Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Blog Tour: A Themed Life

Tamryn Spruill, girl genius, writer, educator and all-around creative talent, invited me to tag along on a Blog Tour a couple of weeks ago. When she asked if I was "in," it took me about one second to reply yes.

So here it goes: My Creative Process: All You'll Ever Want to Know."
Lady Claire, a gentle soul. (included because I love this image.)

1) What are you working on?

Mostly, I've been working on my blog, Jersey Sauce and reading fiction (A Winter's Tale) and nonfiction (The Emotional Life of the Brain.)  The blog was born nearly two years ago, a spin-off of my idea to write Jersey food essays that,with the help of the writing goddesses, would perhaps morph into a memoir. That hasn't happened, or rather, it hasn't happened "yet." In the meantime, I wrote a different memoir entitled Enter Spirit, tales from a spiritual journey. A few chapters of that memoir have been published in various literary journals.

I continue to spiff up the chapters of this memoir when I have the opportunity because I work at a college full-time. So to answer "what am I working on," my first impulse is to say not very much if my work is to be assessed in linear fashion; but I believe a writer is constantly working: when she is engaged with other writers, talks about ideas, dreams, or simply reads, reads, reads.

This past winter, I became a bit depressed due to various stressful life events. I saw an energy healer and a naturopath during this time. Both women talked with me for a while, and one of the gems mined from each brief discussion was that I should work on the blog, in other words, answer the creative call.

The title of this post, "A Themed Life," is now part of the Blog Tour. Themes are what drive much of my work, thus I segue into the next question.

2) How does your work differ from others’ in the same genre?

Every individual and each writer on the planet has the potential to convey her uniqueness, which is an essential ingredient to good writing. Unique writing arises from authenticity. I have given much thought over the past several years to my reasons for wanting to write memoir.

One doesn't just blather on about this or that, about the fact she climbed a mountain or met a celebrity - big deal, right? Lots of people have done these things.

Memoir is more about the how and why. I have a mother; we all have mothers. Mothers come in different forms. She can be the bane of a child's existence; or an angel. The interest arises when I write about my personal response to my mother, what I think of her now, how she shaped me, and about the hundred little nuances that make her "her."  For instance, mom isn't a great mom only because of her beautiful smile or because she made a wicked pot roast, though these are wonderful traits.It's about the interaction between my mother and me. It's about the time she and I took the train to the city the month before I graduated high school. I needed clothes for my first job, and although she had five other children at home, this day was special between us. But it doesn't end there. What prompted my mom to take me into the city, an activity so out of character for her? She was busy with my brothers and sisters, and I knew this was an effort for her. Was she worried about me now that I'd be out in the world? Did she think I deserved this special treat? Did someone suggest this shopping trip to her? In my genre, the writer tries to answer these types of questions.

Memoir is written in various forms: There are the tell-all memoir, the reflective memoir, the collection of memoir pieces or vignettes, or essays. As a writer keenly aware of these various styles, I make a choice each time I write, as to which form best serves my story. And what makes my writing different from those of other writers in my genre, is obvious. I'm writing about me, and there's no one else like me. My themes and how I write about them, cannot be told by anyone else. They can be similar, perhaps; but not the same.

3) Why do you write what you do?

Because I can't not. Themes consistently arise in my writing: nature, faith, religion, family, relationships, aging, and death. These themes have been part of me since my childhood. I remember being six years old and wondering what makes a person good or bad. How do we get to heaven? I was in the first grade when our teacher, a Catholic sister, told us that if you are not Catholic it is impossible to gain entry into heaven. Now, THAT was a blasphemy and I knew it, My hand shot up, sister gave me the floor. Though my sensibilities were not yet fully developed, I was certain she was wrong. I told sister that this couldn't possibly be true because my dad was a good man, and although he was not Catholic, I knew he would go to heaven. Sister Arlene offered no come-back. For all I knew, she believed just as I did. So I learned at a young age that it's okay to have your own opinions and thoughts, and the very important opinions must be shared for we never know how another might be significantly affected when we speak out.

 Peace to All

 4) How does your writing process work?

I daydream. I get ideas on my long drive to and from work each day. The dreams and ideas that surface are usually repeated. They loop around in my head and beg for attention. For me, it's about commitment first to the concept, then a more difficult challenge, the commitment to sit at the laptop or write in a notebook. That has always been the hard part for me. The real work. I'm a lazy writer, I'll admit it. If you want ideas? I'm right there, I could hang a shingle or sign on my front lawn that says "Ideas by Eileen for Free," but we all have ideas, which are, to be kind to myself, part of the writing process. The rest of my process occurs just as this post has happened. I sit down, it doesn't matter where or when. And then I begin to type (or scribble.) And I honor a commitment, whether to a Blog Tour, or to myself.

You might want to check out writer, Angi Baker's hip blog here. I hereby tag and invite my good friend, artist, musician, and writer, Theresa Funk, to the party, as well.

All best,

Monday, June 9, 2014

Southmountain Summer

(published in Blueline, SUNY Potsdam literary journal, 2014)

Charlie and I have made plans to renovate our old farmhouse. Rory, our contractor, has given orders that we must vacate by the first of July so he can begin tearing down walls. My sister’s friend, Janie, and her kids, will spend summer at a camp by the lake, so Janie has offered to rent us her home.
We meet Janie on a humid, cloudy afternoon at her New Haven property. We walk the grounds while speaking of our needs and her requests. The woods are dense; the grounds, simple and mowed. 

            Janie tells us she is not fond of cats, but we have two, so she makes it clear we must keep Bessi and Finn out of her bedroom, a challenge for us because our cats sleep wherever they want, which is usually between us or on us. Janie suggests they should be allowed in the garage only, but we view this request as unreasonable and tell her so. I promise her they will be good, so Janie acquiesces.
Janie also asks us not to sleep in her bed, although by the looks of it, I am barely inclined to do so. There are mounds of clothing and personal items heaped on top of an old patchwork quilt. It seems no one has been sleeping here, not even Janie. We assure her we will place our futon mattress on the bedroom floor and sleep there.
We ultimately agree on a monthly rental amount of $750, a fair price. The house was built by Janie and her deceased husband, ten years ago. A comfortable, spacious two-story home, I might consider it ordinary if not for the beautiful chimney that stands central to the space. Constructed from local Panton stone, the large slabs are striated with tones of gray, cream and beige. Knock-out mountain views face the house from the east, and to be honest, I would pay $750 for the views alone. South Mountain and Deer Leap are visible from the wide porch, so I’ll have a front row seat for sun and moon rises.
Before we take possession of Janie’s home, Charlie and I return by ourselves to walk the grounds. The house is tucked away from the road by a grove of evergreens. A curved, steep driveway lends a natural source of privacy. Some people might find the seclusion a bit unnerving, especially at night, but we welcome this solitude since our own house is located on a noisy main road, considered sacrilege in Vermont. The big trucks that pass by sound more like hovering helicopters.
We don’t understand why windows at the front of Janie’s house are so small given the gorgeous views to be had. I would have installed tall panes of glass to allow natural light and mountain vistas into the space. Still, there is that sweet front porch so I plan on some prime porch-sitting time.
Janie and I meet at the house early on moving day. I sense her wariness and suppress the urge to remind her of my excellent references, and that I have run my own home for many years.
The house keys dangle in the air between us. Her hands tremble and her bottom lip quivers. As I take the keys from Janie, I realize this woman has not fully accepted her young husband’s death.
Charlie and I move our essential belongings over to New Haven in caravan fashion. It’s odd – I like the idea of this temporary move; it’s as if we are going on sabbatical. I don’t mind the thirteen-mile trips between our home in Cornwall and New Haven. We pack the car with bags of clothing (thank goodness summer clothes are light); our favorite photos; books; and cooking utensils. Lastly we bring the cats, who make the trip one at a time. The rest of our personal things are boxed up and stored on our enclosed front porch so that Rory can begin the demolition.
It is constant back-and-forth from the cars into the house. When we bring our younger cat, Finn, into the kitchen, he runs across the floor and takes a flying leap across three levels of steps through the mudroom out toward the garage. He looks as though he has sprouted wings like a flying squirrel, and we can’t stop laughing.
I drop our bags of clothes onto the bedroom floor while we tidy the living room and organize the kitchen. Janie has left her house in mild disarray, which is no surprise really, with two young children and a busy life. I head upstairs to un-bag our clothes. I open the roomy closet and assess the space, deciding what clothes must be hung and what items can be placed on a little chair by the dresser. Charlie helps, and as I push Janie’s winter clothing aside to make room for our own, we discover stacks of folded clothes that could only have belonged to her dead husband.
Ron has been dead two years and four months, and here are his clothes - the worn jeans and checkered shirts of a good ol’ born-and-bred Vermont boy – even his tattered jockey shorts for God’s sake. We both wonder how someone could hold onto her dead husband’s clothing for so long. I ultimately discover through the gossip mill that she is saving these clothes for her little boy, Ron’s son, who is only eight years old.
Charlie and I are morbidly fascinated with these old clothes. We can’t help but make light of it, so we begin calling them, “The Dead Guy’s Clothes.” And now, every time we speak of Ron, whom neither of us knew personally, we refer to him as “The Dead Guy.” And Janie has become “The Widah Janie.” We say it the way Foghorn Leghorn talks about his lady love in Bugs Bunny cartoons.  Perhaps our irreverent humor is a defense mechanism we’ve created to ward off the ghosts because as far as I’m concerned, Ron’s ghost presides over this house. Janie hasn’t let go of him; and I observe signs of this haunting during our renters’ tenure.
One morning, on my way downstairs to start coffee, I notice the glass door of the shadowbox at the bottom of the stairway is open. It contains Janie’s faded wedding bouquet of cream-colored roses and carnations along with Ron’s crinkled boutonniere. I fasten the case securely, I am certain of it. Yet the next morning it is open, and this occurs repeatedly during our three month stay.  
One evening, although there is no rationale for doing so, I feel compelled to descend the stairs into the home’s clean, uncluttered basement. I glance left and notice what must have been Ron’s L. L. Bean snow boots. They are propped up against the wall beneath his Carhart overalls, which hang from a hook. These items, once essential to his life in this house, now serve as memoriam. I can’t help but visualize Ron’s body filling out these clothes as if I have a mystical power to conjure physical matter. The image scares me enough to propel me back up the stairs fast. I shut the door behind me – tightly,  relieved to be back in Janie’s kitchen. 
After that day, I find the cellar door ajar often despite the fact that when I leave the house in the morning or go to bed at night, it was latched. Yet this mild haunting does not deter me or Charlie from finding comfort in this house.
My friend, Jess, who works with Janie states that prior to Ron’s cancer diagnosis, he was hard on their little son. He often bullied him about his performance during pee-wee ice hockey games. Janie confided to Jess that their marriage had been a bit rocky, but then Ron took ill. It is strange to note how a grave illness can change the landscape of a marriage, as if once death has put you on notice, all relationship issues – the hurts, flaws and tensions – are nullified.
I have wondered what it might be like if I lost Charlie. Oh, he might get on my nerves once in a while. We argue and he is not perfect, nor am I. But when I am alone, I pretend. I allow myself, if only for a moment and however irreverent it might seem, to think of him gone. No longer would I share life with my biggest fan, the one who tells me I am still pretty no matter how old I get. I would miss his silly jokes. I imagine how it might feel to never again see his face across from me over dinner or to hear his voice, and I easily empathize with Janie.
And now, the little boy who played hockey; whose daddy was so tough on him and yelled at him from the sidelines, is without a daddy at all. And Janie and her family must go on without him.
On weekdays, I come home from work and surrender to my new preoccupation, porch sitting. At our own house, I might vacuum or search for another chore, but here at Janie’s, I live in the “realm of the renter.” Charlie laughs as he has embraced this slogan, too, with no household jobs or lawn mowing required.
Charlie arrives home from work considerably later than I do in the evening, so I pour a glass of Chardonnay, read, and watch the sky as it fades into shades of purple and orange. The cicadas sing. The grosbeaks and thrushes flit between the branches of mature evergreens, calling to each other. Sometimes I play a game with them by imitating their sounds. They almost always return the call, which sounds a little sad, as if they are keening for Ron and Janie. One evening, I see a gorgeous red fox streak through the side yard. Another day, a flock, or “rafter” of seventeen wild turkeys plays follow the leader as they strut towards the woods behind the house. I watch with reverence as if time passes in slow motion.

I find myself channeling Janie. I jot down random thoughts and impressions as I sit on her front porch. It is as if I have stepped through a portal while in New Haven, my usual life held in suspension. I have been given a gift of more time, attuned to not only my own interior life, but Janie’s, too. There is a deep sadness she endures that I vicariously feel for her. This house may be haunted, but not in any frightening way. It is merely filled with the story of its family and a woman who cannot let go. Charlie’s and my lives overlap with Janie’s, which overlaps with Ron’s death and we all live with ghosts.
Although I have moved through my own divorce and heartache, I understand the loss of past love and the pain that continues despite all logic. I sense Janie’s guilt for being the survivor. How difficult it must be to bear the type of grief that besets a young woman who has lost her mate well before his time, no matter the condition of their marriage. But Janie resists moving on. She hasn’t changed a thing that might tamper with Ron’s memory and keeps the house as a shrine.
There is a photo on the living room table - Ron looking weak but still handsome in his blue flannel shirt. His head is partially bandaged, indicative of surgery, a surgery that would have perhaps offered hope, but failed to save him. Janie is sitting on his lap, a wan smile on her face. Odd, knowing what I know. That if Ron had never become ill, they might never have posed for the camera in such a way, wrapped up in each other’s arms.
When I prepare meals in Janie’s kitchen, I try to keep our belongings separate, but so many of her possessions are scattered about. I can’t help but flip through a stack of photos I find in a small basket. I catch a glimpse of one in particular, and can’t quite believe what I see. Janie and a few men stand in a semi-circle at the local cemetery. With shovels, they seem to be chipping away at the frozen ground. Ron passed away in March. In northern climates, the dead cannot be interred until spring thaw. Because of this timing the funeral director declined to bury his body. Apparently, Janie must have asked Ron’s fire company buddies to help her dig through the partially frozen earth shrouded in winter’s remaining snow.
It is now late August and I am on vacation, free to attend the writers’ conference on Bread Loaf Mountain. I intend to bask in these days I have given myself, and what better place to enjoy them than New Haven, which is very near Bristol, my first Vermont home. I bring my books to Main Street Bakery and read or write until a friend comes by offering welcome distraction. Some days I drive up to Ripton for a writing workshop or to attend a lecture. I take daily morning walks on East Street up towards the Mayer Farm. I walk farther each day, all the way out to Route 17. I slow my gait as I pass the cow barn and always get a little heartache when I see the cows. They seem so lonely, and I succumb to the urge to say hello. I say it in humanspeak – in English – the way I talk to my cats. No mooing at cows the way tourists do.

There is a sense of freedom in this summer that I haven’t felt for a long while. In my “renters’ realm,” all expectations and responsibilities are at bay. For many of us, this type of opportunity proves elusive. I have come upon it by accident. Despite my perception of Janie’s pain and Ron’s spiritual presence, Janie’s home has been a heartening retreat.
During the final week of our stay, Janie stops by to gather up gear for a Labor Day weekend camping trip. This is the only time during the three months I have lived here that we speak. We talk about her kids and how she has managed since Ron’s death. She tells me about her new relationship with Rick, who runs a tractor business out of his house in Waltham, three towns away. She says she couldn’t want for a nicer man than Rick. He treats her and her children well, so she has decided to give him a chance, and will leave her house behind for the upcoming fall and winter seasons. I give her a big hug and tell her I am happy for her.
It is now September. Rory has completed the final touches on our renovation. We pack our clothing and load cardboard boxes with the bowls, photos and books we brought with us. I sit on the porch one last night and watch the full moon come up over South Mountain.  I will miss this place. 

I recall a poem I wrote for Janie earlier this summer with the secret hope it might disperse the entwined energy between her, the house, and Ron’s spirit. Perhaps now she can move on. Perhaps the shadowbox that preserves old wedding flowers will cease its mysterious unlatching and remain closed.  

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Lazy Cook

I love a good meal, whether home-cooked or out-on-the-town. Give me a crab cake full of lump crab meat and a smooth glass of Chardonnay and I’m in gastro-heaven.

I grew up in a family with six kids, one grandmother and two parents. My mom put dinner on the table seven nights a week. She cheated only slightly by serving the occasional cold cuts or pancakes.   

Our meal cycle most likely replicated what was served in many homes during the 1960s. Sunday pot roast followed by Monday’s leftovers. Tuesday was fried steak with veggies on the side, Wednesday was baked chicken, Thursday, spaghetti in the pressure cooker and on Friday, being Roman Catholic, we went without meat so it was a holy smorgasbord – hard-boiled eggs, tuna, and  pizza made with canned biscuit dough, tomato sauce and imitation mozzarella cheese, sort of an Irish pizza. Afterward, my mom made a pot of tea in the winter months, (iced tea in summer.) Anyone who wished to remain at the table, did so. And we talked. 


We never ate out as a family. Can you imagine the nine of us, unsightly herd that we were, filing in through a diner’s front door, taking up all the space in the waiting area and beyond? Yeah, it was better we stayed at home. The one time we all went out together was to a local dairy bar, The Cowtail Bar, where fresh ice cream was served. I can’t even remember what I  had, the event itself so foreign to my sensibilities that the novelty of what we were doing occupies my entire memory chip. 


When I ran my own household and kitchen in my late twenties and thirties, I carried on the tradition  of mom’s rhythmic meal routine. I added a few twists that included Mexican pizza (using that same handy Pillsbury dough) and chicken and broccoli casserole. I’d come in from work each evening, kick off my shoes, head straight for the kitchen counter and set to work. Children require nutritious sustenance in order to thrive. Sometimes I didn’t sit down with them, which imitated my mother’s sister, Marie. She made dinner for everyone and then hovered or perched nearby in case anyone required assistance.  Mostly we did sit, and we ate, and we talked. It was a time for connection even if the meal was occasionally take-out. The food didn’t matter as much as the fact we were together. 

 Vintage Pillsbury Pizza

Now, it’s just my husband and me. He’s retired, and often prepares dinner. I cook rarely though last week I made Chicken Elizabeth. Sounds fancy, doesn’t it? When I don’t feel like cooking, my line is “I put dinner on the table for over 20 years, I did my time.” Does that sound mean? That’s not my intention. My mother has said the same thing, and she’s the nicest lady I know.

 Mommy has earned her "No Cooking" status

But my husband and I like our food, and we always have dinner. Sometimes we stay in, sometimes we go out. Some evenings, we each fix our own separate meal.  We love the local pub, we make due with the small diner on the other side of town, and we enjoy the chic Black Sheep Bistro, our favorite place to celebrate or meet friends. Sometimes, when I’m feeling really lazy, I pour myself a glass of wine,  eat some crackers, stuff a handful of mesclun in my face and call it a meal. 

 Husband helping with Pasta Brunetta (spelling)

Last night, as my husband began to pull leftovers out of the refrigerator, I intervened by making him, Sicilian that he is, an offer he couldn’t refuse - let's go out. I told him I’d pay.  When we arrived at the restaurant, the hostess seated us, and there we were, face to face. Hello. And we each began talking about our days -- about what news and art currently consumed our thoughts. Sustenance, not just for the body, but for our relationship. And for the soul.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Apple of my Eye

We had just had our first-year anniversary, my iPhone and I. The phone’s wallpaper displayed my granddaughter's face. The music I had  amassed from iTunes was perfection, and I counted on it for my morning commute . Checking weather on the cute app was fun, and my bank balance was always within a moment’s  reach. Most likely, I was weeks away from the stage where one places her phone by the bedside in true corporate lady mogul fashion. How could I have been so careless?

It’s odd, I had actually been considering this dreaded possibility only hours before. You know – how you have those random thoughts when your mind is at rest? I had the thought, “wow, what would I do without my iPhone?”

I get a little scatterbrained and disorganized, and am often in a rush. My handbag is one of the more prominent places where I exhibit this behavior. My hand flails fruitlessly through the bag, wildly rifling its contents in the most uncomfortable, cringe-worthy manner that would give anyone watching, a serious case of the willies. 

I assumed my iPhone was in the bottom of said handbag. Or I left it on a merchant’s countertop. After one internal breakdown, several in-town inquiries to various locations, intense searches conducted by my husband in places such as the Ugg boots and tissue box in the back of my car and three complete ransackings of my purse, I conceded.  My iPhone had vaporized, self-destructed. 


It has been a week. I’ve deduced that I probably left the phone in my accidentally unlocked vehicle. Or I dropped it and it got smashed by a passing car on Main Street. It doesn’t matter. I’m using my husband’s old Droid to fill the void, so I can at least maintain phone contact, but I miss my iPhone. A noted side effect is that I am slowly disconnecting. From phone calls, from Facebook, and I don’t read texts until  hours after they've been sent. I’m not constantly reaching for my tiny, black treasure. (To my friends: I’m still here, like a voice in the night - bear with me.)  It’s not as much fun to check the weather on an antiquated Droid. My hand still craves the touch, the feel, but the craving diminishes each day. Arianna Huffington and her campaign to “take it down a notch”  have nothing on me. She can chat up the media and discuss her perspectives on calm, quiet and spirituality with Oprah all she wants. She still has her iPhone.