Above Tree Line: July


I’ve been a negligent blogger, for more reasons than could possibly be interesting or appropriate to describe, though one of those reasons is my near total absorption in Jane Austen’s complex prose and fascinating character development, thus the current partiality for complex prose myself, the willingness to go on and on like the ever-talkative Miss Bates, into as many subjects as can tolerably be imagined, and still hold onto the thread, as far stretched as it might get, and as many metaphors as might comfortably fit (not to mention commas), in a sentence; and for an excellent, modern example of deft and impressive sentence structure read Claire Messud‘s The Emperor’s Children.  And while you’re at it, read her new The Woman Upstairs, because it is a majorly brilliant book.

Over a week ago we fulfilled our July intention of getting above tree line.  David, Anne and I summited Mt. Eisenhower on a day of intermittent sun and clouds.  The wind was strong and cool enough to require our jackets, which was a great change and a greater relief after a too-hot week.  The Pemigewasset Wilderness ranges to our south folded away in blue layers, and we looked out over the long ridge formed by Mt. Bond and Bondcliff, imaging the 19.5 mile traverse we’re planning to do in August.  It’s not an easy hike, with over 3,700 feet of elevation besides the long mileage.  But it allows you to walk into and out of the wilderness, literally.

This week my training for both that long hike and an upcoming triathlon will be confined to an island, less than 2 miles long and 3/4 mile wide and 12 miles off the coast of Maine — Monhegan.  David and I walked a few of the supposed 17 (or 12, depends on which source you read) miles of trail yesterday evening, out to Burnt Head and White Head, steep cliffs overlooking the Atlantic.  He’s here to paint.  I’m writing.  Including my blog. More soon.


Too Hot to Blog

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I’ve been busy, not that being busy is in any way unusual for me, but there have been deadlines to some of what I’d had to do this past week (consulting work), and getting things done that require paying attention, sitting at a desk, in a hot house, has not been easy.  Normally, I spend an hour or three at a time at my desk, whether writing a grant as a consultant, or doing a webinar, or doing my own work, editing poetry or writing an essay or pulling something together for one of the boards I’m on.  When I get restless, which happens a lot, I go outside and weed my garden for a while, go for a bike ride, a swim, a walk, or pick some of the abundance of wild blueberries this year, something outside and direct and physical.

Not this week.  When I needed a break from my work, I just walked around looking for a cooler space in the house.   Being outside during the day was impossibly uncomfortable and hot.  I did go swimming, but not much else.  I got my work done, went for a swim, then sat on the back deck at the end of the day with David, both of us basically panting, trying to stay cool enough to get through dinner and get into bed with multiple fans blowing on us.  My brain was on semi-permanent melt — work, eat, collapse.  What was there to say that would be interesting for a blog?

But I was paying attention to the forecast (another thing that is not in any way unusual for me) and kept seeing the temperatures predicted for Friday as being the highest of the week.  Early in my week of work, I decided to get what I needed done completed by Thursday afternoon so David and I could have a summer vacation day on Friday.

We did.  We got up yesterday morning and put the kayak racks on the car for the first time this summer, then loaded up the kayaks and a cooler of snacks, and headed for Squam Lake.  Squam Lake is a special place for me.  It was our family vacation spot for all the years from when Sam was a year old until two years after Eric died — 21 years. Kayaking on Squam was Eric’s favorite thing to do, the lake his favorite place in the world.  The day Eric died, as we were trying to figure out how to prepare his body for pick up by the funeral home, Adrienne, Sam, John and I agreed that nothing would be so fitting as dressing Eric in his kayak shorts and water shoes.  We considered putting a paddle beside him, to be tucked into the coffin and buried with him, but knew Eric would object to that as a waste of good equipment.

As David and I turned onto Metcalf Road yesterday, headed for the kayak launch spot on Squaw Cove, a wave of memory passed through me, bringing back all the years of getting ready for a week on the lake, all the years of Eric and I kayaking to favorite spots to swim and pick berries and relax, all the years of dipping our paddles into the clear lake water as we watched the march of the Sandwich Range mountains fading into the haze of summer days on the north shore.

Yesterday on the lake was perfect.  It was viciously hot in most of the country, but fine sitting on the fine white sand beaches of Squam Lake, half-submerged in water.  David and I paddled and swam and read and had a picnic and I wrote in my Island Journal, a memoir I’m writing that I can only write while on islands (more on that in a later post). We went to three islands yesterday.  At one point I asked David how he was doing (not an easy week for either or us, for reasons as easy to ascribe to the heat as anything else) and he said, “I’m great.  This is the essential ‘us.’  Getting out into the world and moving and being and enjoying”

We didn’t leave the lake until dinner time, driven back to our car by hunger.  We picked up sandwiches in Holderness and ate sitting on a dock, watching the light fade over the water.  Yes, maybe it was a week too hot for blogging, a week to hot for anything but getting done what had to be done.  But it was an evening cool enough for imagination, after a week soaked in the sweat of real life and obligation.  Time to let go.  Time to float into a weekend as the cooler air moved in.

Rereading Jane Austen

NPG 3630; Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen

Every decade since I was a teenager I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s novels — first in my late teens, then in my 20’s,  30’s and 40’s.  I’ve been wondering if I’d do it again in my 50’s, as my 60th birthday is later this summer, and during a recent visit to my parents’ house noted again the collection of Jane Austen my mother has in a bookshelf in the bedroom where David and I were sleeping.  I’d brought a few books with me to read on our long weekend of family beach time, but decided to pick up the volume that included Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.  Hours later I was well into Northanger Abbey, and within a few days had read both novels.  Now I’ve finished Sense and Sensibility, spending a good part of Monday reading, because at one point I couldn’t get anything done without knowing exactly how things turned out for sisters Elinor and Marianne, one so full of sense, one so open with her sensibilities.

“What is it about Jane Austen that makes you so eager to get to the end of a book you’re reading for the fifth time?” David asked me.

Yes, what is so satisfying about these novels?  Is it a reminder of my youth, when reading strong stories of young women’s aspirations and loves seemed a reflection of my own life, even if in a very different setting?  The focused attention on personality, temperament, kindness, manners and good sense, the well structured plots with just enough surprises to keep the action fresh, the well drawn characters who display every aspect of both admirable and abominable behavior, and the way in which all the heroines learn something about themselves before the satisfying conclusion of found love with a worthy man, makes a great read.  “Is Jane Austen the high-class precursor to chick lit?” David went on to ask.

Just before starting this latest immersion into the world of early 19th century England from the point of view of young women overcoming some disadvantage of fortune, sense, or family to shine as they should, I came across the blog of British writer Matt Haig.  In a wonderful entry titled Some Fucking Writing Tips (very funny and very indulgent of his yearning to drop f-bombs all over a blog), I particularly enjoyed tip #10. “Stories are fucking easy. PLOT OF EVERY BOOK EVER: Someone is looking for something. COMMERCIAL VERSION: They find it. LITERARY VERSION: They don’t find it. (That’s fucking it.)”

Talking with my friend John the next day, I mentioned I was reading Jane Austen again (he grimaced) and also told him the Matt Haig tip.  We talked about how Jane Austen’s work would be classified.  “I guess in Jane Austen’s novels the heroines do find what they’re looking for,” I said, “but not before they grow up.  Which makes the books both commercial and literary.”

Last night I started Mansfield Park.  While I don’t remember exactly what happens to young cousin Fanny as the book progresses, I’m sure she’s going to grow up, struggle with worries about love and fortune and her future, and in the end be rewarded with a life equal to her growing sense of herself, her understanding of what is right and wrong at the most central level of living as a righteous and caring person, and her kindness to others. Sounds like a bit of a grind, but it won’t be.  I love it already.