Sunday, March 30, 2014

Reading Writing

Winter this year has been more confining than most. Snow, which we once expected anytime after Labor Day to as late as the first of June, had been almost absent for the last decade or so here on our mountain, but not this winter. Although the first snow didn’t fall until well into the winter months, it more than made up for it in volume. Reminds me of something I used to say to my staff about our operation: we lose money of every item, but we make it up in volume. A joke, of course, but in a way not. The more you do of something, the more efficient you can become, and at times even profitable. But I digress.

What I started to tell you about was a book I recently read. With the shorter days, the longer spells of weather when one goes outside only of necessity, it is a time for reading, and for me, a time to catch up on books I have put aside for just such an opportunity.

Looking over the shelves in our library the other afternoon, I pulled out a book I had added some years ago, but had not gotten around to reading. That happens when you buy or are given books when your reading time is limited, and your reading list is long.

The book is Writers on Writing, and was published in 1946 by Charles Scribner’s Sons. The author, Robert van Gelder, wrote this collection of interviews for the book section of the New York Times between 1940 and 1946. There are 89 interviews plus an introduction, and each is not only interesting but instructive. Writing, for those of us who have made a career of it, is a special sort of work, having both pluses and minuses. It was revealing to me to discover that I share some of the same feelings, techniques and satisfactions with a rather large group of really well-known and accomplished writers of both fiction and non-fiction.

Aside from techniques I use to get past what is called "writer’s block," I find that other writers experience the same sense of accomplishment not just from finishing a story or an essay or even a news story, but often simply from the writing itself. For me, the act of writing is immensely satisfying even when it is frustrating or turns out to be something I later discard. There are times when I don’t write, either because I have other parts of a job to do once I have a completed manuscript, or because it simply becomes necessary to re-charge my creative well, or seek out a new client or discover a story that I think needs to be written. Eventually, regardless of the holiday I am taking, the urge, the need to sit down and write, to see words appear on paper, becomes overwhelming, and so the process begins again. In interview after interview, van Gelder reports his subjects experiencing the same sort of motivation, the kind of internal need to write that overwhelms me, too.

I could repeat the names of some or all of the 89 authors interviewed, but many are names you’ve never heard of perhaps, and probably none are still among us. They represent late 19th century to early 20th century literature and writers, but the message (to me anyway) is still current and true, and the reward, as a reader and a writer, is learning that I am not the only one to discover the tools as well as the techniques, the toil as well as the joy.

In a way reading writing makes me more than myself.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Hi, Neighbor!

I’ve always been somewhat of a loner. I have learned to do things alone that others might find daunting, or at least too much like work, even with help. I really enjoy being self-sufficient, and have always had difficulty asking for help. It has been costly sometimes, but usually rewarding in the end.

A couple of months ago a young man stopped me on the road to our place. He introduced himself as my new neighbor, having bought the long-vacant house and acreage less than a quarter of a mile past us. It wasn’t a complete surprise. In a county this small no change goes unnoticed for more than a few days, often only for a few seconds (but that’s another essay).

Have I made it clear previously that we live on a mountainside far from what many people would call the necessities of life: malls, movies, crowds and such? Well we do. And for years our place has been one of two that have been occupied full-time on our two-mile dead-end unpaved road. And we’ve enjoyed that distinction. It isn’t really hard today, with vehicles that can negotiate most roads even in snow (or you can just stay home and wait for it to clear if you are retired). You shop ahead when you "go to town," and you make sure your tanks are full, your alternate power systems are ready to work, and you don’t have any place you just have to be.

We are mostly self-sufficient. We grow some of our own food, we heat with wood that comes from our own wood lot or that we trade for. We have a stand-by generator to keep the lights on and the freezers (three of them) freezing. We have an old truck with a snow plow on it. We have neighbors "downtown" (next to the general store/post office just a mile away) with tractors big enough to plow us out when the snow is more than our truck can handle, and we have a pond and a river where we can draw water should the well fail or the pump die or the genney run out of fuel.

Power lines in the country are subject to tree limbs and rock falls and ice more than any city dweller can imagine. When that happens (as it did for about eight hours last week), as soon as the generator kicks in I call the power company to let them know we’re out. Sometimes the cause is just up the road, but more often it is in another state (so they say). Either way, if I get a human responder (during regular business hours only), the first question is "Do your neighbors have power?" The answer is, "Our nearest neighbors are a mile in any direction." That doesn’t help much, but at least it gets a response.

Well, no longer are we so isolated. A place about a quarter of a mile past us (and around two bends in the road and two outcrops in the ridge) that had been empty for several years was recently bought by the young couple with little kids, a dog, some goats and a spirit of neighborliness. That last part is wonderful. Last week we were able to help them with a spare generator, some oil for lamps, and a telephone that works even if the power is off. Earlier in the month the young man came up to help me cut firewood, and later that same week, brought his church youth group up to help. Boys and girls, men and women gathered for an hour to cut and split and stack a huge pile of firewood to help us get to the end of the heating season. After an earlier snow I had plowed my new neighbor’s driveway and helped the young man get a message to his wife before their telephone was installed. (Have I mentioned before that cell phones don’t work anywhere in a ten-mile radius of our homeplace?) Since they moved in a couple of months ago, we’ve done several things for each other, and it feels so normal, so neighborly. As we grow older, it’s a comfort to know we have someone we can call on, and who can call on us. It’s what you learn to do in the country.

Thanks, neighbor!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

I’ve seen winter

I’ve seen winter, and I don’t like it. There was a time when the challenge of frost and snow and red cheeks and white fingertips spurred me on to embrace the season, accept the threat, and conquer it with sleds and snowballs and earmuffs and the like. I’ve seen winter, and I’ve decided that I no longer like it.

Oh, the beauty of it still attracts me. I can look at it for hours. Pictures of snow and sleighs and a cabin with a snow-covered roof, smoke curling from the chimney, trees bent with the weight of crystals in the form of icicles would fill me with a kind of warmth only surpassed by a real fire in a real fireplace, flames leaping, wood crackling, warmth surrounding me. All of those things brought a smile to my face. Or was it that the cold drew the muscles in my face so tight that it looked like a smile? I no longer know.

I know that I have seen winter, this winter, and that’s enough. I’m ready for blue skies that don’t shine with crystalline brilliance but instead are rich with waves of heat coming off the dry and dusty earth, with light that falls from high in the sky, rather than slanting in from just above the horizon at mid-day. I have seen winter, and I really would be happy not to see any more, at least until next December or so.

When you’ve seen as many winters as I have, you realize that for the most part, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all; one gray sky, one thermometer reading minus 10, one snowflake, well if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen all you need to see. I know, I know: the alternative is unacceptable, too. No winter might mean no spring or summer or fall, and I don’t mean because I am living in a place where the weather never changes. I mean being in a place where I’m not living at all. No, I’m not ready for that. I’m ready for spring.

I want warm sunny days, showers that fall lightly on the earth that smells of renewal and growth, colors no amount of clean white fields and hills can replace. I want shadows that make patterns on the ground caused by fresh leaves on the trees. I am ready to put away the coats and hats and gloves. I’m eager to put the chain saw away, clean the log splitter and roll it into the barn, take the chains and snow blades off the equipment and put the mower back on, put the snow shovels away and take out the hoe and the rake and the pitchfork and the barrow.

I’m ready for green. Aren’t you?