Thursday, June 20, 2024

Book Thoughts: World-Building and Suspense in SPIDERWEB ALLEY and EDGE OF THE KNOWN WORLD

"Book One of The Elverie Road"

When I learned that author Verlyn Flieger has been called "the world's foremost scholar on the works of J. R. R. Tolkein, of course I wanted to read her new novel, SPIDERWEB ALLEY. Scheduled for June 25 release from Minnesota publisher The Gabro Head, it's printed in a compact chunky form, 5 by 7 in ches and about an inch thick -- which immediately suggests tucking it into a pocket or modest carrier bag, for reading between stops or efforts.

The frontspiece offers an almost poem describing a chilly seacoast with nearby mysterious forests and "curious patterns of stars." Kath and Mick, who've bonded over the search for an old book at the library's Special Collections, are driving along the coast at evening, headed to an inn, when strange things begin to happen. Kath finds herself drawn to the eccentric people and their quaint folkways, feeling as if she belongs, in a way that the odd persons she connects with seem to confirm. Is this an Otherworld, a faerie place? Kath will come to know it as Elverie.

Her particpation in several faerie-related or pagan festive occasions here puts her into danger -- and perhaps even more so for Mick, suddenly in competition with a powerful mythic man who seems to know things about Kath that don't make sense to him. Soon he's denying her experience, sure she's having some form of breakdown.

The book's small shape allows a count of 362 pages for what's really a novella, or part I of a three-part longer novel. The ending's irritating in that sense, because things have really only just begun to knit together. I can't tell when the other parts of "Elverie Road" will reach print, but if you, like me, need to read this one in honor of the specialty of its author, brace for some frustration.

Flieger's novel is clearly built from the old British tales (English? Irish? Scottish?) told at firesides and on becalmed ships. Her creative aspect is the entwining of such tales with a modern and conflicted marriage. I'm holding off on deciding whether it "works" until I see the rest of the story in the sequels.

Dictatorships, Expanded Conflicts, and Genetic IDs

EDGE OF THE KNOWN WORLD (SparkPress, Sept. 2024)  is described as the debut novel by Sheri T. Joseph, but from the level of expertise involved in world-building here, I'd have to guess she's written plenty of other material while learning her craft. 

Alexandra Tashen is super bright and has earned her PhD early enough to be a postdoc student at age 23. She's also surprisingly naive, considering how much grief she's witnessed already, with a missing father and a genetic inheritance that puts her in danger daily. Any random ID screening could show up the not-quite-erased tagging gene that her father tried to spare her, and she'd be instantly a criminal and lose her career and lifestyle as well as freedom. And self-respect.

The professor she's working with, Kommandant Burton, is part parental and part mentor and mostly, although Alex doesn't quite realize it the implications, militaristically in charge of a lot of the almost-free part of the world. Wars familiar to us today have multiplied, fractured, and realigned the nations; the Kommandant is a general and a West Point alum and is in control of her group of factions.

The most significant aspect of this "world," though, is clearly built from today's American and even global politics: Someone's exerting unusual hacking skills on behalf of those who need asylum. The entire world of politics and conflict is balanced on who'll be allowed movement between which regions.

Alex is sometimes less interesting than her Kommandant, Suzanne Dias Burton (authors beware: that's a risky framework). Here's my favorite half page, as Suzanne interacts with a Russian-style counterpart who's just suggested that global instability justifies continued control:

"Gallows humor," said Bulgakov. He had the tranquil composure of a tortoise. "For many here, the refusés in the Netcast are separated family. They remember the kindertransports."

Suzanne stiffened, and checked for implied criticism. The kindertransports had smuggled children out of the Federation for several years following the Treaty, until the g-screens made it impossible to hide them. The children were returned. with scenes of screaming families that still rose in Suzanne's worst dreams. But Bulgakov's face remained serene. Suzanne wondered if it was possible for him to be outraged or shocked. Perhaps nothing surprised him anymore.

The book's finale is a strange one, half soft, half provocative. If there's a sequel, which seems likely, I'll be lining up for a copy. By the way, EDGE OF THE KNOWN WORLD will surely be compared with Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale -- but I think it's much closer to pushing today's politics to a believable extreme.  Nicely done.


Sunday, June 16, 2024

And More Poems ...

 Such a pleasure to enter the pages of RockPaperPoem with "The Next Stage of Grief": link here.

I've been having a great time sharing my poem "Rocks," which was the first runner up for the Steve Kowit Poetry Prize -- I flew to San Diego to accept the award and meet some of the other poets.

My moose went with me to the Pacific Ocean.



In New England, we grow them—harvest them, stack them

along the edges of fields. Good crop? Not bad this time.

After spring’s lines of lavender and late roses


half a year of long lament, laid as a line of stones. My life in

widow world: Would he have watched this season’s harvest? Praised

fat tomatoes in a bowl, purple berries, pinecones?


He would. So I carry him close, as his spirit snuggles

in my hip pocket, speak his name, sing louder, share a smile.

When night falls, I shoulder silence, dinner for one:


which drove me to delve and define “inselberg,”

tongue-tossed by a mining geologist in east Africa seduced

by the Serengeti, where lions hunt from high crags—


rock knobs risen through weather and resistance. On my

tongue next, the term “monadnock,” indigenous form for lone

mountain surviving. In New England we live with our past:


words absorbed from Abenaki assertion, stones heaped as walls

around our burial grounds. We witness forests reclaim farms.

Find old foundations of granite and grit


dark, cold, exhaling radon remnants. I gave my love

a marble marker for his grave, engraved with names. Geology

rasps rough on this rainy evening, looking up


igneous, formed from fire, blazing birth of coarse-grained rock

laid down in wide intrusions at this world’s skin. I grasp:

granite grows a wrap of lichens, palest green, rooting


in the grains from which the stone steals its name. Words wrestle,

weathered stones subsiding into soil. Widow world wanders,

walking steep slopes; in loss, the gray-green lichens linger.


-- BK


And if you missed my St. Johnsbury poem "I See  You," you can listen to it again (and read it below the audio part) -- at Gyroscope Review: click here

Plus you can both see AND listen to this poem, "TEEN SUMMER," at The Post Grad Journal -- click here.

There, I'm a little bit caught up, and I'll fill you in on summer publications very soon. Thanks for reading along!

April Was Poetry Month ... and It Hasn't Seemed Over Yet

 I started April with a poem presented in St. Johnsbury's PoemTown event, framed around the solar eclipse -- and then on April 4, had this lovely news (scroll:

Winifred Hughes from Princeton, New Jersey is the 2024 Henry Morgenthau lll First Book Winner for her book of poems The Village of New Ghosts, due out in Fall 2024. The prize recognizes a poet 70 or older who has not yet published a full-length collection.
from the Judge:

The task of “the poet” is brilliantly fulfilled with sonics, structure, detail, richness and care. But where this book truly exceeds and excels is in creating a hologram of emotions, a reality we can enter, where aesthetics are crisp and clear enough to create a new paradigm. Poetics that bring emotional worlds into existence have to be held in place with mastery. Someone is obviously in charge of this work. Someone is in control of its precise syntax and beautiful heart. I never wanted to stop reading.

Grace Cavalieriformer Maryland Poet Laureate

Congratulations to our honorable mentions!

Rick Rohdenburg from Duluth, GA: Crows Fly from My Mouth

Melissa Cannon from Antioch, TN: Doll/Face
Kathy O’Fallon from Carlsbad, CA: Listening for Tchaikovsky

Karen Bashkirew from Bozeman, MT: Stillpoint
Sheila Bonnell from South Orleans, MA: Albedo
Helen Bournas-Ney from New York, NY: Just Like the Sky, but Nearer
Helen Chinitz from Walton, NY: If Summer Sear the Landscape
Sandra Cutuli from Los Angeles, CA: Tracks and Signs
Marc Douglass-Smith from Lebanon, NH: A River in Still Life
Deborah French Frisher from Mill Valley, CA: Howl Now & 52 Other Poems
Gordon Grilz from Tucson, Arizona: Just North of My Dreams: A Collection of Poems from Prison
Judy Kaber from Belfast, ME: Landscape with Rocks, Sky, Nails
Elizabeth Kanell from Waterford, VT: Break-Out Room
Ellen Lager from Robbinsdale, MN: Buried Beneath All That Love
Nancy Meyer from Portola Valley, CA: The Stoop and The Steeple
Michael Mulvihill from Staunton, VA: The Distant Pines
Phillip Periman from Amarillo, TX: Dying: The First Six Years
Jim Scutti from Vero Beach, FL: Family Planet
Richelle Slota from San Francisco, CA: Letters to My Dead Name
Jil St. Ledger-Roty from Franklinville, NY: Lost and Found and Lost Again
Steven Winn from San Francisco, CA: Late Light
Avra Wing from Brooklyn, NY: Mammoth Life & Accident
Cynthia Woods from Philadelphia, PA: Lines Over 70


For those who are curious -- Break-Out Room is a collection of poems, at the length called a chapbook. It's back out in another competition, and I'll let you know when it garners its next award. I'm following in the footsteps of some of the best writers I know in this decision: Each time it doesn't quite reach a book contract, polish it a bit more and add more skill and joy to it, and send it out again.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

One Traditional Crime Novel, One International Thriller

"Genre" fiction still has to meet the standards of good writing: strong characters, a sense of place, and in a plot that makes you want to open the next chapter. When you reach the last page, there should be some form of satisfaction -- and if there's frustration too, that's got to fit with an expectation that developed while you were getting acquainted with the author's temperament and motives.

But genre fiction —in this case, crime fiction, mysteries, and thrillers — also has to meet more criteria, because readers understand them as "game rules." For example, the mystery can't be solved by a walk-on character saying "Oh, didn't I tell you, I saw my uncle buying that rifle?" As another example, crime fiction doesn't generally allow ghosts into the picture (unless you are reading Stuart Neville; yes, highly recommended but, as we say in New England, it's wicked dark).

These two books are classic genre fiction, but "deeper, stronger, better," because the authors bring a powerful motivation to shape your experience and have the well-honed skills to do it.

First, consider THE HOLLOW TREE by Philip Miller. Don't judge this by the cover, which looks a bit like a desert cactus in color shades speaking of Arizona ... the actual setting is a small gritty town in north England where crimes can linger unsolved for a generation and memories and resentments can reach even further.

With his second crime novel, Edinburgh author Philip Miller comes into his prime. The first sentence of THE HOLLOW TREE offers a perfect example of this book's engrossing pattern of laying out one truth, then pulling it back: "Shona Sanderson was going to a wedding. The day would end in death."

Sandison is an investigative journalist, now saddled with a permanent disability that forces her to maneuver with a supportive cane ("stick" in British) and leaves her always off balance. So does the case she tumbles into, as she witnesses the gory suicide of a wedding guest. Miller presses Shona into overwhelming conflict when what she witnessses threatens to destroy her valued friendship with the bride-to-be. An as a caustic, insightful, and probing person, Shona's got very few close friends. The more she pushed for answers to a set of hidden crimes, the more she risks devastating consequences to the people she treasures—and herself.

Reading THE HOLLOW TREE parallels eating a globe artichoke, leaf by leaf. Your teeth scrape the sweet richness at the bottom edge of each, but you can't reach the aromatic heart of the 'choke until you complete the disrobing. In a steady accretion of toxic loyalties and occult dangers, Shona exposes how a core of evil has infected the community across time and can shatter strong bonds of love. Shona's body can't always do what the circumstances demand. But her insistence on revelation becomes the core of Miller's demonstration that the texture and questioning of crime fiction create an ideal lens for the dobt, anger, and passion of our time.

Though it's also "genre" fiction and even published by the same firm (Soho Press under its Soho Crime imprint), Andromeda Romano-Lax's THE DEEPEST LAKE couldn't be more different. Revolving around an upscale writing retreat in Guatemala on the shores of Lake Atitlán, complete with a charismatic writing teacher known for unpleasant memoirs, the story quickly establishes a mode of threat, danger, and deceit. Alternating points of view in the present tense, although they may reflect different time periods, challenge readers to stay alert and pin the evidence together around the disappearance of Rose's grown daughter Jules. Rose's ex-husband already funded a conventional search for their daughter at the lake, and concluded she was dead. Rose pretty much believes that too, but can't leave the loose threads alone as she mourns and faces her own despair and helplessness.

Experienced thriller readers may see the fierce psychological darkness that Ruth Rendell instituted in British thrillers under her pen name Barbara Vine. These frightening books (best not read at bedtime) exposed the horrors a twisted psyche can impose on others. Because of how Romano-Lax plays out her various points of view, readers know what's going on and where the threats are coming from, long before Rose does — which can be frustrating. But it's also playing fair with the traditions of thrillers, which pin the reader into a form of helplessness like that of the victim or victims in the book. 

Another parallel to this work, set on the American side of the ocean, is the Maine paranormal mystery series offered by John Connolly, where again it's the wickedness of some human hearts that drives the threats and harsh disasters of the fiction. Hat tip to Romano-Lax for probing a fresh setting at a time when Central America is becoming part of a prevailing US nightmare of difference and greed.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Identity: Nature, Nurture, and Choice

My grown sons are rarely interested in my "family tree" discoveries; I think that's probably healthy! On my mother's side, I'm 75% New England and 25% Philadelphia-centered Quakers, all dating back to America's earliest days; my father's side is European Jews, and one of my second cousins has taken that tree back to the Middle Ages. I've found that interesting, but not necessarily life-changing.

Finding Dave in 2002 (we married a year later) changed my identity in much deeper ways. I reflect on this especially in the Jewish holiday seasons -- Passover is about to start on Monday evening, and I think about how I've shaped my own observance of this important piece of Jewish history and identity. Mostly I'm on the quiet end of that holiday spectrum: I'll prepare a few traditional foods for Passover, and of course keep writing pertinent poems.

When my novel The Darkness Under the Water was published in 2008, it faced some fierce online attacks from three Native American women who assumed that the facts of the story were wrong, because I didn't have a Native American identity myself, and also assumed that I was trying to "make money" off a story that didn't belong to me. Neither of those was true: The facts in the story are particular to this part of Vermont and were thoroughly researched. And I only lost money on the book, including the part of the story that was "mine" in some ways.

But I wanted to write it for two big reasons. The first relates to my mother's Quaker ethos: I'd discovered the terrible injustices (horrors, really) of the Vermont Eugenics Project and wanted to bring attention to those through a "relatable" story -- that's how I often pay attention  to history myself. The second was my entry into Jewish identity as Dave's wife, my father's daughter, and an absolute beginner in absorbing traditions and culture of this venerable faith. I crafted the character of Molly in the novel with a similar position: a bit curious about the Abenaki culture that remained around her, but not well informed. That was also a good way to follow the instructions of esteemed Abenaki author Joseph Bruchac, who had warned me not to try to step inside a culture that I didn't and couldn't grasp.

Now I have indeed formed a full Jewish identity, one that reflects my father's family journeys. I honor the Sabbath, participate in a Jewish congregation, study texts in groups, write related poems, and can prepare a lot of Jewish recipes, including some challenging ones that belong to this Passover season. I know the names of five members of my father's family who perished by murder in the Holocaust. (Far more of Dave's relatives were killed then, too.) I've invested years and passion in this long change, which after Dave's 2019 death became increasingly vital to me. I love what I've learned and how it's forged my identity.

Recently one of my siblings and one of my sons asked about the Native American part of my mother's family history. It dates back to the late 1600s, to the Wampanoag. At my age, and having already committed myself to one cultural path, I still want to know more about this small corner of my birth family. So, watch for details this summer, when I explore this. It didn't play a role in writing The Darkness Under the Water, which feels appropriate -- it's never been a culture that I lived within or chose, and the Wampanoag identity doesn't include Vermont, but instead the New England coast -- but it's time to catch up with another thread of how I came to be this person, in this very American life.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

More Than One Road to Get There

I've been writing "segments" of my life, most of them taking place in northeastern Vermont, for more than three years now on the platform A gap in my usual copyediting labors in January gave me "bandwidth" to begin a second set of strands there, on Code Like A Girl. It probes how I've related to and worked from my STEM background -- I'm a chemist by training, as well as a writer.

What I'm discovering as I lay out this second pathway through my life is that "telling the story" from any chosen direction is very different. It's like taking the interstate from one end of Vermont to the other, or relaxing on old Route 5, or (most time-consuming of course) taking detours when they appeal. Obviously, the journey takes different amounts of time. But it also seems to glow in different colors, maybe different wavelengths. 

I'm enjoying discovering that the telling of a life is a rainbow of words. Or, on my best days, fireworks.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Deepening Sherlock Holmes: New from Laurie R. King, THE LANTERN'S DANCE

When seeking entertainment, it's not entirely fair, I know, to have to consider a literary definition first -- but if you haven't yet fallen for the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series by Laurie R. King, which marks 30 years in 2024, you'll benefit from the definition of pastiche: "A pastiche is a work of visual art, literature, theatre, music, or architecture that imitates the style or character of the work of one or more other artists. Unlike parody, pastiche pays homage to the work it imitates, rather than mocking it."

There are many books that wear the pastiche label with pride. Perhaps the largest group of them is made up of books that take Sherlock Holmes into new cases (and there are some now that work from the original minor character of his landlady, too, which I find fascinating). A Holmes aficionado may decline to read such books — they're not written by the long-dead A. Conan Doyle, and even the best of them can't entirely match Doyle's style and tongue.

But New York City's The Mysterious Bookshop, which described itself as the oldest mystery bookshop in the world, devotes almost as much shelf space to Holmes pastiche and parodies as it gives to the original works. I share this photo from the shop's Facebook feed (thank you, Otto Penzler and team) to make the point:

Relevant bookshelves at The Mysterious Bookshop.

So I'm far from alone in treasuring Laurie R. King's lively series. This year King brings us THE LANTERN'S DANCE, and expands the art of pastiche into new Holmesian terrain: the childhood of the great sleuth, and its harsh conflicts and puzzles.

For the most part, King's series has reflected mostly the point of view of Mary Russell, who meets Holmes when she's in her teens and he is old enough to retire—but, as Holmes readers know, such idleness (even leavened by his hobby of beekeeping) won't suit the sleuth, and in fact would plunge him into the dangerous waters of drug use, his shelter when he's bored.

So in King's hands, Holmes and Russell find each other's deepest needs met by first a mentoring relationship, then friendship, and finally marriage. The most recent books of the series have revealed the surprise that Holmes has a son, Damian Adler. Holmes hadn't realized that his "one woman" from the original work, Irene Adler, became pregnant in their affaire. The simple reason is, Irene didn't allow him to know! In adulthood, Damian needed Holmes's assistance and broke through the secrecy that had separated them ... but didn't, of course, reveal all.

As THE LANTERN'S DANCE opens, Holmes and a slightly handicapped Russell (sprained ankle) arrive at Damian's home in France, where they expect to spend time with him, his daughter, and the petite and intelligent Scottish doctor he's soon to marry. Alas, the housekeeper and her husband inform the arriving couple that the Adler "family" has decamped. The reason is quickly clear: Someone broke into their home while they were asleep, and the level of threat shocked them. 

Challenges multiply: Holmes, of course, must protect his newly established family from the threat -- but is this a threat due to something in Damian's past, or an enemy of Holmes himself, or an effort to pressure his brother Mycroft? As he races off to apply his considerable skills of disguise and investigation, Russell is left behind at the Adler home and discovers a coded manuscript that calls on all of her linguistic and scholarly background to determine what it says and, most importantly, what it means, for Holmes, Damian, and herself.

As a pastiche, the book is cleverly done and probes the birth family of the mythical sleuth; language and customs are well matched to the historical period, and King has reached a superb level of narrative. The familial mysteries that unfold (including in India!) fit well with the original Holmes, and are intriguing and quirky. As a novel, its biggest challenge is the author's decision to use three narrators: Russell, Holmes, and the woman who penned the discovered manuscript. Although they are clearly delineated, this device keeps the action mostly at the surface because there just isn't enough time within the "speech" any of the three voices to dip into the emotional quandaries that King has explored in some earlier books.

Nonetheless, for any reader of the series, this is a must-have addition. Those just starting an acquaintance with Mary Russell should probably go back a few titles—maybe not all the way to The Beekeeper's Apprentice, but at least to the closely knit titles The Language of Bees and The God of the Hive, to make best sense of the importance of the events in this new volume.

My personal favorites of the series are The Moor, O Jerusalem, and Justice Hall, and I recommend those to anyone dabbling in King's river of pastiche and her insight into how a young woman might best partner such a difficult yet rewarding spouse as the great Sherlock Holmes. Each of these also brings me much pleasure and education as I continue to work at the writer's craft myself.

THE LANTERN'S DANCE has a February 13, 2024, release date. Don't judge it by the simple cover, or by the cryptic title. There's a very enjoyable read, within.

Friday, January 12, 2024

"Ekphrastic Challenge" and the Moon Shot

Dave and I went to Littleton in January 2016 to hear Chris Christie in person—Dave's way of listening and inquiring.

The literary journal Rattle offers a monthly "ekphrastic" challenge, where poets write from what the presented artwork suggests. The challenge was on my to-do list today. I shocked myself by writing a political campaign poem, nothing I'd ever considered doing.

But the roots of this action were clear: Earlier today, to provide support for a very ill teen, I looked up some of the memorable quotes from John F. Kennedy, whose years as US President marked my life. Well, I was young and naive! It hurt, years later, to learn some of his flaws, see the shadowy nature of his "feet of clay." 

Yet many of his words (yes, co-written by Ted Sorenson) still inspire me:

So here's a relevant (and now "vintage") postcard image, showing how JFK's moon program continued, after his assassination:

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

A Little Kanell History: From Russia, With Love

I spent a while working on my husband Dave's side of the family tree today. It's almost five years now since Dave's death, and I'm rusty on details, so it took half an hour of document diving to confirm what I thought I remembered: that Dave's grandfather Joe Kanell had been a grocer in New Haven, Connecticut, in the 1930s. I didn't want to accidentally pass along a mistaken detail ... and I had a poem in mind.

This photo of Joe Kanell, at age 47, shows him on board a ship in 1935, circling the globe, going to see his relatives in Vilna, also called Vilnius. The city was part of Lithuania, which at the time was governed by Russia -- when Joe immigrated to the United States in 1905 he declared himself "Russian," and later Census documents show that both Joe and his wife Yetta considered themselves to have been Russian before they became American. They described their parents as Russian, too.

In addition to being Russian, they were Jews, and knew the risk of pogroms, organized massacres that targeted people who identified with this religion. Yet in 1935, when Joe came from America to visit the rest of the family, they must have felt "safe enough," because none of them kept Joe company on his return to New Haven. The photo here shows Joe on his way to Vilna, Dave wrote.

In 1941, German forces occupied Vilna and liquidated -- that is, murdered -- its Jewish population. Imagine murdering a quarter of a city ... despite fierce resistance from the Jews of Vilna, that's what took place. (Read more here.)

When I met Dave in 2001, his grandfather was long gone -- died in 1969 -- and in Dave's mind, just a few Kanells were slaughtered in Vilna during the Second World War. A few years after we married, one of his cousins from outside New Haven, someone he hadn't known well, showed him a photo taken in Vilna of grandfather Joe and the Kanell family there: more than 30 people. Dave's concept of what had happened needed to be completely shifted, and I'm not sure he ever stopped reeling at the new knowledge of how many of his family had been killed.

So here is a poem for Joe and his family. I hope I have most of the pertinent details right. And I hope this wondering is of use to others along the way.


Unasked Questions


He leans on the ship railing, white collar buttoned,

tie and a cardigan, gives a wide smile—

no clue now to who took the picture, and Joe,

forty-seven then, gone such a while.


Nine decades later, wondering who

watched his grocery— wife Yetta, still well?

What did it cost to sail around the world?

The ship fare, the store losses—no way to tell.


But this is the story passed down for years:

His family lived in a Russian city

and he tried to persuade them to leave, to come

to America’s freedoms—alas, what a pity


that nobody wanted to follow him back.

For decades we thought there were two or three lost

then saw an old photo of Joe and the crowd

who vanished soon after, and found out the cost:


Two dozen or more of the Russian Kanells

were gone in a decade of war and disaster.

How did he bear it? How did he go on?

Yet we know he delighted in grandchildren after—


tossing a baseball, applauding their skills,

launching them upward, helping them grow.

We who are wondering how we’ll survive

try to live with our losses, like grandfather Joe.

[What Dave wrote when he posted the photo on his Facebook feed:

This post is in honor of my Grandfather Joseph Kanell (July 4, 1888 to Oct 18, 1969) who chose his birthday to be on July 4th because the United States was a land of opportunity & freedoms. From Vilna, Lithuania to New York City & then New Haven, Ct area. Have a great 4th today. I should also note that my grandmother Kanell also chose the 4th of July for her birthday. My grandparents always had the American Flag flying at every holiday.
This is a photograph of my grandfather aboard a ship on the way to visit his relatives in Vilna, Lithuania in 1935. This was the last time that he had any contact with his family from the Vilna area and in all probability they all perished in the Holocaust.]

Monday, January 8, 2024

What Could Happen Next? Are You Ready?

Dave, being a good sport at our niece decorates him at my birthday lunch.

"Hope for the best and prepare for the worst." The phrase dates back to the eighteenth century, according to one online source. It could easily be a New England expression, from the folks who brought you the following interaction: "Lived here all your life?" "Not yet!"

Another version of the saying comes from author Maya Angelou: "Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between." 

My mother Joan would have turned that around completely: Although life came with challenges (you try raising five kids, on a budget, and cutting your own hair), she prepared for good things to happen. That is, she prepared those good things ... trips in the old VW bus that rambled back roads and arrived at a store that sold thousands upon thousands of buttons, for instance; a cooler full of sandwich fixings and apples; exploring a Revolutionary War battlefield on the day of the week when the historic house was closed, so the only people running around the green fields and clambering onto the massive cannons were, you guessed it, her five kids.

Vermont winters can lure a person into constant preparation for the worst, of course. Your vehicle should include jumper cables, flashlight with good batteries, jack and its handle, wrenches, screwdriver, shovel, and optionally (for getting out of snowbanks or off ice) a bag of sand or unused kitty litter, a scrap of old carpeting, even a purpose-made length of metal grating to tuck under a tire. Keep adding to that, and you can lose a full seating location. Or if the gear is on the floor, everyone will learn to watch their feet.

Another situation that bends the arc of preparation toward risk and danger is a family member with a long-term illness. I used to have a basic first-aid kit in the glovebox and would note those friends who needed to add an "epi-pen" (for severe allergies) or asthma inhaler to their preparations. Traveling with kids means any prep involving bottles of beverages or packets of food will need endless replacement, though.

What I'm thinking of today, inside at the desk, a foot of fresh snow outdoors, a small patch of blue sky poking through to signal noon, is that almost none of the "prepare for the worst" strategies I implemented for life with a terminally ill husband turned out important. Some weren't even useful. Dave couldn't face writing a will, so I wrote my own as an example that he resolutely ignored, and then it turned out that by "letting him do things his own way," I ended up financially crippled. Unpredictable, really. Nor did my efforts to stay on top of CPR pay off; I was almost sure he'd die of his enormous, caring, and blood-starved heart quietly failing in his sleep. I was wrong on that one. The long list of emergency phone numbers also went unused, because his final days involved only one number, that for the hospice nursing coordinator, who calmly sent trained personnel as needed.

On the other hand, preparing for the best really paid off. We visited San Francisco three years in a row, buying books that thrilled us. I bought and planted trees with all my birthday money, and even though I had to sell the house after Dave's death, those trees are thriving and I rejoice when I drive past the "old place." Dave invested in creative designs (his own!) of birthday and Valentine's Day cards for me, and each one of them delights me. I keep them in a handy place, for joy.

"Know trouble will come, but prepare for happiness." I think that's closer to what I'm finding useful now. "Widow world," as I call it, has a share of loss and endlessly missing someone -- but it also confirms such delights, each time I find Dave's handwriting on a sticky-tag in some research, or consult his address book to connect with old friends.

Hold onto the love. Make room for smiles and full tummies and the colors of the sky, the trees, the birds ... and the bright cards in the drawer.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

"Crossing Over the Moose": A Finalist in the Northwind Treasury (Mooselook Diner!)

 Crossing Over the Moose 

 by Beth Kanell, 2023

It’s a funny name for a diner. Newcomers

stare around: the sign says Mooselook,

and maybe the back table will show them one.

Antlers! Long legs! Maybe they even cook


wild harvests here. If deer meat is venison

and pigs become pork, what do you call—

they scan the menu, but there’s no sign

of butchered moose at all.


Tentative, uncertain, they work their way

through blue-plate names, special dishes.

The waitress, bright smile, sparkling stud

at the side of her nose, collects wishes


for eggs over easy, a turkey plate with just

a little gravy. Home fries on the side, much

ordered, always piping hot. Pickled beets.

Vermont homestyle with a chef’s touch.


Me, I take my usual table, watch the door,

see who’s coming in—I have a hunch

that my two friends may be running late

but they’re on time for noon lunch.


With a nod to the window, satisfied,

they note the water view, smile:

It’s the Moose River out there, wide

as the day’s options. Framed in style.


Going home after, I cross the bridge

while at the water’s edge a man stands

patient with a fishing rod. I pass; he reels

his line back in, casts, capable hands.


People who haven’t lost don’t guess

the way old passions stir and swirl below.

There was a man who kept my heart. He died.

I find him in each new crossing. I think he’d know.


View of the Moose, from the Mooselook Diner.

Mooselook Diner's Kevin Fontecha, with the published poem.



AND: If you'd like to get a copy of the book, it's on Amazon here!

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