Thursday, March 29, 2012

'I'm nobody. Who are you?'

The daffodils are in full bloom along the stonewall abutting our summer place, sunny yellow beacons of the approaching season. Yet it’s hard to imagine summertime in Tiverton as cold March winds blow.

One of the greatest American poets, New Englander Emily Dickinson wrote: “Dear March, come in! / How glad I am! / I looked for you before. / Put down your hat – / You must have walked – / How out of breath you are! / Dear March, how are you?”

Educated at Amherst Institute and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, Dickinson was a voracious reader, who spent most of her life in her room. I envision “The Belle of Amherst” with her face pressed against the window, chronicling the seasons as an observer removed from wind, sun and spring rains.

To be a woman and a poet in the mid-1800s placed her outside the bounds of society norms. She sent four of her poems to a literary critic, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who advised her against publishing. During her lifetime only seven of her edited poems were printed without attribution.

By her 40s, the shy Victorian poet refused to leave the house. She died at age 56 in 1886.

Looking through her possessions, her sister Lavinia found hundreds of hidden poems sewn together, scribbled on shopping lists, envelopes and candy wrappers.

Later, Higginson would call her gift “a wholly new and original poetic genius,” according to “Benet’s Readers Encyclopedia.” He heavily edited a book containing a fraction of her poems in 1890.

The first complete edition of Dickinson’s 1,775 poems was published in 1960.

“I’m nobody. Who are you?” she wrote.

In defiance, I wander the beach battered by the spray of wind-tossed waves, propelled by icy blasts.  

Free to roam, I think about the daughter of the orthodox Calvinist, predestined to sit in her room day after day, baring her soul on scraps of paper filled with such words of passion.

“The sky is low, the clouds are mean, / A travelling flake of snow / Across a barn or through a rut / Debates if it will go. / A narrow wind complains all day / How some one treated him; / Nature, like us, is sometimes caught / Without her diadem.”  

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Confessions of a cafe writer

I was amazed when I read that J.K. Rowling wrote the beginnings of her first book “Harry Potter and the Sorcercer’s Stone” in a cafe near her flat in Edinburgh, Scotland.

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.” …


Consequently, I wondered whether there were a link between environment and creativity, and if the world’s bestselling author capitalized on that connection.

Throughout most of my career, I have been chained to a desktop computer in the Newsroom or in my home office, watching the world pass by my window. Two years ago I bought my first laptop, and even then I slowly ventured to the couch.

But a freelance job for new media took me on the road. There was no office building.

Writing at Wi-Fi cafes seemed cumbersome, chancy and distracting at first.

I used to write with a squirming toddler in my lap typing with one determined finger, but it’s been awhile since Pandora’s  soothing strains have been my only companion.

Now, after cutting the cord from traditional journalism, I smile when I think of my foolish reservations and how much freedom being a mobile writer has afforded me.

Today I drove to a Barnes & Noble CafĂ© with my laptop and Color Nook in tow. This is one of my favorite places to write, since Borders bit the dust. There’s something stimulating about being surrounded by a store full of books and sipping on a Starbuck’s Marble Mocha Macchiato that gets the wheels turning.

Above my head in the cafe are caricatures of literary figures: Dickinson, Hemingway, Orwell, Nabokov, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Parker, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Eliot, Singer, Kafka, Neruda, Hughes, Tagore and Hurston. One can only hope that some of their genius will rub off.

If that’s not enough, I can wander around the stacks, take notes and get lost in the written word. My fingers will be flying over the keys before long.

One by one I have left behind many of the skills gleaned from years as a veteran reporter to adapt to the new technologies. Every day seems fraught with more hurdles to jump through, new ways of doing things that at first are frustrating and time consuming, but with each accomplishment comes a confidence and an expanding base of knowledge.

“Sir, there are some things I’d like to know, if you can tell me … things I want to know the truth about,” said Harry Potter.

“The truth.” Dumbledore sighed. “It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.”

Nothing magical about that.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The cautionary tale of Dolly Copp

Winter ended this morning when I awoke to birdsong, the official herald of springtime.

Sitting up in bed, I scanned the backyard through the multi-paned window searching for my companions; but despite the symphony, they were hidden from sight.

But what really caught my attention was the grimy window. The bright March sunshine showcased a winter’s worth of dirt that had accumulated on the panes.

Catching spring fever, I started a mental running list of things to do: wash windows and screens; vacuum and clean windowsills; wash, iron and hang curtains; vacuum cobwebs off ceilings; scrub fireplace bricks; paint front door red and lintel white; power wash unpainted shingles and brick walkway; stain railings along front stairs; power wash deck; hang basketball hoop; plant seedlings; weed and cultivate kitchen garden…

Then, I remembered the cautionary tale of Dolly Copp and stopped myself.   

Many years ago, I discovered an obscure sign near Gorham, N.H., in the deep woods of the White Mountains National Forest, marking the site of the Copp Homestead.

It read: “Here Hayes Dodifer Copp made his farm about 1827. He built a log cabin and barn and carved the farmland from the wilderness. On Nov. 3, 1831 he married Dolly Emery and brought her to this glen. A frame house replaced the cabin. Here travelers found fine food and comfortable beds. Dolly won early fame for her handicraft. Her woolen homespun linen and dyes of delicate blue, her golden butter, rich cheese and maple syrup were much sought after by the “city folk.” After 50 years of storm and sunshine, pinching poverty and substandard comfort, Dolly said, “Hayes is well enough, but 50 years is long enough to live with any man.” Dividing their possessions, Dolly and Hayes separated and left this valley.”

These words moved me so much that I wrote them down to reread whenever I get too ambitious.

Suffice to say, Hayes was not responsible for the breakup. The daily grind of housework eroded the marriage: the never-ending pile of laundry to scrub at the washboard by the stream; the dishes stacked near the hand pump; the unmade beds; the cobwebs in the outhouse; the batches of watery maple syrup, curdled cheese and butter that refused to churn; fingers stained a delicate blue; scratchy woolens on the loom…

My mother told me that my grandmother was a meticulous housewife. But there were times when she was in the middle of scrubbing the floor with the bucket at her side, and my grandfather asked her if she wanted to go for a ride. The bucket was left where it stood. She knew the secret to a happy marriage.

So whenever I get that overwhelming urge to clean, polish, scrub and fix things, I think of Dolly toiling for 50 years, only to call it quits and send Hayes packing.

History is a great teacher, and I plan to profit from Dolly’s mistakes.  

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Religion and the election

As a political junkie, I find this presidential election fascinating.

I have not missed one Republican debate since the Iowa Caucus, and CNN is ambient noise in our house. I hang onto every word spoken around the Reporters’ Roundtable on “Meet the Press,” and I wish Tim Russert were a candidate for sainthood.

The presidential candidates often say that this is the most important election of our lives, and they may be right. Over the next four years the president will have to deal with the economy and the dipping Dow, high unemployment rates and lack of jobs, and the Arab Spring.

Obama may be the right leader for our time, or perhaps one of the Republican candidates will be the man for the job. As an independent voter, I listen to all the rhetoric and try to have an open mind until I make the final decision in the ballot box.

But what is most interesting about this race is that religion plays a pivotal role. The two Catholic candidates, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, are constantly on the defense, denouncing Catholic bashing and the loss of religious freedom in this country.

These mainstream Conservatives wrestle with the media and the Obama Administration, but nothing much has been said about Mitt Romney’s faith, Mormonism.

As a religion writer, I would have bet the family farm that his membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would be a hot topic, especially in the Bible Belt.

Personally, I think his Mormon faith is what makes his candidacy so compelling. No one can dispute that Mormons have family values, the mantra of the Republican Party during the Bush years. Their large, close-knit families, disciplined lifestyle and high moral standards are exemplary.

I am blessed with close Mormon friends, who gave me a copy of “The Book of Mormon” to use as a reference when writing stories about their faith. Inside the front cover, they wrote:

“We know with all our heart that strong families are the lifeblood of all communities and nations. We know with all our heart and soul that strong family relationships are founded on eternal proven principles that have been taught by Jesus Christ and by prophets throughout the ages of time. The Holy Bible is a witness of our Savior Jesus Christ and the principles He taught. The Book of Mormon is another witness of Jesus Christ and teaches these same principles. We are grateful for these two books of scriptures that unfold these important truths as we strive to continually strengthen our family. We know that we are close as a family and closer to our Father in Heaven as we read from the scriptures daily.”

Four years ago, we elected our first African-American president, and perhaps the time has come to elect our first Mormon president.

During his candidacy and presidency, Barack Obama has spoken as eloquently as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. about his faith and heritage.

Conversely, Romney touts his business acumen and mums the word on Mormonism.

It would be refreshing if he would reveal the real Romney, the man of deeply held religious principles. Our American family needs strengthening.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The trouble with tech

Sometimes it’s just so hard to lead a simple life.

We seek a peaceful existence, but contemporary life encroaches. We wonder how “to be in the world but not of it.”

Contemporary living requires the use of technology, which ultimately should make our lives easier. The trouble with tech is that it often doesn’t.

As a writer, I earn my living at a laptop or desktop. Yet whenever I can, I head for the beach, away from the buzz of electronics.

I walk by the sea, and tap into the Source.
It is nature that restores the equilibrium: the cry of a gull, the gentle lapping at the shore, the wind whistling in the sea grass. Unplugged, I walk by the sea and tap into the Source.  

And this is the saving grace, because lately, coping with technology has been a real chore.

I pay bills electronically, and I find this new technology to be a great time saver.  I no longer lament the time consuming ritual of writing out checks. I decided to change banks, and then spent three hours trying to set up online banking. Multiple calls brought no resolution, other than the suggestion from the bank representative to wait four business days for the system to refresh for each new payee I added to the list.

I received a bill for a routine dental visit that should have been covered by our insurance company. I called the customer service number twice and listened to recording after recording, but there was no option to leave a message or speak with someone. I had to call my dentist’s office, and they finally were able to straighten out the carrier’s error three days later.

By far the worst technological mishap occurred at the ATM machine. A routine withdrawal turned into a nightmare. I put my card in the machine, punched in the pin number, and the receipt came out but no bills. The bank was open, so I reported the problem, and the teller assured me I would be credited within the week. I spoke almost daily to corporate representatives from here to India, each promising to rectify the matter. Three months later, the credit finally appeared in my checking account. The assistant manager told me that he personally would never use that particular ATM. Go figure.

Since it took three hours for one online banking transaction, three days to fix an insurance overcharge, and three months for one ATM withdrawal, I question whether it would have been easier to write a check, mail a letter and keep a stash of money in the mattress.

I mill over these musings at the water’s edge. I walk it off while I seek a path that allows for life’s little annoyances but technologically speaking, gets back to basics.