Family · Life on the Island · Uncategorized · Writing Life

Labor Day

On Labor Day, we had a rare opportunity, because neither of the boys were working, to go out for breakfast together. I am not a morning person, but going out for breakfast is one of my favorite things about being an adult. In spite of my hermetic ways, there is something about being greeted and settled in by the waitstaff (especially if they recognize you as a regular) that brings a comfort to the start of the day.

Out for breakfast on Rocky Neck

Whether it is an elegant petit dejeuner in Paris, or a busy diner with sturdy stone wear plates of pancakes or eggs and endless refills of cheap coffee, there’s something strangely life affirming about sharing this ritual with other people; even if they are at the next table, and not part of your group.

Though a few of our usual breakfast spots were closed for the holiday or had very long lines, on this beautiful morning, we were lucky enough to get a table on the porch of a local go-to. Along with standard breakfast fare, menus around here are sprinkled with local favorites like linguica, a Portuguese sausage, and anadama bread, thought to be brought over from Finland by the early stonecutters in the quarries here. Anadama French Toast is a popular offering.

Driftwood Fish

It was nice for the four of us to have a meal together to mark the end of summer. With both boys working, time to sit down together is rare these days. Now that the kids are older and need less management, they have become pleasant companions and these meals are much more enjoyable. There much less bickering, much more storytelling and joking around.

This part of the island is an art colony, and after breakfast we strolled through the neighborhood looking at the cottages and gardens. Many of the galleries were closed for the holiday, but there was still art and creativity everywhere.

The weather here has already gotten cooler. I find myself greedily consuming the views of flowers still in bloom from the height of summer, as if the memory of them will hold me through the barren months of winter. I know it’s coming. My youngest started his classes at the high school last week, and my oldest starts his college classes on Thursday. My days are going to get busier, carting them to school and to work, or other places. Though they both have their learning permits, neither has a full license. And even if they did, we’d be short a car (or two).

I am not ready to put my sandals away. I am not ready for football, or fat socks and boots, or pumpkin spice anything. I still want to walk down to the beach or the harbor. I want to listen to the seagulls or watch the sandpipers zooming back and forth along the surf. I want to be able to breathe without the frozen air hampering me. This kills me. Ordinarily I would be eagerly awaiting the trappings of autumn every year. Chronic illness has changed that. I truly love having four seasons, but it would be easier to live in a place where it hovered around 70º all year-round.

This is a hydrangea tree. Now I want one.

In other news, I am writing again. I created a piece for Labor Day on how corporate culture and public policy (or lack thereof) is killing the so-called dignity of work. You can find it here on Medium. I’m trying out Medium as a potential platform, but I am also looking at other markets. If last winter was about recovering and getting through a devastating year career, health and family-wise, I hope this year will be much more about working and rebuilding.

Lobster trap chair, you might need a cushion.
Another local restaurant
Gloucester Marine Railways
More lovely gardens
A view of the harbor, still full of boats for now.
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Renewal

In the week or so since I last posted here, the light and the temperatures have increased and I’m starting to feel a bit more whole. There have been more days when I don’t need to turn the heat up for a shower (we keep it ridiculously low throughout the winter making getting out of bed and out of the shower very uncomfortable). I got out to do some clean up the other day just to sit in the garden among the blooming hyacinths and inhale their generous fragrance.

Front Garden in Spring

I’ve actually fallen into a bit of a routine now. Reading with breakfast, a shower in late morning, errands or writing in the afternoon. The hours are still a bit off, I still wake up later than I would like and fall asleep later than I would like, but the sunlight is helping. A spectrum lamp I ordered in the Fall sits on my desk unopened. I never got out of bed or sat down to write during the winter at any hour when such a thing would be useful, but hopefully it will be there for me when the coming summer is over.

I don’t want to think about that just now. I know I mentally stretched out the existence of mild weather as much as I could last year, even as sweaters and fat socks once again became part of my wardrobe. The point was to get outside while I still could, before the cold air and the menacing wind made it difficult for me to breathe again. Any opportunity to notice the progression of Spring brings a smile to my face now. I got through the sluggishness of winter, and for that I am grateful.

Flowering trees are my favorite.

The warmer weather has made the idea of writing a story set at the beach a bit easier too. I’ve hit a snag, however, in discovering that the point of my story is not the main character’s relationship with a man in her life, past or present, but of the constant presence of the strong women she’s related to. This means that I have to build these characters out more and that the clattering of the plastic Scrabble tiles and the ticking of the banjo clock (two consistent sounds I have borrowed from my own childhood), as the aunts banter and bicker back and forth, will not be enough. They need to be fuller, more complete people, which means I’m going to have to be clearer about their experiences in life and get more specific about the times in which they came of age.

This is going to require some more research. I am very immersed in the history of WWII, but these women are more likely generationally associated with the years of the Viet Nam war, a time that I was too young to remember, and haven’t studied much, but was indeed tumultuous, and could include useful formative experiences for the aunts in my fictional family. I think I have to start outlining rather than free-forming it as I was expecting to be able to do.

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Come Spring

The dog was awakened this morning before 7:00 AM by a pair of deer walking in the woods behind our house. Whether he heard or smelled them remains a mystery to us because the woods are quite some distance from the house, and deer are largely silent creatures. The dog howled and barked up a storm; the deer remained indifferent, placidly searching for something to eat on the cusp of Spring. As they moved out of sight, the dog settled back down, but now the rest of us were all awake.

Stealthy Deer

Days like this I wish I was more of a morning person. I’d like to think I have a shot of having the house to myself in the wee hours, but as long as my eldest lives here, this will never be true. He is a very early riser, I will never beat him. As soon as he knows I am up he will come in to chat. In his eighteen years, he has not figured out that I don’t deal well with talk in the mornings.

In the years when I was commuting to Boston, I missed so much of the activity here on the island. When I would drive out to the highway, I’d think about the fishermen and the dock workers, and the people opening up their places of business. I missed so much of the community experience working in an office among the cubicles. Now that I am home and have the time, I am less interested in the community. It’s too cold to be out and about in the early morning without a real destination. I am too tired for the community to ask anything of me just now. I don’t get the local paper anymore, I’ve dropped out of all my committees, and this will be the first year in twenty that I am not going to Spring Town Meeting. I’ve become the hermit I once expected to be in my 20s. Now if I were writing productively, this would be a good thing.

So instead of people and projects marking the days, I have nature that I can see through my window. Surprisingly, there’s an awful lot of it, even in the winter. We’ve had coyote visitors, and the other day a fox crossed the street and bounded through our yard. We’ve had turkeys and a kestrel. I’m waiting to see an owl. Snowy owls winter in the area, and some of them are quite used to humans as long as we don’t get too close.

I’m taking the deer as another sign of Spring; mostly because I have not seen them all winter. I read somewhere that their stomachs adapt to the seasons – tolerating the leafless branches in winter and seeking softer fare in the warmer months. It’s still too early for leaves or even buds. We have had a few warmer days here and it is amazing how much lighter and happier I feel when I can sit outside even for a few minutes.

Now, at the end of the day, it’s raining as I write this and a local weather site I follow is suggesting that the patter at the windows is actually sleet. This is when I am glad to not have anywhere to go. I can stay in this evening and write.

Family · Life on the Island · What I'm Reading · Writing Life

Family Structures and Strictures

The birds are busy at the feeder this morning, perhaps in anticipation of tomorrow’s snow. Among them is a large Red-bellied Woodpecker, nearly twice the size of the other birds out there. He’s been around quite a bit this winter, but it is always a treat to see him contrasted so brightly with the myriad brown birds that we normally get in the colder months. It is for visitors like this that I insist on maintaining the feeders in the winter, even though seed isn’t cheap.

It’s midmorning and I’m having the last of the real bagels with my tea. Even stale they are better than supermarket bagels. I feel lucky to be able to get them every once in a while. I consider what I might be able to get done today after I have decided that my morning reading is complete. I’ve just started Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys. She is one of the most prolific writers I can think of, and yet this may be the first book of hers that I’ve read. I vaguely remember being assigned something of hers in college, but I don’t remember what it was (a poem, maybe? a short story?), and like most of what we read as English majors, it was dark and depressing. I’ve not tried anything of hers since.

I picked up Mulvaneys from the hospital exchange cart, and I will probably bring it back there when I’m done with it. Hospital book carts have saved my sanity more than once last year and I try to contribute to them when I can. You don’t really sleep much in hospitals, you might as well have something good to read. I’ve now taken to packing books whenever I think I’m going to be admitted, but I almost always get through the ones I bring.

My grandparents with their five children.

So far, I like the Mulvaneys and the simple, almost religious optimism that holds their lives together. Yet, you know their happiness is tenuous, that something awful is going to happen that rips apart their carefully constructed lives; like a squirrel dashing through the dazzling but delicate web that took a spider so long to build. When Oates describes a non-central character’s effort to set his own children against each other, I stop and seriously wonder if this is common in Irish families, as it was certainly recognizable in mine.

This gives me something to think about in my own family and my own writing. Growing up I had this dollhouse that I played with well into my teens. My sister was four years younger and constantly begging me to play with her, which is part of the reason. The other reason, I didn’t realize until many years later, was that the dollhouses (there were three of them) served as a setting for the stories in my head. Those stories were almost always about the kind of family I wanted, rather than the one I had. The family in my head was always large, active and social. They enjoyed each others’ company had each others’ backs.

For decades I’ve wanted to set a story in a multigenerational family with a summer house. I have such wonderful descriptions of the place, I could make you want to go there. the place itself is a character. And yet, I can’t do it because moving the story forward would mean that one of my characters would have to do something horrible to another. I can’t bear to imagine what that thing might be although I have plenty of examples in my own family.

For a writer, there’s a lot to explore within the disintegration of a family. Society would like us to think that these are unbreakable bonds, but they fall apart all the time over money, abuse, resentment, and the smallest things can become the last straw. After those bonds have been broken, what makes them worth trying to repair? Or is it just easier not to?

This has been on my mind a lot since my cousin’s death around the holidays. I suppose there was an “event” that precipitated our all falling away when we were kids, but in truth, fault lines among the adults already existed. That my mother’s generation never thought those sibling bonds important enough to repair saddens me when I think of it. Yet, my own generation is similar. We all live in different states, we have very different lives and we would never reach out to each other for help. It’s just the way it is.

Perhaps I imagined this might change after many of my cousins started to reach out to each other, mostly on Facebook. Maybe my surprising anger at her passing is not just about her age, but about the fact that she won’t have a chance to be a part of that.

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I Need a Word

I find myself in need of a word to describe the almost tangible feeling that I really should be in a different time or place than I actually am depending on things like the season, the feel of the air, or sometimes the time of day. It goes beyond nostalgia, even though that’s certainly part of it. If you are watching The Man in the High Castle, it feels a little like that alternate life, complete with memories that feel immediate.

Some examples:

Both our our kids were adopted at the same time of year, two years apart. We did our first trips for each child in March, and the trip to finalize each adoption was taken in late April. We were back home in Boston with T on May 1, and with P on May 5. For years afterward, when the light would really start to change, and there was the smallest hint of warmth in the air in very early spring, my husband and I would feel like we should be packing for St. Petersburg again. It took years for that feeling to dissipate.

Every September, probably really starting in late August, I feel this incredible pull to be on a college campus again. There is an enormous hole in my life because I am not taking a class, or teaching a class, or a part of a learning community. I think I first noticed this the year I took a couple of classes at Boston College. Walking around campus, I really felt like I belonged; not at BC specifically, but in an academic setting. That was over 20 years ago. I never did get to pursue a Ph.D. and I didn’t get to stay in the dream job that I had on a smaller campus (long, ugly story), so there’s that pull, mixed with tremendous resentment and regret.

More recently, I have been experiencing the certainty that if I stepped out of my house and got into my car, I really should be driving around the town I grew up in and the town where my grandparents lived instead of where I actually live, several hundred miles away.

The view from my grandparents’ place, Branford, CT, sometime in the 70s.

This is a weird one. I don’t really want to live in my old hometown anymore and most of my friends and cousins are no longer in the area. I’m constantly grateful I am not living surrounded by people who knew me when I was a teenager. There’s really nothing left for me there. I couldn’t afford it now, and with the exception of my senior year, my time there wasn’t that great (this is more about where my family was emotionally than anything to do with the town). What is the draw?

I wonder the extent to which the draw is regret. I suppose this is related to my cousin’s death a few weeks ago, and that visceral feeling of reaching out for a person slipping away from you too soon. My mother’s family went their separate ways after my grandmother died. I regret that we all lost touch for so long. I regret decisions our parents made, actions that my generation had no say in, and so many of us were left adrift without our anchors. After twenty years, I had only gotten to know my cousin again at her father’s funeral. As we always do, I assumed there would be other occasions to connect.

I wonder too, if the “should haves” in my life have that much power over me, that I can feel them physically, as sing posts, or perhaps even roadblocks. It is a question for therapy, when I’m finally able to start. My life is pretty good but the should haves in my life are enormous. How do I continue to make something meaningful and satisfying out of the path I did take?

Life on the Island · Uncategorized · Writing Life

Procrastibaking, So There!

It’s 3º. The high today was 5º. It snowed and slushed for the better part of yesterday and then it all froze. Walking is treacherous. If it wasn’t already Martin Luther King Day, school would likely be cancelled. Post-holiday winter is here.

For my friends in upstate NY, the upper-Midwest and Canada, I realize this is nothing. Honestly, I thought I was going to be one of those crusty curmudgeonly types who retired in Maine, but now I am undone by single degree weather and the howling wind.

Apple Walnut Bread

I can’t imagine commuting the way I used to right now. I worked mostly at home for so many years that it’s hard to remember what that’s like. I used to enjoy the commute. And the commuter rail used to be reasonably reliable. Now I don’t have the stamina for two hours door-to-door, a full day of work, and then another two hours for the journey home.

I can’t really do fourteen-hour days anymore, though I really do miss being in an office, being part of a team. I haven’t settled into a routine of my own as of yet. It is the hardest part of having ADD; routines don’t really stick.

Every so often, L will ask me how I’m feeling. After multiple trips to the hospital this summer and fall, he is now always on the lookout. Generally speaking, although the cold takes my breath away, I have been doing pretty well. The problem is though, I haven’t been doing very much.

I’ve been sleeping a lot. Whether that’s physical, or depression-related, or I just don’t want to get out of my warm bed, it’s hard to say. My days these past few weeks have been starting around 10 AM, unless I have a specific appointment. I have been reading a lot, which I guess is a good thing. I’ve been making a real attempt to set the phone / social media aside for most of the morning and read a real, physical, book.

I need to be writing more. I need to pick a direction and get moving. I have had the germ of a novel simmering in the back of my head for years, but it is really not going anywhere. I’ve had this eternal problem with it; the setting is more real in my head than the characters because the characters are based on real people and I’m afraid of them being too recognizable. I may just need to discard the whole thing and move on to what I thought would be my second project. Maybe I’ll come back to it when I get better at inventing people.

The rest of my days are often filled with managing medical appointments and chasing after prescriptions (which really should not be this hard to manage, how do seniors do it?).

In the meantime I took advantage of the fact that this cold weather makes me want to cook. A friend calls it procrastibaking, which, it turns out, is a real thing. I made apple-walnut bread for the first time (yum!) and chocolate pecan pie, which has become the new favorite around here. I also made a thing I’ve always called coq au vin, but is really like a chicken stew with white wine instead of red. It doesn’t reduce the way I’d like in a slow cooker, so I’m not doing it that way again. Cooking does make me feel like I’ve accomplished something anyway.