I am a reluctant traveler. Even as I long to break out of my routine, managing the details for leaving home is often like ripping a particularly sticky bandage from sensitive skin. But by the end of this past summer, I was ready go and that’s when a trip to Australia fell right in my lap.
The possibility of heading down under had been brewing on the back burner ever since our friends announced they would be spending their sabbatical there. The decision to go, however, wasn’t made until the last possible moment.
Yes, I have photos of kangaroos and emus and beautiful scenery, which I may eventually share here. But for now, I give you an ibis.
These beaky birds are as populous in Sydney’s public parks and gardens as pigeons are in New York.
And they show up in the work of artist and ceramicist Anne Francey. I have admired Francey for some time now — as much for her unshakeable grace as a person and a parent as for her art.
One bright spot in what has been a rather long and isolating winter was interviewing and writing about Reuben Radding — a photographer and musician who I met through my older son.
Reuben and I not only discussed his photographs, he also shared some hard-won wisdom about his goals for making art. He notes that the road to bitterness is paved with expectations that one’s work must follow a specific trajectory, and that failing to develop an audience beyond one’s fellow practitioners is a trap. With that understanding, his goals are clear-cut and simple,
“The core of my ambition is to make good work. To find an audience for it that feels genuine. I don’t care about fitting into a pre-established path.”
After a winter of taking my own “pretty” pictures of snow-laden trees, and looking at visions of human, culinary, and architectural perfection on social media, examining his work took me to a truer, more essential place.
At first, his images ask you to look, and then, they make you look again.
It was saucer-sized, its plush, velvety petals curled over the rim of a small vase. It had been plucked from the bush that morning. The color: mauve? brownish pink? The exact shade is hard to remember, let alone describe — a color I’d never seen before.
It was a lover’s rose, placed on our neighbor’s kitchen counter to welcome her home.
“Ivy,” she breathed.
“Ivy,” also known as Ivan Massar, was a photographer, neighbor, and a friend, beloved by all. He passed away over the weekend. He was 89.
I feel lucky to have known him, and regret not knowing him better.
He left many important and beautiful images behind. Please take a look.
This summer I’ve begun numerous posts and articles – ideas that haven’t quite gelled. This week alone I started one post on lipstick and another about a news story that I read back in July. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who is good at finishing things, taking a project and seeing it through to the end. When it comes to writing for myself, however, it’s not so straightforward.
This morning, Karina and I went for a walk at Mount Misery. As we wandered down its broad trails, we met a friendly, apricot-colored Cockapoo named Goldie. A little later we heard something big running through the trees. It was a white-tailed deer and Karina gave chase. I called and called, until she finally returned to my side.
A minute later, I heard the loud patter of rain hitting the leaves above. Under their shelter, only a few cooling drops made it to the back of my neck.
The rain changed the look of the trail and for a few moments, I wasn’t sure which turn to take. We backtracked, and then I realized we were on the right path after all. That slight change in the light and resulting misstep reminded me that meandering, both in life and in writing, is important—essential, actually.
Those unfinished pieces and half-baked ideas have not been a waste of time. You have to keep working, even when you feel as though you are going nowhere. Regular practice provides us with more opportunities to get lost and then pay attention when we find ourselves on the edge of new territory.
One of the projects I’ve been working on this summer is a piece about an artist I admire. I have learned much from her and her work. Among other things, she has reminded me that making mistakes and following false leads can force you to explore unexpected places. Meandering, wandering, starting and stopping: all good.
Eventually, something will take hold, and you’ll find your way home.
My grandparents lived in a brick house with black shutters. It sits as it always has on a tree-lined street and maintains the solid address of 25 Cabot Street.
As you face the house, the driveway and yard to the right dip down at a steep pitch, flattening when they reach the back yard, making the lawn’s grassy slope a safe place for rolling or sledding, depending on the season.
The yard behind the house abuts a neighbor’s, and when my grandparents lived there, it was home to a couple of pear trees and my grandfather’s rose garden.
These are the facts as I remember them, and snapshots like this one verify my mental image of the place.
But the remainder of my memories of that house and its inhabitants — the scratch of my grandfather’s whiskers when I kissed his cheek, or the smell of the single rose he’d place in a vase atop a mahogany hutch in the living room — are mine alone. I don’t know what my brothers see and hear when they mentally walk through its rooms, if they do, or if that house haunts their dreams the way it does mine.
I loved my grandmother, but I adored my grandfather, and he adored all of us. Again, I have evidence: a photographic proof made in his basement darkroom with notes.
Because he died a few weeks before my 11th birthday, my recollections of drawing with him at our kitchen table, or counting sidewalk cracks as we took our ritual Sunday walk around his neighborhood come in snatches like a crudely edited home movie.
My feelings connected with a time so long ago that ended too soon were reawakened as I read Karen Joy Fowler’s latest novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which explores the tricky terrain of memory.
Rosemary, the story’s narrator, was five years old when her sister Fern was abruptly removed from their home. Rosemary’s earliest memories are of living on a farm, where she was heaped with attention, and where she and Fern were always together, a tangle of limbs on their mother’s lap. Until one day, Fern was gone.
What happened? The memories Rosemary has held onto for years are a quavery, incomplete version of events. Her older brother’s memories are another, more judgmental accounting of what happened and why. Eventually, Rosemary’s instincts reveal yet another story.
When an early connection is abruptly cut off, the depth of that loss is something one could spend a lifetime pondering and exploring. After years of tamping down some important truths, Rosemary eventually releases her memories and unravels the mystery of how Fern came to leave.
It is a fascinating read and well worth the tears that come during its deeply satisfying conclusion.
I’ve never had a sister, and I’ve never lost a sibling. Yet I understand what it means to lose someone important during your formative years. Their absence and your imperfect memories may haunt you. But you also might realize that some love is powerful enough to shape and sustain you long after time has reduced its face and voice to shadowy afterimages.
When I’m about to embark on something new, different, and a little daunting, I often remind myself to “go with the flow,” stay in the present, and loosen my grip on the controls. I imagine myself diving off a cliff and taking a very long ride down into a warm, welcoming sea.
Putting away my expectations, hopes, and fears and just taking the new adventure one step at a time allows me to release the burdensome stones that tend to accumulate during everyday life.
It’s like spring cleaning for the mind. We take a few steps back,
put the past aside,
and step into the light.
The photos above were taken at the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine. Walking into this atrium was like stepping into a serenity bath. These figures are locked in their quiet reveries for all time. Standing among them, I felt all the residual heaviness I’d accumulated over the past winter vaporize under their cool gazes.
Stuck as they are, these statues remind us that we can lighten our mental load by letting go of those tightly held ideas that hold us back. Instead of jumping in to make “wise” pronouncements about people and things, we can instead bolster our wisdom by simply holding still and taking the time to listen and observe.
In a few days I’ll be traveling to new places. The landscape, culture, and people will be very different from what I am used to. We won’t even speak the same language. So that I don’t miss anything and take it all in, I’m going to follow my own advice. Mentally, at least, I’m packing light.
January is when we realize that the bills, the deadlines, and other unpleasantness we put aside for the holidays are still waiting. They didn’t disappear when we turned the last page of our 2012 calendars and entered the new year.
The color palette outside makes me realize that as much as I admire those clean-looking, all white interiors in design books, I could never, ever live in one. Even a pink-ish sky at sunset looks cold and lonely.
There’s nothing like January, with its anemic sky, dirty snow, and “clean slate” reputation to make you take stock and focus. In fact, focus is one of my key words for 2013. I’ve never been one to write down New Year’s resolutions, so this is a first.
It’s time to rein in my dilettante tendencies, stop dabbling, stay off the internet, avoid the TV, and write more, read more, listen to more music, and do all of it with the intensity I had as a girl. Back then, my mom amused herself by saying nonsensical things to me while I was reading, just to see how long it would take to pull me back from wherever the book had sent me. In fact, it took several minutes before her voice would penetrate my fictional world and I’d look up, blinking as though awakening from a deep sleep.
These days, my eyes are on the book, but my brain is elsewhere — worrying about friends, thinking about the laundry, or anxiously tallying the balance in our bank account.
Gone too are the days when I would lie on my bed for hours listening to music, so fully caught up in its emotion that the world outside my bedroom walls ceased to exist.
Sometimes, often, writing pulls me into the “zone” where I am so engaged with the words that I forget about time, that loaf of bread I’d meant to start, or my loved one’s need for civilized conversation.
I want to transfer that intensity into other domains: to do more, feel more, know more. But I can’t do any of that without fully committing to the task at hand.
There are other words on my 2013 list as well, but first I’m going to concentrate on focus. The white days of January seem like a good time to start.
Sometime during the summer of 2009, I received an email from my friend, Martha Nichols, inviting me to participate in a literary blog she was starting called “Talking Writing.” A seasoned writer and editor, Martha sent the email to several of her writing colleagues asking them to participate in and comment on her new endeavor.
A year later, in the fall of 2010, Martha and the equally experienced, Elizabeth Langosy, with some help from me, launched Talking Writing: A Magazine for Writers. Since that time, I have had the great luck and pleasure to be a part of this groundbreaking endeavor.
Working long hours, Martha and Elizabeth have poured their brilliance and passion into creating a fully formed magazine that is beautiful to look at and loaded with thoughtful and unique voices and perspectives. If you haven’t read it, you should.
In fact, I’d encourage all of my blogging friends to think about pitching a piece or two. TW can’t offer you money — what literary magazine can? — but you will have the satisfaction of working with its talented team of editors, and your byline will appear in the pages of a zine that receives close to 9000 hits per month.
While I enjoy the freedom of writing unedited on my own blog, it also feels good to put myself in the hands of these capable and talented women. They help their writers develop their pieces in the most supportive way possible. Martha and Elizabeth are great teachers and they always make my work better.
So I was flattered when they asked to republish a post from my blog. Martha assured me that it just required a “few, minor edits.” And while she was true to her word, those edits helped turn a blog post into a publishable piece.
“Porcelain Bones,” appeared here last March as “Inside a Potter’s Studio, a Daughter Finds Answers.” I hope you will give the edited version a read. While you are there, check out the rest of TW’s November/December issue — and if you haven’t already, take a few extra seconds to subscribe.
When it comes to technology, I can be a bit shy. And, yes, shy is the right word here. Whenever I get a new piece of equipment, I don’t dive in and immerse myself by either experimenting with all of the buttons, or by cozying up with the manual on the couch for a few hours.
I like to circle, develop a feel, and take my time. Even the unpacking should be a bit ceremonial.
But as I mentioned in a previous post, our camera died. The new one arrived just as we were about to drive up to Maine for a few days. We had been invited to spend some time with friends on Little Cranberry Island, across the water from Acadia National Park.
You travel to the island via the mail boat. And once there, you don’t feel stranded, but life does proceed at a calmer, more sedate pace.
The view from our hosts’ front door is spacious.
And here’s what you see when you walk around the island.
One of the best things about the trip was spending time with our hosts’ 10-year-old son. I love that he is in our lives. And I’m so glad he came along when he did. It has been a privilege to witness his development from baby, to toddler, to a thinking, feeling human being. He is whip smart and funny.
He’s not shy about technology, oh no. He asked if he could use my camera while we were on the mail boat. His nimble fingers made short work of finding the special effects button.
Photo by Nick Howe
Photo by Nick Howe
Once on the mainland, we took a walk around Jordan Pond inside Acadia National Park.
Photo by Nick Howe
So, dear readers, may your remaining summer days be both slow and sweet, and may their memory keep you warm during the shorter, cooler ones ahead.
As for me, my “shyness” should dissipate soon and I expect I’ll keep busy and warm by poking, prodding, and giving this new camera the third degree.
Women who are in their sixties and older have been on my mind lately. While I have a few years before my own 60th birthday, I’m noticing that late middle-age/ early old age can be one of the most powerful and vibrant times in a woman’s life.
It started at a Patty Larkin concert that took place right here in Concord. I’ve listened to her music for years, but I’d never seen her in person.
If you’d asked me to describe her voice, I’d have told you that it has a smile in it. And after seeing her play, I can now say that, in fact, she does smile when she sings.
From where I sat, Larkin looked and sounded like a woman in her early forties. Her body is toned, and her smooth, youthful voice reveals none of the wear and tear that often comes with time. And the inventive way she noodled around on her electric guitar reminded me of my 29-year-old son, who plays and composes experimental music.
“How old do you think she is?” I asked my husband during intermission. He pulled out his smartphone and looked her up. “Sixty-one,” he told me. Really? Wow.
Close up she may not look quite as young as she does from afar, but the vibrancy and joy she exudes while performing is that of an artist at the height of her powers.
A few weeks later, another powerful, older woman came across my radar. I reviewed Lilly Ledbetter’s memoir, Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond.
After 19 years as a supervisor, Ledbetter learned that Goodyear was paying her significantly less than her male counterparts. She took her battle for fair pay all the way to the Supreme Court.
The court decided against her, ruling that the statute of limitations had run out on her claim. She lost her personal battle, but she had the guts (and grit) to persevere so that the rest of us wouldn’t be treated in the same way.
In one of his first official actions as President, Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which provides a more reasonable time limit for such claims. Now in her early 70s, Ledbetter went from the factory floor, to testify before Congress.
While reading Ledbetter’s memoir — which I could barely put down—I was reminded of how filthy factory work is (I welded electronic bug zappers during college), and of the gauntlet many women must run when they work with men who are unable to check their sexual urges at the workplace door.
Ledbetter isn’t an artist, nor is she a glamorous celebrity (though she’s both eloquent and elegant in words and appearance), but a regular person who grew up in poverty, worked grueling hours to help support her family, and then became a spokeswoman for us all. She is forever on my list of inspirational women.
Then last week, at another event in town, I heard historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, 69, and photographer Annie Leibovitz, 62, discuss Leibovitz’s latest project, “Pilgrimage,” which is currently on exhibit at the Concord Museum.
These two smart, articulate women shared personal stories filled with self-deprecating humor. And while Goodwin awakened my somewhat dormant interest in history, my focus was on Leibovitz.
“Pilgrimage” is a photographic study of places and the personal effects, work, and surroundings of several historical figures. Some of them, Thoreau, Emerson, and Louisa May Alcott once lived here in Concord.
Leibovitz began the project during a difficult time in her own life. She needed to do something that wasn’t an editor’s assignment, but that was instead self-driven and that satisfied her own interests and curiousity. In healing herself, she did what many of us do —what I do when I’m overwhelmed, sad, or in a rut — she shifted gears and focused on the minutiae.
While I might weed the garden, detail the house, or start a cooking project, Leibovitz focused her camera on the light outside Emerson’s window, the beat-up surface of Virginia Woolf’s desk, and Georgia O’Keefe’s box of handmade pastels.
Both Leibovitz and Goodwin agreed that it is these kinds of details that make the person come alive. Later, as I walked through the exhibit past photographs of Annie Oakley’s riding boots, Marion Anderson’s concert gown, and the top edge of Eleanor Roosevelt’s desk drawer, etched with her signature, they came alive for me too.
Rather than becoming diminished as they age, these women are only getting stronger. I have heard women my own age complain that they feel invisible. With no regular job and an empty nest, I occasionally feel this way too.
Women like these show us that we don’t have to fade away. If we keep working, doing, and learning, we can be better, we can do more.
I leave you with another video of Patty Larkin. Check out the way she works that electric guitar with her bow.