Idling in Vermont

Idling in Patagonia

Some forty years after its publication Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia is still considered a pivotal and authoritative piece of travel writing about this 400,000-square-mile South American region. Ferdinand Magellan called the tall aboriginals he encountered there Patagones after a mythic character, it is rumored, hence its name. Straddling two countries and claiming most of a vast mountain range, Patagonia is bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Atlantic to the east, and all but shakes Antarctica’s hand in its southernmost reaches; precisely where it begins in the north is arguable. My own ‘journey’ there began with a mammoth piece of content I’m writing for a client. But the very idea this delicious-sounding book existed prompted my off-the-clock quest for it.

That, together with a single glowing accomplishment: I managed to nudge my first-generation Kindle out of its long slumber, and after several hours’ worth of uploading no fewer than four system updates, finally pressed it into service once more. I like my old-style Kindle for its satisfying, clicky keyboard—the kind that talks back to you affirmingly—and for its Etch-A-Sketch-like screen that does not tire the eyes and overstimulate the brain at bedtime the way most devices these days do, so the experts say. I pat myself on the back any time I win a battle with technology: this one was measurable, rewarded by the instant, magical download of a new book.

In Patagonia is my favorite kind of writing, one thoughtful, descriptive essay after another, stitched together in a sensible way that takes the reader bumping right along for the ride across the arid steppe. Any gaps in Chatwin’s account he fills with ingenious turns of phrase and the quiet kind of humor that belongs to the English alone; stop paying attention for an instant and you’ll miss it. Chatwin is an exquisite storyteller and that is all, weaving illuminating bits of history throughout the 1970s landscape as he sketches it, staying true to his descriptive narrative style. It is a story we already know, of successful and failed European conquests, of aboriginal tribes whose temperaments vary from heroically savage to comically irreverent, of expats seeking freedom from persecution in the homeland. Europeans of questionable provenance insinuated themselves into this Patagonian landscape centuries ago as alleged princes and kings, so they claimed, bestowing fictional titles on the ‘Amerindian’ natives in exchange for land and wealth: you can convince any tribe of naked drunks to agree to a lopsided deal, went the thinking. Things never seem to work out precisely as one hopes they will; the natives have a way of skewering and roasting you on a spit when they come to and figure out what’s what.

I envy Chatwin’s excursion while my engine idles here in Vermont. Not that I have some unsated wanderlust: the idea of a Patagonia-style sojourn appeals, but I probably lack the constitution for it, to say nothing of the bank account. One thing is certain: my mood always hangs on the promise of what is coming, even if that is unclear. Lately ‘what is coming’ seems to be lollygagging along at an irksome pace, coming to a dead stop now and then to examine some inconsequential weed growing out of a sidewalk crack. (Even this spring’s arrival is maddeningly complicit in this plan, teasing us with minuscule bits of warm sunshine, but mainly handing us damp cold and grey days that linger like a tiresome dinner guest.) I need a trumpet fanfare, or at least some sign of progress where there is none, or so it seems.

Meanwhile, back in the tiny rental house at the end of a mountain road. Where the partial remains of two failed marriages collide with things that belong to someone else, the balance left to languish in storage. Where the kitchen counter doubles as a pantry. Where a single bathroom groans in protest every time a tap is opened. Where a timid dog retreats often to the security his cheerful yellow quilt-covered crate behind a sofa, a crate whose top doubles as an adjunct desk littered with receipts and file folders and Kleenex boxes and other objects—a broken antique sugar dish in a Ziploc bag (another casualty of too-tight quarters); a takeout menu from a local eatery; random USB cables; and a stack of newspapers eager to wrap and box precious possessions yet again. Nothing can be put in its place, for there is no place for the putting.

A thousand miles away from me a twenty-something also idles, waiting for his life to inch forward like Patagonia’s own Perito Moreno in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, the curious glacier that advances about six feet every day, calving building-sized icebergs into the water around it. Be patient, I urge, reminding him he could be doing things now to nudge his life forward, however glacial its pace seems to this restless young being.

I could heed my own advice in the place where I am treading water now, yearning for permanence and community and walls I don’t mind painting.

My friend Rebecca’s goat Darcy finally had her twins a couple of days ago. Rebecca, whose life and writing and cheese and food and photography are filled with so much inspired beauty. Were I a true Vermonter, I’d want to live like my friend Rebecca and her family, I think. But I believe that is called coveting thy neighbor’s oxen, if memory serves, and it surely applies to their goats, too (never mind that Rebecca and her family live a solid two hours from here: in these parts they still count as neighbors, and anyway I used to live much closer). But I will never achieve the ‘true Vermonter’ milestone measured any way you want to; my life is my life. I still draw inspiration from Rebecca, and from Darcy-the-Goat, who took her sweet time about kidding her twins, “chewing her cud like a bored receptionist chewing her gum,” wrote Rebecca. I think Chatwin and Rebecca must be related. Or maybe Darcy and the Natives.

Things never seem to work out the way one hopes they will, but they finally work out the way they must.

Summer Reading: Some Promising Looking Fresh Hell

What fresh hell can this be?

Beach Reading 2
Accidental Literature

It is a line sometimes attributed to Shakespeare, but Dorothy Parker said it. Dang Shakespeare. It’s one of those quips that sounds so civilized, so much better than any number of other crude things one might choose to say when a situation demands it (wtf comes to mind).

I found Dorothy Parker in my great-grandmother Gracie’s basement when I was twelve, in her house way up high on a hill above the main channel of the Tennessee River. It was a jaw-dropping piece of land where Granny Grace lived in her little whitewashed board-and-batten cottage, its beauty completely lost on my bored, twelve-year-old summer vacation self. At the time I could not have foreseen I would start my own family there.

Boredom spawns creativity, they say. It did not during those long hours that stretched between time trying to sit still while Granny Grace swilled black coffee and chain smoked and told the same stories over and over (still mercifully entertaining on the thousandth telling), and shopping excursions (five pounds of bacon at the highway grocery) and chores (one summer we painted her house), and family dinner much later. I stupidly longed to be back home in the heat of Memphis with my twelve-year-old co-conspirators.

But left to my own devices I explored what there was to explore: potted African violets covering every inch of a massive round wood table; oil portraits of beloved family members (even dogs); the curious tintypes in Granny Grace’s ancient photo albums; and on a slab of concrete foundation that served as an impromptu bookshelf in the basement, a collection of cast-off paperbacks and back issues of magazines (yes, even magazines devoted to curating African violets). A found collection of Dorothy Parker short stories was my salvation at a horrible point on the pre-adolescent continuum when the excitement of adult life has revealed itself, but only through a foggy lens, and still well beyond reach.

A high school Latin teacher once said, it does not matter how you’re exposed to art, or music, or literature—only that you’re exposed to it. So if Bugs Bunny serves as your entrée to the world of Wagner, she went on, so be it. I think I agree with this. A damp Knoxville basement is as good a place as any to fall in love with the writing of Dorothy Parker. I tore through that book scarcely taking a breath. That was also the moment when I discovered the great appeal of the short story as a form.

Many years later I found Cormac McCarthy at a time when I was living in the same neighborhood where McCarthy himself once lived. His seamy autobiographical novel Suttree transfixed me like that dog-eared copy of Dorothy Parker stories had years before, Suttree still more because of its Knoxville setting; I had a good fix on the landscape in that delicious story. So yesterday when I came across a bargain paperback copy of The Crossing in our über-pricey local book store I snatched it up; seems fitting for a late-summer beach trip a few weeks hence. I couldn’t leave the store without a collection of short stories: a used copy of The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by one John Updike shouted at me from the stacks.

Only one hellish oversight, Mr. Updike, if a little stale now:  you left out the Dorothy Parker. (Wtf?)

Reflections: Loss, Life’s Frailty, & Gratitude

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.—Groucho MarxNYPL Digital Collection Woman and Dog

Mind you, this is not too profound. After last weekend’s disappointing discovery of the incipient decline of many, many of my books I am feeling better about them tonight. I’m lucky to live with somebody who loves me and pushed up his sleeves without provocation to help me save the rest of my collection. A tall bookcase came out of storage last Monday and stands smooshed between a window on one side and a gigantic china cabinet that belongs to the landlord on the other; it seems a little out of place, like it has not yet been properly introduced to the cabinet, but I am ever so grateful there was room on that particular wall for it.

I’ve emptied three large boxes of books, then cleaned and shelved them. There are many more to go and a couple more bookcases to bring out of storage and somehow squeeze among the rest of our belongings—it’s a little like forcing a puzzle piece that does not really fit. Like so many other things in this transitional chapter, it’ll have to do.

The Book Project will continue to unfold over a couple of weeks before it’s done. For now I’m wiping the sweat off my brow, in a good way.

It still does not take much these days to get me thinking about loss, and the books were a predictable catalyst for it: the loss of my home and family, my hard-won ballet school, many of my personal belongings, and then my beloved canine companion Clarence a short while before the very livelihood I moved to Vermont to pursue in the first place was yanked out from under me. There was a moment when I was shaking an angry fist skyward: it all seemed like too damn much.

And then I blew my nose, pushed up my sleeves, and got on past it. Doesn’t mean I don’t still have moments of angst, bitterness, and even stronger feelings. I don’t like going down that road, but I do sometimes when little things set me off: a landscape, a news story, a piece of music—or a book. I think humans are hard wired like that, and it’s part and parcel of continuing to heal and move forward, so long as we’re relatively healthy and stable to begin with.

I don’t live by silly quotes of the kind you see découpaged on living room walls, that are meant to daily remind us how to live our lives. Nothing against them if they really help people, but the cynic in me tends to snigger. Maybe if there is a judgment day I’ll be forced to recant: Sorry I did not live, love, nor laugh when instructed; my bad.

But I do reflect on the higher meaning of things I’ve experienced. Recently it’s been all about living without the things and people once near and dear to me, every. single. day. In the last year since I’ve started fiscally rebuilding my life I’ve been gobsmacked by this simple idea: you really do learn to appreciate the things you can’t have anymore.

This thought tugged at me a couple of weeks ago when I left the dentist’s office after not having the luxury of dental care for about four years. And again last Saturday when HCB and I joined a small group of <mainly> new friends to break bread together and enjoy each other’s company—something I once did routinely, never imgaining that too would soon be a luxury.

Last night HCB and I visited a local inn whose proprietors he has known for years, where we had an indulgent glass of pinot noir and shared a flourless chocolate torte in an intimate bar: divine. I also spent a few minutes enjoying the company of the oversized yellow lab who owns the place. This invoked in me equal parts of joy and overwhelming sadness.

It came bubbling right up to the surface again: you have no dog. YOU HAVE NO DOG. I have lived very few years of my life without a dog. In my professional life as a marketing writer I spend a lot of time writing about dogs for a particular client. The research is fun and so is the writing. But I am almost daily reminded I still have no dog. We’re not allowed to have a dog in this house, and when Clarence and I once came here as visitors, the tricky spiral staircase was too much for him. There was a lot of pacing and vocalizing when we were not all together on the same level of the house. A lot. Last night I thoroughly enjoyed loving on the big ‘ole yellow lab. It was magical. Did you know I have been writing stories about you? I wanted to ask him. When I finally have a dog of my own again, I am confident I will appreciate him more than I ever appreciated a dog, if that is possible. (Yes, it will be a “him” and his name will be Jeeves. Or Wooster. Or Jack.)

I leave you with a clip from one of my favorite movies, Sideways, which HCB and I watched on the telly Friday night. It was this movie to inspire our glass of pinot. And it is a scene that so beautifully expresses many of the emotions I’ve felt (and still struggle with) the last few years. But it will make you laugh, I hope. Go forth and live and love, also.

Warning: this clip is most emphatically NOT kid-friendly. Do yourself a favor and watch it in high def if it does not automatically load that way. Oh, and hat tip to my new(ish) friend Deb, who put the New York Public Library Digital Collections link on my radar, whence comes the great doggie image at the top of the post. Cheers!

Forgotten Books, Forever Friends, & Harper Lee

Books II

In Memphis and other parts of the South and Midwest powerful storms are inseparable from the spring and summer landscape. Once upon a time civil defense sirens meant a tornado, prompting the requisite sequestration of our family in a tiny downstairs bathroom under piles of pillows. By age six or so I learned to fear any old thunderstorm that blew through our suburb.

My parents were having none of that, even when the power went out as it often did.

But I was allowed to burn a small votive candle in a ceramic owl lantern on my nightstand, and I could read by its warm light to my heart’s content, well past my bedtime, for as long as I wanted—even on a school night. My grandmother gave me a cheaply bound fairytale anthology when I was about eight; its stories and monochromatic illustrations held me in good stead through many a storm before it eventually fell apart.

I soon forgot the wind and lightning and angry claps of thunder, drifting to sleep instead wondering how it was possible for a princess to feel a pea through all those layers of fluff, or why any respectable prince would climb a tower prison on a girl’s ponytail (to say nothing of how she grew it that long in the first place). That book and others served as a powerful tincture to ease big anxieties in a fraidy-cat girl; it was the start of a trend that led to a voracious appetite for the printed page.

Books V

I had every intention of honoring Harper Lee today, the author of my favorite story, one that came to me a few years after the fairy tale years and captivated me even more. I had so much to say about it, and about her, her writing style, how the South seems to churn out exemplary fiction writers through the ages. I listened to an assessment of To Kill a Mockingbird on the radio on Friday, and a remembrance of Harper Lee today. The voice-over from the 1962 movie took me right back to the story and to the South, and reminded me why I love them both so much. And I always, always identified with Scout, the story’s narrator.

Big Thinkers have tried to figure out why the book has had such staying power: why it is still read in schools, still talked about and studied, still relevant. In the radio piece I heard on Friday theories were advanced left and right about racism and Atticus Finch’s character especially (particularly in the new book, which I have neither seen nor read but in which he is purportedly revealed as racist).

Here is my own explanation in a nutshell: all these folks are overthinking it. To Kill a Mockingbird is a good story, and Ms. Lee was one of the best-ever descriptive writers, and that is all. You can tear apart themes about race and the Deep South all you want, but the bottom line is this—Harper Lee wrote an engaging narrative, and she wrote it well. She knocked it out of the park, as they say. She wrote the book just before I was born: she could not possibly have known the tenor of race relations in America in the here and now. But if the book speaks to a new generation of readers, all the better. It’s that staying power, some would argue, that makes a thing a true classic.

Today when I tried to unearth my beautiful hardcover edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, though, I ran into a road block: I could not find it.

I climbed over piles in the basement storage room, trying to locate a box that looked familiar. I peeled back packing tape and lifted cardboard flaps, scanning titles, pulling out volumes one at a time. Nothing.

Then I found an open box and removed a few books stacked on the top. My hand found its way to a family history, the spine covered in mildew and the cover warped. Thence to a David Sedaris collection—the same. And a beautiful edition of The Wind in the Willows I once read aloud to my son, the slipcover damaged, and the book showing signs of moisture damage. I was horrified. Every single box contained books in a state of decline, damp to the touch, or reeking of must.

Books IV

I’ve moved three times in as many years, and with each move another precious possession is lost or damaged; I suppose that is to be expected. Before my thousand-mile haul from Tennessee to Vermont in 2012 I’d already spent the better part of a calendar year paring down the artifacts of a failed marriage and family life to the prized possessions (many pre-dating my marriage) that would see me into an unknown future. The remains were what I considered important, the things I would squeeze into the big yellow Penske truck on the front lawn of my erstwhile home. Loss and damage: it’s a bitter pill to swallow when you’ve already downsized to the things that are truly meaningful.

I feel a connection to my books going back to those stormy Memphis days and even before. Ironically, I spend far more time writing now than I do reading. But it bothers me to my core that my books are in a state of disarray, that some are damaged or ruined, that others are missing: silly as it sounds, I feel like I’ve failed my trusted friends.

This afternoon I resolved to fix the problem. We are packed into cramped quarters here, a condition not likely to change soon. But my bookcases are coming out of storage and every single book will find a proper place on a shelf, including my missing hardover edition of To Kill a Mockingbird.

The civil defense sirens have fallen silent; it’s high time all my old friends came out of sequestration.

Books I