Friday, December 5, 2014

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Like a punch in the face

I'm honored that Impact Magazine picked up my recent piece on the Ferguson situation, and perhaps even more honored by the publisher saying it was like a punch in the face.

Friday, November 28, 2014

This Thanksgiving I was grateful for being white

A few nights ago we went to bed while the news cameras captured images of smoke-filled streets, flaming cars, lurching figures, and flak jackets. I watched my twitter feed for another hour or so after that, perversely drawn to the mayhem unfolding. We awoke the next morning to updates about numbers of arrests made, cars burned, and buildings set ablaze. I looked at pictures of a beauty supply store that had been looted, and wondered about the kind of victory that results from stolen weave. 

I watched, cursing the stupidity of riots and feeling superior.

I lead a typical segregated Caucasian life, so the vast majority of Facebook posts appearing on my page are from people roughly like me; white and therefore privileged. Posts on the topic were primarily in two forms: proclamations that looters are idiots and that justice had been served, or "enlightened" responses of sorrow and outrage over the grand jury ruling. This last group bothered me the most. It seemed like the more moneyed and nestled into the bosom of Whitlandia, the more vocal the objections. As if any of them have a clue.

As if -I- have a clue.

Since when do I deserve a place in the conversation?

I live on the outskirts of a small city where real poverty exists. Where real drug deals take place, many of which involve people with more melanin in their skin than mine. But I'm safely ensconced in our beat up little house, in a white ghetto of helpful retirees. On Sundays, I drive to a beautiful church in an affluent small town with no black families in the congregation. I do see African American faces once in a while. While shopping.

So what the hell do I know about a particular town in Missouri, or a particular young man and an accused police officer? What can I know from way up here in my sheltered white bread existence?

Until recently, I lived in Rochester, NY which has been in the running for most dangerous cities in the country. Its violence takes place almost entirely within the black population, and is usually drug related. My kids went to an inner city school with over 70% black students. I was once threatened with a knife by a black man. While living in a rough neighborhood one Halloween, a group of black teens pushed me down and grabbed the bowl of candy I'd greeted them with at the door. Decades later I helped pick a white high school kid up off the sidewalk and into an ambulance after he'd been jumped by a couple of black youth while walking home from school. I was called a "stupid white bitch" by a black girl while hurrying down the hall trying to reach my son at the end of a gun scare lockdown at school. Another day my son found a large kitchen knife in a snowbank outside the school's main entrance.

I have no romantic notions about the urban black experience. But neither is it real to me because it can't be. I don't live it, and never will. I don't have a realistic view, nor do I have a romanticized view.

As I read through the news and saw people's snarky or well-meaning posts, I thought I was going to vomit. The over simplification of tremendous complexity blew my mind and turned my stomach. Eventually I did as a Victorian lady would and took to my bed, where the enormity of the problem brought me to tears.

We are dealing with a subset of society that has been poisoned by history, a history of our white ancestors who carefully groomed and formed a culture. Our white forefathers enforced the systematic destruction of families, sanctioned rape, demanded reliance, punished independence, used violence as punishment, and inflicted hundreds of other intense wrongs. It was intentional cultural formation in an intensely disordered way. 150 years and some six generations later, we have turmoil as a result. New generations adapt and morph and evolve within a caustic environment and struggle to breathe and thrive within it. Societal problems bubble and steam, young men shoot each other over drugs, and cops are scared. People are trapped in an environment where violence is normal and anger is ever present, living a life where you can't walk down a street without being glanced at with nervousness and suspicion. 

How must that feel? How badly would it make me want to explode and lash out and figure that if I'm going to be viewed as an animal or a criminal, I might as well act like one? How Herculean an effort would it take to resist the lull of normality and fight to be seen differently? 

Should we really be surprised that some people in those circumstances give up, or explode, or mimic the thuggishness of their mentors?

Violence in these communities is real, and cops are often rightly scared. And sometimes they are wrongly scared. Sometimes when a community believes they are disenfranchised from the judicial process, all that frustration builds up and explodes into a massive force of broken windows, smoking cars, and stolen fucking weave.

It's the day after Thanksgiving. I imagine a bunch of individuals fighting off feelings of remorse about what was done in the heat of that release of passion. People crying their own very complicated tears.

From where I sit, on my Whitelandia tuffet, I can see no end in sight. No easy fix through program or budget line item or Facebook insight. 

As we lay in bed that day, sickened, Diane held me as I wept. She said "I wonder if God cries? I'll bet He does. I'll bet He cried the oceans into being before we got here."

She's probably right.

There is no sweeping fix, but that doesn't mean I'm helpless.

Trinity Church in Haverhill, MA is part of a three-church effort to reach at risk populations of socioeconomically endangered kids, many of whom are people of color. Through after school programs, these children are pulled off the streets and out of unsupervised houses and exposed to things they would not otherwise have a chance to participate in. Music. Theater. Montessori programming. I'm going to get involved, even it it's only to hand out snacks and chat with the kids for a few minutes one day a week. I don't expect it to do much in the big scale of things. But I hope that I can build relationships with young people I'd never otherwise have a chance to know. To exchange and understand the realities of our existences so that I'm not quite so out of touch. Who knows, maybe I can help a child explore their gifts and use them to proceed more quickly out of the darkness of their historical past and into the freedom that God desires for them.

I don't know. But it's something. 

And I've got to do something. 

Because this Thanksgiving, I recognize the privilege of being born white. And God help me, I'm grateful for it.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Oldies but goodies

I finally got around to scanning and posting some older feature stories written for Merrimack Valley Magazine.

Each one, a joy and pleasure to write!

The Quest for Treasure, Pawn Style, Fall Home Edition, 2013

Ladies of Lingerie, September/October 2013

For the Love of Shoes, July/August 2013

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Pondering Mulberries

I chanced upon Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life at the library the other day. Reading it feels like kismet, a cosmic bringing together of eras and actions and people in my life.

I lived in a variety of houses while growing up, but my favorite rested on a largish patch of land in a small town. The previous family owned it for decades and used the land well. When we moved in there was a sizeable strawberry patch, a thriving grape arbor, several apple trees, a plum tree, and tilled rectangles where vegetables had obviously been planted. One side of the house was a bramble of raspberry canes, and a quince bush burst into coral song each spring. Two elderly sisters left behind a cellar full of ancient canned fruits, dusty, and dangerous, and compelling.

For a short while we lived in a cabin in the woods. My father brought home shot-riddled squirrel and wild turkey, and showed us where the hickory nuts fell, and what wintergreen looks like on a forest floor. My mother made the best of a limited kitchen and baked cakes in an electric frying pan using berries we foraged.

So it feels like a circle to be here in this place, trying to build up the land so that it produces things we can eat.

Our first attempt was strawberries, which miraculously have continuously blossomed and produced fruit since the spring. The harvest is small; one or two berries at a time. Many are missing a chunk, presumably consumed as part of a chipmunk's breakfast. Others are poxed or sundried. But it gives me joy to poke through the leaves and see how many berries are forming and ripening.

We purchased a single tomato plant that produced 17 tomatoes and is now turning yellow in proclamation that it's work is done. Some of the last tomatoes are splitting. I don't know what causes that.

I rescued a scrappy wild black-raspberry runner from the edge of my neighbor's yard, just a day before he whacked everything in the region down. I planted it against the back fence where it can lean and spread and, hopefully, produce fruit in future years. It seems to be doing well.

I want to get a Mulberry tree to plant on the far end of the property. I hear they grow quickly and the berries are luscious and plentiful.

I've been trying to figure out how to compost without investing in a big ugly object.

I dream of having a few yard birds to keep us in eggs.

It's a start.

During her latter years in high school, my daughter educated herself about the economics and ethics of food (particularly animal-based foods) and became a vegetarian. I respected her efforts, but didn't think a whole lot about it other than to admire the ferocious zeal of the young. My stepdaughter went through a similar phase, urging us to bypass holiday turkeys that are too heavy to stand on their own legs, and too stupid to have sex.

Enter Kingsolver's book: a memoir of a year lived eating only what her family could grow or purchase from local farmers. It's an education in food economics and megacorp consumption control. Things my daughter tried to talk about nearly a decade ago. The chapter I read this morning describes a new batch of fluffy, goofy turkey chicks, and explains that they will grow less endearing but more tasty as time passes.

(Just like Dad used to catch.)

I'm reading it at a time when our favorite local grocery chain is essentially out of business due to internal politics, forcing us to check out alternate purveyors. We were strong-armed into stopping at the farm market around the corner from our house, and man are we grateful. We drive by and see corn at knee and hip and shoulder height, planted in waves so that we'll have the sweetest of kernels right up until fall. They offer 20 kinds of tomatoes, heirloom and non, all selling for the same price. The produce is labeled to indicate what they grew themselves, and where it came from if they didn't grow it. The cost is probably higher than at the grocery store, but the flavors are remarkable and we have the satisfaction of knowing that our money goes to the sisters who's smiling blue eyes and wide Slavic cheekbones greet us at each visit.

I don't expect to ever be a farm wife. I like puttering in the dirt, but I don't like sweating. I like saving money, but I am self-indulgent. I want to get a chicken coop and a compost bin, but am worried about the work both would take. But I'm a person who looks for interconnectedness. And reading Kingsolver's story feels like a giant CLICK.

I'll have to take things one step at a time. One strawberry plant, one purchase of heirloom tomatoes, one decision about a Thanksgiving turkey. I'm going to try to find local eggs that cost less than $4.00 a dozen. I'm hoping to snag a bread maker from Freecycle. And I sent a note to a friend who just happens to have a mulberry tree on the grounds of her family property. Maybe she'll let me dig up a runner.

I'm too weak and floppy to do as Kingsolver did. But I'm grateful that her words bring together places and tastes and people I love. And I'm going to try to listen to them all.

Monday, August 4, 2014

A day in the life of a guest curator

Here's how I spent my Sunday afternoon:

It was quite pleasurable, smoothing and pressing and listening to the hiss of steam.

I'll have to choose which of the aprons in this stack to include in my upcoming vintage cooking exhibit.

It's a bit like choosing a favorite child.

As you can see, Charlie helped.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The joys and constraints of writing about a friend

Secret footage of our photo shoot with Adrien Bisson (, courtesy Diane Hall.
This month's issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine includes an interview with my friend, the funny, encouraging, colorful, and talented Holly Robinson. You should certainly run out and find a copy, but until you do, you can read the article here:

Beach Plum Island: A story of sand and sisters.

One drawback of writing for magazines is the space limitation. I had to condense what I know about Holly and her latest book into just a few hundred words, which is a challenge. My goal for this piece was to offer a few tidbits which illustrate the depth of emotion into which Holly taps, along with samples of her lyrical language.

But that leaves a whole bunch out. I could write any number of articles about Holly's belly-laugh-inducing memoir The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter. And last night I finished reading another of her novels titled Sleeping Tigers which is fodder for a few more pieces. But there's a lot more to Holly than just her work.

You know that feeling, that rare experience of meeting someone and immediately knowing you want to become friends? That's how it was when I met Holly. There was something about the way that she interacted with people at the writer's event we were attending that made me like her immediately. She was curious, and listened thoughtfully. She responded generously. She laughed at herself, and with others. My gut told me that there was something really good there.

A year or two later and we re-met at a similar writer's dinner, connecting again and this time continuing our connection. She's a source of great advice, encouragement, and laughter.

Plus she's a damned good writer.

So check out the article. And buy her books. And post reviews on Amazon and GoodReads and all the other places reviews are posted. She'll appreciate it, and so will I.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Mystery art beach

Two years ago I accidentally stumbled across a deserted stretch of beach in Newburyport, not far from Joppa Park and sniffing distance from the sewage treatment plant. It's a grungy place that you'd never expect would contain an art gallery.

But it does.

In this month's issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine, I had the honor of talking to three artists who create installations on that beach. Be sure to grab a copy to check out the article, but space is limited in the magazine, so here are a few more photos to give you an idea of the types of work you'll see if you visit the beach itself.

And while you're there, you might want to arrange your own collection of found materials for other wanderers to discover.

Photos courtesy of the author,  Jeff Esche & Rebecca Wish Esche, Valeria Gergo, and an artist who wishes to remain anonymous.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

On a day just like today...

Today my eldest child turns 26.

This past year has been a curious time of crossing over. At her age I was working and gestating as her father finished college. Pictures of his graduation show me in an old-fashioned white dress, trimmed in lace, my belly huge and ripe in readiness. My father-in-law wisecracked that I looked like a pregnant bride.

When she was born I was scared out of my wits, overwhelmed with love and the immensity and gravity of keeping this tiny creature alive. My husband was a pragmatist who rightly coached that it was merely a matter of feeding and changing, of washing and watching. He was right, of course, in his concreteness. But I was also right in my fear. I could grow her, certainly. But I couldn't protect her. Not really. Not from the world and it's brutality, not from my own broken edges.

I could try, and I would try, but eventually even the most tightly wrapped cotton batting gets shredded and frayed, and turns gray and dingy. Sometimes the wrapper herself tears away chunks without meaning to, or without the ability to stop it, and weeps at the torn fibers clutched tightly in her fists.

Today is my lovely daughter's birthday. A day my sweet Dolce celebrates for me and with me. She sometimes buys me flowers. She always asks me questions as the hours progress.
"Has your water broken?"

"Are you having contractions?"

"Are you still crunching ice chips?"
Today her questions were different though. She's spent some time with Kiera, but not very much. Not nearly enough. And so, she asked me:
"Are you guys similar?"
"In a lot of ways I guess."
"Does she like makeup and lipstick?"
"Does she like wine?"
"Yes. And cocktails."
"Does she like strange people?"
"Yes. She collects them. They are attracted to her."
"I know she likes to write. She writes beautifully."
"Yes. She does."
"She's obviously smart."
"Is she hungry for God?"
"She's a truth seeker. She is hungry for truth."
"Does she like to wear dresses?"
"Yes. Sometimes. But she's self-conscious about her skinny calves."
"Is she kind?"
"Yes. And accepting. Remember? She loved working with troubled kids, and developmentally delayed adults. She taught life skills to autistic kids and was a night aid for a quadriplegic man."
"That's right! Is she funny?"
"Yes. Very funny. And silly."
"Well then. She's a lot like you. The world should be grateful to you for having her. I know I am."
And I am too. More than I can say.

The mystery of love and conception and birth and child-rearing and releasing and regretting and wishing and hoping is so complexly nuanced that it is foolishness to even try to convey it.

And so I won't.

Other than to say that I love you, Kiera Doodle. And I am honored to be your mother.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Dream curation come true

A few weeks ago I sent in a proposal to a contest offered by Buttonwoods Museum, and I WON!
Curate your own exhibit
Have you ever wanted to curate your own exhibit? Here is your opportunity! Using our artifacts and your ideas, pitch us story line for an exhibit you would like to see and implement.
My proposal centered around one of my passions: vintage cookbooks and recipes. For those of you who didn't know I had such a passion, checkout the blog I wrote for several years, before deciding it wouldn't help pay the bills: Cookbook Love.

I've been thinking about why I love the darned things so much, and the default conclusion is that they harken back to a time of simpler living. A fictional time when emotion and mother nature and the dark things of the world were minimal, and the difficulties that were in play could all be solved by a platter of fried chicken followed by a lattice-topped cherry pie.

In a way my conclusion was correct. We do long for ways to block out the harshness of living, though our contemporary darkness might be more about school shootings rather than polio outbreaks or the Great Depression. But what was incorrect in my thinking is that it's only old cookbooks that bring us to that place of hopeful forgetfulness, or hopeful fixitives. Because isn't that what new cookbooks do as well? When we look at recipes or watch cooking shows on television, aren't we seeking the same thing, hoping that if we find a way to turn kale and chia seeds into a mouth-watering dessert, our minds will be wiped clean of guilt and worry and helplessness?

But that's not why I thought that vintage cookbooks and recipes coupled with period cooking implements and demonstrations would make a wonderful exhibit. The real reason is that cookbooks are time capsules and useful anthropological windows into life and culture at the time of writing. The making of a Sunday dinner in 1895 is very different from it's making in 1954, and another thing entirely in 2014. The procurement process for a chicken alone is vastly different, as are the styles of meal taking, our calorie requirements, and many other things. I have cookbooks which feature the "new mechanical iceboxes", war-time meals which accommodate rationing, entertaining without servants, psychedelic Jell-O preparations, and how to achieve better living through the use of the best brand of shortening ("It's Digestible!"). Each one is a snapshot into an era and a way of life that we have left behind. Each one illustrates the concerns and limitations of the day, while focusing on the vast improvements in ease of preparation and quality which have been made available.

For this contest, I outlined a number of potential approaches to inviting people into this way of understanding the people and life in the Merrimack Valley. We'll begin planning in early July, and the exhibit will run during the month of August. I'll keep you posted after that about what to expect, and about the joy I'm experiencing while working on the project.

Meanwhile, I have to decide what to make for tonight's guests, and for Sunday luncheon. Perhaps I'll go vintage.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Local lobstahs are the best lobstahs
Photo by the talented Kevin Harkins
 June 15 is National Lobster Day!

In honor of this auspicious occasion, here's a piece I wrote about local lobsterman Bob Hartigan for Merrimack Valley Magazine:

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Dear Wally: It's me. A judger.

I had to slap myself mentally yesterday, and I hope Wally Lamb would be proud of me for it.

Our neighbor is an outdoorsman of sorts, if you can call someone who putzes around in a bus-sized RV outdoorsy. It is a tan behemoth with dull stripes of brown, worn out by the miles and too many hours in the sunlight. He parks it parallel to our back fence. Once while working in the yard I looked up to see him sitting in the driver's seat, eating a sandwich. I imagine it to be peanut butter and jelly. I looked away quickly, embarrassed at catching him in what felt like an intimate moment. I glanced covertly back a few minutes later, but a curtain had been drawn across the windshield. I didn't know they made those things. Perfect, I suppose, for blocking the sun's rays or probing eyes.

In good weather he periodically pulls the RV out and takes it for a drive. The skyline looks different without it.

We've taken to calling him Kent.

He lives with his elderly mother, a sweet woman who wonders why the neighbors aren't more friendly. His hair is a spiky shock of white and gray over round, startled eyes. Hers is deep black, and her makeup is flawless. She is all crimson lips, powdered wrinkles, and sparkling purple eyeshadow. She owns the house. He owns the RV.

A few weeks ago a car pulled up, towing a camping trailer. It's not as big as the RV, but plenty big enough. The whites are whiter and the finish still retains some shine. Several times we've watched the vehicles dance; the RV pulling out and the trailer changing positions, the RV returning and nestling in to the camper's side like a pair of land Belugas.

We aren't sure who the new person is, male or female, but we've taken to calling him/her Kent Jr. Which brings me to yesterday.

When we first moved in, the single mom of five who owned the house before us stopped by one day to check for mail. She asked "Do you have young children? No? Well that's good because the guy who lives over there is a sex offender." She went on to describe how he'd invited her kids to watch movies in his basement. Her youngest are a set of 6 year old twin girls. They shared a bedroom at the rear of the house, adjacent to the back door which didn't lock. Her eyes were a mix of disapproval and glee, and the tween girl at her side nodded in collusion.

I took the news to Google, which confirmed its truth.

Wally Lamb's latest novel is called We are Water. A key construct of the plot is the sexual abuse of one of the main characters by an older cousin. The cousin's name is Kent. It is an intricately woven story, powerful and sad and satisfying in typical Wally Lamb style. A few weeks ago, I chatted with him a bit about the book and about this character. We talked about the difficulty of creating fully fleshed villains, and he said that it was hard to create humanity in Kent, but that he hoped he'd been successful.

Wally has volunteered in a women's prison for nearly two decades. He teaches writing, and has read a lot of stories written by the inmates. He cites a staggering percentage of sexual abuse among their histories. Through this, Wally has insight into the connectedness of victim becoming villain and the cycle that perpetuates. Insight which most of us will never have, nor would we want.

Yesterday morning the shuffling of recreational vehicles was underway again. I watched the camper being pulled by a black SUV, and called out "Kent Jr. is on the move!" The name became a running joke after Dolce and I read We are Water together. It gave us a way to name our discomfort and wariness without requiring discussion. But yesterday I felt ashamed of myself for saying it. For reducing this person, these people, to caricatures. No humanity was involved in the Kentishness I had created. No recognition of a tortured soul or a reformed mind or the simple presence of the very image and imprint of God. Just a caricature of a child abuser and his (imagined) partner in crime.

I'm still ashamed at the memory.

So Wally, if you are out there, and God, who I know is listening, please forgive me. And please be proud of me for my shame.

Today I will go back to that sex offender website. I'll find out my neighbor's name. And the next time I see him, I will say hello.

Monday, May 26, 2014

River City Renaissance

My latest feature story in Merrimack Valley Magazine highlights the latest revitalization efforts of our fair city.

River City Renaissance

Friday, May 9, 2014

Holly Robinson's Mother's Day wisdom

I'm working on an interview for Merrimack Valley Magazine with my friend the prolific and talented author Holly Robinson. The focus of the piece is her latest book, titled Beach Plum Island, which came out in April.

The novel is set on nearby Plum Island, a place of shifting sands and idyllic summer memories.

Each time I profile a writer I discover that the real story is so much bigger than what I can hope to capture in 800 words. There are stories within the story, all worthy of being told and of being written. Holly's case is no different.Because of that, I expect I might find myself quoting her here and there and everywhere.

For today, on this eve of Mother's Day weekend, I offer you a passage from Beach Plum Island. It will toll in the heart of every mother with grown children, resonating with sweet painful truth. And it will flit in and out of the minds of young mothers along with the hundreds of other helpless platitudes offered by those of us who have marched ahead: "Pay attention and enjoy this time! It will go by faster than you think."

Here it is.
"She supposed it was a universal truth that mothers, after tearing out their hair and tacking their raw beating hearts to the outsides of their clothing for anyone to see, were given no warning that someday their baby-holding days would be over. When that day came, there was no clanging bell or siren, no banner flown across the sky to pinpoint that single precious moment when you rocked your child for the last time."

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Recovering a Vane Art: one family's effort keeps the historic creation of weathervanes alive

Just posted one of my recent pieces for Merrimack Valley Magazine, for your reading enjoyment and visual pleasure: Kevin Harkins did his usual wonderful job with the photography.

Recovering a Vane Art, Spring Home Edition 2014

Monday, May 5, 2014

Rite of passage

Yesterday I went outside to untangle Charlie and help him reach the dirty ball resting in the grass barely a breath away from his nose. His unreachable-ball yelps summon me several times a day.

He loves his new yard. Sometimes I look out to see him sitting on the slope of the small hill. Just resting. Watching. Listening to birds and traffic. Sniffing for neighboring dogs. But most of the time he is in motion, pouncing his torn soccer ball, or tossing a muddy tennis ball and chasing it as it bounces away. He knows the full extent of his run but lengthens it when necessary, pulling like a draft horse till the cone of cement that should have stayed in the ground where I poured it drags along behind him. He strains and pulls in the thrill of the chase.

The yard is littered with fragments of the soccer ball's exterior, along with windblown sticks and acorn caps. Most of the surface-level garbage is gone; we harvested repeatedly last summer and fall, and the retreating snow made the job easier in April. The other day we dug up jutting rocks and loose pieces of rotting wood, uncovering a rusty saw blade, a strange, dirt and moss covered doll/animal cross breed, and a small white container labeled "Lube Tube". We've found broken segments of Lego and beads, plastic chip bags, rusty pieces of metal, faded Coke cans smashed into the dirt, 25 railroad spikes, and enough broken glass to envision our own Kristallnacht.

A single mom of five lived here before us. The youngest were a set of 6 year old twin girls. The eldest was a teenage boy named Eddie. One day the mom came home from her job at Walmart with new bikes for the twins, and Eddie picked up a football size chunk of rock and took his rage out on one of them. Our neighbor Dave is always puttering around in his yard, so the little girl dragged the bike across the street to him in hope, asking "Can you fix it?" But one wheel was bent nearly in half and the frame was broken. There was no fixing it.

The moat of broken shards surrounding the house is Eddie's creation. We'll be picking it up for years. We worry about Charlie's paws when he digs his holes, covering and uncovering balls over and over again as if unearthing a new rodent each time.

We recently bought a bunch of marigolds, petunias, and red geraniums, along with two red outdoor chairs to match the front door. Painting the door was one of my earliest projects. I brushed the cheerful red over dents and dings and kick marks. I painted the rusty uprights that support the front porch roof silver. I painted the vertical face of the crumbling front steps black.

Our reclamation is slow, but steady.

Last year, Dave and another neighbor brought riding mowers over and took down the knee-high weeds and grass. Their relief at our having moved in was voluble. A week ago Dave gave us an 8-year-old push mower, in immaculately maintained condition. For several weeks before this gift, I'd look out the kitchen window while making coffee each morning, watching the robins pecking around and wondering how much longer it would be before we'd have to deal with getting the grass cut.

I've mowed before, at other houses, but it was generally my husbands reluctant job. When my son grew tall enough, the task shifted to him. Those yards had been purchased in both of our names, but within that turbulent and dysfunctional marriage, there were very few things that felt like mine. The property we owned together wasn't one of them.

But I bought this house on my own. I depleted my retirement savings and took an incredible tax hit, but this house feels like mine. Dolce and I have made every selection together and worked side by side to make it habitable and interesting. When we look around at the end of the day, at all that has been accomplished and all that remains to be done, we feel pride and connectedness.

Today we'll go to Walmart and get a gas can. We'll stop at a service station and fill it up. I'll make another careful circuit of the yard to pick up stones that might ruin the mower's blade.

Dolce will transplant the marigolds.

And I will mow our yard. For the first time.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Watching over the scent of honeysuckle

We did a lot of driving when I was a kid. We went to visit a grandmother, a great grandmother, some aunts and great uncles, and various friends. The trips weren't very long, but they were frequent.

A few times we stopped unannounced to visit a friend of my Mom's. I think they worked together at an old folk's home before Mom had to quit due to heartbreak. We'd pull in the driveway wondering if they'd be home. They would invariably welcome us in, and we'd stay for a few hours.

I'm not sure what my brother David and I did on these visits. I don't think other children were present. I don't recall much about it, actually. But I do remember the bathroom.

The bathroom was bright and modern, especially compared to the room dedicated to the same purpose in our own house. We lived in an old place purchased from a pair of Victorian sisters, a sort of urban farmhouse of the era. It was set in a neighborhood rather than farm country, but it had a huge back lot on which several apple trees, a plum tree, a grape arbor, strawberry plants, and blackberry brambles were drifting into wildness. The sisters left a crank telephone on the dining room wall, a wonderful enameled hutch in the kitchen, and a toilet positioned in a tiny closet space. I have no idea where the elderly girls must have bathed. Perhaps they heated water on top of the stove and poured it into a galvanized tub.

We moved the toilet into the adjacent room which had once been used as a bedroom, and installed an old fashioned claw-foot tub. The only other thing in the large room was a closet, but it wasn't just any closet. This closet was a place of seething life. A place where puppies were birthed, and where a multiplication of mice once broke out of their overfull Habitrail and scattered throughout the house.

The room was dim with age-browned wallpaper and a dark linoleum carpet. A picture of an angel by a pool in a garden of peonies hung near the sink.

In contrast, the bathroom of my Mom's friend was small, and tiled, and bright, and scrubbed. It was like visiting a foreign land.

Two things are vivid in my recollecting. The first is a creature standing sentinel atop the tank of the commode. She was an odd sort of watchman, dressed in a picture hat and an ankle-length hoop-skirted gown. Her eyes were glazed from the tedium of the assignment, her arms stiff from maintaining her erect posture.

I couldn't not touch her. I had to pull her up out of the confining tube and make sure she had legs. They were there all right, unbending and rigid like her arms. Santa had recently delivered my Malibu Barbie, who's long shining hair hung straight as a curtain. But this doll's hair was spun from ultrafine strands, like the flossy artificial snow you carefully stretch across the branches of a Christmas tree. She was much lighter in weight than my Barbie. Hollow. Insubstantial. Somehow less-than.

Once assured that the legs were there, I would slip them back into position and fluff up the many layers of crocheted skirt to cover up the paper roll, hoping that our hostess wouldn't notice that the doll had been fiddled with.

The other thing I remember about that bathroom was the jar of Avon Honesuckle Cream Sachet that was displayed on an open shelf. I'd unscrew the lid and sniff in the defining scent of this place and these (now) faceless people. It was foreign and exotic and cloying. I could never quite figure out if I liked it.

None of these things exist anymore. Not toilet paper dolls or cream sachets or simply dropping by unannounced. Now we text first, tuck extra rolls of tissue in rustic woven baskets, and buy our scents from Bath and Body Works rather than Avon.

The world has moved on.

But in my memory, she still stands there, that Southern Belle of a not-Barbie. Waiting for me to come back, and keeping watch over an era.

Monday, April 28, 2014

On gratitude for shared light

My recent experience at the Newburyport Literary Festival cemented a conclusion that has been slowly forming over the past several years.

I've never spent time with Hollywood celebrities or rock stars. Given the stories you hear about so many of them, the divas and arrogance and insincerity, who really wants to? And though I've never specifically thought about whether the literati would be similar, I think I must have assumed it.

But let me be very clear: it's not true.

This year's literary fest had a stunning line up of authors, including Wally Lamb, Richard Russo, Jenna Blum, Caroline Leavitt, Ann Hood, and Newburyport's fair-haired, dark-headed, black-sheep of a hero Andre Dubus III. We are blessed that Andre lives here, but the rest chose to take time away and come. Sure they want to sell books, but there is a lot more to it, and to them, than that.

The camaraderie among the great lights was palpable and endearing. They clearly know each other, like each other, and respect each other's work.

But the camaraderie extends out beyond this little circle. They seem to actually enjoy helping other writers. The little guys, scribblers like me who write and wait and wonder if we can ever make a living or a difference by doing what we do. Perhaps it's because so many of them are lettered professors of the craft, trained and practiced in sharing encouragement. But I don't think so. I think it goes deeper.

I think the secret lies in empathy. To be a writer you have to be empathic. You have to want to climb into the skin of another person and live out their story. The world each of these authors knows best is the tortured world of writing. They know it first hand, upside down and sideways, so it doesn't take much for their empathetic natures to respond, offering stories about writing processes and work spaces, about how they seek feedback or protect their work like forming fetuses. They explain that there is a cost of public acclaim which can include paralyzing fear of failure. They cite numbers of rejections so that we'll feel better, and reminisce about phone calls from Oprah to give us hope.

They repeat their stories because they know we need to hear them.

And we do.

Thank you, you glittering line up of literary stars, for your generosity of time, talent and compassion. You help the rest of us, for at least one more day, to not give up.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

New England Weathervane Shop

Merrimack Valley Magazine recently posted a video to accompany my story about the New England Weathervane Shop in the recent Spring Home edition. Check it out!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Latest clips

I posted my latest Merrimack Valley Magazine feature story and a few Little Bitz for your viewing pleasure:

Vintage Jewelry Makes and Inspired Comeback
March/April 2014 Little Bitz

Now run out and get yourself a copy!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Simple industry, simple pleasures

This morning I saw one of the friendly neighborhood squirrels pawing in the soft dirt outside our kitchen window. He sniffed around to find a likely spot and began digging, quickly unearthing an acorn and tucking it into his cheek.

I've often watched squirrels in the fall, scurrying around as if a nor'easter could blow in any second. But until today I'd never seen them recovering the fruits of their labor.

The house was still asleep. The coffee began to burble and steam. The cat wound around my legs in greeting.

Simple pleasures.

Friday, January 17, 2014

January is site cleanup time!

Bill Partridge of Piel Craftsmen in Newburyport, MA restores an antique model ship. This shot comes from a piece called The Call of the Sea in the November/December 2013 issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine..

I'm getting ready to pitch several story ideas to a few recently found (and awesome) magazines, and so I've cleaned up this site a bit, and reorganized my clips for easier reading.

I've got more to post, so check back soon. Meanwhile, wish me luck on the queries!