Wheatfield Near Fort Pierre, South Dakota. Photograph by Robert Clements

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Head East, Middle-aged Woman

I'm going East next week, to Maine.  To my family, friends, trees, ocean, recycling, brilliant leaf color, caramel apples, good wine, long talks, and so on.  I'm happy about that.  And I'm sad.  I will be away from my guy for a whole month, and I will miss him, terribly.  I've been here with him for more than three months, and it's been remarkably easy, considering that we are together almost 24 hours a day.  We're both independent people, and we work around one another in a sort of passing-during-the-day dance.  I rule upstairs from my writing desk.  He rules downstairs in the gallery and the surrounding areas.  Occasionally, one of us crosses down or up into the other's territory, and ninety nine percent of the time it's friendly territory, unless one of us is cranky.  For those of you who are familiar with me, I know that you find it hard to believe that I might succumb to a bout of the Crabby Appletons, but I'm not perfect.  I know that might be surprising, too.  At any rate, I love living with my lanky Western partner, and my life won't be the same until we're back together.

I'm also rather wistful about leaving the prairie.  I have slowly, over the summer, begun to fall in love with this place.  It might have been the sky, it might have been the hills, or the wild animals I see on a daily basis - eight deer live in a park where Rua and I walk - they know us now and don't run (far) - or it might have been the wine-sharp, clean air.  It's a combination of all of them, I guess.  It's taken some time to grow on me, although I was attracted to it upon my introduction.  It kind of had me at hello, I guess, but all great loves take time to develop. 

The finest example I have of this is my absolute adoration of all things Irish when I was a girl.  With a name like Callan, that's to be expected.  I conjured faeries and mist and rolling Irish hills, a magical place where all dreams came true.  So naturally, when I grew up and got a chance to spend a semester in Ireland, I grabbed onto it with a viselike grip.  The plane took off in Boston and we touched down at Shannon Airport, which was next to a cow pasture, back then.  I took the bus to Galway City, and every dream I had about Ireland was shattered during that trip. 

This was during the 1980s, when Ireland was still considered a third-world country.  As I rode along, I looked out at the green and misty landscape, which was actually rainy and glum, and noticed that the charming thatch cottages were weed-ridden and abandoned, and modern housing lined the road like so much dull washing hung on a line.  The people surrounding me did not speak in a lilt.  They were not handsome and beautiful.  Their clothing seemed cheap and in some cases, threadbare.  The man in front of me had a bad haircut, and the woman next to him wore a dirty kerchief over her thin, gray hair.  What had I done? I wondered.  This wasn't what I had signed up for.  But it was right there, on that bus, with my fantasies shattered and my dreams tipped askew, that I decided to love it for its truths.  And I did.  Leaving Ireland later that autumn was one of the hardest things I've ever done.  I still miss it, and I always will.  So, I believe that true love starts when one person, and hopefully, both people, see one another clearly, and love each other anyway.  The same holds true for country and place.  My new friend Jenny, who lives here in South Dakota, says you've got to grow where you're planted.  And she's right.

I feel myself rooting to this soil.  I am taking horseback riding lessons, (see last blog), and it's worked out well.  Four of us jounce along, trying to post and control our horses, trying to be assertive without being aggressive, and our teacher is great - patient and kind - as are the poor horses.  I rode an Arabian mare last week who is one-hundred years old in horse age - but she's spunky and sweet.  I look forward to these times, each week.  My passion for horses has been rekindled, in a big way.

Bob and I are also starting to get out and circulate.  We attended the 55th anniversary of the Center of the Nation museum for an evening of celebration, cake, and storytelling.  I volunteered to help.  My job was to pass out brochures to incoming folks.  A local woman named Lorraine Klinger stood across from me and she introduced me to every person coming into the museum.  It was a gracious thing to do.  I don't remember many names, but I know people now, and it's beginning to feel something like home.  Going forward, I expect to be homesick, but I hope to be homesick, with a horse.

So, where is my place, exactly?  It's up to me to decide.  As a writer, I know that place is essential to how characters react, what they will do.  If, for instance, a character is confronted in a red room, his or her reaction will be different than if they are confronted in a blue room.  Is a crisis best averted during a summer's day, or during a winter's night?  Is the narrator standing on a hill, looking down into a valley, or standing in a valley looking up at the distance she or he has to climb?  It is all a matter of perspective.  It also depends upon the amount of time that has passed, and what's going on inside of the character or narrator. 

A line in one of Dolly Parton's songs goes something like this, "Wildflowers don't care where they grow."  I believe that, up to a point.  But I also believe that by cultivating the soil in my heart, where I am and who I am with will take root.  They certainly have, here in Western South Dakota.  And I already have roots in Maine.  So, I head East and North on Route 90 next week with my little dog.  I will enjoy being with my people back home.  And Maine will always be home.  A New Yorker cartoon I've saved reads, "Maine?  What an authentic place to be from."  Yep. 

But so is South Dakota.  And I am leaving a big piece of my heart here for when I return.   


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

When I was a Horse

The Lovely Leopard Appaloosa Near Bear Butte - photograph by Robert Clements

I used to be able to canter, whinney, toss my head, two-step backward, rear, slash with my front hooves, trot as if I was royalty, and win every race.  That's when I was a horse running with about five others in my small but heartful herd.  Then, my four legs morphed into two, my herd dispersed, and I became a girl, then a woman.  I can still gallop, though, if I put my mind to it - for very short distances, and only when I'm wild and out beyond the fences of my humanity and out-of-sight of other ex-horses.  

One thing that South Dakota has done is re-awaken my passion for horses.  In South Dakota, horses are everywhere.  I see one or several of them every day; grazing, being ridden, used as a pick-up animal or barrel-racing in rodeos, and bucking off cowboys (Did you know that horses are bred for their bucking capabilities?  I didn't.)  I see their arched necks, their careless and magnificant manes and tails, the sunset gleaming off of their mahoghany/black/paint/gold/roan/appaloosa/white/bay/and-so-on hides, their long, elegant legs holding up their powerful trunks, and I want to know them better.  I want to be a part of their club.  

So ar, it's been mainly an at-a-distance admiration, as the privilege of actually knowing horses on a personal level, wherein I might ride them, groom them, and be a significant part of their lives, was stunted when I was about eight or nine.  But tonight, near Sturgis, I am going to take riding lessons, from the ground (literally) up.  I am excited, nervous, and still a little in awe.  I have my cowboy boots and my jeans, and lots of hope that I can do this.  As I wrote to my fabulous friend, Lee, I will either re-invent my relationship with horses, or I will cross this experience off my bucket list.     

For crying out loud, I hear several people saying, what is the big deal?  Hop on the feckin' horse, ride it, and shut up.  But it's complicated.  The worship I have for horses is mixed up with my imagination and awe for the coolness of these creatures, the reality that I might fall off, be kicked or break my neck, and being bullied.  

The story begins back in Maine, where I grew up, when a nearby rich girl's father bought her a horse named Baby Doll, a buckskin mare that probably was a great horse, now that I know horses a bit, but one that haunts me.  There was a corral, two older girls who were much more experienced riders, the scorn of one, my own misunderstanding of her cruelty and impatience with my presence, and my fear of failure.  I remember sitting in Baby Doll's saddle, terrified to move, afraid of messing up more than falling.  I remember my friend, Colleen, growing impatient with me, and my own shame surrounding my inability to get over my fear.  I remember going to a riding stable with Colleen, being put on a Shetland Pony, and somehow, that pony took off at a gallop for the barn, me hanging on, scared past all knowledge of fear, and then, later, a physical fight between Colleen and the bully (I will not name her) over Colleen's choice to take an inexperienced rider to the stable, and how the owner was upset by this.  I remember eventually falling away from the barn and Baby Doll - I don't know what happened to her - and I remember, finally, walking away from the bully, when a remark that I recognized as being mean upset me.  Walking away was the beginning of recognizing and respecting mySELF, but it was still painful, and I hate that it all involved horses.
There's good news in all of this, however.  In every experience mentioned above, I did NOT fall off.  And the other thing - because every story needs growth to thrive...  I remember a moment of triumph, although I cannot tell you when or where it was - it was a brief relationship with someone who knew someone with a tall, gorgeous palomino that somehow I found myself astride, looping a meadow by myself, walking slowly, and then somehow, signaling to the horse that I wanted him to canter.  And so he did, rising like a gentle wave un,derneath me, heading up a small slope in a meadow, me initially afraid, but then relaxing with his sweet pace, as I looked between his ears at the grass and the sky bobbing in front of us.  It was a moment of heaven.  And that is where I will leave you.           

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

So Much to Write About

The problem with blogs, I'm finding out, or at least my own - okay, I can't speak for anyone but myself - is that there is too much to write about. My head is usually filled with days, nights, scenes from a relationship, scenes from the hills of South Dakota, scenes from inside my fuzzy little brain, scenes from Maine. Scenes from Maine.

I'm homesick. There, it's out. I miss my house, the ocean, my friends and family, the places I love to go, my Hannaford grocery store, recycling, Sebago Lake water, and trees. I miss wry wit, dry wit, sarcasm, my friend Barbara's big laugh and her kitchen table, my mother's voice, the sound my father makes when he clears his throat, letting my dog and my cat outside and inside, Quaker Point, my sister's incredible sense of humor, my brother's shy chuckle and brilliant observations from the other side of his silence, the New Meadows River, the East End and Munjoy Hill, the walking paths my dog and I used to take every day, and so on and so on...

This was a big change. A humungatroid leap of faith, and I took it because I love Bob, but also because I believe it's important to shake up the soul if it begins to get too comfortable. It's been an adventure filled with days spent in a beautiful gallery filled with work by a fabulous artist and photographer, rides in the truck gazing at hills that roll and toss their way to the horizon, which gets snagged by far-distant buttes and mountains and hills. One night, around midnight, we went deep into the Badlands under a full moon, and honey, ain't nothing like that in the world. It's like sitting with ghosts somewhere in the middle of Planet X.

And it is true what they say about Western sunsets. It's true that the deer and the antelope play and the buffalo roam. Seldom is heard a discouraging word because people just don't talk that much, and when they do, their troubles aren't up for discussion. And the skies are not cloudy, at least all day, the wind hustles them along to other skies like a mother hurries her sleepy kids to the bus stop. And like those kids, sometimes the clouds protest and whine and whammy! Lightening, thunder, and a whizzed-off wind screaming back and shoving them harder. But generally, it's sunny, and this is a new thing for a woman used to a moody climate. Rainy days are always good excuses for not getting things done outside. Rainy days are good for indoor things. When it's sunny, one has to show up for life.

It's so very different here. The people I've met are great, and if I let them into my heart, they'd be even greater. It is all up to me, in so many ways. It's a huge responsibility, this life of mine. Geez. I recently read Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. The gist, or the point that struck me, was that the main character was an Eastern woman who loved her life in the East, but fell in love with a Westerner and became a pioneer. A couple of times, Stegner makes the point that she never truly let herself live in the West; never let herself get to know people. She always kept her distance; her memories of the East ruled her life. So, I must say, I feel that way right now, but I'm hoping that it will pass and that I will find my life here. I can't imagine not living my life fully, heart and soul, wherever I have planted myself. It won't be fair to me, to Bob, to our adventure here. But it takes time. My dear friend Claire, who immigrated from Ireland when she was young, understands what I'm going through. (By the way, a wonderful book on homesickness and Irish immigration is Brooklyn by Colm Tobin - really gorgeous book in simple prose [how do the Irish do that?]). She says she soaked her pillow many nights for a long time. "Join an organization," was her suggestion, so I'm thinking about that, but I know these things come slowly. She's a wise woman who has lived a long and fulfilling life and what she says makes perfect sense. So, I am going to take horseback-riding lessons (hey, a blog topic!), so we'll see how that goes. I'm going to a writer's conference in a couple of weeks and that will be great. Getting together with other members of my tribe will be fabulous. I always like to gather with folks who make stuff up for a living.

So, I will adapt and thrive. In the meantime, I email, and I write, and sometimes I call and get called, and I think about them all back in Maine, a lot. I set my mind to following myself through a day in Portland, or driving north to West Bath, taking all the curves and hills and as they come, in my trusty beloved Honda Civic Hatchback, the Jelly Bean. I note the chips in the paint on my stair risers in my Portland house, the backyard and its little garden. The ugly tin-man shed in the corner of that yard. I walk up the hills to the top of the East End by the new school, then cross the Promenade and take paths that lead to East End Beach, then walk the rest of the way - a complete circle - past the harbor, up the hill, past Silly's, to home. I park in the post office parking lot in Bath and meet my family for pizza. I ring the doorbell at 838 Washington Street in Bath and then I walk in, sit down, and talk over the latest trials, tribulations, and triumphs. I drink wine at a small bar with Beth, or Brenda, or walk dogs with Tootie or Jay.

I miss them all. But they're loved and happy, as far as I know. I would have heard, I am sure, if things weren't okay. They are living their lives, as I am living mine, here in this little town in Western South Dakota, on this mixed-grasses prairie backed up against the Black Hills. And I'm agog with possibilities and time, if I let it, will be my friend.