A marvelous book – I started reading more slowly to make it last. Honest and unflinching about relationships, death, and the power of story within communities, this novel reminded me of the depth of John Irving’s “Cider House Rules,” and the emotional clarity of Doris Lessing. I found it completely enjoyable.
When I signed up in January to take two online writing classes back-to-back, 10 weeks straight of weekly reading and writing deadlines, I thought, “This will take me right through Winter and into Spring!” The last due date was yesterday, and here’s this morning’s view of the path through the backfield.
That black dog in the first photo is Gudgeon. He doesn’t much like the very cold temperatures, but this version of snow is a favorite. It has softened during the sunny days, then firmed up over night: he can walk on top of it and flop for a good back rub.
Then he’s ready for a walk . . .
I’ve sometimes been guilty of explaining why I’m not currently reading a book by joining the club that claims, “too busy,” or “too tired at the end of the day.” I like my life better when I’m explaining, instead, why I read so much. When I was kid, I was a ‘bookworm’ and nothing more needed to be said about why I chose the company of books over people, why I carried a book with me when I climbed the tree in the back yard, or why I stayed up late reading a book by flashlight after bedtime.
When I taught 8th graders, I had an excuse for gobbling down several MG and YA books a week – I needed to read widely so I had many books to choose from when a student needed a recommendation. I always told my students who said they didn’t like to read that they just hadn’t met the right book yet, and then I’d stack a bunch up – pulling them from my extensive classroom collection of paperbacks – and give them the advice to read the first page or so, and when they wanted to keep going, they’d found their book.
But my teaching focus now is writing, and even though I believe reading and writing can’t be divorced from each other, they have drifted apart in my professional life and, by no coincidence, I suppose, in my personal life. So, to bring reading back into focus for me, I’ll share here thoughts on the books I’m reading now.
Open House by Patricia J. Williams
Unfailingly sharp witted and generous, Williams combines her close observations of life, injustice, joy, and expensive take-out with her ability to pull back, always, to the big picture and to ways of making meaning that we can move forward with. Her story-telling carries, for me, faint undertones of the potential for a lecture, but the best kind of lecture – one in which you are given new information by being given new ways to think about things, with never once being crowded into a box of the author’s own making. Never preachy, always on point, this slim volume, subtitled, “Of Family, Friends, Food, Piano Lessons, and the Search for a Room of My Own” is a treat.
The quarry man bought the old house and its acreage, scraped the topsoil off the meadow, and sold off the house with two acres of the meadow and its partial border of trees and shrub. In the house, a bathroom went in, and in a child’s room, a fat rainbow – floor to ceiling to floor – was sketched out and painted.
For thirty years, owners kept the meadow mowed. Between mowings, grasses grew, and golden rod, oyster plants, milkweed, and asters. Each late fall the meadow’s summer growth lay itself down, and in that flattened landscape the old disc harrow, stranded in its long-gone farmer’s field, reappeared.
Twenty years ago the clothes line, built with sturdy wooden posts and cross beams, stood on the far side of the cedar tree. Now its northern post is engulfed in branches. The outhouse, still visible in its pile of moldered lumber when I arrived, has long since joined the remains of the wildflowers that grew up between the boards, fell over, and decomposed. It is almost twelve years since the meadow was cut, and it is only in the last two that wild cherry bushes have spread from individuals to patches of isolated mini-woodlands that shelter bird and spider nurseries.
Each winter I cover the rain barrels and shovel the long driveway; each spring I listen for the voice of the wood frog and try to avoid the black flies’ bite. Every other summer or so I get to the task of clearing the meadow, cutting all the box elders’ sprouts to the ground. In the fall I greet the disc harrow and Orion on their return to my view, and wonder which Turkey Vulture sighting will be my last of the year.
Eventually, I will leave this place. The meadow will give way to box elder trees, or not. As I sleep beneath the child’s rainbow, my window open to the night, what is sure for me is the Little Dipper, pinned at its tail by the North Star, circling overhead. What is almost as sure is the topsoil, building. Slowly, slowly.
I deleted my Facebook account and took up Golf. My older sister bemoans my departure; my younger sister has just started with FB and beckons me to come back. It doesn’t help my case for staying away that it’s hard to say what I dislike about looking at Facebook – the closest I can come is that it’s like flipping through tv channels with no control over the remote: snapshots of beauty, ugliness, profundity, triviality, scolding, edification, advertising, satire, saccharine. It all splinters out at me, the sublime, the ordinary, and the dross in rapid, nonsensical procession.
I’ve left that and in its stead have taken up an old deck of cards and learned the game of solitaire called Golf. I discovered the game and its rules in an old Hoyle’s Rules of Games book I retrieved from its resting place in the closet beneath the stairs. The book, first published in 1946, owes its name to Edmund Hoyle, who published his first rule book, on Whist, in 1742 and became the last word on games. The cover of the 1983 edition I’m working from is decked with a king of hearts and queen of spades; a chess set’s knight and bishop; white dice with black dots and red dice with white dots; and stacks of plastic gambling chips: blue, red, and yellow. Inside, the book promises “descriptions of indoor games of skill and chance, with advice in skillful play.”
I played many hours of solitaire and double solitaire with real decks of playing cards as a kid, but there is much I didn’t know. I learn as I read that the cards I set out – seven in a row, five in a column – are called the ‘tableau;” the stack of cards I will draw from is called the “hand” in some games and the “stock” in others; and the stack I will create, by drawing one card at a time from the hand and as many as I can from the tableau, is called the “talon.”
I lay down one row of cards, begin to form columns, and as easily as that re-enter a place of calm and reassurance that I had almost forgotten. My mother is across from me, setting out her columns for what I had thought were endless games of double solitaire; my father deals hands of poker and Crazy Eights to my college roommate and me far into the night; my grandmother plays solitaire, Hoyle’s version of Klondike, and goes through her hand just once – a discipline we children, who go through the hand as long as we can, marvel over.
I learn from Hoyle’s that my grandmother’s version was not some impossible version created by a woman who, after all, did the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink, but the real deal. My mother played an adjusted version with us, one in which the play from the hand lasted long enough to justify – perhaps for her as well as for us – the time it took young children to set out the tableau.
It is not only the dead who come to keep me company, but my down-the-road neighbor from two decades ago, with whom I walked the mile down to the corner and back many nights, and with whom I spent, along with her four children, many evenings playing cards – from the years the youngest would sit on my lap for part of the game to the years we talked about college admissions as we played. My friend knew many variations of card games. “Kings in the Corner” is one title I remember, although I have forgotten how to play it. Sitting at their dining room table, they tried to teach me Hearts, but I grew up playing Spades and was a slow learner.
I am not always so slow-witted, and I’m no stranger to computer versions of card games – one lonely winter I taught myself how to always win at Free Cell. I accomplished nothing else in that endeavor besides killing time by emptying it of everything but the strategy of the game.
But as I sit now at my kitchen table and lay out the tableau with the gentle sush,slap, sush,slap of pulling a card from the deck and laying it down, I am aware of the winter scene outside my window – the deep snow, the thorny Rugosa Rose stems rising from it with their leaves shriveled brown, their once brilliant rose hips gone or left in remnants as a dulled-red crown. And next to it the tall, many branched burdock stalk, each branch topped with a small, snow-capped, prickly globe – the burdock I kept meaning to get to but left for the butterflies and bees to feed from, and then left in admiration of its success amid the aggressive roses.
I’m aware, too of the reflections within my stout water glass, the slight rocking motion of its waterline as my arm touches the table – a reminder to look underneath to see if screws need tightening. I turn a card over and lay it on the talon. I hear my dog rise and resettle himself, hear the uneven, reassuring rumble of the wood furnace in the basement. Time slows, and fills. Nothing is remote.
My backfield takes on a yellow hue when the Goldenrod comes into bloom, and having learned to blame the correct pollen – ragweed – for my hay fever, I am unreserved in my welcome of it. Many others are unreserved as well. The yellow that catches my eye catches the attention of many species, and while I do the Goldenrod the good of simply leaving it alone, others do it the good of flying in for a meal and flying out with pollen they’ll spread to other Goldenrod plants.
On a sunny September day, Painted Lady Butterflies, bees, and wasps showed up to feast on the golden plumes.
The geese have been restive. All summer I’ve see them occasionally. They head from the swamp next door to the wetlands across the street and beyond the woods. Or they cross in the other direction, over the back field to settle somewhere past those woods. On the last few mornings I’ve noted them more often flying low over the house in pairs or threes. They’ve remained casual in their few calls and in their seemingly random direction of flight. From one day to the next there was no change in urgency, no sense of real departure. Yesterday, on the last of a run of days in the 80s – a heat wave even by a summer measure here – they crossed the sky high up, in formation.
They have shifted into travelers; their calls have become what they become each fall for those they leave behind – the final, genuine, farewell to late summer, the earliest of the signs that will, in sum, lead us to what we will slowly, slowly come to accept: fall is taking its place in the rotation of seasons; winter will follow.