through my brain for a few hours, that most of my writing takes place before I sit down to type. I can only speak for myself, but it appears that a lot of essays and advice is available on the act of writing itself: What one needs to do before sitting down before that blank computer screen or picking up the pencil to produce prose longhand, for instance. How one avoids writer's block. What to do when the words don't come.

But no one really talks about the huge amount of time one spends walking around seemingly sane while holding strategy meetings with imaginary people in one's head. For instance, last night I walked the Wonder Dog along Spearfish Creek, smiling and saying hello to occasional passersby, and all the while, I was conversing, arguing, pointing out, and pushing around plots, scenarios, chapter links, character actions, and possible conclusions to the book I am working on. I can only be grateful that those polite walkers didn't want to talk, because I'm not sure I could have escaped the mishmash of my fictional world without spewing gibberish. I am not on the planet very much.

My point to all of this is that although I type for four hours a day, I am working about twelve hours a day on several things having to do with another world or worlds. When I'm really into the work, it's more hours than that. It's a funny - as in odd, unusual, weird - world that is hard to understand unless you're a writer. I could add artist, musician, actor, and so on. But it IS work. Johnny Mercer closed his eyes and reclined on a sofa while composing lyrics. Ann Patchett has written that she stares out of windows a lot (I'm paraphrasing). I know it seems as if I'm here, but I'm not. And it IS productive - just as productive as something more concrete and visible.

I guess I wanted to explain this to all of those who are lucky enough to 'be in life'. That's my phrase for people who take advantage of the present to actually do visually and conscious functional and fun things. If I do not let my imagination take over my life, I cannot happily perform functional and fun things when I AM on the planet. But I digress. Now, lunch, preparation for company, and a dog walk with the Wonder Dog, who is looking at me as if she is bored stupid by whatever I'm doing that doesn't include her. I understand, more than you know. Thanks for understanding back.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

She writes because she loves it

My friend, Maxine, and me.
I have been trying to convince my friend, Maxine, to publish her work. She graciously pooh poohs that notion. She writes gorgeous essays, historical pieces and book reviews, but the truth is, she doesn't seem to care whether or not any of it ever appears in print. She doesn't need to establish 'her brand', host a blog, put up a Facebook page or tweet. She hasn't an agent, an editor, a publicist, or a number of readers, or a chart that shows how many 'hits' she's had that day. She doesn't hop onto Amazon.com several times a day to see how her book is selling. She writes because she's compelled to write. She writes when something moves her. She shows it to some people and I feel lucky that she's included me in that group. I like to picture her at her computer, typing her heart out onto the page, sharing memories, living her past even as she takes hold of her present with a zest that defies her reference to herself as an 'old woman'.

I first met Maxine when she sent me an email via my website telling me that she had read my book and loved it and had felt compelled to pen a review/essay on how she felt. Would I like to see it? I said yes, and she sent me the following, which she has given me permission to print here.

red ruby heart in a cold blue sea

As an old woman of 81, I mostly read non-fiction.  Recently I've been re- reading my way through WW II, starting with Walter Lord's Day of Infamy, then on to Craig Shirley's December 1941, while Samuel Eliot Morison's The Two Ocean War patiently waits at the top of the stack of books beside my chair.  I generally buy non-fiction books.  With a dull pencil I scribble barely legible comments in the margins and faintly and crudely underline passages that clutch at my heart and mind, all the while hoping that my abuse of the books won't ruin the reading experience for anyone who might want to borrow them.

Recently, in the Maine Sunday Telegram, I read a review of the red ruby heart in a cold blue sea, a first novel by Morgan Callan Rogers who, by the way, is a native Mainer who grew up in Bath.  I was hooked and immediately called the library to have my name added to the waiting list.

After reading it, I checked out about 30 reviews on Google.  A couple reviewers made less than glowing comments, but the remaining reviews ranged from favorable to rave. Most mentioned that it's a "coming-of-age" story set in a 1960s Maine lobster fishing village where "everyone knows everyone else's business."  Well, there are coming-of-age stories and then there are coming of-age stories.  Morgan Callan Rogers does for Florine and her pals Dottie, Glen and Bud what Herman Raucher did for Hermie and his buddies Oscy and Benjie on Nantucket in the Summer of '42.

With the help of some kind of magic glue, the phrase "sometimes it's personal" has stuck to my brain.  This story is very personal to me because of the setting and descriptive passages and not because of the heroine, who in the words of one reviewer has the reader vacillating between "cheering her on and wanting to slap her upside the head."  The author hooked me on the first page when she wrote of Florine and her mother sitting on the front steps eating ice cream "and watching water wink at them from the harbor at the end of The Point." How many times as a child have I sat on Cummings & Norton's doorstep licking an ice cream cone while watching the water "wink" at me from Moosabec Reach at the end of Underwood's Lane.

Mark Twain once wrote that "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is a really large matter—'tis the difference between the lightning bug and lightning."  Author Craig Shirley gave an excellent example of this when he mentioned that before President Roosevelt gave his six-minute speech on 12/8/41 in which he asked Congress to declare war on Japan, he crossed out one word and substituted another, so "a date that will live in history" became "a date that will live in infamy."  Ah, lightning!

 Morgan Callan Rogers has a knack for using the "right words." She can turn a phrase with the best of them. While I couldn't mark up the library book, I had the good sense to start taking notes on page one and ended up with seven pages of notes by the time I finished reading it.  I have the book on order and when it arrives I shall use a highlighter to carefully mark the passages that had a particular meaning for me.  As for whether the highlighted passages will annoy anyone who borrows the book, I selfishly don't care.  It's personal.

Of all the passages, one moved me most.  "Just before Grand died, Daddy and I were allowed into the emergency unit.  We watched her take her last breath. It rose in a high swell before she settled forever on a calm sea."  At the end of that sentence the book slid out of my hands and the tears began to roll down my face. That was an identical description of my mother's passing.  My tears quickly became a spring freshet and then a full bore crying jag.  I soon realized that I wasn't crying just for the loss of my mother, but also for the loss of the hometown I knew in the 1930s-'40s.  Thomas Wolfe was right. You Can't Go Home Again.  Eventually, peace returned as I realized once again that people, homes and businesses will pass, each in its own season, but the sun shining on Moosabec Reach causing the water to "wink" is eternal.

There was one sentence in the book that bothered me.  In referring to lobsters, Florine's father said, "I got some cripples I was going to have for supper." I assume he was talking about one-claw lobsters which I have always known as "culls."  Is the word "cripples" just used by the characters in the book or is the term used along parts of the Maine coast as a substitute for "culls?"

Because of the shooting angle, the picture on the book jacket doesn't show the lighthouse and distinctive red oil house.  Inside of the back jacket the scene is identified as The Nubble, York, Maine.  Please notice the ledge in the bottom right corner of the photo.  Decades ago I had the embarrassing misfortune of falling overboard at that site while trying to board the tiny skiff in which the lighthouse keeper—my cousin—was attempting to row my husband and me to The Nubble.                          
                                                                                MSM   2/28/12

I loved the time she took to write this moving review, and I wrote her so. When I found out that she lives in South Portland, across the harbor from where I'm staying in Portland, I asked if we might meet for some tea. She suggested Panera Bread, and we met for what became a 'mug up'. What a lovely woman I met! Maxine, a retired teacher, is an active, curious historian and occasional fiction reader who had all kinds of questions for me regarding the book, which I hoped I answered. She also loaned me The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, a book my agent had mentioned a couple of years ago. She also lent me a DVD of The Summer of 42, which I saw decades ago and had forgotten about, until Maxine pointed out that the landscape reminded her a bit of what The Point might look like.

To stumble out of a room after three years, the stardust of imagination still tinting the work-a-day world, to submit to the harsh hands of reality a manuscript forged out of the secret places in the heart, to know that someone has read the resulting book and has been touched in some way, sends a strong signal to me that the universe approves of my attempts to belong to something larger than myself.  It's such a gift. I loved Maxine's generosity in letting me know that what I wrote was important to her. It meant the world to me.

I head back to South Dakota next week, and I wanted to meet up with Maxine to return the book and the DVD before that happened. So, back I went to Panera, which will be forever a part of Maxine. We had tea, chatted a bit, and had our picture taken together. And, she gifted me a mean date and nut cake that has made Bob and me happy this week. It's also made my father and two other friends pleased, as well. I leave the east for the west, filled with dates, nuts, cake, and thanks to Maxine, who writes because she's moved to do it.  I hope that our paths cross, again. 

Maxine's date and nut cake. Sublime when topped with cream cheese.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Not-So-Stuffy Book Club

Red Ruby Heart underneath the lights.
I love book clubs, as I mentioned in the last post, because, for the most part, people have read the book and I am pleased, as an author, to be able to discuss the book in more detail. I have read in a home where I sat on a wooden chair in front of where the big screen television usually comes down and read and spoke to participants seated in big red chairs looking down at me - sort of the Supreme Court of book club discussions. I have driven to Alna, Maine to meet with a former co-worker and her group of friends in a gracious home by a beautiful hearth, then taken my leave to drive home - an hour away - to Portland under the watchful eye of a full moon. One of my dearest friends, Becky, held three book clubs - each with its own personality. All of them added up to extraordinary experiences.

I've gone into a middle school to meet with teachers after school, to the 4th floor of a condominium where one of the women began crying over Carlie's disappearance and wanted comfort  and an explanation from me regarding my decisions as Carlie's creator. (It's fiction, folks.) Discussion and questions - and reactions -  indicate to me that I, as a writer, have created a world real enough to care about. And that tells me that I've done my job, for the most part. I've met an amazing group of people, and I feel lucky to have been invited into their homes and hearts.

Decoration for book club meeting at Kathy Leighton's house.

Steamed mussels with garlic and wine, prepared by Brian.
But I wanted to spotlight one book club, because the women in this group should be noted for their spirt, their devotion to keeping their book club alive - for ten years and counting - in many ways, and because it was so damn fun to be a part of the group for one night. Called the Not-So-Stuffy-Bookclub, the night was held at the home of Kathy Leighton, as suggested by her friend, Laura, via my very good friend and sister-of-the-heart, Charlotte Brown. Kathy is tiny and full of light and energy, and the friends that attended this special night were all women of substance and laughter, all Florine's type of women - in life. Most of them are mothers and some are grandmothers. All of them are professionals and some are retired. They are great women.

Amazing blueberry cake, made by Kathy Leighton.
What I want to say is, Thank you, Kathy Leighton.
She (with some help from her husband, Brian, and their dog, Sandy) cooked seafood, supplied wine, and decorated the table with red ruby hearts and stars. This was such a wonderful thing to do - so creative and thoughtful. If this wasn't enough, she also had Brian set off fire crackers at an un-timed moment during the evening (a fire cracker raid is a crucial early part of the book). We sat around a large table with lit candles and discussed the book, and we talked about their lives and the book club, which celebrates their January meeting with a Yankee swap, wherein a gift that they may have received that doesn't suit them is put up for swap. They dress up in costume for some books. They live whatever they are reading in some special way. And my book was no exception to them. They had some very good questions and some observations that should have occurred to me, that challenged me as the author of the book to pay more attention to small details (details that I thought I had covered). I felt so welcomed and part of their experience. It was a rare and unexpected, delightful evening.

Sandy (Sandra when she's bad), the golden retriever.
It took me three years to write the book, working evenings after a full-time job, working weekend mornings, and whenever I found a block of time that I could sit down and enter Florine's world. I gave away my television set. I drew back from many friends and acquaintances. Some friends were lost along the way, some were gained. The world spun and changed even as I stopped time for this little, fictional world where so much happened, where so much mattered.  I came out of this experience with a book, feeling as if I'd been gone for quite some time. I re-entered the world a changed person, a little shaky. I fell in love and moved away to a foreign country (You cannot tell me that southern Maine and South Dakota are in the same country.) I left my little crooked house on my little street in East Bayside, Portland, and I left my full and fabulous life to follow my honey. There, among the plains and the prairie, I've been trying to regain my footing. Shortly after I moved, the book was published, and has been published, thus far, in four languages. None of it seems real, at times. It's been joyful, but unsettling. I've had to resort to pepto-bismal tablets on nights that I read. My introverted nature has had to step it up a notch, into some semblance of extroversion that I can exhibit in short bursts. I've had to learn new skills and develop an insight into the reasons why I make up other worlds, at all.

But that night, in Kathy Leighton's home, I felt, well, vindicated for my choices. I love talking about my work. I love talking about what I'm passionate about, what I do best. I felt grounded in their belief in my work and in my words. I felt welcome and wrapped up in their warmth, their humor, and in their full lives.

Forsythia, West End, Portland, Maine, April 12, 2012.
Bob has arrived in Portland and spring is proceeding along, after a languorous, false start. It's chilly, but blooms are touching the landscape with bursts of color - forsythia and hyacinths and scilla (it's great to get to say these words once a year). Again, with the changes. Again, with the moving back to South Dakota and the Black Hills. Unlike last time I moved, I am going forward with a full and grateful heart, anxious to start the next chapter. We're moving into a rental house in Spearfish, where I will have a small room with a door to close. When that door closes, I will enter other worlds, go to that lonely place that exists outside of every day conversations and shy of relationships. I will leave that room changed, every day.

I am humbled by those who have opened their worlds to me and held my girl and her world in their hearts, and let me know that it has meant something to them.

Thank you.

The "Not-So-Stuffy" Book Club. Kathy Leighton, the hostess, to the left.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leap Year

Signing at Longfellow Books, Portland, Maine. Photo by Berry Manter.
This day doesn't exist for the next three years, so it's important to take advantage of that fact and celebrate its appearance. It's a gray day in Maine. It's about to snow. But because it's tardy and after-the-fact, it won't last long, despite predictions of several inches of fluff and nonsense. It's as if winter overslept and woke up with a jolt, gasping, "Crap. I forgot to snow. Gotta get cracking."

So does anything I say or do today really count as my history, if this day doesn't exist three out of four times? Or is my entire history only valid during Leap Year?

Enough. The book is out, and I'm learning about readings, signings, and general marketing. I am grateful for so many things in my life, so many skills that I developed as I bumbled along without a clue. Seriously, I've never through, well, I'll do this, which will lead to this, and this, and finally, here I am, at my goal. Which was? To write a novel and to have it published. Although, frankly, that was a dream. So, what does one do when one has their dream come true, and how does that dream manifest itself in the reality of traveling to bookstores and libraries, and to book groups, and in talking with reporters?

The last bit about reporters, I'll tackle first. In a way, I'm in my element when talking to reporters, because I was one for several years. I was a terrible reporter because I'm naturally shy. Sometimes, neurotically shy. I'm also a Yankee, which means that I don't stick my nose into anyone's business. Asking questions makes me feel as if I'm Mrs. Krebs's cousin, peeking into her neighbor's windows to see if I can catch anyone wandering around in their underwear or doing something that could be construed as gossip-worthy. Anyway, I did learn how to answer questions, and how to edit myself, and to figure out what people are really asking, and so on. I enjoy interviews, actually, which surprises me. And it isn't as if what I'm doing is controversial and I have to defend myself. I'm a little middle-aged lady from Maine who wrote a book that appears to be doing well.

My sister and I at the book launch of the book, at the University of Southern Maine Bookstore.
Thanks to Barbara Kelly and staff. From the Maine Sunday Telegram. Photo by Judith Alessi O'Brien.  

Bookstores - oh how I love them. Independent bookstores that have survived the onslaught of box stores and seem to be thriving, in most cases. University of Southern Maine Bookstore, Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine, Gibson's Books in Concord, New Hampshire, Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick, Maine - and several more that I will be reading and signing at this summer, when I'll be back to cover the areas in Maine that are largely silent, except for the hardy residents that tough it out during this time of year. I acted for several years, so I have some experience in being in front of small and larger groups. I'm developing a reading persona. This persona speaks louder than normal (and singing helped me develop my diaphragm so that I can project), remembers to look at as many people as I can while reading, to bring out a little of each character, and to respect the pauses. This persona understands that smaller crowds have come out to hear the reading and are JUST as important as a larger group. A friend told me a story about Stephen King. When Carrie first came out, she put together an event for him. Seven people showed up, all family. Who shows up for a reading and how many is pretty much random. And each event at each store is carefully planned and wildly appreciated by the author. The potential is there to reach one person who needed to be reached in that minute, in that hour. You never know.

Book groups. I adore book groups. One, people have purchased and read the book and it can be discussed freely and openly, because there are no 'spoilers' that might give away too much during a reading. Discussions about why this or what that can take place without fear of taking up too much time. And there's usually wine and food. Which are good things Although, a fellow author and dear friend recently said that one should refrain from drinking on the job. It depends on how many friends are in the group in question, I think. One glass of wine generally puts me over the edge (I'm a cheap date) so that's actually really valid...The last time I was in Deadwood, South Dakota - well, what happens in Deadwood stays in Deadwood, I guess. Only the Bobster knows for sure what happened, and he maintains discretion in matters like this, which is one reason I adore Bob more than book groups.

The Patten Free Library in Bath, Maine. The statue in the pond is called Spirit of the Sea, by William Zorach. 
Libraries. I worked in a wonderful library - The Patten Free Library in Bath, Maine - for seven years. It changed my life. I was hired through a CETA program to be an assistant for a Reading is Fundamental program. Hired by a fiery, feisty, fierce little woman named Barbara King, who saw through my pathological shyness and general insecurity and believed in me enough to take me on. I will be grateful to her, all my life. I walked into a sanctuary almost every day and was embraced by books idling on the children's shelves and in the adult stacks. One day, I must have whispered, I will write a book that will be shelved in these stacks. People will take it out, hopefully enjoy it, and perhaps it will hold as much meaning for them as my special books did and still do for me. Tonight, I am going back to that library. Tonight, which only happens once every four years, I will read words I have written, inspired by a life I lived back in that small city and by the mix of characters I both loved and dealt with on a daily basis. Tonight, I will come home and I can only hope that they will take me in.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


Sunrise, Atlantic Ocean, East Coast. Photo copyright, Shannon Thorne. Simply Shannon
I arrived via Cesarean, delivered by a doctor named G.W. Twaddle, on January 12, 1952. That makes me 60 years old today. I am not sure of the fate of Dr. Twaddle, but I am thinking he may have departed this mortal coil in search of a more dignified name. Of course, no matter what his name, I am grateful for his help and his knowledge on how to deliver skinny, blue-tinged babies.

Sixty. I 'made it' to 60, as opposed to 'reaching' 50. If I'm lucky and lose about 20 pounds, I may 'hit' 70. After that, anything is fair game. My parents are both 84. That's remarkable. And they've been married 61, going on 62, years.

I don't feel physically different than I did yesterday, when I was 59, which somehow sounds like leftover age-gravy ready to be thrown out, anyway. Sixty actually sounds kind of perky, and I like the 'x' in the word. Words with the letter x in them are a little mysterious. Sphinx. Vortex. Xanadu. Lynx. Excalibur. Excuses. Excommunicate. Okay, some of them are mysterious. The others are based on ancient languages that exalted the 'x'. 

Pemaquid Point, Maine - Robert Clements Photo
It's storming outside today. I am living in a small apartment in the West End of Portland, Maine, looking out at the long-last-it's-freakin'-here snow and thinking about shoveling the car out. I will probably put this off for a long time. I wanted peace and quiet for my 'big' day, and I have it. Later, I will watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs and drink some red wine and think about angels.

Robert left a little over a week ago, headed for the prairie via airplane. I talk to him about four times daily on the phone, but it's not the same. He sent me beautiful roses for my birthday. They sit in the sink, staining the porcelain a brilliant scarlet, feathery leaves softening their thorns like tender, rail-thin fingers. I am wondering about vases, and cuttings, and rejoicing because although I miss the two flower-eating cats that prowl the gallery in Belle Fourche, they will not tear, nor attack the roses, stems, leaves, or anything connected with them. Rua, the dog, is not interested in roses, and Jessie, my beloved street cat, is sleeping, dodging the bullet of his terminally failing kidneys for a little while, at least. I miss the prairie, my partner, and the quiet. But I also love it here. Resources are available. There are ridiculous choices in fancy grocery stores. Restaurants. Current movies. The ocean. My family and East Coast friends.

Me in front of Pemaquid Lighthouse. Photo by Robert Clements
No matter where I am, Life is about to change, significantly. My book is being released in a couple of weeks. I will be reviewed, interviewed, viewed, and eschewed for about fifteen minutes. I have readings set up, will be giving at least one lecture, maybe two, have book club commitments, and will be applying for a fellowship at Breadloaf, thanks to the wonderful recommendation to them by someone who is incredibly kind to me. To say that I am reeling from all of this attention is a small thing. To say that I am grateful for the amazing support of people from all parts of my life, is a given. I am grateful, excited, and overwhelmed. To have created something that most people that read it (not all - see reviews. Oh well...) seem to like or even love, and something that someone will read after I have 'hit' seventy, and then, well why not - eighty and beyond - and started down the long, cane-riddled, blue-permed path to my eventual demise, gives meaning to me for why I existed at all. This is my paged-child, my eldest, my first-born. I will enjoy every minute of what will be happening, albeit quietly, because I am a Maine girl, and my mother would have my hide were I to get stuck on myself.

Pemaquid, Maine, January 2012. Photo by Robert Clements
So, if you see me acting dazed, understand that I have to grasp it all. I have to understand what it means. Process it. Shape a new paradigm for life. Punch-list the important things, and save the rest for later. Transmogrify (where is Hobbs when I need him most - love, Calvin). I am excited, exuberant, excellent, and teetering on the fact that something extraordinary has happened. I will take every next experience as it comes, and when it all becomes too much, I will go to the ocean to examine my smallness against the universe. I will think about the prairie sky and the grasses that roll on forever, and I will say to myself, "Sixty. Hmmm. You are sooooo young, under the sky and in front of the sea.  What's that sound? Are the waves laughing at me? Is the sky snorting? Is the grass giggling?"   Then it's all good. It's as it should be. And I'm humbled and happy that I was able to contribute a small part to the universal cha cha. Everyone...keep dancing.