LIVING IN MULBERRY ROW

As writers, most of us start with particulars we’ve known and try our best to abstract them – that is, make them more universal.

The dorm quad I now call Mulberry Row in my novel Daffodil Uprising is loosely based on one where I lived, though there was none of the clandestine financial intrigue I create to symbolize the old-boy network and its manipulative contortions. No, when I lived there, it was all simply a tad dowdy.

The dining hall, too, was far from the gloriously remodeled Annenberg Hall in Harvard’s great Memorial Hall – everyone who peeks in seems to utter something about Hogwarts – but it had its own low-key potential.

When I drafted the earlier novel, I had no idea what was about to happen in reality. The quad has since been renovated and refocused. From this distance, it all looks pretty exciting, actually.

I’ll assume the fictional benefactor Mildred Chouthonian would be proud.

My room was at the corner of the building at the right, in the center of this photo.

 

The dining hall looks much more modest all these years later, but it’s definitely been spiffed up.
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THOSE MISSIONARIES DON’T REALLY KNOW US

Recently, we got a white packet in the Quaker meeting post office box. The label was addressed to our Inner Light Preacher and came from the Columbus Missionary Society in Ohio.

We do get some weird mass mailings.

One mailing list has us as the Religious Order of Friends, which sounds to me like a monastery. Officially, Quakers are the Religious Society of Friends, quite active in the wider world.

Pieces targeted to the Proprietor or the Chief Purchasing Agent always amuse me. Nobody owns us but God, for one thing, and even that can get unruly.

And then, like many other Quaker congregations, we have no paid staff, much less a pastor. Vocal messages arising during our hour of mostly silent worship each week are kept short and delivered without notes or, we hope, earlier intention.

Preaching? I’ve been accused of crossing the line, but we never have anything like what this is addressed to. Homiletics are out of the question.

Oh, yes, while many consider a doctrine of Inner Light to be a distinctly Quaker teaching, it was originally Inward Light, with a much different emphasis than is given today. To see my take on that, look at my pamphlet, Revolutionary Light.

So this envelope was a first.

Inside was a 53-page booklet titled Holiness (be filled with God) Or Hell (or spend eternity in Hell) by William Baxter Godbey, and inside that were three more. I decided to Google this guy, only to discover he was a Wesleyan evangelist who lived from 1833 to 1920. No wonder his text had such an old-fashioned ring!

One of the others was a 1741 sermon by Jonathan Edwards, and a third was by abolitionist and pioneering revivalist Charles G. Finney.

I can’t find anything about the missionary group online, but they did put some money into this mailing. What was their intent? The works simply don’t speak to us today, apart from some fundamentalist Christians. For the most part, Friends (to use the more formal name of Quakers, the Religious Society of Friends, based on John 15:14-15) have moved far beyond the confines of these arguments. I look at the writings as historical curiosities but am not moved by their legalistic thrust.

In short, I’m left baffled.

The cover letter, by the way, was signed merely, “Love, A Brother.” And since there was no return address, only a Zip code, I can’t exactly ask him, either.

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.

TIME TO BLOW THE DUST OFF A FEW STACKS

As my wife and I started listing what’s keeping us busy these days, we were both surprised to find that one thing – one important thing – was missing.

What we both realized is that regular reading … as in books … had been pressed out of our schedules.

Instead, we’ve been doing bits and pieces of reading online. It’s just not the same as luxuriating in a deep volume.

How about you?

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.

TEN MINUSES FROM A SHORT SUMMER

Anyone else felt pretty AWOL all summer?

  1. My daily schedule’s been way out of whack: I’ve been awaking around 3 a.m. most days, doing a half-hour of Spanish study online, and launching into some compulsive writing and revision. That’s led to a deep afternoon nap, which makes sense on very hot days, but even so, my evenings are rarely in alignments with others’. It’s like I’ve become a hermit.
  2. I missed a whole week of July: Yes, when I sat down to write some checks and realized the next day I was a whole week behind, I was shocked. How’d that happen?
  3. I skipped a whole month in my journaling: That was the real shocker. Opening my journal in early August to catch up, I had to look twice to confirm that my last previous entry had been in mid-June. It’s not like nothing was happening in my life, either.
  4. Didn’t get to the marketing drive: From a practical point of view, the thing I should have been doing for the past nine months is pushing my new novel into readers’ awareness. Instead, I was compulsively revising and drafting new material while the inspiration was still percolating madly. (What would you do?)
  5. Block party nearly didn’t happen for the first time in 18 years: The neighbors behind us always have a boffo block party, and we’re included. This year, however, it almost never happened. First, the event got postponed from the usual time in late June or early July. Good reasons, I’d say – one family was off in Mexico, the grandparents’ of another family weren’t coming as usual, all but one of the kids who had grown up with the party were now off in college and the exception had a full slate of alternatives – that sort of thing. And then August got just as crazy. Somehow, on short notice, it happened on the penultimate Saturday of the month. Was there even a collector’s poster by the resident graphic designer? I was beginning to wonder if we’d be trying to catch up with it with their annual Soupa in November.
  6. No hiking in the mountains or swimming in the ocean: I mean, we’re so close, but now that I have the yearlong pass to the Dover indoor pool, I have less motivation to drive an hour or so away to hit the water or trails. Not if I’m engaged in other stuff, especially.
  7. We didn’t do much grilling: Summer typically means dining in what I’ve called our Smoking Garden, but I didn’t even get the strings of lights up overhead till early July rather than the beginning of May. When we have grilled, the food’s come indoors for the meal more often than stayed on the table outside. We’re not blaming all of it on the bugs, either.
  8. So much for getting together: Had hoped to spend some time with three guys, especially. It just didn’t happen. Mea culpa. They’re all fascinating. Part of it was that out-of-whack schedule.
  9. Too many weeds proliferated: Anyone else garden? Were they worse than usual this year?
  10. Lost some of my favorite lifeguards: Look, there’s no escaping the reality that America’s graying. Some days it seems like there’s no one under 40 about in the nation. One of my principal connections with living, breathing youth has been at the indoor pool, where I’m trusting my life to their abilities. Keeping them from getting bored on the job’s been a pleasant challenge, but now the majority of them have graduated from high school and are off to college. Premed or the like for most. Did I mention they’re smart, even when they try to pretend otherwise? Seems like we should have had a party, but I don’t think they even had one for themselves. Best wishes, all the same.

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.