Sunday, October 24, 2021
Everything In Its Time
It’s curious how often people who have acquired one of my books apologize, when I run into them, for not having read it yet. I have no way of knowing if they have or haven’t, since I’m not joined to them at the hip. Do other authors experience this? Have I done the same to other authors?
A book may sit for years in my to-be-read pile, gathering dust without a murmur. Then one day, as I poke through the pile, that book says, “Read me now.” So, I wipe off the dust and begin.
(One nice thing about books is that no matter how long they sit between acquisition and reading, the words therein do not evaporate. The ink is not disappearing ink. Books are very patient creatures.)
I can’t tell you how many times something in that book has spoken deeply to me, revealing stuff I needed to know right then. It may be fiction or non-fiction, entertaining fluff or a scholarly treatise – regardless, it fills a gap that may not have been there a month, six months, or a year ago.
Sometimes the book meets the needs of a friend instead. I just finished The Granite Landscape: A Natural History of America’s Mountain Domes, from Acadia to Yosemite by Tom Wessels. It’s about granite domes we often call “bald mountains,” scoured bare and polished smooth by glaciers, devoid of vegetation, and subsequently colonized by so-called succession plants. First, the lichens move in and find tiny irregularities in the surface in which to anchor themselves. Then other varieties of lichens arrive, along with mosses and miniature forms of evergreens and other alpine plants like cranberries and wintergreen. In succession, as these tiny pioneers break down the granite surface incrementally, hardy little trees take up residence, sculpted by wind and winter into natural bonsai.
I was gaga over this book, but I knew it needed to go to my friend Colleen, the founder of The Room to Write and its writers critique group. She’s working on a middle-grade novel about the powerful presence of plants in our world, and she needs details like this. So yesterday I delivered the book to her.
This book was in my mother’s house, so I brought it home during sorting and cleaning out over the past year. It sat in my pile for eight months without catching my attention. Two weeks ago, it said to me, “Read me now.”
Everything in its own time. This time, it was Colleen’s time.
(There I go, making connections again.)
To Tease Your Mind
It’s important to put it like that:
not ‘I am a writer,’ but rather ‘I write stories.’
If you put the emphasis on yourself rather than your work,
you’re in danger of thinking that
you’re the most important thing.
But you’re not.
The story is what matters,
and you’re only the servant,
and your job is to get it out on time
and in good order.
children’s books and non-fiction author
(1945 – )
best known for
The Golden Compass
Pullman says, “Get it out on time.” For me (and in this quote, it sounds like what he means, too), that’s the book’s time, not necessarily my time. I can’t tell you how many times I have tried to rush or push a piece of writing, but it has resisted and would not budge until its time was right. And I have always been pleasantly surprised at what the wait has revealed.
Usually, my own growth has been revealed – the work’s stubbornness forced me to grow enough to attain its goals, not mine. I wasn’t, and am not, the most important thing. The work is.
In honor of my mother’s birthday today (she would have been 97), I submit the following story, written early in 2020, which reveals a lot about her character, about some who influenced her, and how she influenced our subsequent family generations. She doesn’t show up much, but her presence is obvious.
Some children never grow up. Paula Poundstone, comedienne, might have had this in mind when she said, “Adults are always asking little kids what they want to be when they grow up ’cause they’re looking for ideas.” Or are they jealous?
Comedian and actor Bob Newhart puts it perhaps more accurately: “I think you should be a child for as long as you can. I have been successful for 74 years being able to do that. Don’t rush into adulthood; it isn’t all that much fun.”
No matter their age, a few people retain that child-like mindset – sometimes referred to as a sense of wonder, although that’s not entirely accurate. They’ve learned to shroud the zany in a cloak of wisdom without stifling it. More of us should aspire to this state of mental health and well-being. If one has lost it, it is possible to regain it, if one is resolute. One first step is to hang out with a child. I do that regularly, just to keep my hand in.
I’ve been an avid living history re-enactor since the early days of the Bicentennial, and I used to think I knew how to get dirty. After two or three days in the field, cooking over the open fire, accumulating sweat salt, grass stains, mud, wood smoke, black powder, and the occasional blood on my clothing and my person, I was about as grimy as they come. My rifle frock and breeches could stand in a corner by themselves.
I began taking my oldest nephew Joshua along when he was about six years old, and he showed me that I was a rank amateur when it came to dirt. We had far more fun than should be allowed, each reducing the other to giggles on countless occasions. My favorite photo of him is from Savannah, Georgia, when he was nine. We flew south to participate in the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Savannah. Here, he is holding up the company guide-on (a small, unit flag), but it looks more like the flag pole is holding up him. He is so tired and so dirty. And so happy.
At the other end of the generational spectrum is my mother’s Aunt Eva. She was a great model of zaniness. From childhood, Eva built her reputation for endless curiosity and a sparkling sense of adventure, well known throughout her family and her neighborhood. Just short of 100 years of age, she finally took up residence in a nursing home because she was breaking bones merely rolling over in bed. My husband Phillip and I visited her there and swapped tales. We were just back from a trip to Nova Scotia where Phillip’s relatives live, and Aunt Eva asked if we had gone by boat across the Bay of Fundy or driven around it. (We had driven.)
She then told us about a ferry ride that she and her family took about 1915, when she was in her mid-teens, across one of the Great Lakes – which one, she didn’t remember – but they are all big, so it took a couple of hours to cross. She had a girlfriend with her, and being antsy youngsters, they looked around for entertainment.
“We decided to climb as high on that boat as they’d let us,” Aunt Eva said.
“How high did you climb?” Phillip and I asked.
“We climbed so high we could hear the angels fart.”
Some children never grow up.
This propensity for silliness must be like iron fortifying our blood. Both sides have contributed, from Aunt Eva on my mother’s side (my mother’s mother – Eva’s sister – inherited not one shred of this madcap gene) and on my father’s side as well. His quiet drollery often had us kids rolling on the floor, laughing and holding our ribs.
My family gathers annually on Christmas Eve to celebrate the season. Because we are a large group (ranging from one to two dozen-plus, across four generations), some time ago we eliminated gift-giving in favor of a Yankee Swap. (Who needs more stuff? It had reached a point where everyone had to rent a U-Haul to remove the spoils, which no one could afford because of our limp wallets.) The value of the Swap gifts is often dubious at best, but the hilarity generated in the exchange is invaluable. My brother Duffy, who opens his spacious house to this festival, is notorious for biting into the edible items before the game is over, to guarantee his retention of them. The man is in his late sixties, a member of the second generation (who should know better), but clearly, he hasn’t yet shed his childhood.
showed up in our Yankee Swap. Scary!
A monstrous dinner precedes the game. Everyone brings something for the ample buffet, usually the same favorites every year. Cheese and crackers, artichoke dip in a pumpernickel boule, buttercrunch and creamy chocolate nut slices, and nut-stuffed dried fruits collect on the counters for hours before we all sit. Desserts follow the Swap, by which time we have room in our bellies again.
Duffy sets up an extra table or two to accommodate the crowd. Other than mothers and fathers next to their toddlers, everyone takes a seat with no fuss over who sits where.
A few years ago, I noticed a phenomenon that had extended a tradition we should have long since outgrown: assembling the children at a separate table. (We all remember that, don’t we?) This time, however, the children were all adults – the third-generation cousins, the grown children of my brothers. As we partook of the garlic-infused rib roast, mashed potatoes with caramelized beef gravy, homemade cranberry sauce, and my mother’s famous dinner rolls, we first- and second-generation grown-ups noticed quite a hubbub from the other end of the table – what had inadvertently become the children’s section – enough to disrupt our conversation.
The cousins were having a grand time, swapping puns and teasing each other with innuendo and double entendre, each trying to outdo the other with clever repartee. Their rapier wits were sharp, but they were raucous.
After observing them for several minutes, I turned to my mother, the family matriarch, who has earned her place with all due respect and gravitas, and said, “I’m not sure a children’s section is such a good idea anymore.”
“They’re out of control,” she agreed and sipped her tea.
I wonder if Joshua, as the eldest, is the ringleader of this dereliction of adult behavior. He is a master tease, the reason why he often ends up in the thick of a familial ruckus. Approaching fifty this past Christmas, he was soon in a tangle with the fourth generation, ages two to eight, who crawled all over him. It looked like a World Wrestling SmackDown.
After fifteen minutes of pummeling, he rose from them, like Gulliver from a sea of Lilliputians, and reneged his cousinly duties by announcing, “Aunt Sally is a much better wrestler than I am.” In an instant, I flailed on the floor under a tsunami of squirming arms and legs.
Some children never grow up. I’m not sure whom I am implicating more, here, Joshua or myself. In the interest of full disclosure, I can’t claim that we of the first and second generations are any more mature than those of the third and fourth generations. Duffy is not alone in his mischief.
(Seven-week-old Valkyrie was the best behaved of all of us, I swear. She nursed, minding her own business and ignoring the cacophony. There is hope for the infant, though. If her parents haven’t genetically infused her with silliness, she’s young enough for the rest of us to indoctrinate her thoroughly into a lifetime of tomfoolery.)
At the dinner table, the youngsters refused to empty their plates in favor of romping, typical at any party. With permission, they left the table and happily chased each other around the house, tumbled with the large dogs who dwell with these families, wrangled with each other, and whirled in dance to tuneless, made-up songs.
Duffy’s three grandchildren soon remembered where their Pepere had stashed his remote-control fart machine and dug it out to show the others. They spent the next hour wresting it from each other to flaunt at the table where the rest of us still savored our meal and chatted. To shrieks and giggles, one would poke it between us while another would push the button to create loud, prolonged, indelicate noises. (At least the machine couldn’t replicate odors.) We could barely eat for laughing at their antics. Farts are funny. Especially when the child who procures and maintains such toys is a grandfather. The children ran into the living room to fart each other under couch cushions and dogs’ butts. Their joy prompted me to engage my thirty-something nephew Aaron, who sat next to me, in a discussion about farts. My husband Phillip and I have analyzed farts in great detail, after years of pseudo-scientific but extensive collection of olfactory data at historical battle reenactments, where baked beans and beer are as ubiquitous as gunpowder and porta-potties.
Different foods produce different-smelling farts. Different foods yield different intensities of farts. Different foods beget different volumes of farts. Different foods breed different temperatures of farts. Different foods render different-sounding farts. Different foods generate different densities of farts – yes, all are gases, but some are harder to pass than others.
I rattled off distinct species. There are clam farts and beer farts and egg farts and broccoli farts. I was about to tot up bean farts, garlic farts, prune farts, and onion farts, when my mother, age ninety-five, leaned toward us from the opposite side of the table. She looked Aaron and me in the eye, with the weighty poise of one who knows, and proclaimed, “Pea soup farts are the worst.”
Calendar & Announcements
Dec. 11, 2021 – Saturday – ARIA Book Expo
Rhodes on the Pawtuxet, 60 Rhodes Place, Cranston RI
10 am – 4:30 pm
Over 100 authors exhibiting their books, including me.
Panels and seminars on writing and publishing; raffles; free admission.
Another chance to fill those holiday gift needs.
Do you have comments or questions about this post?
I’d love to hear them. Let’s talk!
Happy reading! Happy writing!
Image: The Granite Landscape
Image: Philip Pullman
Image: white elephant gifts
Image: Gulliver and the Lilliputians
Gulliver in Lilliput: Examining the Allegory