Lake Summers

Halfmoon Pond, Summer 2004

Halfmoon Pond, Summer 2004

I am working on a poem about how quickly time passes. And I am working during a summer when my own children don’t particularly need me except for rides to work, captains’ practices, firepits in someone else’s back yard.

We spent last week on Lake Winnisquam. The girls brought friends. They sunned themselves on a floating dock, shopped at the nearby outlets, made their own breakfasts and lunches, recorded every moment with Go Pro’s and IPhones. Posted. Liked. Shared. I kayaked alone and walked three miles a day seeking different routes filled with things to put in my poem: a hunting hawk, wind shifts on the water, the memories of other summers.

We tried the Cape first. A friend had a place in Wellfleet and assured us there was plenty of room. There was, but it was not the kind of room suitable for two young children. A woodstove sat atop a brick hearth whose sharp edges seven month old Apphia rolled towards. Someone without children had removed the door from the stairway, and we finally had to upturn the kitchen table across the threshold to keep Beatrice, 2, from plunging down them. The children’s rooms were at the bottom of those stairs, two floors away from where we would be sleeping and with sliding doors that led out to a wooded area and that didn’t lock securely.

A trip to the beach required a $50 beach pass, packing up, and arriving early to get a parking spot. Then, we hiked all of our stuff over dunes and settled down so that one of us could pry the sand out of Apphia’s fists and the other could follow Beatrice from blanket to blanket to shore. Our friend sat in the shade flipping through People magazine.

At night, instead of putting the girls to bed where we couldn’t hear them, we crammed two pack n’ plays into our bedroom and tried to get our usually independent sleepers to drift off. After a few hours of this, we listened to them scream.

We had one day to use our beach pass. Then, for the next six days, it poured. Let’s go to breakfast, we said. So did everyone else on the Cape that week. Let’s go shopping we said. So did everyone else on the Cape that week.

Let’s rent a house on a lake next time, I said. And we did. And we discovered Half Moon Pond.

Our house was the only rental on the lake that was Boston University’s adventure camp. Each misty morning, as my daughters stood naked at the edge of the water, the campers paddled by on their way to the ropes course or a hiking trail or a zip line that plunged them into a culvert where snakes sunned themselves on ledges. I did spend a few mornings wondering where the arts and crafts tent was, but mostly I was engaged in watching the girls wade in, stand still enough for the fish to nuzzle them.

Apphia and Beatrice, Summer 2002

Apphia and Beatrice, Summer 2002

We spent several years at Half Moon Pond during the first week of August. My mother came and claimed the biggest upstairs room where the girls would drag mattresses into so they could sleep with Nana. In the middle of the night, Apphia would climb into my mother’s twin bed and say, “I thought you might be scared sleeping alone.” Justina ventured off into the woods and had to be retrieved again and again, but she couldn’t go far. Beatrice set up paints on the picnic table and directed the business of art time.

Tony visited and, even though he doesn’t swim, spent hours in the water letting the girls splash him — even the summer it was only fifty degrees. He plunged in with them and then they all ran inside to the fire. Teresa and Peter stopped by with kayaks, the girls perching on the bows as they paddled. Dom took his kids up and showed my girls how to fish. Dennis’s parents came and kept my mother company on the screen porch. Patpat came with her feet bandaged from surgery (and didn’t get too made when Apphia stepped on them).

I plunked my beach chair in the shallow water as the girls played around me (eventually they did wear swimsuits), and read four or five books, wrote some poems. Dennis ran through trails he would later take us on, places where we could see a village of yurts, a stand where you could hold bird seed in your hand and wait for a creature to alight.

Justina, summer 2003

Justina, summer 2003

No television. No wi-fi. Some old puzzles and checker games, a deck of cards. We packed dolls and stuffed animals. One year, Nana brought three one-dollar floats and hours later we had to call the girls in to finally eat something. Every afternoon before dinner, I attached swim bubbles to them and they paddled into the deep water with Dennis. Then they needed only noodles, and, finally, they set off on their own, unafraid and buoyant, as I fretted on shore. After dinner, they rode scooters, then bikes with training wheels, then bikes without, through the camp.

We ate local corn on the cob, Nana’s macaroni and cheese, grinders with salty lettuce, sharp provolone, garden tomatoes. Storms came in over the water and we watched through a dewy window, the lightning flashes over the mountains growing closer and then the forks of it on the water. Fish fed every night in rippling seams. Dragonflies hovered. Snapping turtles popped their heads up like so many pond weeds. We canoed the width and length of the pond, the girls between us on their small lawn chairs until they could paddle themselves.

One summer, Dennis and I left the girls with Nana for a few hours and looked at houses in the area. So many acres, so many rooms, for so little money. Barns and pasture for the horse and goat, a quiet country setting to prolong the kind of peace our week at Half Moon brought us. It seemed possible.

The only thing that seemed impossible, actually, was that the girls would grow up. That, one summer, that tiny pond wouldn’t be enough to entertain them. That, another summer, on another, much larger lake, they would have friends and bikinis and their own spots to tan out on the floating dock. That I would walk a few miles alone and then kayak alone, Dennis running along winding roads instead of forest trails, heading home to tend to his garden. That I’d be writing the kind of poem I couldn’t have written at Half Moon Pond, the girls’ voices floating toward me where I sat in the middle of two worlds.

Weekend Write-In: What to do When You Can’t Write

Some people (like my husband) say I should run every day. Just a mile. Ten minutes! Anyone can do that much! But I can’t. My legs hurt; my lungs explode; the thoughts of the quitter I am derail me.

Sometimes writing is like this. Same advice. Same expectations. Same torment. Same defeat.

So when I can’t write. When I absolutely can’t think of anything, here’s what I do, instead:

  1. I rewrite. Even if it means rewriting stuff I’m not particularly excited about. A day can’t be wasted if you improve something, right?
  2. I add a page to the journal I keep for my daughters (and you can start one anytime for anyone!). What’s great about this is that a) the audience is guaranteed and b) I end up writing something down that I’m thankful I recorded. I suppose letters would work here, too, and everyone loves receiving real mail.
  3. I research possible places to submit my work. When else do people do this tedious stuff? Compiling submission guidelines, website links, etc. when I’m not writing means that, when that urge returns (and it always does no matter how much I despair), I don’t have to stop to do the business of writing.
  4. I look at what I have already and try to decide: what should I do with this? A few years ago, after my agent rejected (in this order) my novel and me, the blues came to stay for a long, dark, lonesome winter. One day, I took out the stories I’d already written and laid them across my bed. Do I have enough pages for a collection? I wondered. I did. Then I researched where to send it. Hmm. AWP Grace Paley Prize. What the hell?
  5. I read other people’s stuff and leave comments of encouragement, blogsites, Goodreads, FB posts. It’s writing, right? And, again, there’s an audience.
  6. I read.
  7. I people watch.
  8. I try not to beat myself up.

I wish I could write every day. But I’m like most writers I know: I have a job that isn’t writing; I have a family; I get my teeth cleaned; I feed my cats. And so, I console myself with some other writing-related pursuit.

What about you? How do you fill the muse-less hours??

Dispatch from Somewhere High and Dry

Misquamicut Beach

Misquamicut Beach

At Misquamicut Beach a few days ago, my cousin Sue and I toasted one another at the Andrea which, these days, is a temporary tent ala a MASH unit, set up where the old hotel once stood. Hurricane Sandy left only the original hearth which now sits surrounded by sand, a relic from an ancient civilization. Behind my cousin’s shoulder, the sea rose and fell, lit by some source that might have been as mundane as a streetlight, but whitecaps glowed nonetheless. Why would anyone live anywhere else? I wondered. When you can round a bend and be confronted with the sea?

Today, I have moved inland temporarily, but still I perch beside a lake and raise a glass to a water view. What is it about water that draws me? Especially when the smell of chlorine transports me instantly and miserably, to the cinderblock hallway of the Westerly-Pawcatuck YMCA, the worm of worry crawling through my belly as my mother dragged me to swim lessons.

“I never learned how to swim,” she said. “But you will.”

She had the kind of determination she used unscrewing stubborn jar caps, tight jaw, narrowed eyes. She wanted what was inside and, if forced, she’d smash the goddamned jar rather than admit she couldn’t open it. Knowing this, I bit my lip against any whimpering.

Remember Aquaman? Except for Archie, I hated comics. but my Aunt Nancy reserved one kitchen cabinet for her son Mark’s comic books and when he spread them out on the kitchen floor, I’d seen the blonde muscle man on a cover or two (Mark never allowed me to actually read the books which caused all kinds of trouble when it was time to go home and my mother said, “Clean up.” Let’s just say she wasn’t the only lock-jawed, fist clenching, stubborn female in the family). And that’s who awaited me in the Y pool. Okay, I thought, so I’m terrified of water and I like getting wet about as much as your average housecat. But how bad can lessons be with a superhero?

Pretty bad, as it turns out. This Aquaman treated me like Black Manta. Was it my cowardice? My absolute inability to blow bubbles without water squirting up my nose and burning an expressway to my brain? My wild and useless flailing of limbs as I attempted to make it from one end of the pool to the other without clinging to the buoys? God. I HATED swimming. Years later, I can’t pour bleach into the washing machine without remembering Aquaman’s seething disdain. How easy, he must have thought, to just let go of the hopeless, whiny landlubber whose mother had to fork over extra cash for private lessons because she was too terrified to swim with other, more naturally aquatic kids.

I should have introduced YMCA Aquaman to the swim instructor at Winnapaug Day Camp. Their love of this unforgiving element and their contempt for me would surely have bound them for life. We six year olds took swimming lessons daily in the brackish pond beside one of my father’s rented cornfields (which I looked toward longingly each time we traipsed down the path that led (cue Jaws theme) to the water). Overcast days, drizzly mornings, times when you really had to poop, you had to get in. No wading in and doing the Town Beach sponge bath I perfected later on in life — scoop of water up one arm, then the next, chest pat, return to seat.

“Just get in already,” the instructor said, oozing disgust as I tiptoed past. (Years later, during my first year teaching, one of my students said, “Can I ask you something?” He was a cocky bastard, but on this particular day, he looked truly puzzled. “If someone hated kids, why would they teach?” His question took me right back to that camp counselor).

The dead man’s float in particular eluded me (and by the way, who thinks a good name for an early swim maneuver has the phrase dead man in it?). Finally, Aquaman’s soulmate said, “Why don’t you just go over there and practice.” She motioned towards a reedy patch. A breeze ruffled the surface of the pond, clouds hovered. “Alone.”

Oh, water. How I love your mirror-surface, the “sorrows of your changing face”, the way you give us the sky above, a salt spray, a lullaby, a reminder of the world’s vastness. From a distance, you soothe and inspire. You are mythological, a high priestess, a mesmerizing story teller. And it’s okay, isn’t it, this long-distance intimacy we share? It’s one kind of devotion and it preserves my dignity.

So I sit, this week, observing Lake Winnisquam. Its loons glide by, my daughters and their friends dip and dive and float and kayak. I took my girls for swimming lessons, too, of course. With less of my mother’s grim resolve and more hope that they wade in, dive under, swim out, if that’s what they choose, if that’s what that other world offers them, if they accept that invitation.

And I did learn to swim (I’ve also read up on how to perform a tracheotomy with a bic pen, but I’m not anxious to put that knowledge to the test, either). In fact, during the camp’s final days, I surprised that cranky young water nymph by taking home the Jellyfish Float championship. I’m my mother’s daughter, after all. Push me hard enough and I’ll set my jaw, grit my molars, wrestle with the obstacle at hand to earn some little success.

(And here’s a link to one of my favorite poems, Lament for the Non-swimmers by David Wagoner: http://garmon-okemos.weebly.com/uploads/3/1/1/3/31136891/lament.pdf)

Weekend Write-In: Making Big Things Small

Want to be a better writer? I say to my students. Then here is the most important thing I have to tell you: The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. It isn’t my original idea. I heard it over twenty years ago from poet and teaching writing guru, Ralph Fletcher, and I have used it ever since (check out Ralph’s website: http://ralphfletcher.com). What it means is, when you want to write about the big things – love, loss, fear, your feelings about someone, etc. – you think of what concrete, definable object, setting, or scene conveys that overwhelming emotion, that characterizes a loved one.

For example, my father was an easy person to write about: undersized and powerfully strong, world-famous in cattle circles for a bull he once owned, capable of incredible physical exertion and then, impossibly, pausing to pick May flowers at the edge of a field.

My mother, however, felt short-changed. “You never write anything about me,” she said.

Well, you know how it goes with mothers like mine, mothers who do absolutely EVERYTHING for you. A poem about my mother would rival the Iliad, so I started thinking small and came up with this: she loves purple passions. Those velvety-leaved vines? And when she loves something, anything, she overindulges (Suzi Q’s, soap operas, the New York Yankees, etc).

And here’s the thing, I think, that Ralph Fletcher was talking about: I can’t describe my mother to you in one tiny poem. But I can describe a purple passion and, of course, I knew my mother’s kitchen intimately.

Try this: think not of adjectives, but of objects, favorite pieces of clothing, collections, gestures, anything that you could run your fingers over, that you could capture in a photograph. Start there, tiny, tiny details and see if something big doesn’t bloom.

Here’s my poem:

My Mother’s Purple Passion

When her children left, my mother

bought a purple passion at the grocery store,

raised it on game shows on the kitchen TV

until it learned to solve giant crossword puzzles,

guess the price of popcorn to the nearest nickel.

She kept it away from boiling potatoes

burping angrily on the stove and from cupboards

pushing pans out in clattering crowds.

It grew quickly on warm water, soil dark

as chocolate cake and my mother’s gossip.

My mother bought a bigger pot, painted it

yellow to flatter the jealous curtains. Later,

she made new plants from the first,

and when her children came to visit, they found

plants in every window, as comfortable as cats.

They rubbed the leaves velvetless, said, “Mother,

too much purple.” My mother laughed, watched

a lady win a diamond necklace, peeled potatoes

and winked at the plant, quiet over the cupboard

of too many pans, always restless.

Why Not Attempt to Replicate a Renaissance Tapestry? Something No-Brainer Like That? or How I Met Holly Robison.

My mother, like the queen of a matriarchal realm, had four daughters in part so that she could ensure the continuance of a part of her reign that was very important to her: knitting and crocheting. She made the entire family Christmas stockings with our choice of Santa, reindeer, or snowperson head, and then knit our names across the top. For my father, she knit a sweater with his famous cow on the back, lined it, and put in a zipper. From her throne on our old green couch, she crocheted acres and acres of afghans and one christening outfit worthy of a royal birth. Despite all her efforts, however, Jeannie’s mopines (Italian dishrags), and Patty’s scarves, were more of a cruel disappointment than Barbara Ann’s and my complete lack of interest in the craft. One Christmas, she even gave me one of those potholder looms, peering at me so full of hope as I opened it, that I tried my best to figure the goddamned thing out. Although I did finally get the loops braided, once I released them, the final product shrunk to coaster-size except it was so lumpy, no glass was safe resting atop it.

When my neighbor Cathy invited me to Knit Night, I hoped to god it wasn’t about knitting. I knew, for example, that book clubs aren’t necessarily about reading (though my own book club — much more on them later! — doesn’t like to mix alcohol with the kind of beatings they can lay down on writers, and that’s probably a good thing). But, home with three young daughters, I desperately needed an evening out, so armed with some of my mother’s old needles, a ball of yarn she threw in for good measure (her grim optimism still at work), and — what the hell — a bottle of white wine, I headed out.

For the first few months, I did knit, a stitch here, a stitch there, on a Penelope-like endeavor I envisioned might someday be a scarf. Fortunately, though everyone did play around with their needles — either sewing buttons back on kids’ shirts or continuing work on a collection of argyle socks (now there’s a daughter my mother could love)– there was plenty of time to toast what a great idea this was, a once-a-month meeting of handicrafters anonymous.

Then, one night, Kathy announced she’d invited someone new to the group. “And Carla,” she said, “I especially can’t wait until you meet her because she’s a writer, too!” Oh boy, I thought, imagining the Hallmark verses or grade-school attempts at detective stories I would soon find stuffed into my mailbox. “Anyone else need a refill?” I asked.

Holly, it turned out, didn’t write poetry or detective fiction. Oh no. Instead, she had just signed a big-house book contract for a memoir. She wrote for magazines people had actually heard of. I smiled and dropped a stitch or two. So what if I caught a chill when I could finally don my homemade creation? With a real writer like Holly in the room, who would ever miss me?

The good news was, however, that Holly didn’t know how to knit, either. Smugly, I clicked away. Look at me, I might have said. New poem out in the East Bumfuck Literary Journal and an (almost; actually non-existent) ability to knit without looking at my hands.

When Holly sat down and dug into her bag, I thought: Let me get ready to teach her how to cast on. Set this hierarchy straight. But she had already casted on the first few stitches of the wool sweater she intended to make for someone’s Christmas present. Three weeks away. “I might need a little help,” she said, “when it comes to the cabling part.”

I held up the thin ribbon of my scarf. “I think I’m done,” I said. “Do you think it’s long enough?” Everyone said it was. Everyone who had been drinking for an hour before Holly breezed in. Everyone who knew I was not in it for the 4-H Hopechest Medal. But then Holly looked up and said, “Oh god, that’s not nearly long enough. Keep going.”

The group buzzed on, but I said, over them: “Hey, New Girl. No one asked you.”

Holly finally stopped knitting long enough to look up over her cheaters and make eye contact. No one blinked. We were outside the saloon now, boy, pistols drawn. You know we writer types. Always looking for a shoot-out.

The room quieted; needles froze mid-stitch; the cheesedip paused in its congealing; even the wine the hostess poured suspended itself in a twinkling rivulet over the mouth of the glass.

And then, Holly did the thing I most hoped she’d do: she laughed.

And that was that. Score settled.

So she’s an overachiever, so what? She’s a funny bastard. She knows a thing or two about the writing business. She likes walking and playing tennis without keeping score. She has a husband who mixes great cocktails and a mother who is an outspoken supporter of local artists. She has kids who don’t think my husband is a freak just because he grills them about their mile splits. She has a dog who is as loyal and generous and excited to make friends as she is despite the fact that my dog (big surprise here) is more reluctant to, shall we say, bond?

And best of all? She lives in my neighborhood. So let’s hear it for non-long distance relationships!! And to all those queens out there, trying to maintain a foothold in their lonely kingdoms when, all of a sudden, some new royalty (thank GOD!) moves in.

Weekend Write-In: The John Ball Inaugural

The first writer I ever met was Robert Cormier who came to the Westerly Public Library during my senior year in high school. But the first writer I ever spoke to was John Ball. He sat beside me in advanced fiction writing during the spring of our senior year. I’d taken a few writing courses but John was the first person I met who wanted to be a writer, who stated his intentions clearly. I’d read one of his stories in the campus literary magazine, a magazine that had routinely rejected my own prose, and I’d loved it. I had no crush on John, nice as he was, nor did we spend any time together outside of class, but his in-workshop friendship thrilled me. It made my own aspirations seem so reasonable, so concrete.

On the final day of class, he said to me: “I can’t decide if I should get into a graduate writing program or get married. What do you think?”

Until that moment, I had no idea you could go to graduate school for creative writing. The idea seemed as absurd and as miraculous as marriage did. I hope I wasn’t so desperate for a boyfriend that I told him to get married, but the truth is, I have no idea how I responded. I’m sure it took me a while as the idea that school didn’t have to end here, that, in fact, at the next level, the opportunity to immerse myself even further in the world of writing, derailed my thoughts.

But here’s the point: for the first time in my life, a life in which I always knew I wanted to be a writer, I understood how valuable another writer could be: Writers know stuff other writers need to know.

For this reason, I have started a new feature on my blog called Weekend Write-In (I will also continue the personal essays I’ve been writing this past year). I’ll be offering my own advice to writers, sharing tips and encouragement, but I’ve also invited several writers, artists, musicians, architects — all kinds of creative types — to guest blog on topics they would like to share with a community of creative people.

And if you have an idea, I’d love to hear from you! You can message me here or at carlapanciera@gmail.com.

I don’t know what happened to John Ball. I tried googling him but, wouldn’t you know, there’s a very famous crime writer of the same name (but much older) so my search turned up nothing. I hope he did continue to write. I hope he is happily married. I hope all his dreams came true.

Home, With Cats

Minx (L); Enzo (R)

Minx (L); Enzo (R)

Why does that image fill me with such joy? It didn’t used to be like this. Or did it?

Outside, voices around the firepit. Downstairs, Dennis’s fork clinking against his salad bowl. Upstairs, me without an idea for my blog and Minx giving himself a bath beside me. He never looks at a loss for what to do with himself. He isn’t worried, for example, that he has a sexy female name, or that he only has a tooth or two left in his head. Or that, considering the square footage of his ample body, his tongue is a small enough weapon against filth. So I’m a cat lover. So what? This is the new (?) me. A living cliche`. Poet. Cat Lover. Tea Drinker.

When I was a kid, we had cats the way some people have an ant problem. Cats proliferated, an army of gold fur against any rodents stupid enough to hang around the grain bins. They stayed outside, gathering on the back steps for leftovers, slinking through the fields and woods, dashing out of the hayloft when we approached. They were feral things, wild-eyed, hissing.

But their kittens, if you could find them, were tame as lambs. We dressed up Tammy, our first calico, in my doll clothes. Litters in the barn attic kept me entertained for hours when all of my adolescent friends were playing CYO basketball or blow-drying their hair into feathers. What could be better than those little triangular kitten faces? They way they walked, plucking leg after leg up off the dusty barn floor?

I guess I’ve always had it in me.

On my kindergarten report card, Mrs. Carpenter wrote that I demonstrated an affinity for poetry. I don’t remember poetry in kindergarten. I remember oak tag (and how it was severely rationed which made it all the more precious to me; god, I loved that stuff). I remember recess in a leafy, well-shaded, wall-offed yard. I remember feeling lucky that I didn’t have Mrs. Friend next door whose voice I could hear through the coat rack. I remember Chris K. chasing me around the room on his scooter and having to dash behind the ironing board in the play kitchen. I remember a see-saw. But I don’t remember poetry.

Anyway, maybe certain loves are with us always, just waiting for a day when our kid begs us to take her to the cat shelter and we agree, thinking it’s cheaper than the movies.

This is how much I love cats: I got up this morning and found Minx mewling on the porch roof outside the bedroom window. The screen door was opened on the porch, Minx’s trademark six inches (How he gets it open when we can’t and use the other door, instead, is more testament to his brilliance) and Enzo, too, was gone.

The first thing I found to put on was not a bra, but a plain white t-shirt. And it’s raining so it became some kind of weird spring break flashback (not that I ever partook; never received an invite to that one), but the point is: I didn’t care. The movie in my mind spooled forward, starring my doomed hero and the fisher cat and coyote villains. Without Enzo, who would keep me company leaping about in the sheets as I folded them? Who would perch on the bathroom sink to make sure I flossed? Who would climb into every closet, cupboard, drawer, I opened?

I wish I could love an apex predator, I thought as my neighbor paused in his driveway and then hurried into his house. Wouldn’t life be so much less risky? But, instead, I love cats.

A few years ago, I interviewed for a job as head of the English department. Although I had more teaching experience, a much younger colleague was chosen. When the principal explained his choice, he said it was very close between us, but the deciding factor was that he believed my colleague would be able to generate more data than I would.

I’ll give him data: Every year in my poetry class, I conduct a very scientific hand-raising survey. Who here owns a cat? Most kids raise their hands. Coincidence or cliche`? What’s the goddamned difference?

Anyway, these days I channel my inner cat. Choose whoever you choose, I chant. I will maintain my superior indifference.

So here I am. While other people are out there leading the world with facts and figures, I sit typing away, steeped in gratitude that, just when I was about to a) cry, and b) get arrested for indecent exposure, Enzo padded out of the barn, lynx-like, dismissive, keeping close to the foundation. Getting soaked, after all, is so disgustingly homo sapien.