So, the Thanksgiving guests have departed, the futon is upright again, the bedclothes are piled and ready to be stored in the closet (were my visitors warm enough?), the cat has resumed her usual window seat where all squirrels in proximity can be surveilled, and I’m anxiously awaiting news about my acceptance to a writing conference in Florida that I’ve attended three times before. I’m on the waitlist this time; my possible options are a weeklong session to improve my short story game, or one to learn the tricks of crime fiction. Both workshop leaders have stellar reputations and I’d be thrilled to attend either session. The first feels like the more “literary” option; the second, a push out of my comfort zone and a way to add a little zing to the novel I’m currently working on. (What if the protagonist doesn’t believe her son’s death is a suicide and decides to investigate?) And here’s where the kind of serendipity I love kicks in. My Thanksgiving guests and I streamed the film Tár, the first from director Todd Field in 16 years. His first was In the Bedroom, based on a short story by Andre Dubus II; I remember liking the film when I saw it years ago and I plan to watch it again tonight. As it happens, the short story workshop I hope to attend in January is taught by Andre Dubus III, son of the aforementioned. And—wait for it—the story is set in “idyllic mid-coast” Maine, and involves an “unthinkable tragedy.” Something for everyone.)
It’s fairly clear that anything I could possibly write in the future can reasonably be connected to Maine; it’s somehow the last American frontier, an iconic location that can stand in for despair, poverty and domestic dysfunction; a pristine, surreally green haven from the troubles of a burning, desperate planet; a bastion of wealthy WASP-y coastal types for whom the license plate “Vacationland” is not a bad joke; a network of rapidly changing former mill towns being forced into (and maybe saved by) increasing online connectedness. As my guests and I traveled to an Amish general store north of my own town, past miles and miles of Boreal forest, it seemed so obvious that here was space for hundreds of thousands of refugees from climate change. And, in fact, there are Somali activists in Lewiston, Maine looking out for just such possibilities.
More serendipity: last week I picked up Claire Keegan’s novella Small Things Like These off the New Books shelf in my local public library, attracted by its length, the blurbs, the Irish setting. It’s a poetically devastating imagining of one man’s discovery of the terrible secrets of the Magdalene Laundry scandals involving the exploitation by nuns of unwed mothers in “asylums” throughout Ireland. And then this week, suddenly Claire Keegan’s name is all over the place for her 2010 novella Foster, just now available in an American edition. ( It was originally published as a short story in The New Yorker and can be read in their archives.)
I can’t wait to read it—all 99 pages! I’m so happy that short works of fiction are being honored.
Moral dilemma: my check-out receipt from the library reads: “You have saved $155.97 this year by using your library.” But who will pay the food, medical and utility bills of the quality midlist/small press writers whose books I’m not buying as often as I should? (Or, shame! Shame! I confess to buying used copies on the internet.) These hardworking authors are not living off huge royalties, of this I’m sure. I oscillate wildly, sometimes buying new books I simply have to own. (Like Patti Smith’s Book of Days, as a present for my daughter, a Patti fangirl for years.) Some countries give small royalties to authors for library book usage (see Wikipedia for Public Lending Right). Shouldn’t Americans be doing this? Why do songwriters and actors get residuals and not writers?
My quest to finish Middlemarch continues. The struggle is real.
Meanwhile, here’s a quote I glommed onto, between reading about the Florida man’s re-election bid and the war in Ukraine and all the rest (and remember, Middlemarch first appeared in 1871):
“I suppose I am dull about many things,” said Dorothea simply. “I should like to make life beautiful—I mean everybody’s life. And then all this vast expense of art, that seems somehow to lie outside life and make it no better for the world, pains one. It spoils my enjoyment of anything when I am made to think most people are shut out from it.”
“I call that the fanaticism of sympathy,” said Will impetuously. “You might say the same of landscape, of poetry, of all refinement. If you carried it out you ought to be miserable in your own goodness, and turn evil that you might have no advantage over others. The best piety is to enjoy—when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth’s character as an agreeable planet. And enjoyment radiates. It is of no use to try and take care of all the world; that is being taken care of when you feel delight—in art or in anything else.”
Oh gosh, if only I could believe this. But can’t we extract joy from art and still fulfill our obligations to help progressive causes in whatever way makes sense to us? The two aren’t mutually exclusive, are they? I’m curious to see how George Eliot treats this subject as the novel progresses. (Does Will turn out to be a solipsistic jerk?) It’s been a burning question for me my whole “conscious” life, from attending ”Ban the Bomb “ rallies at Madison Square Garden in high school (I heard Ralph Nader speak for an hour without notes!) to attending antiwar marches in the 60’s to the Pussy Hat demonstrations in January 2017. Does making Doctors Without Borders my designated nonprofit on AmazonSmile count as activism? It’s pretty slim, but it’s better than nothing. Nothing is not an option.
On the last day of my guests’ visit (okay, my daughter and son-in-law), we drove slowly and prudently away on ice-glazed asphalt from our lunch at a cozy restaurant with stunning views of Mount Katahdin, located near my house in Baxter State Park. Sunset would be at 3:46 pm and we wanted to be back on the main road before dark. We were replete and almost drowsy, after haddock burgers and Sam Smith chocolate ale (me) and blueberry soda (my son-in-law) and a Bloody Mary with dill pickle vodka (my daughter), followed by wild blueberry pie and vanilla bean ice cream. Suddenly my daughter exclaimed, “A fox!”
And there she was, darting on delicate black legs through the woods, her huge brush-y tail as beautiful as those in children’s picture books. My son-in-law paused the car, and the fox paused too, turning her head to look back at us. “I’ve never seen one in the wild before!” exclaimed my daughter, her hip LA persona cracked open by pure delight. Exhilaration bloomed in all our hearts and when a deer flicked her white tail at us a few minutes down the road, our dose of unplanned happiness was complete.
May we continue to be astonished by the world. It’s all we have.
Photo provided by the author.