It has been nearly a year since I posted on my blog – for good reason! First of all, life jumped up and demanded a lot of attention in a big way. Second of all, I have been working on getting the book version of Loving the Tasmanian Devil published, and now it’s out!!
The fabulous sculpture on the cover is an interior view of Kerplunk! by artist Sher Fick. Love her to pieces!!
And now that summer is here, I am hoping I can get back to blogging.
The Perpetual Male Adolescence Festival (aka Shotgun Season) is in full swing here in Central New York. Mighty Hawkeye has already gotten four does with his bow and one monster buck (update : two monster bucks) with his shotgun (update: and one doe with his muzzle-loader). At the risk of offending anyone, I feel I must rant.
I spent too many years teaching Lord of the Flies to sophomores. I love Lord of the Flies, can practically recite enormous portions by memory; it was the sophomores that got taxing. It’s been eleven years since I cracked the cover, but one scene always jumps to mind when hunting season rolls around again, and so I cracked.
Ralph and Simon have been valiantly attempting to build huts on the beach while Piggy allegedly watches the Littl’uns and avoids asthma. Jack is rapidly devolving into primitive hunting mode, and is intently thinking like a pig, plotting his kill:
“Ralph gazed bewildered at [Jack’s] rapt face.
‘-they get up high. High up and in the shade, resting during the heat, like cows at home-‘
‘I thought you saw a ship!’
‘We could steal up on one – paint our faces so they wouldn’t see – perhaps surround them and then-‘
Indignation took away Ralph’s control.
‘I was talking about smoke! Don’t you want to be rescued? All you can talk about is pig, pig, pig!’
‘But we want meat!’
‘And I work all day with nothing but Simon and you come back and don’t even notice the huts!’
‘I was working too-‘
‘But you like it!’ shouted Ralph. ‘You want to hunt! While I-‘
They faced each other on the bright beach, astonished at the rub of feeling.”
“Mo gazed bewildered at Husband’s rapt face.
‘-they get really careless when they’re in rut. If you sit really still in one place-‘
‘I thought we were talking about Eldest!’
‘You have to be downwind, and brush your teeth with baking soda, and wear Scent-lock … ‘
Indignation took away Mo’s control.
‘I was talking about the kids! Don’t you care about their future? All you can talk about is deer, deer, deer!’
‘But we need meat!’
‘And I work all day downtown, which you would hate, and you come back and don’t even notice the 20-year-old bathroom!’
‘I was working too-‘
‘But you like it!’ shouted Mo. ‘You want to hunt! While I-‘
They faced each other in the kitchen, astonished at the rub of feeling.”
And so it goes.
I did make it to 50,000 words and got a big “You win!” graphic from the National Novel-Writing Month team (me and over 32,000 other people). Ironically enough, my novel is set in a future year when the people of Central New York are literally fighting for survival, and a good hunter is worth his weight in lost college-planning conversations.
And really, I must admit that I love venison, Husband is a fabulous cook, he is an extraordinarily skilled hunter, he is working on the bathroom, and if I were able to live a turn-of-the-last-century life and stay home cooking and baking, I would feel very different about the whole thing.
And much as I revere William Golding and his brilliant analysis of human nature, according to his biographer John Carey, he was “a reclusive depressive who considered himself a ‘monster’, a victim of fears and phobias who battled against alcoholism, and a writer who trusted the imagination above all things.”
There are dangers in trusting the imagination above all things, as Husband is quick to tell me. Imagination alone might lead to a Nobel prize, but it doesn’t fill the freezer or keep the house warm. So, I tell myself, Back off, English geek! Once you publish a book and make some money at your hobby, you can sneer at your husband’s hobby, which does at least feed the family.
Meanwhile, me and my main man Ralph are going to shut up and keep working on the huts and keeping track of the Littl’uns.
A dear friend from college sent me an innocuous e-mail about a month ago, inviting me to participate in National Novel-Writing Month. This is a world-wide challenge to write an entire novel (50,000 words) from scratch during the month of November.
I had been lolling about in between writing projects and cursing my foul luck in the world of agents and magazine queries and such, so I thought “Why not? Write something brand new! Create!” (Picture me here jumping about swirling silk scarves in bright colors.) I had had a novel idea floating around in my head for a few years, and this seemed like a good enough reason to try it out.
So on the 1st of November I plunged right in. Luckily, the date coincided with Daylight Savings Time doing whatever it just did (ended? started? falled back? springed ahead?) AND it was a Sunday, so I had plenty of time to get out of bed, sit down at my laptop, poised and ready to go on the desk in my room, and start ripping. Oh, I was so very Eudora Welty writing next to my unmade bed. (Actually, I NEVER make my bed.)
Now, 50,000 words in 30 days is 1670 words per day. Since I was basically opening the spigot of an idea under a lot of pressure in my brain, the first 1670 words just spewed out. Was it good? No way. But was it started? Yes, ma’am. At least this concept was a’rollin’.
Somehow, although I am one of the least disciplined persons I know, this darn thing has become a mania for me. I get those 1670 words in per day come hell or high water. And I have actually gotten pretty swept up in this odd world I am creating. As of today, I have written over 28,500 words and even have somewhat of a plot (ever my weak link).
At the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing a few years ago, my beloved sister and I split up for one session and K heard a writer – I can’t remember who – who said that writing is like pottery in that you have to make the material first: writing the rough draft is like mixing the clay. Then you can take that stuff and actually make something from it. Similarly, I am mixing my clay together for a novel I have been thinking about for awhile.
Of course the Holy Spirit/Unconscious is one wily bugger. What comes popping up in my novel that originally had no direction? A middle-aged farm wife, marital issues, a corrupt world. And who seems to be working her way through these quandaries? Said middle-aged farm wife. Hmm.
I even got together with my inviter friend for a Nanowrimo write-in with a bunch of Ithacan Nanowrimo-ers. Actually, this was a tad embarrassing. The rest of the people who showed up were all college age or younger. One girl didn’t even have her driver’s license. They were very gracious, but I could see the thought cross their faces “What is this OLD person doing here? Does she have nothing else in her life that she has to write a novel in a month to amuse herself?” But Friend and I had a great visit and did parallel pecking at our keyboards, and a good time was had by all.
I am getting major inspiration from Sting’s new album If on a Winter’s Night available at your local Starbuck’s. The music is awesome and the picture of Sting in a black turtleneck sweater in his Tuscan retreat is also having an effect.
I dare not divulge anything about my book-thing because it is way too amorphous right now and so bizarre that if anyone from my town heard about it, I might lose my job for mental instability, but there is a cat (Jasper), and a love interest who is a combination of my Youngest and Thomas Merton, and there is a hazelnut and leprosy and now I have to go back to writing it. It’s calling to me.
To enjoy the utter coolness of NaNoWriMo, check their website www.nanowrimo.com and plan to do it next year. It is truly a hoot.
Thank you, Friend. I am afraid you have unleashed a monster …
This one’s going out to Twenty-First Century Housewife from Wife of the Tasmanian Devil:
At age thirty-five, some kind of genetic gear in Patrick ticked into place and set off a cascade of chemical changes that bound him to his room. Upon waking, the weight of his body and his obligations and of the lowering grey sky pressed him like a torture board covered with rocks. He would stand and feel unbalanced, couldn’t catch his breath, his heart raced and thumped in his chest, he would fall to one side. The only respite was sleep and that was hard to find.
He called in sick for one day, two, three, until finally his wife called the doctor and made an appointment. The medicine took weeks to build up, and in those three weeks, all that he was and all that he was to be were called in for trial. By all accounts he was a success. An accountant, department manager, a home owner, a husband, a dutiful son, an adoptive father. But under the smiling and successful surface a layer of pure marble protected him from the outside. Within that edifice was quiet, protection.
The chemicals swirling now within were corroding that façade from the inside out. He felt chinks missing here and there, on his left side under his arm, on a small patch of his skull, tiny interior pock marks and depressions in the armor that left him vulnerable. And the places became bigger each day, and the fear, coupled with the extraordinary weight of the pain, kept him behind closed doors with the curtains drawn.
In his grand home, he crawled to the farthest corner and hid there from the storm that brewed around him. It felt to him as if he was in a huge warehouse, and in the smallest corner of the smallest space, under storage containers and in behind dusty bins, he was a tiny dot in the scheme. No one could see him or find him here, and in the larger world, no one knew of the warehouse, much less his tiny dot within it.
In trembling and oppression he waited for relief. The doctor promised that he would feel a change, but it was slow to come. Loretta forced him each morning to take the tiny pill, which he did, then returned to his room and tried to sleep. Loretta tried to lure him out with yard tasks in the sun, a new grill, a hockey game for the computer. But nothing helped. When Loretta’s son Max came home from school, Pat would rouse himself enough to ask about his day and eat a little dinner, help him with homework, hug Julie.
Finally after three weeks, he felt the weight ease, and he returned to work after a weekend of feeling more like his old self. One afternoon weeks later, at his desk looking at inventory figures, he answered his phone.
“Pat Madden,” he said, still looking at his papers.
“Mr. Madden, this is Connie Bankert, principal at Bridgeport Middle School?”
“Yes. Is Max alright?”
“He’s fine, but there has been an issue and it is essential that I see you here before the end of the day. I have called your wife and she is on her way.”
“What’s the problem?” Pat put down his pen and pulled his date book in front of him.
“It appears that Max threatened an attack on the school and the police were here first thing this morning.”
“Oh, Lord,” Pat sighed. “I can be there at 2:00. Is that soon enough?”
“Yes. We have Max in in-school suspension at the moment.”
“OK. I will call Loretta and we’ll both be there.”
“Thank you, Mr. Madden. Your step-son is in a bit of trouble. I hope we can resolve this amicably.”
“Yes. Thank you.”
Pat hung up the phone and rested his head on his hands. He breathed deeply twice and then picked up the phone and dialed.
“Hello?” Loretta answered.
“Oh, God, Pat, what is this? What has he done? Someone called the police? I found the damn thing. It’s just a silly note in his notebook. It means nothing. He wouldn’t do that, would he?”
“No, Loretta, of course not. I’m sure it’s all a mistake. Listen, I can’t get out until 2 and I told Mrs. Bankert we’d be there then. Are you OK to drive?”
“Yes, of course. I’ll meet you out front. Are you OK? Any symptoms?”
“No, I feel OK. I’ll see you there.”
Two hours later Pat pulled up in front of the middle school. Loretta was there already waiting in her white Camaro. She got out when she saw Pat pull up behind her. As usual, she looked amazing, thin, stylish, well-dressed. She came to Pat and put her arms around him, rested her head on his shoulder.
“This feels like some kind of curse. First you, now Max. What’s next, your mom or dad?”
“OK, now, don’t overreact. Let’s just see what’s going on.”
In the office, Max sat in one of four chairs in a row. He looked up with fear when they walked in. His long hair fell across one eye and he flipped it out of his way.
“Hey, buddy,” Pat said, putting his hand on his shoulder.
Mrs. Bankert walked out and motioned Pat and Loretta into her office. Loretta smiled briefly at Max and went in behind Pat and sat down.
“Mr. And Mrs. Madden, thank you for coming in. Let me tell you what I know. At 8:00 this morning Sergeant Walroth of the Bridgeport Police department came here following up on a complaint that was called in. Apparently a girl in one of Max’s classes saw him making a map of the school and plotting out a plan for an attack. She got scared and told her mother that night and the mother called the police.”
“I have the notebook here,” Loretta interrupted. “I found it in his room where he had said it would be.” She opened the notebook on the table. There was a neatly drawn and labeled map of the middle school with various arrows labeled with weapons: tanks, B-52s, AK47s, etc.
“I find this rather disturbing,” Mrs. Bankert said.
Pat pulled the notebook over to him. He studied it carefully. “Tanks? B-52 bombers? Do you think this is serious? Where is a 12-year-old going to get military weaponry?”
“Mr. Madden, I am sure you want to defend your step-son, but after Columbine, we simply must take even a threat – ridiculous or not – as a possibility. I have children’s lives at stake here.”
Pat pushed back his chair and folded his arms across his chest. “Mrs. Bankert, how many years do you have left here? Two, before you retire with a big pension? Don’t you have better things to do than punish a kid who was obviously just being a kid?”
Loretta put her hand on Pat’s arm. “Pat,” she said. “Let’s just hear what Mrs. Bankert has in mind.”
The principal pulled out a piece of paper and passed it to them. It was labeled “Disciplinary Action.”
“Max will be out of school for three days and then in in-school suspension for two. Then he may return to school.”
“OK,” Loretta said quickly. “I think that’s perfectly reasonable, don’t you Pat?”
“And I might also suggest some counseling. Here is a form to take home in case you decide to utilize this service.”
Pat glared and stood up. “I will take my son home now,” he said. He walked out the door.
“Thank you, Mrs. Bankert, and I am sorry about the trouble,” Loretta said.
Pat dropped Max off at the house, after a quiet ride. Loretta followed and brought Max into the house with her arm around him. Pat returned to work. On his way home later, he stopped at his parents’ house. Peggy was not home yet, but Daniel stood with Pat in the kitchen as Pat paced back and forth and back and forth. Everything gathered in his mind, the doubt, the anxiety, the responsibilities, the long slow climb back to normal and now this compression. Daniel tried to talk to him, tried to calm him. Pat was shaking and his teeth were clenched. He could not speak, just periodically shouted meaningless sounds. Finally his hands clenched into fists and with all his might he punched the wall over the old highchair, knocking a hole in the sheetrock. Plaster dust flew everywhere. He tipped his head back and looked at the ceiling and he roared in frustration and grief. Daniel walked over and held his shaking body, held him still, just held him.
Pat knocked, and entered Max’s room when he heard a mumbled assent. Max lay on his bed face down. His music was playing and his books and notebooks were sprawled over his bed, spilling down onto the floor. Pat sat at the edge of his bed and considered Max’s long straggly hair.
“How are you doing, man?”
“I don’t know.”
“It was a joke wasn’t it.” Pat stated this. “Just a joke.”
“Yeah,” through the pillow. “Nobody was supposed to see that and anybody who knows me would know it was just a joke.”
“But Mrs. Bankert doesn’t know you. She might have thought you were serious.”
“I guess.” Still spoken into the pillow. “Is Mom mad?”
“She’s concerned, about you. She doesn’t want this to ruin your year. You were off to a good start.”
Pat had been helping Max every night with his math and science. It came hard to him, but Pat sat, patiently, and helped him with each problem while Loretta cooked Italian dishes – gnocchi and rigatoni and calzone. Pat loved her Italianness. She was so different than his sisters or cousins, so loud and bright and passionate.
“Are you mad? Are you going to leave? Are you going to go back into your room?”
“No, I got some help with that. I’m OK now, and as far as leaving, it would take a lot more than a psychotic plot to blow up Bridgeport Middle School to scare me off.”
Max turned his head slightly to check for the joke and smiled a little.
“I thought of doing that myself years ago.” Pat rubbed his hand across his thinning hair. “Max, I chose you, man. I chose to adopt you and Julie both – I didn’t have to. If this is tough, buddy, I’m going through it with you. If it hurts you, it’s going hurt me and your mom, too. But we’ll all hurt together.”
Max turned his face, and Pat could see he had been crying.
“I’m sorry, Pat. You’ve done a lot for me and I screwed up by doing something stupid.”
“Hey, we all do something stupid at some point. If this is the worst you do, count yourself lucky.”
“I bet you never did anything this stupid.”
“Yeah, I did.”
Max looked at him, waiting.
“I was once at a hockey game, and I was in the restroom, and this guy, this drunk guy, put out a cigarette on my arm. I got so mad that I punched him in the nose and broke it. And I didn’t stop then, I kept going and the police had to pull me off. Then I got arrested and my dad had to come and bail me out.”
“Whoa,” Max said sitting up. “Remind me not to mess with you.” Max wiped his hair off his face with his two hands. “I guess I didn’t do anything like that.”
“At least you only threatened to do something.”
Max looked down at his hands and picked at a hangnail.
“You want to get rid of that thing?” Pat asked.
Max looked up. “What thing?”
“Well, you’ll have to serve your suspensions, but I don’t think we need that map hanging around.”
Max’s eyes widened and then he raised his eyebrows and smiled tentatively.
Max and Pat walked past Loretta in the kitchen and out onto the patio. She looked and smiled but turned back to her stove. Julie was watching a show on TV. It was an early fall evening and still warm. A few leaves fell and drifted down from the big maples on the sides of their manicured lawn. Loretta grew roses, and a few late varieties were still in bloom. Fieldstones walled in the yard in which the grass was perfect, green and lush. Pat and Max took turns with the weekly mowing, Pat one time and Max the next.
Pat walked across the deck and opened the top of the grill. He pulled the map from his pocket and handed the map and matches to Max. Max opened the folded paper, looked at the map, and then laid it on the old coals. He opened the box, took out a match and closed the box again. He lit a match, and the flame hissed and then glowed steady. He held the flame to the edge of the paper and it caught. The paper blackened in a circle at the corner and then burst into orange and yellow, gathering strength until flames shot up into the increasing dusk. The paper curled and charred and shrunk and broke into cloth-like shreds. Pat and Max watched together as one soft piece floated up in the heat column, spiraled slowly, and soared away into the orange sky.
For your listening pleasure while you are reading this post, here is the Count Basie Band (my dad’s favorite) playing Comin’ Through the Rye.
This is a photograph of my maternal grandmother, Mabel Ruth Kellick, in her teens. Whenever she showed me this photo, she would always say, “Mabel, coming through the rye.”
One of my three books waiting to get published (Who am I kidding? I am waiting for an agent to discover me and wrangle one of them into something salable) is called “Wonderful Plans of Old.” It starts with a family intervention to deal with the father’s alcoholism, and then goes backwards and forwards in time to explore the roots of this moment as well as the effects after it. When I was writing it, I was reading the Book of Isaiah, because it seemed to fit so well with the ideas of Desolation and Redemption I was exploring in the book, and each chapter title is taken from Isaiah. This chapter is from the very middle. Don’t worry: I will be tying all this seemingly random stuff together!
Among Fat Ones, Leanness
Kate was gone to China – we rarely heard from her. Patrick was home sometimes, six weeks at college followed by six weeks of working at home. And I was a high school senior: pianist, valedictorian, tennis team captain, and so very alone. My English class read The Catcher in the Rye that year, and like all adolescents I felt that Holden Caufield was my voice: repulsed by all the phoniness of adulthood and reluctant to move into the contradictions it seemed to mandate.
I rode the bus home from school, sitting in the front seat with a scarf over my nose and mouth to filter out the smoke – not all of it tobacco – that drifted from the back of the bus. Our driver was known to allow – even condone – smoking, so the bus was packed with students willing to walk ten blocks home from the wrong stop to smoke their pot in warmth for one mile. Roxie the bus driver would snap her gum, big ball earrings bobbling, and cackle to the back, “You smokin’ that horse shit back there?” She purposely aimed for the big bump halfway down Washburn Street and we would all fly into the air. Everyone but me laughed.
When I got dropped off, I walked across the street, got the spare key from the garage, and let myself in. No one was home. I’d drop my books at the kitchen table, take off my coat, and start the ritual. Holden had a malted and grilled cheese at the soda fountain. Without the equipment of a diner, I made do with a cheese sandwich on toast and a chocolate milkshake. Then I would line up twenty-five Ritz crackers – five by five – and slather them with peanut butter. Once I had eaten those, I checked into the ice cream – usually half of a half gallon would go next. Then Oreos: one column. By then my stomach felt tight, way beyond Holden and into a territory of loneliness Holden did not know, a territory where no one saw me, no one knew what I was doing, where no one seemed to notice that I was home, wanting someone to care about my day, wanting someone to notice that I had emotionally quit everything.
The upstairs bathroom was the place: away from anyone, close the door, turn on the fan, run the water, pretend I was a teenage girl obsessed with washing my face in case anyone got home early. No one knew – or really cared – what I was doing, even when I repeated this part of the ritual right after dinner. It really became quite easy. I would drink an enormous glass of water, and then it was amazing how easily it all came out – it didn’t even taste bad, just a watered down version of what I had just eaten. Three times and it was all out. I had had the feast – treated myself if no one else would – and still did not gain weight – as thin as a Junior Miss at least. So thin that my period stopped and Mom finally took me to an endocrinologist who took one look at me and said, “She’s too thin.”
I got thin, very thin, and I would lie in the hot June sun in the driveway on the lawn chair wearing only the Bloomies underwear and camisole I had bought on a class trip to New York City, the camisole rolled up to expose my browned stomach. I had no bikini and Mom wouldn’t allow one, but my blue-and-pink-striped cotton undies worked the same, as long as I had covered up by the time Mom got home. Our backyard was shaded by a huge maple, but there was a strip of strong sunlight along our driveway right next to the Gardiner Girls’ lilac bushes, which were on the other side of the waist-high chain link fence.
Mrs. Dixon came over one day and found me this way. I didn’t hear her approach since I had my Walkman on, slathering myself with coconut oil. “It must be nice to be so perfect,” she said, looking down her nose at me. She obviously disapproved of a teenage girl half dressed lying in view from Morton Avenue, or else she was jealous – a former beauty queen herself, believe it or not – whose figure with teenage children now was not what it had been.
I smiled in a knowing adolescent way and pulled my sunglasses back down over my eyes. If only boys would have the same response, but my obsession with my weight was mixed with a fear of sex, and the physiological effects of thinness had been to halt my hormones, leaving me desireless. I craved the jealousy of my female peers more than attraction by males. I wouldn’t have known what to do with a boyfriend if I had one.
The night of my first drink, I had gone to a senior dinner dance with a childhood pal, and there, in a funky bar in Buffalo, I had several white Russians. They tasted good, and I enjoyed, for a time, the way I warmed up, chatted with everyone, danced without inhibitions. But on the way home I felt bad, guilty, headachy, and when I crashed into my room that night, I planned the next morning to confess and gain absolution from my parents.
When I finally awoke, a beautiful, sunny spring day, my head ached, and I lumped down the stairs to the kitchen where my father was making a second pot of coffee. I slumped into a chair and drank the glass of orange juice he offered.
“How was the dance?”
“OK, I guess.”
“Did Jeremy behave?”
“Barely.” I finished the orange juice and poured some more.
“Where’s Mom?” I asked. “Aren’t you guys going to church?”
Dad sat down across from me and took a deep breath, sighed long.
“Mom’s upstairs in her room.”
I looked up. Something had happened.
“She had to have her stomach pumped last night.” I stopped. I had a vision of an ambulance in the driveway, reds lights flashing on the neighbors’ houses and on the Sansones’ garage wall. Mom on a gurney coming out the front door.
“She … wanted to show me what I looked like, so she drank an entire bottle of wine.”
I felt sick to my stomach. “Is she OK?”
“Yes. She’s going to be OK. She’s resting upstairs.”
“Can I go see her?”
I got up, holding my throbbing head, and went into the living room and up the stairs to the second floor. Across the hall I could see that the door of the sewing room where she had been sleeping of late on the spare bed was shut. I approached it quietly and peeked in through the crack. She had her eyes closed, but she heard me at the door and opened them.
“Hi, Moll. You can come in.”
I opened the door, which squeaked a little, and closed it behind me. The lovely soft sun had risen and came in a strip under the shades on the east window. I moved slowly to the bed and sat down on the edge.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“Kind of bad,” she whispered. “Did Dad tell you?”
“I’m sorry. On the night of your date.” She cleared her throat, which appeared to be a painful process. “How was it?”
“It was fine. Do you need anything?”
“Can I lie down with you?” She made room, turned over and faced the wall. I lay down on top of the blanket and spooned in next to her, like she used to do with me when I was scared by a nightmare, but our positions were reversed. I put my arm around her and just stayed. The shade glowed with the sunlight outside, but in her darkened room it felt more like sunset.
She was there through the next two weeks, up until my graduation. Dad called and told her boss that she was very sick. After school I would come home and lie with her. Then I would go back downstairs and sit at the table, doing my homework: Calculus, AP Bio, English, Psych – a breeze really, it just took time – and maybe I would play the piano, or practice my valedictory address, or I would take the car and drive to the school a few blocks away and practice my forehand, hitting my tennis ball against the big brick wall, over and over and over and over until blisters formed and broke open and my hands bled.
Did the music end? Here it is again.
I would not wish such a senior year on my worst enemy. Unfortunately, many students in high school DO have this kind of senior year. I have been teaching seniors now for eleven years, and I am convinced that it is one of the most stressful and difficult years of a kid’s life. It is like Kindergarten in reverse. Kindergarten means leaving the safety of home for the unknown of school; senior year involves leaving not only the now thoroughly known of school, but also leaving hometown, everyone known and loved for 18 years of life, and heading into the unknown of adult life.
Yes, some students are Homecoming King or Queen and apply early decision and are accepted at their first choice college, with a happily married mom and dad standing proudly behind them. But plenty of others are dealing with a parent’s illness or divorce or a major family problem, they have suffered socially throughout school and are glad to be leaving it behind, though they are simultaneously terrified of the blank slate before them. Sometimes no one has ever seen or understood their situation, and they have no support at all as they apply to colleges, all the while knowing that there is no money available at home to support this huge and expensive venture.
These kids need a catcher in the rye. They are technically adults, and yet many of them are running dangerously close to a cliff’s edge. Oddly enough, I have found myself in a job where I can BE the catcher in the rye for some of these kids. In my previous teacher job, I saw 75 kids a day for 40 minutes each: they were a blur. Because I now have a small class of students and see them for over two hours a day, my relationship with them is very intense and becomes very close. I know their lives and their dreams. Also, the programs that my colleagues and I run require students to leave the safety and familiarity of their home schools and take an early leap into independence and novelty. We often end up with the kids who are happy to be leaving their high schools behind.
Because I was also one of these types, I find myself with a rare ability to see their fears and their hurts, and I find myself so grateful to be in a position to help them, to the best of my ability. To quote Holden, my main man,
“I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
Not crazy, Holden. I hear you, dude. Many of us have fallen off that cliff because no one was there to catch us. But anyone who has been over that cliff can see – preternaturally almost – those heading toward the edge. You can see it in their eyes, in their stance, in their words or their silence. If you personally survive the fall and pick yourself back up, you are in a unique position to see those little kids nearing the edge and to try to get in the way.
My heart aches for the Holdens and the Mollys of the world, and the many real teenagers I have seen undergo this process. My heart aches because it ached for me going through it. Holden sobs for Phoebe in her joy on the carousel, and it is true that innocence – either in its still pure form or lost through no fault of the child – is worth our sobbing over. The events that cause this are often beyond anyone’s control; who can stop cancer or death or any of a variety of things from raining on our parades? But I wish here to offer thanks that I have been given the opportunity to see and assuage what pain I can. God grant me the wisdom and the strength to do so.
Hey, writers! (and readers!)
If you are needing a shot in the arm to get you writing again or writing more or writing better (or reading again or reading more or reading better), the videos from the 2009 Colgate Writer’s Conference are now available on the CWC website and on Youtube.
This is Jennifer Brice, whose latest memoir is Unlearning to Fly.
This is Brian Hall, extraordinarily nice person, gifted writer, and my workshop leader.
This is J. Robert Lennon. I about peed my pants laughing during this talk.
This is the poet Peter Balakian.
This is Easter Island author Jennifer Vanderbes, my instructor two years ago.
This is Patrick O’Keeffe, about whom I posted in July.
These writers all also did readings from their work, also available on the CWC website. Ah, happy memories!
I recently finished reading Patrick O’Keeffe’s collection The Hill Road, named after the first of the four novellas it contains. I was entranced. O’Keeffe is a professor of Creative Writing at Colgate and was the instructor for the short fiction workshop at the Colgate Writers’ Conference I attended. I had the good fortune of hearing him read from a new work and then meeting him afterwards on the last full day of the conference.
I bought his book after the reading, partly because I loved the cover painting called Cottages of Connemara.Two years ago, when I workshopped my novel Wonderful Plans of Old, my group’s favorite chapter was one in which I had imagined an evening in the life of my Irish great-grandparents, and I had set it outside Connemara in Ireland. I have never been to Ireland, nor while I was growing up did I ever hear stories of life in Ireland before my ancestors emigrated. For that matter, I never heard stories of my father’s childhood here in New York. He NEVER spoke about it, leaving me to conjure what I could out of references, imagination, questions, pictures.
What struck me so about O’Keeffe’s collection was how each of the four novellas dealt with this very issue: the task of trying to piece together a story which had never been told, or was only told in snatches under influence of drink or grave illness, leaving me wondering if this trait of Not Talking is endemic in the Irish people. Think of Alice McDermott’s novel Charming Billy, the twisting, winding story of a lie and its truth which had been kept long secret.
Is this tendency Irish? Is it a defense mechanism for any group that has withstood great hardship and dire acts taken out of necessity or despair? Is the same true of Holocaust survivors? former soldiers? Are there certain experiences that are simply too painful for the psyche to bear telling?
Or perhaps the common link, one which ties me to my father, is the Irish tendency toward contemplation. My father’s most characteristic pose was standing with weight on one foot, the other resting in front at an angle or up on something, one hand in pocket, the other leaning on a counter or windowsill, gazing. He would spend long periods of time this way. He did not speak much, but I learned to listen very intently when he did speak, for what he had to say was well worth listening to, forged as it was out of these long periods of contemplation.
My dad was an introvert, which is probably why he wanted to become a writer. He had plenty to say, he just didn’t like to talk. I am the same way. In seventh grade, my Home Economics teacher was Mrs. Williams, a.k.a. “Wimp Williams” because she was so soft-spoken. The most upset she ever got was when we were sewing and students would slam down the presser foot on the sewing machines. She would close her eyes, hold out one raised hand in gentle protest, and say with valiantly restrained anger, “Don’t. Slam. the Presser Foot.” And then we would all keep doing it. (I am really sorry, Mrs. Williams).
She told my parents at a parent/teacher conference that she could see I was “keeping my light under a bushel.” When I heard this, I thought to myself, No, I am just not about to cast my pearls before swine. The problem was that if I actually verbalized what I was thinking, my classmates would have thought me even stranger than they already did. It’s not that the teenaged swine would snout my pearls around in the muck but that it would be ME – my deepest self – that they were knocking through the crap. More emotional pain? Nein, danke.
Also, I truly do not like to talk. The physical act of getting my thoughts to slow down enough to verbalize them, of pushing these ethereal things out through the thick clay of my tongue and lips, and not being able to edit words that have floated out into the air, makes talking one of the last things I like to do. I’d rather write.
Thus my gratitude for the tremendous gift of blogging, and I am guessing this is the case for many introverted bloggers. We’ve got things to say. We’ve got thoughts worth sharing. And we are not afraid to cast them out over the wide waters of the internet. But let it be just my WORDS, in print, no sign of me, my face, my squeaky weird voice.
And not only that, but blogging is also ART. You create a visual product with colors and pictures and even MOVIES. It is like my thoughts – both word and image – incarnated digitally.
Like the little Who whose “Yop!” finally stops those awful monkeys from boiling that dust speck, introverts need a lot of effort to make noise, but we will do it. And in our long periods of thoughtfulness, we sometimes come up with ideas from which other people can benefit. So, what do I write when I write? I tell my thoughts. I tell the secrets of my childhood. I tell the secrets of my marriage. This is beyond Yop! This is doing what I was raised not to do.
Any child of an alcoholic grows up with the unstated but implicit rule “Don’t tell.” Don’t tell what happens at home. Don’t say how you really feel because no one is really there to hear you. But I have learned, against my familial tendencies, to “tell tales.” Why? First, because I have experienced how silence harms: how not speaking, not communicating your shame or fear or anxiety can cause real damage.
Perhaps I read so much as a kid because in authors I found the words to describe what I was not allowed to say out loud, what I never heard anyone one else say out loud, what was difficult for me to say out loud. And hearing from someone else, in another place, thoughts that I had had, made me see I was not alone, I was not so strange, that there were others out there with similar thoughts and problems and ideas.
Last week I was thinking about this in church and we sang this song:
I myself am the bread of life.
You and I are the bread of life.
Taken and blessed,
broken and shared by Christ
that the world might live.
Lives broken open,
stories shared aloud,
becomes a banquet,
a shelter for the world:
a living sign of God in Christ.
This is the second reason I tell my tales. If this is what we are to be – broken and shared that others might live – then the introvert is obligated to share what she is and what she has: her thoughts, her life, her stories, not as recrimination but as a banquet, an offering of those thoughts and experiences in order to console others by letting them see in print their own deepest and perhaps un-worded thoughts. At least that is what I hope to do, give voice to all those weird and profound and silly thoughts that too many people keep under a bushel.
So thanks, all you blogging introverts out there who are letting your voices be heard, and thanks, WordPress, for letting me Yop! Reader, if you find any pearls here, please help yourself, and feel free to cast your own pearls as comments.
I was out for a walk with my dog Riley the other day when he suddenly pounced into the brush, snagged a woodchuck, shook it until its neck broke, munched it a few times to make sure it was dead, and then laid it on the ground and smiled at me. He was so darn happy with himself.
It reminded me of a short-short story I wrote several years ago and submitted to a contest (250 words max). I did make the Long List, as judged by Dave Eggers, who apparently got what I was doing. I read this aloud at the Merrill House celebration on the last night of the Colgate Conference. I had had a bit to drink first.
This actually happened. (Not for the squeamish.)
The golden sunlight slanting in through the cracks in the barn cut across the flanks of a cow giving birth. With a last moan she pushed her calf out, and it landed in a slimy pile behind her. She immediately turned and began to lick it dry; before long the calf was attempting to lift its head.
A chicken, looking for stray grain, came strutting through, thrusting her head forward and back. Coming upon the newly born calf, the chicken smelled its still wet hooves, fleshy and calcium-rich. With a peck and a peck, the chicken began eating the cartilage on the calf’s hoof bottoms. The calf, barely aware of its own existence, ignored the chicken perforating its feet.
When the chicken had picked its fill, it zig-zagged toward an opening to the outside that was actually a wall fan that at that moment turned on, catching the chicken in its blades. It flew up and squawked temporarily, feathers flying and blood spattering the concrete. But soon it stilled and lay in the corner, where an orange kitten, scrappy and hungry, sniffed it and began to nibble the newly exposed and bloody flesh.
Later, done with its meal, the kitten found a place to curl up in the hay, close to where the new calf was nuzzling its mother for milk. The kitten closed its eyes, curled its tail over its nose, and didn’t even awake when the cow flopped down to rest, smothering the small ball of fur.
As I told the crowd, there’s nothing like actually owning animals to disavow you of any romantic liberal notions you had about animals.
I am still basking in the afterglow of the Colgate Writers’ Conference, which I attended this past week. I had the great privilege of being in a novel workshop led by Brian Hall, whose intelligence, generosity, humor, insight, and talent cannot be exaggerated. I read his novel The Saskiad last month, and his novels Fall of Frost and I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company are now on the top of my teetering pile of summer reading. I will also be adding his book Madeleine’s World: A Biography of a Three-Year-Old to my Education Professions curriculum next year.
In addition to the intensive workshop, I also attended the Craft Talks by other incredibly talented and generous writers: Jennifer Brice, Jennifer Vanderbes (my workshop instructor two years ago – You must read her novel Easter Island), Peter Balakian, J. Robert Lennon, and Patrick O’Keeffe. Their craft talks will be available on the Colgate Writers’ Conference website this summer. Past years’ talks by many of these same writers are already there and are a rare and invigorating treat.
My fellow workshop attendees were also a treat and shared their incredible talents as we workshopped their novels- and memoirs-in-progress. Two of our original group of five were unable to attend, and so we had Thursday and Friday mornings to do with as we chose. On Thursday we did an exercise, which I will describe in a moment, and on Friday two of us workshopped other chunks of manuscripts-in-progress.
As always when talking or hearing about the writing process, I was struck several times by the idea of writing as metaphor for life. Perhaps everything is metaphor for life, or perhaps, as the Kabbalists believe, all physical phenomena are essentially divine energy diffused into an infinite myriad of manifestations. Or maybe, as I am starting to believe, everything is a fractal, everything, if looked at in closer and closer magnification, is seen to be made up of smaller and smaller versions of itself.
One writing technique that was discussed in particular gave me plenty to think about in terms of both writing and life as I know it. This was the idea of the Limiting Exercise.
I encountered this idea during college in another wonderful Nathan Margalit class called Methods and Materials. One assignment we were given was to take a famous painting and spend … a week? two weeks? (I don’t remember) doing nothing but art based on that work. I chose Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and created 15 variations, each more surprising to me than the last.
Later, in my teaching life, I was attempting to have my tenth-graders write poetry, and realized that given no parameters, the choices were too endless and my non-poet students were, for the most part, writing schlock. Remembering my Art background, I pulled out my prints of Monet’s haystack series and explained to my students that I was going to give them a similar limitation to force their creativity.
I assigned a sestina, a very restrictive seven-stanza poetic form, invented in the 12th century and still used today by poets. I discovered this form in college when I read The Complete Poems of Elizabeth Bishop, whose Sestina is one of the most-often anthologized examples of the form. The summer after my friends and I finished college, we all spent the summer writing these while house-sitting in the Montague hills (ah, English majors).
This form restricts the poet to only six end words, rearranged over the course of seven stanzas in a very specific order. As soon as I restricted my students in this way, they began writing much more powerful and beautiful stuff. My sister ended up doing dissertation research for her PhD in Cognitive Psychology on using examples to teach writing by “teaching” the sestina in my tenth-grade classes.
As we discussed in our Colgate workshop, it is common practice for writers to set themselves certain restrictions any time they write: point of view, for example. Do I choose first person or third person? If third person, then omniscient or limited or polyvalent? (a new word to me this week) Once the choice is made, that to a large extent imposes restrictions on the text.
However, for the exercise we did, Brian imposed a VERY limiting rule, so limiting that all of us in the workshop were paralyzed for a few moments, and as we worked you could hear grunts and growls of exasperation as we found ourselves roadblocked every other word: we were to write about a funeral without using the letter “e.” Here is what I came up with – without the help of a thesaurus!
On my way down stairs grimy with dirt, I stop and try my ducts for salt, for liquid, for signs that what awaits within will call from my past’s dim rooms any salt or sting. Finding only “dry” and “blank” in locations from which any squall or storm might tug, I walk toward a door I would turn from if I could, but approach anyway, finding it pulls my body through.
Within, a hush of lights and aromas surround that I most avoid. Aunts and trailing husbands, boys and girls, dumb with discomfort, old grandma sitting on a dais at a lost captain’s prow, surround a box I avoid at all costs.
I hug my mom, my dad. I slowly wind a circuitous path through bumbling cousins who touch or murmur what might sound sad but actually roars, low and ominous.
Shalimar and Coty’s L’aimant swirl in battling soft clouds. Mascara, lipstick, suits long hung in musty bags, skirts and shirts in vibrant colors stab at trying on “valor” or “joy” or any mood that adds a coat of familial gloss to what lurks in sharp looks or harsh coughs or pointing hands that sign out a grim truth.
I finally draw up to that obligatory black coffin and scan that craggy chin and high brow, cold now to my touch as always it was in mood glaring my way.
When I read it back, I realized that most of what I wrote I would NEVER have normally written. My ideas had to come out through some others space, like Play-Doh coming out the sides when the sliding shape-maker of the Fun Factory is plugged up.
On Friday morning, J. Robert Lennon shared in his public Craft Talk a number of limiting exercises as well as examples of what he had written when he had given himself these exercises. Check these out on his website: The Cat Text had me crying with laughter as did his New Sentences for the Testing of Typewriters as did his disquisition on the website I Can Has Cheezburger? which is a big favorite in our household. The image to the left was my son’s desktop picture for months. The writing parallel comes from being forced to use kitten grammar, ala lolcats speech.
In our workshop right afterward, we workshopped my essay Ah-Ha! Moment: The “Diagnosis”. In addition to some very helpful writing feedback, I also got, as I often do in regard to living with Asperger’s, “How do you do it?” “How can you live with this?” and “Doesn’t this sometimes just drive you crazy?” On a bad day, my answers to these questions would be “Not with much grace” and “Some days it’s really hard” and “Yes.”
Later in the day these two things overlapped in my head and I thought to myself, Marriage to an Aspergian: The Ultimate Limiting Exercise, which of course could also be the subtitle for Life as a Dairy Farmer.
Sure, Asperger’s imposes certain limitations, but doesn’t every marriage? Marry a PhD in History and you are probably fated to moving from university to university waiting for tenure. Marry a lumberjack and you will be living near forests. Marry someone with diabetes and you will be monitoring blood sugar.
Look what often happens when people HAVE no limitations: celebrity athletes worth millions go broke or commit crimes, kids who inherit enormous trust funds become alcoholics or addicts, Brad runs off with Angelina when obviously Jennifer was his soul mate (please don’t think that last was anything but ironic). Limitless money, limitless fawning men or women: people usually do not handle that situation well.
Benedictines often talk about the value of their vow of stability. Thomas Merton flopped around like a crazed dilettante until he committed himself to the most restrictive monastic order there is: the Cistercians. They do not leave the monastery and they do not speak. But look at what came out of him then. Perhaps Flannery O’Connor’s lupus forced her creative hand. Dorothy Day chose poverty, and her very life became her creation.
The Taoists have a saying that I frequently fall back on: One disease, long life. No disease, short life.
Having some sort of restriction forces us to act wisely within that restriction’s confines and to care for ourselves or our marriage or our art in purposeful, thoughtful ways. No restrictions allows us to live in perhaps too daring a way, putting ourselves in dangerous situations. Think of children: in the absence of restrictions they will touch hot stoves, jump into deep water, wander into traffic. Our son, as he has gotten older and we have allowed him a longer leash, has often run gratefully back into the fold when we have snagged him from some dangerous social precipice, at least until he hankers for another foray toward adulthood.
My theory on this from a scientific standpoint is that our genetic code is hardwired for limitations because that is one of the natural laws: an ecosystem will expand and diversify until some limiting factor stops it at the system’s carrying capacity. There is only so much available to the system. As Jane Jacobs so brilliantly pointed out in her book The Nature of Economies, our human economies MUST function under the same laws because they ARE regulated by the same laws. Our economy is a fractal made up of the ecologies on which it is based.
All living beings are forced to survive in conditions of scarcity. Plants and animals do this by instinct or by trial-and-error or stimulus-response: Fly south — NOW. No food here → migrate. Not enough nitrogen → stop growing vegetatively.
We humans employ rational choice in a condition of scarcity. There is NOT an infinite amount of money or time or physical resources. You assess what you have, weigh the costs and benefits of each option, and choose accordingly. In the same way, we weigh potential spouses, look at the costs and benefits of each potential mate, and make our choice. (Can you tell the Asperger’s has rubbed off on me a bit? Read John Elder Robison’s memoir Look Me in the Eye for an Aspergian take on mate selection.)
Because we are rational, speaking beings, we have developed rituals that make public some of these rational choices. Marriage is one of the most significant limiting exercises we perform. That’s what the vows are all about: “forsaking all others, cleave thee only unto him as long as you both shall live.” That is a pretty serious limiting exercise right there, like writing using ONLY the vowel “e.”
Sure, Asperger’s imposes more restrictions than the normal marriage, and so does dairy farming. Wendell Berry talks about this in his essay “A Few Words for Motherhood.” As he helps a cow give birth, he thinks of Thoreau’s farmer-bashing words from Walden (which raise my hackles, too) and says that we all commit to something, even if it is to the idea of having NO commitments. Wendell Berry chose farm animals.
I chose Andy, and Asperger’s came with the package. I could get all frustrated and kick and scream or leave, or I can accept the limitation and use it as an exercise in marital creativity.
If you are an artist or a writer, when you impose a restriction on yourself, the creativity gets squeezed out in other unexpected ways. Brian encouraged us to “look for unpredictable elegant opportunities” that happen in writing when we don’t dictatorially impose our own will on the text, that these often lead the text in a new direction that is BETTER than the original plan.
I choose to see my marriage that way. The Asperger’s has been a “restriction” that forced the writing of my own life into a very different direction. Perhaps the creativity this requires of me will make of my life something more creative, and maybe more beautiful, than what it might have been without that restriction.
This is what I love about reading good literary fiction: you can tell when the writers have allowed the texts to force their hand in a way, and have followed and shaped those sometimes unplanned restrictions into art. For my own tastes, I love when a writer or artist has made beauty out of real and sometimes difficult limitations. This is art that, because it is true, always rings true.
Please share your thoughts …..
This week I am attending the Colgate Writers’ Conference in Hamilton, NY. I was accepted into the novel-writing workshop along with three other participants, and our workshop instructor will be Brian Hall, author of the novels The Saskiad, Fall of Frost, and I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company: A Novel of Lewis and Clark, as well as several works of non-fiction. I attended this same conference two years ago and worked with Jennifer Vanderbes, author of Ester Island.
I will be workshopping a novel I started about five years ago, tentatively titled Swimming in Lake Poison. I partly used the painting below by John August Swanson as inspiration. I have posted Chapter One below, and would be grateful for any feedback.
I will share pictures and more from the conference once it is over. If you would like to join me vicariously, the public lectures – including each morning’s Craft Talk and each evenings Readings – are available at http://groups.colgate.edu/cwc/archive.html. This year’s will not be available until much later, but the previous year’s are also great. Especially, you should become familiar with Frederick Busch’s work if you are not already. I have read his novel Harry and Catherine probably fifteen times.
One night, during the worst of it, the week we kept the shotgun next to bed, the week we had to send the kids away, the week we slept holding each other for safety, I had this dream:
We were on vacation at our family camp, high in the Berkshires of Connecticut. But in the dream it was a much exaggerated version of Mount Riga, wilder, steeper, more densely forested, and poorer. There was no wealthy and manicured New England town at its foot. It seemed instead to be placed in the rural poverty of the wilder regions of the Northern Adirondacks or northern Vermont, far from where anyone with wealth or sophisticated aesthetics would summer. To arrive at this surreal version of our refuge required skirting a lumber town, a rough and bedraggled collection of old warehouses and greasy auto shops, furred by spruces, with that sinister feel of forests in the primitive Northwest, where the trees are angry ancients leaning over and threatening to swallow you in their growth.
Upon our arrival, my husband Ty’s family had already assembled, and the lake and A-frame and cabins seemed almost true to their wonderful, normal selves. All of my mother-in-law’s Swedish relatives had gathered, from all corners of the country, and although it appeared that the lake was very cold – thin sheets of ice laced its edges – young cousins, previously unknown to me, were swimming along its uneven and rocky shoreline. In the dream, unlike in the real Lake Riga, high, columnar islands of rock topped with shaggy pines rose not far from shore, and pallid Swedish boys, all of them young cousins and second cousins, dove in masks around their murky bases in the narrow area between islands and land, seeking gold or what would pass for it with younger relatives.
Almost immediately upon arrival, after hugs and introductions, Ty and I were dispatched to run an errand: to fetch an air mattress left at the lake’s other end, needed by one of the guests for sleeping on that night. Though I was tired and longed to crawl into a soft nest in our camper, Ty and I prepared to set out in the late afternoon with a flashlight to fetch it.
As we approached our vehicle to go, an extraordinary procession of young, male, white-robed acolytes proceeded along the sandy road under the low-hanging pines, carrying large white candles and singing. They walked slowly, a hundred or so of them, the flames lighting up their joyous faces, and as they passed, they looked at us and smiled as they sang, a slow meditative song full of plain harmonies, like chant or incantation. Everyone at our camp stopped in slow silence and smiled in their glow. The young monks walked toward their rustic monastery farther around the lake. The harmonies of their song drifted through the trees and echoed across the water.
Still, Ty and I had to fetch the mattress, and instead of taking a canoe or the Jeep, we set out on foot, back down the rough road and through the lumber town and further down the mountain and back into the scrubland forest to the lake’s other end. Peering under dense bushes with our flashlight, we found the raft under some brush on the dirt road’s side. The road we were on stopped at the lake’s edge seemed to have no other destination than this distant spot, and we wondered who had been here earlier in the day and for what reason, far from the main enclave and in so isolated a place. With the half-deflated plastic raft under my arm, we set out for the long walk back.
As we returned, ever-darkening twilight turned back to bright day, and our narrow path down through the open land suddenly rose to a high and thin-aired height, while the region to our right dropped, such that the houses and churches below looked like toys. The trees disappeared and we walked along an Alpine path, and the ancient and softened Berkshires turned to snow-topped mountain peaks and the land to our side sank into green-lined river valleys. Now that we were above the tree line, the evergreens of Connecticut shrunk to the short brush of the high peaks, and we walked the narrow ridge of a high mountain trail toward a tiny town perched on one crag. We stumbled over rocks on the narrow path, and I struggled with the burden of the raft.
The tiny town seemed to be holding its market day, and each of the handful of tiny kiosks stood in relief high against the Andean air, a small wooden cart or booth with bright scarves or hanging peppers blowing in the wind from its racks. Ty and I stopped at one, where textiles hung in a fury of color against the white sky. In the bright and wind-whipped air, we struggled to choose one and pay its seller, a short, compact man with brown skin and smiling eyes, with a band of brightly-striped wool over one shoulder.
We passed beyond his stand at the peak of the village, toward a one-room Alpine tavern on a steep and narrow ridge, where mountain men of foreign skins and languages sang and clanked heavy wooden mugs of some native grog. Ty stopped in to join them for a drink and I continued toward the small mountain lake ahead, holding by the hand the frailest of the Swedish girl cousins who was suddenly and inexplicably in my charge. Two nuns, in soft yellow habits and comfortably middle-aged faces in high peaked wimples, approached and smiled and nodded as they passed us. We nodded in return and continued on our way. I glanced down, far down into the valley, and saw, like a jewel in the green valley below, a perfect Austrian abbey, soft yellow, like a pound of creamy butter on its green lawns, with tall Baroque windows and topped with dark onion-shaped domes, a shiny copper cross atop each. It was a long building, with the central section most likely the dormitory, clean and airy, and the taller end with the most steeples the sanctuary. From its windows soared the measured tones of Gregorian chant.
We realized that the two nuns we had passed were most likely from there, and sure enough, when we turned to look where the two had gone, we could see them descending a gentle path that led down, down, down toward the picturesque little haven below. I watched, wanted to follow, stopped, until my little cousin tugged my hand and I turned to her and smiled and walked on.
She and I continued toward the lake ahead, and as we neared, we could see it had a sandy beach and shallow water for wading. Knowing we would have to wait for Ty, we stripped down to our bathing suits, leaving our clothes and shoes on towels on the beach, and waded in. It was a small and open lake, no more than five acres, more of a pond, and we could easily see across it to the rocky shore on the other side. My little cousin stayed wading in the shallow waters with sand beneath her feet, but I, hot and a swimmer by nature, dove under and headed toward the deeper and cooler water in the middle.
When I surfaced there and shook the hair and water from my eyes, I saw to one side of the pond a tall earthen dam through which opened an enormous corrugated metal culvert. I looked higher up and noticed the factory from which it came. Only then did I look down, to the water I was treading in, and see the noxious green ooze. I followed its liquid path to the culvert and saw the mix of green and phosphorescent orange that flowed toward me, foaming and scum-topped. The watery trail was dotted with thin metal scraps and shredded labels, plastic bung-hole caps and globs of brownish sludge.
I scrambled to turn in the deep water and head back toward shore, but the mire became viscous and I flailed to direct my body shoreward. I was gasping in panic and exertion and I feared gulping a mouthful of the sickly and putrid slime that circled my face. My skin was starting to smart and sting, and I swam in desperation toward shore, shouting for my little cousin to Get out! Get out! Pushing against the resistance of the thick water, my feet finally hit ground, and I slugged heavily, weighted down, toward my charge who was splashing and falling toward the beach.
Finally close enough, I grabbed her, flung us both onto the land, and dragged her to a water spigot where I quickly and viciously hosed her down. Luckily, only her legs were affected, and the green poison washed off. I was saturated: my skin, my hair, my arms and legs, my swimsuit, and though I sprayed and sprayed and pressurized the water against myself, the toxins burned and stung, and my skin was stained a sickly greenish-orange, and though I washed and scrubbed and directed the water full-force, I could not remove the poisons from my skin.