Salty and Sweet

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Walking the trails out back  the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to sense subtler cues that the earth is folding in towards winter: a scent of ripeness on the verge of decay in the trees, the slight yellowing of pine needles before they drop, the occasional acorn plum gall on the path.  My kids used to call the galls “extraordinary berries,” before Google, when unanswered questions could linger in the mind and no imagined explanation was too outlandish.  With Google, I would have felt I should explain to them, at five and three years old, that the “extraordinary berries” were formed when the pupa of a gall wasp (Amphibolips quercusjuglans) burrows into an acorn cap and incubates there, forming a protective ball around itself.  They, in turn, would have felt they should understand, nodding, their eyes determined (Nate) or anxious (Lucy) to incorporate this esoterica into their worldview as they cradled the precious “berries” in their little palms, fingers grubby with dirt streaked by leaks from their juice boxes.     

A collector, Nate used to walk the woods ahead of me and his sisters with his head down, eyes sweeping the path for the telltale flashes of red.   A few weeks ago, I encountered an odd old fellow dressed head to toe in khaki cargo gear, pockets up his legs and across his chest, swinging his metal detector along the trail floor, earphones in.  I imagined each pocket cataloguing different metals he might have found: an old shell-casing, maybe a lost earring or ring, a zipper pull, a dog’s tag, a dropped key, a quarter.  That’s what Nate was like:  always on the lookout for a find, arriving home from our daily walk in the woods his pockets stuffed with “special” rocks or sticks, berries or feathers.  The Odd Fellow looked up as I drew near and gave me a kid-like grin.  “Find anything interesting?” I asked him.  It seemed a questionable choice to be out in nature with a metal detector clacking away, while the life of the woods thrums around you, unheard.  I feel the same way when I pass someone on the trail palavering on the cellphone.

The Odd Fellow removed a headphone plug from one ear and reached down to scratch my dog Westley between the shoulders.  “You’ll never believe what I found!” he said.  He showed me a nineteenth century Irish coin he’d dug up about fifty yards back, where the narrow trail intersected with an old cart path.  The coin dated to the 1880’s or so, he explained, when Irish immigrants in Boston were plentiful as acorns in October, and their money was readily accepted alongside the local currency of the day.  He was breathless at this stroke of luck, striking a vein of history six inches down, on a trail skirting the backyards of newly constructed mansions and mid-century deck houses in millennial suburbia.  “Go figure!” he said.

Yet I wasn’t that surprised: The woods near my home have a feeling of proximity to human society, our noisy vehicles, our litter, our cellular packets of bits and voices wafting on the air. Evidence of humankind’s continual presence out here is expected.

Last week I found myself walking a different trail, this time a perimeter path on an isolated private island in Maine I was visiting on a retreat for women writers called “The Salty Quill.”  It was a heavenly place, with ten or so women gratefully perched in a favorite alcove or patch of sun, scribbling away all the livelong day, greedily drinking in the quiet.  At mealtimes, our chef Nancy would ring the ship’s bell, and we’d scuttle out of our little corners, our eyes dazed from peering at screens or journals, blinking in the sunlight as we walked down the hillside from the main house with its sweeping views and expansive porches to the cozy “cookhouse” where we ate our meals.  I arrived mid-week when most of the other women were well established in the routine, and I wasn’t sure how to read the stillness at my first lunch.  It would have been easy to mistake the inwardness of my compatriots as coolness to a newcomer.  But like them, I didn’t come to the island for a party or group therapy. I came as a statement of commitment to my development as a writer; I came for the freedom from distraction; I came to jumpstart my stalled novel after a summer of emotional jolts. I wanted to give myself no other choice but to write.  I quickly caught the focused mood of my more experienced colleagues.  I pulled a bentwood chair into a patch of sun and wrote my way across the lawn that first afternoon, shifting my seat five or six feet every half hour as shadows moved over the grass.

Writers differ in how long they can dive deep into the world of their story or research before coming up for air. I once read that John Irving writes for eight hours daily without breaks.  I’m good for three hours max of immersion before my brain starts to skip like an old vinyl record and my legs itch to move.   So, at around 5:30 p.m. that first day, when the feeling that I just couldn’t sit a moment longer welled up in my gut like a rising tide, I headed back to the main house and pulled on my cross-trainers.  The lime green neon laces and orange logo squealed anachronously in the rustic woodiness of my shared room, timber clapboards and beams framing a high ceiling, windows looking across the 1900’s covered porch to the water.

“Are there any good walking trails on the island?”  I asked another writer.

“There’s one that goes all the way around.  There are buoys hanging from the trees as markers,” said one woman, Joy, or maybe Deb?  I was still working on names.

“Don’t be confused when you get to the rocks,” said another.  “Just barrel ahead and keep making right turns.”

This seems a pretty good set of directions for writing, actually.

The sun had lowered to eye level as I began the circuit, the air salty and cool.  I passed one retreatant seated on a fallen tree trunk, hand shielding her eyes as she looked across the water towards the sunset, an open journal on her lap. “I was planning to walk,” she told me.  “But this show is too good, and I’ve got a G&T,” she raised a mug jauntily in salute, “so I decided to just drink it all in and write instead.” I knew how she felt: thirsty for deeper currents.  We all had that yearning.

The trail roller-coastered down to a little cove, up through a forest of desiccated trunks, bony fingers of driftwood-like branches scratching the evening sky. I wondered what had happened here to kill the trees.  The trunks were upright, bleached out, but the understory was densely green.  An osprey nest cradled in the upturned palm of one tree.  Another roll of the path curled up, down, and up again through meadows thick with golden ferns.  I walked up over a rise and startled two deer on the hillside above me, not ten feet away.  I thought it might be a doe and her fawn, although my heart was tap-dancing so fast from their sudden leap into the brush that I couldn’t be sure.  Faded buoys hung like charms from tree limbs to mark the trail.  Who had come out here to place them, a caretaker, or a posse of family members from the clan that owns the island, a father and his small children dragging a sled of buoys, perhaps? The kids would have been distracted by the little caverns under the roots of trees, or the elaborate whorls on slabs of rock.

The quiet of this place was extravagant.  Yes, I heard the typical insects clicking at dusk, plants rustled in the breeze, waves lapped the rocks.  Below that hum was a steady silence, a sense that the matter is settled,  the plants here could grow and the wildlife could forage and hunt, fly or mate, undisturbed by the business of humanity.  It felt almost magically nourishing to me, not to strain as I do in the woods at home to catch the pulse of the natural world.  I walked the island trail twice a day.  I couldn’t get enough of it.

My time in the company of the other writers felt similarly expansive yet grounded.  Each night after Nancy had fed us some gloriously delicious dish that could have been gruel and we’d still have been grateful, except it was beef bourguignon or steamed lobster, we would follow the little beams of our flashlights back up to the big house, where we’d sit by the fire and read from our work.  I don’t super love to read my own writing aloud, but I’m learning how important it is to look up from the comfortable confines of my laptop and hear how others experience the quirksome world of my novel.  That word, quirksome, resonated for me as I listened to each woman read – individual voice and imagination revealed in her work, each preoccupation particular and salty.  Yet we all had so much in common:  motherhood, relationships, growing up. Loss. Magic. The fierce intelligence of women.  Each time someone finished reading, we’d sit appreciatively, the fire in the massive fireplace crackling and spitting.  A minute might pass before anyone spoke; you didn’t want to break the spell.  “Wow,” I’d think.  “That was good.”  I loved that I couldn’t always match the story to the writer’s persona as I’d come to know her over meals or idle chitchat on a break from working. It was like digging into a seven-layer dip; each new flavor spicier than the one before.

On those evenings, we were surrounded by floor to ceiling shelves lined with old books, clothbound volumes published in the 1920’s and 30’s and long since out of print, with titles like “Storm in a Teapot,” “Mr. Henderson Explains,” “A Woman Lost,” stories of a bygone era.  And yet each of them was the product of a particular human imagination.  We laughed, a little nervously, to think our efforts might end up similarly, on a dusty shelf, long forgotten.

If, that is, we ever manage to publish anything at all.

But we are a salty bunch of wenches, so I think we will.  I love this word, “salty.”  My daughter Mia and her friends use it all the time, as in “I was pretty salty not to get called on in class today, because I was hella prepared.”  It means to feel a kind of proud irritation.  It’s righteous.  I think about the line in scripture “You are the salt of the earth,” not the honey, or the fruity berries. The salt, the flavor.  I recall standing over countless pots of steaming soup or chili or mashed potatoes, holding out a spoonful for one of the kids to taste, asking “does it need more salt?”

The answer: yes.  Always.

I haven’t been out on the trails since I got home on Saturday.  John walked the dogs yesterday and today.   I’ll miss the salt air, the nearness of water, that island quiet, so deep and pure.

Maybe I’ll find a coin though, or a berry.  That’s something.

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McGee Island, Maine.  Thanks, Pam, for giving us the chance to dip our quills in salt.

 

 

 

 

#notokay

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I’ve been uncharacteristically wordless of late. I am taking a break from posting, instead working on a novel project, mostly plotting, stewing, and outlining. I have to confess an addiction has snuck into the empty space: I’ve become an avid consumer of satire. I don’t know how I would cope without the incisive wit of the likes of Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, Bill Maher, SNL. They can say it so much better than I; if irony were a superpower, they’d be the Avengers. And yet, as I feast at the trough of liberal outrage, I am deeply troubled by the chasm of mistrust, vitriol and judgment that so divides our experiences as Americans. We are countrymen and women, are we not?  After November 8, we are all going to have to make our peace and move forward together.

It doesn’t feel very likely we will be able to pull that off right now, does it?

My grandmother died just weeks before the 2012 election at the age of 106. She was a staunch Republican, and I recall our conversation late that summer about Barack Obama, whom she disliked enormously. She was troubled that I planned to vote for him. She thought he was “the worst” she had ever seen. I pressed her: Really? Worse than Nixon? Worse than Bill Clinton, whom she also disdained?  As I raised name after name, all the way back to Woodrow Wilson, a twinkle came into her eye.

“Politics has always been a dirty business,” she sighed. They are all liars and cheats, that’s what her 106 years had taught her.

There are the crooks you like, and crooks you don’t like, I guess.  Let’s take this as our conceit: they’re all crooked.  So do you want to vote for a crooked politician with a distinguished career in public service, or a crooked businessman with a history of bankruptcies and sexual assaults?  Hmmmm….

I’d like to tell myself the anger and discontent will die down. Although it won’t be pretty, we can survive a Trump presidency, in much the same way as we survived McCarthyism and the Salem witch trials, but hey, we’re still here. We can do better than survive with a Clinton presidency, because whatever your complaint about her may be, surely you cannot charge that she is under-prepared, unintelligent, inexperienced, or batshit cray.  Troglodyte Trump will trundle back to his gold-plated cave, dragging behind him a trail of slime and perhaps an unwilling beauty contestant (or two, or four – the number keeps going up). Back into his lair with him he’ll take Chris Christie, Rudy Guiliani, Steve Bannon, Roger Ailes and the rest of his collection of misfit misogynist toys. They are a nice bunch, aren’t they? An ex-wife once charged Steve Bannon with domestic abuse. Thrice-married Rudy Guiliani, lest we forget, cavorted with his mistress and used NYPD police details to keep their trysts under wraps. He announced his separation from his second wife at a press conference with her by his side before informing her—nice guy, right? Roger Ailes, as we know, was terminated by Fox News for sexual harassment of Gretchen Carlson, which one suspects is but the tip of that particular iceberg. Chris Christie seems comparatively restrained, reserving his bullying for the mayor of Fort Lee and his rush-hour constituents. It’s clear that Trump has built up a team of woman-hating Neanderthals for his campaign: like-minded thugs who see women as objects to be controlled, objectified, commoditized, and screwed. Imagine his cabinet. I shudder to think what kinds of legislation such a confederacy of chauvanists might concoct when it comes to women’s health and wellfare, no matter how hard Ivanka tries to convince Cosmo readers otherwise.  If Trump somehow prevails and gains the White House, maybe some loaded Russian mobster wants to buy up all our properties and we’ll see how Canada deals with an influx of liberals across its Southern border. (Justin Trudeau, we love you.)

You know I cannot turn the other cheek on Pussygate. Viewing the Trump-Bush tape was, to use Paul Ryan’s word, “sickening.” If you are a girl or woman, it’s almost laughable how recognizable, how defining, that kind of experience is in your life. I get a kick out of the heartfelt expressions of male outrage at Trump’s felonious sleaze when this kind of behavior has been going on since before Homo Erectus discovered fire.  For starters, Trump & Bush’s prurient ogling confirmed what every women has ever suspected about this sort of skeezy, objectifying guy: a gentleman to your face, perhaps, but behind your back, he’s assessing your body parts like a butcher presented with a fresh carcass. And how about that sniveling little weasel Billy Bush, pimping out Arianne Zucker for Trump’s amusement? Ewwwwww. Anyone who has been in her shoes—smile and look pretty for the boss, your ideas and skills are secondary—knows how humiliating it is. As for the “locker room talk,” it bears repeating that unsolicited sampling of lady parts is assault; that “even” kissing without consent is sexual aggression.  Period.

It bears noting that such sexual predation is not the exclusive purview of any one political party or ideology, nor of the political sphere — the Hollywood “casting couch” comes to mind as another pernicious example.  I know women doctors who were harrassed or assaulted during their residencies, likewise lawyers, business executives, teachers, the list goes on.  And on.

Let’s consider the indignation of our more sensitive men this past week: From Jeb Bush to Mitch McConnell, it seems every Republican politician has a beloved, “precious” daughter, sister, wife—imagine that– whom they are genteelly dismayed to think may be getting her hoo-ha or boobies grabbed without her consent.  As singer John Legend points out, “You don’t have to have daughters or granddaughters to find Trump’s comments repugnant. It’s an odd, unnecessary qualifier.” You just have to be a human being who values human dignity. Dudes: we don’t need your chivalry. We’ve been coping with this crap for millennia. What we need is for you to keep your freakin’ hands, tongues and other appendages to yourselves unless expressly invited to do otherwise. Oh, and equal pay for equal work would be good, too.

Shortly after the Pussygate tape broke last Saturday, Kelly Oxford, a writer and blogger with a large Twitter following posted this invitation:

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Ok, I’ll play:

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These are just the stories I could easily summarize in 140 characters.  Can you guess how many replies/retweets Kelly Oxford received by Saturday, the next day?  9.7 million. It’s up to 30 million just six days later, both in reply to her original tweet, and to the resulting hash tag: #notokay. Stories of women who were assaulted by uncles, “family friends,” coaches, teachers, old men on buses, subway riders, clients, bosses, delivery men, store clerks, security guards, upperclassmen, the list goes on and on and on. The abuses chronicled in response to Oxford’s tweet begin when girls were as young as three or four. So while I believe that most men are good, kind, and horny-but-respectful, there are too damn many who are not, Donald Trump among them.

I heard a commentator on an NPR radio program Monday, an African-American man from Tennessee, describe the inflammatory insanity of this election, and in particular, the hate speech that Mr. Trump seems to delight in chumming to his supporters, as “the last gasps of the old confederacy.” I hope he was right. To that, I would add the hope we are also witnessing–are you listening, girls?–the death throes of the Patriarchy.

Mr. Trump’s campaign strategy is unabashedly sexist. Hillary Clinton doesn’t have the “stamina” to be president, he said over and over during the first debate. He may as well have said, “Hillary Clinton doesn’t have a penis.” (And if she did, it would presumably be smaller and more inclined to premature eruptions than his manly spadroon, those tiny hands notwithstanding.) Newly released Trump television spots picture Clinton stumbling when her pneumonia was at its peak, while a voiceover starkly suggests she lacks “fortitude, strength or stamina” to be president. (Again, with the stamina.) The ad might as well say (cue alarmist soundtrack): “Hillary Clinton doesn’t have the balls to be president.” Literally.

So, nothing against you guys. I have a fine, millennially feminist son, and a wonderful, respectful husband, both of whom I love dearly. I am the daughter of a father and the sister of two terrific brothers. I have several excellent nephews, and a male dog that is devoted to me. (Okay, so he’s neutered.)  I don’t want to cast aspersions on the entire male gender any more than I want epithets hurled at us sisters. But I have to say, the testosterone club has had its shot at governance for pretty much the bulk of recorded history, with mixed results.  It’s time to see what the ladies can do.  It may be the only hope we have for getting along again, once this wretched election is over.

 

 

 

Blue and Black, Part I

I wrote the piece below en route to Portland, Oregon last week for my Black Belt training as a Nia teacher. Believe you me, there will be a follow-up piece about that profound experience, so stay tuned if you’re interested.

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I’ve been blue since dropping Mia off at college in California. There’s a melancholy feeling to the early September light, a late-summer sense of things winding down that has suited my mood. Dog walks out in the drouistock_000015512688smallght-thirsty woods have been validating; leaves crackle drily overhead, the air is heavy, insects buzz hazily, their last song of summer. I come home from our evening walk and the house is silent. It’s a new kind of stillness, lacking the promise of a child rattling chattily home from school, hungry or grumpy or anxious or cheerful, the crunch of tires on the gravel driveway, backpack thumping on the mudroom floor, fridge door cracking open. Even though last year Mia was rarely home before 8 p.m., the anticipation of her return from school gave shape to the evening: walk the dogs, cook, do a little work, have a glass of wine or a cup of tea, connect with John over dinner, then Mia comes home. Those four words skip, childlike: Then, Mia comes home! Excising them from my daily vocabulary radically alters the rhythm of my days.

Often lately, my mind has ranged back through years-old memories of me and the kids reading stories, collecting leaves, visiting the animals at the community farm in Lincoln. Nate had so much energy, I used to tell him to run the circuit from the dishwasher through the dining room to the front door and back while I’d time him. “Am I faster yet?” he’d ask breathlessly, before tearing off for another lap. Lucy loved her arts and crafts; when we renovated our kitchen last year, they pulled up the ceramic tiles and found little piles of glitter from her projects all over the subfloor. Mia was obsessed with a book series about fairies and read voraciously. We’d sing and we’d go on walks and we’d take “car adventures”.  I’d pretend the car had a mind of its own and had decided to take us on a mystery tour: to the library at bedtime, or the ice cream stand up the road. “Car! What are you doing, car!!” they’d squeal. Sometimes, we’d just drive around playing I SPY. They’d press me to make up another story about “Diggy Doo and Cutty-Kut,” a dog and cat duo with magical powers. We’d tell riddles or play badminton. We’d sit on the porch after dinner and guess the color of the next car to drive by, and the evenings would slowly melt into twilight, and bath time, and John coming home. The quiet of three young children tucked into bed and asleep was precious. I feel disoriented by the stillness of my house without children.

Yesterday, I found myself wondering: “How can I top this?” I’m certain I won’t ever like my co-workers as much. People ask me how I’m doing, but they’re often uncomfortable if I’m honest with them: I’m fine, but I’m also grief stricken. I took a Nia class on Monday, and the last song in the routine was Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game”. Are you kidding me? I used to sing it as a duet in college with my friend Harrison Miller. I know the lyrics by heart: We can’t return, we can only look/behind from where we came/And go round and round and round in the circle game. I cried like a baby, tears running down my cheeks onto the studio floor. I needed that. Every so often, with the very best of intentions, people want to talk me out of it. They tell me how freeing it is, not to worry over kids all the time. They say John and I can rediscover ourselves and each other, playing out a whole new, wonderful third act in our marriage. They say it’ll pass, I’ll be fine, it gets better, your children will always be your children, even if they are far from you. Well, of course. I know these things are true. But I resent it when people want to cheer me up: this sadness is my trophy, it’s my proof of a life lived with love and joy. (Okay, also some ill-temper.  Goes with the territory.)  I want to feel it, because it honors the choice I made to be a stay-at-home mom, and it celebrates the beauty of the family I helped to shape. I know people mean well, so of course, I smile, and I’m gracious, and thank them for their kind words.  I am appreciative. But I must insist: I’m still sad.

I have friends who’ve breezed right into the empty nest with nary a backwards glance, but I knew that wouldn’t be me. I anticipated this funk would come. So this summer I put a couple of projects in motion to give me a sense of purpose that might power my little boat through the doldrums. One was to apply for a yearlong writing class that will result (fingers crossed) in a full draft of a novel. If you helped me out in July by reading my chapters and letting me know your thoughts on which piece you liked better, thank you so much. Sorry that I ignored the majority of your opinions. I promise I’ll write both at some point. The class starts in late September, and although it scares the crap out of me for any number of reasons too neurotic to share but having to do with self-doubt, and fear, and perfectionism, I’m also excited. My characters are kids, and as we’ve established, I really like spending time with children.

The other commitment I made was to pursue my “Black Belt” Nia training in Portland, Oregon. The training is only offered once a year in the US, and I’m posting today from 37,000 feet as my flight crosses the Utah salt flats, bound for Portlandia. With me are three friends from Boston, Amy, Lisa and Kira. We’ve rented a snazzy corporate apartment (surprisingly affordable) and our plan is to try not to take ourselves too seriously, to dance, explore and learn all day, to come home to the apartment and laugh until we cry (or snort, or pee, whichever comes first). I hope our fellow students don’t find us terrifically obnoxious and that they sense our love for each other is inclusive of them as well.  I wasn’t feeling much about the trip except mild anxiety: I have a pinched nerve in my back, I put on about five pounds this summer from emotional eating (always my Achilles heel) so my fitness isn’t optimal, I didn’t make studying a priority, so the material from prior trainings is hazy, at least mentally. But this morning when the alarm went off, I felt truly excited for the first time. Who cares if I’m the worst person at remembering all the Nia lingo and concepts? What does it matter if I’m a little lumpier or less energetic than usual? So what if I don’t have a freakin’ clue how to write an entire novel, and my plot is currently kaleidescoping crazily between scenes, outcomes, and voices?

Here I am, at fifty-six, stepping into a new chapter and I have no fuckin’ idea, really, of where it will lead. I am grateful beyond words for the joy I’ve been privileged to know as a mom; for three amazing children whom I love and admire so much; for a husband who loves and encourages me; for students who support me; for a generous body that has given me everything–children, health, intelligence, pleasure, voice, dance; for friends who are willing to share a queen bed with me this week, because at night, I’m twitchier than a squirrel in acorn season. I am thankful to have always had within me a North Star sense of God, Love, Spirit–whatever you choose to call it.  I will eternally feel an invisible, umbilical tether to my kids, however independent they grow. I will continue to miss them, every day.

And I’ll build something new. And so it goes.

#Ihavetherightto ADVOCATE

 (by After School Specials of the Claremont Colleges.)

Something you probably shouldn’t do when you are freshly home from dropping your beloved 18 year-old daughter off at college is spend a dappled late summer afternoon watching a documentary about campus sexual assault. I’d tell you I don’t know what got into me, but I do: This morning I watched the Today show interview with Chessy Prout, a seventeen year old girl who today revealed her identity as the victim of Owen Labrie, the predatory prep school athlete/scholar who assaulted her when she was a ninth grader at St. Paul’s School, my alma mater.

Ms. Prout is luminous, inside and out. She radiates goodness, wholesomeness, health. I  recall reading in a lurid media account early this year that her attacker once referred to her as an “angel,” and you can see why. She is golden-haired, blue-eyed, dewy; the kind of beautiful girl who attracts male attention without trying, without meaning to, simply by being. We had a few girls like her in my class at St. Paul’s. There is a tyranny to this kind of beauty: you don’t ask for sexual attention, but you get it nonetheless, and guys and girls alike assume that’s what you want. People think maybe girls are thrilled to be so magnetic, and I imagine for some that’s true.  But often, it’s intrusive and sometimes, frightening. My own daughter Mia has this quality. Her brother noticed it when he came up from his home in Austin last April for her senior talk at her high school. “She’s charismatic, she’s smart and she’s beautiful,” he commented, clearly concerned. “College guys are going to be all over her.” That phrasing is troubling, isn’t it?  I fear I haven’t taught her enough about cruelty, that there are bad people even in predominantly good, safe places, that an invitation to a study group should be viewed warily if the only person who shows up besides you is the guy who invited you to join, that you must never allow yourself to be separated from your flock at a party, because that’s what the wolves want.

In her Today show interview, Chessy Prout embodies authenticity, moral courage, and determination – all with natural grace. Talk about intestinal fortitude. Who among us could tolerate seeing one of our teenage daughters give such an interview on national television?  “I want everyone to know that I am not afraid or ashamed anymore, and I never should have been. I feel ready to stand up and own what happened to me and make sure other people, other girls and boys, don’t need to be ashamed, either. ” Amen to that. I watched her respond to the interviewer’s questions, flanked supportively by her parents and older sister, and I marveled at the hell she and her family have been through. Yet they all speak with integrity and compassionate resolve. Great good can come of great ill; the expansive resilience of love never fails to amaze me. I wonder: if this had happened to one of our daughters, could John and I could show such composure and generosity, facing the institution on whose watch such harm had come to our child? I’m not so sure.

Listening to Ms. Prout is what led me to finally hunker down and watch “The Hunting Ground.” If you’ve not heard of it, the documentary exposes campus-wide negligence in dealing with the epidemic of college sexual assault. The film tracks two rape survivors, Annie E. Clark and Andrea Pino, who inadvertently became leaders in the growing student movement leveraging Title IX in order to hold college administrators accountable for the ways the system protects predators and fails victims. I say “inadvertently” because, like Chessy Prout and her family, these women, and the legion of other victims the film profiles, did nothing to invite this fight. They did not “bring it on themselves.” They didn’t ask to be raped by “wearing the wrong thing” or “going to the wrong party”, by “drinking too much” or trusting too much or freezing with shock and fear so they couldn’t fend off their (much bigger and stronger) attackers.   These women all refuse to back down, to slink away with their tails between their legs as if they somehow deserved to be raped, and subsequently to be patronized, shamed or diminished by their respective school or college communities.

Societally, our systems for addressing sexual crimes are utterly broken. When your school’s reputation or football team’s record matters more than the well-being of the young people whom it is YOUR CHARTER, your raison d’etre, to educate and foster, I just don’t know what to say to you.  I urge you to watch Chessy Prout’s interview, and also to take in “The Hunting Ground.” I dare you to come away from either without feeling deeply sad for these young people and somehow complicit in the culture of silence that looks away. Survivors of sexual assault deserve to be treated with the same serious concern as victims of any other crime: burglary, say, or arson. Can you imagine a detective investigating the theft of your car asking, “well, should you really have parked it there?   Don’t you think you were maybe asking for it to be hot-wired?” or   “Do you think maybe if your car hadn’t been red, it might not have been stolen?”   Weren’t you sending the wrong signal to car thieves by parking your car at night, by parking your car at all? What you could have done differently, to thwart the thief? Maybe your car alarm wasn’t loud enough, or it didn’t sound for long enough. Whatever. It’s your fault.  Or how about this response from your dean of students or Board of Trustees:  We know your car was stolen and yeah, that auto thief is a creeper, but it wasn’t our fault, so you need to be quiet and go away, because grand theft auto complaints aren’t good for our brand.  And besides, the guy who stole your car?  He’s our quarterback.  Our alumni love him.  Here’s another thing you might hear:  Are you sure your car was stolen? Because we’re not convinced.

How absurd.

And surreal.

And yet, such belittling of victims and their needs happens all the time in colleges, companies, schools. I have to hope, thanks to the courage and leadership of women like Chessy Prout, Annie E. Clark, Andrea Pino, and Brock Turner’s victim at Stanford, that we are on the cusp of a new understanding about sexual assault, a person’s right to feel safe in their own body, and an institution’s obligation to treat sexual assault with the same seriousness afforded any other crime. Teachers and administrators, college presidents and prep school headmasters, take notice: looking the other way and protecting the status quo – these strategies are failings of the past. Victims are finding their voices, and their songs of pain and wrong will soon drown out the lawyers, the parsers, the board members and distracted faculty, the morally timid. Each of the young women named above has my gratitude, along with countless other victims of sexual crimes who’ve had the courage to speak out. As a woman, a sexual harassment survivor,  a teacher,  and a mother of two daughters and one son, I say to you:

Thank you, sisters. Keep the faith. We’re with you.

To share your story or express solidarity with Chessy Prout and other victims of sexual assault, tweet #Ihavetherightto

 

I Only Want to See You Laughing

girl-dancing-rain_thumb23In these crazy times, it’s more important than ever to mark moments of grace that break through the noise of hatred, anxiety, and separation that roil our days. Here’s my little thank-you to the universe for something entirely inconsequential and wholly validating that happened yesterday morning.

The backstory: I’d had a rough night of sleep. John is traveling, and Cordelia took advantage of his absence to claim two thirds of the bed. I’d push her off;  she would slither back just as I was on the cusp of sleep, taking advantage of my grogginess to sprawl across the mattress – who knew a 50 lb. dog could take up so much space? We had finally settled into a reasonable compromise wherein she got the middle third of John’s side of the bed, when Lucy arrived home from New Jersey, having stopped off at her apartment in Medford for the evening to catch up with her housemates. Cordelia hasn’t seen her since May, when Lucy left for her internship, so when she came upstairs at 1:30 a.m. to whisper “Mom, I’m home,” Cordi sprung into action, launching herself off the bed in a flurry of barks that immediately resolved into licks and pats when she recognized a fellow pack member.

Everyone settled down again for about fifteen minutes before Mia arrived upstairs, weeping and heartbroken. She and her boyfriend (since junior year) had decided before graduation they would not try to maintain a long distance relationship when they leave for college. They’ve spent a poignant summer together, knowing that come August they would break up, not because of incompatibility, boredom or meeting someone else, but rather due to geography and a desire not to hold either themselves or the other back in the next chapter of their lives. They love each other, so this is very hard. Yesterday was the day they said goodbye. Mia hung tough all day. We went to Staples. We ate take-out and watched the Olympics. She worked on a sweater she’s knitting. It hit her, as such losses will, in the dark quiet of her bedroom, when she couldn’t fall asleep. Any other sleepless night over the past year and a half, she would have texted Sam. And now she can’t. It hurts. It was close to two a.m. when she climbed into our bed, with Cordelia snuggled between us like a happy sausage. Mia cried while I stroked her hair and told her all the things she already knows: It sucks; it won’t always hurt this much; the pain will come and go in waves; I’ll always be here for you; you can text me in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep. Sometimes we laughed, about why you get so snotty when you cry; about whether dogs have thoughts or just emotions; about how it’s easier to be mad than sad; about how college is stupid and going all the way across the country to California was a bad idea and couldn’t she just stay home in her too-small girlhood room, pet-sitting and knitting, for the rest of her life? (Fine by me. I, too, have done my share of grieving these last few weeks, with more to come.) It was after three when Mia was cried out, exhausted enough to head back downstairs to her room. I finally went to sleep. At six forty-five, the dogs were up, barking, nudging me: get up, alpha-person! Get up!   I did my best to ignore them, surfing in and out of a sleep fractured by dog play and the snooze alarm until 7:30 a.m. I had just an hour before I needed to leave for my nine a.m. class.

So: coffee. Feed the dogs. Check my playlist for class. Think about what focus to craft for the students. I planned a fun playlist of Latin music I haven’t taught for awhile, focusing on challenging ourselves to play with levels of intensity in our movement. All good. I felt a little addled-brained from my short, interrupted sleep.   But hey, I think I’ve got this.

When I set the car in park at the studio and reached for my Iphone with the playlist, an image flashed through my mind: my phone, with all my music, sitting on the kitchen counter next to the coffee maker. Really, Holly?  I could have sworn I tossed it in the car before leaving, but it was nowhere to be seen, and I was already running late.

Class was supposed to begin in five minutes, so I would have to improvise on my four hours of sleep – what else could I do? There were only two students this morning, “regulars,” Ruth and Debbie. I asked them if either of them kept music on their phones. Debbie pulled hers out and started scrolling. “Imogene Heap”? Nah. “Coldplay”? I don’t think we’re there yet. Anything else? “The Best of Prince”? That’s the ticket. We put the album on shuffle and jumped overboard into the river of music. Thankfully, Nia technique is so beautifully conceived that an experienced teacher can devise choreography on the fly using the foundational movements of the practice. If you’ve taught enough, the structure of the music reveals itself to you pretty quickly: this is an eight count, here’s where you feel the pickup, chorus, verse, bridge, breakdown. There’s a code to most popular music that isn’t all that hard to crack, honestly. Prince can be another matter:  he’ll unexpectedly play with the time signatures and tempo.   There were a couple of songs I’d never heard where the sands of rhythm shifted unexpectedly and we had to splash around a little vaguely before a new rhythmic raft would float along that we could cling to until the next change. Nia choreography fits organically and intuitively into any music, and we were easily able to play with the focus I had already planned: personalizing the intensity levels. It was fun. Really fun, actually.  “Party Like It’s 1999” played and we laughed at how the world freaked out at the turn of the millenium, when we all thought the computers would crash and catastrophe would ensue.  Anticipating disaster is surely programmed into our human DNA — good to remember in the apocalyptic days of this election. We rocked a dance of absurdity, of delight in our own foibles, of joy.   That old saw: Necessity is the mother of invention. The adrenaline of having to be so present to the music and movement jolted me awake, out of my doldrums, my sadness for Mia’s heartache, my irritation at leaving the phone at home, my late summer Weltshmerz as the days wind inevitably toward fall, when Mia will be established in California and all three bedrooms on our colorful second floor, Lucy’s red, Nate’s green, Mia’s magenta, will sit empty. Already, the dogs like to deposit their half-chewed bones up there. They sense this is claimable turf.

The last ten or so minutes of a Nia class are spent cooling down and stretching on the floor, often guided only by the music and your own body’s feedback and wisdom about what stretches or movements you need in order to feel complete. The songs that close the class are typically soothing and down-tempo: sometimes gongs, or chants, or even just the music of ocean waves. As I cued Ruth and Debbie to bring themselves to the floor for this penultimate cycle of class, I was aware that ITunes might serve up “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Little Red Corvette” or some other Prince song unsuited to calming our nervous systems and resting our bodies. It popped into my head to say, half-humorously, but also with an element of supplication: “let’s just hope the universe shuffles up something luscious and slow for this last song. And if it doesn’t, then, oh well, we’ll still move with calm, even though the world around us is going crazy.”

And then the heavens opened, and out of the speakers came the first guitar strains of “Purple Rain.” It could not have been a more perfect note on which to end our adventure of “let’s just make up a class.” I thought of one of my favorite New Testament passages: “ask, and you shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” And despite the meanness of our culture, the cruel tweets and internet trolls, the anger worn like a medal, the friend or parent with cancer or a broken heart, the soul-deflating intractability of racism and sexism, the vitriol unleashed in this political cycle in our country and the enduring suffering of oppressed people across the globe—all those dark and dreary realities that make us wonder how, if there is a God, he/she/they could be considered “good” –we three, Ruth, Debbie and I, for that one instant, knew the soft, playful kindness of divine love.

I never meant to cause you any sorrow
I never meant to cause you any pain
I only wanted one time to see you laughing
I only want to see you
Laughing in the purple rain.

Purple rain, purple rain
Purple rain, purple rain
Purple rain, purple rain
I only want to see you
Bathing in the purple rain.

*****

Post-script:  My phone,  I discovered last night after turning the house upside-down, was in my car all along.

 

 

 

 

Option Two

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OK, team:  Here’s the second novel option!  Let me know your vote via FB or WordPress message.  Thanks so much for reading. I am really appreciative of your time and support.   My application deadline is Tuesday, August 9, fyi.

I, the Body is a young adult novel pitting a band of renegade teenagers against the global corporation controlling virtually all natural resources in the 2080 post-apocalyptic world of Telemerica. Perrin I, a sixteen year old linemate, grows up toiling in the sky-born tetherlines that discharge carbon dioxide into the outer atmosphere on a planet Earth largely denuded of trees. The energy conglomerate Teletual selects Perri to participate in its groundbreaking disembodiment training, touted as the last, best hope for humankind’s survival on a planet growing increasingly inhabitable for human life. In the course of her training, Perri and her fellow trainees discover an awful truth about the dark past of Teletual, setting an epic conflict in motion. The future of humanity hangs in the balance.

*****

01.01/80:5am

I don’t recognize my hands today. Yesterday, it was my forearms, although when I turned my palms up, the scars reminded me. But today, my fingers on the entryboard look like someone else’s. A girl’s? A girl who’s not me, anyway. And when I type, I don’t feel anything, no sensation, except in my brain. It’s as if the letters are thrown up onto a blank screen in the back of my mind, and they stick there. But my hands, my fingers, my tendons and blood, are not part of the process.

 I don’t know why I’m not elated.; I expected to be. I know will be. But when I began the training, I thought it would take longer. They said a full remapping would last about a year, that you might notice some foreshadowing at around six months. I only got here three weeks ago, and already I am demonstrating Phase One capacities. I guess I am an Adept. Self-loathing is a strong motivator.

 There’s the gong – I gotta go for training. Happy New Year.

***

 Dr. Renfrew leaned forward, sliding the paperwork across the steel desk with fingertips only, his right hand tented like a claw.

“You should be proud of Perrin, Mr. and Mrs. I,” he said. “The selection process for young adult remapping is extremely rigorous, particularly so for girls . We could fill the program ten times over with equally qualified applicants, and yet somehow, we must choose. Perrin’s excellent progress in her first month with us only confirms the efficacy of our standards.”

“Yes,” stammered Margade, “in fact, we wondering about that, sir.” She glanced cautiously at Ewan, who was staring at the random images projected on the windowscreen, one ankle crossed on the opposite knee, his free foot twitching like a small electrified mammal. “Just what is it about Perri that sets her apart, in your eyes?”

Renfrew smiled tightly, his eyes masked by the windowscreen’s reflection in his goggle-like lenses. “I am not familiar with individual files, Mrs. I. Even if I were, our selection algorithm is, of course, proprietary. While you are no doubt eager to know more about your daughter’s qualifications, I can only divulge that all successful applicants to Teletual possess a unique constellation of qualities–intellectual, perceptual, genetic, personality, and biographical–that make them particularly well-suited to our training.”

Ewan turned his gaze from the windowscreen. He leaned in towards the desk, tilting his head to the right to try to see around the glare on Renfrew’s lenses. “Biographical?” he asked.

Renfrew swung his shoulders towards Ewan, chin ticking upwards mechanically to meet the bigger man’s gaze. “Yes,” he responded. “Each candidate’s personal biography…life experiences, relationships, family and social history, major life events and so on comprise a certain pattern that is…useful…to Adepts in facing the rigors of training.”

Ewan recrossed his leg, free ankle and foot twitching again with renewed intensity. “Such as?” he asked stiffly.

Margade placed a restraining hand on Ewans’ knee to calm the restless tic. “It’s alright, Mr. Renfrew,” she murmured in as soothing a voice as she could muster, “my husband was only curious, is all it is. It being such an honor, and Perri always just, well, an ordinary girl…some might even say a bit of troublemaker. “ Her eyes darted nervously at her husband. “ We sure never expected one of us to be chosen for something like this; we’re just lineworkers, bottom grade after all, ”

Renfrew studied Ewan thoughtfully for a moment, taking in the rough-hewn hands, the coiled physical intensity, the thick, leathery neck and shoulders. Something about the lineworker’s set jaw gave him pause, and he opened the file folder marked “I, Perrin” and slowly leafed through the pages.

Renfrew considered the documents before him. “One sees that.   One sees…much of interest.” He closed the file and stacked his hands neatly on top, as if to say, “we’re finished here.”

“He’s not gonna tell us lineworkers nothing, Margade,” growled Ewan, reaching painfully for the chunky gray sweater slung across the back of his chair.

Although a pale, frail little woman, Margade was not easily deterred. She placed her two hands, palms up, on the edge of Renfrew’s desk in the gesture of supplication typical of her grade. “It’s just that we have other children, Mr. Renfrew, see?” she whispered. “If there was anything in our biography, anything we could know that would better the boys’ chances, anything we could improve—“

Renfrew cut her off with a dismissive wave. “As I said, Mrs. I, our algorithm is confidential. There is little one can do to alter one’s past, after all.” He rose stiffly and maneuvered past Ewan to the door, indicating the interview was now concluded. “Thank you for entrusting Perrin to us. You can look forward to bimonthly progress reports and of course, the visit at Festivaire.”

***

12:12/ 80:12am

First chance to journal. Two days here, and nothing but a parade of orientation activities, rules, handbooks, tours. You get your TeleCard in the morning and it takes you right through the day, leads you around, tells you where to stop and what to pay attention to, when to push a button to open an interactive lesson, or run to the next exhibit.   If you are late or skip something, you get a little electronic pulse in your ear that corrects you. It makes your teeth rattle for a second. Growing up on the lines, I’m used to pain, but this is stranger than a tetherburn. The handbook says we just get mild corrections, but that if a “significant correction becomes necessary, it can incapacitate the student.” Noted.

The training facility is like a space cruiser, which I guess is kind of the point. It’s all passageways with a million turns that bring you right back to where you started, although it’s hard to tell because the images on the windowscreens are constantly changing. You can walk around for an hour and not know where you’ve been, or even if you’ve been anywhere at all. Your GPS chip only lights up when you’re back on your home corridor.

 I haven’t seen another human soul, but I know they must be here somewhere. Weird. I expected there would be freshman class or something, some group of us going through the training together.

 So on to the thing I’ve been avoiding: We are supposed to record an “intake reflection;” I really don’t want to think about it, but if I don’t do the assignment, I’ll get one of those ear zingers. The scene with Mother and Dads was pretty gruesome. She couldn’t stop talking, fussing, tucking my hair behind my ears. “I love your hair,” she said. “Remember how we used to braid it every morning before school? And Dads would always tug it on his way out to the lines, for luck? Do you remember, Ewan?” Dads just grunted. His words are all used up these days, burned out of him. If he says five sentences in a day, it’s a theatrical event. Thank god they made Quarry and Niall go to school instead of coming along for the big goodbye. I don’t know if the boys understand quite what happens here; they’re still concrete-phase. But the windowscreens would have scared them.   Quarry would have picked a fight with some virtual kid on the screen. Niall would have cried, for sure, and I hate that.

 I am also supposed to record if I have any commitment regrets in my initial days, if I have felt homesickness, lassitude, or an overwhelming urge to repatriate. Nope. “Please record any emotions whatsoever,” my TeleCard further directs me. So: Anger, disgust, entrapment, despair. Not with TeleTual. With Perri I.

01:08/ 80:8p

So weird. TeleCard today guided me down this passage I’d never seen.   Then it just stopped signaling. No assignment, just left me standing in this bay with blank windowscreens all around. I held my palm up to the chip reader to activate the screens: nothing. Talk into Card: nothing. Figured I’d just wait for something to come on the screen. Mostly, it’s been remapping exercises: images of home, my family at breakfast, the water, the sky, just the stuff you do and see everyday. Lots of images of the lines, lineworkers hovering in the cables, the wind buffeting them into their tethers, the tethers searing through their gloves when they try to secure a line-mate who’s been blown loose. I refuse to give in to those. It feels like the screen wants me to remember Grandad, going up into the lines and never coming home again, just vaporizing. It wants me to remember Teddy on his first day, suited up and heading into the altitude chute, his eyes hard, determined, bitter at 13. I won’t remember him, though. They can incapacitate me with a hundred-thousand-million ear zingers, but I can’t remember Teddy. I know they are probably reading this anyway, but still, go ahead and zap me because I really don’t care.

 I just stand there in the bay, no impulses from the Card, no signals from my Chip, thinking, “What the fuck?” when the lights go out and the bay door buzzes and slides shut, and the whole room sort of rumbles. The screens crackle and light up. Huh. Service interruption. We had them all the time at home, but I thought TeleTual was immune – after all, they own it all: the lines, the transverters, generators, filtration plants, everything. Must be a pretty big event out there to mess with the grid. I shiver to think of Dads up in the lines.   At least I don’t have to worry about Quarry and Niall yet, but Quarry only has one more year. He’ll be just like Teddy: Going up with clenched fists and grinding teeth.

 So now I’m locked in, which doesn’t really matter since I don’t know how the hell to get back to my own bay until my Chip reboots anyway. The windowscreens are pure static. This is annoying the life out of me, when all of a sudden one of them snaps into focus. Only it’s not the usual memory screen or color image of Old Growth Landscape, it’s showing another bay. And there’s a guy in there, big shouldered like a lineworker, but also skinny, like a teenager who hasn’t grown into his frame yet. The image is murky and soundless because of the service interruption, but he’s moving around, bobbing and spinning in this rhythmic way. His back is to the windowscreen, and I step in for a closer look. He spins around towards the screen and even though the image is grainy, it’s easy to see the flash of white teeth stand out against his dark skin. His eyes are closed, and he’s smiling.

 Just then, his eyes fly open and he claps one hand up to his ear. My right ear starts ringing, too, the zing penetrating down the back of my throat and into my gut, more intense this time than the one or two others I’ve been corrected. I crumple down to the ground, my eyes still on the screen. The guy is holding his ear, his mouth a grimace, but he’s still moving, still dancing. The bay rumbles and the juice powers back up just as I pass out. When I come to, I’m back in my own bay, a bandage on my ear and a headache that makes a lineburn look like a papercut. My TeleCard is flashing. I pick it up and read, “Personal correction/Renfrew: 01.08/80:9am.”

*** 

 Renfrew navigates from the front offices through the maze of grates and hatches that lead into the training facility for Unprovens. Wordlessly, he commands the windowscreens to run him through the I file again, and images begin to flood the walls as he proceeds through the corridor: The open sky, the earth viewed from above—filmy, cirrus clouds giving way to occasional glimpses of brown landmasses swimming in vast blue oceans; lineworkers dangling on their tethers; the grip of two hands loosening, a glove slipping off, diagonal burns across a girl’s forearms and wrists. Renfrew adjusts his mind back further into the file, and the screen fills with more images: four children at play at the water’s edge; Ewan and Margade I exchanging rings in a wooden chapel, long abandoned; Ewan I sitting at his father’s bedside, holding the old man’s scarred hand, singing softly; Ewan’s father as a young man, wearing a foreman’s helmet, pouring over engineering plans for the initial pipeline, a few scruffy trees still visible through the window over his shoulder; Ewan’s great-grandfather, racing through an Old Landscape Forest, leaping through the fork of a pine trunk and disappearing from sight; roots of trees, branches, leafing out towards the sky, literally breathing oxygen into the atmosphere.

“Enough,” thinks Renfrew and the windowscreens revert to their usual fare: TeleTual facts, quotes from Leadership, images of sun, clouds, sky, water.

01.11/80:4am

So it happened pretty much the way it’s described in the Big Manual. Card woke me up around one o’clock this morning with the message: “Dress for download. Status: immediate.”   Luckily there’s no difference between the uniform for day and night here; except what’s clean. New intakes wear the same drab tan pants and tank tops until we clear the first level of training, when we graduate to white, or blue, or red. Each level has its own color, which would be useful information if I had ever seen anyone other than Dancer Boy on the Windowscreen during the service interruption the other day. I couldn’t tell what color his uni was anyway.   I don’t know where they keep us all hidden. I splashed some water on my face to wake myself up and caught my reflection in the silver blue light of the mirror. I am still embodied, still me, Perri, high cheekbones and freckles, cowlick curling over my forehead, haunted eyes. I pulled on a fresh uni and brushed my hair into the regulation pony tail.   My chip lit up – you know it’s booting when you get this tugging sensation in your sinus; at least, that’s how I know, maybe it feels different for everyone. My security door slid open, I followed a maze of right and left turns until I arrived at a set of dark glass doors at the end of the corridor. The windowscreens were tuned to a nighttime sky: stars, wispy clouds, moonlight, and I felt a pang. Of homesickness, I suppose, not for Mother or Dads, not for the boys, but for the cold embrace of dark air, the distant promise of sparkling stars. I haven’t been out of this building with its white walls, its stainless steel fixtures and poured slab floors, for over a month now. I hadn’t counted on missing the outside.

The black glass doors slid open as I arrived and Card instructed me to wait at the threshold. The light in the chamber ahead was soft and low, like in a home, not at all like the cold, blue tubes that light my cubicle or the passages of TeleTual’s training facility. I could make out an old-style upholstered couch, squishy and deep, like the one in my grandmother’s living room, a couple of overstuffed chairs, a big sturdy table with boxy wooden chairs. Where did they get this stuff? I thought all artifacts from the Last Era had been lost to flooding or fires.

 “Not all was lost,” a voice penetrated the gloom. “Of course, we have to preserve key artifacts that link us to the past.” A lanky man with shockingly pale skin and colorless eyes stepped forward from the darkness. He wore the bold red color of a Finalist, in a more formal and ceremonial style than my simple uni.   “Perrin, I am Director Doctor Renfrew. I have the privilege of conducting your first transfer session. Please come in.”

 Something in me balked, some primal instinct didn’t trust this wraithlike man in red. An image of blood on snow came unbidden to my mind, immediately followed by a light buzz in my left ear that made me shake my head in irritation.

  “Please, call me Director R,” he said, gesturing for me to enter the room. “I’m glad to see you are tolerating correction well. Many intakes have a much rougher time of it.”

 TeleChip insisted I walk forward. I stepped into the room. “It’s no so bad,” I said. “I’ve felt worse.”

 Dir. R’s loud cackle took me by surprise. “Touché, Perrin, touché. I daresay you have indeed, if the scars on your hands are any indication. Please select a chair. This interview should take approximately an hour, if you are able to cooperate.”

 “Why wouldn’t I be,” I asked, taking a seat in a large, boxy armchair covered in a soft, deep blue fabric.

“Much depends on you, my dear, and how deeply your identity has imprinted on the body. We’ve really no way of knowing that until we begin these transfer sessions.” He came and stood over me, looking down at my bowed head, my exposed shoulders. I was terrified. And thrilled. It was about to begin.

Feedback loop

Dear Readers:  I am applying to a yearlong program to help me complete a novel draft.  As part of the application, I will submit 10 pages of a novel in progress–of which I have three.  (Your best idea is always the one you are not currently working on….)  If you are willing to read 10 pages of two different stories and let me know which one you prefer, I’d get a kick out of your feedback.  I’ll post the first excerpt today, and the next excerpt (of novel #2) on Friday.  My application is due Aug. 9.  Just click on the comment icon on WordPress and type in the title of your preferred excerpt to send me your vote.

Here goes with candidate #1, a young adult novel with an environmentalist twist, called “The Other Side of Hopeless Hill.”

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Synopsis:  Thirteen year-old Hope Hill is hopelessly antisocial: introverted and brainy, she would rather spend time with the plants and trees of her family’s farm than take part in the Snapchatting social whirl of Eden Middle School. When a greedy real estate developer plots to swindle Hope’s family out of their property, Hope finds herself inexorably drawn to the forbidden forest of Otherside Woods that borders the farm. There, she unlocks the mystery of her father’s strange death, discovering a natural realm of powerful forces, one where “Hopeless” isn’t quite so helpless after all.

Prologue

A small girl emerges from the screen door onto the wraparound porch. She raises her nose towards the sun, like a cat, taking in the warmth of late May, the early morning’s quiet, the birdsong and distant crowing of the rooster over at the coop. Stretching, she whistles softly through her teeth. A click clack of claws on bare wood moves through the house, and a soft, golden head pushes open the screen door, followed by 80 pounds of tail-wagging fur. The dog comes to stand next to the little girl, and leans his head against her rib cage. She pats him absently, feeling only the pleasure of his softness under her hand, his calm breathing and gentle weight against her side. She pushes her feet into knee-high rubber boots and admires their smiling ducky pattern, skipping out into the morning. The coming storm is still hours away.

Wordless, she and the dog head across the barnyard, down a rutted path towards the pine forest at the far side of the cornfield. The sky is a clean bowl of clear blue. She can hear the tractor at work in one of the far fields, its engine humming distantly. Daddy. At the field’s edge, the girl retrieves a small tin pail hanging from a fencepost and crosses into the dark curtain of woods. There is a curling stream to ford, a little hill to ascend. She follows a wooded path strewn with needles the color of the dog’s fur. At last, they emerge into a clearing, ringed with low blueberry bushes and stately white pines. A vernal pool glistens in the sun.

The golden retriever happily paddles in the pool while the girl picks berries. A breeze ruffles her light-brown hair, and she looks up from her berry picking, as if expecting someone. She waits, smiles at the warm sun on her face, and resumes her picking.

When her little pail is full, the girl walks over to her favorite pine tree, the largest one, with a study split trunk, and fat low branches reaching out in a gesture that reminds her of Daddy, opening his arms for a hug. She sits at its base, her back against the bark, and nibbles berries. She can feel the earth’s vibrations pulsing up through her legs and buttocks: the thrum of bees and insects, the prodding of roots pushing infinitesimally through dirt, the chattering of small animals and birds. She feels the tree’s heart beating into her, of this, she is sure.

It makes her want to hug the world, to take it inside her, to fold herself into it. She kicks off her boots and digs her toes into the cool dirt. The sensation of earth on skin inspires her, and she stands and pulls down her pink shorts and underwear, pulls her daisy-print camisole over her head and walks naked into the clearing, arms outstretched. Slowly, she turns, sensing the air on her skin and tummy, the sun on her collarbones, the backs of her knees, her bottom. She is trying to become air, to merge her molecules with the breeze, and for a tiny second, she feels a thrill of freedom and release. She looks up at the sky, the small clouds drifting overhead, and images that she is vapor, wafting high above the earth. She can fly!

Crossing back to the tree, she places her palm against the trunk of the white pine to feel its quiet, sturdy pulse. She wishes she could become wood. She presses herself against the tree, hugging it, trying to permeate the bark, to draw its tree-ness into her body somehow.   She feels such love for it all: the tree, the dirt, the air, the animals.

A bell rings out across the field – Mama calling her to breakfast. She startles guiltily. Why does she feel wrong for standing naked in the breeze, like a little woodland fairy, drinking the pleasure of a May-morning into her pores? Quickly, she tugs on her shorts and top, shoves her feet into her boots.   She examines the contents of her pail, definitely enough to satisfy her family’s appetite for blueberry flapjacks. Daddy can eat about a hundred and ten, she reckons.

She whistles for the dog to follow; he gives a watery “shake”, and together they turn to head back down the hill through the woods. But her heart is too full of love to leave without a proper goodbye, so she runs back to the large white pine at the edge of the clearing and gently kisses the bark. “Goodbye, Big Tree,” she whispers. “Thank you for the air.” A rumbling of distant thunder replies.

CHAPTER ONE: Field Day

Field Day at Johnny Appleseed Memorial Middle School dawned with a raspberry sorbet sunrise that would later melt into a perfect late-September day: crisp blue skies, cartoon-puff clouds, and leaves hinting at the blaze of color to come. Yet another day begun in beauty, but sure to end in epic disaster as far as Hope Hill was concerned.

As usual, Hope and Ian were up at 5:00 a.m. for chores.   Sister and brother toiled wordlessly in the calm: mucking, feeding, picking, packing, opening gates and smacking the dusty haunches of this cow or that pig. Their boots were caked in dirt and manure long before most of their classmates hit the first snooze alert on their cellphones.   Hope loved the early mornings, when the air was still and she felt her oneness with life – the birds sang to her, plants grew with her, the breeze blew through her, the sun radiated around her.   Every dawn, she coached herself to savor it: the sense of knowing who she was, and that she was okay—better than okay, even–that came from simply being on a quiet morning. Because every day by 8:15, when the bus rolled into Johnny Appleseed Middle School, her identity as someone who made sense on this earth would be mushed to applesauce.

Field Day promised to be ten times worse than every other disaster for “Hopeless” Hill. The tradition had begun at the turn of the last century, when Eden Falls was still a patchwork of working farms and every student’s school day was bracketed by fieldwork. A September festival celebrating the harvest with playful competition in apple picking, cider pressing and the like made sense back then. But now? Eden kids grew up in housing developments with names like Golden Acres and Millennium Ridge, their parents commuting to Springfield, Worcester, Pittsfield – even Boston – anywhere they could find work. Field Day had morphed over time into a rite of eighth grade ascension at JAMS, a festival of competition and Queen Bee clique-ery featuring races, exhibits, a talent show, and most mortifying of all to Hope, the crowning of “Miss Honeycrisp” and “Johnny Appleseed”. JAMS students looked forward to it from the first day they crossed the threshold of Johnny Appleseed in kindergarten. Hope dreaded it with the fear of 1,000 lifetimes.

This morning as she worked, that dread oozed over her brain like molasses, sticking to every thought. She tripped over a grain bucket Ian had just mixed, spilling it and leading her golden retriever Finny into a paroxysm of snuffling, munching, sneezing delight. “Damn it, Finny, leave it!” she snapped, earning a raised eyebrow from Ian, who was hefting drop-pick orders into the back of the old Ford to be delivered later in the day. Then she parked the mobile water tank too far from the chicken coop and had to get out maneuver the tractor closer two more times before the hose would reach. The chickens clucking eagerly around her feet while she tried to work usually made her laugh, but this morning, they drove her crazy. She kicked at the dust and grumped at the birds and was generally surly in her movements. So, of course, she’d kick over a pail of fresh milk.

“Jeez, Hopeless, can you not try quite so hard to be the clumsiest person ever born?” Her brother’s superior tone stuck between her shoulder blades like a dart.

“Shut up, Ian,” she muttered under her breath.

Ian looked at her appraisingly and in a rare moment of magnanimity, walked over and picked up the pail at her feet. Her older brother was everything Hope was not: superhero beautiful, straight A’s everywhere, well liked by everyone, captain of everything. As if that wasn’t enough, he was also effortlessly funny. She once overheard their mother say to a friend, “Ian is my golden child. It’s like his own personal sun shines down on him.”

“What’s the deal, Hope?” Ian asked. “You freakin’ out about Field Day? It’s not that big a deal.”

That was easy for him to say. Ian, of course, had been unanimously voted “Johnny Appleseed.” He came in first place in every event involving athleticism (including bobbing-for-apples), earned three blue ribbons (for woodworking, robotics, and an original short story), and then won the talent competition with a stand-up comedy routine about life in Eden that ended in a breakdance and a standing ovation. His prowess led his team, the Seeds, to a win of historic proportions over the rival Apples. People still talked about it, even though he was now a junior at Eden Valley Regional High. Hope, on the other hand, anticipated a string of humiliations.

“Not a big deal for you, Captain Appleseed,” she said, angry color rushing to her throat and cheeks. “But I’m not you.”

“Oh, yeah?” Ian said, his blue eyes taking on a mischievous gleam. “Go ahead, take a poke at these rock-hard, manly abs. Go on, give me your best shot.”

“No!”

“Get it out of your system, I can take it!” he teased.

“NO!”

He drew his arms back and stuck out his chin like a gorilla. “Come, one punch, right here,” he said, thumping his solar plexus. “You can do it, Hopeless.”

“Don’t call me that!” Hope didn’t even feel it coming on her before power surged down her arm and out her fist as she smacked him in the chest.

“Oww!” they both said, simultaneously, looking at each other in shock.

“I didn’t think you’d actually do it, Hope,” Ian said wonderingly. “You got some mustard in that right jab.”

“Sorry.”

“Maybe you should enter the pummeling-apples-to-a-pulp competition, I think you’d stand a chance at that one,” he laughed, rubbing his ribs.

“I’m not angry ‘cause I’m not going to win, hello? I’m angry because I have to even participate.”

“Listen, Hope, you may surprise yourself, you know? Remember what Dad used to call you? His little great-horned owl?”

“Well, he’s dead. And that helps me right now how?”

“You notice stuff. You’re not flashy or very fast—“

“Hey, thanks.”

“You’re welcome. But Dad always used to say you were the strong one.” He put his arm over her shoulders. “You entered your nature fairy Photoshop collages, right? Those are smokin’ hot.”

“I told Mr. Z. I wanted to withdraw those.”

“Are you kidding me? Those are cool.”

It was okay that Ian was trying to be nice. But Hopeless Hill, the gawky loner/farm girl who grew vegetables and would rather draw flower fairies than snap-chat her every move with a battalion of giggling friends? Even Ian knew: Her 8th grade year would be a middle school hell.

* * *

Clipboard in one hand and a wireless mic in the other, Mr. Zaloom faced the bleachers at JAMS in full Field Day regalia: red shirt and socks for the team color of the Apples, white shorts and baseball cap to represent the rival Seeds. Students and teachers from kindergarten to eighth grade were seated on the grass behind a cordon of colorful flags.

“Esteemed colleagues and guests, students of Johnny Appleseed Memorial, judges, and especially, to our rising eighth graders, the Class of 2016: Welcome to Field Day!”

A whoop of excitement went up from the assembled audience, the younger elementary students in particular cheering with delight.

“All right, now, settle down, settle down,” Mr. Z chortled. “I know we are all excited to re-enact this wonderful tradition, celebrating our students’ many talents, accomplishments, and good sportsmanship.”

Hope sat on the soccer field with her 35 eighth grade classmates, grouped by team. She considered the other kids from her grade who were Seeds: A handful of sports-y boys and girls who played on Eden’s club soccer or little league teams, like Ginger O’Brien and Armand Otero; their class vice-president, Kyle Collins, and Abby Diamond, number one in Girl Scout cookie sales for the entire valley every year since third grade. All pretty nice kids. As for the Apples, they had wrestler Justin Ferro, the entire track and field team, class president, Peter Wu-Boyle, and twins Suki and Didi Wilmerding, the uncontested stars of every JAMS class play since first grade. They had a lock on the talent competition. Last but not least, there was the ruling trinity of JAMS social scene: Melany Dunmore, Tiffany Rodriguez, and Bethany Bubak, or as Hope thought of them, the “‘Anys”. Melany was JAMS’ undisputed Queen Bee, complete with sting.

“What are you staring at, Hill?” demanded Tiffany, who at 5’1” and 92 pounds was the trio’s tiny enforcer. She could cut you down to size with a single glance of her piercing black eyes. Her favorite target was the cafeteria staff; she once threw a full-on hissy fit when Javier, one of the servers, inadvertently splashed gravy on her sleeve. She unleashed a stream of Spanish abuse on the blushing old man, then loudly translated into English for the benefit of her friends: “I told him he’s a moron, and he smells, and he needs to take a shower and then go home and practice ladling gravy on plates, if he owns any plates.” The ‘Anys collapsed into self-satisfied titters. Other students did their best to look away.

“Hopeless, I’m talking to you,” Tiffany hissed. A movement in the trees on the far side of the field caught Hope’s eye. A light breeze was picking up. Puffy clouds floated soundlessly. Hope liked the way most of the tree trunks grew crooked, tactfully leaning around each other towards the sun. She wished she were sitting over there in the shade, maybe reading, or just listening to the birds.

“I’m not sure if she can hear you, Tiff, she’s wack, remember?” said Bethany. “Hopeless, HOPELESS!” Bethany leaned over and snapped her fingers in Hope’s line of vision. Hope turned her gaze wordlessly to Bethany and quietly stared.

“Jeez, you’re so weird. You creep me out,” said Bethany, disconcerted. Hope smiled to herself. She loved how the wordless stare unnerved people.

“Nice one,” whispered Nolan Colón from Hope’s other side, a fellow loser by virtue of his unfortunate last name, which actually didn’t rhyme with Nolan, but what snarky elementary schooler could resist the obvious smear? The Colón family owned a working dairy farm on the far side of Eden; like Hope, Nolan was a kid who worked early mornings and late evenings, with the dirty fingernails and animal odors to prove it.

Hope widened her eyes at him in a deliberately spooky expression that made him laugh.

In the background, Mr. Z droned on about sportsmanship and community, about there being no winners or losers, about character building and equal opportunities for “all JAMmers to shine.” This was fine with Hope – the longer his pep talk, the safer she was from the inevitable moments of humiliation she knew lay ahead. An ant climbed a blade of grass near her foot, hefting a crumb twice its size. Hope was mesmerized by his trek. Where did he think he was going? He’d get to the top of one blade, scurry down, and then climb the next one. An exercise in facing insurmountable odds with endless effort, she thought to herself. Like me. Maybe an ant is my spirit animal, she thought grimly.

“HOPE HILL!” Mr. Z bellowed. Hope snapped to attention and realized that her classmates were standing, arranged in little groups of three to six students each. Everyone started giggling as she scrambled to her feet in confusion. “Glad you could join us,” Mr. Z said cheerily, and with some affection – when he was not coaching sports, Mr. Z was the life science teacher, and Hope was one of his star students.

“Yes, sir.”

“You’re in group five, with Nolan and Ruby Feingold,” he said patiently.

“Losers!” Justin Ferro, team captain for the Apples pretended to sneeze the word into his sleeve, to the great amusement of the ‘Anys.

Hope walked over and stood with Nolan and Ruby, the transfer student from LA. One of her dads was a famous Hollywood entertainment lawyer, and the other was a screenwriter doing research on rural New England.  Her outrageous fashion sense, ranging from stylish to downright wacky, was an endless source of amusement to the ‘Anys.   Ruby, however, could not have cared less about the opinions of a bunch of suburbanites who thought an afternoon at the mall was high culture.

Ruby smiled at Hope. “Welcome to the bottom of the barrel, sweetie. The bad apples nobody picked.” She hung her head, feigning dejection, then laughed. “High praise, coming from this crowd.”

Hope smiled back. She couldn’t help but like Ruby; she was a much-needed breath of fresh air, with her sarcasm and costumes-of-the-day. Today, Ruby had somehow managed to transform the Seeds’ uniform — all-white polo shirt and white shorts — into a fashion statement, with a cropped top, shorts high above her waist and cinched like a paper bag, and white soccer socks pulled up over her knees, in the manner of thigh-high stockings. “Take that, ‘Anys,” thought Hope.

The first event was a three-legged race, followed by a human wheelbarrow race, and a fireman’s drill (each team member had to scramble in an out of a fireman’s “uniform” – plastic boots, rain pants, raincoat and hat – and then run back and tag their next teammate). Hope, Nolan and Ruby were dead last in each competition coming into the obstacle course. Being in last place meant they had to run the course after all the other groups already finished and were seated on the grass to witness their mortification: Ruby barely able to scale the climbing wall, Nolan flopping unceremoniously off the rope ladder into the mud puddle below, and Hope getting wedged in the tunnel tube, requiring Mr. Z and a couple of other teachers to dislodge her.

As the three of them moved on from the obstacle course to the exhibit tables, Melany Dunmore approached Hope. “Are you okay?” she whispered breathlessly.

Hope and Nolan exchanged glances; sympathy from “Melanoma” Dunmore was not to be trusted.

“I’m fine, thanks,” Hope replied curtly.

“That’s a relief,” said Melany, stickily sweet, placing her arm around Hope’s shoulders. “Did they have to grease you up to pop you out?” Titters from her posse ensued. “You know, I have to watch my weight, too,” she purred. “If you ever want to shave off some of that extra poundage, just let me know. I’d be happy to share my secrets. Now smile.” Melany held up her phone and snapped a selfie that would later make the rounds of JAMmers’ Instagrams: Melany, dazzling and, slim as a rail, and Hope, big-boned, disheveled, glaring,

“On to the tug-of-war – you can anchor your team, Hope. Ooh, and then the exhibits,” Melany cooed to her friends. “I’m sure your Tumbler is going to get a blue ribbon, Tiff! And Bethany, your death-by-chocolate cookie bars, too. Of course, my Tumbler does have more followers, and my applesauce cheesecake is pretty on-point, but we’ll see. What did you enter, Hopeless? Maybe a prize egg from down on the farm?”

Hope felt like slapping the smug smile right off of Melany’s face. Or like kicking herself for even showing up today. She should have taken the demerit for cutting a mandatory activity. She could have served a workday on Saturday, happily weeding the landscaping at the school entrance, or cleaning blackboards, or picking up trash in the woods at the edge of the soccer field.

Hope breathed deeply and let her eyes focus on the distant tree line that framed Melany’s head. She imagined Melany was a tree, and that a great wind rose up and tore out her roots, tossing her aside like a rag doll, snapping her scrawny trunk. The image, cruel though it was, made her smile – not the effect Melany was trying for. Melany may not have been the sharpest tool in the shed, but she could sense Hope’s malevolence and was surprised by it. She stepped closer to Hope, breathing into her ear, “You don’t deserve to take up space on my earth. You. Are. Nobody.” And then she pivoted sharply away, leaving those words ringing in Hope’s mind.