Spring is teasing us here in Millinocket. It snowed 6 days ago, and has been mostly chilly and rainy ever since. The news is dire and discouraging, domestically and all over the planet. My usual eclectic reading is not succeeding in diverting my attention or lifting my spirits. But there’s one phenomenon that’s inexorably moving closer, which I cannot ignore or completely control, and yet feel responsible for. Our new downtown farmers’ market! Opening day is Saturday June 3; I’ll be there from 8 am-1pm every Saturday through September 16. It’s been my passion project for a year, and it’s finally happening. Vendors who have signed up include an Amish farmer, and locals who sell honey, BBQ sauce, candles, soap, handcrafted wooden bowls and handmade quilted and knitted items. If we’re lucky we’ll have some live musicians and a Korean food truck. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, the town office could decline to issue the required Peddler’s License to a local Maine author who has been selling at several other farmers’ markets for years (and shipping his books around the world) because “books” don’t somehow fit the description of items currently in the wording of the License. (“Peddler’s License is required to use specific Town Property to sell the following only: Homemade, Home grown, from the ocean or from the sea.”) We’re working on tweaking this, but it’s an example of an unexpected stumbling block that blindsided and embarrassed me, as the venture’s organizer. Is all this a distraction from what I perceive as America’s frightening shift to the right, a truly evil move towards legislating and legitimizing hate, violence and intolerance in our national politics? Yes and no.
I am distraught and paralyzed when I follow the news, and feel guilty if I don’t.
In the midst of this indecision and paralysis, a tree catalog lands in my mailbox because of a donation I made recently to the Arbor Day Foundation. Yes! I’ll plant a tree. But what kind?
Flowering, evergreen, fruit? I settle on a plum tree. (“Methley- an early blooming Japanese cultivar.”) The kind that yields plums with purple skins and juicy red interiors. Memories of long-ago homemade savory plum tarts crowd my brain, one of the few items I’ve ever successfully baked. (It was the all-time most used recipe ever printed by the NY Times.) I have no idea if the neglected soil in my yard will sustain this fantasy, or if I can follow the complicated pruning (no pun intended) advice in the brochure, but I’m going to give it a shot.
My reading this month has been inadvertently too dark, perhaps—but also, so enlightening and inspiring. My “day of mothers” present from my filmmaker daughter was better than a box of chocolates: The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood and the Mind-Baby Problem, by Julie Phillips. It’s a deep dive into how some of my favorite authors/artists, from Alice Neel to Susan Sontag, coped with the demands of motherhood and its effect on their chosen vocations. Every chapter knits together strands from the previous ones until you feel you know these women and the obstacles and stigma they faced and surmounted, or the pain they lived with their whole lives from dealing with problems to which there were no acceptable or painless solutions. I wish this book had existed all those years ago when I despaired of ever returning to my desk even while flooded with love for a new human being whose life depended on me. Highly recommended as a gift for anyone you know who’s trying to integrate the roles of motherhood (or even fatherhood, now!) and an artistic calling.
Then there’s Fairyland, by Alysia Abbot, her excruciatingly honest account of being raised from the age of two by her widowed dad, Daniel Abbott, a poet who fully embraced his gay identity when he moved with Alysia to San Francisco in the late ‘70s to start a new life after his wife’s death in a freak car accident. The free-wheeling lifestyle and permissiveness and deep father’s love experienced by Alysia was accompanied by confusion and shame, culminating in the devastation of their close-knit chosen family of artists and writers during the full-blown AIDS crisis in the ‘90s. Abbot’s memoir is utterly compelling and unpretentious, and after avoiding it for years (the traumatic subject matter seemed too close to home) I couldn’t put it down. The author gives her kids’-eye view of locations in the Haight and Noe Valley and even some poets and bookstores that were well-known to me. (I lived there from 1973-2000; my daughter also attended the French-American Bilingual School and Far Out Fabrics on Castro Street was a favorite shop of mine.)
I’m inching towards my own memoir of parental fecklessness, embarrassing flamboyance and thwarted ambitions in the Greenwich Village of the 1950s; Abbott’s courage and honesty as a writer are inspiring to me. (A film version has just been released after a premiere at Cannes and I can’t wait to see it.)
Writing this has been like pulling a long banner of torn silk scarves out of a battered top hat, as I reel from one horrifying news headline to another. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.
It’s crucial to remind myself that times have always been good and bad; that brave humans writing their stories have scored at least that one victory—to witness and to tell— and that sharing the sorrows and joys of other people’s lives can immeasurably enrich our own.
Photo provided by the author.