I START MY MORNING WITH SPANISH

For the past two years, a daily online language class has opened my day. The practice began shortly after the annual sessions of New England Yearly Meeting of Friends, where repeated happenstances with our guests from Cuba had me realizing how much of my high school Spanish I’d forgotten.

Well, a lot of my recall also got tangled up in my college French, but that’s another story.

A conversation with my elder daughter, the linguist, convinced me to try a free online refresher course via Duolingo, which some of you probably know of. The high school text I’d carried since 1964 soon went into the trash – it was terribly dated.

So I rise, usually before dawn, brew some full-bodied, fair-trade Cuban-style coffee beans we get at Costco (they’re like espresso but better), and head off to my laptop in the attic for a half-hour of language learning. Let’s say that at that hour, I make a number of stupid mistakes. I’m still groggy.

A few months ago, the powers-that-be behind the free course decided to alter a few things. It’s inevitable when it comes to anything computer, isn’t it? So instead of seeing something like “You are 67% proficient in Spanish” on the home page, they were taking a different tack. Most startling was that my Crown Level had decreased significantly. Look, that was something that would occur if I missed a few days of practice, but I had been faithful. I felt robbed.

That’s when I started thinking about some of the motivating factors the Duolingo brain trust applies.

The first is something they call Lingots – kind of like Monopoly game cash you can hoard, like me, or spend on things like commentary or idioms. If you do 10 uninterrupted days of study, you’re awarded Lingots – one point when you hit the first 10 days, two more at 20, three at 30, and so on. You can also wager some of yours for other accomplishments. Look, it’s stupid but highly addictive, especially when you reach 150 straight days. That’s 15 Lingots, hombre.

The Crowns, meanwhile, are part of a “learning tree” Duolingo has for advancing. When you start a language, you begin by clicking on a little button labeled “basics,” do the required number of lessons within it, and it soon turns color. You earn a Lingot or two and move on to the next, maybe “articles” or “vocabulary.” Eventually, all of them – 30 to 50, maybe? – change color and you go back to raise each of them to the next level.

Or from that point you can simply do a random set of practice questions. Oh, but that option doesn’t win you a lot of Lingots.

What I really want at the moment is to hit a thousand in my account. Hoard them, in fact. Es muy loco, verdad, but it keeps me going.

And then I move on to the latest manuscript in progress or check up here at WordPress. Both in American English.

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COMING OUT OF SEMI-SECLUSION AFTER BEING IMMERSED IN REVISIONS

Writers work in many different ways.

Some sit down and write two hours a day. When I read that in interviews, I used to think, “What slackers!” Only later, when I realized how much other work needs to be done to sustain that, did I revise my opinion. Research, reading, and correspondence are also crucial parts of the job. For many professional writers, you can add teaching to the list – it can be what really pays the bills.

Others charge up and then lock themselves away for an orgy of keyboarding. Say, two weeks to two months of doing nothing else. There are tales of some writers in the old days who would rent a hotel room for a week or so to do that – they must have had a very nice advance and known exactly what they were setting out to do, it seems too short a time for me these days.

When I was working full-time, my method was rather piecemeal. I’d plunge into writing heavily one day a week – it helped when my four-day workweek allowed me three days off in a row, though I paid for it with that double-shift each Saturday. The rest of the week I put in a couple of hours each day for keyboarding and the supporting labor.

That schedule, in fact, led me to concentrate on poetry much more than fiction, though the budding novels typically got their attention on my vacations and holidays. Looking back, it was a rather schizoid existence.

Since retiring, a major shift has happened, and I’m just now seeing its impact. I’ve been able to immerse myself in drafting and deeply revising a work, to live with it more thoroughly.

I’m going to blame Cassia, the voice of What’s Left. Working with her was unlike anything I’d attempted before. The focus shifted from her curiosity about her father’s past to a close examination of his photos and the family he discovered to, finally, Cassia herself and her siblings and close cousins – the Squad. The spotlight went from being on what happened to the individuals themselves. It was no longer action-driven but character-driven.

That, in turn, led to a similar reworking of my other novels, often with Cassia in effect sitting beside me. Again, unlike anything else I’d done before.

Doing this, though, has involved a lot of semi-seclusion. I’m definitely ready for a change.

THE LONGEST GRASS AND THE SEARCH FOR A WORKABLE ITINERARY

Back in my college days I came across a column by a magazine writer who was retiring. He mentioned something he had recognized early in his career, that if you want to be a writer or a serious reader, you need to get comfortable with having the longest grass on your street. (An editor is something of both.)

It’s been a powerful – and to me, helpful – image.

Studious reading and writing require large chunks of time and concentration. Sacrifices have to be made. Quite simply, you can’t hope to do all the things everyone else does … or seems to do.

With my wife back in the workplace (and me now retired from paid employment), she’s looking at the list of things she’d like to see done to keep this old house and our big garden in shape. As that editor was saying about the grass?

A few weeks ago, I revisited some notes I had made in looking forward to retirement. It was embarrassing. I had always anticipated this as a time I could finally devote fully to my literary and spiritual callings rather than as a time to kick back and indulge in a life of leisure. (No golf clubs or even tennis racquet on my horizon.) Still, even then, I felt challenged in trying to find a balance for all that I wanted to accomplish. Frankly, these plans looked like boot camp for a senior citizen. Rise at 5, sit down to meditate, exercise, and hit the keyboard for three hours. That sort of thing.

What my theoretical charts didn’t include was housekeeping and the like. And then when I did retire, I hadn’t anticipated taking up daily swimming in the city’s indoor pool or online Spanish lessons or weekly choir rehearsals in Boston.

As for the big household projects like painting or ongoing repairs or time in the mountains to the north or at the beach to our east? Fuhgetaboutit, as a New Yorker would say.

TEN PLUSES FROM A SHORT SUMMER

In our part of the world, it’s been a short summer. That is, it’s felt even shorter than usual.

Normally, our summer doesn’t kick in until the Fourth of July, and that was the case this year. We had an uncommonly dry June and some oppressively hot, humid days in July. OK, it’s global warming, we know that much – the climatic instability shift that’s no longer deniable to anyone who’s been paying attention to reality. That’s left August, which included a very dark, rainy week.

So here we are, in what’s officially the final three weeks – usually some of our best, if we can get outdoors to engage in them. That is, if you don’t have kids in school. (Unofficially, of course, the whole thing ends on Labor Day weekend.)

Here are 10 highlights from my Summer of 2018:

 

  1. The princess brigade: In the past year, a family from South Dakota has moved in down the street, and their two daughters have become good friends with another girl a few doors the other side of us. So all summer, they’ve been traipsing up and down our sidewalk, one house to the other. As their vacation wore on, they got inventive. One day, I heard the doorbell buzz, went to open the door, nobody was there, but a little bouquet was on the steps along with a note. Later, they were back again, saying I was the only one who responded. That was the beginning of similar exchanges, including cookies or brownies from us some days or having them pick blueberries on another. They’ve definitely brightened our summer.
  2. Our student from China: For one month, we hosted a Chinese college student who had an internship at the Children’s Museum. He could walk to work. It was a delightful experience for all. By the way, he insists my fried rice is better than the version at the Chinese restaurant downtown. We’re hoping to repeat the experience next year.
  3. Blueberry bonanza: We weren’t alone. Others reported gangbusters of blueberries. In our case, a new way of covering them with protective netting helped, too – the squirrels and birds didn’t scarf off with the harvest before we could get our share.
  4. Productive drafting: I thought I was done revising my novels, that I could move into the next stage of supporting their publication. But then I made the mistake of opening an unfinished manuscript, one based on a character who appears in one of the novels, and felt an obsessive need to delve deeper into an understanding of her motivations and experiences. Let me say simply the venture took me into shady sides of my own emotions, and while I doubt I’ll ever release this work for publication, its pages do contain what I feel is some of my finest writing. I’m still not finished, but at least I’ve come to a place where I can take a breather. When I return to the file, the labor will be in smaller, less demanding portions.
  5. Overdue framing: There’s a backlog of household projects to get to – there always is, if you live in an old home like ours – but I did finally get around to framing and hanging a number of pictures. Some, like the icons my wife brought back from Macedonia and Crete, still need a place on a suitable wall – something that’s in surprisingly short supply in our abode. But it is a break in an emotional ice jam on my part. Maybe scraping and painting the hallways will be next? Going through my surviving artwork from high school was also an illuminating experience. I did that?
  6. A dear friend’s memoir: I felt honored to be asked if I’d take a look at her document but then put it aside until I could give it full attention. It was worth it. While we’ve known each other 30 years now, we always lived at a distance – the closest being an hour away and then five-plus hours and now several thousand miles. Still, having the opportunity to reconnect this way was a deep blessing and added greatly to my perspective, especially as details of her remarkable life fell into place here.
  7. Ambience of New England Yearly Meeting: At this year’s sessions, some of us were carrying an awareness of our week together as being worship, not just in the Quaker business sessions but in our time of meals and chance conversations and even contradancing or the raucous coffee house evening as well. Instead of ending each of our business sessions with the traditional shaking of hands, our presiding clerk held back until the end of the final one, giving the action extra poignancy. If Western Christianity has nothing like the Eastern Orthodox Holy Week, where every day from Palm Sunday through Pascha (or Easter) has its intense liturgy, it is possible to realize how unique Quaker yearly meeting stands to that in its own way. In fact, our minuting of the sessions can be seen as writing the liturgy as we go rather than following an existing text – immersion liturgy, as one Friend quipped. Oh, yes, and reconnecting with special Friends was also personally renewing.
  8. Our firewood stack: The delivery came less than a week after I ordered it, rather than a month or two later. Stacking the two cords in a pile to stay up at least a year for further seasoning is always hard toil for an office-type dude like me, but it also has a puzzle-solving aspect of fitting the pieces together. It’s done now, went faster than expected, actually, and I’m proud of how it looks. Will have even more satisfaction sitting beside the flames in our Jotul on a cold winter day.
  9. Jenny Thompson outdoor pool: The indoor swimming pool always closes for annual maintenance the last two weeks of August, and those of us who have passes get to use the outdoor pool then without having to pay extra. The extra length of the lanes – 50 meters instead of 25 yards – can be a killer (my half-mile means eight laps outdoors rather than 18 indoors), but there’s something invigorating about being out in that late summer air, the wind rippling through the warning banners over each end of the pool, and the brilliant sunlight everywhere. On the backstroke, especially, counting the contrails of jetliners descending for Logan International Airport in Boston to our southwest or watching for bald eagles soaring off over the Cocheco River can add to my delight.
  10. Greek festival: Dover’s Greek Orthodox church hosts its festival every Labor Day weekend, its welcome to the entire community. Unlike many similar events elsewhere, ours does not charge an entry, so the music and dancing are essentially free. OK, you can buy raffle tickets or a full meal and drinks as a means of supporting the fundraiser. Me? The old-time Quakers wouldn’t have had music, much less dancing or games of chance, but I love the contrast. (By the way, I learned only after the fact that Portsmouth’s Greek festival had returned in July after a hiatus last year. Oh, my, speaking of contrast.)

HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHAT TO DO NEXT?

At the rise of Quaker worship one week, I asked if anyone present didn’t keep a to-do list. I mean, these are all busy people, nearly three dozen of them … and that was on a slow day.

I was shocked when a half-dozen hands were raised. I still want to know how they do what they need to do, daily and on a larger horizon.

How about you? Do you keep those lists – and, if so, how do you arrange yours?

Or if you don’t, how do you keep yourself on task? Especially the big picture items, rather than what some call “putting out fires as they pop up.”

I’m all ears. My lists never seem to dovetail, and it’s still driving me nuts.

AS A FOOTNOTE AT THE TABLE

I wonder if the longstanding tradition of morning cleansing of marble steps at the front door in many inner city neighborhoods of Baltimore has survived the stresses of two-income families or single-parent households? Who knows when it started or in how many other locales it’s also practiced. This has been a custom of row houses, connected to each other – blue-collar communities, in fact – and not of detached suburban housing. And that makes the foremost difference.

These poems consider what women do and preserve – though not always exclusively. Yes, I’ve known women who bale hay or decipher monastic manuscripts, and I’ll also admit men can know nothing of bearing children or nursing. Yet, somehow, many women seem most at home around the kitchen, even if it’s nothing more than a teacup or a picnic. Even her garden, should she be so inclined, seems to extend from that table or the alchemy of her oven. And that goes for flowers, as well as vegetables and berries. (Remember, though: not all mothers and daughters can stand to be in the same kitchen at the same time, though they both be masterful cooks.)

Looking back on Baltimore, I remember my next-door neighbor, each morning in season watering the black locusts between our houses and the street. Maybe she did her stoop, as well. But the trees, which seemed to have always been there, were beautiful and timeless, as if spreading their own table.

Returning 1

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For the poems, click here.

A FLICK OF THE LEO MANE

Just a taste of what’s popping up. In case you were looking for a prompt.

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  1. This shift in my wilderness destinations, from mountains to ocean. When did that happen?
  2. The ripening of peaches spurs trips to our favorite pick-your-own orchard a half-hour to our north. More trips will follow for apples.
  3. Maybe I really am an “advocate of living-up-the-world-in-your-own-village,” as one comment chimed.
  4. I do like the concept of transitioning, rather than progressing, with all of its assumptions.
  5. Overheard at Walden Pond: “No, they won’t even get in a car anymore. They ride their bikes everywhere.”
  6. The Wiggly Bridge for hikers beside the York River. One way to get over high tide.
  7. Home Depot workers call their pesticide section the Wall of Death.
  8. So many field notes from spiritual aspiration and practice springing from a muse of fire. The one that’s sometimes scorched me.
  9. My life as a failure. There’s no autobiographical novel to be written on my last 30 years.
  10. A bumper sticker I’d like to create: I’D RATHER BE READING.

~*~

Downtown venting, here In Dover.
Downtown venting, here In Dover.