I have to fundamentally change the first chapter of my otherwise acceptable novel – my agent says so. But where does a struggling writer find the space in life to sit and think. My daily life certainly doesn’t offer me much of that. But luckily my niece and nephew do. They offer me their nearly-completed new home in Vermont in the midst of the community to which I’ve long been attached. As I happen to have a four-day weekend (spring break), I grab their offer to sequester myself in the woods, during this glorious (if intermittent) Spring.
I pack, I prepare food in advance, I ringfence the four days and I’m ready to hit to road. Until, that is, I get that bad feeling about my clutch. Well, not mine. The clutch of my hasn’t-been-right-since-the-day-I-adopted-it Toyota. I had the clutch done four years ago when I had to replace the transmission and now it’s already slipping on me.
My mechanic gets in my car, drives 10 feet across his lot and declares the car grounded. There’s no clutch left. This was yesterday. He says he’ll start work on it immediately and that it will cost me $1,000. I hear the figure and my whole body twitches as I see every other dream (ipod, netbook, linen pants, Wise potato chips) move out of reach. I remind him that his shop promised me the clutch from four years ago would last a lifetime. He reminds me that the mechanic who was prone to such ridiculous promises no longer works for him. Then it turns out that the fly-wheel is likewise highly kaput – another $205.00.
He calls Enterprise and they come to get me for a rental car. Another $32.00, tax included. I move the irreplaceables out of my car into the rental: my 30s/40s/50s CD collection for teaching my seniors; my borrowed GPS; my large bag of talking books from the library.
By the time the car is ready, one half of one precious writing day has evaporated. I go over, pay the man, leave the rental car with the mechanic, and take my car back home. I load up one of my apartment building’s stolen shopping carts with enough food for a month, enough clothes for a fortnight and enough books for a long cruise and transfer them to my car. I’m more than ready to depart when the cell phone rings.
It’s the rental guy to say that he has the car back, is charging my card and did I leave some stuff in it? I spend 90 frustrating, traffic-logged minutes going in the opposite direction from Vermont to pick up the aforementioned valuables.
Finally I’m on the road. I’ve got a talking book bio of my favorite author Jane Austen to listen to, but as soon as I put in the first disc, I realize I’ve read it before. No problem. I’m excited to have Zora Neale Hurston’s (on left) 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, read, no less, by Ruby Dee, but once I put it into the CD player, I recognize that I’ve heard that also. However, before I can change it for one of the other five books I took out (knowing myself and my sieve-like memory), I’m drawn in by Ruby Dee’s brilliant reading and settle in to listen.
I arrive well after 5:00 and sweet neighbor Nan, who lives in a snug, expanded former chicken-coop, helps me lug my stuff into the house. Only a blooming if fragile magnolia tree separates her place from that of my niece and nephew. I do a tour of the premises, locate the microwave, the kettle, the toilet. It is one of those composting toilets, Nan explains, although I’m not sure what the implications of that are. It flushes with a foot pedal, which requires standing on one foot, and I say to Nan that without strong holding bars, that makes it a questionable fit for elders and anyone with balance issues.
I set up my computer at a small square table in the main bedroom. There is a mirror to the side of this make-shift desk, so that out of my peripheral vision I see movement every time I shift in my chair or tap my foot. Having, in my day in Vermont, confronted everything from bears to skunks to rodents, it makes me jump, so I shift the mirror a few feet.
There’s a sheep pen (is that what it’s called?) outside my window where I write, and its occupants are highly responsive – I’d almost call them nervous. They run in a gaggle every time a car goes down the hill. Farmer Judy raises some of the best meat in New England, it is said, and she does it right below me.
Verandah, my life-long friend the poet, whips up some dinner at the main house (on left) after her daily yoga fix and I skip across the yard to partake with her and Emily, V’s wonderful younger daughter and Oona’s sister. Verandah has unfrozen some of the indescribably scrumptious beans she grew last year. She’s waiting till the last frost passes before getting in her garden this year. For dessert we hang out and have a chat.
At bedtime I have a long conversation via Facebook’s chat function with my partner. There’s no TV, no phone and no cell phone signal whatsoever in this area. It’s one of those ironies. The rural environmentalists among the locals stopped cell towers from being erected at the very start of the cell phone age. So nowadays, the people most likely to be stuck in a snow drift in the dark are unable to call anyone for help. I hate these instant message functions – whether it’s FB or Skype or anyone else’s. There’s that delay that causes people to write simultaneously about different topics, with the next lag turning their “catch-up” into confusion. Plus, all these sites are so public and permeable, one hardly wants to say “Kiss kiss,” lest one be arrested for public lewdness.
I make my bed in the bedroom with the fewest windows and lay down to read Muriel Barbery’s remarkable The Elegance of the Hedgehog. But alas, I’m invaded by wildlife. Lady bugs crawl up the wall, around my reading lamp and all over my glass of tea. One appears on my sheet and while, taken as an individual, each may have the reputation of being adorable, I’d prefer to sleep alone.
FRIDAY APRIL 23, 2010
I’m alternating between eating and working and have made a dent in my work. To impose self-discipline by setting myself up for public shame, I write on Facebook, “I'm sequestered in the Vermont home of my niece and nephew to write - I've got deadlines, so if you see me on FB, spank me.” I get some great replies.
From the window, I see my friend Gilbert driving around on his lawn mower across the road, manicuring the lawn of his renowned restored schoolhouse (rent it for your next vacation!), and I run out for a hug. Unfortunately, besides getting it from him, I got it from a swarm of black flies too. Now all the floaters with which my left eye is afflicted appear to be black flies and I’m constantly swatting at nothing. At least that is my optimistic take on things.
Later this afternoon I am no longer optimistic, having talked to Susan (partners with Gilbert and an amazing book binding teacher and bookmaker – no, not that kind) and heard the stories about the tics in tall grasses. Lives ruined by Lyme disease, from which it can take years to recover. Tall grass is everywhere. What constitutes “tall” anyway? This is the country, for gawd’s sake. There are also an awful lot of stories around, from multiple sources, about rodents, and that freaks me so much that I’m not taking it beyond this sentence.
I pick my way gingerly to the main house where I shower and have dinner with Verandah, a founder and mainstay of this amazing community. We eat and talk with the intimacy of 45 years of friendship before I return to the little house to sleep.
SATURDAY April 24, 2010
I hardly sleep, what with my anxiety about possible unwanted wildlife housemates and my regular worries piling on. I awake at 3:30am with the overhead light still on and then nod on and off, reading and thinking about this pesky first chapter. Eureka! I figure out where to put a piece of essential narrative that bogs down the opening chapter; turns out it fits well into Chapter 4.
I seem to be the first one up in the neighborhood, although once I’m getting my breakfast of fresh farm eggs and baguette together, I see Farmer Judy striding along collecting some temporary fencing she’s used for the sheep.
Threat of disaster. After listening to BBC news online (all about the economic crisis in Greece) via the Internet, I somehow wander to Hulu.com and am unable to resist the prominently displayed episode of "Private Practice" that I missed on Thursday. Next thing I know it’s 9:30am and I better get my ass in gear.
I have finished coping with the opening chapter of my novel, I’ve completed and posted a complicated blog about identity politics, race and the fluidity of sexuality and I have outlined a job proposal. I dress for dinner. Susan and Gil (house on left) are having me, Nan and Judy over for Gil’s famous enchiladas. Combined with Susan’s avocado green salad and a tart/sweet dessert of lemon sorbet with blueberries, it is a feast indeed. Best of all, we move out to their huge deck overlooking their jewel of a pond (see photo left below) and sit around an iron fire pot staying warm despite the near-freezing temperatures under an incomparable sky.
Eventually, flanked by Nan and Judy, we stroll back along the country road. Nan’s headlight (held on her forehead by an elastic headband) keeps me safe and the popcorn she makes back at the little house in a very cool popcorn popper is the best nightcap.
I sleep from 12:30 to 7:30, blessedly.
SUNDAY April 25, 2010
The day is overcast and it’s hard to believe that tomorrow morning I will wake at 6:00 in my own bed to hasten to work teaching senior fitness. As I perform my morning ablutions, I pack away each item into one of my bags.
Nan and I take an hour to visit some friends who live over the mountain. It’s the first time I’ve seen the fab new home of Chuck (Charles) Light, a filmmaker, and the musician Patty Carpenter. The latest album of Patty and her Dysfunctional Family Band is simply addictive. The songs on “Come Over” were written by Patty and Verandah.
Every time I am up here in the community I am warmed by the assembled talent, by the sense of solidarity, by the self-created lives and by the beauty. Balanced against the four-footed party crashers and the flying, stinging, biting pests, my Vermont peeps will always win out. Luckily I don’t have to be sad to leave this time because I’m returning to the community next weekend for our annual May Day celebration.
Footnote: A couple of days after I left Vermont's sunny and exploding Spring, the temperatures crashed and, as Verandah wrote, there was "snow on the magnolias."
Credit: All the Vermont photos are by Barry Hock, used with permission.