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Farewell, Callie Dog

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Callie, you were the very best of dogs. From the moment we met you in a stranger’s kitchen in Springfield, and we sat on the floor as your owner said “she’s afraid of all men,” and you immediately climbed into Jon’s lap, we knew we all belonged together. For almost sixteen years you took your self-appointed job of puppy tender very seriously.

Thank you for all the kisses, all the wearing of hats while the kids took pictures, all the dog laughs, and all the LOVE. I have never met another dog as in love with life as you. Even as arthritis settled into your bad hips, as your kidneys struggled with the arthritis meds, as the heart issues diagnosed six years worsened, you still loved life.

Or maybe you just loved us that much. We certainly loved you. When we gathered around you today and told you that we would be okay, that you didn’t have to hold on for us, that we were so grateful for everything you had given us, none of us really wanted to let you go.

Callie Dog, there was a rainbow as you were making your final trip today, and a heron by the side of the road. We will miss you tonight and tomorrow, and for what feels like forever right now.

Thank you. We love you, now and always.

September 22, 2016

Greetings, dear ones.

Apparently there is a rule that one must never include dates on one’s blog posts, as they might betray inconsistency in one’s blogging. To which my only possible reply is huh. To be honest, this post started out as September 20, 2016 and, well, you can see how well that worked. I’m inconsistent, in so many things. For so many reasons, as well. But in my inconsistent way, I love this space, my little writer’s shack on the vast internet plains, so here I am again.

Shall I tell you a story? Not five months worth of story, just a day or two. Trust me, the five month version would be largely this: I took the back roads to avoid the road work, as I did every morning. At the halfway point I checked my time, then told the kids we’d be late again. They shrugged. I swore softly as traffic settled us on top of the bridge. Again. Yes, that thrilling.

Instead, this story starts with a trip to the Burlington Book Fest. Actually, it starts with an entire summer of almost no rain. We have been in drought conditions. Extreme drought, to be precise. The only worse category is exceptional drought, which is what California has been living through. Imagine day after day of spotless blue skies and sun. Now imagine brown grass and empty streambeds and ripe apples the size of walnuts. That’s how things have been. This is even worse than the year our well dried up (which led to this story). That drought ended the day they came to drill our new well. Literally. We had tons of drilling equipment in the backyard and it poured for days. By the time the new well was hitched up, the old one was bubbling merrily away.

That maybe should have been a clue to how our family long weekend was going to go. The original plan was to take a week and stay in the Lake Champlain area and hike. Then it shrank to a three day weekend. The day of the Book Fest–warm and lovely. The two days after? Rain predicted. The forecast for the coast–our second choice–much much more rain.

What we discovered is that we didn’t know anywhere that we wanted to go that wasn’t outside, but a outdoors day trip in the rain meant being wet all day. So we compromised. We headed west, where there would be less rain, and looked for places that we could be either indoors or out.

We ended up at The Mount. The Mount is the former home of Edith Wharton, and it’s the kind of little writing cottage you might create for yourself if you were drawing from three trust funds in 1902. You know the sort of place: forty-six rooms and garden walkways bordered by square trees a la Alice in Wonderland. (Yes, I’m aware that this is called topiary, but…SQUARE TREES.)

scaled-housescaled-garden

Somehow, despite being there on a possibly rainy Monday in mid-September, we found ourselves in the midst of the largest tour group ever. A group so large that we could not all fit in the palatial rooms of the house together. We scurried away on our own, reading the signs in each room. As we darted ahead of the zombie hoarde…er, tour group, I found myself feeling like something less than a writer. This is not a new problem, but the setting sharpened the focus. After all, I haven’t written enough books to fill a library shelf or two, and may never. I do not have much literary fame. I don’t host frequent (any) salons, and the trees around my house are simply tree-shaped.

Also, my writing never takes place at desks, unlike it appears Edith Wharton’s did. However, my family found an informational panel which said that the photos of Edith Wharton writing at her desk were all staged. In fact, it continued, Edith Wharton wrote in her bed, with her dog under her elbow, and almost never at a desk. Score one point for real writerdom; subtract one for the constant lack of truth around the writing life.

(For the record, I write in bed for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that I do not have a desk. I could write on the couch, but the light coming in through the windows behind makes it challenging to see the screen. That room is the only non-bedroom workspace in the house, aside from the kitchen, of course, which is even less writing-friendly, and the bathroom, which would like nothing more than to steam my computer to death. In my dreams, I have a room with space for a comfortable chair, and some books, and me, computer in tow. It may not be forty-six rooms, with marble fireplaces in most of them, but it would still be bliss.)

After wandering the damp-but-no-longer-rained-on gardens, we left The Mount and headed to Chesterwood. I knew exceptionally little about Daniel Chester French prior to our visit, aside from the fact that he was the sculptor of this. Now I know…more. That he felt the small details were key to the work, for example, and therefore spent a great deal of time trying to get Lincoln’s hands just right.

The gardens at Chesterwood are decidedly simpler than those of The Mount. This year, the grounds are home to an exhibit called The Nature of Glass. As the name suggests, the pieces use glass, some exclusively and some in combination with other materials. I love this fellow, made of glass and granite. I suspect I’m made of much the same.
cropped-fellow
(Sculpture by Thomas Scoon)

Sculptors use different workspaces than writers. The studio at Chesterwood includes doors several stories tall, with a bit of train track running under the floor and on outside. This could be used to move work in progress into a range of natural light throughout the day. High above the workspace is a bank of windows to let northern light in, and this was the light he typically worked in.

Which again brings me to writing. I’ve written very little this year. Let me clarify: I’ve written very little fiction this year. From a writing-as-a-business standpoint, this is a mistake. From a life-as-a-journey perspective, it’s exactly as it should be. I’ve been feeling as though the stories I want to tell don’t fit through standard household doors, and I’ve been trying so hard to understand how to make them fit. It’s been an embarrassingly long process to realize that maybe the answer is to change the doors.

There’s one last piece to mention. Along the walk in the woods at Chesterwood, there’s a small memorial. It’s a young child, carved in stone, lying beside a bunny. On the plaque below it says: Theresa Cunningham Loved This Place.

Just as I’ve struggled with the shape of what I want to write, I’ve also struggled with the why. This year, this country…they’ve eaten away at my soul, sometimes with a constant gnawing, sometimes in giant gulps. It’s been hard to write because the very act of writing stories can feel so pointless at times.

I took a picture of the memorial. I realized that it goes with the giant doors for me. Writers often tell the same story in many different ways, trying to find the truest way within. It may be a love of opera, or of revolution, or of family. It may not be love at all. This year has tempted me to write from any number of spots that seemed true, all in response to the world, but none of them have been mine. I’ve had to strip it all down, to try to find the spring that feeds my own writing, whether anyone reads it or not. The answer is a single, simple thing: Jennifer Mason-Black Loved This Place.

Be well. Be true.

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A word from your sponsor

I had a professor when I was an undergrad–I no longer remember his name or what he taught, just that he had a beard–who released us from our final class before Thanksgiving break with firm instructions to ignore the advertising we would be seeing on TV. We would be shown, he told us, an illusion of what families should look like. Screw it. We should go home and love ours, no matter what they looked like from the outside.

I think of him every year as we hit the U.S. holiday season. Advertising hasn’t vanished in the last twenty years. It sells just as many lies as it did then. It insists in just as many ways that our lives don’t measure up.

This is what I believe. The one thing, the only thing, that makes a family real or not is the love at its core. Families are the same as people. They come in all sizes and shapes, they believe many different things, they pass through periods of functioning well or less well, they compensate for injuries and adapt to permanent change. They may never even come close to looking like the confections designed to make us believe we are lacking. It makes no difference.

If you have a place of love and caring in your life, whether it comes from blood relations, or those you’ve collected close over time, you have family.

Love them.

With love, from me.

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