Monday, June 18, 2018

My Summer Reading List


The novel is done. Now I must rediscover what it means to be me without the driving force of work to define my every waking moment. Sometimes this is pleasant and other times not so much. This time, The End brings a mixed bag of relief and distress. I beat my deadline (Good job!), but how do I now fill the hours of the days without walking myself into the ground or spending all my money?


Riding off the momentum of consistent work, the easiest thing to do would be to jump into a new project. I have many things I need to edit, many things I could write, many things I could do. But, instead of that, as a reward for finishing my book, I give myself permission to have a little holiday. Which really means that I have more hours than ever to gaze off into space, thinking, thinking, always thinking. I have time to read for hours on end without the nagging feeling that I should be working instead (yet still that nagging finds me). I have the time to wander along the coastal path without trying to rush back to work for a handful of hours more at the computer (I should have packed more snacks). I have the time to sort through maps, site seeing ideas, and plans in preparation for my parents’ and older sister’s upcoming visit.

One day, on this holiday of mine, I walk the coastal path to Pittenweem. I’ve been told of an art gallery there that is worth visiting. So off I go. As I walk, gazing out at the sea, smiling at the sight of ducklings, watching the gulls swoop, saying “hiya” to other passing walkers, I’m still mulling over ideas of identity which ended up being one of the themes in the book I wrote and is showing up for me in other places as well.

As I walk, I think about the book I’ve picked up from my host’s bookshelves. It’s The Maytrees by Annie Dillard and it’s a strange and poetic novel about relationships, love, and about how people adapt to each other. As the story unfolds—a man wins over the attention and love of a woman, they marry, he leaves her for another woman, and then he comes back—the words convey the sense of the New England coast, waves, lighthouses, sand, the incoming and outgoing tides. It gives me a sense of this place too, with this sea, these waves, those gulls, this sand. 

Still, walking along, I find myself tensed against the story, against the man, against the woman who so easily forgave the man as he came and went like the tide. For the woman had had to shift her identity to include the man’s (in a way, against her own wishes for her life), shifted again to live well without him, and then had to shift one last time to reinclude him. I find myself resentful and holding an anger against the man that the woman hadn’t held. And I laugh at myself. There is never any use in holding resentment whether my own, someone else’s, or some fictional person’s. Nevertheless, even knowing that, I find myself resentful of the people who take for granted their right to have what they want at the cost of another’s peace, as the man did in the book. I guess what it comes down to is that I don’t want my own peace disturbed.

In no particular hurry to reach the gallery, on my way through Pittenweem I collect the key from the coffee shop on the high street and walk back down to St. Fillan’s Cave. I let myself in through the door and lock it behind me. It’s a nice little cave, formed by erosion from the flowing of an old river, and used in the past by monks, saints, hermits, fishermen, and smugglers. For a wee bit of time, I sit on the bench provided with the lights on listening to the drip drip drip of water against stone. Then I get up and turn off the lights and go to sit again. To listen, to be, to feel the dripping quiet in the semi darkness. I’m still learning how to relax, to let myself be free of plot entanglements and character development, to not think about all the things there are to be done.

Having sat, having listened, having been, I let myself out of the cave, lock it up behind me, return the key to the café, and go in search of the gallery.

Though I wander up and down the street it’s said to be on, I never find it. And really, that’s okay. However, not quite ready to find my way back homeward, I go into a little café and order lunch and a coffee. I sit there listening to the background voices and observing the people who walk by outside. I read a little. When I’m finished recharging, I head back toward Anstruther. At one point, I sit (there are park benches at various intervals along the path) and watch seals hold their heads up out of the water, watch them float along on their backs. Down the path, some time later, I sit again, and see some minke whales off in the distance.   

On a different morning of my holiday, my housemate G (as opposed to my host G) takes me with her down to the boatyard where she is doing work on the restoration of old boats for her doctorate. She introduces me to the other boatyards workers, an Australian who has lived in the U.K. for twenty-one years, the Italian who is in charge of the yard and the work, and a few locals.

One of the locals is a ninety-two-year-old man with a gleam in his eye, perfect teeth (are they real or are they not?), and a slight deficit of hearing. One of his first questions is whether I’ve been to Italy. I admit (loudly) that I have and he asks me where.


“Padua,” I say, trying to remember my exact itinerary. Not sure that he really wants to know every place or all that I saw. Padua is enough. Padua was one of the first places I visited while there.

“Leo,” he says, pointing to the boatyard leader, “is from Padua. G is from Genoa. Genova.” I nod. This I’ve already been told by G.

As we stand there, each of us thinking of Italy, he unzips the breast pocket of his coverall and with some effort pulls out a wallet.

“It’s picture time,” G says in an undertone to me. G and I stand and wait as he laboriously searches the wallet’s folds to find what he wants to find. He brings out one photo. It’s a faded picture, yellowed around the edges, carefully handled over the years, of him as a young man wearing a seaman’s uniform. I think he says it’s from 1946, after the war was over. He’d served during the war in Italy. He’d also been in Greece. Checking each tiny slitted pocket of his wallet, he finally finds a second photo, also of him, and shows it to me as well.

“Were those the glory days?” I ask.

“They were awful,” he says.

G takes me along for coffee time (usually every day at 10:00) at the Fisheries Museum Café and I listen to the men tell stories of place and time, the old fishing days, the modern fishing days, how the communities have faded because of commercial fishing, overfishing. How time has changed the lives of all these little fishing villages.

Thinking of the shifting nature of time, I go away wondering about the man’s photos. For he shares them with everyone he meets (or so it seems). Does sharing the photos of himself at the age of twenty take him back to his youth? He who can, I am told by one of the other locals, still climb ladders as if he were twenty while those younger than him struggle with hurt knees and hips and backs. Why was that time the defining point of his life? Was it because he survived (as so many others didn’t) the war? Was it the only time he went away from home? By going away and coming back did he establish his sense of self, place, and identity?

G goes on to do her work as do the men. I leave the café and head outside. Everyone has their stories. Maybe at the end of a long life all the memories have to boil down to one point, one story, one moment in time. In some manner of speaking, the novel I just wrote deals with the idea of memories, of that boiling down of all one’s memories to a photo album of collected memories, and the idea of how a person shifts to fit their identity to others’ expectations or lives.


On a whim, needing to do something other than read, walk, and think, I stop in at the boat trips booking kiosk to ask if they, by any chance, have an opening for the day’s trip to the Isle of May. My host G had said, “You must go to the Isle of May. You must! Ask G, she went with her parents.” G, my housemate, confirmed it had been a great excursion and showed me some photos from the trip. After that, I’d checked online but the calendar had been booked solid through the next week. Even so, today, I feel there’s no harm in checking. Bad weather is on the forecast for the rest of the week and the next day’s sailing has already been cancelled, but today has a sense of adventure to it. Something will happen.

In an astounding bit of good luck, I get the seat of someone who doesn’t show up. As I sit in the boat, the waves tossing around it, the crew going from row to row to check with people that they don’t feel unwell and helping those who do to go stand in the fresh air, I gaze out the window and wonder if at 92 I will be carrying around photos of myself. I wonder what stories will define me as I go. What will be the point I return to over and over again? What instance will I recall to any who cross my path? What point of my life will my identity ride upon? If I make it as far as 92, will I be able to pull my experiences along with me while still being in the present moment of my living? At that age is the past all I’ll have?

On the Isle of May, I push away all these thoughts, I admire the puffins, the lighthouses, the foghorns, see some fluffy gull babies, take loads of pictures, marvel at the things I get to see in this life of mine, walk and walk and walk, and make it to the boat at the set time to get back home with the tide. The sea is calmer going home.

Meanwhile, back at the house, I finish The Maytrees and move on to another bookshelf book. For my next guilt-free read I select the heartbreaking and beautiful All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. This book follows a regiment of German soldiers through the first World War. These boys are only eighteen years old when they join the army but ancient by the time it’s over, or dead. As my book was, as The Maytrees was, this book is also a story about identity, a man’s reflections on the human identity, on the soldier’s identity and how those two things are often not reconcilable. It’s about the horrifying ways that humans treat each other and how in those frontline moments the men become animals—only trying to survive from moment to moment. It’s about the hope and poetry of life. It’s a soul wrenching story about the horror of war. It’s a beautiful and heartbreaking book which everyone should read.


Holding the weight of it in my head and in my heart, I go for a walk. The sun has peeked out briefly from the shield of clouds, calling me out, cheering me up. I head toward the golf course for I know that just below it is a small beach and a few benches that look out at the sea. I will sit there and watch the tide come in.

The sun hides away now. I sit there until the chill of air turns me cold even after I’ve zipped my jacket all the way up. I sit and watch the birds float on top of the rocking water. I watch the waves crest and fall.

In the evening of another day of my holiday, I go with my host to the Crail Folk & Acoustic Music Club. The night’s headliner is the Gold Heart Sisters. A family from the states who sings and plays bluegrass music. My book is about musical siblings and I watch these singing and playing women, their unsmiling, banjo playing brother, and their bass playing dad and wonder if their experience has any similarities to what I’ve written (let’s hope only the good similarities).

As I sit in the room with the fifty or so other people who’ve come to the concert, I feel a strange blur of identity; I am of this place, but I’m not. These days, my home is where I am. These days, for just a wee bit longer, that means my home is Scotland. Even so, as the sisters sing of love and loss and longing, of a savior and the angels in heaven, of the battle at the OK Corral, of the Blue Ridge Mountains, of the call of the train whistle, I feel that sense of place, of familiarity, that melting pot, land of opportunity American nostalgia and I wonder if those around me feel it too.

Does the music let them cross the ocean, the years, and know another place as if it were home?


Are we, at this point in the music, all from the Appalachian Mountains?

Or, is it that now, here, we’re all back home?

For it is true that the Appalachian Mountain music is the music that the immigrants from Ulster, Ireland (a people who were originally English or Scottish) made as they settled in the mountains, far away from home, remembering the good times, creating a new sense of place, a new identity, a new wilder music, a melding of the old with the new. [Of course, here I’m making a very broad claim that hasn’t been backed up with any great intensity of historical research.]

I’m not from the Blue Mountains, but I do have Scots and Irish ancestry, and while I’m not on a path to find myself or discover my roots, I still feel it, the past, the music, as if it were my own.
In the midst of this holiday is my identity, a yellowed around the edges snapshot of me, a moving from place to place, a story, a telling of a story.
  

Monday, June 11, 2018

Identity, Fame, Mortality


The majority of my first ten days on the Scottish coast are spent in front of my computer. Here, I have a window view of a wild fuchsia with its flowers like red tutued ballerinas, a window box of little orange and yellow flowers, three stalks of orange irises, and some Scottish bluebells. Above all that is a tiny block of shingled roofs and a rectangular expanse of windowed sky.


It’s a far cry from my typewriter cows and the golden hillsides of the Borders, and I forget to tell myself with amazement every day, “You’re in Scotland,” because I don’t recognize the garden sparrows’ accents as being different from my own. Because I hardly look up from the screen to glance out at the bright, white, blinding sky.

I don’t remember to remind myself of the joy of being in Scotland until I leave my computer for minutes, for hours and go outside, until I turn the corner away from the house and look out and see the sea. Then I breathe and say, “Ah, I’m in Scotland. I’m on the coast.”

I spend the majority of my first week and a half on the coast feverishly finishing up the first draft of the novel I’ve been working on every day so far this year.

And, I finish it. I write a last sentence. I type The End.

Goodness.

I lean back away from the desk, away from the keyboard, and think, “I don’t think my mom’s going to like it. I don’t think my grandmother’s going to like it.” But in this moment, I do. In this moment of pride, of completion, at the end of 23 weeks of daily work (before the doubt, before the inner critic, before the sharp penned editor returns) I like it. It’s a story.

Well, anyway, it’s a story.

As many of my own stories do, this one surprises me.
Not quite sure how to feel, I put on my shoes and head out of the house to get some fresh air and to go celebrate (in a rather stunned delirium). I walk down the small path between all the houses and turn the corner. Ah, I’m in Scotland.

I walk down the hill to the harbor and sit outside at a waterfront restaurant. I order dinner and a glass of wine. I watch the gulls fly, I listen to them cry out. I’m on the coast.

I gaze out still slightly word-dazed at the late afternoon light and at the boats in the harbor. So, that’s it then? That’s the story? That’s where you end it? I think these things to myself, already questioning, already critiquing. (What kind of story was that?) Already I want to box it up and label it. I want to say, it’s a story about this one thing. This one easy to explain thing. But, really, I don’t know what kind of story it is. (My stories never seem all that easy to explain.) I don’t know yet how to sum it up. For now, I think, it’s a story about identity, fame, mortality. Maybe. Anyway, it’s a story. A story about a moment in a person’s life. It’s more about mortality than anything else. But is it? I don’t know, I don’t know what it’s about. I just wrote it.

I breathe. I try to stop the wild rambling. I can think about something else for now. But I’m still running every word through my mind, every symbol, every fictional encounter, every piano. Apparently, pianos are becoming a reoccurring theme in my books. As is running.

I eat my dinner and savor my wine. I watch the passing people, some with dogs some without dogs, the hovering gulls, and the vehicular traffic that motors by. The waitstaff returns and asks me if I 
want dessert.

I kind of do.

I order a fancy coffee and some chips (aka fries), “It’s a weird dessert, I know,” I tell the waiter. Kindly, she doesn’t judge me for it.

As I’m putting ketchup over my order of chips, I look up and smile at a passing couple. They smile back and then the man stops and says, “Isn’t that fattening?”

“I’m sorry?” I ask, not hearing correctly.

“Isn’t that fattening?” he repeats. Oh, I did hear correctly.

“Probably so,” I say. “I’ll walk it off later.”

“Where are you from then?” he asks. Come sit down, I think, come distract me from this story I wrote that I don’t yet understand. I wouldn’t mind if he and his wife joined me. I’d like the company.

I tell him I’m from Texas.

“You’ve got the oil money then,” he says.

“Not me,” I say.

“I’ve always wanted to go to Texas,” he says. Or maybe he says to America.

“It’s not too late,” I say.

His smile still happy, his face still bright, patting his wife’s hand which rests softly on his arm, he says cheerfully, “My wife has cancer and I have a disease called COPD. My next trip will be to the cemetery.”


He tells me this, stepping in a bit closer, and goes on to say that they are actually on holiday now and only live an hour and a half away. He tells me that their daughter has traveled to America, to Washington D.C. and to Ohio. His wife repeats Ohio as if it’s a word in another language—which I guess it really is coming as it does from the Seneca language (I have to look this up). Their pride for their daughter seeps off them like fog off the sea, like mist.

“Enjoy your chips,” the wife says, politely urging her husband away.

Don’t go, I think. Come tell me all about your daughter. Tell me about your holiday days. Tell me about all of your life. Tell me about the cemetery you plan to visit for your last holiday adventure. Tell me your feelings on mortality. “You’re welcome to sit and join me, if you’d like,” I say.

They cannot stay. They have to go on. They do go on.

As I’m finishing up my fancy coffee, I see them again on the other side of the street, the husband leaning in to talk to a trio of ladies sitting on a bench. He’s a talker. One who would talk the legs off a donkey. Talk to a stone. Talk to anyone who would listen. That’s why his wife pulls him politely on (“Enjoy your chips.” “Enjoy your afternoon.” “Enjoy your view of the sea.”), they’d never get anywhere if she didn’t.

They move past the ladies and then the husband sees me. He waves and I wave enthusiastically back. He points at my empty plate and puts a hand to his stomach, a question “Were they good?” I give the thumbs up sign and he with a broad smile returns it.

Carrying further on—there are other people to encounter, other stories to hear, other interchanges to have—they leave me again.

And I sit and watch and celebrate alone, but not lonely. Alone, but not averse to company.

Eventually, I settle my bill and leave. But I’m not quite ready to go back to the house and to the flowery view from the window. I need to walk off my chips.

With that end in mind, I head along the Coastal Path toward Cellardyke. It’s the next village over. It has its own harbor. It’s only ¾ of a mile away. I reach it in no time at all.

Yes indeed, there’s the harbor. Yes indeed, there’s the sea.

Through the little village, the Coastal Path goes on and on as far as St. Andrews and then who knows where else from there. There’s a grassy hill just beyond me. I’ll go see that grassy hill and then I’ll head on back.

Making my way at an easy pace, I come alongside the hill and consider climbing upward to see the sea from that perspective. I haven’t quite decided if I’ll do it or not when I happen to look up. There atop the hill, I see a flag. I blink. No, I am not seeing things. There’s an American flag flying on top of that hill. And here I thought I was in Scotland. Here I’ve been saying, “Ah, I’m in Scotland” all this time to myself (and also forgetting to say it to myself all this time).  

“I was not expecting to see that,” I say, maybe out loud.

Intrigued, I climb up the steps to the top of the hill. There’s a monument thing that I can see as well poking upward to the sky so maybe the Americans did something noble, maybe it was something to do with the Great War. When I reach the top, I come up alongside a man out walking his two dogs and as I take the last step I say, “I wasn’t expecting to see that,” and make a motion toward the flag.

“Oh yes,” the man says. “He flies all sorts of flags.”
 
“He’s not American?”

“Oh no, but it always seems he flies the flags of the people who come through. He had the Trinidad and Tobago flag flying a while ago and a group of people came from there. He’s had this one up a month and only a few days ago there was a couple from New Jersey. He flies the flags of places he’s visited.”

“Well, that’s interesting.”

We talk for a while longer of where we’ve come from, places we’ve seen, and flags.

“I think it might thunder and lightning,” he says, at some point. “You get to know the feel of the air. When you feel that little touch of cold air it sometimes means thunder and lightning.”

There is a cold touch to the air. I look out to sea and imagine thunder and lightning. That’d be something to see.

Somehow segueing from there, he tells me of a group of Americans who went around near the end of the Great War stealing back from the Germans the caches of treasures they’d stolen from occupied countries. He tells me how the Americans returned all the paintings, statues, jewelry, treasures, and bells (“The Germans stole all the bells!”) to their countries of origin without expecting anything in return. Something noble had happened after all. “It wasn’t just for fun. Some of the men lost their lives. They made it into a film. It’s quite good.”

Identity, fame, mortality, I think. Are all stories about that? Well, maybe. But maybe in the end all stories boil down to love; the search for love, the finding of love, the lack of love, the loss of love, the memory of love, maybe even the rediscovery of love.

We bid each other a fond farewell and I go back down the hill and back to my own little place with its flowers and my writing desk, back to my completed story in all its mess and unexplainability, back to my thoughts and the little seeds of thoughts that might later turn into another unexplainable story.