Listen

 

The garlic cloves and onions all have shoots of green. It’s that time of year — sunlight in the yard while I peel and cut a winter squash to roast for dinner. The squash is getting soft in the center and white under the rind. Winter is almost over and the vegetables harvested last fall show it. A lovely folk rhythm is coming over the speakers and the sun is noticeably warmer. Enjoying these signs of spring, everything feels just right, just now.

I have so many poems and prose pieces about the particulars of these sweet moments and how all of life wants to crowd into this corner, to be in this space of knowing I’m where I should be and doing exactly what I should. I’m good at lyrical writing.

But I’ve felt less lyrical the last two years. My poems have changed from meditations on loss and the details that describe whole worlds to expressions of dismay at the level of lies and cheating people will stoop to to remain in power. I’m saddened by the more obvious tolerance for prejudice and the disregard for the harms people cause each other and feel compelled to speak out. I’m interrogating my own comfort and how to write to challenge myself.

So I’m writing fewer blog posts and hardly any lyrical poems. I’m focused elsewhere. I helped flip the NH House seat for Northwood from forever-Republican to first-time-ever Democrat. I’m on a local land conservation board  and the policy committee of another nonprofit. A lot of time is going into being a facilitator in two projects, one examining race and equity in NH, the other to encourage people to listen to different points of view without being triggered into fight or flight mode.

Two nights ago my friend Aron and I led the second of the Open Discussion Project sessions at Gibson’s bookstore. We discussed Melting Pot or Civil War: A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders by Reihan Salam. There were a range of political views represented, from far left liberal to conservative. People didn’t argue, though they often disagreed. People took turns standing and saying what was true for them, how they thought about immigration and how they viewed economic vs. humanitarian arguments for allowing people to come to our country.

The design of the Open Discussion Project is to get people with different points of view into the same room to talk about difficult political  issues and listen to each other. Not to argue and convince, but listen. Not to judge and defend but to listen.

So far, it’s working. Making space for people to talk about issues that usually fracture into left vs. right/Democrat vs. Republican, without having to defend their positions, is powerful.

Towards the end of the first meeting of the Project, discussing The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt, I asked how many of the 85 people who came were there to hear points of view different from their own. Everyone raised their hands.

In order to hear, you have to listen.

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Displacement

Distant ocean view from my desk

Here I face east and see the ocean, a blue mass that fills the horizon beyond the bare trees and rooftops, down the hill to the long flat spit of sand that makes the beach. At home I face west and look at cows, pastures and a distant line of pine and hardwoods.

I’ve purposely displaced myself. I want to see what I see when I’m looking at a new view, sleeping in a different bed, tapping at my keyboard in different light. My sister and her husband are off on an adventure to Australia and New Zealand, which means their comfortable house on the coast is empty and quiet and perfect for a writing retreat.

Whatever it is I let distract me when I’m home won’t be here. I can’t make plans to see a friend or go to an appointment because I’m away. I can’t reorganize the cupboards or pick out a new paint color for the bathroom. I can’t straighten the house or put the ski boots away. I’m also good at following rules I set for myself and I came here to write, so I’ll write.

Yesterday I finished an OpEd and sent it off to the paper. I wrote a poem and I’ll write another one today. I’ll open the documents of poems I’ve been writing for the last month and fiddle with those. I’ll read the books of poetry I brought with me — The Big Book of Exit Strategies by Jamaal May, When My Brother Was An Aztec by Natalie Diaz, Midden by Julia Bouwsma — mostly to enjoy the poems but also to see what I can learn about writing that directly confronts injustice and harm to people of color. I’ll sort through the poems in the manuscript I worked on last winter to see what will fit in the new book I’m working on which, in a sea change for me, isn’t centered only on grief and recovery. Or is it the same book, just completely reimagined?

It doesn’t matter. There’s paper and pens and a computer and books and time. Time to write.

 

Firsts

It’s been two weeks of firsts, though the wedding last weekend that David and I officiated was the third for each of us. But it was the first time we’ve done it together, and many of the guests commented on how nice it was to have a married couple perform the ceremony of marriage for another couple.

The most impressive first of the wedding  was hiking with the bride. The original plan for the wedding was to do it on Neville Peak in Epsom, the proposal location and also a frequent hike for the bride when she visits her aunt and my friend Alison. But getting all the guests to the summit wasn’t going to work, so instead a hike after the wedding was planned. The hiking option was announced on the invitation: ceremony at 2:00, hiking or cocktail option at 3:00, reception at 5:00.

Would anyone really choose hiking over cocktails? The ceremony wasn’t very long, so there was time for both. After photos and drinks, the bride bustled up the train of her embroidered and beaded gown and walked down the driveway and started up the dirt road to the Epsom Town Forest, headed for the beaver pond a mile uphill in the col between Nottingham and Fort Mountains. At least half the wedding guests followed, still in dresses and suits and shirts and ties. It was a merry sight.

A one point a young family passed us on their way down the trail and were surprised to see a beautiful bride in her white gown, sparkling and magical. The two little girls stared and the parents stood behind them looking puzzled.

“It’s like a fairy tale,” the father of the bride said and the girls kept staring. “It is a fairy tale,” I said, then pointed to the bride. “And she’s a magical goddess.” The bride smiled, the groom smiled, we all resumed hiking.

The next day David and I went to pick up Emilio, who spent last week with us on a camp on Northwood Lake. Friday afternoon, as we were getting ready to drive Emilio home, he and David made a list of all his “firsts” of the week and wrote them in the cottage guest book.

  • first almost tornado (the wild thunderstorm that hit Northwood Lake last week)
  • first world cup on the water (every float trip from the dock to the beach featured pretend competition between world cup teams)
  • first time wearing goggles to search for a lost swim ring
  • first overnight in a tent (three of the five nights he was here)
  • first time sleeping in a sleeping bag (it got chilly at night later in the week)
  • first time catching a fish
  • first cotton candy ice cream (left behind by his uncle Sam)
  • first personal password for a Kindle (he’s reading “Dog Man”)
  • first ten minute river of minnows swimming past the dock (gorgeous and extraordinary)
  • first time surfing on a boogie board (Emilio stood on his own for over 10 seconds)
  • first time a bald eagle has flown right over his head with a fish in its claws
  • first snapping turtle sighting (a big one!)
  • first time seeing a scuba diver in a lake
  • first time watching a huge crane lift felled trees (see first first)
  • first time kayaking in David’s kayak

So many firsts, so much fun. It’s been a great couple of weeks.

 

Sunset on Northwood Lake
Photo by Emilio

Above Tree Line: July

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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.

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.