Dear Loyal Readers,
I'm so touched by the response I'm getting to my piece, "The Bad Seed," in the August issue of Elle. It took a lot for me to write that piece...for some reason I felt so extremely tender about opening up about being unwell--and then there was all the research which took forever (2.5 years forever plus almost 100 interviews!)
I am so glad that readers are feeling inspired by my piece to seek out more information themselves. Cynthia in Pasadena wrote in to say that "..as I don't look sick to people it's hard to explain the situation. You understand this, I'm sure...I'm reading this article and thinking OMG could there possibly be help? Possibly?"
I hope we can all find a way to help each other muddle through; there is so much out there our bodies are working with and against from things in the environment to changes in our food. I'm grateful that I can share my story and, perhaps, help some of you understand yours.
Best and please stay in touch,
Dear Friends, Family and Loyal Readers,
When I last wrote, back in September, so many of you responded with such care and kindness about our struggles with our landlady, Hopper’s health, our impending move, etc. Your notes, as they often have, buoyed both Dan and me and made us feel less alone. Thank you.
Before I get to the updates on where we are (!!!), how Hoppy is and everything else, I want to share a selection from the nice things you wrote. I think it’s important for us all to know that we’re out there for each other in a real, human-to-human way, supporting each other, even over email. All we have to do, sometimes, is dare to reach out:
“…I send beams of lamby and millety love for Hopper plus a warm sunny spot to lay and heal, and good luck with your move…Finally, I'm all for expressing desperation. “
…Thank goodness no one was in the room when the ceiling caved in. Sounds to me - as difficult as it is to move - between the mold and the asbestos - it might prove to be a "gift”…I love your slogan "No you can't"! Naturally, because I know - yes you can!
Much love to you all,
…If it's any consolation my iCal looks about the same! Remember the old trick, to focus on how much time you do have, instead of how little? Really, it helps when I remember to do it. I have nothing very dramatic to report, aside from moving twice and sending kids to a new school, getting used to the boonies, and trying to find time to write a book along the way, but nothing so terrible either.
....Wowsers. If you have any interest in a more rural setting, my house is vacant.
Well, reader, did you already guess? We took our friend, Chrisso, up on his incredibly thoughtful offer and decided, commute be damned, to move into his lovely home in a small town 30 minutes north of Portland (he’s moved down to Louisiana to get married.) “We’re up for a new chapter,” we told each other. Hopper, in the weeks leading up to the move, slowly started to get better; what happened that night we ended up in Boston was, we think, some kind of severe inflammatory reaction (possibly due to some bad dog food), which effectively shut down his bowels. In the weeks since, our instructions have been to get his weight up (which we’ve done—yay!) and to bring him back to Boston for rechecks (also done) and, so far, although he still has two abnormal lymph glands, he’s fine—himself. Fingers crossed.
The first weekend of October, I moved up here alone with Hopper and Master M. while Dan finished the packing of our things and moving most of them, for now, to storage. Although it was a little shock to my system to be in a village with neighbors—after all, I grew up in the woods and have lived in cities for the last 20 years—I felt myself come back to some intuitive part of myself our first night here when, lying in bed next to my sleeping child, I heard what I thought was rain. Getting up and going downstairs, I realized it was falling leaves. I marveled that I couldn’t remember the last time I had heard leaves fall! The leaves, it turned out, were the big excitement for M.--we spent most of that first weekend (and the two following weeks) raking up enormous mounds of colorful leaves and moving them via wheel barrow and tarps to the woods. A couple of times we borrowed the neighbor, Dick’s, Leaf Eater, which ravenously munched the leaves.
But get back to the house, you say. Well, it’s a small four bedroom, with a big stairwell and a fireplace. We’ve made a little room off the kitchen into a playroom for Master M. and there have been a few blissful afternoons of cooking on Chrisso’s Magic Chef vintage gas stove, while M. plays and murmurs to himself. The neighbors are very friendly (and patient, too, about the oddball arrival of two artists, their big dog and a rowdy three-year-old—I keep thinking of that Greg Brown song, “Boom Town,” in which he sings, “here come the artists, with their tense faces and need for money and quiet spaces…”—Eek is that us?) Speaking of artists, a plug for Dick and Sue, next door: They make the most beautiful painted boxes, ornaments and watercolors. I’m particularly fond of the boxes which, for instance, are painted with, say, a salmon on top and then inside Dick has tied some salmon flies that sit like jewels against a small cushion. Her lovely paintings of fruit and houses are simply done in the Shaker tradition and are lovely works of art. If anyone can’t think of a Christmas gift, and might like to fill a lovely box with something special or send flies to an intrepid fisherman uncle, get in touch with me!
Our first week here, while Dan started a new job working for Colby’s Art Museum, M., Hopper and I found some lovely trails through the woods—one we’ve named “The Christopher Robin Walk,” where we’ve built houses for Pooh, Piglet, Christopher Robin and Rabbit. That walk has become our daily rite—if we don’t do it, we mourn it. Another walk takes us up through the woods on an old train track and we usually turn around at some slightly grumpy cows. Our first week here, the cows appeared to want to charge us, giving me a bit of a jolt. I’m not sure if it was my too cheery “moo-ing” or Hopper’s wagging tail, or the Bob stroller, which Master M. still likes to ride in for the better part of long walks—but a horned brown cow, in particular, got very snorty and annoyed at us as we passed by and led the whole group of five or so to snort and paw and run at us while I tried to pretend that this was all totally Mary Poppins normal and safe to Master M., even though I was fairly sure those two thread like strands of electric wire would do little to stop an angry cow weighing well over 800 pounds. To get past them, I held Hopper close by on his leash, and ran like a bat out of hell pushing the stroller as fast as I could, just praying my lightning-mother speed would sail us past a stampede.
More things I like up here: At night we hear a train go by—hoot hoot, chugga chugga chugga—and a river is not far away. There’s a lovely little store, which we visit at least once a day where we can get tea, coffee,bubbly water (A.K.A “farty water” in our house) and maple candy. The library is a short walk away and there’s a pumpkin farm down the road from whose bounty we’ve carved countless Jack-O-Lanterns. Also, the trees around here are some of the biggest and oldest I’ve seen still standing on Maine farmland—I am in awe of these trees. Last night, as Sandy whipped through and we moved ourselves to a back bedroom, I found myself wondering, “What does it feel like to be a tree during a storm like this? What kind of amazing courage and strength does it take to hold on by one’s feet?” Maybe, in the end, we’re all holding on by our feet most of the time while the winds of change toss us around.
There have been a few bumps along the way, as moving is always hard. But we’ve found ourselves saved by a few simple pleasures: instant oatmeal, rice cakes (who knew they were so soothing!), Ryan Adams’ song “Ashes and Fire,” which we’ve been playing at full volume while we dance around playing air broom- banana-whatever-you-can-grab-for-a-guitar and we’ve turned the potential negative of explaining hunting (the season just began up here) into a fun opportunity to wear lots of blaze orange outfits which we’re sure look a tad overactive to our more seasoned neighbors. On some of our worst days, we’ve needed a few You Tube sessions with Bert and Ernie (which, it occurred to Dan and me, should have been called “Scenes from a Marriage.”) I include a few of our favorite episodes, here, below, for a few giggles.
Take care and send me your news,
BERT and ERNIE (Or, “Scenes from a Marriage”):
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hou8AyxWTYw&feature=related (this one, in particular, reminds me of the time I “trimmed” Dan’s hair….)
Dear Friends, Loyal Readers and Family,
It’s been a while since I’ve written one of these. Time seems to have sifted through my hands like the most silken of sands and I’m somehow unable to discern the expanse from May till now as more than an instant. This morning, waking to cold air on my face, my legs warm underneath a down comforter I had pulled up over myself in my sleep, I thought “How did this happen?”
I had plans for my summer—they weren’t big, per se, but I wrote them down on my calendar for some day in mid-June when I figured I’d begin to see the months unfolding as limitlessly before me as the ocean here in Maine sometimes seems on the clearest of summer days. I wrote, “Summer plans: croissants; find peanuts and almonds that are other tree nut free; jars for canning--and can!!; Maine sunflower seeds; & cheese making?” Looking back at it now, it seems like a very ambitious list. But I remember that when I wrote it, it seemed luxuriously care free and even practical. I probably don’t need to tell you that I’ve moved that list ahead day by day on my iCal and that not one of those things has been accomplished. But oh how I wanted to learn the art of baking the perfect croissant! And cheese, how hard can it really be? Anyway, here we are: It’s September 11th, a day that will forever be seared in my mind as one full of blue skies marred by incredible loss, and that list still stares at me each time I turn on my computer. Each day, fruitlessly, I find myself (even this morning!) moving it ahead one little square more, hoping, somehow, that I can go back against the current. 
I have my defenses: There’s a story here behind the story (and behind yet another story!), as there always is. For starters, I was assigned a long nonfiction feature this summer by a magazine, and so I spent the end of May and the early part of June traveling and gathering information and, of course, worrying. (I’m like the opposite of the Obama campaign; “No You Can’t” is my personal slogan. I should make myself a t-shirt or a bumper sticker and get people to donate to my “I Can’t Do It Campaign.”) Then, in the first week of June, our ceiling caved into our little rental apartment in Portland. It’s funny how these things happen, and then, in that moment, so many things can start to go awry, sometimes with startling alacrity. It was a Friday, Master M.’s last day of preschool. And because it was the last day his teachers had given him a bright green Popsicle. Now, Master M. is allergic, we’ve been told, to yellow # 5. And usually that yellow dye is in electric green yummies. He ate half the Popsicle and then his teachers remembered, freaked out and, to add insult to injury, took the Popsicle away. (He was totally fine, by the way, which made us wonder…) That evening, in recompense, I’d made him a triple scoop ice cream cone, which alternated homemade vanilla and homemade orange sherbet. As he sat licking away, the green popsicle and school itself quickly fading into the unimportant past, there was a crash bang and Dan hopped up to stand in Master M.’s room. M. and I turned warily. Dan stood there, his hands outstretched as if he were trying to catch rain and he kept saying, oddly calmly, “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.” And then another crash bang and more of the ceiling caved in. The story goes on, but I won’t bore you with it. In short, there was mold (what is it with us and mold?) and then it got unpleasant with our landlady (a shame, we had been so fond of her!) and then a two month long battle to get the problem fixed while we all camped in one bedroom (back to the family bed again, Dr Sears!). Finally we got our friend Frank to fix the holes in the ceiling (which he did expertly with Dan as his sous-fixer-upper). Unfortunately, however, while searching for paint to match our walls, Frank found asbestos crumbling over our boxes of stored things in the basement. This has led to more unpleasantness and, well, the whole thing has really been a mess. As my friend, Andrea, said to me the other day, when I bemoaned how hard it had been with our landlady, “this is when you really see what people are made of –moments like these.” She’s right. It’s true. And yet. So, we’re looking to move now, which is always hard to do. Sometimes, it seems, at least with us, when the snowball starts rolling downhill it’s hard to stop it.
To go with this snowball metaphor for a moment, there’s been another hard thing: Hopper, our princely black and tan gentle giant of a dog has been sick. At first it was a slow progression. “He just doesn’t seem quite right,” I’d say to Dan at night when I had time to worry. Then, this summer, we had a full on problem: his skin had sores all over it and he was nervous and losing weight. We thought we were dealing with allergies so we began a long and confusing reformulation of his food, cooking up sweet potatoes and turkey instead of lamb and millet, adding in store bought dry food, taking it back out, trying different medications, theories and lots and lots of baths. And then, last week, on Friday, he collapsed. He couldn’t eat, he was vomiting, he was weak. We were told he needed emergency surgery and we were sent to Boston. So, at 8:30 at night, we all piled into the car, Master M. in his P.J.’s, the audio book of Stella Luna playing on repeat on the stereo and Dan driving like a bat out of hell. When we arrived at Angell Memorial Hospital, a tech came out with a gurney and Dan lifted Hoppy’s frail body onto the metal platform. Hop folded his legs under himself, looking, I remember thinking at the time, almost like a cow resting in a field. I put my arms around him as he was wheeled inside. Perhaps this was histrionic, but as he was taken away from me to the ICU, I grabbed the DR’s arm and said, more like a charge than anything else, “I can’t lose this dog right now.” I felt myself wince with the knowledge that my most raw self had just been exposed to this perfect stranger. How many times has she heard this, I wondered later? How many times has any one of us entreated a medical provider to attempt the heroic for someone we love, as if our own desperation will somehow tip the scales in their heart?
While I sat on a hard wooden bench waiting, Dan took Master M. to Andrea and Harlan’s in Cambridge and then came back to get me. At around midnight, we were lead into the ICU where Hopper lay blotto on a puffy bed on the floor of a large cage. They had stabilized him and didn’t want to rush into surgery. Wearied, we went back to our friends’ and Dan stayed up, sitting at their kitchen table writing emails and trying to do the things he had meant to do that evening at home. I collapsed into bed, but could not sleep. Every few moments, a harbinger of doom, I kept coming out to Dan: “I’m sure this is our fault,” I’d begin and then launch into all the reasons we should have done this or that differently. I worried about how thin Hoppy was and how often we had refused to feed him more dinner, even though he was getting thinner and thinner. I felt angry. Finally, I said, “I just can’t take all this right now.” Dan, having a tiny bit of patience still in him, offered this: “We just have to keep going, Cait.” The next morning, more tests were done and in the evening Hoppy was allowed to come home. Prognosis: Possibly lymphoma or some acute inflammatory disease, maybe stimulated by an allergy or an underlying infection, which caused his digestive tract to just shut down on Friday. We will know more in the days to come, we’re told. But it may be a fight, whatever it is, and, as Dan reminds me, we’re going to have to fight all these battles—the moving and asbestos and Hopper and the constant check-to-check struggle of our artistic lives--even when we’re our most tired, because this is what we all do in the end, keep going even when it’s hell.
But I’m not going to end this letter here, with the word “hell” because there have been some peaks this summer which have soared over the valleys: In June, we spent a few days at a friend’s cabin in the woods on the ocean near where I grew up. There we gathered shells, ran long distances, watched bald eagles, held sticky-legged June bugs and left the light on at night to attract moths so that we could identify them in the morning while sitting on the porch with our coffee and plump, ripe nectarines. During our few days there, Hopper gathered every stick he could find on the beach and made a beaver-like pile on the grassy yard. Later, in July, we went to a fishing camp in Northern Maine, a few miles from the Canadian border. There we took a boat out to a little island where we swam in water so clean, with sand so sparkling, we felt we’d been transported back to a time when we didn’t question the purity of the elements around us. On that trip, Master M. started “fishing” with a pole his Nonnie gave him (which I believe used to belong to my brother) onto which he’s affixed 5 bobbers of different sizes. (He and Dan did catch an actual fish, by mistake at that lake—Dan was showing him how to cast with a real pole that happened to have a lure on it. When the fish flopped up onto the dock, we were all so startled for a moment no one knew what to do. Then Dan and I ran around trying to figure out how to get the three-pronged hook out of the fish’s mouth with pliers and clippers. The fish was fine, in the end, thank God, if a little tore up. But the Master is definitely against hooks after that episode.) All summer, we spent every Sunday, rain or shine, running together on a trail we love in the woods.
And so, this morning, I’m reveling with gratitude in a few small simple gifts: Despite the odds, we didn’t lose Hoppy on Friday night (he is, in fact, lying at my feet right now, his belly and legs shaven for the various catheters and instruments that were needed to pull him through the other night, but his breath is steady); Master M. loves his new preschool—he’s actually excited to go, which is an unexpected blessing; and I feel lucky that we had some beautifully present moments together, when we were at one with the natural world. So, even though it seems like we’re in another all-to-familiar free-fall, and even though the chill of fall makes me mourn the summer I had dreamed of, I find myself wanting, right now, to reach out and hug this big, complicated world we have. Because, in the end, what other choice do I have?
Tell me your summer stories of ups and downs, if you care to share. I’m here.
So, up here in Maine I've been teaching Creative Nonfiction to grad students and watching my little Master M. start preschool and STILL going around with my book and having wonderful conversations about the American Dream! And, out of the blue, I just found out that my book has been nominated for an AWARD! From Good Reads! In the Travel and Outdoors Category!! If you feel like it, and have the time, YOU, too, can vote for my book! Here's the info:
|Vote now for Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home|
Dear Loyal Readers, Family & Friends,
It seems impossible that it has come to this so quickly; an end to summer and the beginning of fall. How is that each time this happens, I’m surprised at the brazen alacrity of seasonal change? Maybe, instead, I should be surprised by how slowly I adjust. Nevertheless, this year feels particularly laden with new beginnings and mourned endings because tomorrow both Master M. and I are starting school. He, at the tender age of not-quite three, will begin preschool. And I will begin teaching Creative Nonfiction at a place here in Portland, Maine, called The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.
Wasn’t it only a moment ago that I was holding him with only one arm cupped around his small body as he nursed? And just yesterday that we were driving across America as his two-month-old self and Hopper slept in the backseat, Greg Brown’s “Late Night Radio” playing on the stereo? And last week his first birthday—so close I can still taste the baked apple with a candle in it, which, frankly, sort of terrified him? And didn’t summer just begin the other day?
For us, this summer began in late May, when the months ahead seemed to stretch out as wide and as deep as the ocean and we spent two blissful weeks in our friend Dee’s tiny cottage on the water up in my hometown. By day we investigated the lives that for brief moments intersected with ours: crabs and scuds; real foxes and imagined bears; gray jays and baby phoebes. By nightfall, Dan was grilling everything we ate (and, though he doesn’t like to admit it, burning a good portion). That tiny ripple of time—just two short weeks-- on the surface of our lives feels, somehow, present enough we should be able to go back right now, this moment, and start over. But as with everything, we can’t.
Tomorrow, Dan and Master Himself will drop me off for my first day of teaching and continue on for M.’s first day of school. To say I don’t feel ready for my first—and only, so far—child to begin school, is an understatement. But last night Dan said something surprising to me. We’ve been running, lately, at a series of trails a little drive from our house where we can do about four miles if we wind around and then follow our footsteps back again. And on our way home each day, having timed our run to the tide calendar, we’ve been stopping at a little working waterfront off the road, full of fishing boats and sailboats, motor boats and dinghies, and we’ve been jumping off some big, pink granite rocks and plunging ourselves into the water. Just before I jumped last night, as Master M. filled his bucket and “made” a tide pool, Dan said, “I always want to recreate that moment of shock and exhilaration just when I’ve hit the water.”
And I said, “What? I hate that part. That’s what keeps me standing here, reticent to jump.”
“Nah, not me. I love it, “ he said.
I was stunned. How could anyone love that part?
Tonight, though, what I know about my son is this: He’s a little reticent to jump in, like me, but like Dan, he loves a thrill. And, we’ve been learning a bit about courage this summer: the brave way our new cat, Hemingway, sauntered into our lives; the leap my cousin Carrie took this summer, walking down the aisle in a white wedding dress; my saying “yes” to becoming a teacher and our agreement to send M. to school. So, I’m hoping that with his new tin lunchbox in hand (with --what else?-- a John Deere riding lawnmower on it’s face) and his goggie neatly folded in his backpack, he will jump right in, with only a tiny shiver of shock tingling through his limbs.
I just hope I can do the same.
Tell me your back-to-school stories!
PS: Below find a list of my fall & winter readings. If you know some folks in any of these towns, I’d love to meet them!
PPS: Dan and I watched Biutiful this weekend—what a heartbreaking, beautifully made and deep movie. If you haven’t seen it I highly recommend it! We’re also watching, tape by tape, Little Dorrit, the Masterpiece Theatre series based on Dickens’ serial novel—it’s quite good and a real escape at bedtime.
Thursday, September 22, 7:30 PM
Maine Women Write
Space Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland, ME 04101
Saturday, October 1
Bangor Book Festival
10:00 – 10:45 AM: Finding Home—Writing Memoir with Susan Conley and Melissa Coleman
Bangor Public Library Board Room
11:00 – 11:45: Readings and Discussion with Susan Conley and Melissa Coleman
Bangor Public Library Board Room
Bangor Public Library, 145 Harlow St., Slot 13, Bangor, ME 04401
207-947-8336 | email@example.com
November: MAINE WOMEN WRITE BOOK CLUB PICK
Bookstores across the state of Maine will celebrate the themes of family, giving thanks and America in Made for You and Me during the month of November.
For more information, find Maine Women Write on Facebook.