Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A New Blog Challenge

I have a new blogging challenge to meet. We are going away to Maine. Will I be able to post, using the library computer? At first I thought I could write some paragraphs and have the man who will stay here post them for me, but I was afraid that would unduly complicate things for him.

I am taking these books:
An Alexander McCall Smith detective story, because a friend admires his work greatly and because she says it is fun to read
Anita Diamant, The Red Tent, because my daughter gave it to me after reading it herself and wants to know what I think of it
Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees – someone gave it to me with a strong recommendation, but I can’t remember who

Four books by and about Elizabeth Bishop – because I have to write a review of God and Elizabeth Bishop

We will stop at Borders in Bangor, and I will look for Winifred Gallagher, House Thinking, and Philip Zaleski, Prayer, because I read reviews that made them sound as if I might like them.

I will get some Brother Cadfael mysteries from the local library. They seem to have a complete collection.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Geography and Genealogy

Arab history as Yemenis know it is “history made not by the mind but by the heart, a history in which genealogy and geography…are all potent and alive in allusions and references contained in the language itself.” in a review by Jason Goodwin of Yemen, The Unknown Arabia.

This is also true of my personal history. I just received an e-mail from my brother. A year ago he bought a house. The e-mail says, “We have our very own ladyslipper in our yard!!!!...All I have to find is a cardinal flower.” The allusions are “potent and alive” for me. They refer to our walks in the woods with our aunt and to my brother’s special relationship with her (“my bum” she called him). The woods are vivid in my memory, even though they have long since been turned into house lots. Aunt Tempie had wild cardinal flowers in her yard, and when Robin bought his first house, thirty years ago, he transplanted one from her garden to his. It was his talisman. He left that house to live in parsonages, and now, retired, he has his own once again. Genealogy, geography. Once when my family and my father were taking a walk in the woods, he told them about petrified wood. My youngest son, about 3, spotted an old dog turd and exclaimed, “Look. Petrified poopoo.” If I were to say the phrase to my kids, they would immediately call to mind their grandfather, his way of lecturing, the woods, our family dynamics. My son recently started a list of phrases that have special meaning for our family, allusions that call to mind whole sets of experiences, words that are potent and alive.

There is an interesting post on writers’ spaces today on Tales from the Reading Room (see link.)

Sunday, May 28, 2006

A Fisherman

Seeking II

“Seek out that particular mental attribute which makes you feel most deeply and vitally alive, along with which comes the inner voice which says, ‘This is the real me,’ and when you have found that attitude, follow it.” William James

I am happiest when I am writing. I have an office at the top of the tower of a downtown Victorian house. When I am there, writing or reading or just thinking, I am happy and content, “deeply and vitally alive.” In the last few years, however, I have gone there seldom. Why? That is a question that I have no answer for. Every once in a while I think what a waste of our money and a waste of a wonderful space for an artist or writer who would really appreciate it. I say to myself, or to the owner of the gallery, that soon I will start coming in regularly. When? When I send off the novel I have been working on for the last 15 years? When it is warmer or it is cooler? When I don’t have any chores to do? I tell others that I don’t have the energy to start another novel. I am too old. I struggle for words. Maybe this blog will satisfy. At a book sale or a used book store, I see the thousands of discarded novels that no one will ever read again. The world doesn’t need another novel, at least one by a writer with mediocre talent. I do comfort myself with the analogy created by Jean Rhys, author of Wide Sargasso Sea. She likened all literature to a lake fed by small streams like her and mighty rivers like Shakespeare.

Saturday, May 27, 2006


“Seek out that particular mental attribute which makes you feel most deeply and vitally alive, along with which comes the inner voice which says, ‘This is the real me,’ and when you have found that attitude, follow it.” William James

I have reflected on the James’ quote often, and indeed this exercise of tracing my life is about the seeking. I feel alive when we go to our camp on a wild, huge lake. The landscape speaks to me, perhaps because when I was young, our vacations were always spent tenting beside the Mad River in the White Mountains. My father’s enthusiasm accounted for some of the pleasure. Every morning at dawn while my mother stayed in her warm bedroll, my brother, father and I would take a dip in the icy cold river. Robin and I were convinced that this was fun. We would then go back to our campsite, where my father would make a big breakfast on the fireplace. There would be softball games with the other tenters, outings to the Flume and to climb a smallish mountain, and campfires with my dad playing the guitar. My mother didn’t like tenting, so we knew we had to strive with all our might to make things easy for her. At first we would ride to the campground with a friend, but later we got a car of our own, a gray Plymouth. The front seat had no back so the passenger had to sit backwards. The back of the driver’s seat was held up by a kitchen chair. We had to stop at every brook along the way to put water in the radiator. My father had grown up poor and without a mother, and yet somehow he became an optimist, always ready to tackle any problem with energy and confidence. My brother and I became optimists too. Some weeks after my mother died, my father said, “Your mother thought I could do anything, and I didn’t want to disappoint her.”

Optimism is the mental attribute that sustains me. A certain landscape of woods and water feeds me.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Coming Home

In our graduate student housing was a young Central American woman, who through an improbable set of circumstances, had married a wealthy and sophisticated European. As she explained to me, she herself had come from a poor background. When her son developed an ear ache, I drove her to our pediatrician, a professor in the Medical School. He prescribed an antibiotic. The next day I noticed that the little boy had a clove of garlic on a string around his neck. His mother said, sheepishly, that she didn’t want to take any chances. I knew how she felt because I myself did then -- and still do -- practice what most people would regard as superstitions when it comes to the welfare of my children.

Not long ago I read that you never really feel at home in a foreign land until you trust the doctors. One January night four months after we arrived in New Brunswick, I felt contractions with my third child. It was snowing, and so even though we were less than a mile from the hospital, to be on the safe side Bill drove me to the hospital. After the obstetrician had examined me, the nurse told me not to worry about the storm because the doctor was going to sleep at the hospital. I had been in this foreign country for only four months, but at that moment I felt I had come home.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Road I Found Myself On

While I have been tracing my life along its road, I realized there were three crucial turns. I set out on a road my parents hadn’t planned for me and that I never envisaged for myself. This change in the road I would take happened in the space of a few weeks. My high school English teacher persuaded my parents to send me to Mount Holyoke College. She arranged an interview well after the admission deadline, and I am sure that she had a hand in getting me a scholarship. My first year there was a revelation. That is not just hyperbole. I did feel that my whole way of thinking had been reorganized through the books I studied – Before Philosophy, Patterns of Culture, the work of TS Eliot, for example, through the lectures, and especially by the professors pushing us hard. No easy writing was tolerated. I remember one comment especially from that first year, by my freshman English professor, Miss Brock: “This is intolerably slovenly.” The comment referred not only to my hideous handwriting, but to my disorganized, slapdash thinking and my sloppy writing. Up until then I had got by on my natural wits, but after that first year, I learned to struggle, learned that even with these wits, nothing would come easy.

The major left turn in the road was the birth of our first child. The third was really a fork in the road, our decision to come to New Brunswick. The decision was agonizing, but this city turned out to be the perfect spot for us as a family and for me especially. It was as if God had created a place just for me and in an unlikely move, conspired to set me down in it. Landing here fulfilled a prophecy that came in a favorite song my dad, my brother and I would sing: I found “a spot that’s known to God alone.”

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Dancing in Boetia

The unformed has a grace that the fully-formed rejects.
The May birch tree with mouse ear leaves,
the sun groping its way over the line of day,
the tip of an image as it teases the mind,
are three Graces, dancing in Boetia,
white tulle floating,
wrists turned slightly outward.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Complaining Boethius

Before I started on the previous blog, I hadn’t remembered how strongly influenced I had been by Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. I hadn’t re-read it for many years, so I got it out to read again. I wish I could find the journal I kept while I was reading it for the first time – it is there in the bowels of the house somewhere. What was I thinking then? How did I manage to slog through the wordiness of the allegory, with Philosophy as a woman holding a dialogue with poor complaining Boethius. I hadn’t remembered that Philosophy had banished the Muses of poetry who stood beside Boethius as he wrote his petulant poetry. Did I give up writing poetry because of this? I can’t remember, but maybe as I am re-reading it, I can recapture specifically what influenced me.

Monday, May 22, 2006

An Answer

I am reading Peter Short's new book, Outside Eden, so that I can write a short review of it for our church newsletter. Peter is on leave from our church because he was elected the moderator of the United Church of Canada. I read this on page 71, "We don't go to church because God is present there. We go to church because in most of our experience, most of the time, God is absent. Oh, there is the rare and stunning moment God's appearing in the landscape of the day, but it is a brief and passing moment. "

Sunday, May 21, 2006

How Do You Fill a God Hole?

Both my brother and I inherited a God hole from my mother’s father. About 1960 my brother received the call to become a minister. He wrote about this call in a poem titled “Softly.” “Softly, almost unnoticed, the spirit of Christ/ Enters and becomes. No hysteric act displays itself/ His coming unto us/…Jesus enters softly.”

I thought that if my beloved Robin was going to devote his life to the church, I should support him if I could. A year or so later, the local Methodist minister came to visit – he was visiting all the people in our apartment complex – and found me reading John Wesley’s biography. Soon I too was involved with the church. I’ve been attending church since then, although there was a period from 1965 until about 1975 when my attendance was sporadic but still faithful.

I can’t say that the church has been much influence on my religious life. Only occasionally do I feel there as if I am in the presence of God. Just once has Communion constituted a religious experience for me, and that was when Robin led a Watch Night service in our village church. Why then do I attend? I don’t know.

I had an intense period of reading religious books, from about 1965 until about 1990. My religious experiences have come often when I am either reading or writing. I was profoundly moved and changed by reading Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. I have led my life under its guidance ever since. Reading W.E. Hockings’ The Meaning of God in Human Experience changed the way I think of the world, of God and especially of what happens after death. I studied the Bible, read Biblical scholarship, and read works by the Mystics. About 1990 one of our ministers, Rod Sykes, led a seminar on the Reign of God, and that became a huge part of my thinking.

All my novels use a religious a structure but not an obvious one. (No one, not even a reviewer, has mentioned such a structure.) Flora used the Book of Revelations for its structure as written about in Farrer’s The Rebirth of Images. Wise-Ears used the Book of Proverbs. The Opening Eye and Samara used the first part of the Book of Acts. The Irrational Doorways used the Book of Acts and others of Paul’s writings. The current, unpublished novel, Temple House, uses what I can grasp of the Reign of God.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Teenage Revelations?

I have been away from this blog for 12 days, getting some manuscripts together, reading a friend’s manuscript of a novel, other such activities. I can see that it would be better to have something ready to plug in when life gets busy.

So, back to trying to trace my way from birth to find out what makes me tick. When I was in my young teens, I had two revelations about myself, both of which I remember very well, and I am now pondering them. When I was about 12, my best friend left my house, saying she was never coming back again because I was so bossy. We had been playing in the upstairs part of our livery stable which I had turned into the “Hubba Hubba Night Club.” The people who had previously owned the house had left behind several trunks with beautiful old gowns, strange hats, a Gibson girl jacket and high heel shoes, in which Eleanor and I would dress up. In these outfits we would sing and dance. I would make up scenarios which we would act out. I know she had a wonderful time, as did I. After she left that day, I was heartsick. I thought about what she had said. I talked it over with my mother and determined that yes, I was too bossy and I would have to change. This bossiness, this knowing that I am right, has been my ongoing fault, one I still wrestle with all these 60 years later.

Two years later I had another revelation about myself. A girl, a year younger than I, moved to our little village from a southern state. She conceived a crush on the older boy I too had a crush on. He obviously liked her too. She was not only pretty, but she was flirtatious and exotic, and of course had a charming southern accent. I was desperate. I said to her that a certain other boy in town would be a wonderful catch because he was the star of the high school football team. I was sure this would tempt her, and sure enough, it did. She set her sights on him and caught him, leaving poor Rick to grieve (and still not give me the time of day). The revelation to me was how well my strategy worked, how well I understood how to manipulate her. I remember that I found that power scary, but also I was proud that I could figure out how to manipulate her. Later I resolved that I had to use this gift, for that was what I considered it (and still do), for good. I think (maybe I am under a false illusion) that I often know what to say to make someone feel better, to encourage them, and yet still be completely honest. Another aspect of this gift is that people often think I am naive, gullible, because I am quiet abut what they are telling me. Often someone will tell me a story which I realize is untrue, and yet they think I am being hornswoggled. I am pretty sure I know when someone is inadvertently hurting someone else’s feelings, so this gift is also a burden. It is, however, something a writer of fiction needs – to be able to figure out motives and temptations and inner feelings. I think I have passed on this gift to my children.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Body and Soul II

I wanted a baby very much, and a miscarriage gave me a melodramatic fear that I couldn't have one. When I did get past the first 3 months, I was happy, but then I began to worry about all the things that could go wrong. When the baby was born, I felt, for the first time, the presence of God. It was as if the air had become thick with this presence, and I thought to myself, in wonder and gratitude, God is present at my baby's birth. At that moment this presence seemed to say to me, Having a baby is a sacred trust. I have wondered ever since what that experience really did mean. Did it mean only that some kind of physical change had taken place inside me--some release of endorphins perhaps or a flood of hormones? Was I just imagining the whole thing? Do I now remember incorrrectly? Or was indeed God present that July evening in Waterbury Connecticut?

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Body and Soul

In 1963, when I was seven months pregnant with our second child, my three year old son and I had rabies vaccinations, 14 shots, one a day, in the muscle of the abdomen. The doctor explained that these were exceptionally painful shots. Bill and I felt terrible that our son had to undergo the ordeal. For me far worse than the pain was the worry about what these shots were doing to my unborn baby. The doctor said that he doubted whether anyone in my condition had ever had these shots, so although he could assure me that there would be no side effects for my son, he couldn’t give any such assurance about the baby.

A month and half later, the obstetrician told me that the baby was going to come earlier than the October 26 due date. Four weeks passed, the doctor seemed perplexed that the baby hadn’t come, and I was growing more worried by the hour.

On the night of November 17, when the baby was 23 days overdue, at one of the lowest points in my life, we heard a woman screaming. My husband went outside to see what was the matter. He came back to tell me that the police had arrived.

We went to bed, but I couldn’t sleep. After awhile, a scene presented itself to me. Bill, our son and I were coming into my mother-in-law’s kitchen. I could smell the perking coffee, Mrs. Bauer was hugging us, my father-in-law was beaming. They were exclaiming how well we all looked and how big Ernie had grown. It was a scene that had been enacted several times, so I could have been recalling the memory, or could have been recreating it in my imagination, or could even have been asleep, dreaming. But that is not what was happening as I lay there in despair that November night in North Carolina. No, I was wide awake, I was actually there in the kitchen, and I could feel my mother-in-law’s joy at our arrival. I could really smell the coffee, I felt enveloped and comforted by Mrs. Bauer’s radiant love, a palpable presence. I relaxed and went to sleep, and several hours later woke up with the happy realization that I was having labour pains.

Grace was born at 9 that morning. Student nurses were present, and their professor was teaching them how to do the APGAR check list for newborns. I heard her describe to the students each part of the baby, and then I heard her say, "This is unusual. She has a perfect score — ten!"

The Holy Spirit, whatever it is, was present to me that night: present in my body and in my soul.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Body and Head II

I took typing in high school but only for a few months because the guidance counselor called me in and suggested I withdraw. My typing grade would pull my average down too far, he said, and I wouldn’t get into college. I was getting 9 out of 100. However in that short time, I learned the basics of touch typing, very useful. I still make many mistakes, but the advent of the computer has mitigated that.

I was ten when an adult commented on how much my shoulder blades stuck out. That got me wondering if I could use them to fly. I stood on the stone wall and jumped off, waggling the bones, over and over. I wasn’t disappointed; I just thought, Well it was worth a try.

All of this does mean that my head rules my body completely – it is a tyrant really. I wonder if that is true for everyone to the same extent. I think of my body as the thing that holds up my head. If my head deems it necessary, my body will stand pain and fatigue quite graciously. I can sit for hours waiting patiently if need be, not needing a book to amuse me, just amusing myself in my head.

In fact as I’ve been writing on this blog, this attempt to figure how I’ve become what I am, I have realized the extent to which my brain is supreme. I can’t understand why people willingly risk life and head to do extreme sports, activities that seem to accomplish little of worth: driving racing cars, doing somersaults on skis, going up in a hang glider. On the other hand, I love to watch the amazing feats of baseball infielders – stunning catches and double plays. When I was asked who I would choose to be if I weren’t me, I said, “Shaquille O’Neal”; I’ve given my computer his name. I once saw the shortstop Ozzie Smith leap sideways to catch a ball, body stretched out straight. How I wish I could do that. I can imagine what it must feel like to make a fantastic basketball pass – so quick, so instinctive, no interference from the tyrant brain.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Body and Head

I was in the Methodist Youth Fellowship. Every teen in our village was. We joined the Greater Lowell girls’ basketball church league, and because there were so few girls in our MYF, I got to play. My parents purchased a protective mask for my glasses – thick leather and heavy iron, like half an old-fashioned catcher’s mask, the only one of it kind in the league. The mask and my extreme lack of athletic grace made me stand out in the crowd. I hadn’t known this at the time, but a year later I was at Mount Holyoke College when another girl who had been in the league, playfully told me why she recognized me immediately. At MHC we had to take physical education for two years. We had our choice of activities, and one semester she and I took Modern Dance. One at a time we were to leap across the gym floor in Martha Graham style, and as I was finishing I looked up to see my friend and others laughing uncontrollably, and the realization came to me that I was a comic figure indeed. Strange to say, I never minded these indignities. I always tried hard and I wanted to win, but I wasn’t sad about my lack of ability.

My parents bought me skis one Christmas, but I seldom used them because I had so little fun, spending most of the time trying to get up from the snow after I’d fallen. I would come home soaked. Skating was painful – my ankles and face ached, and there again I spent most of the time getting up off the ice.

My father was a powerful swimmer – he told us of his many feats, swimming across a large lake, winning races. He had been a swimming instructor and a lifeguard. He tried hard to teach me to swim the conventional way, but he couldn’t. So he cleverly devised a stroke I could manage. This stroke amused onlookers. I complained to my father that my brother was allowed to go swimming alone at an age a year earlier than I had been allowed, but after he explained why, I didn’t argue further, because I could see it pained him to have to tell me that Robin was a strong swimmer and I wasn’t. I don’t think I ever really minded not being graceful and athletic. Somehow my parents had brought me up to be comfortable in my own skin, at least in that regard. In the physical aspects of life that really count, I do fine – had my three babies easily, breast-fed them easily. I’ve been healthy all my life – just one bout of pneumonia and one small cancer removed from my breast put me in the hospital.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Kids' War

We kids enthusiastically played a part in the war effort. We learned to weave tubes of yarn using an empty thread spool with four nails pounded in the top. I don’t know what use was made of these tubes. Bill knitted squares to make afghans for the war refugees, so perhaps there was a way to make afghans out of the tubes.

We had scrap metal and newspaper drives. We saved tin foil. I’ve wondered if any of that was ever used. We collected milkweed pods to use in life preservers in place of scarce kapok. The pods were hung in mesh onion bags on the bars holding up the school swings. I have wondered if indeed the pod floss was used instead of kapok. Just now I googled and sure enough, 25 million pounds of pods were collected in 1944 and 1945 to use in the preservers because the Japanese had overrun the islands where kapok was grown. Now milkweed floss is used as a substitute for goose down.

One of my household chores during the war was coloring the margarine. It was white, but there was a little button of yellow dye, which I kneaded evenly throughout the margarine.

We chanted derogatory rhymes about the enemy in the school yard.

One of the young men in the village was a prisoner of war. When he came home, we had a parade to honor him. The parade consisted of most of the people in the village gathering at the train station, walking up School Street to Main Street, and thence to the church where a program was held. The kids decorated their bikes and their doll carriages. I used the incident in a novel, and now I can’t distinguish my memory of what actually happened from what I imagined. My father had been a Boy Scout leader, and the released prisoner had been in his troop before the war. He was called “Cap’n” even then, I can’t remember why. My father remembered how dogged Cap’n had been in getting his badges, how he would come sit on our doorstep at daybreak until my father came out to go to work, or come sit there waiting for him to get home, in order to get help with the badge requirements. When he came back from the war, he came to visit my father to express his appreciation. I can’t remember anything about the visit. I wish now that I had talked later to my father about it. Had his Boy Scout training help him to survive?

Monday, May 01, 2006

Running Away

I see that I can better recall memories when I can situate myself in one of our nine houses. We were in the last house, the one we bought, the day that my friend Ellie and I helped our mutual friend, Ava, she of the unfair fight, run away. She was going to leave her mother’s apartment in the “The Tenement” to go live with her father. The Tenement, so called by everyone, was the only apartment house in our village. To live there was to be known to be poor.

While Ava’s mother was away, Ellie and I went to the apartment and took away Ava’s clothes, including a “teddy bear” coat. We were to deposit them at her friend’s house on the other side of the village. We were walking up Main St., when we met an adult, who quizzed us about what we were doing. We said that someone had given us the clothes for the church rummage sale. “They gave you a teddy bear coat?” he said, skeptically.

That night Ava was to sleep on the roof of a shed, and in the morning she was going to catch the train to her father’s. About 10 PM, my mother came upstairs to tell me that Ava’s older brother had just been there. Ava had run away from home, and they were looking for her. Their dog came right to our house, but my mother explained that Ava wasn’t here, that our cocker spaniel Tinker was in heat and that was why their dog had made a beeline. Ava did take the morning train to Lowell, but she wasn’t gone long.

She and her mother moved away a few years later. One summer day when I was in college, perhaps five years later, she and her mother stopped in. Ava was married and looked astoundingly matronly. Her mother wouldn’t agree to sit down or have a cup of tea. When Ava started to talk, her mother said, “Nancy isn’t married, so you shouldn’t talk to her about such things.” I used this memory in a novel.