Tuesday, August 28, 2012

the behavior of fire

All fiction is largely autobiographical and much autobiography is, of course, fiction.  —P. D. James

I write fiction and I'm told it's autobiography, I write autobiography and I'm told it's fiction, so since I'm so dim and they're so smart, let them decide what it is or it isn't.  —Philip Roth, Deception

before mr. and mrs. H moved from the heartland of nebraska to the waspy suburbs north of boston in order for mr. H to take up his new position as an assistant professor of english at a small college on the outskirts of the city, they both liked the idea of making their new home on a pond. they envisioned a smallish garden overlooking the water, and stone walls and a bricked patio surrounded by english daisies, columbine, peonies, lavender, yarrow, day lilies, and delphiniums, some of which they would bring with them from their nebraska garden. (it should be duly noted that some of those, in turn, had originally been smuggled into the country as small cuttings from mrs. H's mother's garden in yorkshire.)

the land they bought in '55 was—relatively speaking—cheap (land on the edge of town— undeveloped, mosquito infested, deep woods/dirt roads kind of land—which had once been part of a large estate) allowing them to afford to build a larger house than originally anticipated. mr. and mrs. H would raise four daughters, ranging in age from two to twelve in the summer of '68, with another baby on the way—that one would turn out to be the longed-for male, the legacy keeper of male surnames (in those days, unlike today, who would have given a baby his mothers's surname alone?), thus bringing an abrupt halt to the production of more babies—and the extra space was, to say the least, put to good use during the years they lived on the pond.

but as is always the case, both then and now, time creeps and things change and in that summer of '68 mr. and mrs. H decided to move back to the midwest for somewhat murky reasons having to do with a death in the family and an inheritance. so they sold the cottage and loaded a few roots and shoots from the daisies, day lilies and delphiniums, etc., along with their noisy brood, into the back of one old station wagon and one newer sedan, and headed west again.

next in the chain of events, mr. and mrs. N (mr. N was also a professor at the same college where mr. H had taught) bought the property at a reduced price due to the house, which hardly resembled a cottage at all, having fallen into disrepair—the gardens, thankfully, remained in perfect condition. they had been meticulously maintained and were a green perfection. mr. and mrs. N (who had a six-year-old daughter) proceeded to expand the garden, ripping out the brick and replacing it with stone. mrs. H's plants were dug up and rearranged like pieces of furniture to suit the new owners.

property values such as they are, eternally dependent on location (which translates into the best schools,  well-maintained properties, the appeal of the town to a certain socio-economic strata and the added bonus of the presence of several hundred feet of water frontage), the smallish seeming—at least compared to the neighbors' newly-built mcmansions—refurbished house, and its highly desirable acreage, were on their way to becoming worth a bundle.

some years later the elderly mr. N headed into an assisted living condo (mrs. N had long since passed) and the house went on the market again. the property was quickly snapped up by a slick 21st century tycoon who took a look around, decided the place needed to be lifted to grander heights—the grandest in the neighborhood, he decided with satisfaction—and immediately instructed his assistant to call the local fire department.

in due course, fire trucks rolled down the lane and the firemen gathered around their chief to listen to a reiteration of the safety laboratory's goals. the goals were as follows:

1. gain knowledge from a realistic demonstration of fire behavior

2. develop an in-depth understanding of search and rescue procedures

3. provide instruction in command and control principles

4. highlight the finer points of fire training

while the flames licked and spread and swallowed the house down like some kind of wild, ravenous animal, the firemen sweated and toiled and persevered in the hellish heat; they sensed the demo fire was greatly enhancing their knowledge of how a blaze works. the day would prove to be a great success.

at the end of the training session the firemen boarded their firetrucks to head back to the station. one fireman could be seen tenderly carrying the small clumps of english daisies and lavender he had rescued from the edge of the inferno. other men in bulldozers started their engines. they were eager to get on with the job of burying the sodden ash into the dust from whence it came, and, more importantly, to make it home in time for dinner.

Friday, August 24, 2012

nothing but this

in the afternoon light i walk past the fractured greens that appear mirrored below the
dock. bleary pictures go unnoticed as charts and gas levels are checked, gear, food and
beer are stowed. the anticipation of spending hours offshore is wide and measurable.
tide fills and spills over eel grass and mud, driftwood, bent, broken, knows
no other path, only the urging of the sea. it'll pull you with it if you let it.

i will let it. even if i don't, it can't be stopped.

the glint, the way over repeating wavelets, where you go where
you want to go, dark, unseen, plunging straight and deep and sharp,
water purled in halves, fourths, eighths, sixteenths, a formula
that confronts what is known and leaves the unknown for who knows
who to dissect. will people always live in separate universes? will they always be


the wind grabs, the waves demand. before i know it, what was once

part of my world is lifted, toppled

blown into the sheen, murk, and mold of forgotten sneakers,
doorknobs, bottle caps, favorite hats, cellophane, wire, mesh, nylon
rope, fenders, bumpers, bud light cans, lampshades, pieces of rubbermaid,
shopping carts and baseball caps, all sunk, saturated, slurried
caught between this place and that. above

my head the ceiling of light is so bright i feel it will blind me
if i rise too quickly; bubbles, tiny fish, plankton float
away, up and up, cutting a swath of graceful motion
through the water. i cough, i sputter; my eyes sting.
now i've been there, now i know.

make a note in the book of restless days and salt:
what we call life is what we've come back from,
scathed, our eyes pried wide open,
unsighted no longer.

Monday, August 20, 2012

full throttle

on land or on sea, those two words may be used to describe how we might—if we choose—live our lives in maine, or elsewhere for that matter, where both the expected and the unexpected can pop up at any time. in maine we have bears, and we have pirates—oh yes we do—and we have lots of waves. i also have it on good outside authority that maine is an amazing place and that it stimulates all kinds of imaginings.

to some people—especially small visitors from the warm south—that's the good news. the bad news is that the summer air may feel a tad too cold (80 during the day, 60 at night—but just wait a few months!), and the sea may not be quite warm enough (66 degrees in the middle of casco bay in the middle of summer). oh well, you can't please everyone.

our gaggle of guests observed many wild beasts during their visit, beasts which presently live in maine, such as moose, bears, lynx, bobcats, foxes, coyotes, owls, and bald eagles, and those which once inhabited the state, such as mountain lions.

the animals were viewed—some "sitting pretty" with their eyes masked!—in their natural habitats in the large, forested maine wildlife park in gray. many of them are being rehabilitated, and hopefully will be able to return to the wild someday, and others are being relocated, having been rescued from precarious situations (raccoons stuck in chimneys, skunks slinking around under porches, bats inhabiting attics).

on another day a large population of pirates was spotted aboard a pirate ship. in particular, a pretty and very—argh, matey—tough pirate hung on for dear life in the wildly pitching crow's nest while attempting to hoist the skull and cross bones at the portland children's museum.

and then there are the people who can never get enough speed, and for whom "full throttle" is a somewhat meaningless concept because it merely states the obvious to them—they believe as much of life as possible should be lived at full throttle. i must say, i concur.

and that, my dears, is just a small sample of the simple pleasures which may be experienced on a wild ride in the fabulous state of maine.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

three girls from texas

Spend the afternoon. You can't take it with you.  —Annie Dillard

there were once three girls from texas. one afternoon in july they (and james!) landed quite nicely upon our doorstep. i was glad that megan, astrid and willa (as in willa cather—is that great or what?—whose stories and novels about frontier life, and the early settlers on america's great plains, are rich and authentic and populated with intelligent and resourceful pioneer women) came to maine to spend many afternoons; they stayed with us for two glorious weeks.

when the girls (and james!) first arrived, it seemed as if the days stretched out forever in front of us and that we had all the time in the world to see and do the things we wanted to see and do: the portland waterfront, the children's museum, the maine wildlife park, some shops in freeport, a cruise around casco bay on denny's boat, a pool party, the all-day gentlemen of the road concert overlooking the ocean on the eastern promenade (that james and megan, and hannah and her friends, went to) and featuring mumford and sons and fireworks in the evening, a hop aboard mike bretton's lobster boat to watch him haul up a few traps and help him measure some lobsters to see if there were any "keepers", a backyard lobster feast, highly competitive games of ladderball, and a trip to vermont to visit the new baby and spend a couple of activity packed days at jay peak.

i had forgotten the boundless energy, curiosity, and high-pitched chatter of the five and seven year-old crowd, and even though i was exhausted every night—the second my head hit the pillow i immediately sailed into dreamland—i loved hearing the giggles and the make-believe play, and even the inevitable squabbles. the two little girls were completely delightful and endearing.

it never ceases to amaze me how children—and some adults—use their imagination and create a time of wonder for themselves. astrid and willa announced i had the biggest flower garden they had ever seen (an example of their sturdy imaginations—it is hardly that big). it seemed as if every few minutes during the first couple of days of their visit they were asking me if they could pick flowers. they wanted to fill jars and vases with bouquets and "make things pretty." i had to firmly but gently quash that idea and instruct them that the flowers, for the most part, were to remain attached to their stems so that we could enjoy—and be surrounded by—the garden's colors, instead of having to look at a barren backyard displaying sad decapitated stalks.

on their last day in maine, i made up a scavenger hunt for the little girls. they were to find things belonging to the natural world (bugs, a yellow finch, a hot pink flower) and also garden related objects (a blue flower pot, a garden sculpture, a watering can), all of it outdoors. astrid's and willa's powers of observation were wonderful. willa noted that there were little brown swimming things in rainwater that had collected in a stone pot. are those tadpoles? she asked. nope, those aren't cute tadpoles, i answered in an ominous voice as i peered into the water. i informed the children that the squiggly critters were in fact hundreds of baby mosquitoes, and, seeing as we have plenty of mosquitoes participating in the forest food chain around here, i promptly dumped the water out.

top photo credit: david stall

Monday, August 13, 2012

what we might eat

this summer has been one of extreme comings and goings. we leave for days at a time. we return home. the house fills with family. they depart and more arrive. then the house empties itself out again. we load up our days—on the bay, at the mountains, in town, in the backyard—so they overflow in an endless tide of activity, and through it all we must, of course, find nourishment and be fed....

in the morning i wonder what we might eat
during these dog days of summer—
it's too humid for casseroles or baked potatoes
or simmering stews. in the heat those foods
seem unappetizing; they'll have to wait
until it's cold enough to put our sweaters on.

it appears to me to be a day for something crisp
and cool—a day for salad—and so
i purchase—since i no longer grow vegetables—
a few tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers
& other things that may form a salad.
i glance out the window toward a large pot on the sunny

deck and remember the basil plant from texas
that arrived by mail for mother's day—
only three inches high in a miniature terrarium—
now it waves tall and lush in a small breeze,
a few tiny holes visible between the leaves'
veins where bugs have snacked.
i pluck a—bug-free!—handful

still hot with light

and move inside to wash, peel, chop and toss,
a flurry of movement—streaks of color, flying hands—
fingers like winged creatures fluttering through
a door toward something just beyond the opening.
i listen to clink, clink—salad servers and forks—chords
rising ecstatic against pretty blue pottery plates,

the cadence of evening voices

tendril notes of family gathered 'round a table,
crunching, gnashing, chomping by the shadowy
light of melting candles that flicker
and weep wax.

but outside in the world of bright, unwavering moonlight
i know there is another kind of comfort, a small silence
demanding nothing, not even to be fed. an infinity
of stars over us, an oasis of dew on the grass
under us, all of it moving, going somewhere, as beetles
alight on sweet tender growth, pause a moment
in between bites, and confirm that it is good.

Thursday, August 2, 2012


my hands, my pulse, my sea breeze, sudden sneeze,
    never mind, once again, row the boat, finch's

song, dragonfly and silver sky, garlands of neem,
    meandering stream, quiet grace, gra-mere

lace, lock of hair, eyelash kiss, single pebble, feather
    pillow, sand, arugula, skin, tagua nut, tulip

shell, harbor bell, azure shimmering like a dream, sunburn
    rash, lightning flash, looking glass, beanstalks,

trip-trap bridge, jabberwocks, bowls of peas, following
   seas, snapdragons, pickles, pistachios, then

it's breathe, breathe, hold them tight, close the circle
and gather in all those things that could have been.