Here is how - and with whom - my puppy spent his afternoon today. This must be picture book material.
Lois Lowry's Blog
I was blown away by a book this evening. Alone here at the farm...but for a puppy who was busy chewing a pillow at the time...I sat on the porch with a glass of wine and began a book called CROW LAKE by Mary Lawson.
Mary Lawson, the author info tells me, is a Canadian who lives in England. I sat there wondering what it is abut Canadian women authors. Maybe this is a huge over-generalization, but I have found Canadian women authors...Carol Shields*, Margaret Lawrence, Margaret Atwood, among others...to be the writers who have most compelled me with their fiction in recent years.
Canada is, of course, a huge country with vast areas of isolation. I remember traveling by train across Canada in 2001, and as the twice-a-week train chugged through a one-street town - where it did not stop, where it never stopped - a man standing in a second floor wndow turned, dropped his trousers, and mooned the passengers watching from the train windows. I remember wondering about that man. Did he look forward with glee to those Tuesday and Thursday events? Or were they a chore (man looks at watch, groans, says: "Oh god, it's almost 3 o'clock; gotta go pull my pants down again")?
Not much to do in a place like that, and less, I suppose, for a woman. Does it make an intelligent woman introspective, creative, observant, literate?
Mary Lawson is all of that and more....
Here is the start of a list of THINGS YOU CANNOT DO WHEN THERE IS A PUPPY IN THE HOUSE:
1. Use a mop of any kind. The puppy thinks it is a combination of toy and invader, and must be chased, attacked, growled at, and grabbed.
2. Take a shower with any privacy. Of course you can take a shower. But every thirty seconds the shower curtain is pulled aside and a furry head looks in to make sure you are still there.
3. Leave the New York Times on the floor. The puppy goes into shredding mode....
Last night Alfie didn't wake me with his "wanna pee" whine until 5 AM and I must say that I liked that much better then the prevous 2 AM and 3 AM calls, mainly because of the light outside. At 5 AM the sky is lightening a bit in the east, over the lake. At 2 AM, particularly on a moonless night, it is VERY dark here in the country, and as I make my way by Braille around the grassy peeing territory, I am very aware that we have had both bears and coyotes prowling this acreage.
I liked it out there at dawn. There were birds on all the feeders, the grass was dew-covered,and the sky was pink over Long Lake. It felt as if it would be a fine new day.
I didn't know this at the time, but at 4 AM this morning my dear friend Deborah (I'll add a photo of her)was taken into surgery at Mass. General Hospital and given a new transplanted heart. Deb was born with a congenital conditon that had virtually destroyed the heart she had, and since age 45 - nine years ago - she has been living on borrowed time, but with enormous grace and optimism.
There have been some complications, I'm told, but the new heart is functioning, and someone whose name we do not know has given Deborah - and her beloved husband, Jack - a chance at a life together they would not otherwise have had.
I have an organ donor card in my wallet. I hope everyone who reads this will make certain that they do, too....
The puppy woke me up this morning at 6:22 AM (Why is it I always glance at the clock when he gives that little yip that means "Take me out so I can pee"?) and it was (still is, at 7:15) pouring rain. Darn! Tha gardens will love the drink of water, but why today? Today I am having between 50-60 people here for a 50th anniversary celebration. And though there are rented tables and chairs set up in the barn, and enlarged old photos of the anniversary couple thumbtacked to the walls inside the barn.....we had envisioned the barn as the place for sitting-down-to-eat-in-the-shade, a respite for people roaming the lawns and enjoying the view of the lake and mountains. Now the view is gone completely, hidden by rain. I will have to slog out through the deluge to pick the flowers that will become bouquets on the tables. The rain is tap-tapping on the metal roof; and it is DARK today in the barn. With the wide doors open at both ends, on a nice day, breezes and light flow through. Not today, though, unless the weather does a quick turnaround in the next 4 hours. People are due to arrive at noon.
We will make the best of it. But DARN.
Happier note: in the mail I have received an advance copy of a YA book to be published by Atheneum next March: "The Opposite of Music" by Janet Ruth Young. I first read this in its earliest stages, a partially completely manuscript, when I was one of several judges selecting new work to be awarded the PEN New England Childrens Book Caucus Children's Discovery award (an award now named the Susan P. Bloom Award) several years ago. The book-in-progress had a different title then - and I can't even remember what it was - but I do remember that in introducing the author at the event where she received the award, I said that while reading it, I had thought: "I wish I'd written this!" Not in envy but in admiration. The book is so well structured, so innnovative in its form; and I am happy to see, reading the finished product, that it has not lost those qualities.
I very rarely - make that never - write blurbs for books. You know what a blurb is, right? One of those quotations on a book's jacket that says something like, "I couldn't put this down. What a page-turner!" and then is signed by someone who too often is a close friend of the author.
Just for the record, I am not a close friend of Janet Ruth Young. I've only met her once. But I do admire this book and I feel, a bit, as if I was in on its early stages and am now so happy to see that it has grown into such a fine finished novel. So I will be glad to write a few words of well-deserved praise to help send it out into the world....
It's always a lot of fun to meet young readers, and here I am with Bobby DiFronzo, age 16, in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, day before yesterday. I knew his mom years ago and went to visit her when I was in Florida on Saturday (I'm now back in Maine)... and Bobby showed me the school project he had done on "The GIver" when he was in sixth grade. The really nice thing is that he had saved it all this time! Or maybe his mom had. In any case, it was great to see it, and him...and his brother Jesse, (who didn't get his photo taken.)
I went to the Portland airport yesterday morning without having heard the news of the terrorist plot against the airlines. So it took me by surprise to find, in that small airport, huge slow-shuffling security lines, and people discarding toothpaste, sunscreen, toddler's juiceboxes, etc. Dutifully I jettisoned my stuff and boarded a plane that left Portland an hour late, still giving me enough time to make my connection in Atlanta. But the Atlanta airport was also something of a zoo, and a zoo with thunderstorms as well, and my 5:20 flight from there to Panana City dindn't take off till 10:30 PM. Finally, though, I am here, with my granddaughter...she and I are sharing bunk beds (I get the bottom!) in a condo on the beach...and my daughter-in-law...just for a couple of days, and then I fight my way through the travel situation to go back home, pick up my puppy, and go back to work.
My granddaughter was born here when her dad, a USAF pilot, was stationed here at Tyndall USAF base. I flew down then to meet her when she was two days old, in 1993. They returned to Germany when she was five months old and now her mom has brought her to see where she lived as a tiny baby. She doesn't remember the house, of course; but amazingly she does have some memories of the house we rented in Seaside, FL, when she was two and a half. Her dad had been killed the previous spring, and we came then to have some quiet time together, and for Margret to see some of their many friends who were still in the area.
My memory of that rented house is also a memory of a children's book and my first very profound awareness of the role that literature can have in the lives of children. Nadine was two and a half, just learning to talk, and learning in two languages simultaneously. Her mother is German and her father had been American, so they had always spoken to her in both languages; and after he died, her mom spoke English to her - her mom's family speaking German - so that she would continue to have both.
During that visit, her mother went out to dinner with old friends while I babysat. It was the first time she had left Nadine since her papa had died, and when it grew dark outside, the little girl began to cry and cry. I had taken a lot of picture books with me to that rented house, and that night she chose the one we read again and again....she, shuddering with sobs, whispering "read it" to me each time we came to the end, and so I would begin once again at the beginning. The book is called "Owl Babies" and it is by Martin Waddell. Such a simple story, of three baby owls who wake in the night to find their mother gone. Two are filled with ration and logic, explaining to the terrified littlest one that she is out hunting for their food. But the frightened little one wails again and again, "I want my mommy"...the same thing my granddaughter was feeling that night. Each time the book moved toward its wonderful ending, with the mother owl swooping in and enfolding the babies in her huge wings, I could feel my frightened and grieving granddaughter relax in my lap with the knowledge that her own mama, too, would return.
It has been such a long time since then, and the same child who sobbed then is now a tall, beautiful, and self-assured almost-13-year-old. She says she has vague memories of that house, the house where we read "Owl babies" again and again. She doesn't remember her own fear, or the reassurance of that book; but she remembers the porch swing....
OKay, so it is only August 9th. Summer isn't REALLY ending yet. But it starts to feel like it, around now. Last night was the last concert of the chamber music festival. When I got home and took Alfie out for a walk, there was an almost-full moon, and the air was cool.
Yesterday he had his first playmate for a visit: a German Shepherd puppy named Sophie, who came to visit with my friend Kay; and it was Alfie's first time off the leash, as he and Sophie wrestled and ran for almost an hour (then the two of them collapsed on the porch and slept, so that Kay and I could eat lunch with no dogs wanting to investigate the sandwiches).
Sophie lives down the street from us in Cambridge so will come to play in our yard often after summer DOES end and we go back home. Alfie has not yet ever seen his "real" home, just this farm where he is learning to chase chipmunks and to be wary of the underground electric fence.
German Shepherds are smarter than Tibetan Terriers, I mention with a sigh. That is why German Shepherds are guide dogs, and drug-sniffing dogs, and police dogs, and win at Las Vegas, and get tenured positons at MIT. Tibetan Terriers...well, they are just fluffy stuffed animals who are a little timid about their own shadows and who like to curl in your lap....
I've been cleaning out the barn. We're having a large party...50th anniversary for my son's parents-in-law (my son married the daughter of friends of mine; how nice is THAT?!) and here is this huge space, open at each end—when we roll the giant doors aside—for a breeze to come through; and the walls are perfect for tacking up photos, etc, so there will be tables set up, and lots of food, and friends and kids and dogs and the whole wonderful thing that happens on family occasions.
Also in the barn is the Mickey-and-Judy room, the little theater, where last summer my granddaughter, Nadine, and her friend Annika, both of them 11 years old at the time - visiting from Germany, put on a puppet show which they had written, rehearsed, and for which they had made the puppets. The amazing thing was that Annika spoke no English at all. Nadine speaks both English and German - she always has, since when she was acquiring lnaguage she had an American dad (my son) and a German mom. Nadine's dad died when she was two. But after that her mother spoke English to her so that she would keep the language of her American family.
At any rate, here they are (Nadine on the left) with their puppets after a wildly successful performance of "The Bad Prince" during which Annika read her English dialogue phonetically and beautifully. There were fourteen people in the auidence and each of them gave the show a rave review. The sign above the puppet-theater-window, which is hard to read in the photo, says THE LIVELY VIRTUOSO THEATER ARTS COMPANY, FOUNDED 2002.
The sock puppets, a little moldy, are in The Green Room still, along with the HISS, BOO, and APPLAUSE instructional signs. So I've been smiling with nostalgia as I clean the barn....
Last night I left Alfie in his crate and went off for a couple of hours to a chamber music concert. It is one of the fine things in this area, in summer, the Sebago Long Lake Music Festival every Tuesday night, and last night's concert was no exception except that is was SOOO HOT that I suffered for the performers on the stage during a Mozart string quintet; between each movement they each had to wipe their faces and necks. And the theater, Deertrees Theater, a historic and quite wonderful place in the woods (Harrison, Maine) gave out bottles of water to each member of the audience as we entered.
When I got home, it was still very hot (I had left two separate fans blowing on the puppy's crate); there was a half a moon, and when I took him out on the lawn to pee, Alfie expereinced shadows for the first time: his and mine, quite long across the moonlit lawn.
It reminded me of a passage in my book GOSSAMER when the protagonist, Littlest, experiences the same thing:
They tiptoed across. Littlest noticed her own shadow n the moonlight. "My goodness!" she said. "I didn't know we had shadows!"
"Of course we do. All cretasures have shadows. It's a phenomenon created by light."...
Very soon now I will stop obssessing about my new puppy and turn my attention back to my work. A new puppy IS one's work, for a while. Last night I moved Alfie's crate to the studio off the barn, farther away from my bedroom, so that I (and my neighbors) could hear less yowling, then I turned on the window AC in my bedroom...more masking noise..and then I slept all night and ignored whatever was taking place out there in terms of "Woe is me" noise. At 6 AM I went out to find him sitting there looking at me, no yelping at the sound of my approach, and a whirwind greeting of tail and tongue when I opened the door of the crate, so he hadn't held a grudge. (though he had left a small memento in the crate)
Here's an interesting thing. The book GOSSAMER, which I am currently adapting to the stage, has a dog in it. I worried about that: does one find a dog trainer, create a canine actor a la "Annie" ...and how hard is THAT? But the theater director told me he intended using a human actor as the dog. Once the audience believes in it, he said, the rest falls into place.
Now, watching Alfie, his moods and postures, I can almost picture an adroit actor mimicking all of it: the tilted head, the "rub my belly" pose, the fake growl as, puzzled, he sees himself reflected in the glass of the door. At this moment he is doing battle with a squeaky rubber folded newspaper, pouncing on it, tossing it, then fake-ignoring it so it won't know that he is about to leap again.
When I go back to the play...as I will very soon...I will have a different vision of the dog, Toby. My late dog, Bandit, didn't give me that because he was so old; his reactions were slowed, his days passed mostly in resting. Toby, the book-dog, play-dog, will be someplace in between: no longer a leaping, twirling puppy but not yet a tired relic. Toby will be an alert, interested, devoted dog. Okay, a guy in a dog suit....
Here he is: to be four months old on August 1st. This will be his first night without his sister and brother and he is glued to my ankles...but adorable, and well-behaved so far. Inquisitive, but not intimidated. Very curious, very playful, but laid back, not at all hyper-active. And it is so nice to have a dog around the house again!
Just for the record: everyone remembers the one line..."What's it all about, Alfie"...from the Bachrach song....but the lyrics conclude:
As sure as I believe there's a heaven above, Alfie,
I know there's something much more,
something even non-believers can believe in.
I believe in love, Alfie.
Without true love we just exist, Alfie.
Until you find the love you've missed you're nothing, Alfie.
When you walk let your heart lead the way
and you'll find love any day, Alfie, Alfie.
This is a photograph of my father, taken the day Pearl Harbor was bombed: December 7, 1941. One of my earliest memories - I was four and a half - watching my father put his Leica on a tripod, taking his own picture with a timing device, and then going into his darkroom to print this.
I can only imagine, now that he is gone and I can't ask him this (and he wouldn't have replied anyway, I suspect, taciturn Norwegian that he was) how he felt that day. He was thirty five years old, a major in the army, with a wife and two little girls. We had only recently left Honolulu, where I had been born, and the Japanese planes had flown in low over the house where we had lived. The explosions and smoke would have been visible from that house.
I had watched my mother listening to the radio that Sunday, and had run to find my father, who was outside, about to get into the car. "Come back!" I called to him. "Mama is crying!"
He came in, listened to the radio with her, and then changed his clothes. He put on his uniform. It seems strange to me now, that he did that. Was it some kind of patriotic gesture? Or did it immediately become mandatory that all military officers wear their uniforms? We were living in New York then. It is likely that they feared New York would be bombed next....
Well, I realize that my life proceeds in the same fashion that my writing-a-book does. I have a plan, or think I do, and then something takes me by surprise and the whole trajectory of the plot changes. It keeps things interesting for me as a writer and for me as a person...but it sometimes becomes more complicated than I anticipated!
Soooo....yesterday I was heading down from Maine because I have a PEN-New England board meeting in Cambridge tonight. On the way, because it was en route, and despite the fact the litter of puppies is still very small (2 weeks old) I decided to visit my new puppy. The breeder told me it would be okay, and when I got there she had me wash my hands in a special antiseptic .. and then I went and looked at the four little males from which I would eventually choose after their personalities develop. (Right now they have the personalities of amobae). I held each of them cupped in one hand...they are that small...while the attentive mom watched me a little suspiciously, though she seemed a pretty sanguine mom.
Then, when I was leaving, I looked over at an outdoor pen that housed three rambunctious puppies...older ones...who were wrestling with each other....and looking at me with interest. "Who are they?" I asked. Well, they were Tibetans born April 1st, almost four months old, and yes: a couple of them were available.
She let them out of the pen and they raced around the yard leaping on each other, and one of them ran over and jumped into the small pond and then sat there looking goofy. "Is that one sold?" I asked.
Nope. he wasn't. Now he is....
I try to make a point, blogwise, of not getting into conversations, answering questions like "How did you get the idea for...?" etc. but someone has asked the name of the Welsh mystery I mentioned. And what the heck: it is always a good thing to support another author, though I suspect this one has no need of my publicity. The author's name is RHYS BOWEN (my grandson is named Rhys because his parents travelled in Wales and loved the name, a common one there) and the mystery series is the Constable Evans series. The titles all seem to make puns on the name Evans..such as "Evans to Betsy"...I forget which one I read lately and it has gone back to the library alread so I can't check.
I love libraries. No surprise. But the little public library of my childhood was such an important part of my life that I long remembered it as magnificent and huge, with a hundred marble steps leading to it as if it were a cathedral. When I returned to that small town (Carlisle, Pennsylvania) to speak at the library's 100th birthday a few years ago, I discovered that it was a small building with maybe ten cement steps.
But it had always felt important and grand to me then. It was a hushed, dim, and quiet place, not the airy space alive with projects and laughter that libraries are today. It felt like a place of worship to me, and I went there with my hands freshly washed and my best manners on display. I think I would have liked the style of contemporay libraries, and I would laugh and talk along with the other children, were I a child today; but still, I am very nostalgic about the old-fashionedness of it then, in the 40s, and the solemnity I felt every time I pulled open the heavy front door.
I just...while writing this...loked for a website and there it was, the Bosler Library, and I see that this summer there is a kids' reading program and the theme is books and animals. I want to be eight again!! Those were my two favorite things when I was eight!!!! I would have been reading "My Friend Flicka" that year, and "The Yearling" - we owned both books in my home, so my copies would not have been library books...but I would have been haunting that library for other books like them, books that would draw me into the life of a child with a horse, or a fawn, or some other four-footed pet to love. My own airedale puppy had bitten my baby brother and had to be given away; I wept with Jody in The Yearling for the tragedy of his lost fawn, because I had known such loss myself.
I found a photo too, on that website, and so here it is: my childhood church. The place that taught me how to move into a fictional world and feel it come to life.
I’ve been reading a charming mystery set in Wales, and am reminded (I should have remembered this from Dylan Thomas) how locals there are called by their profession, so that the butcher in this novel is James the Meat as opposed to the baker, James the Bread.
It started me thinking about the people in this small rural part of Maine, and those in particular who have become friends since I bought this place 4 years ago. Recently, in griping about the wild turkeys, I mentioned the backhoe artist Dave Bell, whom – in Welsh tradition – I should perhaps have called Dave the Machine. Then there would be Kevin the Stone, an artist with Maine granite, who rebuilt my walls so beautifully. Lucia the Garden, an artist with nature, who brought this place back from scorched, neglected earth into a series of verdant little pieces of paradise. Arthur the Wood, my 70+ year old carpenter who knows just how to rebuild the crumbling parts of a 240-year-old house in ways that respect its age and honor its history.
There is also Daryl the Roof, who has had to survive nature red in tooth and claw, as Shakespeare aptly put it. His only phobia, Daryl says, is snakes; and there was a big one in residence under the old shingles. While he dealt with the snake, he was continuously dive-bombed and scolded by the pair of red-tailed hawks who were raising babies in the peak of my barn and didn’t want a human messing around.
I mustn’t forget Mark the Iron. Mark is an artist as well, a welder who four years ago had to battle leukemia and the ordeal of a bone marrow transplant. He’s fine now. But there was a time, Mark told me, when he was out of the hospital but still recovering, not yet able to go back to work, when he looked around his barn at all the odds and ends stored there—rusting pieces of scrap metal—and began to see things in them. He began to perceive that if he welded that old handlebar to that old pitchfork, or that length of chain to that shovel….well, he might, as Mark puts it, “get something.” And so—by instinct and imagination—he has become a sculptor of found art, exhibited now in galleries. I have two of his pieces on the back terrace.
I realize I could go on and on…with the bookstore people, the potter, the plumber (Mike the Pipe, who found a way to activate an abandoned well and water my gardens from it), and so many others, because a small town is made as much of its people as of its buildings (dilapidated, mostly) and its landscape (spectacular)....
If you were to see him walk across your living room, you would shriek and call an exterminator. He is very small. But he is here: our new puppy, a brindle male Tibetan terrier, born July 12, resting comfortably with his mom and eight siblings.
His name is Alfie.
About four years ago, I was speaking at the public library in the small Maine town where my children grew up, a town I have not lived in since 1977. Afterward, a little girl about ten came and introduced herself to me. She lived in the same house where I had once lived. She described that when her family bought the house and moved in, they removed wallpaper that had been there for a long time, and found messages and drawings on the bare plaster underneath.
I laughed, remembering it. We too had removed wallpaper from that room, and before re-papering, I had allowed…more than allowed, encouraged…my children to leave messages on the wall.
I seem to recall that my oldest, a daughter, wrote something lengthy in another language…maybe Latin. My youngest, a son, was skilled at cartooning, and I can almost figure out the year this was – probably 1973 - because I remember him doing a cartoon of Richard Nixon holding up his hands with his fingers in Vee’s. It was Watergate time.
My kids were 15, 14, 12, and 11 when they wrote on the wall. They all grew up as time passed, and they departed from that house to create their own adult lives.
One of them, a son, died in the cockpit of an F-15 when he was 36. I remember him writing me from Saudi Arabia; he had flown that day over the burning oil wells of Kuwait, through thick black smoke, and he said in his letter that he was flying over and looking down at human tragedy....
It is unwieldy, I know, to look at what people have posted in reply to what I have posted...but I do want to call your attention, especially those of you who are teachers, to the posting that follows a recent one titled "Perhaps it was only an echo" because it comes from a teacher...as many other postings do. I love hearing from teachers: how they use my books, or any books; and here is an example of how someone responded to my brief discussion of an E.M. Forster quote that another teacher had sent. It is so wonderful when one thought, one snippet, one insight, connects to another...and then, although we haven't met and in many cases I don't even know where you are...still, we begin to forge something together.
With that in mind....and guessing, too, that many of you majored in Literature, as I did, and therefore will know this already....let me point out the most famous quotation from Forster (part ofwhich he used as an epigraph to his novel HOWARD'S END)...."Only connect! ....Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer."
Our connections to one another are the most valuable and unbreakable and at the same time most fragile bonds we have. Our world is so fragmented now, and our children so victimized by the fragmentation. We have to connect to each other, and to them, and to the greater world; and I think we can do it partly through books.
I'll end this blathering with one more thought from Forster, and it relates, I think, to that final scene in THE GIVER:
"The present flowed by them like a stream. The tree rustled. It had made music before they were born, and would continue after their deaths, but its song was of the moment. The moment had passed. The tree rustled again. Their senses were sharpened, and they seemed to apprehend life. Life passed. The tree rustled again."
Early this summer, I hired Dave Bell again. Dave Bell is a guy with heavy equipment who knows how to use it. (Why does that sentence sound vaguely obscene?) In the past he has come in with backhoes and other-things-I-don't-know-the-names-of, and he has moved chunks of granite around, and once, two summers ago, he tried to dig me a pond. But when my pond-to-be was ten feet deep, it still had not encountered water; and I found myself murmuring a mis-quoted line from an old Monty Pythion episode: "Madam, this is a dead parrot." So Dave Bell went into reverse and filled it back up.
Anyway, Dave Bell came again this summer, and he dug up a long wide strip between my lawn and my meadow. Then...after the worst of the rain finally stopped...we planted mixed wildflowers in that strip.
The wildflowers should be coming up now. They are not. I think they are not coming up because early every morning, that wide strip of turned, planted earth is populated by crows, deer, and wild turkeys.
Yesterday I went into the scarecrow-making business. So far I have created two scarecrows.
One is wearing a red hat that was given to me by the writer Susan Goodman. Susan Goodman had heard me make some derisive comments about the ladies who wear purple clothes and red hats and line up en masse to attend events - theater, concerts, etc. - together. I am all in favor of female bonding and I have many, many wonderful women friends but for some reason I am creeped out by the red hat phenomenon. Susan Goodman came to visit me here at the farm last summer and she brought me, as a joke gift, a (very large) red hat....