Pubs, Summer 2016

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The new issue of Cold Mountain Review, which includes my story “Forage,” has just gone live. 

A “mountain story” inspired by morel-hunting on Cold Mountain in North Carolina, for a mountain journal, out of Appalachian State, in Boone:

Clare looks at the slant of the rusty tin roof and the white paint that peels in strips from the siding. The house is the same sort of place that usually sits at the edge of somebody’s grandparents’ land, about to fall back into scrap, jammed, from the scarred pine floor to the 12-foot ceilings, with stored bales of hay: the old place. Whenever there is a newer one, it’s a ranch-style set a little farther back from the road or backed up to a cowpond. Propane tank tethered close; the well out front turned into a planter. They drove past half a dozen like that just on the way here.

Pubs, Spring 2016 Edition

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The new issue of Shenandoah, which includes my story “The Fossil Record,” has just gone live.

The working title for “The Fossil Record” was “The Nanny’s Tale,” and I guess that just about covers it:

The Davenport’s beautiful house is filled with beautiful art.  Art Molly loves to look on. So for a while, the stage before this stage, she supposes, she tried to convince herself that was reason enough to stay with the job, reason enough to be happy — the slant of light on the gleaming wooden floors and the quiet, and the milky bubble at the corner of Odette’s mouth whenever she falls asleep clutching a bottle.  Which she is not supposed to do, or Molly to allow, because it’ll be bad for the teeth Odette doesn’t actually have yet.  The fact is that there are bold still-lifes hung everywhere, even the kitchen, oil paint on canvas, such an orgy of art that Molly can hardly comprehend it.  She begins to run a sponge over the marble countertop.   How much longer can she rationalize what she’s doing?  She needs to go back to school, so she can get her education certificate, so she can teach art to preschoolers, at least until the next downturn, when such positions will once again be cut.

The V Word: or More on Value

Now I’m 79.  I’ve written many hundreds of essays, 10 times that number of misbegotten drafts both early and late, and I begin to understand that failure is its own reward.  It is in the effort to close the distance between the work imagined and the work achieved wherein it is to be found that the ceaseless labor is the freedom of play, that what’s at stake isn’t a reflection in the mirror of fame but the escape from the prison of the self.

 

Lewis H. Lapham, “Old Masters,” New York Times Magazine.

Five of Five (Good Things)

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From an interview with poet August Kleinzahler:

INTERVIEWER

Recently Poetry posed a question about the social utility of poetry. Does that interest you?

KLEINZAHLER

No. I agree with Auden that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Nothing else needs to be said about it.

INTERVIEWER

One more: some argue that the only value of a work of art is the value others derive from it. Do you agree?

KLEINZAHLER

I don’t think of such imponderables as “the value of art.” I do think, however, no matter how difficult or opaque the work, the making of art is a profoundly social activity, even if it’s one-on-one with some sort of ideal reader who doesn’t exist.

Reading Virginia Woolf, while standing in spitting distance of the age of fifty…

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…and a little strip of life presented itself before her eyes, her fifty years.  There it was before her — life.  Life:  she thought but did not finish her thought.  She took a look at life, for she had a clear sense of it there, something real, something private, which she shared neither with her children nor with her husband.  A sort of transaction went on between them, in which she was on one side, and life was on another, and she was always trying to get the better of it, as it was of her and sometimes they parleyed (when she sat alone); there were, she remembered, great reconciliation scenes; but for the most part, oddly enough, she must admit that she felt this thing that she called life terrible, hostile, and quick to pounce on you if you gave it a chance.  There were always the eternal problems:  suffering; death; the poor.  There was always a woman dying of cancer even here.  And yet she had said to all these children:  You shall go through with it.  To eight people she had said relentlessly that (and the bill for the greenhouse would be fifty pounds).  For that reason, knowing what was before them — love and ambition and being wretched alone in dreary places — she had often the feeling:  Why must they grow up and lose it all?  And then she said to herself, brandishing her sword at life, nonsense.  They will be perfectly happy…. 

— To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

Five Good Things

Five good things,  I tell my daughter as she leaves for school.  Because the weight of Twelve drags heavy on her shoulders lately, especially in the mornings, more of a burden than the overladen backpack middle school requires.  See if you can see five good things as you walk to school this morning.  

Earlier, I had a few free seconds with my cup of coffee before everyone woke up, so I glanced at the newspaper. Before I even realized what I’d started, I was halfway through an article about the Family Room set aside for private mourning in a building across the street from Ground Zero, about how, over time, it organically grew to be a sort of shrine:  grief made tangible.  The photograph of that room, full of objects and images of loved ones, was unbearable.

I realized that this morning I might need that quest for five good things as much as my daughter, who’d told me her Instagram feed when she woke up was a succession of burning buildings.  I shut the laptop and went for a walk.

A smattering of dried leaves in a brushstroke on the sidewalk:  fall is coming.  

The clump of beauty berries at the side of a neighbor’s house, so hazardous in its purpleness — how can any animal dream of consuming them, how could nature come up with them?  They’d be more at home with the brightly-colored plastic flotsam in the aisles at ToysRUs.

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Three pears balanced on the overpass railing.  Left there — why?  By whom?

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The usual suspects, the walkers I always see at this time of morning, when I myself am walking:  the smiling young man who often sports a t-shirt silkscreened to look like a tuxedo, a dapper fancy-dress that celebrates the day.  Is it is favorite shirt?  What is he always listening to, through those earphones?

His smile — beautiful.

The lean saturnine man who used to just walk a Great Dane but now walks Great Dane and Baby, his slow amble mainly just to allow his dog time to nose the curb, even though I like to think it says time, time, I have nothing but time, I am home every morning with a three-month old baby.  

The jogger I call the Victorian Strongman, with his drooping handlebar mustache and sideburns and his springy lope.

The spent-handkerchief crumple of the moonflower blooms along the fence; the snail meandering through the wet grass; the strength of my shadow as it travels the pavement.

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Five good things,  the leavening, life’s sweet.

… Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people…any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallize and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsey, sitting on the floor cutting out pages from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator as his mother spoke with heavenly bliss.  It was fringed with joy.

—To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

Harvest: An Ode to Sun Golds

This morning, as I headed somewhere, car keys in one hand, iPod in the other, I found myself yanked momentarily away from my earnest, busy intentions[1]by a glimpse of gold peeping from the green foliage in the corner of our front yard.

And then, before I really knew what hit me, I was balanced precariously at the edge of the raised bed we call our “garden,” plucking cherry tomatoes from the sprawling vine.

It is one of the rituals — and pleasures — of my domestic life that every spring I plant tomatoes. The ritual began a year or so after we bought our first house, when our oldest was a toddler, and in the beginning, I had grand ambitions for it, as I do for most things. Tomatoes, I promised myself. Watermelon and cantaloupe. Summer squash and zucchini and cucumbers.

I would feed my little family of three just like a midwestern farm wife!

Spring Planting, 2003

Spring Planting, 2003

That first year, I started heirloom seeds I had purchased from a beautifully-illustrated catalogue .  I  ended up with dozens of seedlings that, lacking that midwestern farm wife’s farm, I mostly had to give away. That first year, I knew someone who had ten-acres-and-a-mule so I hauled home trash cans of black gold (i.e. manure) in the back of our newly-acquired station wagon. I nursed the seedlings along, got them into the ground; I battled horn worms. I can’t remember if the harvest that year was good or bad.

In the eleven years since, my ambitions have been whittled down. On a good year, I plant tomatoes and cucumbers and beans and one of the other of them will stubbornly refuse to grow.  More often, I just buy tomato seedlings at Lowe’s and slap them into the ground and hope for the best. I used to be a thoughtful gardener:  now I know that things grow despite —not because of — me.  Some years squirrels get all my harvest. Some years, it’s just plain too droughty, and I forget to water regularly, and the whole enterprise is pretty much of a bust.

This year, I planted cherry tomatoes because I was sick of spending 4 bucks a pint for them all summer long.  Sun golds and black cherries — so candy-like you could almost call them the bonbons of the tomato world.

If nothing else, growing your own food is a great way to learn just hard it can be —  to grow food.  My garden could never — not even in my wildest dreams —  produce enough to see us through a winter.

Although our society is rife with inequities, certain sorts of abundance are a given.  We assume there will always be cherry tomatoes, arrayed pint-beside-pint at the grocery store. And that assumption is correct.  Barring apocalypse, there will be.

The lesson the tomato plants in the front yard teach is that the fact that I get even a single tomato at all is a miracle.

This morning, I set my business aside for a few minutes and picked tomatoes.  In seconds, I had more than I could hold in my hands.  I made a bowl of my t-shirt; kept picking.

The plants are such an unmannerly sprawl that finding the fruit is a game of hide-and-seek.  Just I think I’ve gotten all the ripe ones, I move to the other side of the bed and spy new ones. There is always just enough for dinner that night, and the next day’s lunches.

Sun gold.

Sung old.

The garden sings its beautiful song.

It might as well be a detail from a fairy tale, the way the plants magically replenish themselves in the night and then offer up more, our everyday abundance.

 

[1] Must be productive, must be efficient, must keep to the schedule, the to-do list!