Thursday, May 31, 2007

Love Stories

A beautiful thing happened. I was in Cape Ann Coffee, my favorite little coffee shop, having coffee and proofreading something. A woman came in to get coffee and smiled at me. It was one of those smiles that says, do you remember me? no, you probably don’t...

When she sat at a nearby table I said hello and we started talking. She was older than I am and had that tired look of someone who has gone through a lot. She said, "I’m so glad I ran into you. I’ve been wanting to tell you how much I love your book. Thank you for giving it to me." Then I remembered her. She’s a friend of a friend who had just lost her husband at the time we met. They had been married for close to fifty years when and he had died after a long, difficult illness. She had cared for him every minute of it. Feeling sorry and helpless as one always does in such circumstances, I did the only thing I could. I gave her a copy of My Last Romance and other passions which had just come off the press.

"I love that books," she told me. "It’s so rich but the thing I love about it is that so many of the people in it are older. It’s so refreshing to read about older people who really love each other. My husband and I were like that. I read your stories and I think about how it was for us. I really appreciate that."

She appreciates that? How could I begin to say how much I appreciate what she just said? What on earth could be a greater gift? We talked for a little while, she told me she especially loved Flynnie in "Flynnie and Babe". It’s so amazing the stories that people chose to love.

On Sunday my friend Lynn Loscutoff came to Cruiseport and she bought a copy of my book. Later she called me and said she loved it — that the stories of older people as lovers just thrilled her and made her think of how much she still loves her husband even after all these many years. How can you get better reviews than those?

And I thought a lot about older lovers I have known and two wonderful stories stand out in my mind. Both concern aunts and uncles — my father’s brother Tom and his sister Helen.

Uncle Tommy married Aunt Mary Rita late in life. She was over fifty and they have been together for over 30 years now. They are the dearest couple. They give me hope. Now he is stooped over and grey and she is in a wheelchair but they are still in love. One time a few years ago when I was visiting them Uncle Tommy said to me, "You should taste the delicious tomato relish your Aunt Mary Rita made this summer." And Aunt Mary Rita replied, "I couldn’t have done it without the beautiful tomatoes your Uncle Tommy grew."

That’s love.

But the sweetest story is about Aunt Helen and Uncle Gus. Aunt Helen was always a beautiful woman and Uncle Gus was a big, strong, strapping guy who ran a beer distributorship and carried barrels of beer around on his shoulders. After 60+ years of marriage Aunt Helen was dying of cancer when I visited her in the hospital. She was a tiny, shriveled up little woman whose poor little body was just worn out. Her hair was gone from chemo and her limbs were so frail and shriveled they couldn’t even find veins anymore. Uncle Gus sat in her room every minute. As I was leaving I kissed her goodbye and Uncle Gus walked me out to the hall. He gave me a kiss and said he knew it wouldn’t be long now. He turned back to the room and looked at her and sighed and said, "Doesn’t she have the most beautiful eyes you’ve ever seen?"

Her eyes were beautiful —especially when she looked at him.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Thank You All!

The Celebrate Gloucester event this past weekend has come and gone and I spent the better part of Memorial Day trying to recover. I’m the first to admit that I am a bit of a hermit and spending two days in public chatting and being personable is a strain. I’m not used to being friendly for that long.

But it was a wonderful event and I met some great people. First of all I am constantly amazed by how many authors there are in this area! I met three new ones at Cruiseport and it was a total pleasure.

Ron Gilson spent most of his life on the waterfront and has now written a book about that life. It is an impressive volume titled An Island No More and is filled with photographs from his life working in the fish business.

Chester Brigham, another man who spent his life on the waterfront, has written Gloucester’s Bargain with the Sea, a comprehensive study of the culture that shaped the city of Gloucester including the men who fished the sea and the artists who painted it.

Peter Prybot is well known to most of us in Gloucester for his newspaper columns. He is a popular lobsterman and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. His book Lobstering off Cape Ann is filled with lobster stories, fishing facts and also some genuinely great photographs taken by Peter himself. As an aside, I want to say that Peter has the most impressive hands I’ve seen in a very long time. If there is any doubt of what he does for a living all you have to do is look at his hands.

In addition to those authors we were joined by Cynthia Neal from New York who has written a charming young adult book about a girl from Ireland, The Irish Dresser. And my dear friend Lynn Loscutoff spent some time with us on Sunday selling her great art books. And former police woman Eileen Ford was there with her book of essays, Pumpkin and Me.

It was a great way to spend the day. Joe Orlando and Mark and I shared a table and we all sold a few books. Unfortunately my novel, The Old Mermaid’s Tale wasn’t ready in time but I sold more copies of My Last Romance and other passions than I ever have at such an event and I’m pleased to say I’ve already received a couple of phone calls from readers who wanted to talk about it. Lynn called last night and said, “Reading your book I realize there is so much about you that I don’t know!”

Ron Gilson, Chet Brigham and Peter Prybot will be adding their names to the list of GloucesterWrites authors in the near future. I look forward to having them on there.

It was a delightful experience in other ways too. Of course, as any author can tell you, having people come up to you and talk about your writing is always exciting. Several people mentioned that they are regular readers of this blog and quite a few wanted to talk about my participation on a local, notorious internet message board. That was good for me because I take a lot of criticism on that board — there is a small but committed cadre there committed to whining and complaining and against anything positive or supportive of the arts and the city. So it was good for me to hear people say, “I love the way you stand up to those people. I wish I had your nerve.” I was also told the identity of two of the nastiest of the posters — not that those names mean anything to me but it goes to prove that in a small city like Gloucester, you can’t get away with too much.

So summer has started, books are selling, and Cruiseport Gloucester is beautiful. I want to mention the monumental efforts of Peter van Ness, Sara Young, and Jeff Worthley in making this such an outstanding event. Thank you for your energy and dedication.

One final note, our dear friend Ray who often posts here lost his father this past week. He had been ill for many years but I remember him with great fondness. So my heart goes out to dear Ray. Please join me in wishing him comfort during this difficult time.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Celebrate Gloucester at Cruiseport Gloucester

Some people just have big ideas. And some people have big ideas and the money to facilitate them, that is the advantage that Cruiseport Gloucester has benefitted from. For years people here have been trying to think of new ways to attract business to the area and one investor with the money to spend has come up with an amazing idea, Cruiseport Gloucester.

The Cruiseport is an impressive building that is being polished up this week to open this weekend. It will serve as a welcoming center for cruise hips such as the Rotterdam that have begun visiting our harbor in the summer time. The Cruiseport will have a restaurant, a function hall, rest rooms and many other amenities so that those coming into port on these huge cruise ships can take a break, find out about our city and plan their day.

This weekend there is a big celebration planned to launch Cruiseport. They are calling it “Celebrate Gloucester” and it is a multi-arts event featuring artists and artisans, performers, music, and (ta-DA!) a collection of local authors. I am very happy about this because it is the first arts festival held here that I am aware of that plans to include authors in the festivities.

Throughout the weekend the authors will be available in the upstairs ballroom to sell their books, meet and greet, sign books, read, and participate in discussions about writing. Among those scheduled are Peter Prybot, author of a number of books including Lobstering Off Cape Ann; Ronald Gilson, author of An Island No More; Joe Orlando, Gloucester’s own John Grisham, a local maritime attorney who has written two successful legal thrillers about the challenges faced by Gloucester fishermen, The Fisherman’s Son and The Bastard’s Weapon. Mark will also be there with F/V Black Sheep.

And so will I! Originally I had hoped to introduce The Old Mermaid’s Tale at this event but the books aren’t ready yet. Hopefully I will have one copy to show and maybe take orders for. I will have My Last Romance and other passions available as well as Lila Monell’s book of poetry, Split-Image Focus, and Level Best Books’ latest collection Seasmoke, in which I have a short story.

This is all very exciting even if I don’t have my book to present. I am sad about that because it would get a lot of publicity but I was late getting it off to press so I can’t blame anyone but myself.

As I have been working on the text for the NSAA’s book The Past & The Present: Time and Space Cannot Separate Them I realize what a rich, long, remarkable history this little island has where the arts are concerned. I already knew that but it is just more incredible all the time. So it makes me feel wonderful to know that the tradition of Gloucester celebrating the arts is continuing and that I can be a part of it.

I was watching an interview last night with writer Margaret Atwood and she was talking about the novelist as a born romantic. As she said, “Romantics write novels, non-romantics write reports.” I love what she has to say because she is so accomplished at creating her own worlds and re-arranging reality in her stories. I love that she can do that. It made me realize that it is a very good thing to be able to live in the world as a writer or an artist and to see the world with new eyes day after day after day. And to live in a town where you have the companionship of your fellows is even better.

Celebrate Gloucester this weekend at the Cruiseport. We are blessed.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Spring Training

No this isn’t about baseball. I don’t know anything about baseball. I know that Joe, my niece Emily’s darling husband, plays for the Dodgers — #97, Relief Pitcher, ERA: 3.54. However what all of that means, I have no idea. That's him at left --- he's so cute I couldn't resist. Nope, around here spring training means, it’s spring, we go outside more and wear fewer clothes. OH MY GOD I LOOK LIKE %$#@! Then the panic starts.

I’m not a particularly vain person and have never cared much whether I am in “fashion” (I know about as much about that as I do about baseball), have a flattering haircut, or even if my shoes match. But there is the whole issue of how I feel and this last winter was rough. I’ve been horribly stiff and sore from spending too much time bent over the computer indulging in the two things I do actually care about — writing and making a living.

So, anyway, I went out to dinner with a few girlfriends recently and we discussed this whole thing and decided to try to do the no-carb thing for awhile. Jane has been doing it for a long time and she looks fantastic. The rest of us are neophytes.

Actually when the Atkins Diet was popular a few years back I did it for awhile and lost a fair amount of weight. Problem was people kept telling me I was in outer space half the time. Well, I kind of was but so what? How can you tell? Now I know that that is one of the peculiar side effects of losing weight (why did it take me this long to know this???) Some people try to sabotage you. They see you losing weight and some ancient primitive gizmo in their brain screams “now she’ll get the caveman that I want!” and so they tell you that your skin is getting saggy or you’re crabby all the time or they’re worried about you because you haven’t been yourself. It is the Female Passive-Aggressive Sabotage Gambit. It usually works.

So the sun has finally come out around here and the beaches are calling and I, as usual, have decided I need to do at least a few things to get healthy. So it’s back to lo-carb with a couple of differences. The last time I really took no-carb seriously. I literally ate no-carbs. So this time I am eating more veggies — salads, cauliflower, my favorite brussels sprouts with a little mustard. And also I have the support of three girlfriends who are doing the same thing and who will back me up if the saboteurs show up.

In a way it’s kind of fun. Jane, who has been doing this for years, has been a godsend. She has such good ideas. I’m learning yummy new ways to eat from her. By and large salads topped with steak tips, grilled chicken, scallops or swordfish are the mainstay of my diet but I’m finding other treats too. Right now I’m in love with raw sliced mushrooms dipped in bleu cheese dressing for a snack. I cook up a huge pot of stewed rhubarb with some strawberries added and sweeten it with Splenda for a sweet treat. I’m crazy about rhubarb. Plus it is — ahem — cleansing.

The other thing I am discovering is that in the years since I did this before, restaurants have gotten used to their no/lo-carb customers and don’t flinch when you say “I’ll take the shredded beef burrito with green chilies and sour cream, hold the flour tortilla.”

So, who knows? I’m not setting any goals except staying on the path. We’ll see what happens. Maybe it will improve my ERA — whatever the heck that is.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Women Talking About Men

One of the things that people who read my fiction often tell me is that they are struck by the fact that the men in my stories are so likeable. They might be flawed and even dysfunctional but, for the most part, they are, at least at heart, nice guys — nice guys who just have issues. I always think who doesn’t have issues?

Recently I’ve had three separate conversations with three separate women friends, all of us over fifty and all of us having been through more than a few romances/relationships/marriages/love affairs, etc. And all of us have very different views of men.

I’ve often said that I was fortunate in the male-appreciation department because I grew up with three really nice brothers. Of course, I hated them when I was a kid but I also always loved them and we had fun together too. Jack and I were born a year apart and were always close. He was a big, quiet, strong, sweet, opinionated, intelligent, funny, generous, extraordinarily decent man. When he died of cancer five years ago my world changed (another story for another day). I learned much from Jack — especially about honor and dignity — and I am always drawn to men who have a Jack-like personality. Wayne, who is three years younger, is also a big, strong, very funny guy. He is unbelievable talented and creative, kind and generous to a fault and a very loving guy. He has flawed judgement, especially when it comes to women, but I have never met anyone with a bigger heart. My mother and I used to say if you could put Jack and Wayne in a bag, shake them up and pour them back out again, you would have two perfect men.

Matt, my youngest brother, is darn-near perfect. He is very intelligent, funny, charming, a wonderful and loving father, and one of the most interesting people you could ever talk to. He can’t help it if he’s a Republican... What I learned from living a life with these three men — as well as a father who was ever-colorful and intelligent — is that there are really nice, good men in this world. And I’ve been lucky to meet other men like them.

So as I was talking with my three friends recently I was struck with how different their perceptions of men are. One is very angry and resentful and, though she talks about meeting men and dating men, her view of them is so negative that it effects everything. One has been disappointed a lot by men, mainly because she is extraordinarily intelligent, and she remains somewhat guarded about them, though certainly willing to try again. One is confused, which is sort of interesting. She seems to like men and has lots of male friends but has, what I consider, unrealistic expectations. This is all very interesting to watch. Maybe this is a cautionary tale — never get too close to a writer if you don’t want to be observed in intimate detail.

So, bearing all this in mind, I’ve been trying to figure out my own situation and I realize that I am happiest when there is a man in my life who is pleasant and fun and interesting but who isn’t interested in being too close. I need a LOT of alone time and have always felt suffocated by men who are too needing of my time and attention.

This is a strange thing to be thinking about at this place in my life but fascinating, too. We live in a world of unrealistic expectations and no more so than in the area of human relations. I’ve long believed that we, all of us, who wish to be genuinely creative, have to take back our minds from the media and from all the external programming that feeds us stereotypical images constantly, and learn to think. Nowhere is this more important than in human relations. The truth is we are all good and we are all flawed and we all can find the best in one another if we pay attention.

I’ll probably change my mind tomorrow.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

May-be I’ll Go Back To Bed

I find May a difficult month. Thank heavens for the flowering trees and wisteria, they’re the only reason I like this month. The problem with May is it is inconsistent in terms of weather when I’m not quite ready for summer but sick of winter and it’s also a very busy month. Too busy.

For some reason when May comes everyone comes out of their winter hibernation mode and want to make up for lost time and I just can’t keep up. Plus it is the opening of the art association and that takes up an unbelievable amount of time. I feel like I am constantly falling behind. Yesterday I spent most of the day at the art association in meetings about publicity, advertising, promotion — all those things that are so crucial to the success of the summer but which there is not enough time or money for. So we have to be creative. An art association being creative — imagine that.

But it is also an exciting year for NSAA. There are three major exhibitions on the schedule — something I can’t ever remember happening in one year. There is an exhibition of the New England Sculpture Society this summer and the Past-Present exhibition in the fall. Right now, however, is the opening of the American Watercolor Society’s Traveling Exhibition. I got to see it yesterday and, let me tell you, these are not your grandmother’s watercolors!

The Gold Medal Winner is a stunning piece (left) called Venetian Gold by Paula Fiebich which will take your breath away. Many of the other pieces are bold, brilliant, powerful. This is a style of watercolor that takes your breath away — you have to get up close to the paintings to see how it was done.

I studied watercolor with Betty Lou Schlemm, A.W.S., D.F. She is one of the strongest watercolorists I have ever met and I loved taking class with her. It was just the wrong medium for me. But I learned so much from her, most especially how to see. How to look and observe.

Learning to look and to observe what you see is a skill that every artist, and most other folks, too, would do well to cultivate. There are two significant aspects to learning see and observe. One is that it makes you a better painter/writer/sculptor or whatever. But also it is a respectful way to live your life. Learning to observe is as close to a spiritual discipline as I can think of. As you pay attention and learn to accurately see and record, you pay homage and give dignity to the things you are giving your attention to.

Someone once said that if you want people to think you are a fascinating conversationalist, learn to listen. I’ve seen the truth of that many, many times. There have been so many times when I’ve spent time with a person and just let them do the talking, only asking questions here and there to draw them out even more. Later I have been told by that person how very, very much they enjoyed our conversation and how interesting I am. When I said barely more than a sentence.

Well, I’m wandering here but May is a good month for wandering thoughts. I need to get to work — there’s a lot to do. So, if you are in the area, go to the North Shore Arts Association and take in the AWS exhibition. Spend some time enjoying the beautiful trees. And look. Look, see, observe. It is May — something good is happening.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

It’s Gone!!!!

In 12 Step programs there is an expression I love. It goes, “Anything I ever let go of had claw marks on it.” That is a thing I understand too, too well.

I don’t even remember how long ago I started writing The Old Mermaid’s Tale. I was living here in New England but I’ve been here for 20 years so that’s not much help. After the first draft I put it in a drawer for literally years. I even forgot about it at times — well, not really but I pretended that I did. Then a few years back I took it out of the drawer and re-read it and fell back in love with Baptiste, the main male character. But I realized the book was too light — it was just the story of Clair and Baptiste without all the background of Great Lakes storms and shipwrecks, the Breton folklore, and the stories of the Hindu apsaras, all the things that colored the book but were left out.

So I sat down to write again and I wrote for over a year. New characters came to me, wonderful, delicious characters from the years I spent working in a diner in Erie, PA or tending bar — or just hanging out in bars. I had a love affair with a man who had lost a leg in Vietnam and that influenced the book. I met a Native American healer who used storytelling as part of his healing rituals and that became useful. I moved to Gloucester and spent hours and hours sitting on the fish pier watching the men mend their nets while they talked about everything that was going on in the town or on the waterfront. I was invited to the boat launching party given by a Sicilian family that was so proud of their new boat. Someone I knew drowned at sea.

In one of the most amazing and mysterious things that has ever happened to me, a book showed up — an old, tattered, water-damaged book and when I opened it it was filled with Breton sea legends and detailed drawings and descriptions of the life of the fishermen of the Côte du Norde.

If ever a book wanted to be written, it was The Old Mermaid’s Tale.
Then, when the book was finished people read it and said wonderful things. Three times agents signed it and were filled with lavish praise. But no publisher wanted it — it would be a hard sell, I was told. People aren’t interested in folklore and sea legends and shipwrecks and such stuff.

Then I helped Mark publish his book. I started my own little publishing company and published Lila’s book and then my book of short stories. Everything went well but still The Old Mermaid’s Tale languished. Maybe I’ll try one more agent, I told friends. Maybe times have changed.
And then I realized this book had become an obsession. I couldn’t start new projects because of it. My second novel, Each Angel Burns, was shaping up and I needed to give it my full attention. I couldn’t keep writing and re-writing The Old Mermaid’s Tale and making it “more better”.

So I decided to publish it through my own press. Lots of great writers have done that. Peter Matthiessen, my ultimate writer did that! So,okay, I’m going to do this. There went another year.
Finally, I decided I had to let go and yesterday I did it. I put my baby on the bus and shipped it off to school — I sent my book to press.

So, June 1st The Old Mermaid’s Tale will be available through Amazon, B&N, my own web sites and wherever else I can get them to sell it. It has been a long, fascinating trip but I need to get on with my writing. I’m still in love with Baptiste. I hope you will be too. Please look for it. Please buy it. Please enjoy it.

Thanks for reading

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Ron Morin’s “The Chimney”

In past blog entries I have asked “where do stories come from?” and the answer remains elusive. The come from “out there” or from “in here”. The miracle is that the come at all. For Gloucester playwright Ron Morin it was a trip to Auschwitz that triggered his play “The Chimney”. As he and his wife Lisa (she is Jewish, he is a French-Canadian raised Catholic) toured Auschwitz he was moved by starvation chambers that they saw. He described them as being shaped like a chimney in which two people would be forced to stand, face to face, without room to move, and then sealed in and left to starve to death. I cannot imagine a more horrible fate — to not only die in such a grotesque way but to be forced to watch another person die that way.

I have often wondered what happens in the psyche of a human being that they can do such disgraceful, unconscionable things to their fellows. I know that part of the answer to that is that they have to convince themselves that those they are torturing are not their fellows, that they are lesser forms of life. But even then I don’t understand the need to cause suffering. Especially suffering that is a travesty of all that we call human.

In Morin’s play there are a brother and a sister both tormented by the murder of their mother by Nazis. They have lived very different lives and now, after forty years are about to be reunited. From what Ron has told me about the play it sounds as though the brother and sister are in a psychological torture chamber not unlike the chimney — bound together with no means of escape in a prison that limits their ability to move.

The play is about to be produced for the first time by the very wonderful Nan Webber and her dynamic theater group Theatre in the Pines. I am a great fan of Nan and her endless, endless, endless commitment to bringing exceptional theater to the people of this area. And I can only imagine how exciting it must be for Ron to see his play coming alive under the direction of someone as gifted as Miss Webber.

In an interview in Jewish Journal, Ron says this: “Does suffering have meaning? Is there such a thing as redemption? Is there such a thing as forgiveness? Or are there acts of cruelty so hideous, so vile that they can never be atoned for?” The play addresses these thought-provoking issues.

These are good questions and timely questions in a world in which atrocities continue day after day after day. These are things I write about too. One thing I know is that suffering is a human obsession that is ubiquitous. Some of us torture others — some of us are content to torture ourselves and we are very good at that too. And what about redemption? What is redemption? This is, of course, central to my novel The Old Mermaid’s Tale. Can one person save another? Can love redeem suffering and restore loss?

And what about the question of acts so vile that they can never be atoned for? On a human level I do believe that there are things that can never be forgotten — but on the divine level I don’t know. That is something I’ve had to turn over to God.

So on May 25, 26, and 27, Theatre in the Pines will present Ron Morin’s “The Chimney” at the Rockport Art Association on Main Street in Rockport. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased in advance at Toad Hall Bookstore and at Ron Morin’s web site. Please plan on attending — and let’s talk afterwards.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Night Noise

With the recent beautiful weather I’ve opened all the windows to air out the house. After a long, cold winter that is most welcome. And after a couple days of having the windows open I realize something — one of the reasons winter seems so isolating is because I don’t hear the sounds of my neighborhood in winter.

I’m lucky in that I live in an in-town neighborhood and know a lot of my neighbors — and like them. With the windows open I hear them coming and going, talking to one another, sweeping their sidewalks and tinkering on their cars. It is a warm, familiar sound that I cherish. I hear the sounds of kids on skateboards or bouncing basketballs in a neighbor’s driveway. Even when I don’t know what it is they are saying I feel connected. I feel a part of their lives.

But it is the noises at night that I most love — the sounds that go unnoticed during the day.

Last night I was cleaning up the kitchen when I noticed for the first time in a very long time the sound of the Boston-Rockport train as it pulled out of the Gloucester station just a few blocks up the hill. I love the sounds of trains in the night. Last summer when my sister Lisa was visiting she commented on how much she loved hearing the train at night, too. Where she lives in northern Pennsylvania she can’t hear one.

When I was a kid there was a train that came through our town every night a little after 2 in the morning. For years I woke up a few minutes before that train arrived and lay in bed listening to it. There was the clang-clang-clang of bells and clatter of wheels on the tracks and sometimes there was a whistle or just the chugging of forward motion. I loved it. I used to lie in bed and imagine I was a passenger on a train wearing a hat and going somewhere wonderful. My grandmother sometimes took me on the train up to Erie to visit my godparents. It was wonderful.

So last night when I heard the train I remembered all those things and I was glad there are still trains to grace the night with their sounds. The Boston-Rockport passes through Gloucester at about quarter past the hour, every hour from 7 in the evening to 1 in the morning. It is busier during the day but I rarely hear it then. So I will have to remember to be quiet at quarter past the hour and listen for that evocative sound.

I woke around 4 in the morning and could hear the foghorn out off of Eastern Point Lighthouse. That is another of those wonderful, imagination-triggering sounds. Mark calls that foghorn the “groaner”. That’s a good name for it.

Sometimes I hear the low horn of a boat coming into the harbor and all the clinking and clanking of the machinery on board swaying in the waves and wind. Around 4:30 I hear the sound of a car and then the dull “thunk” when the Boston Globe is delivered.

So window-open weather is here and all those beloved and familiar sounds are there. And once again I feel a part of my neighborhood.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Cape Ann Light

I am hard at work on the text for the North Shore Arts Association’s The Past & The Present exhibition book and I’ve come across an interesting dilemma. In the latter part of the 19th century Cape Ann became a haven for artists and was one of the most dynamic and creative art colonies in America. It all began with Fitz Henry Lane in the early 1800's and includes distinguished artists such as Cecilia Beaux, Frederick Mulhaupt, Aldro Hibbard, Bernsteing & Meyerowitz, Eric Hudson, the Beal brothers, John Sloan and Sturat Davis.

The focus of the exhibition is the brotherhood of artists that transcends time and distance and this has given rise to a question on my part did so many artists come here because of the natural beauty of Cape Ann or did they come here because so many others came here? One of the things I know is that artists of all discipline need the support and encouragement of their fellow artists and when a group of artists find a place to work in there is a considerable draw to others.

Of course Cape Ann itself is so beautiful that those first painters who came here were sufficiently impressed that they wanted to stay. There is the stunning landscape and the working harbors but even more than those things there is the quality of light which is just inescapable. There are evenings when the light is so lusciously thick and lustrous that it seems to become an entity unto itself — as though you could touch it. When it is like that it seems that everything it touches becomes fascinating.

Last winter I met Mark out at Rocky Neck to take some photographs of him aboard his boat, Black Sheep. It was the dead of winter and the sun went down by 4 but we met a little after 3 and had to work fast in order to get the images I needed while the light was low and at the right angle to make everything lush and gorgeous. I dug those photos out as I worked on the article and, looking at them, I knew that it was the light that brought artists here. They stayed because of each other. And here, after all these generations, we still come here because of the light and stay because of each other.

I was going to write more but decided I want to add a few photos of Cape Ann light and will save the rest of this discussion for another time.

Thanks for reading..................

Monday, May 07, 2007

Marblehead Tales

I got an email from a friend asking for some information about Marblehead where I lived for seven years. It was fun to write back to him because it forced me to think about Marblehead and remember some things I had nearly forgotten about.

Marblehead is almost as old as Gloucester and, according to local legend, it was a very strange place in its early days. The people there spoke a language that was quite a different version of English than that heard elsewhere and visitors to the town had difficulty understanding them. That is, if they could get them to talk to them because early Marbleheaders were also a suspicious lot and didn’t take well to strangers. They were known to assault them in the street, throwing rocks and mud and spitting at them. Kind of the same today...

That was a joke but Marbleheaders still have a reputation for being stand-off-ish. I made some really good friends while I lived there but was aware of an uppitiness among a good many folks too. Which is part of why I wanted to move to Gloucester.

But there are some interesting mysteries in Marblehead. One is that there was a tavern on a cliff across from the Old Burying Grown that was a hangout for smugglers. The story was that there were tunnels in the cliff down to the sea where smugglers could unload their goods and then disperse them through the tavern. Actually, it all sounds a lot like the plot of Daphne DuMaurier’s Jamaica Inn, but that’s fine too. I have nothing against literature informing life and vice versa.

There was also a lot of speculation about Baker’s Island. Baker’s Island is an interesting place filled with summer cottages and a beautiful lighthouse. There is no running water on the island and limited electricity but people who go there to stay in the cottages seem to like it that way. The stories all centered around ghosts who were supposed to inhabit the cottages and have quite a fine time partying them and carrying on in very naughty ways. Women visitors to the island supposed reported feeling impertinent fondlings and other such naughty bits. I’m not sure if they were bragging or complaining when they reported such.

But there was a young woman who lived there in the lighthouse keepers cottage for a few years and she wrote a book about it. She kept a couple of large dogs and it was her responsibility to make regular rounds of the cottages and check on them. She claimed that her dogs would not enter certain cottages. She wrote a rather provocative little booklet about the island and its undocumented visitors. I wonder if I still have that.

Then there is Castle Rock which is huge rock out on Marblehead Neck. I never really did know exactly what it was known for though I climbed up on it many times. I think I have a photograph of everyone who visited me while I lived in Marblehead standing on or near Castle Rock. But the real attraction there was the flume of churn that was beneath it. This was a sort of underground cavern that filled in as the tide came in with such ferocity that it created a rumbling, thunderous sound and, sometimes, at very high tides, water would spout up and spray over the rocks. It was always quite exciting when that happened — especially if the person who got soaked wasn’t expecting it.

Then, of course, there are the stories about secret rooms and the castle of Eric the Red, but I’ll save those for another day. I’ll have to spend more time thinking about those stories. You’ll like them.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Rothko's Doors to "There"

Recently I was visiting a friend who showed me a painting by American abstract impressionist Mark Rothko that he had acquired. It was one of Rothko’s Gloucester painting done when he summered here between 1932 and 1945. It is a lovely watercolor that borders on the abstract but yet still has enough elements of representationalism in it that you can identify it as being of Gloucester.

I love Rothko’s work and it reminded me of time spent at the Rothko Chapel in Houston where I often went when I needed some space and some peace and some time away from Houston.

The chapel is a unique and stunning space — stunning for its simplicity as well as its majesty. There are 16 paintings by Rothko — the huge panels of color he was known for later in his life. Each is done in dark tones, at first appearing black but then, as you spend time looking at them you see the blues and the burgundies, the grays and the greens. All dark and bewitching and promising worlds within them that one can only access by letting go of everything and just moving into that space.

The chapel itself has a stone floor, rough-hewn wooden benches, iron candelabrum with fat candles in it and light from skylights that had to be modified some years back to preserve the paintings. The Houston sun is formidable.

I once attended an Amnesty International fund-raiser there. I remember the night because it was the only time I’ve ever met a United States President. I got to shake hands with President Jimmy Carter. It came as sort of a surprise. I was facing the center of the room listening to whoever was talking and my date, a very tall guy named Dave something, whispered, “Quick, turn around.” I did and there was President Carter right behind us. He shook our hands and said, “Thanks for coming” and moved on. Wow.

The Whirling Dervishes from Istanbul performed that night and were fascinating. I was already in love with Middle Eastern music at that time because I was studying bellydance. Watching them move as they did, chanting and whirling and moving in a dance of faith and mysticism was mesmerizing. It was one of those moments when you transcend your earthly complaints and enter into that space of otherness when you realize that what we call here-and-now is just our own vanity. There is so much more.

And that’s how I remember Rothko’s paintings, too, as being an invitation to that other place. But, of course, that is what art is all about anyway, creating doors to “there”. “There” as opposed to “here”.

I’ve been thinking a lot about mysticism because of the writing I am doing right now anyway. There seems to be a lot of books lately pompously proclaiming that there is no God and religion is a sham to manipulate and control people. Some religions are, that is true. When the minister or preacher or priest or whatever becomes more important than the message then it is time to run like hell. But what I know about art and what I know about practices like dance and writing and music and other invitations to the mystic is that there is a place beyond the commonplace and in that place there is God.

So it was a happy thing to see my friend’s Rothko and to be reminded of these things. It is helpful to my writing and also to my soul which has been restless lately. But today I am remembering those hours spent in the Rothko Chapel and those 16 doors into “There”.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Men At Work

Throughout most of this winter nobody who lives in this neighborhood has needed a clock to tell them when it is 7:00am. Promptly at 7:00am the sounds of large machinery being started up has echoed through the blocks in the area surrounding Washington Street. From the statue of Joan of Arc up to Turtle Alley Chocolates, Washington Street is an obstacle course of mounds of dirt, stones and other stuff, huge, gigantic yellow backhoes, diggers and shovels of various sorts, and lots of men digging and moving and hauling and .... well, all that stuff that working men do.

I don’t know what they are doing. Something about the sewers. I try not to think too much about what goes on under the ground. It makes me nervous. Philosopher Sam Keen once said that a truly moral person, when he pours a glass of water, always thinks, “Where did this water come from and where will it go when I pour it down the drain?” I’ve thought about that — a little.

The construction on Washington Street has certainly cut down on traffic on my street which is a one way street anyhow. Lately I’ve had a lot of clients needing to drop work off and I’ve told them it is easier to just stick it in the mail, you can’t get here from there.

But I confess that I like the sounds out there. There is something comforting and pleasant about hearing the sounds of work going on. There are beeps as one machine backs up, and loud, clanking thuds as the steam shovels scoop stuff up and drop it somewhere else. I don’t know what the heck is going on — I hope they do — but it is nice to know something is being done.

One of my favorite sounds in all the world is the hammers-on-wood sound of houses being built. I know that is a childhood thing from when it was my Dad who was the one up there in those frameworks that had that delicious fresh-cut wood smell and that thick, resounding thumping sound as the nails that held the frames together were hammered into place by the muscles of men. That’s a stirring thought, too. Here in Gloucester they talk about the old days of fishing which they refer to as the days of “wooden ships and iron men”. I love that expression. From the stories I have read about the men of that era, they were made of iron.

Yesterday when I left Mark was mowing the lawn. His shoulder hurts when he works for very long these days. He injured it playing baseball when he was in high school, compounded it when he had the bends while working as a commercial diver, and then really wrecked it along with his back, hauling lobster traps up from the bottom of the ocean when the hydro-slave was straining and something was slowing things down. Now, in his mid-fifties, that shoulder is a mess. That is the price those iron men pay.

I remember my father in his old age saying that every time it rained he felt every bundle of shingles he ever carried up a ladder on his back. I think about these things as I hear those men at work out on Washington Street. They have big equipment and more safety devices now but still, I watch them when they pick up a shovel or an ax or a pick and go down into the hole to do what the big machines cannot do. It is hard work despite the advances of technology.

So today I am working at my computer and men are working out in the street. I appreciate what they are doing out there and I think about them as they work and I work. And I am glad they are there to do what needs to be done to keep my world running.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Admiration for J. K. Rowling

The other night I watched A&E Biography’s episode about J.K. Rowling, the very, very, very successful author of the Harry Potter books. The truth is I have read all of the Harry Potter books published so far while knowing very little about their author. I sort of avoided it because I didn’t want to confuse the magic with the magician. I’ve loved those books and I didn’t want to find out she was a drip or a snot. Well, she’s not. In fact, she’s somebody I’d like to have for a friend. I can’t tell you how happy that makes me.

J. K. Rowling has made a heck of a lot of money and I can’t begrudge her one dime of it because anyone who could create such magic with her writing more than deserves to profit from it. She has enthralled millions and that is wonderful. I wish I felt the same way about Dan Brown, the other recent publishing phenomenon, but I don’t. He had a really good idea but he put it together so badly I cannot for the life of me understand why people buy his books. Well, that’s not true — I do know why. They are mesmerized by the concepts he built his book on. If only he wrote better.

Rowling and Brown both had great ideas. The big difference is Rowling crafted hers with some of the most fascinating and likeable characters you could ever hope to meet. I honestly don’t know how she does it. Every new character is just wonderful. My personal favorites in the pantheon are Fred and George Weasley, the twin tricksters who cannot find enough trouble to get into, but there are so many other great ones. I do have one grudge against Rowling. I’ll never forgive her for killing Sirius Black but otherwise she’s great.

What I liked the best in the program was when she talked about how Harry first came to her. She was on a train from Manchester to London and was sort of daydreaming (what author doesn’t spend hours at that?) when Harry Potter suddenly showed up in her mind and, as she put it, she literally saw him. She had neither paper nor pen at hand (a feeling I know well and can sympathize with) so she spent four hours letting Harry develop and unfold in her imagination. She spent five years writing and writing and writing. It took her a long time to find a publisher. Nothing about her story is unfamiliar to most writers.

In the program it showed her sitting on the floor amid piles and piles of paper — drawings, outlines, diagrams, sketches of her fantastical inventions. I loved that she worked that way because I can relate so fully to it. I’ve spent hours sketching and re-sketching street maps for The Old Mermaid’s Tale and building layouts for Each Angel Burns. Seeing Rowlings piles of papers covered with all sorts of diagrams that make sense only to an author in the midst of creating was very reassuring.

Plus she just comes across as a nice person with a pleasant personality, a commitment to her craft, no shortage of personal insecurities and doubts, and a fair amount of astonishment that she has succeeded as much as she has. In other words, someone it is easy to like.

I’m not a big fan of fantasy literature. I read most of the Lord of the Rings and I liked it well enough but it didn’t enthrall me like Harry Potter does. The thing about Harry Potter is that it draws on themes from classical mythology, employs very cleverly classical linguistics, and makes accessible to the modern mind, concepts that have been with us since the beginning of humankind. Harry Potter is the classic hero’s journey that Joseph Campbell wrote about.

So my unadulterated awe and thanks go out to J. K. Rowling for giving us Harry and his universe. Just imagine what she could have done with the themes from the DaVinci Code!

Thanks for reading.