not too bright,
dear, gentle soul.
Dec. 2, 2007-June 17, 2022
Clara was the third dog on the scene when she joined our family in 2009. She was gangly and bouncy - could spring higher than my head until her knees blew out at age 7 or 8. She was a shameless crotch sniffer and loved to give what my daughter fondly calls "tooth hugs," charming to some, disconcerting to the uninitiated. She was fully comfortable in her own body, and somehow presented a daunting alpha presence to all other dogs without even raising a lip. She won all doggie tugs of war without even tugging. They'd just look at her and let go.
We often found her sprawled, spread eagle fashion, on the carpet, wriggling to scratch her back or just lying there, lips flopping back over her teeth, not an insecure bone in her body. I'm glad she was at ease with us; she certainly put me at ease.
When I was grieving or scattered or feeling lost, I'd kneel onto the floor beside her, lay my head against her warm, furry neck, slide my fingers over her velvety ears, and she'd lift her paw up onto my shoulder, another version of the Clara hug. Just thinking about it pulls a deep sigh from me. She put me at peace.
Now she is at peace, our last dog in a long, continuous crowd of them since 1983. No more painful heavings off the floor, no more stumbling outdoors to go pee. Her long stare told us it was time. How long will we last, dogless? That remains to be seen. For now, I will sit with my menagerie of dear old friends out by the pond, one grave newly dug. Their bodies fertilize the earth as their lives have fertilized our souls, and we will continue to feel the comfort of their simple, indomitable love.
This week I enjoyed what is arguably one of the great moments of my writing life. At the annual Maine Literary Awards ceremony a few days ago, The Field House won the non-fiction award and was a co-winner of the John N. Cole Award for Maine-based non-fiction. What an affirmation of all those years of work, what a rush of adrenaline when they read off my name – twice! So why did I feel so unsettled and uncomfortable in the days following this great triumph? Why was I not floating on a cloud of happiness all week?
One obvious reason is the violent murder of 19 children and two adults that I read about the day following the awards ceremony. How can our little paper certificates mean anything next to that horror, or the fact that it was distressingly less shocking than it should have been? But that can’t be the whole story of my disconcerting unease. Nothing felt good or right in the face of that news. Those of us at a distance must find a way to acknowledge and absorb such horrors, bear witness, act to change what is wrong, but then we must somehow continue muddling our way through the business of life, joys and sorrows, disappointments and triumphs.
I tried to untangle my complicated response to winning. There’s imposter syndrome – they must have made a mistake. I’ll never be able to write anything good again; it was a fluke. There’s success phobia, the pressure to satisfy newly heightened expectations. Better not try at all, they’ll be disappointed; too much attention.
But that one confused me. Since my book came out a year ago, I have basked in the success of the book, which came in the form of attention from enthusiastic readers. That feedback has been wonderful. It is unfailingly gratifying to learn that my writing has moved someone, made them happy, sparked new thoughts, inspired them with the life story of Rachel Field. Clearly it’s not attention that bothers me. It is, I think, the aftermath of “winning.” As much as I wished and hoped to win the award, I hadn’t anticipated the feeling of…remorse? My win meant someone else’s disappointment. That sucks. That does not feel happy at all.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am thrilled and elated by the recognition that the Maine Literary Awards gave me and my book. It is what I have dreamed and wished for! I feel fortunate, validated, supported, and buoyed up to carry on with my scribblings. I am also, however, prone to sometimes tiresome cerebrations over the complexities of living in this world. Most wonderful things have baggage to go with them. I can’t help hefting the baggage along for a little ways, to see how it feels.
Here’s what I think I’ve learned this week. Those things we imagine will provide happiness don’t always measure up. They’re complicated. Here's what made me uncomplicatedly happy this week: My granddaughter’s smile, a snake crossing a bridge, a palette of spring green seen from a mountaintop, a walk with a friend, a turtle in the grass, old Clara walking all the way out to the back of the field, still going at 14 ½, taking life quietly, one day at a time.
I wish all of you a generous dose of uncomplicated happiness. May it lead you all the way across the field, across the bridge, through the weeds, to a place of peace.
I had one of those epic, solo car drives today on the threshold of Mother’s Day, my mind awash, all cylinders firing, confused and overwhelmed by a flood of BIG, contradictory feelings. The miles flew by unnoticed. Sound familiar? I’m not sure if this phenomenon comes exclusively with age, but it feels dependent on a lifetime stockpile of memory and experience. On occasion, everything rushes to the surface, demanding attention all at once.
Here’s the backdrop: I’ve just spent 24 hours with my pregnant daughter and 2 ½ year-old granddaughter, a couple of hours’ drive from my home. During my visit, little Fiona spent a half-hour performing a close examination of my face while I pretended to sleep, hoping she’d take the hint and settle for her nap. She pushed at my eyelids, stretched my mouth into smiles and frowns, examined the gray hair at my temples, all the while whispering indecipherable stories to her stuffed animals. It was kind of like having a baby raccoon explore your physiognomy with its little padded fingers. At last, draped over me, her breathing slowed and she went quiet. I didn’t dare move for several minutes, but eventually slid myself out from under her little round arms and watched her sleep. Heaven.
Later that night, Nellie marched into the room with a tray full of goodies – flowers, a Mother’s Day card, chocolate-covered almonds, and her cell phone with a live Zoom feed featuring all my other children (two of them expecting babies). Surprise! Happy Mother’s Day Mama! There were those four, dear faces, sending love. I’ll be out of the country on Sunday, unable to receive calls, so their timing moved me and my heart swelled with gratitude. How can anyone be so lucky?
And yet…what’s up with that other cascade of emotion that surged forth as I pulled away from Portland this morning after leaving Fiona at daycare? It felt a lot like grief. What the heck?
Well, maybe it’s all about the passage of time. The last time I got to be with my own siblings and our wonderful mom on Mother’s Day was 2013. My children haven’t lived with me since 2011; they are all starting families of their own. Fiona is no longer a tiny packet of softness that sleeps quietly on my chest; she is a small person with a mind exploding with daily discoveries, becoming herself, gaining independence. Time is skipping along, leaving my past steadily further behind. The miles hurtling away behind me seemed to represent all the years gone by, emphasizing the distance growing between me and what used to be.
Oh yes, I celebrate life’s tenacity! Oh the wonder of it – how it goes on blossoming, evolving, changing! But at the same time, my own life experiences are receding in the rearview mirror along with my husband’s hairline. We’ll do our best to keep up, but our obsolescence is inevitable, one of the few certainties in a world of unknowns.
How do we navigate this world so teeming with rapture and grief, becoming and fading away? We embrace it all, I suppose. We make room for the new and carry our histories along for the ride, as long as little fingers continue to explore, as long as our hearts continue to beat.
At 5:55 this morning I found myself between the rising sun and the setting moon, nearly full. Old Clara the dog didn’t seem to notice, but the moment caused me to stop and stare, east to west, west to east. This conjunction of events doesn’t happen often, and I stumbled upon it entirely by accident. Even if I weren’t a poet, I’d have to recognize the obvious metaphor, particularly fitting given my current prospects.
In the next six months, we will welcome three new babies into our family fold – count em! Three! New life abounds. My children are growing new people, taking a leap into the unknown, manifesting hope for uncharted future lives. What a gift – an affirmation of intention – fully living in these fraught times of an unsettled world.
In the next six months, I will begin my work as a new hospice volunteer. My hope is to provide support for dying people and their families as they navigate this shift, take this leap into the unknown, learn how to live fully through this uncharted chapter of life.
Here I stand in my back fields, simultaneously witnessing an opening and a closing, an arrival and a departure, a beginning and an ending.
Or maybe not. In truth, what I am witnessing is neither start nor finish. Two glorious orbs of light meet here, where I stand, at this intersection between night and day, merely marking a transition, one in an infinite series of changes, part of a timeless continuum. Even as we say goodbye to the descending moon, its light fading as the sun heaves itself up from the horizon, we know the moon continues its luminary passage elsewhere, beyond our sight. Even as we welcome the sun’s brilliant arrival, it leaves another place to darkness, or to the light of the rising moon.
Birth and death are our two orbs of light. Each one illuminates in its own distinct way the beauties and challenges of our cycle of life, here on our little planet. Transition and change are constants. Our task, while we’re here, is to celebrate each transition, cultivate wisdom, meaning, love, wherever we can, as we rise, as we fall.
photo courtesy of Vassar College Library special collections
Does Rachel’s award-winning Hitty from 1930 still stand up in 2022? Yes and no.
Over the last year the American Library Association has been celebrating 100 years of the Newbery Award, which began its run in 1922. In 1930, Rachel Field was the first woman to receive the award with her charming book about a tiny wooden doll’s century of adventures, Hitty: Her First Hundred Years. I’m sharing here some fabulous photos of Rachel and Hitty – who was a real doll that Rachel and her illustrator bought in New York City – on their historic cross-country flight to California where Rachel would receive the Newbery. But is this book too dated to be read by today’s children?
Fans of Hitty – both book and doll – were an essential part of my 9-year journey to rediscover the life of Rachel Field, whose abandoned island home became mine in 1994. As I near the one-year anniversary of my own book about Rachel’s life story, The Field House, I’m moved to honor these two centennials – Hitty’s 100 years, which still entertains readers today, and 100 years of the Newbery Award. Both histories have snags. Some of the older Newbery winners are deemed inappropriate or offensive for contemporary readers. The ALA hosted a recent webinar about this very topic. What do we do with award-winning books from history that no longer meet our standards of social justice? How can the Newbery Award selection process repair its history of bias and exclusion? What about Hitty?
Re-reading Hitty’s story for the first time in a decade, I do find myself cringing at some of Rachel Field’s vocabulary and her treatments of non-white, non-privileged, or otherwise unfamiliar populations. Like many books of her time, Rachel’s Hitty caters to the predominantly white Christian populace who were her presumed readers.
On the other hand, during Hitty’s exciting adventures around world history from the early 1800s to 1930, the narration suggests an inclination towards tolerance. It helps that the book’s narrator is the doll, Hitty, whom we might forgive more easily than a human narrator for her ignorance. Hitty may be elitist and judgmental, but she bends towards open-heartedness. She grows. I can’t help liking her. Hitty finds the good in all manner of people and situations, and I like to think that if her next hundred years were recounted we’d see Hitty grow in depth and perspective, regretting the narrow-mindedness of her early years.
Hitty’s story can be instructive in many ways, in addition to being entertaining. There is a wealth of vivid description: the state of Maine, whaling ships, the evolution of fashion, transportation, and domestic life; and the timeless struggles of children navigating the pull between obedience and desire. In conjunction with education and discussion about the subtle and overt systems of racism and exclusion in literature, I believe we still have something to gain in reading Hitty’s story.
Today was a wide awake, wake-up day. They’re the best, and they don’t happen very often. I am not a morning person, and I love the luxury of a long, lingering lounge in bed after awaking, maybe even with a few extra dozings. But sometimes there are days like today when the sun tilts into my bedroom window, the air feels filled with promise, birds are singing, beckoning, and I am fully awake. Who cares if it's 10 degrees outside? What I most want to do is to get up and meet the day.
That reminds me. I’ve been meaning to write about a game called “The Best Thing.” If you’re with a group and don’t have board games available, all you need are paper and pencils. Everyone writes 4-5 things on separate scraps of paper. Each entry must fit the description of something you’d call “the best!” Coffee is the best! A comfortable old cashmere sweater is the best! Ben and Jerry’s Oat of This Swirled ice cream, a baby sleeping on your chest, a dog’s velvety ears, or a sunny morning when you awaken with all your being in synch with the sunshine.
To play, everyone throws their folded papers into a bowl, then you mix them up and pull them out, two by two. Each random pairing goes into the outermost tier of a tourney bracket. Your outer tier can be sixteen or thirty-two or sixty-four, depending on how much time you want this game to take. The “competition” consists of your group voting on the winner of each paired match-up.
Which is best – fresh spring strawberries off the vine, or a big tax refund? In order to “win” and move on to the next level of the bracket, you have to gain consensus (some say unanimity, but that would be a game-ender in an opinionated group). Your tournament will lead you to the elite 8, the final four, the championship contenders, and one final winner.
It is an excellent game for a dreary winter weekend. You can leave the game and come back to it, it’s more collaborative than competitive (though persuasiveness can be an asset, “Come on! Can’t you just smell that bacon sizzling?” “Yes, but coffee is there for you every day.”), and it focuses everyone on all those things in life that make us happy. We need more of that.
Speaking of the best thing, one of my favorites is this picture of my granddaughter in pink tulle by the sea. It speaks volumes to me about independence, discovery, fresh air, forward movement, possibility, timelessness, femininity and power. It is the best!
Think about it.
Why I love February:
I missed posting on 2/2/22, but I did get to write that cool date on one check. Yes, I still write checks by hand. I like feeling obliged to put deliberate time and thought into spending. There’s a chance to rethink your decision, change the number, tear the thing up. Impulse buying over the airwaves has become way too easy, “one-click purchase!” -- but I digress.
Today was a snow day around here. I still love snow days, opportunities for leisurely digression. February, as a month, gets a bad rap, something to flee. For me, it’s the best of winter. The snows of March (and even April, here in central Maine) lose some of their enchantment. By then I’m feeling restless for spring. This early February snow is blustery and blissful.
For those of you who get my newsletter, some of the list below will look familiar, but February’s charms deserve reiteration (btw – I’d love to add you to my mailing list! Newsletters come ~4 times a year, or max 1/month if cool things are happening).
If February is getting you down, consider these benefits:
May you all find your best Februarys.
A slump often assails me at year’s end. Could be the post-holiday emotional hangover, or that lost feeling of not knowing - “what happens now?” - as a year of uncertainty, once again, looms large. I almost skipped the whole ritual of choosing a single word to be my guide-post for the coming year. Whatever, I thought. Who cares? I’m tired.
Ah. That is a problem. Not caring is exactly what the world does not need right now.
So, after considering GROW, LEARN, and GIVE, I settled on CARE. The more active verbs stressed me out. I think I’m burned out, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. Besides, it’s too easy to GIVE without caring, to GROW and LEARN in an isolate way. It’s time we start thinking communally.
Global climate change, the collapse of democracy, factionalism, widespread distrust – it’s overwhelming. If the Earth is our home, I guiltily find myself trying to slip out of the living room into my own privileged space, and shut the door. What can I do? How can I assure a secure future for my whole family - my sleeping granddaughter and millions more little people just arriving into the world?
Well, I can care. I can pay attention, listen, exercise compassion, and try to help. That’s caring. Maybe my effect will be small, but I’d like to discover what is in my power and apply it. I don’t like not-caring. The world will collapse with all the not-caring that’s going around, the blind denial, the insularity. We are on one planet, all of us. We share this home. Everything we do affects all of us. Time to care.
At a small family gathering near Thanksgiving we went around the dinner table saying what we’re thankful for. I was charmed by my husband’s unexpected contribution:
“I’m thankful for the Elsa dress,” he said.
I laughed, but the idea stuck with me.
For those uninitiated into the phenomenon of Frozen, Elsa is the blue-gowned heroine of the animated Disney film set in a mythical Scandinavian landscape. After seeing the movie in bits and pieces over time, our granddaughter became utterly enraptured by Elsa, by her showstopper theme-song, “Let it Go” (belted out by the amazing Idina Menzel), and most predominantly, by the Elsa dress costume that her parents got her for Halloween.
For a while, Fiona’s mom and dad tried the out-of-sight out-of-mind method of weaning their daughter off the dress. No way. She was not going to let it go. Who knew that a not-quite two-year-old could sustain that kind of focus over days?
On a Grammie visit in early November, I tiptoed into Fiona’s room at the end of naptime. Bleary-eyed, red-cheeked, raising her head from the stuffed pig that had been her pillow, her first words came as a query:
“Elsa dress?” she asked hopefully.
“The Elsa dress is in the laundry.” (I’d been primed with this response)
“Mommy clean it?”
“Maybe later, Honey.”
“Elsa dress hiding.”
“Yes, maybe it’s hiding again.”
At an outdoor celebration of Fiona’s birthday in mid-November, she wore the Elsa dress over her clothes. She wore it to daycare, the store, anywhere she could. By Thanksgiving it seems her parents had given up resisting. She’d worn it every day for a week and clutched it to her when it was off, like a magic totem. She regularly requests Elsa’s famous song while she’s wearing the dress, then runs in grand circles, waving her wand, tiara sparkling, singing “Wet it go, wet it go…hold it back any-mo…”
“It’s like she magically transforms into a princess when she puts it on,” said Fiona’s mom, who can’t help smiling every time.
Jonathan didn’t explain his gratitude for the Elsa dress, except to say that it makes him happy. I’ll venture some further ideas about where that happiness comes from.
Try to imagine that kind of total immersion in joy. The fertile mind of a tiny new person so enchanted floods the heart with delight. Magic is happening, before your eyes, the kind we can barely remember through the fog of adult eyes. It is why I revere childhood. The ability of young developing minds to explore beyond the boundaries of rational barriers reminds us of possibility, hopefulness, unrestrained joy in being.
Yes, yes, it’s also buying into a capitalist marketing scheme run by the mega-corporation of Disney. I don’t mind. For whatever reason, the piquing of Fiona’s youthful imagination summons an enchantress from her pure heart. She transforms the grown-ups in her sphere, elevates them with a spell of celebratory pixie dust. I’ll take it. Kudos to my husband for naming it – I give thanks for the Elsa dress.
After the exciting discovery that And Now Tomorrow was the FIRST EVER #1 New York Times Bestseller on the very first NYT bestseller list in 1942, I decided it was time to re-read Rachel Field's last novel. It had been years since I read it cover to cover. I'm happy to report that the third time through was even better than the first two, and it's only 99 cents on Kindle right now - so seize the opportunity! Admittedly, I'm biased, but that's only partially responsible for my enthusiasm.
Yes, there are parallels between the book and Rachel's life that I did not remember. The first, intense love affair in the protagonist's life spans the exact years of Rachel's passion for Lyle Saxon - 1928 to the early 1930s. Protagonist Emily Blair's experience of love's power to consume and humble is echoed, sometimes word for word, in Rachel's real life letters to Lyle. The day trip to a historic house that Emily and her beloved Harry undertake in the book duplicates Rachel and Lyle's visit to the old General Cowles house in Farmington Connecticut. The first encounter, flooded with the flush of love, is later recalled in an ache of longing to recover a love diminished. There are many more such scenes, shifts, and revelations that track with Rachel's love, heartbreak, and return to a more peaceful, if slightly jaded self.
And Now Tomorrow is further complicated by sibling rivalry and the tragedy of meningitis-induced deafness, but the book is much more than a beautifully written, complex tale of romantic entanglements. Beyond that, there is a fascinating and humanizing exploration of the trials of the early 1930s labor movement, the clash between traditional corporations and unionizers. These elements of historic fiction give it even greater weight.
And Now Tomorrow solidifies Rachel Field's prowess as a novelist and emphasizes the tragedy of her loss. How many more extraordinary works would have come from her hand if she hadn't died so suddenly and so young? We'll never know, and we are the poorer for it.
Robin Clifford Wood is a writer and writing teacher. She lives in central Maine with her husband and dogs, loves to be outdoors, and enjoys ever-expanding horizons through her grown children and their multi-species families.