Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Hello, friends and writers!

Last week I was hit with a sudden impulse to share a copy of the second Gus LeGarde book, entitled Upstaged.

We've spoken a fair amount about Double Forte', the founding book in the series, and Tremolo, the newly released "flashback to the sixties" literary mystery in which Gus and his friends are children. But we rarely talk about Upstaged, the theatrical mystery where the local drama club gets to produce a musical Gus wrote in his college days, while they battle a psychotic saboteur who lurks backstage. It's a fun ride - and of course, the book features plenty of lush nature vignettes, family meals, and the usual LeGarde backdrops against the mounting tension of evil that plays behind the scenes.

That's a photoshopped image of my wife, Dale, on a park bench on the Boston Commons, probably right around 1969, when Gus "wrote" the musical. We were probably waiting for a Rolling Stones concert, I can't remember which event it was. Anyway, Gus's Musical, "Spirit Me Away," features a flower child who's lost in many senses of the word. I had to change Dale's hair color (it's dark auburn) to match the character, and photoshopped the background to look like a stage set. ;o) This whole idea of Gus's musical sparked another another book, tentatively entitled Portamento, which describes this part of Gus and Elsbeth's youth while they were in Boston at the conservatory.
Anyway, after an invigorating walk on a local dirt road on a crisp snowy day, I chose "Why I love winter" as the contest theme. There were no rules, no word limits, and no direction, other than the suggested subject. For those of you who dislike winter, I suggested you make something up! LOL.

We received numerous amazing entries - many of which may be read in my column at the Gather.com Saturday Writing Essential. Bob Evans (aka Elizabeth) wrote a lovely poem sharing her passion for nature and walks in the woods. Wilma M. remembered how much she loved snowstorm walks, especially at night. Trudy spoke with nostalgia, missing snowy winters since she moved to California, but reveling in the beauty of her current surroundings. I spoke of a winter gift by a friend of ready-to-bloom forsythia buds, and Debbie G. recalled her grandmother's forsthia with fondness.
Dale C., a Viet Nam veteran, told us how his take on snow and winter changed after he returned from the war, and amazed us with tales of snow creatures and castles he formed in his driveway, providing untold pleasures in the cold and giving neighbors and passersby unexpected delight. I truly loved his entry, as did many Gather folks.

Wiaka shared her passion for life and God with awareness of the miracle of the snowy blanket He provides to cover and nurture the spring flowers growing beneath. She told us that winter is her favorite time due to the purity of the snowy scenes that highlight the tenderness of God's love. This was a new angle - and it resonated with me.

Behind the scenes, I received more entries that were too large for posting to the comments section. Lorraine L. sent "Snow Falling in Baghdad," a touching piece about children across the globe and a young underprivileged child named Travonti. It was a heartwarming piece full of love and wonder.
Ravi Bedi, the accomplished painter and artist extraordinaire, sent a photo essay reminding us of the less privileged folks in his country and the hardships they bear with such courage. I loved his words and photos, and urge you to take a look.

Thank you all for the amazing outpouring of articles and memories. I loved each and every one, and for those of you who simply visited and commented, thank you for stopping by.

Now it's time to announce the winner. It was a hard decision, but I fell in love with this piece by Pat F., entitled, "Into the Woods." She's posted it here, but I have permission to reprint it below.

Into The Woods
by Patricia Fowler

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

-Robert Frost

I'm just sitting here by the kitchen window. And loving it. How often do I just let go of what I should be doing and do what I want to do? Which right now is no more than to watch my birds.
There's a flurry of activity at the feeder. It happens every day about this time. I guess my little friends want to eat before they get all tucked in for the night. I wiggle my toes in my pink fuzzy socks and smile-pure contentment. I haven't done anything really constructive all day. If only I could shake this guilt.
My son, in true teenage form, has slept away most of this day- a hangover from mid terms I suppose. I hear him coming. I try to look like I am busy at something.
He gallops down the stairs-two by two. Our old house shakes and shivers. I can almost hear it moan, "Ow! Take it easy! These bones can't take that!" He's oblivious.
"Mom. What are you doing today?"
"Me? Oh, I don't know. The usual. Some bills. Email. Laundry, always laundry." I lie. I mean, c'mon, look at the pile there. "And if I feel really industrious, I might go to the grocery store." Why am I compelled to look so ....so busy? "Want me to pick up a couple of movies for the rest of our snow day?"
"No. I want to go down to Hyla Brook. The Frost Farm. I want to reconcile myself with him. I want to know what Robert Frost is about." He really says this stuff-reconcile with Robert Frost. I have to smile.
"But it's Hyla freezing out there! Why now?"
"I've been reading Ezra Pound."
"I know I should know who he is, but..."
"Mom! C'mon! He friggin' discovered Robert Frost in London! He also edited the Wasteland for T.S. Eliot. He's a poet and an essayist. C'mon, Mom."
Okay. I'm shrinking a bit. Well, a lot. So I really sit up and listen.
"I never really thought I liked Frost but the more I read him, I don't know, I just want to understand him. I love his quote, 'I had a lover's quarrel with the world' and, oh, about free verse, which he hated, he wrote, 'It's like playing tennis with the net down'." He laughs. "I like that."
He's seventeen. He likes to think against the stream. I like that.
Suddenly, I want to read more Frost. And Ezra. And Rimbaud, whoever the hell he is. Alex is a little high- minded. He thinks Frost is too simple. He doesn't know that simple things can be the most true. The most thunderous.
"C'mon let's go see Hyla Brook," he says. "Maybe I'll see the light".
How can I get in the way of that? Maybe this cold-ass trek will help him to see that light.
So, unlike me, I pull on boots. And layer upon layer of heavy wool and fleece. Against the best advice of every lazy fiber in my body, I move from the comfort of my easy chair and accept this venture into the woods.
We drive the two miles or so to Frost's farm. How many times a week do I whiz by this landmark with only the slightest ripple of regard for this man; this man who could spin philosophical gold from a field of new- mown hay?
For about the thousandth time, I subject Alex to my recitation of 'Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening.' I am reminded what a delight it is to recite by heart-the words tumble out so effortlessly.
I learned this musical poem when I attended Pinkerton Academy, my high school, where Frost taught English to my grandfather. I think every kid in Derry can recite it; a sort of rite of passage here in this New Hampshire town.
I took Latin in the same wainscoted room, with its mad high windows, where Frost taught English. There was a stone bust of Frost on the mantle, but I doubt I ever gave it a glance. I was probably too busy being coy for a boy behind my sheets of ironed hair. Coy for a boy-as close as I'd get to poetry back then. And yet he reads Baudelaire.
The steep pitched roof of the white farmhouse is in view. As I slow to make the turn into the gravel driveway, a big red truck is on my tail. The guy is beeping and gesturing at me, apparently oblivious to our poetic quest on this winter afternoon. Another harried soul-I muse-who should park that big red monster and take a walk on this farm; let his soul get quiet for awhile.
Despite all my waxing on about quiet souls, it's damn hard to get out of our warm car and step into the biting winter wind. It really bites, that's not just a word that people toss around up here. I wonder if it'll do to just get a book of Frost and read it here-from the warmth of this space. After all, the vibes are all around us-it could work.
But Alex is already out, impatient for me to get my act together. He stamps his feet against the cold, and cups his gloves to his face. The steam blows over the tops of his gloved fingertips like a waterfall-he's bullish to get going. "MOM! C'MON!"
"Oh, all right!" I open the car door and slowly roll out, about as gracefully as a refrigerator with mittens and a hat.
He flies ahead of me on the frozen path. Oddly, I notice his right foot turns out a bit- as I warily trudge- lest I turn my own. I follow my guide. Wait. When did his shoulders get so broad?
He's rambling aloud to me, or the trees, about Frost and Rimbaud, and Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. He reads like a demon and can quote from the books by heart. I envy him his easy access to all that brilliance of thought. All the connections he makes, at his tender age. I was just being coy with that boy when I was seventeen.
To my happy surprise, the path running along the rock wall to the woods is relatively bare. Mashed maple leaves paint a long reddish stripe to the woods beyond the field where we are headed. There are guideposts all along the path-but no guide-so one must only guess at the merit of each stopping place.
"See that stand of birches over there? I wonder if that's why they want us to stop here-right at this point." The white birches stand alone, in a clump, their papery white trunks so starkly outlined against the gray woods. Beautiful.
"Alex. Stop! Maybe Bobby wrote 'Birches' after standing here. Right here!" I say with no small touch of real wonder. "Maybe he was feeding his chickens or setting his cow out to pasture on a cold January day just like this one! And he spied that same stand of birches. Well, I guess they would have been a lot smaller then." Reality bites, like this wind.
He looks back over his shoulder and rolls his eyes.
Undaunted, I continue, " 'Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells, shattering and avalanching on the snow crust-such heaps of broken glass to sweep away, you'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen...the inner dome of heaven'...I love that."
"I know, Mom; one of your favorites." But he just keeps walking and my faith in his soulfulness wanes a bit.
The path is not so bare now, and we lift our legs higher to clear each step in the deepening snow. My legs are starting to feel like logs- and yet I feel a strange exuberance- an excitement to be here- in this field where Frost once wandered; where some of his most beautiful thoughts may have crystallized.
I wonder. Did he run back to that old white farm house to write them all down? Or did they linger-perfect-in his memory until he could settle in by the fire at night and put pen to paper?
"Number 15! Alex! A stone wall! Maybe this is 'The Mending Wall' ! I burst into near song " 'Something there is that doesn't love a wall'..."
I realize mid- soliloquy that I forgot the rest. He doesn't turn to check my progress. As I watch his back, there is only the steam of his breath as he gently scoffs, "Sure, Mom. It was that wall that he was writing about- of all the rock walls in New England."
He's really outpacing me know. I have to yell. "Or maybe it's these woods we should be contemplating. 'Whose woods these are, I think I know...' "
"MOM! PLEASE! Once a day is enough on that one!"
Just over my head a branch overhanging the path rattles its dead leaves at me. It is Frost- I am sure, whispering to only me: "Keep your faith in uncertain things."
"Where is this brook, anyway?" my ungrateful guide hollers back.
"Oh, I don't know, up there a ways. That's all I remember."
Ten paces apart, we each duck in succession, as we pass under an airy green arch of pines into the woods. The path turns sharply south. The going underfoot is decidedly more treacherous here- the ice so hard and slick- like walking on corrugated glass.
A walking stick would do me well right about now. I try to wrestle a downed sapling from the snow and ice- but it will not be taken from its snow white bed. Not today.
"If only I had a son a lit-tle more aware of his mother in need. I should have raised that kid better," I grumble.
I hear the wind again but this time it's not a whisper. It blows high aloft in these barren treetops, their branches clicking. I call ahead. I make him stop. He turns and scowls, clearly annoyed with my demanding pleas. This is tough work- turning him on to Frost's stomping grounds.
"Aleeeexxx! Listen! What does that sound like to you?" He must recognize the telltale elongated pronunciation of his name- and so he obliges with a reply.
"I don't capture sound, Mom. I like images and feelings."
Well, excuse me.
He crunches on. I push. Like some maniacal soul guide, I am trying to tune him in-like I do when we go just about anywhere. "Alex. Look at the beautiful wrought iron gates and fences (when in Charleston). Just look at the WORK in those! Alex! Smell that eucalyptus! Amazing how it perfumes the fog! (when in The Muir Woods outside of San Francisco).
I mean, really! What are his books worth if he doesn't GET this? I think that I am even annoying myself, now, but that doesn't stop me. Momma's on a mission: depth of soul training. Not for the faint of heart.
"C'mon! What does it sound like?"
"Okay. An ocean." He trudges on without stopping to pause in my reverie.
"That's perfect! Waves rolling in and out of the treetops!" I feel satisfied, somehow. How does he stand me?
"So do you see it, yet?" Puff. Puff. Please let that damn brook show itself soon. I am fat-running out of steam here, Hyla.
"It's right here!" he barks impatiently.
"Well, why didn't you celebrate a little- so I'd know that you found it?" I quicken my step half wanting this nature walk done. I can't feel anything from the knees down. I come up over this tiny crest in the path, and there she is: Hyla Brook.
I last saw her about fifteen years ago in spring. Winter has laid her even more beautiful still. She is the epitome of what every brook should be-just wide enough that you could almost jump across -if you took a running leap. She meanders-that lovely word that should belong only to brooks in New England-she meanders; downhill through the snowy mounds-and the brittle gray hardwoods and the spike-needled pines-like a black satin ribbon curving beneath our feet.
Alex is standing on the tiny arched bridge and puts out his hand to give his old Mom a hoist. We peer down through the crystal clear ice. There under the ice- boulders and leaves seem to be frozen in mid air-as though the freeze happened in an instant as they tumbled downstream.
We gingerly turn in place- balancing there on the bridge-like bundled music box ballerinas-I wary of slipping.
There's a spot-a place where the ice is somehow open- and the water bubbles to the surface. It even gurgles; a tiny fountain offering us a musical interlude here deep in these woods. Like it could be any more perfect. Right here. Right now.
"Alex. I am so glad that you made me come out here today-it's so beautiful!" And to my frozen surprise-I really mean it.
Whenever I find myself in a place like this-so perfect-I try to memorize it. I close my eyes and open them. Close my eyes and open them -to see if my mind's eye picture matches. It does.
"Alex. Just see this."
"I see it," he assures me.
I wonder-in my controlling soul guide kind of way-if he really does. I fear he hasn't caught it at all. The way the snow sparkles where the land rises but is softly gray in the hollows. The way the slanting afternoon sun is split by the trees-and the trees' shadows-long black stripes across this expanse of snow. No footprints mar the soft focus of trees, rocks and snow.
I am in one of those moods: fairly agog with the beauty, like I have never seen it quite like this before.
I pop out of my reverie as a blast of cold air blows up under my coat.
He stands there with his hands in his pockets, his shoulders hunched against the cold. He doesn't seem agog to me. Perhaps these woods-the quiet beauty-Frost's simple deep style- are lost to him. I guess that he prefers the dramatic complexity of French poets-whose long convoluted passages just make me tired.
I breathe in. Savor the stillness-and then slowly turn-step off the bridge-and start the crunch back home. The freeze line has climbed to my hips.
"C'mon, Alex. We better head back. I'm really getting cold! We still have that walk through the snowfield to tackle."
Seconds pass and no footsteps crunch behind. As I turn, I see him there on the little bridge with that silly woolen hat pulled down around his ears. He bends on one knee and gently scoops a handful of icy water from the bubbly font. He lets it drain from his palm and then rubs his fingers against his thumb, somehow saving the essence of here.
And then he gains on me-which ain't a hard thing to do- and is ahead of me again. I won't say I have witnessed that tender act.
And then-here in the icy woods-he turns and shows me a stone.
"Mom! Look. Look what I got-from Hyla Brook." He opens his gloved hand and reveals a small stone, brownish green with an orange splotch- like an eye.
"It's the first thing my fingers touched".
My chest warms. Just then, a sudden gust rattles the hemlock branch, arching over our heads. A mist of glistening snow fills the air. I gasp, and squint at the stone through the whiteness. The snow settles on its face. In the fractured light, the eye seems to wink.

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