November 27, 2011 § 4 Comments

This isn’t goodbye, quite.

Yesterday marked a thousand days and thus the end of this endeavor. The last entry should have been last night, but then I wouldn’t have had this wonderful photograph from Antarctica that shows last evening’s partial eclipse of the midnight sun.  And anyway, I was out with my son doing Christmas stuff.

Which has been part of the ongoing problem with A Thousand Days. It started out well, a story a night. But that’s hard to sustain because more and more life intervenes. Life profound, and life mundane. Lists of story ideas grow longer. They write themselves in my head, these stories, but somehow never make it to the page. An old friend of mine uses voice recognition software to get over this particular kind of writer’s block, but it works about as well as that stuff on your cell phone– and well, that’s one more frustration I didn’t need to sign up for.

Just Wednesday I was promising someone that no matter what I was going to make the last story “Why I Live Where I Live,” a love song to Dayton, (and an old idea borrowed from 1970s era Esquire magazine.) And I was going to do it before Friday. But there was broccoli salad and Sagaponack corn pudding to be made and  a long drive north to my uncle’s and then the festivities of the holiday. Black Friday came and went (without a visit to a box store I might add) padding around barefoot in my pajamas half the morning. Before I knew it the partial eclipse of the sun (visible only from Antarctica) came and went, along with that last story idea.

Part of this is Billy’s fault. My old friend, a magical character equal parts vulnerability and bon vivant died last fall, just before his 53rd birthday. He slumped over at his computer watching an obscure YouTube video of a Scandinavian singing “Lucky Old Sun.” He was supposed to go out to a club that night to promote his latest musical obsession, Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, but he never showed, which was not Billy’s way at all. It was such a miracle that he’d lived so long, careening around Boston on his Vespa, (and if it was after dark he was toasted) that I suppose we all thought he’d live forever. He didn’t and since the very night he died I’ve been trying to write about him and failing. Maybe another time. I was haunted though. I felt like I had to write this piece for Billy before I could get on to the veritable laundry list of other subjects I wanted to tackle.

To wit-  How to Save Christmas (I think), obituaries, stop lights, muskrats, insomnia, animal wars, Orville Wright, the aforementioned love song for Dayton, and a little piece about Lisa Spinks, a young woman who was brutally murdered by someone she thought was her friend. A half-dozen others. And Billy’s story, which finally is writing about ghosts. But there will have to be some other forum for all of those.

I am very grateful to those who stuck with me, even when I gave them little more than a gossamer thread from which to hang. The comments, support, suggestions, controversy and conversations that swirled around the blog entries have been remarkable, and somehow along the way I got to be an expert on Crooksville pottery on the strength of a single article. I’ve had heartfelt thanks and heartsick outrage left in relatively equal numbers of messages. (Only one time did I hear from an attorney, and once I took his name out he went away. Apparently he didn’t care what I had to say about his client.) If I’d had the will and fortitude to keep writing about murder victims, this really could have been something. But just like my old friend and mentor Steve Huff found, I discovered that writing about violent crime all the time eats away at your soul. Of course, other topics speak to me, and I always intended to get to them, if only I hadn’t been so busy doing whatever it was I was doing.

A Thousand Days has been as neglected and forlorn as an outgrown pony. There it sat on the Bookmark Bar, just waiting for me to click it and start writing. But I was out of the writing habit and without a deadline, I became a dilettante. I’d meet people who said how much they enjoyed my pieces and it would make me sad. I wasn’t worthy of their accolades. Jesus, a whole year went by without a single effort, and before that it had been almost six months. I needed something to make writing routine again, part of the day-to-day schedule, as regular and necessary as breathing.

So I’ve made myself a new project, 30 Days Notice. It is a very short-term blog, and I’m not sure that it will be pretty. I’ll start December 1 and write through December 30. I promise you (and myself) that I will write every single day, no matter what. What month could be more challenging than December for that– when we are all over-scheduled and trying to fit a few more hours into every day? I’ll have to train my family to stop their constant stream of interruption, or I’ll have to learn to ignore them. It’s clear that waiting for them to go to bed to have peace in the household doesn’t work anymore. In December we’ll have house guests. There may be Migraines (I hope not, but I’m a realist.) I know there will be Christmas parties, school functions, shopping, wrapping, shipping, cards, dogs, friends, family.  All those will have to make room while I shoehorn the most essential thing back into my life.

How appropriate, then, to end with something as transitory as an eclipse. Something is hidden, but only for a moment. The curtain has dropped on this show.  A Thousand Days is finished, but you get to be along for the ride (if you want) while I find my feet again, and with that, discipline and self-respect.  If we’re lucky, perhaps it will be entertaining.


Writer’s Block

May 18, 2009 § 5 Comments

I haven’t written anything in weeks. For awhile there, the writing was a daily ritual, and missing a day left me feeling like I’d done something dreadful: forgotten the baby in the shopping cart, or neglected to feed the dog, or change my undies. It was as regular as breathing.

Then I missed a day. Or two. Or three. Nothing awful happened. Occasionally kind people rang up and said, “Where are your stories?” It was nice to know they cared. I wrote some more. Then I went on a trip most of the way across the country. I packed the laptop, thought I’d carve out time for myself to scratch out a few thousand words each day. Who was I kidding? I wrote not a thing.

One of the worst fights I ever had with my father was ostensibly about writer’s block. We were sitting in a wonderful restaurant (now gone) in Livingston, Montana. It was the former Bucket of Blood Saloon that had been carefully and lovingly made over into an establishment of the highest order by the esteemed writer and painter Russell Chatham.

It was my favorite restaurant ever, anywhere. It was a folded linen napkin sort of place, but not stuffy. This piece is not about the restaurant, though. I am wandering. My father, an English professor, was in town for a visit, and we’d gone to the Bar and Grille and had a wonderful dinner: carpaccio, salad caprese, roast duck and a really good Cabernet, or two. 

He is telling us that he thinks my 6-year-old son should take lessons in the martial arts. My husband and I look at each other and smile a bit. This is a topic we’ve discussed.

“Well,” say I, “we’ve talked about it but we think it would just give Julian an excuse to kick people.”  My father, out of the blue, quietly explodes in front of us.

“Well, it would give him some self-discipline,” he hisses. “Something you never had.”

It wouldn’t have surprised me more if he’d reached across the table and slapped me. In those days I wrote copiously for a local weekly, turning out all manner of stuff from investigative reports on murders to groundbreaking ceremonies for new bank branches, a survey of Thanksgiving traditions to the nitty gritty of the police blotter, with book reviews and a personal column thrown in for good measure.

“I write more than 5000 words a week for publication,” I tell my father, tears welling in my eyes. “That takes a little self-discipline.”

“I want some respect!” he roars back. And so I get up and walk out, trying to get out the door before I start sobbing.

It was my mother who unraveled the mystery for me. She understood that I was defending myself with my declaration of  weekly achievement. She also saw that my father, from whom she was long divorced, saw my statement as a dig. “He has a hard time finishing anything—articles, essays, the Berryman book,” she said. “He thought you were throwing that in his face.”

My father is gone now. We never really discussed what happened in the Livingston Bar and Grille that night, though I did address it once in an email in the last months of his life. I told him that I was just trying to defend myself and that there was no insult, subtle or otherwise, intended for him. He didn’t respond to that, perhaps he didn’t even remember the incident.

But when I was sorting through his office at the University, I saw why he had never finished the book on John Berryman. He began in 1970. Berryman leapt to his death from a Minneapolis bridge in January of 1972; it would have been an ideal time to publish a book about the poet. In Dad’s office there were two filing cabinet drawers filled with material about Berryman: poems analyzed down to their last syllable. I asked Dad, then speechless from laryngeal cancer, what to do with the files. “Pitch them,” he scribbled on a legal pad. I did pitch some of them, but I packed up just as many and carried them home.

They stand in their boxes, not just in homage, but also as a cautionary tale. I, too, fall so easily into the research trap.  The research is fun, the quest for the unknown, the thrill of discovery. I have my own 20-year-old book project in file folders. At some point you have to stop researching and start writing, but by then, you’re so deep into the research that you don’t even know where to start.

But that’s not exactly the kind of block I’ve had lately. You know how it is when you wake up in the morning after strenuous activity the day before and you don’t even really want to move, because you know its going to hurt? It’s more like that. That famous scene in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining where Jack Nicholson has typed the same sentence thousands of times onto reams of manuscript paper, that made my heart ache. Not because it was showing that he was losing his mind, or that he was about to become a murderous killer, but because I understood. It is the ultimate spinning of wheels: All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy.

It isn’t that I don’t have anything to write about. I have a list of stuff I want to write about, plan to write about. I interviewed a local figure here a few weeks ago—no, it’s at least a month. He’s running for City Council. He’s a fan of my work and I know he’s been wondering where the hell the piece is. But I couldn’t write it. Not in these last weeks, it would have read like it was written with a stubby crayon. I was like a literary drunk, couldn’t put one word in front of the other.

Opening lines come to me in dreams. And closing lines. But I never even open up the word processing application on the printer—the modern equivalent to rolling the paper under the platen of a typewriter. I’ve had no blank sheet to stare at, because I have simply looked away. I’ve played hours of Snood (one of Dad’s favorite pastimes too, as it happened) I list stuff on eBay and track it from hour to hour, minute to minute. I read the news from many different major papers from different corners of the globe. I participate in forums. I wander around the kitchen looking for something to nosh on and then I come back, sit down and log on to Facebook.

Today, a good friend of mine, a writer, a woman with three young daughters who gets up at five in the morning (so she has time to write) told me that she had signed up to Facebook just to keep up with me. I was so ashamed. I know she didn’t mean for me to feel ashamed, but I did. I felt like a fraud. Writer! Feh! Who am I kidding? I am a dabbler, a dilettante, a pretender.

And yet….

When the words come they are like cool water on a tear stained face. The pages fill with word after word that not only march along together in formation, sometimes they dance like Alvin Ailey across the page. Sometimes they lift off like herons rising from the wood. And sometimes they plod along like little tired children, but at least they move. Those are the good hours. Those are the times that I feel light, energetic, even, dare I say it, immortal. This is not to say that the writing is easy. It isn’t. Sometimes you have to wrangle sentences as unruly as broncs and just as dangerous. Sometimes more dangerous. It’s nearly impossible to stop until I’m finished and sometimes the sun has gone down and come up again before the last bit of punctuation hits the page. It’s a weird combination of exhilaration and exhaustion to finish. My poor husband: I’ve woken him up many nights to have him talk me down so that I can sleep.

I don’t think it’s like this for everyone.

It isn’t like this for me every time. The more pedantic pieces don’t consume me so much, but they don’t give so much in return either. Yes, its fun to write about weird McDonald’s commercials, but it’s kind of like eating McDonald’s food, it doesn’t really sustain me. On the other hand, I can no more write every essay from the core of my very being any more than I could survive while bleeding all over the pages, and honestly, who would want to read a steady diet of that?

There’s a funny story about William Faulkner, who before he became a literary lion worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood. He too suffered from Writer’s Block—spending too many interesting evenings at cocktail parties, screenings, the Brown Derby.  Finally, after a particularly frustrating day trying to write at the studio, he told Howard Hawks that he was having a hard time concentrating and that he was going to go home to write. Hawks said fine, and a few days later he checked in at the hotel to see how Faulkner was coming with the script. “Oh, Mr. Hawks,” the desk clerk said, “Mr. Faulkner checked out on Monday.” He had returned home- to Mississippi- to write.

Maybe that’s my problem. I don’t have a door on my study (a soon to be remedied situation) – and I am more productive late at night when the dogs and cats and child and husband have curled in their respective beds.  The television is silent. But on the other hand I am used to writing in a newspaper office with phones ringing and an offset press running in the next room. I have had private offices, solitude galore, where I did not write a lick.

My friend Rose (not a writer) says I should relax and let it flow and she’s more right than she knows. But it’s easier said than done. On the Internet (oh the wonderful, horrible, fantastic and terrible Internet, waster of time, master of research tools) there are all kinds of helpful people wanting to cure my writer’s block.

Drink coffee. Exercise. Dance. Listen to music. Eat healthy snacks. Yadda yadda yadda. We know all those things, don’t we? I’ve got my coffee cup. I’m listening to the Afro Cuban All Stars, music that can be incredibly conducive to writing, and yet. (Wait, you say, you’re writing this, aren’t you? And yes, but this isn’t really writing. This is like a pianist playing scales or a skater warming up, a painter cleaning brushes. This is the writing you do when you are getting ready to do some writing.) It’s a damn good thing I’m not Scheherazade… a thousand stories indeed, I’d have been dead a month ago.

I know what I have to do, and this is a start. I have to make deadlines for myself and I have to Honor Those Deadlines.  Oh, yes, and that other thing.







And make them dance.

Halfway Through the Wood

April 20, 2009 § 12 Comments

for Doug on the loss of his Dad, and in loving memory of  Larry Vonalt.

Last week we attended the funeral of a man we’d never met. I could not have told you much at all about him. I was four states and 900 miles away when I learned of his death. My husband read the obituary to me over the telephone, both of us learning that this gentleman had served in two wars, worked for the telephone company, he was 82, and he’d been married for 56 years. In addition to his wife, he is survived by four children, four grandchildren, a brother, a sister. While recounting the news of his death to my mother, tears spill down my face.

No, we’d never met Edsel Peters. If we’d seen him working in his yard or fishing at the lake, we would not have recognized him. But we mourn his passing because his youngest child, his baby boy, is our good and loyal friend. The kind of friend that will help you unload a moving van full of furniture in hundred-degree heat, who shoots baskets with your kid, a man of wit and grace and excellent humor. If the measure of a man is in the children he leaves behind, then Edsel Peters was a very fine man indeed.

Losing your father unmoors you. It doesn’t matter how grown up you might be, how accomplished. Suddenly you are rudderless, flying blind, walking the tightrope without a net.  Three years ago, when I told my friend Judy that my father had died, she said, “Oh honey, you’ve done lost your right arm.”  It was the absolute truth. I lost my sense of navigation. I was clumsy with grief.

Judy’s own father, Virg Lovell, has been gone forty years or so. He spent years raising and showing Foxhounds, and it was Judy, not her brothers, who followed in his footsteps, from the time she was two years old. Seventy years later, Judy’s still raising and showing Foxhounds, maybe the best in the country. She still talks about her father like he might well walk through the door.

We carry our fathers with us; perhaps in a gesture, a certain turn of a phrase, a predilection for Miracle Whip on our fried egg sandwich, maybe a tendency to sing along with the car radio. I wonder at times about my mother’s father, Bennie Lee Ouzts, who died after being injured in a logging accident when my mother was just twelve. Did he look out across the horizon lost in thought the way my mother does? Did he throw his head back when he laughed the way his sons and daughters do? I never saw my Nana do that, but each of the six children do.

There aren’t many photographs of him. In my mind’s eye, he looks like Gregory Peck (though my mother will no doubt say “Of course not”) and I know that his nickname for my mother was Cooter (after the snapping turtle) and I know that his death became a kind of wound for my mother that never quite heals.

My Nana’s father died when she was just a girl as well. If I knew the exact circumstances, I have forgotten them. What I remember is that his death meant that my grandmother had to quit school in the 8th grade and go to work in the cotton mills. In the last hours of my grandmother’s life, my mother sat at the hospital bedside, watching Nana sleep. Suddenly, my mother said, Nana looked to a place somewhere above the doorframe, lifted up her arms the way a child will when she wants to be carried and whispered “Papa! Papa!”

For me the first death in the family was my father’s father, my Grandpa Paul Vonalt. He died just shy of 80, after an illness. I was an adult by then, and the news, conveyed to me by telephone did not dissemble me the way I expected it to. I felt very sad, missing in advance the unassuming man who taught me to fish for bluegills, sharpen pencils with a Swiss Army knife, how to paint hex signs. Every summer visit, he’d loan me his green Huffy 3-speed bicycle to tool around town.

I expected to go to Grandpa’s funeral. It was just a day’s drive, and I made plans to go. But my father told me not to come. He said that it was too risky with the February weather, that Grannie and Grandpa knew how much I loved them, that I didn’t need to come out, that I shouldn’t. Being that this is an extended family that reassembles for fish fries and baby showers and 40th birthdays, I was puzzled by my father’s insistence that I stay in Boston and not come.

It was only after his funeral that I truly understood why. My father needed that time to be the grieving child. Consumed by sorrow for the loss of his father, he didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to be there for me. I knew this finally because when Dad died, it was my husband who stepped in to care for our son and guide him through the loss of his Grandpa. I was too shattered to be anyone’s mother.

Daniel Sullivan was the first of my friend’s fathers to be lost. His daughter Noelle has been one of my closest friends for nearly twenty years. When I first met Noelle, her father was in remission. It didn’t last. I didn’t know what to do and I wasn’t the friend that I should have been. We were new to this, to facing the unthinkable.  Dan Sullivan fought the fight long and hard. I wish I could say that I was present for Noelle; that I provided tea and sympathy, a kind ear and arms to shelter in. But I wasn’t, at least not in the way I should have been. I didn’t know what to say, and I was a little bit afraid. If Noelle’s father could so easily slip away over the edge, what about my own?

In truth I had two fathers and in the end, I lost them both. My stepfather, Humphrey Clarke Booth, died while brushing his teeth, shooting straight to the sun, gone before his body hit the floor. That was always his style anyway. He was in England, the news came by telephone.  This is the man who taught me to drive, (“remember to speed up in the curves”) bought me my first horse, my first car, ordered me my first Martini. He soothed my broken heart, smoothed the oft-ruffled feathers between my mother and me, and made damn sure the lunch ladies in the English primary school never again made comment on the way I held my fork. His death, instant and far away, was also a strange kindness, a leg up on being an orphan before I really had to face it.

And even then, I came undone. I stayed out all night, writing, drinking. When I slept it was fitful. When I ate, it was a dozen raw oysters and a few Bombay Sapphire martinis every night at the Livingston Bar and Grille. One night it was one of the wait staff that drove me home. Other times I’d crash on the studio floor of a painter friend. Finally I asked a woman I knew for something to help get me out of the fog. She gave me a prescription, but no one remembered to tell me that I shouldn’t wash it down with gin. That landed me in the world of ipecac and activated charcoal, discussing a Thomas Jefferson biography with one of the ER docs in between wretching. The next morning I felt much better, as if somehow I’d got my bearings back again.

My stepsister read Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gently into That Good Night” at her father’s funeral. At the time it struck me as a peculiar choice, one made only because it is a plaint from child to father. And you, my father, there on the sad height/ Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears I pray / Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage rage against the dying of the light. Reading it now, I realize that it is absolute stricken wail of a child. It’s beautiful and it’s brilliant, but that doesn’t disguise the primal nature of the plea:  Don’t leave me, don’t leave me, Daddy, don’t leave me.

My father told me he was dying by asking me if I wanted his poetry books. My father and I had many of the same poetry books. (Perhaps another shared quality, like the way I hold the steering wheel, or a preference for Cabernet over Merlot)  He was an English professor; I’d grown up reading Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop and for a while was a poet myself. Some bookshelves bow under the weight of those slender volumes. If my father was offering me his poetry books it was because he would not need them anymore. That was in August. He taught his last class in December. He was dead the day after Christmas.

In the months between August and December, I wrestled with my father’s impending death. He was dying from laryngeal cancer. There had been immense amounts of radiation, and finally in a last ditch attempt the previous January they’d taken out his larynx, and made a permanent hole in his throat, given him a little black box on a cord around his neck in exchange for his voice. It was supposed to be the price for a cure, but they didn’t hold up their end of the deal.

It’s a parlor game to ask what you would do if you knew you only had a year, a few months, a few weeks left. I don’t know what my father might have said when the question was just hypothetical. When it was real, he went on with his life as he knew it. He drove down to his office at the university, met with students, taught classes, stopped by the Chef’s Pantry for good wine and roast beef and cheese on the way home. He took his wife to dinner, they listened to music. He sent emails to old friends and family members. They scheduled times for people to visit.

I suggested that we might come for Thanksgiving, and was told, no, Michael and his family were coming. I’m an only child. Michael is the son of my father’s wife. It was a stinging knockdown, one that left me sitting in tears. I wanted to finish the unfinished business; I wanted to clear the air, set things right. My father just wanted to go on with his life as he knew it. He asked for suggestions for the memorial service. I made them. He said he’d check with his wife. I lost my temper and reminded him he had other family. He sent back a six-word email “Why don’t you just cool it?”

I carefully crafted an email about how upset and enraged I felt about his impending death, how I wanted to set things right between us. He wrote that he didn’t want me to feel enraged. How could I help it? I wasn’t ready. Grave men near death, who see with blinding sight / Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay / Rage, rage against the dying of the light. It seemed that I could do nothing right. There are platitudes about having a chance to say goodbye. Sometimes it’s easier if you lose your father while he is brushing his teeth.

We went to see my father in the middle of December. He was clearly near the end. Dad went into the hospital to have a feeding tube put in. From his hospital bed, he wrote directions on a half-size legal pad as to cleaning out his office at school. I might have spent hours at his bedside, but instead I went up to the university and packed. Every few hours I would return to the hospital and ask what to do about various papers, or files, or stacks of literary journals. “Send them,” he scribbled, or “Take them if you want them,” or most often “Pitch it.”  I took all the poetry books.

The doctors thought we had another month. They were wrong. As we drove away that night, through a snowstorm to Kansas City on our way back to Montana, I could not stop crying. My heart knew what my head could not yet accept. We promised to come back in two weeks. The last thing my Dad said to me, his mouth silently forming the words was “I’m sorry.”

“Me too, Dad. I’m sorry too.”

We got a phone call on the morning of the 26th. Dad had been admitted to the hospital, this was it. He might have until the close of day. I called every airline that flew out of Montana. If I could get to the airport in the next twenty minutes, I could catch the last flight that would have made a connection to get me to St. Louis at ten o’clock that night. But the airport was an hour and a half away.

“I’ll drive you to Missouri,” my husband said. “Don’t worry, I can drive straight through.”  Straight through was1400 miles in the snow. I shook my head. He wasn’t even conscious anymore, it was time to act like the daughter of the pragmatist he was. The day seemed to go on without end. When the phone rang again about 8 p.m., it was all over. If we’d started driving, we would only have gotten as far as Denver.

My husband’s father died a long time ago, and when I’ve asked him about it, he changes the subject. Oh, he’ll say how he got the call. How no one in his family had told him that his father was dying. That he flew to L.A. by himself, as his first wife declined to accompany him. He’ll recall how he found a cash register slip on his father’s dresser for six Porterhouse steaks that were on sale at a great price.  His father had bought them just a few days before he died and now Porterhouse steaks are forever entwined with that memory. The stories my husband tells about Pon Lieu are the stories of his life and never of his death. When I asked once how his father had died, Elmer said, “I think he just gave up.” I don’t have to ask him how he felt to lose his father; I know the answer to that.

I envy my friends who still have their fathers, and especially my cousins, the children of my father’s brothers. I worry about my husband and our 14-year-old son, who are caught up in that push-me-pull-you of adolescence. I can’t stand to hear them yelling at each other. Don’t they realize how precious is the time they have together, how we can’t really say which memories will linger on, which parts of the relationship become the legacy carried in one’s heart? 

Worse still is my husband’s younger daughter from his first marriage.  She is so caught up in her own anger and self-pity that she has excluded her father altogether from her life. He hasn’t heard from her in three years, and any attempts he’s made at communicating have gone unanswered. I want to take her by the shoulders and say “Don’t you realize?! Don’t you know how much you’ll regret this when it’s too late?”

It was only after my father’s memorial service that I learned from strangers that he had been proud of me, that he thought I’d turned out just fine despite everything. One person after another recounted for me the things Dad had told them about me. Sorting through his boxes and files, I found letters I’d written as a child, pieces I’d published in high school, poems I’d worked on, and reams of newspaper stories I’d written. I can’t help but wonder how different those last months might have been if only I’d known.

Driving in the car one morning the spring after my father’s death, I heard a bit of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Wood on the radio. I’ve seen the play, and I turned up the song.

People make mistakes. Fathers. Mothers. People make mistakes. Holding to their own, thinking they’re alone. Honor their mistake. Fight for their mistakes. One another’s terrible mistakes. Witches can be right. Giants can be good. You decide what’s right. You decide what’s good. Just remember: someone is on your side. Someone else is not. While we’re seeing our side maybe we forgot. They are not alone. No one is alone.

I’m a little abashed to say that I found the answer to the father-child conundrum in a Broadway song. All that expectation, all that disappointment, all that dependence and love and struggle. But there it is: People make mistakes. Fathers. Mothers. People make mistakes. In recognizing my father as only human, I am able to accept having to let him go. I am glad he went gentle into that good night, and suffered no more. I miss him every day. I wish he could have come farther along the journey with us, but sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood. Still, we carry his map and his compass.

After the funeral of our friend’s father, I wanted to say some of these things. At least I wanted to say it gets better. It won’t always hurt so much. Your questions won’t have answers but the questions grow quieter in time. I wanted to say you won’t always feel like a fatherless child. You never stop missing your father, but you grow stronger in time.  But I didn’t say any of this. I just hugged our friends and said how sorry I was.


Wherever green is worn

March 17, 2009 § 3 Comments

On Things Irish and the Celebration of St. Patrick

by Larkin Vonalt

So many things about the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in America bother me, and I have not been good company, watching throngs of green-attired Americans from the sidewalks, going from bar to bar in Boston, or Butte or Chicago. My friends used to say, “Lighten up, have another beer.”

The very last night I spent publicly celebrating the wearing of the green culminated in watching drunken young men urinate off the awning of the M&M Restaurant onto the crowd below. That’s it, I thought, there must be a way to mark St. Patrick’s Day that does not involve green wigs, green beer or puking.

The year before last we did return to Butte to watch the beautiful daughters of Sullivan-Daley clan, dear friends all, dance the parade route. I wore a green ribbon in my hair, and my Chinese husband had on a small button that read “Irish, sorta.” They say that on St. Patrick’s Day that everyone is Irish, and for many Americans that is literally as well as figuratively true.

In this country, we celebrate a number of holidays that find their roots in our ancestral cultures: Cinco de Mayo, Oktoberfest, Chinese New Year. But Hallmark doesn’t market cards for those occasions, and no city dyes her river, and Americans don’t make such perfect asses of themselves as they do for St. Patrick’s Day. It seems a strange way to pay homage to a complicated people with such a complicated history, who despite or because of the struggles have given us a legacy of literature and music quite apart from any other.

Unlike my friend who sends me excerpts from the Irish Times, and brings me Irish tea and Irish socks and Irish linen and writes an excellent online journal about the Irish diaspora in Montana ( ) I know almost nothing about Ireland. You don’t have to know much to begin to understand how intensely tangled a thing it is to be Irish. Even when I was just 19, and passionately interested in the hunger strike and eventual death of IRA activist (and MP) Bobby Sands in the Long Kesh outside of Belfast, I couldn’t figure out if he was a villain or a hero. Nearly 30 years later, I am still no clearer in my understanding.

This ongoing struggle between Protestant and Catholic, Loyalists and Irish Republicans is found even in what the “wearing of the green” is supposed to stand for. Originally, the color associated with the Catholic Feast Day for St. Patrick was blue. “Wearing of the green” refers to the wearing of a shamrock on your clothing, to show your Irish nationalism or at times, to show your loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church. (St. Patrick, who lived 385- 461 A.D., used the three-leafed Shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to the pre-Christian Irish.)

Some Protestant Irish have taken to wearing Orange on St. Patrick’s Day as a sign of rebellion, drawing from William of Orange (the King of England) who defeated King James II, a Roman Catholic, at the Battle of Boyne in Dublin in 1688, ensuring a Protestant (and English) military dominance in Ireland, and creating tension that has existed ever since. Yes, ever since. 320 years.

I don’t exactly know how it is that I never went to Ireland. I went other places that meant less. Italy, for instance. I could have skipped those months in Italy altogether for a few days on Wicklow Head and been the better for it. I wept on the grave of James Joyce, still in self-imposed exile in Zurich. It was only 600 miles more to Dublin. If James and Nora could manage it in the twenties, well surely, I could have made the effort. I didn’t.

Joyce wasn’t the only Irish writer that stirred my heart. Oscar Wilde had been a favorite since high school. How could you fail to find amusement and encouragement in quips like “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much,” or “Biography lends to death a new terror,” or “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”

William Butler Yeats rounds out a trilogy for me. I named my thoroughbred mare “Pilgrim Soul” for a phrase in his poem “When You Are Old.” This is the stanza:

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

Yeats’ most famous poem is without question “Easter 1916” about the week-long Irish uprising. His ambivalence about the use of violence to achieve home rule is clear in every line. And so too, is his utter grief at the outcome.

And so, I no longer really celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, so much as I mark it, acknowledge it, carry it in my heart, which if in reality is only a very very small part Irish, is wholly Eireannach for this one day. 

In the morning, I will arise and go now (not to Innisfree) but down the stairs, dressed quietly, a dark moss green merino sweater. Breakfast won’t be much, Barry’s tea with milk and sugar in my usual leaf green mug. (No doubt the boy will wear something very green so as not to be pinched at school.) In the kitchen, I’ll choose music with an ear to the day: The Pogues, The Waterboys, Sinead O’Connor, Van Morrison, U2.

I interviewed U2 in 1981 when we were all just pups, and they were playing in bars and opening for bands like J. Geils. Bono predicted their phenomenal success, we wished it for them but did not believe it. It disappoints me now how they have squandered it, with missions that are only about Bono’s ego and every record a re-hash of the one before it. Never mind, who knows what any of us would do with that sort of success?

Lunch will be simple. Potato Soup with brown bread and a Guinness. Perhaps in the afternoon, there will be time to peruse the Irish Times or curl in a chair to revisit William Butler Y. Dinner is the more complicated Limerick Ham. You didn’t think Corned beef and cabbage did you? Corned beef is not even Irish, but Irish-American. Immigrants in New York, looking for a cheaper alternative to the traditional bacon or sausage, turned to Jewish butchers, who provided them with the pickled brisket we associate with the 17th day of March.

My husband had an interesting question about the fact that St. Patrick’s Day falls during Lent, when many Roman Catholics have given up eating meat. Apparently, there is a special dispensation from the Bishop to allow for eating meat on the Feast Day of St. Patrick, and this has worked pretty well except for the very rare occurrence when St. Patrick’s Day actually falls during Holy Week and they have less wiggle room.

Limerick Ham is usually a cured leg of pork, traditionally smoked over Juniper branches. Okay, so no juniper branches and a leg of pork is a bit much for the three of us, so we adapt and cook a small smoked ham, first by boiling in apple cider and then finishing in the oven, and served with an accompaniment of potatoes and cabbage, with burnt oranges to finish.

Burnt Oranges

4 Large oranges

5 ounces sweet white wine

1 tablespoon butter

half-cup sugar

10 ounces fresh-squeezed orange juice

2 tablespoons Irish Whiskey (warmed)

Carefully peel the oranges thinly. Then with a sharp knife remove as much of the pith and white skin as possible, keeping the oranges intact. Cut the thin peel into fine strips and cover with sweet white wine. Put the oranges into an ovenproof dish. Put a little butter on top of each one, pressing it down gently, then sprinkle each one with a teaspoon of sugar. Put into a 400F oven for 10 minutes or until the sugar caramelizes.

Meanwhile mix the orange juice with the sugar in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Lower the heat and let it get syrupy, without stirring. Add the orange peel and wine mixture and bring to the boil again, then cook rapidly to reduce and thicken slightly.

Take the oranges from the oven and if not fully browned, put under a moderate broiler for a few minutes. Pour the warmed whisky over them and set it alight, over heat. As the flames die down, add the orange syrup and let it simmer for about 2 minutes. Serve at once.

Perhaps a glass of Bushmill’s while clearing up, listening to the boy practicing the cello in the next room. Settling on the velvet sofa to watch a movie, maybe The Crying Game (exploring the themes of race, gender, sexuality and nationality against the backdrop of the Irish troubles) or Michael Collins, about the Easter 1916 uprising. Perhaps neither, perhaps simply to bed instead, taking the green ribbon from my hair, the words of Yeats running through me like a long deep river.

Too long a sacrifice

Can make a stone of the heart.

O when may it suffice?

That is Heaven’s part, our part

To murmur name upon name,

As a mother names her child

When sleep at last has come

On limbs that had run wild.

What is it but nightfall?

No, no, not night but death;

Was it needless death after all?

For England may keep faith

For all that is done and said.

We know their dream; enough

To know they dreamed and are dead;

And what if excess of love

Bewildered them till they died?

I write it out in a verse –

MacDonagh and MacBride

And Connolly and Pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

Folly Beach

March 7, 2009 § 5 Comments

by Larkin Vonalt

When my son, native child of a landlocked state, was eight years old, I took him to see the Atlantic Ocean. We were visiting my grandmother in upstate South Carolina when it occurred to me that we were pretty close to the ocean at Charleston. It’s about 150 miles, but living in Montana, where the distances are so vast that it’s nothing to drive 30 miles to get a gallon of milk, that didn’t seem far at all. Heck, we were driving 72 miles a day to get Julian to school (18 miles there to take him, 18 miles home, 18 miles to get him, 18 miles home.)

But Charleston is not the beach. Further inspection of the road atlas revealed a little barrier island just south of the city. There, a tiny green patch was labeled “Folly Beach,” so we took our suits and sandals and were bound for glory, or at least a sunburn. The interstate goes within about ten miles of the island, after that you have to wend your way along a suburban highway lined with Burger Kings, tanning salons, gas stations, drug stores. (No doubt a suburban hell during hurricane evacuations.)

Finally the roadsides give way to low-country marshlands, estuaries, fishing docks, seafood merchants, and as you get to Folly Beach proper, an authentic beach town. Churches and the post office and the public library sit on prime real estate and one hopes that they always will remain so. 

“Can you smell the salt?” I asked Julian. He put his head out the window like a dog. “Yeah, I think so,” he said, grinning from ear to ear.

What makes the shore smell like the shore is actually dimethylsulfide, a gas produced when phytoplankton (the basis of the ocean’s food chain) are consumed or die. A few hundred parts per trillion is enough to scent the sea air, and it is a smell enjoyed by seabirds, (to them it must say “lunch”) as well as humans. I guess “salt breeze” sounds more poetic than dimethylsulfide. Whichever, what it said to me as I drew closer is “home home home home.” Maybe I was a mermaid in another life.

My pulse quickened as we neared the shore. I knew that any minute, I mean, any minute now, the Ocean was going to appear before us in all of her shimmering glory. Kind reader, I wish I could describe to you the wonder on my child’s face, the thrill of that first sighting, but like our first glimpse of the ocean at Folly Beach, that has to wait.

For at the top of Center Street, right on the beach side sat an absolute eyesore: a concrete behemoth that has as much sensitivity to its location on the water as a Federal Prison would, blocking any and all views of the sea. It’s the Holiday Inn, and it had sat there like a colossal insult only since 1995, which makes it even more reprehensible.

Whoever is in charge of zoning at Folly Beach should be tarred and feathered, or at least spanked. The architect who designed this horrible structure should be used as an example at every architecture school in the country of what not to build, of what kind of aesthetic disaster it is to not design the correct structure for the setting. What is wrong with these people? Whatever kind of payoff occurred to have that Holiday Inn situated there it was not enough. There’s no amount of money large enough to justify it.

But that’s not what this essay is about, because the monolithic Holiday Inn is the exception at Folly Beach, not the rule. So we will ignore it and go on. We turned left along Arctic and drove down along the edge of the world. The dunes rise up next to the road, so you still don’t immediately see the water. We parked the car next to boardwalk steps and walked up to have a look. Julian had only one word: Wow.

The beach stretched up and down as far we could see. Late in the afternoon, it was nearly empty.We played in the water until nightfall. Julian picked up a hundred shells, got wrinkly fingers and toes, and licked the salt from the skin on his forearm. The sand along Folly Beach is so silvery and fine, it “sings” when you walk in it, the faint, fine song of the siren. Just before we left, I fetched a plastic grocery bag from the car and filled it with dry sand to carry back to my landlocked home. There I would keep it in an enormous Mason jar and whenever I needed some relief from the oppression of the mountains, I’d open up the jar and breathe deeply.

We didn’t get back to Folly the next year. Though our travels took us to the Carolinas, we went north this time, up through Myrtle Beach and along the coast to the Outer Banks. The intense development from Hatteras to Kitty Hawk left an impatient feeling in my soul.

It’s nothing like the little town south of Charleston that still made room for ordinary things: VFW turkey shoots, funny little package stores, trail rides, girl scout troops. No wonder the locals call it “Mayberry By the Sea.”

When I went back the next year, I tried to convince my grandmother, then 92, to come down to the sea with me. She put her novel down on her lap and thought about it for a minute. “That might be nice,” she said. Later, though, she decided that she probably should just stay home. I asked if she was sure, and she said she was. “You go on, I think I’ll just stay here and read.” Now I wish I’d tried harder to get her to come along.

So I went with my dog and it was nearly dark when we finally got there. We walked along the beach together, his joy plain as he darted in and out of the surf. After returning him to the car, I walked to a restaurant on the pier and ate oysters and drank a Pilsner while writing postcards to friends back in that dry and ocean-less state.

Historians think that Folly Beach was named for the old English word meaning “an area of dense foliage,” but come on, the word “folly” as we understand it, the quality of being rash and foolish, has been in wide use since Shakespeare. “Though age from folly could not give me freedom,” as Mark Anthony said.

In the 18th century, the island was used as a quarantine by ships entering Charleston harbor to drop off passengers suffering from cholera, and was at the time called “Coffin Land.” Try developing a tourism industry with that kind of moniker.

There were shipwrecks, Charleston cut off communication and supplies during a particularly bad patch of disease, the Union Troops used Folly Island to help launch their offensive against the important port city to the north.

Being a barrier island, it has seen its share of storms, and grainy black and white photos in local histories show the devastation that the the wind and the sea have wrought from time to time.

With the dawning of the twentieth century came rum-running, pavilions, boardwalks, piers and Folly-land became the vacation destination for city dwellers. The big bands of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller were regularly featured at the Pavilion.

In 1934, George Gershwin spent the summer on Folly Beach, in a bungalow at 708 West Arctic Avenue. It’s reported that he “went completely native” (sometimes unshaven and in blue jeans) there, rambling around Folly Beach and James Island, attending revival meetings and church services of the Gullah.

In 1926, Gershwin had read (in one sitting) the novel Porgy, by Charleston writer (and real estate and insurance agent) W. DuBose Heyward. Working in concert with his brother, Ira (in New York) writing the lyrics to some songs, and with DuBose Heyward (in Folly Beach) as librettist, Gershwin composed the great American opera, Porgy and Bess. It is said that he also judged a local beauty contest.

Yesterday, I went back to Folly Beach again, this time with my mother. I went back to the restaurant on the pier, it has declined a little. The pale gray blues and lemon yellows of the walls are a bit grimy. It reminded me, sadly, of an old lady who has turned herself out in a fine linen dress, not realizing that there are stains on the front, or that it is soiled around the collar and cuffs. The She-Crab soup had too much celery (I think it was celery) and the Prince Edward Island mussels, while lovely and mild would have been better served in a saffron cream sauce than the spinach and yellow pepper broth chosen. Mother said the crab cake was good, but you could tell from looking at it that it came this close to being burned. Still, we got to sit, looking out at the water, watching the pelicans and pigeons, a few bedraggled-looking starlings marching around.

Afterwards we walked out on the pier for a bit, laughing at the sign that Sharks Are Catch and Release Only! “Catch and Release” is a minor religion in landlocked Montana, the tourists releasing Browns and Rainbows because they can’t differentiate them from the native and endangered cutthroat trout. Just as well the mountain streams aren’t populated with sharks as well.

We drove a little further up the street, not too far from the trailhead to Morris Island. (You can’t actually get to the lighthouse anymore. Erosion has left it surrounded by water, and it was decommissioned a few years ago. The Light had been scheduled for demolition, but a local group rallied their support and found a private buyer.) We found a spot to park, paid to get a parking chit, got out of the car and broke the law.

Dogs are permitted on the beach November through April all day long, and in May through September they are allowed before 10 a.m. and after 6 p.m. but they must, and I repeat, must remained leashed. Taking a Chesapeake Bay Retriever to the beach and keeping him leashed is like putting a bowl of She-Crab soup in front of a starving man and not allowing him to eat. Both dogs are trained to come at a whistle, are always under voice control and will sit immediately to be leashed. They’re pretty good canine citizens. We released them.

They had a splendid time racing full-tilt into the surf, chasing each other and the foamy tops of wavelets rolling into the shore. After about 40 minutes, when we were joined on the beach by a couple with a Yorkshire terrier puppy, we called in the dogs, clipped on their leashes and went to the car to find towels. They might have thought the Yorkie was a squirrel, which would have resulted in considerable consternation.

“It was really nice to just stand there on the beach,” my mother said, handing me a dry towel.

Nearly every house on the island has a shingle in front, offering it for vacation rental. It’s very tempting, this notion of spending some extra time in Folly Beach. We did motor the seven miles into Charleston and devoted ten minutes to looking at the historic district around the Joseph Manigault house. I always think there will be enough time after the beach to go and explore the city. This is what I’ve always intended and it is absolute folly.  I always spend so much time on the barrier island I never have a chance to see Charleston before its time to go home.

Perhaps a week or two at the beach would do the trick, perhaps then there would be time to see what Charleston is about, in between sneaking dogs onto the beach and eating shellfish and drinking Pilsners, going native, answering the siren song of Folly Beach. I wonder if 708 West Arctic Avenue is available.

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