Rainbows and Writing in Bass Harbor

Rainbows are a meteorological and optical phenomenon that can cause the most jaded person to leap from their chair and dash outside, camera in hand. The definition I like most is this simple one: a rainbow occurs when raindrops and sunshine meet in a particular way. This one, over Bass Harbor on Mount Desert Island, Maine, looks more like a painting. The day had been blustery, with a few squalls and hardly any sun. That bit of magic was a fine surprise; emblematic of our time away.

This trip to the Maine coast was not idyllic in the way we have come to expect. My one-bag packing job that seemed so sensible bit me when Delta sent it to Detroit instead of Bangor. It eventually arrived two days later, but in the meantime I continued to wear the Florida-style white cropped slacks I wore on the plane, plus a black undershirt and soft old flannel shirt courtesy of Buck. Luckily, I had put a pair of socks and jogging shoes into his duffel bag, and so was able to put my sandals aside and keep my feet warm.

There is a point in the life of an old house where it goes from charming to . . . something else. This was the year when the old cottage we’ve stayed in several times before turned a bit, like milk left too long in the fridge. You know that point where it’s not quite sour, and the non-squeamish will go ahead and pour it on their cereal.  (I am not that person). And yet. Had we not gone, would the breakthroughs we experienced have come for either of us?

Something about an old wing chair gives a person cover for their thoughts. I took 100 pages of my manuscript to work on, a copy of Brian Kiteley’s remarkably helpful book, The 3 a.m. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction, along with several outstanding books downloaded to my Kindle to work through, including Jerome Stern’s utterly wonderful Making Shapely Fiction and the vintage The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner. Many people have sat in that dilapidated chair. The place on the arms where people clutch and tense their hands is threadbare, and the seat has been reinforced with a folded bed sheet. I bolstered both height and comfort with a pillow from one of the beds upstairs, and there I sat every morning to watch the big tides rise to cover nearly all the rocks, and ebb away again, exposing everything. I watched the sun rise or the rains come. And I read, studied, wrote, and thought. Buck worked mostly at the table. We broke only for rainbows, to marvel at a young eagle flying right in front of the picture window, or for a half-sandwich or cup of soup at midday, and smoked salmon tidbits with red onion and capers or some such treat in the evening.

I thought I was writing a quick-read, supermarket paperback kind of mind candy book. And maybe that’s what it will grow down to be. But of the two main characters, one has a near pathological fear of commitment and the other a near pathological need to connect and dread of loss. Emerging themes cover the waterfront: Who am I? Who can I trust? Why can’t things be simple? Why can’t good things stay the same? Some things can’t be fixed.

This is beginning to get interesting.

Flying Women, A Dragon, and a Bunch of Antsy Characters

Tuesday morning. I should have gotten up at 2:30, when it was clear the itch in my brain had escaped and was running down my legs and out into my arms so that it was impossible to keep still in bed. I twitched and sighed all night.

I got this idea that I needed a Dragon. Doesn’t every woman? My inner voice harps, “Be your own dragon.” Well, yes, sure, but this dragon is different. It’s a Nuance Naturally Speaking Bluetooth Dragon. I am not ready to create voice-to-type blog posts or novel chapters yet, but have sent out several Dragon-assisted emails that passed muster (not perfect, but close).  I’m thinking ahead for the future, which in my experience arrives a lot quicker than you planned. Now that I finally figured out what I want to be when I grow up, I plan to become adept at voice-to-type before the osteoarthritis that has already made writing by hand uncomfortable stakes a claim on elbows and shoulders. Right now, writing to a keyboard is a joy, but when I’m cranking out stories at 95, maybe not so much. Of course, by then, the technological miracle of voice-to type will probably be like a Stone Age tool. Who knows? Maybe I’ll speak to a holographic image — let’s make him a hunky stud muffin while we’re theorizing — who will sit adoringly at my wrinkled knee and listen with perfect recall, processing words into strung pearls while we sip morning-glory tea or some other honeyed delight.  Ah, the future. I want high-tech and high touch.

This morning, though, there’s a bunch of frustrated characters laid out on the dining room table, flat as flitters on their index cards, waiting to jump up into their dimensional selves if only I would quit screwing around: Bree, Jess, Rory, Bo, P.J., Lilla, Ellie, Grace, Mary Alice, Troy, Ryan, and especially Evangeline are ready to boogie.

But they’re just going to have to wait a bit while I explore the sublime, which I found this morning. A new, much anticipated, book arrived at the post office yesterday, and I opened it for the first time while brushing my teeth early this morning.  I discovered this new gem by Terry Tempest Williams from writer/editor Lanie Tankard’s guest review on writer/teacher Richard Gilbert’s wonderful blog, Narrative.

It is the province of mothers to preserve the myth that we are unburdened with our own problems. Placed in a circle of immunity, we carry only the crises of those we love. We mask our needs as the needs of others. If ever there was a story without a shadow, it would be this: that we as women exist in direct sunlight only.

When women were birds, we knew otherwise. We knew our greatest freedom was in taking flight at night, when we could steal the heavenly darkness for ourselves, navigating through the intelligence of stars and the constellations of our own making in the delight and terror of our uncertainty.

What my mother wanted to do and what she was able to do remains her secret.

from When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams

Of course, I have dropped everything else to read. Wouldn’t you?

Summer Reading

Buck and I are about to head out to explore Brevard (in Transylvania County, no less!) and Hendersonville, but I wanted to mention two terrific recent reads and one that had me up early making a start:

The first is Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild. I read this with sleepless eyes burning. Finally, at the last, when I threw the Kindle down on the bed here in Maggie Valley at 2:30 a.m., I told Buck (yes, he was reading some other book) “finishing my novel, this is my Pacific Coast Trail.” He didn’t know what I was talking about, but could tell I was passionate about it. Every time I think, “This is too hard. I can’t do it,” I’ll see Cheryl on the trail, especially her feet.

Next is Rosellen Brown’s novel, Before and After. A friend called me to ask me to read this book. I had never heard of Rosellen Brown. Whew. That’s all I have time to say right now. Couldn’t put it down.

I had pre-ordered  the new book by historian/biographer/journalist David Maraniss, Barack Obama The Story. It arrived on my Kindle sometime after midnight. I started reading about 6:00 a.m.  Hate to put it down, but there’s exploring to be done.

What are you reading these days?

Denny Coates Publishes “Conversations” Series

Congratulations to longtime blogger friend Denny Coates. He has published two books I am looking forward to reading: the first, co-written with his wife, Kathleen Scott, also a blogger friend and travel writer (currently working on a mystery novel),  is Conversations with the Wise Aunt, and the second is Conversations with the Wise Uncle. Subhead for both books is “the secret to being a strong teenager and preparing for success as an adult.” Wish I had been exposed to such resources when I was a teen!

About Dr. Coates: (quoted from the “About” section of his website, How to Raise a Teenager)

Dr. Dennis Coates has been CEO of Performance Support Systems, Inc., since 1987. In 1988 he developed MindFrames, a personality assessment based on cognitive neuroscience. In 1994 he created 20/20 Insight, an online multi-source behavior feedback system, used by millions of people worldwide. He is also the creator of ProStar Coach, an online virtual coaching service for developing personal strengths and people skills. Over the years, his programs have helped millions of people worldwide grow stronger for the challenges of work and life. These days he spends most of his time writing about personal development, communication skills, personal strength and parenting teens.

ProStar Coach was originally created for success-oriented adults and people in the workplace who want to give themselves an edge to achieve their goals. Because of its rich content in the area of personal strengths and people skills, along with its emphasis on engaging critical thinking in learning exercises and changing behavior patterns, it’s an outstanding personal development tool for teens and parents of teens.

Denny blogs at Building Personal Strength; Kathleen at Hill Country Mysteries.

a link to an interesting PBS interview with author eric weiner

Getting to the link for the interview is a sneaky two-step process which will cause you to pass through a blog I’ve started that’s dedicated to reading. I’ve heard a lot of talk lately about the “deplorable” state of current best-selling lists (literary, mass market, the whole kit, caboodle, baby and bath water).  I’d love to know what you think, what you’re reading and why, what you fall in love with or throw to the floor in disgust or snow blind boredom.

Go to Good Light Comfortable Chair. There’s only one post there so far, so that’s the one where you’ll find the link to the Ray Suarez interview on PBS Newshour from December 26.


Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine by Eric Weiner

This past September I unearthed a list of “Twenty-Five Things you Should do Before you Die.” It was one of those things I’d been dragging around for ages, but had never actually read. Most of them were about what you would expect. The one I scissored out before trashing the rest was this one:

“I believe one thing all people should do in their lifetime is to come to terms with their own spirituality, examine their beliefs, and really know why they believe what they do. Armed with that deep understanding, they will be able to clearly communicate that belief to someone else.”  The Reverend Billy Graham

I was laid out like a beached whale on a sofa a few nights ago as the first wave of chills and fever  hit. Buck was channel-surfing and hovered for a moment on the PBS Newshour. Ray Suarez was just beginning an interview with Eric Weiner about his newly-released book, “Man Seeks God: My Flirtation with the Divine.” I raised my left hand, a signal to Buck to stay on that channel.

“You want to see this?” he asked.

“Yes,” I croaked.

One of the insidious and diabolical, yet fantastic, things about e-readers is instant gratification. Within minutes, Weiner’s book was downloaded, ready to read.

Raised as a Southern Baptist, confirmed as an Episcopalian at the age of 39, like Weiner, I am about seven-eighth’s there, but still inhabit a pew close to the exits.  I want to know what I believe about God — for myself, not anybody else. I’m not an atheist or even agnostic, and have strong spiritual leanings. Weiner’s book is one of many I’ll be reading this year with spirituality as a theme. I’ll also be working on developing some spiritual muscles by acting like a full-fledged member of my local parish rather than a dilettante who shows up occasionally. Should be interesting.

One thing Weiner cleared up for me: I am definitely not a Raëlian.

Oh, and I’m reading the Book of Mormon because, whether or not the United States has its first Mormon president after the 2012 elections, there will surely be a lot of talk about Mitt Romney’s religion. As is always the case with loose political talk, I’m also sure there will be lots of “mis” and “dis” information. I find the idea that Jesus Christ visited the American west after his resurrection wild and colorful, an irresistible story. I don’t see any harm in it. I’m not offended by it. I have a practical nature, and this may have been an absolutely brilliant way to get rough-edged pioneer men and women to coalesce around an idea greater than themselves that helped them to pull together and survive harsh weather, difficult terrain and hardship and build thriving cities. Anyway, I like to go to the source rather than get my information solely from the news media or partisans on either side.

Mrs. Danvers

English Actress Anna Massey could read the ingredients list on a cereal box and I would be wrapped up in and mesmerized by her voice and delivery. Listening to her read Daphne DuMaurier’s iconic Rebecca on an Audible.com download, as I was last night, I became still as a scared mouse, elbows on desk, chin in hands, barely moving.

Come to think of it, maybe I feared Mrs. Danvers might be skulking about and come in and catch me listening. . .

The Virtual “Old Homeplace” and Tending the Green Shoots

"Where do you want to live?" Buck asks me. We have just come in from a walk to the gate with Maggie between rain showers and are performing our twilight-into-dark ablutions.

He has asked this question before. It is on the table for several reasons. The county will be voting early next month on what looks like a final deal with the state agency that administers the "yes you cans" and "no you can'ts" to expansively change the entire county's comprehensive plan — and in many ways to drag it into the 21st century — and more particularly, to concretize the plan that will change the course of that much-discussed road which currently snakes along our property line, straighten it with only a small curve for a large oak, and afford Buck and me the dubious opportunity of waving to passers-by from our front door.

That is the driver, the trigger, whatever moniker we might put on it, but as I noted, there are other reasons.

Our woodlands nest is well-feathered and comfortable, idyllic in almost every way. The potential arrival of a road cutting an asphalt river through its heart is enough to blast us out of our comfort zone and into an emotional and intellectual analysis of where and how we want to spend our time. It's a gift, in a way, if for no other reason than that it keeps us fully awake.

We built this home with the idea that it would be "the old homeplace," a brick and mortar Rock of Gibraltar for kith and kin in a world of shifting sands – a grand romantic notion. The journey of it has in fact been serious romance, and wherever we go, whatever we do, we will always have the reality of this remarkable adventure. Our roots and footprints will remain here in some form or fashion, not to mention thousands of words, photographs and even musing video woods walks.

But like the land, Buck and I and our family are beings in motion, evolving until we die, one hopes. Grown children and grandchildren are writing their own fascinating stories, works in progress same as ours. The youngest grandchild is now a changeling 12 year old, wearing an adorable fedora with a sparkly band to the Thanksgiving table, her ears adorned with swinging beads color-coded to match her layered camisole and top. The eldest is now 30, a professional long-haul truck driver based near Hickory, North Carolina. That young boy (as I remember him on boat rides on the bay years ago) is now a father of one with another on the way. In between are five others rapidly matriculating from middle school to high school to college to graduate school to jobs and lives and — well, you get the idea.

The kids are not the only ones living in fluid drive. Even if Buck and I believe we are settled in and anchored to some physical place, it is an illusion. The ground is always moving beneath us. And that space between our ears, that lovely thinking space, is always several steps ahead of our day-to-day "What's for dinner? Is it time to pay the property taxes? Do we have any more lightbulbs?" mode of managing life.

The abstract, "tomorrow person" sides of our brains wanted to chatter last night. Buck and I took off the reins and let them run. Wow. What great talk.

Enter technology and the concept of the virtual "old homeplace." Many folks already use tools that allow families, friends, lovers and others to videoconference live. From smart phones to Facebook and Flickr, the opportunities for people who really want to communicate with one another are myriad and can be immediate and vibrant. The ideal of having "the family" gather together on Sundays for a dinner around the table, good talk and perhaps an after-meal walk in the sylvan woods is still lovely and appealing, no doubt about that, but its reality is lightning in a bottle.

Much of our motion is conscious, intentional. Buck and I, for example, are spending ever-increasing amounts of our time writing and reading. Lucky that we are both traveling parallel paths at this time in our lives. Lucky. And thrilling. And unsettling, too, because now the allure of place has more to do with acquiring textures, scenes and dialogue than in daily reinventing the same (however remarkable) pine tree.

The novel Buck is writing has scenes from early twentieth century Manhattan. We would like to spend a month there, walking and gathering. His story line may take us to Germany, too. As for me, I have everything I need for my (working title) Memoir of a Small Forest, and am more than 40,000 unedited words along the way. Events yet to be determined will create the ending. Nonetheless, new sights, smells, tastes and experiences add savor to the soup.

I bolted out of bed literally in the middle of the night several nights ago with one of those astonishing "Aha!" moments. The nearly full-blown concept for a fiction book plot has had me running around with my hair on fire talking to myself and scribbling ever since. It hardly matters what comes of it. What a great way to live!

Buck says, "Settle down, TwitchyB. You're vibrating like a tuning fork."

I saw Buck a few minutes ago. We crossed trail in the kitchen. He was pouring a glass of that vile sugar-free ersatz cherry-flavored water that he drinks. I was refilling my coffee mug with the good stuff. We agreed that we stayed up too late, but sure had some good talk. He said, "I have to hear my thoughts out loud to validate them, to know whether they make any sense."

Thinking out loud and tending the green shoots when they sprout. That's what we're doing.

The Devil’s Dictionary and Other Buried Treasures

My study had almost turned into a storage locker for files, books, magazines, rocks and turkey feathers. I have reclaimed it as my own personal roosting spot for writing, reading, fondling rocks and admiring wild turkey feathers. Oh yes, and listening to music, staring out the window and drinking strong, hot coffee (sometimes with cinnamon or cardamom).

My archeological dig of the past two days has uncovered misplaced photographs, cool postcards from Scotland I had forgotten about, scads of fiction stories torn from issues of The New Yorker and Harper's magazines stacked in a canvas Land's End bag, two sandalwood incense sticks, a dessicated cockroach, and some wonderful books that are either old favorites, or relative new ones in various stages of being read — and scribbled in, too — yes, I do that. I hope you won't think less of me. Oh! There's that missing library book. . .

One unearthed book in the "novelty" category is Ambrose Bierce's, The Devil's Dictionary.


Here are several of my favorite Bierce "definitions:"

Debauchee: One who has so earnestly pursued pleasure that he has had the misfortune to overtake it.

Piano: A parlor utensil for subduing the impenitent visitor. It is operated by depressing the keys of the machine and the spirits of the audience.