Friday, June 29, 2012

you're gonna rise up singing

Summertime, and the livin' is easy, fish are jumpin' and the cotton is of these mornings you're gonna rise up singing, then you'll spread your wings and you'll take to the sky.  —Summertime from the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, lyrics by DuBose Heyward.

midnight wind, a howling and demanding wind, sucked air and tent fabric in, and then, in giant bursts, expelled them again, displacing oxygen like the lungs of a colossus, or a bellows of cosmic proportions. this was no weakling storm lashing at us during the height of summertime on a beach on prince edward island.

we were camping in the dunes on a lonely stretch of that lovely island in the late 80's, a thing unheard of in the united states due to strict dune preservation measures and laws to protect piping plovers and other birds nesting in the sand (probably isn't allowed in canada anymore, either) when a mighty gale and torrential rain blew in and pulled several of our tent pegs and poles out of the sand, toppling one side of the tent. needless to say, we survived in the tent (but of course in the tent....we would never abandon our campsite and head for the nearest hotel, well, not on that camping trip anyway), and the kids had great tales to tell when they got back to school.

a beach made of sand or pebbles or a bold rocky shore or any up close and personal view of the sea—doesn't matter where it is as long as it's not mobbed—i'd travel a distance to find a sea view like that.

where you'll find me in the summertime—where i'd like to find myself—could be the wild and blustery shore of embleton beach in northumberland in the north of england (where the signs on the motorway pointing you in a northerly direction actually say THE NORTH, and going south it's THE SOUTH). the huge, imposing, romantic ruins of dunstanburgh castle (this ground felt the likes of john of gaunt, and the wars of the roses) in the distance beyond the golf course didn't look that far, but as i walked on the beach i realized they were farther away than i thought. that walk was a long time ago, way back in 2004; i have every intention of walking there again.

or it could be on fox island, a hill of granite ledges and boulders—and not much else—deposited by glaciers, only accessible at low tide in phippsburg, maine. climbing and poking around up there is an annual thing i like to do to mark and celebrate the arrival—the essence—of summer. the rocks, wearing skirts of sticky seaweed, periwinkles and barnacles, show off exposed backs and arms and thighs tattooed with colorful lichens.

seagulls do a lot of screaming, and they'll steal your picnic lunch—i've even seen them tugging on tote bag and backpack zippers—if you don't watch out. have to keep an eye on the tide, too; it looks harmless but it's not. i leave enough time to get back when the tide turns, and i stay on the sandbar. a tempting shortcut beckons through the water, yet even for a strong swimmer who doesn't mind cold water, it is not recommended since the swirling waves can pull you under and away. if fog rolls in, foghorns—like the one at seguin island and another one at pond island—are some of my favorite sounds of summer—eerie and forlorn, but wonderful, if you like that kind of thing.

remembered beaches—crane, plum island, embleton, jasper, reef bay, singing sands, goose cove, sea glass, crescent, reid, kitty hawk, higgins, pink, seawall, tarpon bay, popham, gulfside, bamburgh—and all the beaches in between with names i can no longer recall; names forgotten, adrift, blown away as if by a distant sea breeze, but to whose shores i will always return in the sweet lullaby of memory, smiling and singing a little song of summer.

~ photo of the dunstanburgh castle ruins by ed montalvo.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

snip, snip, gather them in

last week.....

the first day of summer. ninety degrees and steamy at eleven o'clock in the morning. not a typical maine day, no, not at all. joe cupo on channel 6 predicts three more days of this. i stand in the garden, glance around, shake my head. in addition to the heat, there's something else that's not quite right, something else that's off.

silence. dead silence. not a chirp, not a song, no buzzing of bees or dragonflies or the low hum of an incoming hummingbird over my head, no wind, only the faint burble of the little stream as it meekly shushes and tumbles, seeking its way through the forest.

i stare at them. they are starting to appear defeated, heads drooping low. i know if i don't take some action many of the splendid buds won't bloom properly, and those that do won't last. they will be seared and cooked right on their own stems until they're well done and finished. i mutter to myself this isn't good, not good at all.

it's too much for them. (it's too much for me. i don't know how i would deal with the heat if i lived in the south. james and megan won't see me visiting them in texas in the summer, that's for sure.) they will wilt, wither, waste away, if left alone to fend for themselves against the heat wave that's overpowering everything, myself included. but there's one thing i can do to save them—get the scissors and start cutting.

we don't get a lot of oppressive days like this along the southern maine coast—maybe 3 or 4 of them a year—and by oppressive i mean where there is no reprieve from the heat, no afternoon sea breeze, the humidity staying high and the temperature barely dipping and there's nothing to help air out the house and cool it down in preparation for yet another day of heat. we used to tough it out when there wasn't a breeze—we didn't even have an air conditioner in the bedroom until two years ago—but we've become wimpy. no, not we, me. i'm the wimpy one; ed doesn't mind the heat.

i grab an old pair of slightly rusty scissors i use for the garden out of a terra cotta pot on the porch where i also keep the garden trowels and some string. snip, snip, gather them in before they fall to ruin. i whisper to them, to myself, in reassuring tones, fill the basket, carry them into the cool house and put them in fresh water away from the sun. i have closed the shades and curtains—it is as cool and dark as a crypt. i don't like it; i would much rather be able to leave the shades open and live in the light.

the silky, multi-layered white flowers, with bits of deep pink hidden like little surprises inside their frilly ruffles, are my favorites. they smell particularly sweet—they make the whole room smell sweet. i don't remember its name, but that plant is my most prolific. i am having some trouble with the raspberry/fuchsia/magenta/rose ones—what color are they exactly? i get confused, almost color-blinded by all the names—way too many shades of pink—which are bush-like and exhibit fine green leaves but not many blooms. do they need more manure? more mulch? more love?

the name—peony. i like saying it even if it's just in my head.

what do meteorologists know. the next day a cold front from the north lands on our doorstep and brings with it some clouds and a breeze, and much lower humidity and temperatures. comfortable. shades up, windows open. (we are, as they say, on the leading edge of the front. just 25 miles south of here, and a few miles to the west, it's still sweltering.) my snipping was completely unnecessary; i could have left the peonies alone. but never mind—they keep me company indoors instead, where i see them both night and day.

this week.....

the inevitable falling of petals, the bottommost ones heart-shaped and crumpled and lying in a heap.

Friday, June 22, 2012

her art of another kind

Hannah Montalvo, Diary, 2012 (detail). Mixed Media on Board, 60 x 52 x 1 1/4 inches.

...the revitalization of experimental art following WWII signified a renewed interest in freedom of expression, spontaneity, and unorthodox materials—un art autre (art of another kind)—a radical break with all traditional notions of order and composition in a movement toward something wholly "other."  —Excerpt from the exhibition catalogue for Art of Another Kind, International Abstraction and the Guggenheim, 1949−1960. On view at the Guggenheim until Sept. 12, 2012.

my journey home two weeks ago began under sunny skies in vermont with me crossing my fingers and hoping that the day would stay dry, at least until i could get hannah's painting safely back to maine. (major thunderstorms were in the forecast for the afternoon.) the painting was too big to fit anywhere except in the back of the pickup truck so.... hannah and a friend carefully loaded it, wrapped it in a blue plastic tarp and strapped it down with bungie cords. i was now on my own—hannah would remain in vermont for most of the summer—and i had the responsibility of transporting my daughter's artwork home intact.

within an hour of unpacking her work and getting it in the garage, dark clouds brought thunder and lightning and rain which continued, on and off, for the rest of the afternoon.

last saturday ed and i hung the large abstract* painting. it took a few hours, including the time ed needed to locate, purchase, and attach the proper bracket hooks on the painting's frame and on the wall in order to mount and securely hold the 40 pounder on the only spot in the house where it would fit—the wall halfway up the staircase to the second floor.

i'm glad this piece from our girl's semester of work is with us. i joked with hannah that i should place candles and flowers under this painting, and some of her others also located in the upper hall, as a kind of shrine dedicated to her since she—and her creative spirit—dominate that space.

of course, the idea of candles and flowers and shrines was just meant to be funny, but the idea of a place where her creative spirit resides when she is not physically present is no joke.

she is with us.

within the combination and manipulation and transformation of basic materials—wood, paper, canvas, fabric, ink, paint—is inhabited space. her creative energy lives up there.

*some people call abstract art weird. sometimes they don't understand. sometimes it's hard to understand. some people say abstract art is disconnected from reality. that's true, if by disconnected from reality we mean it doesn't represent external reality, it isn't a replica of the obvious, of what we capture with our eyes, or the way a camera lens "sees." but there is more to reality than this. not all reality is beheld with our eyes, not all reality is witnessed externally. abstract art is disconnected from reality as we see it, but certainly not as we know it and discern it inside of ourselves.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

the scent of the night stalks

 along the caloosahatchee river. florida. january, 2012.

windows, thrown wide open to receive the warm, breezy, new air of daytime, need to be closed before bed. it is turning chilly, a real maine evening, one of those evenings where sitting in an adirondack chair around the campfire in the backyard—zipped in a sweatshirt, feet stretched toward the flames—is a good thing, but once you're inside, the night needs to be shut out.

as i reach for the handle to crank the window i pause. a sweet smell lingers on the nightair, a scent heady as incense—though more subtle—not a scent that can be described or identified as one particular plant.

forget-me-not. fiddlehead fern. chive. columbine. lily. euonymus. dandelion. azalea. peony. vinca. lilac. phlox. meadowsweet. grass. oregano. iris. hosta. countless weeds.

i stand motionless. i inhale. it is none of these—and yet it is all of these.

the aroma originates below, in the darkness of the underground world—not only in my yard, but everywhere—each place with its own particular scent, sometimes pronounced, sometimes not. the scent comes from the night work of plants. a pervading smell—a heavenly smell—of what, i cannot be sure, of what, i cannot say, but it strikes me that it is like a clear, rippling liquid, so i will call it a night juice: the juice that rises up.

i breathe it in. night essence.

it begins its move beneath the surface as the rainwater that washes over everything is gratefully accepted by earth and roots. the roots drink and it slowly starts the ascent, the vertical suck, streaming into stems and stalks after the roots have done their work, the lifting of the juice as it continues to make its way into the tips of quivering leaves and blades—long and narrow, round and full, small and compact, shiny and pointed, slivers, a multitude—and then out onto the air.

in the silent evening the earth stirs with that restless climb of fluid and nutrients—with life itself—and brings its perfume to my nostrils. i remove the screen (damn the mosquitoes, but then without them the bats and wrens and phoebes would not be satisfied) and stick my head out, hovering by the window a moment longer to drink in the sweet flow, this mighty night therapy, and its ability to calm and soothe after a long day.

i savor it—the heaviness, the dark rush, the pulsing up. the evening, alive.

i pop the screen back in place, lock the window tight. i climb into bed.

Friday, June 15, 2012


she watches NOVA, he watches football. she prefers tea, he prefers coffee. she is short and blonde, he is tall and dark. she sighs over red sunsets, he sighs over red ink. she loves modern art, he loves vintage cars. she takes note of new flowers, he takes note of new technology. she makes friends easily, he makes friends cautiously. she likes the heft and smell of a real book, he likes the [nonexistent] heft and smell of a kindle. she makes plans in advance, he makes plans at the last minute.

she thinks the weather is perfect for working out in the yard, he thinks the weather is perfect for working out at the gym. she is thrilled by incredible words—how about rosanna warren's from new hampshire—he is thrilled by incredible numbers. she stares at her books, he stares at his iphone. she's messy and leaves clothes and papers heaped in piles, he's tidy and never leaves clothes and papers heaped in piles. she was raised a fresh-air-and-forest country girl, he was raised a smog-and-pavement city boy.

but when all is said and done, they are both at home, sitting beside each other in the evening, two opposites attracting.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


last may i was in massachusetts at the house on the hill where my parents live. the house is situated above what i like to call our golden pond—that's beck pond on a map—the place where i grew up and still, to some extent, consider home.

the weather was pleasant and sunny but not yet warm enough for swimming. my dad, a fit and healthy eighty year-old, was busy preparing lunch while i visited with my mother. over the last few years my mother's health has been steadily deteriorating, slowly diminishing under the silently prowling brain thief that is alzheimer's disease. speech is cumbersome for her—her ability to express even the simplest of thoughts is disappearing, and the few words she does manage to say are arrived at only after a great struggle. but on that day we were, in our own figure-it-out-as-we-go-along fashion, "conversing", with me holding her hand and guessing—do you mean this, mom? or this? no? how about this?—and filling in her blanks, trying to get the answers right like i was taking a bizarre multiple choice exam.

after lunch, my father and i made my mother comfortable on a chaise lounge on the patio overlooking the pond—she walks with difficulty and staircases are treacherous for her—and went down the stairs to the water, with my mother in our sight the whole time. we came back up and walked by the vegetable garden, checked to see if my mother needed anything, and continued around the other side of the house past my parents' beautiful stonewalls and up a long stone staircase—all built by my father (my mother helped) using stones they found on their property. (when you need rocks for a landscaping project it helps to live in new england where backyards can be full of them.)

it was then that my father pointed out the nest.

a large robin's nest filled with four gorgeously blue eggs.

but it struck me that something was wrong, horribly wrong.

i couldn't believe what i saw.

why—oh tell me why?—would a bird build its nest on the ground? i've seen nests built quite low in trees and bushes, but never on the ground, and this one was next to the foundation with no bushes or plants or anything to camouflage it, no protection whatsoever from predators.

when i looked at that nest, so utterly, hopelessly, exposed in a corner by the chimney, i was overcome with sadness, a deeper sadness than the situation called for. after all, birds and animals die all the time—nature is cruel, nature is unsympathetic. that's life. those are the facts. i knew that, knew it well. i thought get a grip; get over it. but in that moment i couldn't. i was hit hard by what i believed was the nonexistent future of the tiny lives contained within those shells; i was overcome by inexplicable and somewhat irrational emotion. i just wanted to be able to do something to fix things, to make things right, and yet there was absolutely nothing i could do, no way to change the outcome fate had in store for the baby birds.

a few weeks passed. one day i was on the phone with my father and suddenly i thought of the robin's eggs. i asked him if, by some miracle, the babies had hatched without incident. of course, i already knew the answer, but i waited for him to tell me exactly what happened.

there was not much to tell—events unfolded quickly. turns out, it didn't take long for what some people might call a bad luck disaster, and others might call a good luck opportunity—depending on whose side you're on—to come skulking along. the possibility of life for those unhatched-lings, which had been in doubt from the start, was like a dream—like something longed for, hoped for—with the dream coming to an abrupt end about a week after i left massachusetts. when hungry bellies demand sustenance and the brain yells go find food, what choice does any creature have?

my father informed me that the interior of the nest was in shambles—of the four eggs only three were left, and those were cracked wide open, their warm, wet interiors sucked dry, signaling fullness and contentment for a crow or a bluejay, a raccoon or a skunk. (he never did find the remains of the fourth egg.) not such a tragic situation, really—lives given up so other lives could manage to make it through another day. that's the way it goes.

i felt nothing after he told me the news—my emotional overdrive had been spent when i saw the nest.

actually, that's inaccurate. i no longer felt emotion for the ransacked nest, but i did experience an emotional response after i hung up the phone. i thought about my mother. it occurred to me that she had no idea about what had happened, no idea how events played themselves out after the nest's discovery. the story of the nest and its contents remained with her for a short time and then was lost—it became part of the realm of mystery—unless she was reminded of its existence.

in her world, facts such as these don't matter—they are completely useless to her. the facts remain for me and my father to decipher—we alone can break into them and get at them, allowing them to signal the beginning of another chunk of time, another chunk of reality different than hers, one where life has a before and after. we've become sharply aware of our own lives: it's as if we're in a kind of passage and, in order for us to avoid losing our way in this brittle existence, we need to know where we've been to help us figure out where we're going.

~  i took the photo of the nest on the day i saw it last year. my father was kind enough to save it for me after it was raided so now it's one of the nests i put on the christmas tree every year. the nest reminds me of a year of changes, and it always leads me to bittersweet thoughts of my mother.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

this missive: pulverized scabs

when abigail got down on her knees with her head bowed low, it could easily have been assumed—given the circumstances—that she was about to pray, that she was yet another whispering supplicant begging for a merciful god to save her children from a deadly epidemic. but the fact of the matter was she was on her knees searching—the praying would come later—bending over the floorboards muttering about the piece of thread she had inadvertently dropped—and the physician urgently needed—for the planned inoculation against smallpox in her boston household.

abigail adams made the decision in favor of inoculation on her own; her husband, john, was on a diplomatic mission overseas and already inoculated. besides, she knew he believed in its benefits. his wife was determined to take the risk of having herself and their four children deliberately infected in the hope of causing a mild case, rather than wait in fear for the disease to attack with its full fury.

by candlelight, after the children were tucked safely in bed, she inked pages and pages to john, unburdening her soul of doubts and fears and daily dramas, sometimes adding her dry humor or a quip about the shortages they suffered in 1776—god grant that we all may go comfortably thro the distemper, the phisick part is bad enough i know[....] a little india herb would have been mighty agreeable (suggesting john should place an order and get the damn tea home in a hurry)—until her hand ached and she put down her quill. her nights continued to be sleepless.

such a simple thing, and yet how frightening, this new medical procedure called inoculation: drag a piece of thread through the pulverized scabs and pus from the sores of an infected person, make a tiny incision in one who is healthy, and dip the bacteria-laden thread into it. done. wait for the arrival of pocks.

fat dispatches—paper covered with the sometimes blotchy markings of her dense script—held abigail's hopes and dreams and insecurities—and, at times, her deep loneliness and despair; they contained the passionate expression of her copious thoughts which ranged across the war and the children and the news of scabs and fever, but also other endless details from the management of her home and farm: the buying and selling of livestock, hiring help, construction projects, purchasing seed and equipment, planting and harvesting, drought and flood. details, details.

in past centuries, these missives were bound and sealed with wax and came to rest in the belly of a ship's wooden hull, sailing months upon the sea in the hopes of landing safely in europe or some other distant place.

i don't have a quill—but i have a keyboard. as i write i wonder what would abigail make of a keyboard? what would she think of my online missives—of all our online missives? would she think oh how i could have written! and exclaim oh, how wonderful! to have my thoughts and my news passed on fresh, not dreadfully outdated, by using this unimaginably timely mechanism, and to know that one's words will not be lost to the bottom of the sea but will be read and understood and that someone, hopefully, will find they matter and be glad to read them.

our words—the many, many viewpoints describing the funny, sad, reflective, exuberant, poignant, interesting, happy, thoughtful, crazy, introspective slices of our own lives—don't encounter the old dangers of mail delivery that awaited ships sailing on the high seas, or the perils pony express riders ran into crossing the great plains and the high sierra, or even the small problems of the modern day postman or UPS employee who must also brave weather and, occasionally, barking—and quite possibly biting—dogs.

in our century, words are mostly safe. in this, our unusual correspondence, the written tradition lives on and our "letters" journey free and easy, zinging across incredible distances through cyberspace where, in fact, there is no such thing as distance. instead of sinking or burning or being lost forever in a snowy mountain pass, our missives are transmitted instantaneously for the whole world to see. the snippets of our lives—the rendering of these astonishing pieces of minutiae, these bits of pulverized scabs—remain intact.

hit the orange rectangle and it's done.

you see? isn't that something? this missive—and yours, too—has already arrived.

Monday, June 4, 2012


dripdrop the weekend: in a word, rain. and more rain. nonstop rain. cold rain. isn't the weather what boring people end up discussing when they have nothing else to say, nothing better to talk about?

dripdrop saturday morning until mid-afternoon: hannah and i took care of amelia for a few hours while her mom had a photo shoot. when christina finished she brought jilly back with her and we enjoyed a really nice visit—so good to see you, jilly. how's it going with o's briefcase collection?—while we waited for the baby to wake up from her nap.

dripdrop late saturday afternoon: a little drama descended upon us in the form of an ominous phone call. hannah's summer roommate was at their apartment in vermont supposedly getting ready to move in and she called, distressed and in tears, to tell hannah (who was subletting from another student) that there were broken windows and rodent droppings and disgusting smells—the apartment was, in a word, uninhabitable. the landlord was indifferent to her roommate's pleas to do something about it. for hannah it was simply too late to negotiate; she needed to find another apartment posthaste since she was due back in vermont in five days to take a summer course and begin her job at the university as a teaching assistant in photography. hannah calmly told her roommate she was going to look for another place to live until mid-august when she returns home for two weeks before she heads out again for a semester abroad (london for a few days, then florence for a two-week orientation, then rome).

dripdrop quote of the day: thinking beyond these college days, hannah sighed and said "i need to get a real job. i need to start my life." (i don't know what, if not life, she has been living up to now.)

dripdrop saturday night: out for dinner and hannah's working the phone—apartment hunting in cyberspace—combing through craigslist and uvm's bulletin board in search of a place to call home in burlytown for the summer.

dripdrop sunday morning: road block ahead. the road was flooded one mile from the house. turn around and go the other way. breakfast at the freeport cafe with hannah, hannah's friend, molly, and molly's mom, vicki. good eggs.

dripdrop the rest of logy sunday: rain hitting the skylights and the rooftop like fingers tapping on a table that turns to rain hitting the skylights and the rooftop like a fist drumming on a table.

monday morning. no drama, just hot, black tea with a splash of milk and—ho hum, my dears—more rain, rain, rain.

Friday, June 1, 2012

hidden in the lady's house

whoosh. here's june.

my woodsy maine garden really begins to heat up in late spring. unfortunately, after many thunderstorms and torrential rain and kisses from the sun, the weeds are quickly outpacing me. i try to keep up—things look okay—just too bad the weeds will always be several steps ahead. it's a jungle out there, but—if you'll permit me to say so—it's a nice jungle.

bees, bats, butterflies, dragonflies and hummingbirds make the rounds. there's a welcome crowd—a busy, boisterous, hard-at-work crowd—amongst the shoots and blooms, swooping in and out and about the plantings, the buds, the leaves.

crazy overabundance, spilling over. that's what it is; that's what's visible.

but then there's the invisible.

those secret places. the inner sanctums. the private abodes. when male and female are together inside the soft, delicate folds of the petals. look closely—it's a steamy, x-rated place. love, green-style. seeds, birth, new generations.

take the azalea. look at her. what you see is no blushing bride, no shy innocent stigma. she is fiery and brazen, that one, and throws herself wantonly toward the sky to receive his pollen. what a delight.

below her stigma—near her middle, around the style—a ring of courtiers surrounds her (many male and female parts all in close proximity to one another—i would guess it's a good life for everyone playing inside this flower) each one a dusty anther where pollen is produced—the man's house, androecium.

a hidden place, unseen, lies below that. the gynoecium—the lady's house—with the ovaries, the eggs.

i don't need to tell you the details of what happens next, once the pollen grains travel down the style. they'll do their thing and not a single person will take notice. not a single one. it will simply be done.

and that's just one flower. how are your math skills? count, then multiply.

what can i say? i'm a hopeless romantic—there's no stopping love.

speaking of no stopping love—but in this case a bluesy kind of love mixed with some real rockin' love, too—last night ed, hannah, christina and i saw marc cohn and bonnie raitt in portland. she, like the name of her song, is something to talk about. man, can that lady perform. at 63 she's lookin' good and she's still got it in her—such a talented guitarist and singer. she and her band put on a fantastic and long—hand over mouth covering yawns this morning—show.