Jnana's Red Barn

A Space for Work and Reflection

Tag: Writing

JUST HOW BIG IS THAT TOWN WITH THE MILLS?

When I began drafting Big Inca versus a New Pony Express Rider, I was coming off a two-year stint that had me traveling across the Northeast, including the Atlantic Seaboard from Maine through Virginia. I hunkered down in Baltimore to concentrate on a handful of major writing projects in a very intense year of self-imposed sabbatical. (No university support, if you were wondering.)

While Big Inca marked a sharp departure from my other works, moving into dark subconscious realms and mysterious meanderings, it did incorporate castoffs from some of the other projects. The prompt, though, was a vague dream of restoring landmark mills beside a river, a project that could have happened just about anywhere in the region I’d been traveling.

We think of them as textile mills, and many of them were. But the water power could be employed for just about any kind of manufacturing, as I’ve since learned, from machine-making itself to shoes to clothespins to locomotives, as well as the grain and sawmill operations I’d been introduced to on our trips to historic sites in my childhood, starting with the overshot wheel and grindstones in Carillon Park in Dayton and the reconstructed Spring Mill village in Indiana.

As a youth, I’d also owned a gorgeous volume the duPont company had published to celebrate its history, and my favorite parts were the illustrations of its early mills and supporting waterways and lands in Delaware.

So there was already a degree of romance in my thinking about the use of old-fashioned waterpower.

Then, in my first job after college, I was introduced to the ruins of cigar factories beside a dam in the Susquehanna River, a tangled patch I returned to frequently, as I describe in my set of poems, Susquehanna. Just how would the mills have looked, anyway? And how would they have shaped the adjacent neighborhood, a setting reflected in Riverside, another of my poetry collections?

My more recent employment had me calling on places like Fall River, Massachusetts, with its array of vacant stone mills, as well as towns incorporating the more common red brick versions, large and small.

Add to that mention of the entrepreneurial impact of the many mills that once stood along the Jones Falls in Baltimore itself, before the freeway wound through the sites, and I was quickly writing.

Since releasing the novel, though, I’ve been wondering about scale. Just how big a town are we dealing with? And, for that matter, how big a mill yard?

In the back of my head I’d imagined something along the lines of Binghamton, New York, a city of roughly 50,000 – large enough to move about in inconspicuously but not too big to be, well, anywhere in the corporate radar these days. Or, more accurately, the recent past when the action takes place.

That’s had me looking more closely at old mill towns, of course, and asking if this one or that could be the right setting. Security, by the way, adds another consideration – I wouldn’t want the novel’s mills sitting right downtown, as they do where I now live or in several of the neighboring towns. Somersworth, to the north, has train tracks separating its old mills from the rest of the town, and Binghamton had a freeway.

A smaller town, in contrast, might simply have too many nosy neighbors who would insist on knowing everything about a newcomer like Bill, and that wouldn’t do. Still, there are some beautiful sites for imagining as you move about.

A FEW MORE NOTES IN THE SCORE

The mind dances here and there, rarely in a linear fashion. So what’s on my mind these days? How about counting on these fingers?

~*~

  1. Even before she argues I’m regressing to adolescence, she has many reasons to ask: Am I still emotionally … 15? Maybe this time I’ll get it right. Or just FINALLY.
  2. How is it so many people see me as masked, restrained, even inhibited? All these years. Will the real me please stand up?
  3. Like a pack of cards, “shuffle the deck,” the way of the Red Barn – or my all too rambling life with all of its competing interests! Don’t we need a job or children as focus? Or God?
  4. A jazz guitarist asks me between sets, “Are you a musician? You listen like one.” I take it as a compliment. As for my choir?
  5. Too easily I find myself retreating for too much of the day (and night) in my attic studio, apart from the rest of the house. Call me a third-floor hermit. That’s where I think I write best.
  6. I’d dreamed of having Molly Ringwald join in a movie I’d scripted: 61 Candles. We’d all grown up. Or something like that. Even I was younger then.
  7. It’s a familiar goal in revising a piece of writing and, as I’m finding, in making music. Think of the visual arts, too, and any number of places in daily life. Gain lightness in what had been blocks of density.
  8. Inscribed on the tower: “Maybe he was the love of my life … but I wasn’t his.” (Which interpretation do you prefer?)
  9. How is it I got so old? Even within an old soul?
  10. My overcoat, still tinged with city grime, needs cleaning.

~*~

This is it, indeed.

This is it, indeed.

WHO INVITED INCA INTO MY NARRATIVE, ANYWAY?

Why Inca, anyway? For starters, when it came to conceiving my novel Big Inca versus a New Pony Express Rider, I seem to recall an attraction to the wordplay, Inca for Inc., befitting a story about corporate intrigue.

Maybe there was even a sense of llama and alpaca wool as raw materials for the abandoned waterpower textile mills that instead become the front for covert business activity.

I was already aware of how much indigenous lore remained lost or buried in the American inheritance and wondered how much more might be festering somewhere. Even before issues of illegal immigration entered the picture, I was curious about the alternatives lurking in the imagined jungles of Latin America. Maya and Aztec, for example, also had rich imperial cultures that contrasted with the Spanish invaders.

The novel takes on its own meandering along the edges of consciousness and subconscious currents. Just what are we doing in our careers, anyway, at least in the face of ultimate existential purpose? And what is the allure of corporate politics, strategy, and gamesmanship, at least in the higher offices? Bill may be out in the sticks, but he is a puppet of sorts for the Boss. A player. Or maybe just his apprentice. Either way, he’s green and supple.

Here we encounter, however dimly, a darkness conquered by another darkness, perhaps crueler under its Christian veneer. Yet a New World Native undercurrent runs counter the peasantry of Old Europe, and pagan influences infuse both sides in the millpond of Bill’s labors. As for the company paying his Bill’s bills? It’s at least as mysterious as the Inca itself.

OR THAT?

Being mindful of what’s right in front of us can always be a challenge. Here are 10 new items from my end.

~*~

  1. I haven’t said anything about shoveling snow, have I?
  2. One tension in today’s world is a matter of staying in place in a restless world. Sinking roots, as it were. Going deep. Without getting stuck. How is this rooting balanced with personal growth and evolution? And, too, how is it I’ve stayed Quaker, amid all the other self-identities in play?
  3. Am continuing my practice of learning Spanish before breakfast – along with our Cuban-roast coffee.
  4. A friend shows us the mass of stonework in the cellar of his 1755 New England saltbox house, and we recognize it’s a thermal mass that holds heat in winter, keeps the place cooler in summer. Those old Yankees were way ahead of our times.
  5. So the day starts clear, then clouds over. Snow on the way? Gotta check our weather vane, see if the wind’s coming in off the ocean.
  6. Observing two side-by-side icicles hanging over our second-floor windows, I see one’s bumpy while the one next to it’s smooth. Then realized, yes, water drops freeze as bumps, and thus the smooth one becomes the question.
  7. As Boss would have told Bill in Big Inca: “I told you to report EVERYTHING.” Maybe there are limits.
  8. Listening to piano music by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, keep hearing a riff that sounds like “Skip to the Lou,” itself a puzzling phrase. Turns out it’s Scottish for “love,” and the tune accompanied a circle game. Also, Gottschalk was quoting a slightly different and more wistful tune from New Orleans, which explains the notes that move sidewise.
  9. The Libertarian Party really blew its big opportunity. Royally. Now where does it turn?
  10. Perhaps tomorrow will be a bathrobe day. Or at least sweats. No driving, just stay indoors at home. Plenty to do here, anyway.

~*~

Joe Pye in ice -- what had flowered does so once again in the heart of winter.

Joe Pye in ice — what had flowered does so once again in the heart of winter.

 

THIS IS IT?

I’ve long been fond of collage as an art form. These Tendrils continue the stream.

~*~

  1. Ground Hog’s Day marks the end of solar winter, in contrast to the standard calendar’s use of the equinox on March 20. We have as much daylight now as we did around Halloween, back t the end of October. It’s another reason I view the year as eight seasons rather than four.
  2. I’ve previously posted about the ways observing Advent as the days leading up to Christmas Day – which then ushers in the Twelve Days of Christmas –greatly alters our way of experiencing the holidays. As a result, since we don’t put up our tree until Christmas Eve, we leave ours up much longer than our neighbors. Long after theirs have headed for the dump, ours is still casting magical light around our front parlor (the room we call the library) while the mass of tiny lighted bulbs outside the bay window are also still glowing. Deep winter’s much more tolerable this way.
  3. When the evergreen tree does go out of the house (meaning any day now), its place in the bay window is soon taken up by flats of seedlings we’ll transplant to the garden, likely in May. My task now is to retrieve the appropriate shelves and bars of lighting from the shed – out in the brittle cold. We always seem to be behind schedule there.
  4. How sad to see so many so-called conservatives turning barbarian, intent on destruction – pillaging civilization and culture.
  5. My last days at the office included erasing my tracks. A lot of stuffed folders went into the trash.
  6. I finally acknowledge my past lovers would have never made me a suitable spouse. How blessed I am now.
  7. Think of the books we keep returning to. Or simply journals. Which of them keep you on track?
  8. There’s a day, as the rabbi admits, for sex and delight, free from the usual intrusions. It’s called Sabbath. Seriously.
  9. Goose – all dark meat, a lot of good tasty fat – a spoonful is great for favoring other dishes while cooking.
  10. Someday has come.

~*~

Afternoon winter sky over Dover.

Afternoon winter sky over Dover.

WHEN THE WHOLE HOUSE SHUDDERS

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

~*~

  1. Maybe it was all the commuting or the years of leaping from a job in one locale to another in what was supposed to be a climb up the corporate ladder or even the efforts to keep up with the personal writing and publication based in my “off-duty” hours, but when it came to a vacation, I increasingly wanted simply to stay home. Maybe because I’m finally seeing that logjam or backup break loose, my outlook is changing. I wouldn’t mind a little travel. Or maybe even a year abroad, the classic artist in exile.
  2. After hanging a toasted half-bagel from an outdoor branch, I watch a squirrel run off with it rather than nibbling bits on the scene.
  3. I wake to see a shadow flying against the wall before hearing the crash: two more giant icicles melting away in the morning sunlight. The whole house shudders.
  4. A least I’m not playing solitaire these days. How many hours on how many late nights were so occupied, usually winding down after work?
  5. An old man in a baggy gray coat and black shoes and black slacks and old-man baggy hat walks down the street. He smokes a pipe, the phantom who would haunt the author in 50 years. Except that now, the Author will not touch a pipe – or cigar. (Gee, I did use this – or a variation – somewhere, didn’t I?)
  6. After one online exchange, I realized the man’s both hard-hearted and deaf – a dangerous combination. His answers come out of a can.
  7. Back when I drafted Subway Hitchhikers, I imagined an underground network of kindred souls who could venture about anywhere on their thumbs – city or country, all filled with surreal encounters. Nowadays, we can see ourselves as cyber-hitchhikers, going about anywhere we want without having to venture out. But where’s the surrealism, risk, and full-body connection?
  8. She agrees. We’re much closer to Amish values than to mainstream American society and its tastes.
  9. There are times we must ask, “Is it Quaker work rather than God’s work?” Ever see a parallel in your own faith community?
  10. Any of you brush your teeth with baking soda? My dentist got me in the habit of dipping my toothbrush and paste in the powder before getting down to business. Have to admit it feels refreshing.

~*~

Watching this is better than television. You wouldn't believe the drama and comedy that erupt. Especially when squirrels or neighborhood cats corner in on the action.

Watching this is better than television. You wouldn’t believe the drama and comedy that erupt. Especially when squirrels or neighborhood cats corner in on the action.

 

REFLECTIONS ON MY POETRY AND FICTION

Maybe you’ve seen the adage that you can’t move on in your life if you’re stuck revising the past. (Well, it’s a variation of some more common versions.) I know the message is aimed at an individual’s emotional life, but it hits writers hard, too. No matter our subject or genre, the project in front of us draws on the past – even if it’s nothing more than research we did earlier or our previous drafts. It’s even truer when you’re heeding the counsel, “Write about what you know.”

For an author or poet, moving on typically comes when a project is finally published. Well, one usually moves on into promoting the work, even if the writer’s thinking and work are already on a new project.

Up to that point, the writing can usually be revised – and with poetry, there’s no end, you just have to let it go.

For most of my five decades of writing, my literary efforts – writing, revising, submitting to journals, and attending readings and workshops – came in my “free” time. And for a good portion of that, I was just getting a locale and its people in focus when my job would uproot me and I’d have to move on – just as one big project or another was coming into focus. I’d have to put work aside to complete later.

It also meant that much of my life was stuck in revising the past – meaning the unpublished projects – even I was adding more from the new encounters.

For me, blogging has freed much of that past, weaving it actively into my present. And the book-length releases at Smashwords.com and Thistle/Flinch, especially, have been emotionally liberating.

Seeing the poetry, in particular, as it’s appearing almost daily at the Red Barn gives me a fresh perspective. For all of my repeated honing of the work, compressing to some essence, I also sought a sense of jazzy improvisation and raw edges, an admission of working on the run in contemporary society. A recent essay on graffiti as public art, in contrast to the oil canvas masterpieces of earlier centuries, keeps echoing in my awareness. Yes, I can see many of my poems as graffiti or at least swift sketches or calligraphy.

Yes, there are things I’d revise and other points that leave me wondering just what prompted the line. But they’re up now, in your presence, and I can move on.

What a relief!

At this point in my life and career, I don’t even have to worry about what critics might say, though kind words from perceptive readers and fellow writers are always appreciated.

Not that I’m fishing for compliments …

YES, AQUARIUS

Why wait for the dust to settle? Here are 10 bullets from my end.

~*~

  1. Since we don’t put up a Yule tree and decorate it until Christmas Eve, ours stays on display longer than any of our neighbors’. The lights make January a less forbidding stretch. Make it more festive and relaxing. So what do you do special this otherwise cold, dark month?
  2. She’s really at home in a grocery store. Knows all the comparative prices, what’s a bargain, what’s special. Not so in other retail settings. Still, you should see our pantry. Or the two big freezers in the barn.
  3. Swami had long ago said I didn’t need a job (I’m an old soul) because that’s not the work I should be offering. That was long, long ago.
  4. How often does it seem: Fashion = Money … along with the race for something better?
  5. Would I be satisfied with a single-line poem that said everything? Stake my reputation on it?
  6. Considering all the hours I put in on my “personal writing” over the years – the poetry and fiction, especially, or genealogy and Quaker fare – it would have added up to a lot of overtime pay. Even at 10 hours a week, though I suspect with vacations and holidays thrown in, the average would have been closer to 20. I’d really have to land a bestseller to come anywhere close to recouping that investment.
  7. The frustration of my twilight years in journalism, seeing us increasingly pander to stupidity, ignorance, and hatred rather than trying to lead and enlighten.
  8. As the funeral director told me, “We hate holidays. Holidays suck.”
  9. Fortune cookie: You will make many changes before settling satisfactorily.
  10. Can this really be happening to America? Or the world?

~*~

 

Looks like white-painted architectural touches to me.

Still looks like white-painted architectural touches to me.

 

STARTING OUT BEHIND ONCE AGAIN

The mind dances here and there, rarely in a linear fashion. So what’s on my mind these days? How about counting on these fingers?

~*~

  1. This month’s annual perusal of seed catalogs leads to opening our shoeboxes of seeds themselves – counting and inspecting all the packets remaining from previous seasons. Makes for quite an impressive array, even if I’m not the principal gardener. Just listen to all that considered discussion and dreaming on the part of the actual planters, the mother and daughter and their friends.
  2. Even in retirement, I require a timetable – a to-do list – some sense of priorities and direction, in addition to routine. What does that say about me?
  3. From spam email: “Man Snake Enlargement.” Also, “Man Pole.” (Um, like a May Pole?) English terms pale by comparison.
  4. My Motets move in poetic processes that largely lack images. It’s a curious twist for me.
  5. At a holiday gathering with friends and family, one of the tots picks up my Peterson bird guide. Claudia intercepts it, opens it, and, as if it’s an illustrated children’s text, begins inventing a story. “This is Emily. And what’s this duck doing? It’s FLYING! And this one …” Anyone else think there’s another book waiting to take off there?
  6. Taking a few risks, looking at the proposal and rules. If I fail, it’s more on my own terms.
  7. Memory, as counterpoint and harmony for the present. Or maybe dissonance and discord.
  8. Still can’t take in the news.
  9. Parasite: a freeloader, usually fatal. Lives off the work of others. Seldom demonstrates gratitude or other qualities of good upbringing.
  10. What happens when we lose our sense of mission?

~*~

Fennel seeds dusted in snow.

Fennel seeds dusted in snow. Our herb garden at rest.

 

REFLECTIONS ON THE BARN’S PHOTOGRAPHY

As I’ve previously confessed, I have no illusions that what I’m presenting as snapshots to accompany my posts or as my stand-alone Postcards category fits in with what I consider real photography. Point-and-shoot digital, in mind, is almost cheating, no matter how fine the results. No, real photographers have a knowledge of f-stops and become expert in reading negatives and skilled when it comes to mixing chemicals. They’re more patient, too. They even learn to move around in the dark, or something very close to it when you consider the “safe” light, usually dull red. Yes, that dates me, even if I am amazed at the quality of what people are capturing on their cell phones, bypassing anything even resembling a camera. You don’t even have to focus? Where’s the control or discipline that defines art?

Even after all of my professional experience with great photojournalists, back when I selected and sized their work for news stories and picture pages, blogging has added to my understanding.

For starters, it meant moving into some very amateur hands-on photography for the Red Barn and my related blogs. Yes, it’s digital and requires very little by way of training. Just about everything depends on the zoom in or out for composition, and then letting the camera “see” what it will. That is, sometimes the results differ from what I see.

The majority of the photos presented in the Red Barn were taken with an entry-level Kodak with a delayed shutter release. Often I found myself clicking and then moving the camera for the shot itself a second or two later. More recent photos come from a more advanced Olympus, with a hairline click I had trouble getting used to.

Shooting has increased my empathy for real photographers. I recall standing in the twilight at the Nubble lighthouse beside a man with a tripod and sophisticated camera while I held my Olympus in hand. He had just driven to the Maine coast from Albany, New York, for this moment and spoke to me technically in terms I didn’t understand. He had my full respect, though.

Shooting in the cold, too, is a challenge. Your fingers soon freeze and pushing the buttons is shaky. The pros suggest I wear golfing gloves or surgical latex.

Looking at results after shooting has its own lessons. The pros are expert at seeing obstacles normal eyes scoot around. The camera’s not as forgiving, as I’ve seen in a portfolio of New England autumn foliage – utility and phone lines drape along the roads, detracting from the colorful leaves I’d composed.

Both cameras have left me baffled by my off-balance horizons. I really do try to have them level. But lately, wandering through art galleries, I’m noticing how often landscape painters have wonky horizons. So it’s not just the camera.

When I launched the blog, I had no intention of making photography the component it’s become. But, in a curious twist, the blogging has stimulated my shooting. When I pick up the camera, I’m often thinking of ways to use the image.

Subject matter’s another consideration. The garden and loft of the barn have provided their share, as have favorite sites like the waterfalls downtown, the pedestrian bridge on the Community Trail, and the seashore at Kittery Point, Maine. And then there are the old mills themselves and New England towns, especially the nearly four centuries of architecture in my town, including its urban barns and weather vanes.

One thing I’ve largely avoided is people. When they’re present, it’s usually from behind. It’s not that I don’t find people fascinating; rather, after some discussions I felt convinced that blogging differs from news reporting and rather than have folks sign release forms, just in case, I’d steer clear. I might add, in general, when you’re in public, you’re fair game if it’s not for a commercial (advertising) purpose. Here, I’ll err on the side of caution.

And then there’s been the application of the work in blogging itself. My initial ideal was to use a single shot as a post, inspired by the covers on New York magazine when it was a section of the New York Herald-Tribune’s Sunday editions. Something laid-back, low-key, everyday rather than the more dramatic news photos in the rest of the paper.

Over time, though, I found that varying the sizes in presentations of multiple images could allow the equivalent of a picture page in a blog’s scroll-style format. And then that could be extended to multiple pictures within a text itself.

None of this is new, of course, but doing it was new to me.

Multiple photos in a single posting? Well, let’s try the gallery function! And that was fun. The slide show, meanwhile, was something we could never do in a newspaper – I find it mesmerizing. (Both galleries and slide shows are more likely to show up on my Chicken Farmer I Still Love You blog, by the way – they just seem to fit in better there.)

Add to that the ability to schedule far in advance, and seasonal shots from one year could appear in a timely sequence a year or two later. Though I must admit, with the climatic instability we’re experiencing, that’s become more of a reminder of what would normally be happening than what’s just occurred.

OK, so these are scenes of my life, mostly from the last half-dozen years, unlike much of my texts, which span nearly five decades of writing.

Blog on!