FINISHED

It started happening to me in the last three or four years. I’d be standing at a book fair or farmer’s market, my novel nicely displayed on the table, and the person standing in front of me says: “That was a great book! When’s the next one coming out?”

That book on the table is exhausted, played out. It is fondly remembered but has passed on. It’s finished.

What can I say? It takes me a long time to write a book. The Truth and Legend of Lily Martindale, took eight years to write, two more years to publish (thank you, SUNY Press, Excelsior Editions). It’s heyday was 2015, when it had received a goodly number of awards. Some people are still buying it. I still get asked to do readings and book groups, but it’s time to get another book out. And . . . I seem to have one.

The new book is called Elephant. (It also had an eight-year gestation.) Elephant is a complete, clean, imaginative, finished manuscript. Given the odds according to my publishing record (I’m 1 for 5), writing isn’t about me getting published. It certainly isn’t about making money. (To date? Lily Martindale has earned $84.84 in royalties.)

In case you were wondering why bother, writing is about the world of the mind, which has little to do with the real world. The world of my mind is a vast universe all my very own, and it’s lovely up there. The fields are verdant. The gardens are lush. The people are odd but kind. The situations may be strange and sometimes cruel but resolvable. There are immense possibilities for Peace and Well-Being. It’s fun. I’d like to retire there.

Down here, lately? Not so much.

So. What now? I’m back in my office, my two cats in their respective beds on the desk, some sunlight coming through the window and the irrepressible snow blower somewhere down the road. I’m tinkering with the usual query letter – a letter to a stranger in publishing who might want to read the manuscript, maybe publish it, or knows someone who does.

This, for me, is the hard part. It’s the only part I hate: sending out queries and submissions to agents and publishers. It’s time to put Elephant out there in the realm of the similarly afflicted who love books and reading and the strange world of the mind – I’m hopeful that means my mind in particular. This book is for people who care about the strange and wonderful, higgledy-piggledy, jagged land mass we call the Adirondack State Park and also the plight of elephants in Africa as well.

Here’s the elevator pitch: Elephant is about an unusual museum in a small Adirondack town. The museum, a castle, is known for its collection of art and odd artifacts. The museum receives an anonymous donation of a taxidermy elephant–a full-sized, African savannah bull elephant. The museum becomes more than an obscure Adirondack oddity. Attendance and donations rise. So does the interest of State Department officials, wildlife conservationists, and black market ivory dealers. All want information about its mysterious donor–information they believe the museum director, her trustees, and the elephant are hiding. Who is the donor? Only one of them knows. Oh, and who will save the elephant?

So, whaddya think? Know anybody? Does this sound like a fun book that might be a good read? If so, let me know what you think. It’s finished!

WEDDING, September 9, 1978

I posted this old poem yesterday (September 10th) and almost immediately took it down. It just felt weird, posting a wedding photo from forty-three years ago from the top of the World Trade Center’s WIndows on the World, only about a year or two after the buildings were first open to the public. It seemed senseless to bring up something happy, something joyful, on a day full of sorrow for so many. But there were many weddings at Windows on the World over the years before 2001 not just ours. It is odd and uncomfortable that our dates bracket the tragedy. Married on the 9th, flew to England on the 10th, and the bill we received from Windows was dated September the 12th.

A close friend who was there that night at our wedding 43 years ago, was an early bird who saw the post before I deleted it yesterday. She wrote: “What especially strange associations 9/11 must have for you two.” As a crisis counselor, she was involved in helping people all over the country recover after the attacks, while her husband went back and forth to Baghdad for the government. I wasn’t aware of how they were affected, and how their memory of attending the wedding in Tower One would meld awkwardly with their own associations. In a way, her words had a solemn reinforcement, that not all was lost, that not all memories would be destroyed, although it’s still a strange time to celebrate a wedding anniversary. It is an awesome memory from a city we loved, whose heart, like ours, still beats.

So anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s the lightly re-edited poem, Wedding, September 9, 1978, with all its weight and light. I once read it at a 9/11 poetry event, but I paired it with another, much better poem, which I now cannot find, by someone else.

Remember how tall?
Remember the sky, the light
that night, September?
The music, the light, what we danced to,
what the violinist looked like,
the sunset over the Hudson.  (Jersey
never looked so good.)

Remember the planes?  All around
taking off from La Guardia
JFK.  Private planes, helicopters,
way down below us.  Remember

my brother-in-law, terrified,
hanging tight to an inside wall,
while the rest of us, full of champagne
put our toes to the base of the 
windows, leaned our foreheads against 
the cool glass and shallow-breathing,
clench-teeth, our fears staring
107 stories down to Chambers Street?

Remember the champagne?  Remember your
Methodist relatives, wide-eyed, upstaters?  Aunt 
Betty, unused to heights of any sort, 
geographic or alcoholic, was ill.

Remember David, Billy, Dick, Paul, and 
oh, what was his name—the contra tenor—
who helped with the music, the flowers. Our old 
gay crowd, most dead now, the last plague
before COVID.

Remember this picture of us? Our hands
on the knife poised over the very tall, white, 
butter-cream, frosted cake. Our eyes alert, brows 
up-raised anticipating the flash.
After the wedding, my sister pinned that photo 
in the back hall of my mother’s house in Troy, Ohio.  
The caption she added read:
THE BOMB IS WHERE?
Windows on the World, September 9, 1978

Wreath, Part II, 2021

In the end, the Wreath (see below, December 21, 2020) was allowed two ornaments:

The tiny glass capsule at the bottom is full of sea glass from Maine, from our granddaughter.

The wooden, sentiment-rich snowflake at the top was from our daughter.

They will reappear next year for the 50th Anniversary of the Tree.

Dry and crumbling, the Wreath is now outside encircling Kuan Yin, Chinese goddess of mercy and compassion, a sort of Asian BVM.

Over the Wreath I poured the last of the juices and fat from the Christmas beast and added several coffee cans of birdseed. Then, for 2021, I chanted three rounds of the Gayatri Mantra, which is a plea for wisdom and an expression of gratitude for the sun and its light. (Such fun being an Episcopalian.)

Within minutes, Kuan Yin and Wreath had visitors.

Including one nearly tailless squirrel. One fears for his survival keeping warm through the winter.

So ends 2020 and welcome to 2021 with hope! Pray for the squirrel!

Wreath, Xmas 2020

I have gone back to my journal of last year and read of the frantic pace of that Christmas signifying what used to be “normal”–before Covid-19. I have forty years of journals. I could review each and every Christmas. I’m sure they would all be as frantic. This Christmas, however, is different. For one, there is no tree. I haven’t dragged out the enormous green plastic tub containing our family scrapbook of very odd ornaments, because there is no tree to display them. People ask sometimes, “Do you still have your wisdom teeth hanging on the tree?” (No. They disappeared in the last few years.) “Is that a mouse trap?” (Yup. A wedding present from a friend in New York [long story]). And there’s a hair curler, baby shoes, a piece of Christo’s “Gates” from Central Park, a mouse-chewed electrical wire, a wooden ball with the words of Philip Larkin’s “This be the Verse,” and a silk bow tie that was once worn to the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island. But there is no 10- to 12-foot Frasier fir to honor Christmas and our lives these last 49 years. Covid-19 is killing people. I couldn’t see the point of the Tree.

So, however, there is a wreath.

 I thought, at first, it would be a concept piece–a vehicle for our wishes, dreams, or gratitudes, like surviving, thus far, in this cockamamie year. (It’s only December 21st, so there’s still time for more catastrophe.) The wreath might be our version of a sort of wailing wall, where we could tuck little pieces of paper relating to this year, 2020, and it’s various trials and successes. I believe finishing a fifth draft of a novel is a sort of success. Getting a kitten has been a real mood booster. More time sitting with my husband having some really interesting conversations, as we both go through old files of letters. But out in the world, people are dying.

My husband said “I don’t want the wreath to have anything to do with Covid-19 or politics.” I agreed. So the wreath remains blank–a tabula rasa. It’s just a great, green, fragrant, balsam zero. It has no history. Nothing fraught with meaning.  It is so very plain and pleasing. I love the wreath. I sit and stare at it, and it makes me feel happy and peaceful.

Next year will be the fiftieth year of our unique Christmas Tree. Fifty years ago, 1971, my not-yet husband, his roommate, and I dragged a tree home from the Eighth Avenue A&P in New York City. We had no lights, no decorations, so we made snowflake stars and cut things out of magazines, strung popcorn and added odd bits of things lying around, like my wisdom teeth, and sometime later, the mousetrap was added by the roommate, Herbie, who died some years ago of pancreatic cancer. It seems odd to remember that particular death amid all the suffering now.

Next year, we’ll be vaccinated, have a new president, a new Episcopal bishop in Albany, familiar faces again in writing workshops and retreats, more trips to the Adirondacks to see old friends. Then it will be Christmas again with the familiar tree and its messy ornaments. And one very large, very plain and peaceful wreath.  The wreath will be a reminder that Christmas, and life in general, can be made much, much simpler. That we should be so lucky to be simply alive.

Cinquain for Mount Marcy

CINQUAIN FOR MOUNT MARCY
Mourning?
Tear in the clouds–
A sadness too lofty
All such wandering souls converge
Rending.

Mary Sanders Shartle

My verse, “Cinquain for Mt. Marcy,” now happily appears in front of the post office in Saranac Lake, visible only when it rains (Adirondack Center for Writing, “Raining Poetry Project”). This is appropriate since the verse is based on the body of water called Tear of the Clouds, the headwaters of the Hudson River on the slopes of Mount Marcy, the highest of the High Peaks. The shallow little lake was named by Verplank Colvin who surveyed the Adirondacks in the late 1800s and began New York’s movement to preserve these precious Adirondack lands and waters now known as the Adirondack State Park. “Tear” in Tear of the Clouds could be pronounced like a tear of sadness or mourning, or “tear” as a rip in fabric. I had heard one from Adirondackers and the other from non-Adirondackers, so I added the two-syllable lines: “mourning” and “rending” to begin and end the verse accommodating those who know the vulnerability and importance of the High Peaks terrain and those visitors who may not.

The cinquain (cinq for “five”) usually unrhymed lines of two syllables, four, six, eight and returning again to two syllables respectively is analogous to the Japanese tanka and haiku. The cinquain is a uniquely local form used by Adelaide Crapsey (1878-1914), who spent the last year of her life in Saranac Lake. She used the cinquain form as a powerfully concise expression as, at age thirty-four, she faced the enormity of her impending death from tuberculosis. In its time TB, like COVID 19, was the most contagious deadly disease known to humans.  

Here’s one of Adelaide’s cinquains possibly written when, seeking a cure here, she suffered through three painful pneumothoracic treatments to collapse one of her lungs:

LANGOUR AFTER PAIN – by Adelaide Crapsey

Pain ebbs,

And like cool balm,

An opiate weariness

Settles on eye-lids, on relaxed

Pale wrists.

I dedicate my poem “Cinquain for Mt. Marcy” as a memorial to Adelaide Crapsey. It was science that produced the penicillin that ultimately cured TB (too late to save her). The sanatorium closed, leaving only the clean, balsam-scented air that was part of the healing that patients like Adelaide sought. It will be science that figures out how to cure this present pandemic. 

“Cinquain for Mt. Marcy”  first appeared in a book of poems, Tear of the Clouds (Ra Press, 2010), by Elaine Handley, Marilyn McCabe and myself. We have collaborated on several books of poetry on shared themes of life in the Adirondacks in three unique voices. Individually and together, the Three Poets have won multiple awards from the Adirondack Center for Writing.  

I want to thank Nathalie Thill and Baylee Annis for the wonderful idea of the “Raining Poetry Project.” I praise and urge continued support for art in public places. Poets, writers and artists have always found solace and peace here. The arts are part of the fabric and history of this region. ACW is a vital part of this community and  has long had my support. I urge everyone who reads this and these sidewalk poems to do the same.

If you want to know more about Adelaide Crapsey, and other women writers of the Adirondacks, I recommend Kate H. Winter’s book, The Woman in the Mountain (SUNY Press, 1989), And I bet the Saranac Lake Library has a book called Verses by Adelaide Crapsey in its archives. When you go there, in the rain, look for yet another poem in the series! Hanif Abdurraqib’s “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This?” It’s amazing how timely all of these “Raining Poetry” poems are. Enjoy and ponder!

Be well! Mary

TREES, PEOPLE, DISEASES

The dead, brown branches overhanging the fern garden were offensive to me—a blight distracting my vision of the woods beyond. Vowing to clear away this rude intrusion, I bushwhacked the twenty feet or so to the offender. I found it was part of a clump of three, two- to four-inch diameter, better-than-saplings. The group had light gray, craggy bark and long, branch whips of compound, saw-toothed leaves. The dead branches were too high for me to reach with the loppers. The bow saw was too big and the angle too wrong to make more than a halfway cut. I went for the axe. After an inordinate amount of swinging and impact, the tough four-incher came down. I nipped off a foot and a half twig and went upstairs for The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees.

It wasn’t a lot of things, that little tree and its fellow clumpers. I had a hard time believing what said it was: an American elm. I double checked with another source, which agreed. I looked it up on line for good measure. Yup. An American elm.

My father was very fond of trees. He used to talk about our fair hometown city of Troy, north of Dayton, in southwestern Ohio. He told me there were days in the early 20th century when the main streets were graced with American elm, all lost to the Dutch elm disease. “When that elm in our back yard is gone,” he said, “we’ll sell the house.” I was seventeen years old when that came to pass in 1967.

Finding the dying elm here was sad on a number of levels. This is the third breed of doomed trees that I have in my woods. One of the other, now nothing but a tall, dead stick, was an American chestnut. The third is the white ash, under threat from the emerald ash borer. All of these great trees are vulnerable to small beetles.

I thought the American elm had gone the same route as American chestnut. Great swaths of our landscape, rural and other, were decimated by the loss of huge tracts of graceful elm and sturdy chestnut. Dutch elm disease destroyed seventy-five percent of American elms from the 1950s to 1989. Without the Dutch elm disease, many of these trees would have survived for three hundred years.

I look at my woods as a microcosm of the planet. Heavily logged years before we moved here, the land is a crowded tangle of third or fourth growth, which, one tree expert told me, was a prescription for contact spread of contamination–ash to ash, chestnut to chestnut, elm to elm.

I would point out, however, that one graceful presentation of American elms has been rescued and preserved: those on the National Mall in Washington, DC. ( USA TODAY Smolinski, Paulina, August 19, 2019)  Over the years, the National Park Service tree crews have worked pruning, sanitizing and injecting the elms in an aggressive battle with the local vector: Scolytus multistriatus, the smaller European elm bark beetle. From the first appearance of the disease in the 1950s to the 1970s, the fight has gone on. Seventy years later, the elms still stand.

Now, isn’t that interesting!

Mountains

 

2019 Anne LaBa Writers' Weekend

Last summer (2019) at Great Camp Sagamore in the Central Adirondacks, seventeen women gathered for the second year for the Anne LaBastille Women’s Writers Weekend. We gathered in the Playhouse and stood in Tad Asana (Mountain Pose) feeling individually what it was like, perhaps, to be a mountain. It was then suggested that together we could be considered a mountain range–collectively an image of unity, uniquely composed and very powerful.

Now, because of the pandemic, we are in relative solitude, relatively far from one another, and far from the unique place that is Great Camp Sagamore. Since March, we have been in a fearful state of mind and soul, those of us who were once a range of mountains, because of a tiny virus that not anyone, not the greatest minds in science, completely understands, and that has killed over a hundred thousand citizens of the US and infected over two million.

We are hardy women writers. You would think that as such, we would be thrilled to be in isolation, able to wipe a calendar clean of appointments and responsibilities and get down to finishing that collection of poetry or that novel. I, for one, find it jarring to be interrupted by the phone and internet. I have organized and reorganized my office, my forty years worth of journals, and one file twenty years thick with letters to and from my college roommate. I have appreciated that solitude and the chance to do my work, but I have also had all the time, like a mountain, to be very still, very within. I have also been still, hoping to be passed over, like a frog when the heron is nearby,

Governor Andrew Cuomo described the last 100 plus days in New York State as climbing a mountain. Everyday he displayed graphs to show how the slope up was so steep. In fact, he compared the mountain of infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths as “Mount Everest” and a few days later brought it closer to home describing the mountain as Mount Marcy, tallest mountain in New York State. The State of New York is seeing its lowest levels of infections and hospitalizations—the lowest in all the United States. New Yorkers followed the protocols and kept each other safe—wearing masks, washing hands, keeping a safe distance from others.

There is still great danger from the virus and that will likely continue until there’s a vaccine. One year from now, will we be able to form another mountain range at Sagamore? We all will have changed. Ice storms, rains and winds alter the surface of the mountains but do not change the core, the structure we hold to: each other.

For more opportunities to write in the Adirondacks or on-line, contact the Adirondack Center for Writing  This organization and the Anne LaBastille Foundation  supported this program at Great Camp Sagamore. Do support these wonderful organizations!

NEW BOOK

Out in paperback and hardback, published by Ra Press:

LIVES LIVED, LESSONS LEARNED: Essays from the Adirondacks 

With:  Mary Sanders Shartle, Charles Watts, McClain Moredock, Mary Anne Johnson, Doug Deneen, Nathalie Thill, Chuck Gibson, and Sandra Weber

“A collection of essays from eight writers who have close links to the Adirondack Park. Through epiphany, history, memory and oftentimes humor, these skilled authors reveal to the reader their love for this place of forests and ponds, mountains and rivers, hardscrabble villages and tough country folk, ingredients all adding up to a world of surreal adventure and unforgettable life experience.”

Available from Lulu

 

 

Lamentation for 2019

It’s raining and sleeting today, so I’m not going to the Y.  I’m sitting in something called a “Chill Sack”. It’s a Thing. Amazon carries them; mine’s deep purple. My legs are stretched out on a needle-pointed ottoman (needle-pointed by me many years ago and made into an ottoman by my mother), and my one remaining cat sleeping on my legs. 

The view from the chill sack is the gray roof of the garage and beyond are the frozen gray woods. Today is an ugly gray day, but I am cozy with my cat. 

This is looking like the annual post. Last year I wrote about the messy tree and the bishop. The bish is still with us, alas. The tree is present again this year and is messier with a couple of long strands of CVS receipts and, for a touch of elegance, a friend’s black silk bow tie that was once worn to the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island.

I’m not sure I want to add the ashes of my dead cat to this year’s messy tree. That seems a yard too far.

Lest you think I’ve gone completely round the bend. let me reassure you that I likely have. It’s been a rough year. My female cat, Wink, the one-eyed wonder, died of renal failure at age thirteen last March. It was not a good or easy death and ended with the long, inevitable drive to the vet, where she was finally released from suffering. I hope someone is as kind to me.

My new novel-in-progress is dedicated to Wink, since both she and my male cat, Clooney (he’s handsome), have now seen me through two novels. The new novel, Elephant, still has a way to go before any official submission, but we are seeing a dim light at the end of the tunnel. It’s five years and seven revisions in and probably a few more drafts to go before it feels presentable. The cats were focal in keeping me focused. To lose one is much more than missing the furry lump of purr to my right hand, when I get stuck on a concept or character.

I am not unused to cats dying–people, either–and the burying of their bodies or spreading of their respective ashes. I really do try not to anthropomorphize my pets or cast them as angels in some sort of afterlife. Regarding Wink, however, I cannot see fit to release her. Her ashes have been on my desk since spring in a little container with her picture on it and the words of Lamentations put to music by Pablo Casals in a lovely choral piece. I don’t need those words any more. I have finished most of the sorrow bit of grieving. But on this gray, rainy, sleety day, at the end of this year, troubled on so many levels globally and nationally, I thought that I should put those sounds of lamentation out there for all of us in hopes of mourning, of purging in preparation for something brighter for 2020: DO listen to this lovely thing. 

O Vos Omnes by Pablo Casals (1876-1973), Lamentations 1:12,

King’s College, Cambridge