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longing

quince

Over the weekend a friend invited me to make quince jam.  Quince,  I learned, is a “pome” fruit, a cousin of the apple and pear.  Some believe  it was the quince and not the apple Eve plucked in the garden, the quince and not the “golden apple” at the heart of the Trojan War.  Most Colonial gardens had quince trees.  Quince fruit is loaded with pectin but labor-intensive to access.  As soon as modernity figured out how to manufacture pectin, the virtues of quince fell away, and now it’s rare to find a quince tree growing in backyard gardens.  It’s an old story.

While the fruits in a bowl can fragrance a whole room, they’re too tough and sour to eat and need to be cooked.

Every year, in remembrance of her mother, my friend cooks up a batch or two of quince jam using her mother’s handwritten recipe.  This method requires more than twenty-four hours– day one you cook down the fruits and strain them through cheesecloth; the next day you boil the juice with sugar until it sheets in the right viscosity.  Although quince meat is white, once you process it for jam it blooms first a salmon color, and then the most gorgeous shade of amber.

I was honored at the invite to participate in this autumnal ritual, a tender communion between mother and daughter.  At the bottom of the page, faded and water-marked through years of use, her mother had drawn a little heart.

At our house, we try not to gobble up our preserved fruits too quickly.  It’s important, in March especially, to have access to a jar of peaches put up during summer’s heat.  To remember standing next to the tree and eating the perfect one.  We picked it, rubbed the surface gently to stand down the fuzz.  Golden and red, neither mealy nor too hard, the juice dripped everywhere.

As it always does, canning strikes me as an activity as much about celebration as it is about longing.  We gorge and revel in the fruits of our labors and that of others.  And yet there’s palpable yearning in our efforts – all those brilliantly colored jars are sense memories of summers recent and past.  We are desperate to preserve these as we steel ourselves for the dark season, for the uncertain future.  The inherent hope present in germination, the thrill and sometimes defeat of the growing season, the labor and satisfaction of harvest, the reflection necessary to begin the cycle again as we put up jars and save seeds:  These are the elements of stories that resonate.

I’ve had my head lost in writing fiction lately (thus, the radio silence here), so longing has been on my mind more than usual.  My characters are a lot pulsing with yearning, desperate in their quest for it; they make messes everywhere, then shamble through the messes they’ve made, hoping, still, they’ll get at least some flint of their desires.

Emily Dickinson, fond of the gardening metaphor, wrote about longing in far fewer words than I’ve used here. I would’ve like to sit down over toast and preserves with Emily.  After, we’d walk out to the garden and noodle about a place for a quince tree to live in our tiny orchard.

Longing is like the Seed

That wrestles in the Ground,

Believing if it intercede

It shall at length be found.

The Hour, and the Clime-

Each Circumstance unknown,

What Constancy must be achieved

Before it see the Sun!

*This is supposed to be two stanzas.  The first ends after “found,” but  I can’t drive the formatting well enough to make it look that way.  Apologies to Emily.

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light

Early this summer I packed up my bookshelves, preparing to move again, though only a few miles away this time.  Each move, I designate a special box of books I unpack first where I’m going.  My old friends.  Rick Bass and Kent Haruf, Barbara Kingsolver and Jane Austen, Zola and Hurston, Steinbeck, Ron Carlson, Elizabeth Gilbert, Annie Proulx.

This move, before I closed the box lid and taped it shut, I added one more friend:  Anthony Doerr’s newest novel, All The Light We Cannot See.

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It’s important to note before I say anything else that I’ve been a Doerr fan for years.  His short stories are the sort, like Faulkner’s, that stun and sting, surprising and sharp.  Visceral.  You cannot shake the watermark of them.  This latest Doerr work is a complicated arc of character and time, swooping between years before and during WWII and among characters on both sides of that conflict.

At the heart of the novel is the pulse of radio, a tool that comes to mean emotional and intellectual desire, and how and whether one pursues and uses it.  Radio in Doerr’s pages means yearning for innocence and family.  Radio is a tool used for savage murder.  Each sentence crafted, a surprise, the language exquisite and rich, Doerr’s prose reads like poetry.

The story is complicated, full of characters working to survive.  Marie-Laure’s father, the principal locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, teaches her how to survive blindness.  She learns to navigate in their flat with the aid of twine and bells.  She learns to navigate the streets by first memorizing a scale model her father builds out of wood.  She learns Braille, and thereby learns to navigate the world of fiction and the human thrum of yearning, adventuring with Nemo Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  Despite these skills, and though she is raised up intellectually by her father and Dr. G. at the museum, Marie-Laure is sheltered and must ultimately navigate a war-ravaged terrain alone.

Werner, an orphan in a coal mining town, has early survival built into his existence. A proclivity for math and electronics leads him to be chosen to attend an elite Nazi school just before the war begins, a boon and a curse, although he does not yet know it.  He will not have to work in the mines like all men before him, like his father who died far below the ground; he will do something much worse.  Early on, we see that Frau Elena and Werner’s sister Jutta guide his heart, act as his moral compass, present in Jutta’s refrain, later echoed by Werner’s friend Frederick:  Is it right to do something because everyone else is doing it? 

The way we use and harness light and energy, and the miracle of what we can do for and against each other, is present on every page of the novel.  Blind Marie-Laure cannot see light, and yet she can:  people, events, and sound have color for her—the world is sensorially rich, fully tactile, layered with meanings.  From within her emanates an energy vibrant enough that Werner, when he sees her on the street, cannot help but mark her gait and her aura, and also remember it.  And Werner, too, possesses a special vitality– his shock of white hair, tiny stature and early ability to solve complicated triangulated problems are an engine within him.

Marie-Laure and Werner are not the only ones compelled by fierce energy.  There’s an insistence of self-preservation in every character Doerr unspools, the desires of each glinting like so many facets of the Sea of Flames diamond Marie-Laure’s father tries to protect and the Nazi Von Rumpel risks everything to obtain.  Von Rumpel is Nero here, racing against the clock of war and the sentence of his own terminal illness, and yet his maniacal pursuit is one a reader recognizes.  For who hasn’t been terrified of death and wished to live forever?  To find the Holy Grail? To shout over the rooftops of the world, even if it is crumbling?

By the time these three lives collide in Saint-Malo, for of course they must, the race to save what each cherishes most puts a reader at the top of the narrative scaffolding Doerr has so intricately assembled.  It’s a delicious tableau:  A gem seeker who’s abandoned all sense of humanity, a girl with nothing left but her hope that humanity still exists, a boy who understands, finally, that he’s forsaken his heart for his mind.

I couldn’t help but think about the artist behind the crafting of such work.  My own stories are often dark, full of doomed folk, the creative effort behind them infected with a baseline Eeyoreness I work hard to inject with any kind of hope.  Yet hope is an undercurrent I look for in the work of others, because who wants to read a story about all the useless desires that elude us?

Anthony Doerr understands how to tell a story we want to read.  More than that, I think his secret might be a fundamental hopefulness in human nature.  How else could he have tackled the dark torment of the Holocaust and nonetheless, what rises to the surface is a world emanating with the light of kindnesses, of bravery, of love?

Doerr talks about the inspiration for his story here in a Powell’s interview.

And also here:

 

 

 

 

 

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resurrection

As she often does, in her latest story “The Resurrections” published at Terrain, Heather E. Goodman writes about complicated relationships that are real, gritty, honest.  Her characters muck around in each other’s hearts and on the land, aiming for grace, yearning to be understood, seeking forgiveness and sometimes getting it.  There’s palpable tenderness rising up out of this hardscrabble life etched by a series of deaths.

The narrator grieves the death of his wife Elna, of his father, of the business he and his father built together, of his youth and the loss of a young man’s full life.  “The Resurrections” isn’t a long story, but it’s stitching is both intricate and simple, giving the impression that Goodman knows exactly what it’s like to be a grieving widower, an older man on a threshold between a past he can’t do anything about and the awakening knowledge that he’s got enough life left in him to hope for the future.

Goodman’s prose is spare, always, and prismed here with the flinty winter landscape and a friendship that resolves to thaw itself nonetheless.  Even the animals have agency and longing, evident in the hound dog Beagle who can’t seem to help digging up his dead friend Smokey, a cat.

Delicious fiction.  Read it.  It’s the sort of story you’ll carry with you.

 

 

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billy and the band

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This summer John and I gave in to the siren call of buying a log built home on an acre.  A project house, a blank slate of a place, it’s too small, has poorly insulated doors and windows, and lacks reasonable cooling (which is to say, it has none) and heating (which is to say, it has a tiny woodstove and electric baseboard heaters we’re not sure work).  We nonetheless fell in love with its possibility.

For Riley, the cabin fulfills a few wishes.  She’ll get to raise animals, have her pick of climbing trees, eat fruit she picks herself, go wading in the small irrigation stream in the back.

The first time we showed the place to Owen, he stood next to the car shaking his head.  “I mean, all that looking around and this is what you chose?  I’m confused.”   Our choice was further evidence that his parents are nutjobs, that he was switched somehow at birth and got taken home with what he calls “hygienic hippies” instead.  Owen wanted a pool, a media room, a hot tub, a house that said “Wow” from the street.

Early summer was long and lovely and mild, the perfect conditions in which to move ourselves just the few miles with hundred of trips in our pickup truck and some help from a band of teenage boys.  Owen’s friends are much more willing helpers than he is, for which we’re grateful.  In addition to a growing curiosity about his real birth parents, Owen is newly in love, and therefore anything we ask him to do is half completed in a hot rush, one eye on the clock, while he counts the minutes and seconds until he can be reunited with his gal pal.  When they cannot be together, there is furious love-struck texting, and also more than a little staring off into the middle distance, deep in thought.  He wants to be fully independent and stay out at night as late as he likes.  He wants to bring five friends home for dinner with five minute’s notice.  He wants to go camping with a pack of boys and girls and no chaperones, burn huge bonfires in the desert, wear a LOT of cologne.

This territory is new for all of us and seemed to come all at once.  He can hardly have a conversation, changes clothes three times a day, and takes a lot of showers.  We like his gal pal quite a bit; she’s genuine, helpful, a good friend to him.  John and I do remember how all-consuming teen desires of any kind are, which helps us dread the brain-damaged condition we’re all going to have to suffer through for the next few years.  We remember enough to be a anxious about Owen’s choices in his Technicolor love haze.

“Give me a break,” Owen tells us when we talk about not getting carried away in love. “You’re in love too, you know.  With LAND.”  As if it’s a bad thing.

Many days, the new house is too small for Owen and me, so I spend a lot of time outside on the LAND, which I do, I must confess, love.

Anyway, by day three in the cabin I realized the back pasture’s thigh-high grass needed attention.  On Craigslist I found a goat wrangling schoolteacher with a hobby farm a few towns over, so I called him and asked him to bring me some professional eaters, which he did.  The next day our new Nubian friends pulled up to the house in the bed a tiny pick-up truck .  A mother goat and twin kids, a boy and a girl about four months old.  They’d been on the freeway and caused quite a ruckus among drivers, but when they arrived the goats eyed us from the back of the truck, chewing rhythmically on some hay, and didn’t seem too worse for the wear.

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The wrangler stepped out of the cab.  He wore workout clothes, a pair of Nikes, a baseball cap.  I’d expected him to show up wearing, um, goat wrangling clothes, and then realized I had no idea what that attire would be.

“That’s Cooper, the mom,” the wrangler said, “and Coeur d’Alene, the girl; and Preston, the boy. We name all our goats after places.”

Riley and I sat on the tailgate.  The goats nuzzled our hands from the truck’s bed and leaned their foreheads into our chests.

“I just banded Preston,” the wrangler said, “so he might not feel too well for a few days.”  He took some leashes from his cab and reached to clip one to each goat’s dog collar.

I had no idea what he was talking about.  “You did what?”

“See that rubber band back there?”  I maneuvered to look at Preston’s backside and spied a green rubber band wrapped around the top of his testicles.  “It takes the Billy out of his Billy, if you know what I mean.  Last thing you want is a Billy around.  Doesn’t really hurt, just tingles a little.  Should dry up and fall off in a few days.”

Though I had just met the wrangler, I said something about how great it would be if it was that easy to take the Billy out of some human males, remembering John’s post-Billy-surgery-drama-queenness.  The frozen bags of corn and peas. I thought of Owen’s burgeoning Billy, and also wondered how anyone could possibly know that for a goat, having a rubber band cutting off the blood to its Billy did nothing more than tingle.

We stood quietly a moment.  “Wait,” I said.  “Which thing falls off?  The Billy or the rubber band?”

“You’ll see,” he said.  “You can call me if there’s a problem.”

We put the three goats on leashes and took them into the pasture and let them go.

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Preston licked at his backside and then laid down by the gate while Cooper and Cordy wandered off.

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We watched them browsing in their new salad bar, and by the time the wrangler was ready to leave, Riley and I were decidedly smitten.

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It’s been two months, long enough for us to train the goats to come when we call.  They follow us around in the pasture, nudging our hands for kitchen scraps, putting their front feet onto our chests to make sure we’re not concealing anything.  When it’s hot, they lie together under a big spruce at the corner of the property, just opposite the fence from our neighbor’s chickens, who lean against the fence from their own side, close enough to touch their goat pals.  They’re fast friends, which has given life to a habit of breaking property lines to be together.  Once, my neighbor found the goats inside his chicken run, where they ate all the chicken feed and then laid down with the chickens.  A few days later, the hens were in our back pasture, trailing the goats and chortling to one another in chicken speak about what good fun a day visiting friends was.  They put themselves to bed later in the evening.

We’ve spent a lot of time shoring up fencing, hoping each time we’ve succeeded in preventing their next houdinied adventure.

All summer we waited for Preston to lose whatever it was he was going to lose in only a few days.  We called the wrangler once to ask why it was taking so long and got another cryptic answer:  “Sometimes it does,” he said.  In the background I could hear a chicken laying an egg, a lawnmower, some kids yelling.  Riley and I decided to resist asking Uncle Google what to do, and instead, we just waited.

Preston, his Billy perpetually shriveling but not falling off, spent the summer trying to work out what it all meant.  At dusk, he’d run up to his mother and nurse furiously for a minute, then canter spastically toward his sister Cordy and mount her until Cooper bleated at him to stop, at which point he’d run in zig-zags, until they were all sprinting back and forth along the fence line, tossing their ears.

Summer’s pretty much over as far as the kids are concerned.  Owen’s still with his gal pal.  Though John and I are bold in our conversations about how it’s possible to be in love and also make smart choices, we’re terrified of Owen’s Billy being in the driver’s seat of decision making.

Last week Owen and I were in the way back diverting water into the pasture.  He’s been much more willing to help than I imagined, and I’m tickled.  The goats were with us, using one of the fence posts to stretch up into the leafy branches of a locust and eat.  Their appetite is like nothing I’ve seen; it beats even a band of teenaged boys after swim practice.  Owen and I stood in the knee-high stream in our rubber boots, watching the water find its way through the grass in the pasture.

“Isn’t water games so much better than a media room?” I asked.

He shook his head, smiled, offered a clutch of mint to Preston, who nibbled on it, jerking his head to keep it away from Cordy.

I leaned down to check out the status of Preston’s rubber band, finding nothing at all.  All of it had fallen off, both the Billy and the band.  I patted his head and asked him if he felt better, if he’d even noticed that he was newly unencumbered.

“Poor guy,” Owen said.  He stepped out of the water, and Preston sniffed his pockets and put his front legs up on Owen’s chest.  “Wasn’t really a fair fight, was it, Bud?”

I opened my mouth to seize the opportunity to have another TALK about inhabiting the world of love while also making good choices.  But my boy was in galoshes, mucking around with me in the pursuit to divert water, and he was pretty good humored about it, for once.  And already, I was seriously at risk of being the dog whistle he couldn’t hear, so I let it lie.

Owen patted his pocket for the appendage of his phone, then looked toward the house.  “So.  We’re done here?” he asked.  “I’m going to do that thing in a while?”

“Sure.  Thanks for the help.”

I bit my tongue against all the cautionary words to live by, the pearls of wisdom gleaned from my own near-misses and hard lessons, the ever-present feed of news informing new pitfalls for youth.  He wouldn’t have heard me anyway.  Already gone, Owen walked back to the house, sloshing through the water-soaked pasture, his head bent into texting while the goats trotted along behind him.

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lemon queen

This spring has been full of firsts.  Spotting meadowlarks and mountain bluebirds.  Watching a pair of screech owls raise their clutch. Rescuing a kitten from the engine of my car (a story on its way in another post) that rode around smashed on top of the manifold for at least 75 miles and lived to tell about it.

Of course, the explosion of life in the natural world is largely about work done behind the scenes beforehand, which is the case with so many other things, and also with fiction.

Blue Earth Review has been kind enough to say yes to publishing “The Lemon Queen” in their latest Spring Issue, Volume 12.  As always, I’m deeply grateful and tickled that another creation is out in the world.

BER Volume 12

 

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screech

For the last few months, I’ve been watching a pair of small owls hunting at dusk in the neighborhood.

While they’ve spent the bulk of their early evening hunts flying into and out of the horse chestnut tree across the street, the pair seems especially to hanker for mice in the backyard next door.  That house is empty, the yard a brown tangle of beds gone fallow and some iron monkey bar-looking structures.  From the back deck, while I’ve watched the owls’ tandem swoops in the gloaming, I’ve come to know their calls to each other.  The lilting tremolo, the barking chuck, the soft hoots.

Early last week I was in the backyard watering when I heard a low, bouncing whinny.  It was mid-day.  I looked up into the maple and spied a grayish mass on one branch, roughly the size of a housecat, and thought maybe Arturo, bigger than ever, had reasserted himself as the squirrel yard boss.  But it was no rodent squatting on the branch of the maple. It was three screech owlets who sat huddled together, their feathers still a tufted, downy gray.  They sat blinking sleepily, leaning against one another while I had a proper look at them and while their parents stood guard not too far away, chirping at them, no doubt, not to engage with the human.

Over the course of last week the babies filled out.  Their feathered ear tufts darkened a little and their yellow eyes remained open much of the day.  I stood below their roost and made conversation while they stared unblinking, occasionally responding by swaying and bobble-heading, trying to get a bead on what sort of threat I was.

In the scheme of their life span, the owlets are pre-pubescent.  After they hatch, they learn everything they need to know in five weeks.  This week they are awake much of the day, begging to get off their branch and go do something even though the sun is high.  The adults admonish, hush them by cleaning their feathers, let them shuffle to another branch, maybe chirp at the squirrels who roughhouse nearby.  Sometimes the owlets split up and sit alone.  From where I stand on the ground, I can’t tell the adults from their young now.  They blink down at me, unfazed.  They’ve got my number.

Aware that I’m at risk of sentimental anthropomorphizing, I know their presence in town is just nature adapting. Still, I feel lucky they’ve chosen our tree in which to spend their days, and even luckier that I can witness them leave this perch to go hunting.  Well before dusk the owlets register their discontent, flap their wings, peck at each other.  In the loud correction of the adults there is exasperation, as if to say, “We are sit-and-wait predators.  When you can perfect that, we’ll see about driving.”

A half hour or so after the sun goes down, one of the adults leaves first and flies to the fence and then calls for the owlets to stay behind.  There’s a lot of thrashing and tomfoolery in the branches.  The babies fight, fidget, bark out into the night for the adults. They want to fly, and they can – they navigate within the branches of the big maple just fine.  But it’s not yet time for them to hunt solo.

Their impatience is raucous.

At our own house we are teaching Owen, 15, how to drive.  Being a passenger with him is alternately terrifying and rewarding.  He insists that he’s an excellent driver already, that we’ve got nothing to worry about, but he has trouble with road awareness.  He hugs the white line and argues that he IS in the middle of the lane when I suggest that’s the best place for success.  I’m white noise, a goathead pricker in his sock, a dog whistle he cannot hear.  He’s impatient to take the reigns of his life, raucous and flapping like those owlets, who, each night, get less and less obedient about following directions.

Last night, a full moon, the owlets flitted out of the tree as soon as their parents left and took their squabbling to the roof of our house, to the top of the neighbor’s van.  I could hear one of the adults talking to them a few yards over.  After short consultation, the babies decided they had better get home.  Breakfast was on the way.

The moon rose higher, illuminating the show in the backyard.  Three mice in an hour, a good haul.  Food in the belly quieted the owlets in the maple.  The adults flew off into the night.  I’m not sure how much longer they’ll be in our yard.

Soon, the babies will be off in the world, hunting in the backyards of other streets, finding mates of their own, and these will be monogamous and long-term relationships.  Owen, too.  I try to remind myself that he IS doing it right.  He’ll learn best by trying, by possibly failing, by sometimes succeeding.  His flight is about to be out of his parents’ hands.

I wonder if the owl adults have an impending sense that their work of the season will soon be over.  If, after dawn, when they’ve been up all night hunting, they wonder whether their efforts will build self-sustaining offspring who are smart enough to avoid death by hawks, by cars, by razed habitats.  If they fret that their teachings, even now, are falling away and growing smaller in the rearview mirror.

 

 

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depth perception

Deep and sincere thanks to Matthew Limpede and the staff at Carve Magazine, who said yes to including the story “Depth Perception” in their Spring 2014 Premium Edition.  I’m in great company in these pages and ever grateful for the chance to be there.

 

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McDermott, Chainsaw Artist

I recently read a craft article by Ben Percy on creating and managing conflict in stories.  Trying to figure out the allure in Stieg Larsson’s uber-popular The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Percy decided to color code the conflicts in the novel’s hefty pages, working to understand the way Larsson had complicated, layered and ratcheted up the various perils facing Lisbeth and Mikael.  According to Percy, the best stories create characters who juggle several problems at one time – these are the “flaming chainsaws” of good fiction, simultaneous crises that increase in threat and rotation.  Necessary tools, because believable, palpable peril is the engine under the hoods of novels.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot since I read it, aligning his notion alongside of my own stories, which frequently fail in early drafts to be on fire in effective measure.

This week I considered chainsaws in Alice McDermott’s quiet book Someone, the story of Marie Commeford.  In 2012, I read one of the book’s chapters excerpted in The New Yorker, though at the time I didn’t realize it was part of something longer because it works so beautifully as a short story.  Two sentences into this section of the novel, my first experience reading came back to me viscerally in full bloom:  Marie’s first sexual experience with the usurious Walter Hartnett, a boy with a gimpy leg; Marie’s abandonment when Walter found a better offer, a girl with money and a name.  McDermott’s stories, searing and quiet, structurally complex, worth puzzling over, are the sort that stay with you.

In the novel, throughout her life, Marie invokes Walter’s name several times, an iteration that McDermott deftly employs to illustrate the power and lasting watermark of sexual memory.  A girl plagued with poor eyesight, Marie tells her own story, looks back over a life beginning in a 1930s Brooklyn neighborhood. Her lack of sight, the various surgeries she has to correct it, the scenes a reader is privy to through Marie’s hazy vision or which we experience from beneath gauze, become an important trope in the book, which is largely about the way we see the world slant, caught up as we are in dreams and our varied versions of reality.

When it was released in 2013, many critical reviews examined how nothing much happened in Someone’s pages.  Even the book flap reads:  “…this resonant story of an unremarkable woman’s unforgettable life.” Not the best words to recommend a reader sit down right now and give it a go.

McDermott herself, when interviewed by The New Yorker about the novel, said, “novels about unremarkable women, especially those written by unremarkable women, seem a thing of the past. But that’s what the novel wanted to be. . . . It’s the contrarian in me, I’m afraid.”

There’s the undeniable beauty of McDermott’s writing, spare and unassuming, a fitting match for the characters, who soldier on without the kind of histrionics present in louder stories.  And McDermott’s fictive world is certainly universal– the novel depicts a world we might recognize in our own neighborhoods, sensorially rich but compressed, too, in the way stories about others often come to us.  Constant in every page is the aching gap between the intimate knowledge about ourselves we accept or refuse or dress up as something else, and the way we never really know the heart of another.

And yet I found McDermott’s unremarkable story surprisingly compelling, and though it’s not the stuff of Stieg Larsson’s edgy-sexual-action-adventure-murder-mystery-thriller, it IS full of the sorts of chainsaws one recognizes.

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Inspired by Percy, I started making a list of McDermott’s chainsaws, struggles essential to the becoming of Marie.  There are Marie’s internal issues– the effect of her father’s sickness and early death; her trouble with her sight and later, the fear of blindness and the surgeries to avert it; her sexual awakening with Walter Hartnett; her desire to understand and to help her brother Gabe, which is largely a useless desire, until the end.

Orbiting all around Marie is another set of struggles, all within spitting distance of her Brooklyn stoop.  There are the neighborhood deaths that dot the landscape of these pages — her neighbor, Peegen Chehab, who dies falling down a flight of stairs, and whose name, like Walter Hartnett’s, is invoked again and again throughout the novel; young Mrs. Hanson, her best friend Gerty’s mother, who dies in childbirth, echoed later in Marie’s own medical scare with her first child; blind Bill Corrigan, the arbiter of street baseball, who commits suicide.  And later, once young Marie broadens her world view, there is the parade of death she must help assuage the pain of at Fagin’s funeral home where she works.  There’s spiritual crisis, abandonment, widowhood, urban blight, complications of Marie’s own child birth, the question of whether and how one can save others from themselves.

The list is much longer than this, but I’m surprised at the way this quiet story is so fraught with struggle.  McDermott’s Marie is not being chased by madmen or facing the end times, but her chainsaws have heft and urgency enough to give Marie the kind of agency readers seek.

And while I never fully understood why McDermott didn’t choose to let fully rise to the surface what’s really wrong with Gabe, I did find it interesting how she uses the unknown surrounding her brother to pull us along through the narrative.  The issue of Gabe rises above another rotating danger – bearing and raising children, which, as Marie shows us time and again can be treacherous and heartbreaking.  It is all around Marie in those she knows.  It is also her own treachery–bearing a second child after almost losing her life to the first is a defiance she justifies out of desire, courage, stubbornness.  But this danger is muted by our early understanding that Marie is looking back, that she’s successfully had children.

Flaming chainsaws at work in a story reach a place where they are dangerously aflame.  The “constant, rotating threat of them,” as Percy says, must be extinguished.

Gabe’s breakdown and time in an institution, the way Tom and Marie bring him home like a child (though, even to the end, Gabe remains the zen-master about the world and the human heart), are a surprising inevitability.   Ultimately, Marie believes she “saves” Gabe from himself by pocketing his pills, saves him from “falling down” like poor Peegen Chehab.  I’m not sure it works, this choice, but I take McDermott’s point.

It’s not a movie, after all, it’s a life.  Full of all that cannot be seen or known, of falling and failing, and the celebration of triumphs, both real and imagined.

http://jockmackenzie.wordpress.com.  maybe the best part of this hard-to-find image is the fact that this guy is a teacher and juggled flaming chainsaws for his students...

http://jockmackenzie.wordpress.com.
Maybe the best part of this understandably hard-to-find image is the fact that this guy is a teacher and juggled flaming chainsaws for his students…

Categories: book review, fiction, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

bragging post

birdweb.org

birdweb.org

In the foothills I saw my first meadowlark this week.  It was the perfectly orchestrated sighting.  That gorgeous canary yellow breast, embellished with a black chevron, heaving with song from a perch on a stem of sagebrush.  Backlit by the blaze of rising sun, it was crooning its heart out.  There could’ve easily been music, something by Bach or Handel, or maybe Beethoven.

It was pretty thrilling to finally spot one and feel the song was aimed at me, for I was thrilled, too, at witnessing the paling sky surrendering to the bold lines of day.  The half moon was just disappearing across the valley.  I stopped to soak in the privilege of being present at that moment in that place and hoped it wouldn’t startle and fly away.  What with the tilting sky on the threshold between night and day, the full-bodied song, the solitude of the place, I understood the impulse to yawp over the rooftops of the world.

Later I learned male meadowlarks like to squat on “bragging posts” to tell the world all about their fabulous selves, much like roosters, and this certainly seemed to be the case that morning.  The lark was busy with the job of wooing, to be sure, but also, it would seem, saying to any fellas within range, Robert de Niro-style, “You wanna piece of me?”

His serenade must’ve trumped the undersong of pugnacity.  Along came two females – these fellows travel in the world with two mates—and off they flew together.

allaboutbirds.org

allaboutbirds.org

Categories: nature, outdoors, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , | 4 Comments

how can i keep from singing?

More like an older sister than an aunt, Susie taught me to swim.  I was nine the summer she came to visit, and though I splashed around easily enough in the shallow end, nothing I did resembled a stroke.  Over the course of a week, Susie worked with me at our little community pool, teaching me to do the freestyle and be brave in water.  On day four I made the discovery that submerging my head wouldn’t mean sudden death.  After that I was golden.

Since that summer I’ve been a swimmer.  Not a competitive one, but a dabbler in the unstructured water play of paddling across lakes and rivers, jumping off rocks, bodysurfing, rafting.

In addition to last year’s big life changes I’ve probably written about too much here, in the fall I added swimming laps, a new skill that still feels humbling.  I was looking for another activity that might deliver the kind of focused non-focus of running, one I’ll be able to do for many years, long after my running knees give out.

That I was very bad at surviving laps in the beginning is an understatement.  But it was thrilling to engage in something at which I was terrible.  I had to learn to sustain swimming and breathing at the same time without panicking and stopping in the middle of the pool to gasp for air.  To put on a swim cap.  To wear goggles so they were tight enough to work but not so tight they nearly sucked my eyes out of my sockets.  To swim in a straight line and share a lane with another swimmer.  To “deal” with the wall every twenty-five yards.

At first, swimming four laps in a row left me completely without breath.  For the first month I could only swim ten slow, tortuous laps before peeling off, exhausted, to simmer in the Jacuzzi.  In the second month I tasked myself with braving the wall via flip turn, and the day I figured out how to plan for and execute a series of turns I was high on life the rest of the day.   The day swimming laps gave me a glimmer of the kind of meditation I feel while trail running was even more affirming.

Given the choice, I’d rather swim in a lake or bay over a pool, but I imagine no matter the space, I’ll be a swimmer as long as I can still walk.  I’m grateful about that.

It’s 2014, time to renew my vow to learn something new.

On a whim a few weeks ago, Riley and I tagged along with some friends to their choir practice.  Though we met at a church because that’s a space large enough for the group, the choir is secular and intergenerational.  I’ve never really sung before, unless I count the shower or those musical performances from grade school.  In high school I was both too shy and too busy playing sports to spend any time in the arts and theatre wing, a fact which I regret a now.  Despite a year or so of piano in middle school, I can’t read music, and I don’t have a great voice.  I’m on friendly terms with the voice I do have.  Singing in public terrifies me.

In a packed sanctuary hall the night of our first practice, we met and were wrangled by three local, professional musicians, our leaders, who believe so strongly in the power of the collective voice they’ve volunteered their time in this way.  A white-haired woman with a walker sporting orange tennis balls staked out a place at the back of the sanctuary.  With our friends, we squeezed four bodies onto two chairs next to her.  Kids of all ages wiggled and danced beneath the stage as we sang ten or so tunes, many we knew and some we didn’t.  Reading lyrics projected on a huge screen at the back of the stage, we practiced singing in harmony.  We sang in round.  Folk, pop, blues, tunes from around the world.

I spent much of the evening sweating, working to manage anxiety about whether and how my voice belonged. But there are three hundred of us, and we sound good together.  I can see that each week my fears will be allayed by my own efforts and being buoyed by the group.  Our sessions together will be about the community building of raising our voices in song, and also about preparing for a culminating performance in the spring.

Pete Seeger had just passed away a few days before our first choir meeting.  Even though he’d had a good run, dying quietly at 94, I’d been melancholy about his presence gone from the world.  At home I’d been playing over and over Springsteen’s The Seeger Sessions and thinking back to 2002, when John, Owen and I went to the Great Hudson River Revival, an annual folk festival Pete and his wife Toshi began in 1966 to raise awareness about keeping the Hudson River and surrounding wetlands healthy.

That June weekend in New York was a rainy, hot muddy mess of a festival.  Food vendors and magicians, hacky-sackers and jugglers, artists and storytellers filled the grounds.  The afternoon Pete took the stage toward the end of the weekend, it was still raining steadily.  John and I sat in our chairs, a blanket over Owen who slept across our laps, finally worn out, and for an hour we sang along with Pete and other musicians who joined him.  Songs we’d known since we could walk and sing.  This Land is Your LandIf I Had a Hammer. Turn, Turn, Turn.  We Shall Overcome.

Then, I was aware as I scanned the soggy crowd that we were in the presence of a kind of greatness.  Everyone sang, most eyes on Pete and his banjo, his enthusiasm and gathering spirit infectious.  There was nothing pretentious about him, none of that rock star stuff he might have deserved after decades of fame.  As I recall he wore faded jeans, a t-shirt, his signature cap.  Through a gap in the trees, the sloop Clearwater sailed by along the Hudson, loaded with passengers availing themselves of learning how to save the river.  I’m so grateful now we made that trip.

Owen navigating the rope bridge at the Clearwater Festival.

Owen navigating the rope bridge at the Clearwater Festival.

At choir practice, toward the end of the night, a photo of Pete filled the screen, and these words -“Participation!  It’s what all my work has been about.” Singing next to Riley whose voice is bold and clear and lovely, I was a little sad she’ll never get to sing along with Pete.  We stood up and grooved to a song Pete sang with Woody Guthrie, a fun kids’ tune about all working together with a “wiggle and a giggle.”  Kids twirled and fell on the ground and helped each other up.  This full-bodied interaction with music was exactly what Pete had in mind, for it’s not too far a jump to go from singing together to working together in all ways that matter most.

That night the spirit of Pete was all around us, it seemed, filling up our lungs and hearts.  We began “How Can I Keep from Singing?”, a song many seem to take credit for though I think it’s a hymn from the 19th century.  This song always makes me a little weepy, and I was struck that night by the gorgeous impermanence of the music we were making and the universal truth in some of those words.  Our individual and collective voices were vanishing into thin air, and yet long after the notes could no longer be heard, the people who’d gathered would remember the singularity of the effort.

I couldn’t really hear my own voice, though I knew it was a piece of the whole.  Still a little sweaty, emboldened by my plucky daughter who wasn’t nervous in the slightest, I tried to sing with bravery and intention, thinking of Pete, and of the way participating with hundreds of other voices could -was already- rendering a similar kind of grace I sought in breathing life into stories, in trail running at dawn, in gliding through water.

Categories: community, parenting, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

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