Thursday, May 26, 2005

Mommy, I Don't Want You to be a Writer

The title of this blog almost sounds like a bad Country Western song. However, you know you are spending a lot of time on-line or writing when your seven-year old son looks at you one night and says: "I want you to come outside and stop working on the computer all the time!" (This is a month, I should point out, that has been the wettest, coldest May on record in New England--that said, there have been a few good "outdoor" days...I've just chosen to avoid them.) So I answered Henry in more of an attempt at justification than anything else: "I know I spend a lot of time in my office but I'm writing a lot or trying to."

"I don't want you to be a writer."

He does have a point. The gardens and empty pots are waiting for something to be put in them. Memorial Day Weekend looms as do the ever-present laundry piles. But I felt what he said more deeply. I do need to regulate my time writing and balance it with things like household stuff and gardening and more quality time with my children. This is the season to be outside and I should embrace it. Besides, have laptop will travel. I've been wanting to plug it in out on our patio while the kids play outside...but that will have to wait until the tomatoes are planted and garden beds tended and mulched and black flies have gone again.

Unfortunately, I am not the kind of mother or writer who can schedule things very well and then regiment myself. I can work around a school schedule, which I often do with our kids, but my ideas and inspirations are not limited to 9am-1pm. So, like Emily Dickinson and her pantry poems (see EMILY'S DICKINSON's PANTRY, in April 2005 Archives, at right), I write snippets of things here and there when I'm doing other things, like working in the kitchen. Call it "domestic multi-tasking".

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Writing for Children


This year, in addition to pitching and getting IN THE PANTRY, I have been determined to dust off several old (as in curling, dusty pages at the back of my desk kind of old) picture book manuscripts for children's books. In 8th grade I declared that one day I would be "a writer". I always knew I wanted to live in some funky New Hampshire house and write books for children--imagining myself as the Shirley Jackson of the children's book world (if you haven't read LIFE AMONG THE SAVAGES, her memoir about writing and raising children in Vermont, go out and get it). A career approximating Cynthia Rylant's would also do nicely: over 80 picture books, early readers and middle grade fiction. She is as diverse as she is prolific.

This pursuit has been a haphazard journey. Before actually setting out to write for children, I have been a reader to children, my own of course, but also along the way a collector of children's books. When our daughter was a baby, I realized an explosion in children's picture books (this is a dangerous part of any bookstore for me). I began to purchase the ones I liked and tucked them away for my daughter at the age-appropriate time. Now I do the same for our sons. There is nothing like the gift of a book--at any age. I also have collected first edition classics and other out-of-print children's books when I can. [One "must have" in any home library are the "BOOK HOUSE" books, edited by Olive Beaupry Miller in the 1930s. My grandmother had a set for my mother and her siblings and I was able to duplicate that set by trolling used book stores. Wonderful stories and tales and illustrations, gathered in twelve volumes according to age appropriateness.]

Some of my favorite children's books have rural themes like COUNTRY DAWN to DUSK by Ricki Levinson, FROM DAWN to DUSK by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock (with the marvelous woodcuts of Mary Azarian), GRANDMOTHER WINTER illustrated by Beth Krommes and written by Phyllis Root, YONDER by Tony Johnston and illustrated by Lloyd Bloom, MIDNIGHT FARM and other books by Reeve Lindbergh (as well as books by her husband Nathaniel Tripp), ALL THE PLACES to LOVE by Patricia MacLachlan (which I can't read without weeping) and the regional stories of Lois Lenski. [The "Little House" series and CHARLOTTE's WEB deserve their own place in the children's literature pantheon, and to think they never won the Newbery Medal--E.B. White's story of a farmyard and "some pig" named Wilbur is the best book ever written for children, period.] There are countless picture books on the perpetual theme of the seasons of a farm and rural home places and their meaning in our lives. I never grow tired of them as they remind me of my own farm childhood and the special places I have known in the barns, fields, brooks and pinewoods. Several of my manuscripts were inspired by those memories. I have hundreds of farm books--either written for children or written by adults for adults who want to farm. Ah, the romance of the farm.

One of the themes of this weekend's SCBWI conference in Nashua, New Hampshire was how our home places and childhoods inspire us as writers (that is Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators and if I can figure out one day how to add links within my blog posts, this would be a good one--in the meantime, look for a link in the column at right). How can we not draw from home or the places we love as fodder for children's books?

I think one of the most disturbing aspects of this conference for me was the realization that YA is the "hot" market now. Young Adult fiction--and we're not talking Jane Austen here, sports fans. Some of these books are gritty, rough, at times hard on the stomach or psyche, but popular with the teenage market. Books like GOSSIP GIRL started the trend. I picked up a few books for my daughter, who will be 17 in another month, to read and comment on. Her take on YA? "Oh yeah, Mom, its all about drugs, sex, fashion and the issues we can relate to!" I hadn't noticed, really, what she has been buying at our local independent bookstore (that is the wonderful TOADSTOOL in Peterborough, New Hampshire, which really deserves its own blog). I was just glad she was buying books.

Whatever happened to embracing heroines who drove roadsters like Nancy Drew, who hung out with a gal named George and the "plump and winsome" Bess? Cute frat boy Ned Nickerson always took third place to Nancy's sleuthing and her two gal partners-in-crime. What about EMMA or pining over Heathcliff in WUTHERING HEIGHTS? Instead, books marketed to teenagers today are being written with great candor about child and drug abuse, alcoholic parents, and kids being locked in closets--all set amongst the backdrop of broken homes, of course. That's just a mere taste of a new, somewhat salty and unsavory genre. I just don't buy it, even if it speaks to teenage life today.

Now, I'm not being a "Pollyanna" by any means. As the parent of a teenage daughter I can attest to everything she says by either witnessing it first-hand or through the issues of her peers. High school ain't pretty and it wasn't so hot when I was there. It was just an illuminating experience as a reader, writer and a parent to learn more about the "Young Adult" market trends and realities and one with which I'm not necessarily comfortable. I'll take a well-written and illustrated children's picture book any day over raw teen fiction. The closest I've been to that scene, apart from being a mother of a teenager, is my newest delicious television indulgence, THE O.C., my daughter's favorite show. "Great research for YA," was one of the conference mantras, wink-wink. (And to be fair to the genre, I need to sit down and read some examples.)

Brian Lies, an author/illustrator, gave an excellent talk today about the inspiration he receives from the kind of childhood I remember: hanging out with your neighborhood friends until the cover of darkness or your parents called you in, coasting down hills by bicycle on car-less highways, playing all manner of games like "Red Light/Green Light" and "Red Rover", a childhood where the backyard and neighborhood were all the backdrop we needed for fun and play. He too chided the trendy in chlldren's literature, instead claiming the home place as a safe haven for children to return and an important realm to write about. Our children need the safety and security of a good book.

I have written a handful of children's picture book manuscripts in the past ten years but haven't dared send them out. They are among the most difficult writing I have done, perhaps because of the spareness of the text in terms of word count but also because I have high standards as a reader of children's books and I know that children do, too. I was fortunate for six years in 7th-12th grade to read every Tuesday with "Aunt Liz". Elizabeth Yates McGreal, author of the Newbery Award-winning AMOS FORTUNE, FREE MAN, in 1953, as well as many other books, was a family friend and I learned about books and so many things during our own friendship. We would read aloud books in the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis and historical fiction from her generation by Elizabeth Coatsworth and countless other books, including her own. In between chapters we would sip tea, nibble homemade cookies, and talk about the world. She was my first mentor in writing and a dear friend. My very first journal--red leather bound and all the way from London where she lived for many years--was from Aunt Liz. It would be the first of many journals I would keep over the years. [It is perhaps because of this childhood literary education in the 1970s that the whole "YA" market especially jars my sensibilities. The books I grew up on were not trying to be hip or cool or written for a particular consumer market--they were literary escapes. Who wanted adolescent reality?]

One phrase I did not hear mentioned this weekend, fortunately, was "celebrity author". There are numerous celebrities out there today (and I don't need to give them any more publicity in my wee blog!) who have published children's books in recent years. Some are well written and one has to wonder if they were ghost-written. Others are drivel but the publishers seem to grab them up because of the name sale value, natch! But what bothers me--after the enormous amount of television and other forms of publicity they receive--is that the trend seems to say, "See, ANYONE can write a children's book! Isn't this cute?" Most writers and others would never presume to audition for a Hollywood movie. So why can't these overexposed actors leave the craft of writing children's books to those who are writers? When I think of the wonderful children's books that will never make the New York Times Best Seller List™ because they weren't written by someone famous, it is distressing. It is also insulting to those who make their living--or at least part of their living--writing for children. Madonna (ok, I said the name of that which I would not say) has decided to save the "vapid and vacant" children's book industry with her brilliance. Her comments on a British television channel in 2003 went far to show how much of an idiot she really is--I'd love to send her a list of excellent representatives of children's literature and then fire off some discussion questions.

I look forward to the infusion of great energy and inspirations I gleaned from this conference...and before I lose confidence again, I'm going to send out a picture book manuscript in Monday's mail. And if I don't succeed, I will try, try again.

PS The picture, above, was taken at Cobb Meadow School's May Day, 2004 (you can soon link to their website at right). Each of our children has attended this magical preschool and kindergarten which focuses on the delights of childhood and doesn't worry about things like the alphabet or mathematics--time enough for these things later! The daily curriculum includes making houses, playing with soft cloth dolls, constructing things out of wooden logs, playing in the forest, a snack of homemade bread and soup and butter, story and circle time, and a natural craft or painting time. I could easily enjoy the rhythms of the Cobb Meadow day myself and it is both a pleasure and honor for our children to be there.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Brethren


Last night I had a strange but comforting dream. I was in a beautiful rural valley with my husband and the awareness that our three children were out there, somewhere (in the corn, perhaps). I was a bit anxious about that but knew they were likely in school or being otherwise cared for--it was a slightly nervous feeling of separateness. The subtext of the dream is that we were considering joining the Church of the Brethren, a group of people, whose religion has German roots and that is closely related to the Amish and Mennonites. However, they are more interactive within the world and certainly less agrarian than the Amish.

I knew my husband was out somewhere working in the fields for the day. I was in a common place, like a work room/dining room/kitchen building, where each family had their own pantry and the women gathered to prepare meals or items (some men, too). Women were dressed not unlike the Amish but in long calico dresses with aprons and bonnets, and married men had simple beards and work clothes. The hairstyles of women were long and gleaming, yet intricately woven with fanciful braids and adornments. One women pressed a good-sized baby into me, literally. The force was firm but gentle. My task for the afternoon was to hold it and keep it safe. As I did so I experienced a secret longing for another child myself, while also worrying about my three children "still out in the world" waiting to be brought home.

There was a spirit of harmony, unity and cooperative spirit amongst this group. Each family had their own house and piece of land on a larger whole, with shared agricultural lands and barns and a large shared kitchen/work room/community hall (which also served as a worship space). School was also a part of the community and children were raised to be peaceful, earth-loving, intellectual and cultural. People signed up for different chores. Families were separate and intact yet linked to this extraordinary group of beings...and I say beings because they did not seem human. They seemed angelic. I know no earthly group of worshipers can approximate the company of angels but in this dream I felt that I was moving amongst angelic beings and that everything would be alright. There was never an ominous presence in the perimeter land as portrayed in the movie THE VILLAGE. My inspiration for the dream was based on other experiences I have had and some never imagined or seen.

I awoke saying "Brethren", recalling our meeting a kind family from the Church of the Brethren at a dinner we had in Amish country around Lancaster, Pennsylvania several springs ago. These people looked Amish but not quite and were sharing their own family style dinner at one of those long hearth tables alongside our family. We struck up a conversation and they were happy to speak with us. They were visiting relatives before returning to their home in central Ohio, near the Indiana border, and they invited us to visit if we were ever passing by (with us, you never know--have Honda Pilot, will travel). The man, not much older than my husband, worked for a small oil company, as I recall.

We also know the few remaining Shakers of the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine. Sister Frances is our youngest son's godmother. They have a community life and centralized spirit to their order and purpose (but you can't be married). There is something attractive about this "other" life, shielding our children from the larger world within a group of kindred spirits.

As a family we have been lacking in the spiritual department in the past few years. Each of us is forming our own ideology or has left one behind and is seeking--meanwhile, our young boys need some sort of spiritual exposure and nourishment. I think we need to find some common ground as a family and go from there. I don't know if it means something as extreme as becoming part of the Brethren or Amish orders (we have observed Amish-life, too, first hand at the farmhouse of some Amish friends in upstate New York), but something close, something shared, something communal. I have many friends who were not raised with any kind of religious structure and it has always seemed to me they have no backdrop, no base from which to launch their own belief system.

For many years I clung to the English church architecture and choral music of the Episcopal church in our own parish of Peterborough, New Hampshire--the rituals and pageantry, and pastor, were a comfort. As a child I was raised in the more minimalist trappings of the Presbyterian church, where choral music was an important component of a sparer worship service and communion came around every six weeks in tiny little cups full of grape juice and square bread cubes. As I've become older and more cynical I realize that all of the trappings of Christianity are just that. The essence is much deeper. But the music--I could never properly praise or worship without it. Today, in an office waiting room, I saw a picture of the recently deceased Pope John when he was in the cell of the man who shot him, almost fatally, in 1981. He was forgiving him and probably reassuring him, too. To me, forgiveness is the essence of Christianity--that amazing gesture on the part of the Pope seems to me angelic, extraordinary. How many of us are so easy to forgive, let alone a person who tried to kill? It certainly makes the less significant grievances we have with others seem trivial.

If I start to hear the corn whispering to me on our planned Western trip this July, I'll know we might have trouble. We'll avoid any dark-clad strange boys named Malachai at all costs but we'll always brake for angels.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Everything Old is New Again


I've been helping my mother pack up the farm little by little for a few hours on Thursdays. We make small dents but mostly we go through specific areas or my own things still there. The other day I packed up all of my piano music. I haven't used any of it in about 20 years since when I was still in college (I am a great sight reader and don't play well by ear or memory). Much of it belonged to my father and I have such great memories of sitting at the baby grand in my grandparents' Ohio home, playing duets with him. At our home now we have recently been given a baby grand by some friends who are closing up their mother's house. It will be tuned tomorrow and I am anxious to play more regularly again and to have my children learn to play.

Thirty-one years ago this June we moved from Akron to the farm in New Hampshire. The North American van took off with most of our things, neatly packed and downsized, while our green Plymouth station wagon was filled to the rafters with plants, turtles, hamsters, chameleons, three kids, and a twelve-year old Irish Setter on valium. We survived the passage across the New York Thruway, a trip we usually made at night while we slept and my father drove, but I don't know how my mother did it with the menagerie she had on board. That journey was a threshold for me, from an easy-going childhood to the many reality checks of adolescence as a child of divorce. The farm was a place I had loved in summers, when my home, school, friends and family in Ohio were still there to return to. For many years, the farm and its town and school became something from which I could not wait to flee.

Because we were moving into my grandparents' furnished farm house, with the intention of buying or building our own house one day, most of our stuff was shoved over the barn or in the attic when it arrived, wherever there was room. Many boxes, especially kitchenware, were never opened. Only recently has my mother begun opening them up. Each one is a time capsule from the 1960s and early 70s, with some Victorian heirlooms thrown in: assorted glassware like Apollo mission glasses, a red retro barbecue tray, family silver and other wedding presents that haven't seen the light of day in decades and many hardly were used even then. Wrapped within the fragile yellowing newsprint with Nixon and Haldeman headlines, and the Xenia, Ohio tornado of April 1974, are precious memories.

Mom gave me a box marked "Cathy's Sand Casting--Car". I opened this well-taped 8x11 inch box and inside was the ugliest looking plaster sand relief with my name painted in black on a yellow background (an homage to the Smiley face colors so prevalent in the early 1970s?). When (incised on the back is March 1974) and where did I make this monstrosity, I wondered? I usually remember something that has been tucked away, even if I don't know where it was put, as well as the details behind it. This one eludes me and for the first time I find myself with amnesia of childhood. If I wasn't eleven at the time it was made, I probably would have blamed this artwork on LSD. I was never crafty and art classes to me were painful. Clearly this work of art--perhaps a mother's day gift for my Mom--reflects that.

What was particularly poignant about it was that my mother had taken the time to carefully wrap and preserve it, even assigning its transport to the car, where only special things--like live pets, plants and children--were designated. Her Victorian glassware, family silver and other odds and ends went into great big moving boxes but the small fragile gift of a child was given a place of honor in a car already overstuffed with more important items.

That is always as it should be. Thanks, Mom, for caring for something so simple and so ugly, but made from the childhood heart of your daughter.

Monday, May 9, 2005

Procrastination: An Art Form

I have had most of the inactive contents of my office sprawled across our King-sized bed since, well, November of 2005. That is six months ago. Where do I sleep, you wonder? My husband has enjoyed the softer guest room beds since last fall where we have an old suite of c. 1920s stained and handpainted bedroom furniture from my grandparents' house (and possibly my great-grandparents' house before them). For a while that set belonged to my father for his apartment guest room. But either way, whenever I walk into that room it smells and seems like I'm back at 425 North Portage Path in Akron, Ohio. Smell has a way of transporting us to another time in our lives and the scent of the old furniture with a faint hint of roses brings me back to a great and precious childhood. [And I'm glad to have a "time capsule" room from my own history within a house surrounded by my husband's--and our own together as a family.]

As we have few overnight guests, it was only natural that someone would soon claim that room. Sometimes I'll sleep in the second, parallel twin bed (but it feels too much like a 1950s sitcom when I do) but more often than not, one of our boys will have a campout in there. Besides, the mattresses are so soft and lacking side support that by the morning my sheets, blankets and half of my somewhat cumbersome self are approaching the floorboards. But I digress. This is merely a long way of telling you that while we may sleep in separate bedrooms on occasion, we are still married. Needless to say, I have been a nocturnal nomad for half a year. Lately I've taken to sleeping in my daughter's other bed--she has two full size canopy beds in her room and her extra is the most comfortable bed in the house--where it feels like I'm sharing a room with the sister I never had but always wanted.

So, why is my office on my bed and why am I in no hurry to move it? I suppose it is because the king-sized bed is not only a huge area of space on which to sort (that doesn't involve moving stuff off a dining room or kitchen table every day or so) but that it is just the right height for me to organize my piles. And as the bedroom is not being used, I can just close the door on it. But the whole process is getting old. My husband is threatening divorce or OCD/Time Management class for me and I am growing like a weary traveler who longs for their own bed again. [You have to understand that my husband is the neat one here--we have the reverse problem that most couples have: he is tidy, I am not. He will ask directions before even leaving the driveway and I'll refuse to stop and ask (as I pride myself on my map-reading abilities and instinctive sense of direction).] Now that it is almost summer I can throw upon the windows and enjoy the evening breezes and sounds of the season...but first I have to file all of the junk on top of the bed, and on the couch and the detritus that is spilling onto the floor. I'd take and post a picture but that would be too humiliating--describing it is enough.

In the six months since starting to organize my office there have been many accomplishments and setbacks: ill children, the holidays, and on a personal work-related level, I prepared a book proposal for IN THE PANTRY, shopped it around, and received an offer/contract. It hasn't all been a disruption to my work and life, just to my sense of organization.

But it needs to be done. On several days in the past two weeks, including this one, I have had all good intentions of conquering the clutter that has consumed my bedroom. And then something else presents itself. Lately, this blog has been a major distraction as have other writing projects. I hope that one day the amount of time I spend on my computer will make my husband and children proud. In the meantime, if they don't have the perfect mother I think they'll be ok with that.

My family certainly knows it but just to prove to my friend Edie that I do NOT live like Martha Stewart in any way, shape or form, I opened the door of our bedroom the other night when they were here for dinner. She giggled and nodded and seemed to understand immediately. I knew that she hadn't believed me at my dinner-table confessional. My husband can't believe I would even TELL anyone...but admission is the first step to recovery, isn't it?

Sunday, May 8, 2005

Home Insurance?


Ok, this is a certified rant. Friday we received a letter from our insurance company saying that the parent company would be dropping our policy on the family farmhouse in September because an inspector didn't like the back steps (been there for forty years or more and never a problem), a rotted porch post, peeling paint in patches, and, the real kicker: we'll have to upgrade our electrical system to get house insurance coverage. Even the several woodstoves were an eye-raising event and the series of sheds and barns that connect to the house? Forget about it.

This farmhouse of which I speak has been in our family since 1946. I moved there with my mother and brothers in 1974 and we helped care for my grandmother who developed Alzheimer's. My mother has lived there since. I met my husband at this house but before him there are many memories of things like the smell of the back stairs and old barn wood in the heat of the summer, playing in the pinewoods, swatting mosquitos in the dark, just being there. The place holds great memory and nostalgia--perhaps too much. I'd always imagined myself the torch-bearer of that legacy: I am the oldest cousin in my generation of children from five of my mother's siblings. I knew my grandmother probably better than any of us and shared a special bond. But beyond that is the aspect of place and caretaking of a legacy: the farm.

In a process too difficult to detail here--for many reasons--my husband and I bought the farm last year with the intention of moving there after our daughter gets out of high school. That won't happen now until 2007 so we'd hoped to at least rent the place. Now we likely can't even do that unless we do a major systems upgrade that we weren't planning on until 2007. Do you realize how many old houses are out there that are "not up to code" and the insurance companies aren't even aware? Are we getting to the point in our culture where every house must be vinyl-sided (to avoid lead paint issues or the idea of paint altogether), rubberized, coated, perfectly sealed and air-tight, air-conditioned, level and absolutely conforming to every code in the book? Any lover of old houses will tell you that the charm is in the creaky floorboard, the drafty bedroom, or the "weathered paint job". Our home insurance companies are against historic preservation, or the delight of benign neglect, plain and simple.

The Amish order is commendable for many reasons, one being that no one carries insurance on their farm buildings or farmhouses. A fire or other calamity is considered an act of God. But more to the point, if there is such a disaster--good wiring or not--the community bands together and builds another house or barn. They help each other and do not require handouts from insurance companies. In our "law suit happy" nation we are destroying our own culture and values in the process and putting insurance companies on red alert.

It has seemed that everything is against us where this farm is concerned. It has been like swimming upstream against a strong, unrelenting current. I think my mother will be better off in the long run but this has not been easy on her, either. Yet, could she afford to stay? Systems failures in old houses happen quickly and at great expense, as we are now discovering. I have not given up yet--I am going to call a trusted electrician and get an estimate. But we are also looking at a new roof, a new septic, a new heating system...and that doesn't even begin to cover the expenses in the barn. What is increasingly rare and old and beautiful is threatened by lack of home insurance. This series of buildings is irreplaceable yet knowing that you could at least have some coverage in the event of disaster or lightning or a roof leak is somewhat comforting. Not anymore.

Everyone's situations change and ours did when we realized that our daughter could not switch school systems or houses right now. We put our children's needs before our own. So now we own two large houses, two great legacies, two huge elephants on our backs. I wish right now that we lived in a house like my friend Judy lives in--a small, unassuming Cape. I wish I'd never even begun to appreciate places and old things. I wish I could fancy life in a double-wide, or better yet, a Gypsy caravan with no roots, just roaming. I wish that the past held no meaning for me. I wish I could rewind four years and start all over again, knowing then what I know now. I would be here where I am in my husband's family Federal and less restless, more certain, and having spared everyone less destruction.

I realize that my children identify with our present house--my husband's legacy house--which has become their own place to grab hold in memory. I do not want to disrupt their own house-bonding process. I realize, too, that no one in our house shares the memories I have of the farm--not my husband, not my children, not even our daughter who spent her first three years there. I am learning that, try as we might, we can not have it all. At this point I would just like a plan that I can work with. I tried, once, to invest my emotions in my husband's house, the one we share now, but then he wanted to sell it. Then the farm presented itself as an opportunity. Then I became reinvested over there after more or less shutting the door on that part of my life. I want my children to be happy, I want my mother to be happy, I want my husband to be happy. My happiness in this matter is more of an afterthought.

A woman from an old New England family that my husband knew well in the town that we live in had a hill farm and a large farmhouse that used to take in summer boarders. The farm was an institution in its day and also an anomaly: two brothers and a sister, all unmarried, lived there until their deaths or health needs changed. My husband worked for them when they used to keep cows, and apples, and hay. The buildings were relics to a vanishing rural past, time capsules of the late 19th through early 20th century. The sister is still alive in a nursing home and it was her wish that a New Hampshire land group inherit the land. But the buildings? She wanted them knocked down for good--she did not want anyone living in her family farmhouse. So the town fire department came and set the place to fire for practice after much had been taken apart or salvaged. In only several years, the land has reclaimed the area where the buildings used to be. Unless one scratches around a bit, there is no memory in the land that anyone ever lived there. The old road goes up past where the house and barns were gathered, and all around the pastures are filling in with trees and brush. Now the property is like so many abandoned cellar holes in the reforested New England woods.

If we have to sell the farmhouse, we will at least keep the 70 acres that remain with the farm. I can not and will not see McMansions on this land, yet selfishly, like the old farm woman, I can not envision anyone else but family in that farmhouse. I should have let go a long time ago and never ventured back. Thomas Wolfe was right: "You can't go home again." It is never the same.

Saturday, May 7, 2005

Robert, the Kernel Baker

Yesterday morning I went to my favorite bakery on the planet**, THE KERNEL BAKERY, owned and operated by Robert Koerber since 1979 in Peterborough, New Hampshire (on Route 202, a mile or so south of the town center). This was the first time I'd been to the bakery in several months (I am too un-routine oriented to be a regular anymore). If you want the best croissant in the world--plain, chocolate or ham & cheese --or the best cheese danish, Eccles cakes and fig bars, this is the place.

Robert's croissants are made with layers of a whole wheat dough mixture (tempered with white flour) that alternate with layers of butter. The result is a not-too-flaky, but delicate melt-in-your mouth sensation. If you lightly warm your croissant in the oven (never in a microwave, good God!) and smear it with just the right amount of butter and jam, you will experience a confection never to be duplicated. He also makes different varieties of breads, cookies, cakes, eclairs (only from fall to early spring because of their most exquisite fresh egg custard) and a variety of bagels as diverse and good as his breads and rolls. And every day he does the same thing again--he works alone now and is only open three days a week, but he has always been the sole baker. Everything is done by hand--no trucks full of frozen dough like the kind delivered to a Panera or Au Bon Pain franchise arrive at his door for easy baking. Robert is a craftsman, a true artisan.

I was lucky to work for Robert off and on throughout college, graduate school and beyond for ten years from 1981-1991. Some of the best life lessons I've learned were at the Kernel Bakery:

1.) If you are working for someone and they want you to do it their way, you do it...with a smile on your face.
2.) If you can wash dishes or the floor as part of your job, you will always be a flexible person.
3.) Serving the public is excellent preparation for dealing with, well, the public.
4.) New England Coffee makes the best coffee.
5.) Really cute hulky contractor guys do eat whole wheat products.
6.) Some people in the world actually sound like Thurston Howell, III from GILLIGAN's ISLAND ("I mean, REALLY!")
7.) Almond macaroons and sesame bread can become a physical addiction in some people.
8.) Never use a calculator when a pencil will do.
9.) You can learn to make change without a computer telling you how to do it.
10.) An open window on a hot day in a hot bakery does not mean you will cool down.
11.) Word of mouth is the best advertisement.
12.) If you live within your means and pay as you go and bake a lot of bread, you can buy a nice sailboat.

Robert has always been a good friend. He came with his family from England (Forest Row where he went to Emerson College, founded in the teachings of Rudolf Steiner). He grew up in western Pennsylvania, and is descended from German immigrants. I think that is one reason we always hit it off: our shared Midwestern roots and our German heritage (my father's family was mainline Pennsylvania Dutch by way of Ohio; my mother's was solid hardcore English and New York, with a dash of Spanish thrown in). His three boys are all grown now and I remember them as babies or toddlers--my three children are also growing up as part of the bakery and have their own memories here, but the Koerber children actually grew up across the threshold in the attached house next door (surely it is every child's dream to grow up in a bakery).

If time, we generally chat about the world at large or banter with other customers. Yesterday I got a bag of danish pastries for the family (including "BaHas", our boys' name for "Bear Paws" since they started speaking) and eight lovely orange petit fours with pink roses on top. I figured we needed a bit of a sweet and something dainty after all of that homemade Mexican food at home last night with friends (along with a bowl of fresh fruit and MANY pitchers of homemade margaritas, we had an evening).

I am always amazed at the ability Robert has to rise in the dark, work in a quiet room except for occasional equipment noise, and create the same consistently great baked goods each time. At least he now gives himself alternate days off and weekends (mostly for sailing off Massachusetts' North Shore). His regular customers have adjusted to his diminished hours (Monday, Wednesday & Fridays, 7am-1pm) and he has cut back on a few things (like chocolate creme and all manner of donuts) but we can't hold it against him. Robert is one of the unsung gems of the Monadnock region. It will be a sad day for all of us when he turns off his oven and sails away into the sunset. But, as few realize, being a baker is just part of who he is.

**BABA a LOUIS in Chester, Vermont runs a close second but is just far enough away to not be a competitor.

Friday, May 6, 2005

Sixo de Mayo


I don't know what "six" is in Spanish but because I know it is "six" in both English and French, I'll add an "o" to the word and perhaps I'll get it right. Today is May 6, 2005 and we had a rollicking great evening with our friends and their son, who is a schoolmate and friend of one of our sons. It is rare these days that we connect with anyone fun and interesting in our limited world and I'm so glad to have met these friends.

Because it is the day after Cinquo de Mayo we had a Mexican feast: stuffed green chili peppers with pepperjack cheese baked in an egg souffle, chicken and beef fajitas, chicken enchiladas with green chili and baked in heavy cream (mmm, mmm, that's right...and doused with cheese), and a vegetarian rice dish with various ingredients. All of my recipes were out of the beautifully illustrated (and great recipes, too) book, HEART OF THE HOME (I'll double check that) by Susan Branch. I love her books and that she has managed to create a cottage industry by illustrating her life and recipes and ideas into one package...and live on Martha's Vineyard year round.

A "beau" friend of my daughter's surprised her at the house today, back visiting his family up the road for a few days, and that also put a smile on everyone's face as he is well-liked among our family. Some Cole Porter and then Talking Heads playing quietly in the background, three boys playing happily together while the elders yabbered until almost 9:30...a lovely time.

On a book or blog-related note, a local editor (I sent her my blogsite info) is thinking of doing an article on local bloggers in a few months and is interested in mine. Oddly, a woman who was featured in the BUSINESS WEEK article on blogging lives just up Main Street from me. Small world-small town-small universe. Meanwhile, Franklin & Esther Schmidt's new book VICTORIAN KITCHENS & BATHS is soon to come out (also from Gibbs Smith) and my chapter on Victorian pantries is included. They contacted me about some upcoming book launch parties they're planing--one is in New York City. I might just hop on Amtrak and go...

I've left the Mexican glassware to wash up in the morning and most of the kitchen is presentable. A few odd dishes to do [NOTE: our friends Edie and Jeff were raving about their new dishwasher--in two drawers! A must check-into as our Bosch is almost 8 years old and could use some oomph or replacing]. Nothing that can't wait.

Black flies are out. A long winter is over.

Thursday, May 5, 2005

Judy's House (and Pantry)

Judy's LuRay

My friend Judy's house is a small unassuming Cape, built by her husband within the last thirty years and no more than 25 x 18 feet, with two small additions: a glassed in four-season porch, salt-box style, along the south side of the house and a little room for an office addition off the living area. The house is stained a dark woodsy green. If it weren't for the lovely gardens surrounding it or the separate adorable garden shed she built last year, complete with an old farmhouse sink, you would think it just any other ordinary modern Cape. However, if the three bears were to build in the 21st century New Hampshire woods, this would be their cottage.

Inside Judy has managed to organize her space so efficiently that she is able to display her collections, including many books and dishes, without impacting the living space. She has to be orderly--not only does she have a small preschool several days a week for four active five year olds, including our youngest, but she shares her home with her husband, a daughter who runs a landscaping business, and her eldest daughter who, with her husband and five year old son, are back and forth from Africa several times each year where they work at a trekking camp. [A large wardrobe, surprisingly unobtrusive, stores a vast amount of children's toys, building things, board games, and art supplies--an entire playroom in a cupboard.]

The open L-shaped living space is painted a warm shade of purple which works with the simple, earthy furnishings and yard sale finds. Books line one wall space from floor to ceiling and her pastel LuRay collection frames the other wall in a white Hoosier-style cabinet next to an antique white cast iron patio set, used for their dining room. These features help brighten an otherwise dark corner. In the porch area, Judy has her collection of bones and dried animal remnants: puffed blow fish and snake skins, and bleached bone fragments. She has brought the outdoors inside, in a most appealing way. In the small room off the porch where most would make into a mud or laundry room, Judy has made into a reading nook with a comfy bed, a picture window facing south over her raised garden beds, and a relaxing aesthetic.

Judy's kitchen is a tiny U-shaped galley with a small window. Yet the counter space and cupboard storage are sufficient enough and so orderly that anyone could function well in this kitchen. A small master bedroom and full bath complete the downstairs and two small bedrooms are upstairs for her daughters. A large, open staircase descends beneath an airy branch of birch tree. Their cozy hearth, with its house-heating woodstove, bears an old sign that belonged to her husband's family.


When Judy heard about my pantry book she said, "Oh you have to see mine!" I asked where it was, knowing the layout of her downstairs. One day, her husband at work, Judy took a crow bar and started to hack into the white space of wall just around the corner from her kitchen and between her bathroom. Working around a vertical support beam, Judy crafted two open spaces, each about 4 feet high, a foot wide and no more than six inches deep. Her husband added shelves and Judy salvaged--as she is inclined to do--two green weathered wooden house shutters for doors. The effect is magical: part wall ornament, part ingenious storage. Inside her shelves are lined with neatly filled glass jars and assorted tea boxes. A stylist couldn't have done a better job.

Judy's tiny pantry with its found space and cottage-cupboard-cuteness and her LuRay display will find their way into my pantry book. And someday, when my husband and I are ready to downsize a bit, we will likely build a house very much like Judy's: cute and small, where there is a place for everything and everything in its place. I will hope to be able to infuse it with the kind of love and reverence as Judy has--her house is as much about keeping her family close as it is about her own unique style. Our children, and their children, and even Goldilocks if she's lost in our woods, will be more than welcome.

Wednesday, May 4, 2005

A Thousand Acres

Farmland in Winter

I need to reread the Pulitzer prize winning novel, A THOUSAND ACRES, written by Jane Smiley. Based on the tragedy of KING LEAR by William Shakespeare, it is set on a twentieth century family farm in Iowa. I could never understand when I first read it why or how the older sister, Ginny, could one day just walk away from her family farm, especially after doing everything to secure it for her family's future. She drove off and left everything behind her: her house, her family, even her marriage. Eventually she would return but it was from a place of new perspective and distance. She would never live there again and even let her sister have her share.

The reason for Ginny's departure is now simple: she was living in a hornet's nest, surrounded by misunderstandings from townspeople and her own family, especially her father. Her dreams and expectations had been dashed. No one knew the real truth and people began to attach certain labels to the sisters who were keeping the farm: Greedy. Liars. Who are they to treat their father like this? A dark secret hung over them all but the actual reality of having the farm and keeping it became so divisive that it destroyed all family relationships until there was just a handful of dust in the prairie wind. By then the place she loved was just not worth the human toil and sacrifice needed to hang on. And to what? A few tumbledown buildings, some barns and the land...perhaps it is the land that really holds us if we are fortunate to grow up amongst an entire landscape. Farm life is much like that.

What is it about families and their houses? What holds us to a place and keeps us there? What makes us flee?

An old gentlemen, after losing his large sprawling summer house to fire, a place in his family for many years and filled with the stuff of generations, said to me: "The fire was somewhat cleansing. Now I have no baggage." I suppose there would be a liberation of sorts, a chance to begin again. There is a Taoist verse to this effect: "My barn having burned, I can now see the moon." A rebirth is always on the other side of death or chaos.

For me, places and their associations are so powerful that they haunt my dreams. I return to rooms of my past where I can no longer walk--whether it is a college dorm, my grandparents' Spanish-style house, or my childhood home in Akron, Ohio where I have visited countless times in my sleep. Place is a powerful emotion for me--I am not bagless in this world and I am happy when I am settled in and nested. Now that I have children, that is even more important to me: to tend the roots I've been given and let us flourish from there.

I once dreamt, a long time ago, after we'd moved in with my grandmother at her farm, of my grandfather who had just died. He returned to me in the dream and said "Don't sell the farm!" Several years before that, when I wrote letters back and forth to my grandmother, just itching for summer when we would visit her at "the farm" and all of its welcoming places, I had another dream. I even wrote my grandmother about it in my thin penciled scrawl. I dreamt that I had taken a big yellow school bus all the way to New Hampshire. It stopped in front of their large white connected farmhouse and I got off, eager to see my grandmother and grandfather. I knocked on the red front door and she answered: "WHAT are you doing here? WHO are you? GO AWAY!" At the time I did not realize it but that dream was somewhat prophetic. Ten or more years later, after my parents divorce, we were living at the farm. My grandmother had developed Alzheimer's and she often posed the very same questions to us: "What are you doing here?" And for the first time in my life, I road a large yellow bus to the Jaffrey schools.

A place is about people but it is also about hopes and dreams and good intentions. We can move on from places that we love but we never really leave them behind. They are always with us, a part of who we are and all that we have met, to paraphrase poet Lord Alfred Tennyson. Perhaps Memory is the best place of all: our rooms of Memory are clean and organized, full of well-edited happier times, choice moments that we can relive again and again. To walk away from them would be the hardest thing, placing everything in a box or a book to reopen on occasion. Some people never do.

And what of the place you've left? Does it remember? In OUT OF AFRICA, Isak Dinesen (the pen name of Baroness Karen Blixen), wrote from Denmark, remembering her adopted country, a place to which she never returned:

"If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?"

This is the most beautiful and plaintive, even mournful, passage I have read about someone recalling a place of memory. It is also about being remembered, too, in the grand scheme of things. And eventually we are all just prairie dust. The land makes gradual changes on its own or because of our development. Even our buildings will crumble into the land. If all of humankind is gone, the land will reclaim itself. While we know this to be true, then while we are here on this earth, what makes our places so important?

Sunday, May 1, 2005

Everything in Moderation

A New Hampshire Brick Ender-Our House

It is May Day and seventeen years ago to the date--and the day of the week, Sunday--I moved myself and belongings from my fifth floor walkup in a Victorian house museum in downtown Boston to my mother's home in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. All night long I had been hauling boxes of books and assorted pieces of furniture down the five flights of stairs, only to have to climb up them again. A few friends had come, briefly, in the evening before to help move some items but I was proud and didn't beg and plead--I also probably wasn't that organized until the wee hours of early morning. I can't recall.

In those days I had more books than anything else. I slept on a comfortable futon bought at a hippy shop in a hippy town in Vermont. I had two white wicker Victorian porch chairs, my first antique purchases (in a group shop in New Hampshire), and some odd bits of thrown-together practical furniture I had purchased at Conran's in Boston (sadly, the store has been gone for many years). I had a desk and chair from my mother's barn, Mission style, that I had repainted from a dull flat white to an oil-based pink. Altogether it made an impressive showing grouped together for a brief time that May Day morning in the dark front entry hall of the museum. My mother, then-stepfather, and future husband (but not for another eight years) met me at the front door exactly at 6am (or was it 5?). Temple went upstairs and rolled up and taped the futon, the only thing I was unable to haul down myself, and we loaded an empty van and a station wagon and we were off, just as the floodgates of people were walking down Beacon Street on the annual "Walk for Hunger". The morning had dawned clear and cool with the promise of a glorious day.

The whole thing wouldn't have been so odd, except that I was 7 and a half months pregnant and was leaving a great job--and part-time graduate school--for an uncertain amount of time to have and raise my child. There were many unknowns ahead of me but I knew I was on a lifetime journey that was just beginning. I was 25, full of knowledge and self-determinism, and full of conviction that everything would be ok. I was also in the best shape of my life (there is something to be said about giving house museum tours in a fifth floor walk up). A year later, I would return to that museum with my 13 month old daughter to "museum sit" for the new tour guide and coordinate a photo shoot (with two people who have since become great friends) on my first published article (in the January 1990 issue of VICTORIA Magazine on life as a resident at Gibson House). Since that time, so long ago now, all of my concerns about the future have passed and I have been plodding along, as most of us do, sometimes with a plan and sometimes without. And along the way something extraordinary has happened: I am living the life I had always imagined, my daughter is becoming a young woman, and we are pleasantly surrounded by three men: my husband and our two young sons. And here I am writing a book about pantries which got its start in a Victorian house museum with an entire preserved and orderly nest of them.

Gibson House provided my first "real" solo apartment for a year and a half. I had four rooms on the fifth floor, all originally servant bedrooms, and I paid the nonprofit society that ran the place $250 a month for the privilege of living there (not bad rent at the time in Boston, especially for a Back Bay address that was steps from the Public Garden). I also gave tours several days a week, more in summer. It was the ideal scenario as I went to graduate school. My kitchenette was built into a small linen closet that overlooked the ventilator shaft that pierced four floors of the house for light and air. Off the hall was a roomy bathroom, complete with claw foot tub, and several large units of cupboards and drawers were built into the hallway. The woodwork was stained a dark Victorian oil-based varnish that hadn't changed in over 125 years. I didn't possibly have enough to fill all of the storage areas that I did have, as one bedroom had a large built-in storage unit, also. My clothes had never been so organized. I had two rooms I really didn't even use, except to store a few odd things. The servants would have been surrounded by seasonal clothing and linen storage, and were cold in winter and hot in summer as I was. In retrospect, I should have had a roommate to pay me to live there (as that was extraordinarily cheap rent, even for one) but I enjoyed my space and solitude. A couple lived on the fourth floor, although I rarely saw them, and I had friends all over the city to visit.

Now I live in an almost 10,000 square foot Federal house (not including barn storage) and it is bursting with our collections and family "stuff". It is its own museum, of two families coming together and two sets of four generations plus of things: letters, books, china patterns, silver, memorabilia, the chaff of life. I often get wistful for my apartments of the past when I was forced to keep things simple--by budget or design. There are days I am my own worst enemy with the amount of things we must go through or put away (my office has been torn up for months as I try to file papers, etc.).

I write this today because I realize, since starting this blog, that I haven't been back to Curves to workout and I've done little else with my computer time. This is partly because my children have been on spring vacation and the week before that my schedule was disrupted by several glitches. I realize how I crave aerobic exercise and I was beginning to get a regular infusion of it.

So back we go again tomorrow. Like anything else, a lifestyle change takes time to ingratiate itself into our psyche. It is all too easy for me to start a writing routine, like a blog, or several hours each day at the computer or in my office just writing (and soon I will have to be even more judicious about that). It is even harder for me to integrate regular exercise. Unlike my days in Boston where walking two miles or more was standard, not to mention the ups and downs of my fifth floor Victorian eyrie, living in the country requires a car. Unless doing hard physical labor on a farm, we have to make time to exercise and that takes time to do and think about. Before I would throw upon the large Italianate double doors of my museum home and walk out of them, knowing my feet would carry me to whatever my destination.

We are too dependent on our machines. A friend just returned from seven weeks away from her computer and television and did not miss either of them. I would miss my computer more than my TV and I would not miss my phone at all because I hardly use it. The computer through e-mail, the internet, and now this blog, has created a kind of universe I could not replicate in any of the places I have lived and yet, because of it, I can duplicate the same universe wherever I go. Big Brother must be here...I just hadn't noticed.

You are probably wondering, why pantries? To me they represent a safe haven, a secure and ample larder in a hectic world, a small and cozy space, neatly ordered, ready for anything. Perhaps I am just agoraphobic or coming out of several difficult years and no longer want to open the door on the outer world but step within the interior world of domestic spaces. I can't be certain. But I do know that the pantry is a place I enjoy being in or thinking about and finding that others, throughout our domestic and literary histories, do too.