Yesterday Nellie left this glorious Adirondack lake with Fiona, our 20-month-old granddaughter, after a visit with Grammie and Papa. I confess there was a bit of an exhale, a relieved catching of breath after a week’s emotional saturation with that small, mighty presence.
This morning, though, I looked down the hall from my bedroom where Fiona’s pack-’n-play used to be, where the coos and burbles of her small, waking voice summoned me springing from bed in the mornings or after naptime (hers and mine), where I was dependably greeted by that charming smile of intimate familiarity.
The call of the child intoxicates. It must be biologically programmed. I long for her presence, that dear face, the dancing, drunken gait, the soft arms wrapped around my neck, the rapt face listening to Winnie the Pooh’s theme song, “again” and “again!” I want to hear her voice saying “Grammie” as she reaches up for a lift into my arms. I miss her clear commands, her confident expectation that she will be heard and the world will respond – “sit”“beach” “nake” “backpack” “watch” “more” “moose.” How thrilled we are to comply.
60, however, is not the ideal age for that degree of sustained attention. Papa and I are happy to be sedately ensconced now with fellow 60+ year-olds, reading, playing Whist, disappearing occasionally into our own minds.
But oh, that world of wonders! The discovery of raspberries on the bush, ducks flushed from the grass, boat rides, splash bubbles on the water, sand clouds created by underwater feet. Hefting the lithe weight of young bodies, we see the world anew through a child’s eyes, feel the Earth under our toes as we haven’t felt it in years. We hear the voice of burgeoning life in the call of the child, and run, spellbound, to bear witness.
I spent the summer solstice with a group of women I'd never met. Well, I'd met one of them, but we had barely crossed the threshold of acquaintance before spending a transformational weekend at the Bearnstow Retreat Center in Mt. Vernon, Maine.
Bearnstow was built as a hunting and fishing camp in the 1880s. Though it became a dance and arts center in 1946, it retains the authentic look of an old-time hunting camp. To be honest, I was dubious upon arrival that I'd be comfortable in that squeaky old cot with the mothball-infused wool blanket, the rickety buildings, hard wooden benches and chairs (not a carpet or throw pillow in sight), under the shadows of a heavily treed canopy on the shore of Parker Pond. How quickly my ambivalence turned to enchantment.
Nine women sat, unmasked, in a writer's circle, and we connected. Sometimes you meet a new person with whom you resonate. More rare is finding a communal bond as a group. We laughed, we sang, we told stories, we swam, we hiked, we wrote.
Maybe it was the fact that it was our first post-pandemic foray back into the world of community with strangers. Maybe it was the fact that we were the first group to retreat at Bearnstow after a two year hiatus. Maybe the weather, the delicious food, the brisk swims in the lake, the improvised dance performance by our hosts, the warm fireside in the evenings and early mornings. More likely it was the unique combination of kindness, creativity, and open heartedness that blossomed when these nine women sat and wrote, and listened to each other intently, supporting and celebrating each other's art and soul.
Something broke open in me - the idea of possibility, a redefining of self and future at this advancing age we've come to. I left inspired. Thanks to all of you; thanks to Bearnstow and our bright-eyed, welcoming hosts. Thank you for reminding me that there are still worlds to discover, both inside and around me.
Instead of book news, I'm happy to report the release - today! (June 4, 2021) - of a new, micro-essay that I wrote for The Maine Review. "Come, Pain" is a contemplation about womanhood and motherhood from a particular terminus of the complex transit map of a woman's body.
It feels good to publish something entirely different from the book that has been absorbing my every waking moment for the last two years (at least, it feels that way...). The book marketing for The Field House goes well! Just this morning I was invited to call in to Maine Public Radio's "Summer Reads" special edition episode of Maine Calling, with Jennifer Rooks. Due to my high-intensity nerves when I went live on the radio, I think I succeeded in blurting out a surprising number of highlights about the book in a very short time. I had the shakes for about 20 minutes after that was done.
I am eternally, astonished-ly grateful for the attention Rachel's story is getting. On the other hand, the writer inside me is itching to get back to writing. Seeing this little essay come out today is a nice change of pace.
I had a moment today.
Over the last month I've been whirling through the fevered world of book promotion, spurred on by my sister authors at She Writes Press, buoyed up by an avid team of friends and supporters before they've even read The Field House. I've dealt with writer's cramp after 1000 postcards and monkey brain keeping me awake at night - a merry-go-round of things I might have forgotten, places I ought to contact, connections not yet made, posts I must write. I've hardly had time to take in what is happening right now - the fulfillment of a dream I've carried in my heart since I was about 8 years old. But today something cool happened.
I have been in love with Left Bank Books almost since they first opened in an old bank in Searsport, Maine in 2004. Left Bank Books has all the qualities to love about an independent bookseller - cozy atmosphere, personal touches abounding, bright colors, varied textures, handwritten recommendation cards and reviews on the staff's favorite books. It's a curiosity shop of delights - feast for the eyes, the mind, and the soul. They have moved to a larger space in nearby Belfast, but lost none of the charm and homey, welcoming ambiance. Our trips to Belfast from the Bangor area always include a long browse in Left Bank Books and anticipation of new adventures in the books we carried home.
I might have fantasized about "one day" having my own book on the shelves of a shop like Left Bank Books, but not with any conviction. I don't think I truly imagined it as a realizable goal. And yet, there I was today, welcomed at the door, invited to sit down with a stack of 22 of my own books to sign for readers, awaiting tomorrow's official release.
After the first few books I stopped to look around. Oh my god. I'm sitting here in my favorite bookstore, signing my own book. This is it, the real thing. Holy $#&%! I looked over at Lindsay, one of the founders of LBB, sitting nearby. "I can't believe I'm sitting here in this store signing books," I said. I know, not very professional of me, but I am a first-timer here. I don't think she minded. You only get one first time. Stop, Robin. Bask. Be here now.
Okay, can I say this out loud without sounding stupid? Dreams come true. Yes.
check out counter display at Left Bank Books today - The Field House surrounded by books from Rachel Field, and someone's personal Hitty doll from long ago.
Jonathan and I took advantage of a sun-drenched Saturday in April to make our first 2021 trip out to The Field House on Sutton Island. No spring opening has ever held more import for me than this one, here on the threshold of launching Rachel Field’s book at last. The house survived the winter well, aided by the cloak of a new roof last fall.
The interior, however, suffered the inevitable showers of debris that come with roof jobs in an open-frame house. Despite our attempts at draping, everything is carpeted in shards of wood, bits of shingle, roofing nails, and 100-year-old dust. No matter. You can’t take away the view, or the ocean’s deep springtime blue, or the layers of history adorning the walls and shelves. Rachel is still there, and I think she might have winked at me in the shine of this ancient, well-used ceramic bowl that I’m sure she used for biscuit-making or cranberry muffins long ago. I like to think she’s saying, “Here we go, Robin; Let’s do this thing.”
courtesy of Portland (Maine) Public Library, Special Collections
Rachel Field and I shared love for more than just an island house in Maine. We both adored our dog companions. Spriggin was Rachel's first Scotch Terrier and her iconic sidekick for an all-too-brief five years. Her second Scotty dog, Trotty, lived eleven years, until the summer of 1941. If death hadn't taken Rachel so precipitously the following spring, I suspect there would have been a third.
One of my favorite Field poems is called, "For a Dog Chasing Fireflies," from her collection, Branches Green. In the poem, she wonders about the grasping aspirations of people. Who are we to mock a dog's pursuits? The poem finishes with these lines:
By what sure power do we place
Ourselves above such futile chase,
Who seek more fleeting lights than these
That glitter under darkening trees?
I'll close with this beautiful painting by my daughter Anna (check out her website below), a scene with me and two of my dearest furry friends, now gone. The title is "looking at the stars with best friends." She captured so much that moves me about having dogs in the family: love, devotion, grounding. They also provide a plentiful supply of comedy.
Find Anna's and others' artwork here, including piano hats by Tessa Wood and handmade picture frames by R. Ramaswamy: https://www.etsy.com/ca/shop/ThreadNWater)
scene from Time Out of Mind, 1947
In April of 1935 Rachel Field published Time Out of Mind, a dramatic novel set on the Maine coast about unrequited love, crossing class boundaries, the end of the era of wooden ships, and perseverance. The book won several awards in the ensuing months, including the National Book Award. Field also sold the movie rights, a financial boon that freed her and Arthur Pederson to marry at last.
In April of 1947, five years after Rachel Field's untimely death, the film Time Out of Mind was made at last. An earlier book-to-film by Field, All This and Heaven Too, had been nominated for best picture in 1939, but Time Out of Mind did not do as well. Some say it was because Rachel wasn't there to offer her artist's guidance.
I have never been able to find a copy of the film, Time Out of Mind. I'd love to watch it some day. There is third Rachel Field Film, And Now Tomorrow. That too, has eluded me. Does anyone out there know how I can acquire copies of these old films, or even watch the films streaming online?
This is a gap in my Rachel Field experience. As the author of her biography about to be released, I feel it's my duty to try and fill all the gaps.
Thanks for any insights you have to offer!
Spring Signs - by Rachel Field
In honor of poetry month and the soon-to-be-released biography of Rachel Field, I will share some of Field's poetry during the last few weeks of April. This one was published in the Conning Tower in 1932. In Rachel's private scrapbooks, she cut out and pasted in copies of her work. In this case, she had also done quite a bit of editing with her pencil on the published scrap of newsprint. Thanks to the archives of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, I have a photograph of her edited version, which I have transcribed below:
Now is the time that hills put on
A smoky blue, untinged with green;
When sorel-red and cinnamon
In brief possession hold the scene;
When robins, orange breasted, shiver,
And wrens and burnished grackles scold;
When every brook is a rushing river,
And crocus companies brave the cold;
When freshly painted cars speed by,
And dogs and children skip and caper; --
Now is the time when such as I
Must set down rhymes on sheets of paper!
Fox poop, a baby sea turtle, and the world connected
Okay, I know this is weird. But a whimsical, scatological example of nature’s incidental artwork has been catching my eye for almost a week now. I had to share this little pile of fox poop (I am guessing fox), on top of an old stump, here on a bright, sun-washed, March evening in Maine.
What does the little poop pile look like to you? The first time I encountered it, I saw a tiny sea turtle. Then I forgot about it, and stumbled upon it again and again. I'd forget, then I'd be struck with the same impression each time anew. Today’s shadows made it even more prominently sea turtle-ish. Am I imagining things?
There are several wonderful things about this passing pile of excrement. First, there's my mental picture of a lovely young fox with a bushy red tail, happily exploring the newly thawed world, rife with exposed vole trails and other promising fare. She took a break from her explorings to hop up onto a nice flat stump and relieve herself. A loo with a view. What finer setting could there be for outdoor voiding? I applaud the fox, and love to picture her contented release.
Also, here on the skirts of the mighty Penobscot River, isn’t it cool to be reminded of other world creatures from faraway, beautiful places? Have you ever seen those videos of sea turtles, their fraught, perilous journey from sand to sea? Their precious vulnerability? Somehow, the leavings of one life form pulled together the world entire for me, here in my back yard.
So I had to write about a pile of poop today.
Though sorrow lingers, I have learned that love is stronger than death. Though my loved one is beyond my sight, I do not despair for I sense my beloved in my heart as a living presence.
-- selection from the Mourner’s Kaddish
As a Unitarian-Universalist, my faith-practice calls me to seek inspiration throughout the world of human experience. A year after my mother died, a Jewish friend told me about the yahrzeit candle, a 24-hour flame that is lit at sunset on the eve of the anniversary of the death of a loved one, especially parents. Today marks seven years since I lost my mom, and the daylong candle remains one of my favorite ways to quietly pay tribute to my mom, to my lingering sorrow, and to my gratitude for having had such an extraordinary person to love me for almost fifty-four years.
March 15th carries an additional weight of import that I didn’t recognize for several months after my mom’s death in 2014. Rachel Field, another woman who has become enormously significant in my life, took her last breath on March 15, 1942. Several years into researching and writing Rachel's biography, the discovery of that shared date shook me, then comforted me, somehow. The Ides of March hold layers of meaning for me that I may never fully understand, but I stop and take notice. I remember not to despair, for I can sense both beloved women in my heart as a living presence.
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.