Monday, March 26, 2012

Robert Frost's birthday

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Robert Frost. When I was very young, probably no more than three or four, my mother began reading to me from Complete Poems of Robert Frost, a well-worn volume with the poet’s signature embossed in gold on its green cover. Not every night—she read me picture books and fairy tales and, later, Charlotte’s Web and The Secret Garden and Beezus and Ramona. But every now and then, she’d take out the old green book of Robert Frost’s poetry and say, “Let’s read poems tonight.”

My mother liked the peaceful, pastoral poems—“The Pasture”—and the searching, reflective ones—“The Road Not Taken.” “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening” was her favorite, the one her grandchildren would read in unison at her funeral, forty years later.

I liked those poems, too. I memorized them, and when I told my fourth-grade teacher that I knew them by heart, she had me stand up in front of the class and recite them, all three. Then she sent me across the hall to the other fourth grade class to recite them there, too.

But my own favorites--too long to memorize, but wonderful to hear read aloud--were the ones that told stories. They were stories of simple rural people, but the stories themselves, far from being simple, were infused with dark undercurrents and complicated emotions. “Home Burial.” “The Housekeeper.” “The Mountain.”

By the time I was nine or ten, I was asking her to read and reread “The Death of the Hired Man,” shivering with pleasure and dread through my favorite lines… “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.”… “ ‘I’ll sit and see if that small sailing cloud / Will hit or miss the moon.’ / It hit the moon.”… until she reached the poem’s inevitable conclusion: “ ’Dead,’ was all he answered.”

My mother was always taking college courses, working toward her master’s degree in library science, and in one class, Robert Frost’s daughter, Lesley Frost Ballantine was her classmate. (At least, I think that’s how the story goes—she met her somewhere, anyway.) Lesley had just published a children’s book called Really Not Really, and my mother brought me home a signed copy, inscribed “For Amy—Really!” There was a black and white photo in the back of Lesley with her father and her two daughters—this photo, as a matter of fact:

I knew Robert Frost had died just a couple of years earlier, and I couldn’t believe I was that close to my mother’s literary hero.

I think the old green Complete Poems is at camp. And I still have that copy of Really Not Really, as well as a 1939 edition of Collected Poems of Robert Frost with my parents’ surprisingly silly bookplate in the front:

They must have bought this volume early in their marriage, and I like to think of them reading Robert Frost’s poems aloud to each other and dreaming of their future together.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Camp in March

Mid-March, and it feels more like late April. Remy and I walk in to camp and find only a few patches of snow left on the road. The ice on the pond has receded from the edges enough to let him wade in for a drink.

The outside thermometer says it’s in the mid-50s (the sun won’t hit the front of our west-facing camp for several more hours), and the one inside, 38 degrees. I’m hot from trudging a mile on the muddy road, and for once the coolness of the stale, unmoving air inside the camp is welcome.

I flop down on my mom’s old couch, the same one that she bought for our living room in Connecticut when I was about five. (It’s a Castro Convertible—the original convertible sleeper-sofa—which may explain why it’s still in such good shape, well into its fifth decade, while I’ve already been through several couches in my adult life. It weighs about two tons. They really don’t make ‘em like they used to, I guess.)

The battery-operated clock on the wall says 11:35. I wonder what time it really is; I take out my phone, and am surprised to see that it says…11:35. It seems impossible that time hasn’t come to a standstill here since we moved home from camp, almost six months ago.

I remember arriving in June, usually the day after school was out, when I was little, and waiting impatiently for my mother to unlock the door, pushing past her to be the first to inhale the odd, unmistakable scent—part pine boards, part mothballs, part decaying mouse—that meant we were home for the summer. In those days, the camp had usually been closed up tight for nearly ten months, the electric clock on the wall recording the exact moment when my mother had opened the fuse box, halting the current, the last thing she did before walking out the door and back into our other life.

I look around at the cobwebbed windows—the ones that don’t open because they’re really just old wooden storm windows (meant, according to my mother, to have been temporary, until she and my father got around to replacing them with double-hung windows with screens)—and dreadful 1960s wood-grain paneling. I think about all of the improvements we will consider, plan, but almost certainly not execute this summer. This is partly because of a lack of funds, of course, but mostly it’s because once we move to camp for the summer, we will be too busy just enjoying it—and by “busy,” I mean “picking blueberries, reading on the deck, kayaking, and napping in the hammock”—to want to take on many projects.

The walls are covered with bits of memorabilia—pennants from the colleges my four siblings attended (I never spent long enough at any one school in my 31-year pursuit of a degree to add one of my own); old motorboat registrations; newspaper clippings; a random assortment of photos from the past 50 years, slipped under the edges of the door casings.

I briefly consider taking down some of the clutter, tossing it or packing it away, before I invite the members of my writing group, who have never been to camp before, to a day-long writing retreat there in June…but I know I won’t. Like the 1970s-era tubes of Prell shampoo in the bathroom or the 2004 Travelers Insurance calendar in the bedroom (the last of several dozen of these annual gifts my mother received from her friends Betty and Elmer before she died), everything here has a purpose. In its own way, every scrap of paper, every curled photo, every ancient comic strip contributes to making camp what it is: a repository for nearly 60 years of the very best memories. It’s a musty, dusty, ramshackle place, where babies get mosquito bites, toddlers eat dirt, teenagers chase each other in motorboats, and grown-ups who have forgotten how to relax suddenly find they remember after all.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

My latest excuse

In Stephen King’s book On Writing, he describes his typical day, which is pretty simple. I can’t remember the specifics, but, at least at the time he was writing about, nearly every single day included a big chunk of time spent reading, a big chunk spent writing, and a big chunk spent walking. These three activities formed the backbone of his day, and regular meals provided the rest of the structure.

Reading, writing, walking, and eating—that’s exactly what I want to do every day—no more, no less. And I am convinced—utterly, completely convinced—that if only I didn’t have to have a “real” job (damn you, health insurance!) that’s exactly how I would spend my days. (I am also convinced that this would lead to my becoming healthy, fit, well-read, and a successful writer. Not to mention well-balanced and self-actualized.)

[A word about self-actualization: in a recent letter from a dear friend and college roommate, she referred to her husband as “the most self-actualized person I know.” I had heard the term, but since it wasn’t one I went around using myself, I looked it up to be sure I knew what she meant. It turns out that self-actualization is nothing more or less than what I’ve recently been calling “living my authentic life,” or what my mother liked to call “living up to your potential” (usually preceded by “If you don’t start…” and pronounced as she was looking at my high school report card or hearing about my plan to drop out of college and work in a hardware store).]

One of the worst things about having to go to a real job is that I always seem to get my best ideas when I’m rushing to get ready for work in the morning. Instead of having the leisure to go immediately to the computer and get down to the business of writing, I have to keep getting ready for work, and since I rarely have time to make even the most rudimentary notes, I usually lose the thought completely before I ever get around to writing about it.

Yesterday morning I was rushing around to get ready for work, as usual, when it occurred to me that I could write about what it’s like to be always rushing around to get ready for work. But of course I didn’t have time to write anything down before I left the house.

So as soon as I was in the car, I reached for my miniature voice recorder. Then I remembered that I don’t have a miniature voice recorder. Well, actually, I do have one, but as soon as I got it, I discovered that talking into it made me feel pathetic or insane or ridiculous, or all three, like a crazy person with no friends or a comically self-important person (this is because I once knew a comically self-important person who carried around a miniature voice recorder to capture all of his brilliant ideas). So I let the batteries run down, and now I don’t even know where it is.

So instead I reached for a pad of paper and a pen and (even though I am death on texting and driving, and, actually, don’t even like to take my hands off the wheel to adjust the radio or the heat), scribbled down, while driving with my elbows (there was no traffic; I promise), a few key words that I thought would remind me of what I had been thinking about writing:

Fortunately, I did not get in an accident; the worst thing that happened was that I placed the pad on the steering wheel and ended up inadvertently honking the horn when I started to write, just as I was coming into the village of Bryant Pond, startling myself and, no doubt, a few sleepy residents.

Unfortunately, when I took out my notes today and tried to recreate the witty prose that was so insistently writing itself in my head as I was driving yesterday, I came up empty. In fact, I had to struggle to remember what I was even thinking when I made my notes. (Maybe it’s time to dig out that recorder again after all. There are probably worse things than appearing comically self-important.)

“Bathroom—PB toast—Ex-husband”? OK, I admit it, I did take my piece of peanut butter toast into the bathroom with me to finish it while brushing my hair and putting on moisturizer, and this is something that would have driven my ex-husband crazy (he had very definite never-the-twain-shall-meet ideas about bathrooms and food, which I can certainly understand, from a hygiene point of view, but sometimes you just have to compromise your ideals in favor of finishing breakfast). But somehow it doesn’t seem as amusing now. Rats.

“Tony—paper—Kate Braestrup”? Well, Tony was following me around with the newspaper (actually he was standing outside the bathroom door while I was inside eating peanut butter toast), trying to tell me that Kate Braestrup, a Maine writer I greatly admire, was having a book signing in Winthrop. Being followed around seemed particularly annoying to me at the time because a) I hate being talked to through the bathroom door (doesn’t everyone?), b) I had already made it clear that I was late for work and didn’t have a moment to spare, and c) Winthrop is 50 miles away and I’m not likely to be going there for a book signing. But it’s another thing that really doesn’t seem that amusing, or even particularly annoying, today, and I have to admit that he should probably get points for noticing and pointing out an article about a writer I like. (However, we do have to talk about that shouting-through-the-bathroom-door thing.)

“Cadbury Mini-eggs—Ice fishermen.” Oh, yes. I was feeling so frustrated about having to go to work instead of staying home to write all day (something that, in case you’re wondering, wouldn’t have happened anyway—it would have been more like staying home to do laundry and waste time on the computer and think of something unusual to cook, ending up saying to myself in the late afternoon, “Shit! I meant to write today!”) that I thought I would just take along six Cadbury Mini-eggs in a tiny lidded container, and then, after I worked all day, I could savor them in the car on the way home. Except that less than a mile from home I passed a pond where three ice fishermen were checking their traps, and I got so jealous that they got to do what they wanted all day instead of going to work that I ate my Cadbury Mini-eggs right then and there. (And yes, as a matter of fact, I have considered working on my inappropriate use of chocolate to soothe, reward, and brace myself. Maybe right after Cadbury Mini-egg season is over.)

“The Storm at the Door—Moxie—Baby food.” I’ve just started reading The Storm at the Door, by Stefan Merrill Block, and when I thought about what I really wanted to be doing (besides writing, of course), it was staying home and reading with my very old cat, Moxie, who is dying, purring on my lap. (I think he’s purring. It could just be that his lungs are filling with fluid, but he still seems happy, especially when he gets to be with me.) Thinking of Moxie reminded me that I wanted to go to the grocery store and get some baby food turkey to see if I could coax him to eat it, so I wrote that down, too, so I wouldn’t forget.

“GPS—8:10—School bus stops.” I have to be at work at 8:15. When I left the house, my GPS said I would get there at 8:10. I don’t actually need the GPS to find my way to work, but I do need it to tell me whether or not to exceed the speed limit on any given morning, and whether I have the extra two minutes it requires to take the slightly longer route with slightly fewer frost heaves.

My conclusion: rushing around to get to work on weekday mornings causes me to get stressed and annoyed at home, eat peanut butter toast in the bathroom, do dangerous things while driving, resent innocent ice fishermen, and eat too much chocolate. It does not provide much in the way of inspiration. On the other hand, having a real job, besides providing my family with health insurance, gives me a perfect excuse for not being a published writer.

And in case you’re wondering, I got stuck behind a school bus making frequent stops and arrived at work at 8:14, with myself and my bad attitude intact.