Septembers This September Reminds Me Of

September Salt Marsh

September Salt Marsh

Spent part of Labor Day weekend at the Steep Hill Beach. For the two summers we had it, we anchored our little boat, All the Best, here. Funny to think of Dennis on the beach for a few hours now. Dennis who doesn’t like the sun or to sit still. The girls in life jackets for the trip out through the river. A cooler, a net bag of sand toys. Today only Apphia is with me, sunning herself with her friend May. I’m the restless one.

Pulled weeds in the driveway yesterday and wondered: how did they get this bad? So many mornings, as I waited for the bus with the girls, I pulled the grass and wild oregano that had trespassed into the gravel. Other days, we played tag. We put the finishing touches on high ponytails.

5:30 AM, Bella and I walk. I used to set my alarm, instead, to write a few minutes before my new job began. How to teach full time and write? That was a question ten years ago and still.

First Day of Kindergarten for Beatrice. Here with the send-off committee.

First Day of kindergarten for Beatrice. Here with the send-off committee. 2003

Pine Grove’s driveway helps me extend the morning walk to the two miles that feels passable. I pushed the double stroller along this same route on September 11, 2001, to drop Beatrice off for her first day at preschool while her sisters watched, oblivious. Was Beatrice, though? She cried so hard when the teacher carried her inside, and I thought: why not just take her home? Why let any of them out of my sight today?

Dennis turns sixty this month. When he turned 40, we had lived here a few weeks, would be getting married on the last day of the month. At the last minute, I called friends (I used an address book!!, one he’d had since the 70’s) and family. Said nothing to him. All day, they trickled up the driveway, his parents and siblings, his friends, my family. Each time, he stared at them and said, “What are you doing here?” They met the goat, petted the horse. Riley swiped food off plates; Daisy cowered beside one of us.

For his 50th we had a tent. His southshore cousins rented a van. By 8PM, he had his first (and last) migraine, rose after everyone but Tony and his nephew Michael had left, tucked into the leftovers, the coolers of beer.

This year, a smaller gathering where he will give garden tours and then the food, the coolers of beer.

I painted a wall with chalkboard paint to keep track of their soccer games and Dennis and I, applying our best reasoning skills, determined which games I would attend, which ones he would, which ones we’d have to rely on carpools for. Now, when both JV and varsity are home, he moves his chair from one field to the other, half a game each. I stand on the football practice field where I can see both and where, at the end of cross country practice, Beatrice’s team will warm down on the outskirts of where her sisters play, the salt marsh changing colors behind them.

This is always the time of year for flies to find their way inside.

One September, the dog’s cancer returned.

Our first fall on Cross Street, 1995. Daisy still a puppy; Riley alert for dogs who incorrectly assume this is their neighborhood.

Our first fall on Cross Street, 1995. Daisy still a puppy; Riley alert for dogs who incorrectly assume this is their neighborhood.

We recorded Patriots games on the VCR and spent warm Sundays working outside. Tore up a front yard’s worth of forsythias that refused to bloom, shoveled up the macadam from the driveway to replace it with gravel, brought the horse and the dogs out to the trails beyond Kittery Ave. Bill Parcells had just become coach. The Krafts had bought the franchise and promised great things. We drafted Drew Bledsoe and, when he was sidelined by a hit that sheared his blood vessels, we didn’t hurry in to watch some kid named Tom Brady’s first game under center. These days, we let the outside work wait a few more hours.

After a soccer game, I stop at Cider Hill for apples. The stand is abandoned so I bring my money to the ice cream window where the girl says I can leave whatever I think is fair; the woman who runs the orchard has gone for the day. This is the woman, I’m sure, who hosted Justina’s third birthday there, who offered me a dozen pumpkins for a dollar apiece. I bought magic markers and googly eyes, Elmer’s, picked up a cake at Market Basket and invited any of the nursery school kids who could make it. We had a hayride out to the orchard where we picked apples and then we sat and ate cake, colored pumpkins, shooed away yellow jackets.

1995

1995

We got married on the last day of September twenty years ago. This rainy day is nothing like that sunny one. Tonight, no dancing. Dennis cleans the chimney. I’m waiting for the girls to come home to a house that seemed so full of noise just a little while ago.

Every September is back to school. Yellow school buses. The surprise, no matter how inevitable, of the first yellow leaves, of the darkness coming earlier. Cold mornings that turn into warm days. The flattened remains of coiled snakes who come onto the blacktop at night to stay warm and aren’t quick enough to avoid harm. Saturday yard sales. Forgetting how brief apple season lasts. Checking the dates for the Topsfield Fair. Septembers that remind us of other Septembers. Septembers that go on as if it matters little what images they leave us with.

Nice to Meet You? Yes, It Always Is

Todd was well known around campus, a life-of-the-party fraternity-type. Women loved him. Men loved him. He moved in a crowd or inspired one to gather. Why, then, would he remember me? I was quiet then, boyish-looking in my collared shirts and short hair. He’d only met me a dozen or so times even though when we did run into each other, I was always with his former roommate and good friend, Jon. And, true, Todd and I did rollerskate once together — because he asked me. He’s sure to remember me now, I thought, clinging to his arm as we stumbled around the rink to Duran Duran. But the next time Jon and I strolled across campus, here came Todd, reaching out his hand to grasp mine, saying, “Nice to meet you!”

I moved around a lot in my twenties. My social circle changed again and again. It wasn’t until we settled in Rowley that I discovered: My god. It wasn’t Todd at all. It’s me.

Josie and I worked out at the gym. Her children and mine took swim lessons at the same time so we shared bleacher seats and the family changing room. Two other friends introduced us at various times, told us we should get to know each other, that we had so much in common: children the same age, vegetarianism. So, a couple years later, when she requested a meeting with her son’s teachers, I was excited to see her again. I opened my mouth prepared to greet her, when she looked up from her notes blankly. “This is Carla Panciera,” the guidance counselor said, and Josie said: “Nice to meet you.”

Then, there was Tina, a perfectly lovely woman whose daughter was a year ahead of my daughter at our local (and tiny) elementary school. Many days we waited outside for the end of the school day, my friend Anne, Tina, and I chatting. Eventually, I also had Tina’s children in my class. Tina came to parents night. I see her often at Market Basket. Anne and I pass her working in the garden on our morning walks. Each time, she smiles brightly at me — she is very friendly — and cocks her head the way people do when they are waiting to be introduced. “She doesn’t have any idea who I am,” I say. Anne used to say I was imagining it (how little she knows about my history!), until the day she mentioned me to Tina and Tina said, “I hear you mention her name a lot, but I don’t know that I’ve ever met her.”

My brother once married into a small family. By small, I mean ten relatives including his new bride. The matriarch was Aunt Edie, a well-dressed woman who clearly worshipped her niece’s new husband. “Janice’s new husband is a wonderful artist,” Edie would tell me. “Yes, I know,” I would say. “I’m his sister.” She’d glance at me as if I was playing a mean trick. “Remember we met at the shower?” I’d say (where there were six of us around a tiny table?). “And the wedding?” (which took place in my family’s back yard). “And in Janice’s new shop?” (where I was the only customer). And, okay, my brother has four sisters, but she remembered Barbara Ann, Jeannie, and Patty.

Last summer, on a river cruise, I saw Lillian who was very pleased to meet me. I knew she would be, as she has been genuinely pleased each of the dozen times she’s done so — even the time before last when I said. “You know, I’ve met you several times before.”

Marybeth gave my daughters Halloween glowsticks for years because she lives beside Anne whose house I am in nearly as often as my own. When my mother visits, I call Marybeth at the senior center to request a wheelchair rental and remind her that I’m Anne’s friend. When I return the chair, she doesn’t even bother to pretend I’m not a complete stranger to her.

At the Rowley library, I help Suzie unpack books for the used booksale. We’ve met at Holly’s house, a gathering of a few couples to celebrate Holly’s latest book launch. At another of Holly’s (small) gatherings, we embark on a hike and then regroup in Holly’s barn for lunch. Now, across piles of paperbacks, Suzie says, “I have a very good friend in town who’s a writer.” Before I can stop myself I say, “Yes, I know. Holly Robinson.” This causes great confusion until I’m forced to remind her: “I met you at her book launch?” I leave the hike slash luncheon thing out. Preserve some little pride.

At the Ipswich library, Elena, who took several of my writing classes, asks me again what my name is so she can check my book out. At least she admits she has a touch of that facial recognition thing. The director of the library, a man for whom I worked for several years, passes me as if I’m completely invisible, and, perhaps, at least at certain times during my life, I am.

You might think I’d learn by now.

But Bob and I had been counselors together at UNH’s Freshman Camp, an organization that was known on campus as a tight-knit, borderline cultish group. Once a month for three years, we gathered to build the kind of team chemistry that would foster an amazingly fun four day camp experience for three hundred incoming freshman. Camp itself lasted nearly a week. Counselors also spent one weekend every spring at a retreat in a mansion in North Andover where we danced until dawn each night. Bob could swing dance; so could I. Our final year as counselors I was on the Exec Board which meant I sat ON A STAGE to conduct meetings. Fifteen years later, Bob and I met again at a pediatrician’s office where we had both taken our babies. Hugs all around! Good times! Fun, improbable reunion!

So this fall, when Bob’s son walked into my classroom, I said, “Oh my god! Sean Dorring. You’re not going to believe this, but I have danced with your dad.” A few weeks later, I searched the parents night crowd for Bob’s familiar face. Instead, I met his wife who said Bob wouldn’t come to my class because he was embarrassed. “He doesn’t remember you,” she said. His son had even shown him my picture in the yearbook. Nothing. “How do you remember him?” his wife wanted to know.

How, indeed? Maybe I have the opposite of that facial recognition thing. Maybe I am cursed, instead, with indelible imprints. I can see you, all of you: loping across campus as the bells at Thompson Hall chime, bending down to fasten a neon light to my young daughter’s neck, smiling up at the Justice of the Peace as she pronounces our loved ones husband and wife, waiting for your child to bound out the doors of school with her lunchbox swinging. holding out your hands so I twirl just right, spinning so close to you that it is impossible to believe you would ever miss and let me go.

Weekend Write-In: Varsity Line-Up Starting Four

I have taught writing to high school students for twenty years. As public school teachers, we spend a great deal of time writing curriculum according to whatever directives the district and state demand. These change often, driven by the whims of new administrators or politicians. Ideally, according to my evaluators, if you want to teach one of the courses I do, say the senior poetry class, you should be able to read my unit plans on a shared website and, essentially, do what I do.

But whenever a real human being has to teach one of my courses, I begin by recommending one of the following books. Not only do they help me get my students writing and thinking, but they help me get writing and thinking. Best of all, they DEFY proscriptive regulations on how to write curriculum and ask only that real writers describe real lessons that work. Amazing, right?

naming the worldNaming the World. Bret Anthony Johnston, ed. For prose writers and/or teachers of prose writing, I can’t imagine a more helpful book. Johnston (author of Corpus Christi: Stories and Remember Me Like This: A Novel), compiles lessons from Joyce Carol Oates, Ann Packer, Tom Robbins, Elizabeth Strout and Steven Almond, among dozens of others. The lessons are creative, easy to follow, and include both individual and group pursuits. The index includes lists of writing warm-ups to get writers to what Johnston calls, “Ass in the chair time.” Indispensible.

practice of poetryPractice of Poetry: Writing Exercises for Those Who Teach, Chase Twichell and Robin Behn, eds. What Naming the World does for prose writers and teachers of prose, this book does for poets and teachers of poetry. Another compilation of lessons by writers for writers that work. This is a dog-eared, well-loved addition to my bookshelf at home and at school.

the discovery of poetryThe Discovery of Poetry, Frances Mayes. If you want to learn more about what poetry is and how to go about writing it; if you want models both contemporary and classic for the various elements you study; if you want a book whose writer speaks to you, invites you to enjoy both the reading and writing of poetry, you can’t do better than Mayes. I use this book with both my senior poetry class and with my AP English students because Mayes makes poetry accessible. She offers you, especially, many poems to choose from and, in this way, guides you toward learning from those writers whose work you most admire. All textbooks should be written like this: Mayes wants you to love poetry first and foremost and then, if you choose, to write some of your own.

on-writingOn Writing by Stephen King. This book is half memoir, half craft lessons. Unlike the other books I’ve listed here, King doesn’t offer exercises. Instead, he describes his own life as a writer and then he offers tips to fiction writers. Teenagers love this book, and adults understand why King has sold so many books. You can imagine him speaking to you over beer (or, since he doesn’t touch the stuff), strong coffee. His advice is straightforward and far from high-brow. Great read.

These books, for me, get the job done. I especially value hearing from writers who write and teach.

What can you add to this list? What books help you write? Teach? Think?

5:30 AM

Sunrise is not for another forty-five minutes, but the sky lightens. First day back to school for my daughters. If they are sleeping, it has been fitful, full of running dreams.

On our street, cars pass on their way to an early train. No lights on in the neighbors’ houses yet. Even the mean woman next door sleeps peacefully, resting up to take on the day’s conflicts.

The new goats across the street still dream of whatever keeps them from crying out once the sun has risen. Too early for chipmunks, but this doesn’t derail Bella’s thrill when we pass the stone walls.

Lights on in a house with horses outside it. Horses nickering towards the yellow windows. The cat has yet to come out into the driveway, though, the gray and white one that glares at Bella when we are not out so early as this.

In a house with chickens outside, another light. The coyote who’s been stopping by must see it, though it won’t deter him. The chickens reshuffling feathers over their nests, the broody one determined: today is the day I will not be forced out into the light.

Janet isn’t up yet. She will be by the time my girls get to the busstop. She’ll let us know if we’ve missed it. Sleep on, Janet. The school year has just begun.

The brook runs.

In the hayfields that didn’t get a third cutting, no finches fly up. No geese paddle at the edges as they did one day this week. Nor any adult turkey keeping watch over several young ones making their way through the tall grass.

On the corner, a house with young children. Upstairs, someone is awake, though the shades aren’t drawn; downstairs, no doubt, someone else tries to brew a quiet pot of coffee, to claim a few minutes of quiet before the day begins.

No one has taken up the free stuff by the apartment house: crockpot, travel mugs, file cabinet. They have made it through another night. Not the skunk carcass, though. The scavengers have finally finished their work there (and we’re grateful for it).

We pass another border collie, one more interested in making friends than Bella is. Her owner is still shirtless from a hot night. Maybe he didn’t expect to see us here.

Bella pauses at Anne’s house, waiting, but no Anne today. She’s no doubt awake, dreading the commute into town, waiting for the coffee machine’s timer to click on, holding the dog off a few moments longer.

The big house has been quiet ever since the woman died. No more walks, arm in arm, with her husband in his overalls, her hair in a bonnet. No reason to rise early, especially if the night has been difficult.

A light in the kitchen of the big dog’s small house, but the yard he guards so loyally is empty.In a yard full of flea market items, a security light burns. Nothing appears stolen, but who can tell?

My mechanic has not yet opened shop.

One house has no shades, so the first floor is illuminated. Television on. Open cabinets. A shelf of bowls.

No scent of baking donuts arises from the shop on the corner, its for sale sign hanging in a dark window. At the white house on Main Street, a bulb burns over a back porch, a two person bench, as if to say: sit here for a bit; I’ll be with you as soon as I can throw something on.

The elementary school looks open, though its parking lot is empty except for the custodian’s car. The nursery school stays shuttered, silent, as does the big house that is never quite finished, the acupuncturist’s house, its stone cairn emerging in the dawn.

Someone burns an electric candle on a second floor above a front door, its glow partially obscured by a sheer curtain: here’s the way home.

The new puppy’s house is quiet. Good for them. Quiet, the family who just dropped their son off at college.

At Stephanie’s another woman stands at her counter. It’s been a long time, now, since Stephanie died, and we’re happy for her husband, but to many of us, that will always be her front porch, her kitchen, her windows.

Bella and I loop back onto our own street where someone has woken up in the ranch house, the window hidden by an overgrown shrub.

In the house with a newborn in it, the father drags the trash to the curb. He’s still wearing his pajamas.

Finally, a chipmunk, so sleepy it sits still atop the stones, but Bella misses it. It’s hot already and she doesn’t have to rely on hunting to stay alive (a good thing).

In our own house, lights blaze. Inside, I know, water runs, phones buzz, bare feet pad from closet to mirror. Someone is looking for flip flops; someone else is cursing her hair. No one thinks they’ll have time for breakfast. Everyone wonders if they have whatever it is they need to get through the day. Enzo, the gray cat, watches from doorways. Minx, the white cat, has already gone back to sleep after breakfast.

Bella won’t yet come in for a drink of water and I don’t blame her. Hold onto the morning for me, my pet. Hold fast to what we’ve witnessed: the slowly waking world.