August 22, 2006
I’m three-quarters of the way through the Vermont portion of my 2006 Gallivant (the Halcyon Days Summer), just past the halfway point of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. I feel more alive and more attuned to what I can accomplish as a writer than I have ever felt before.
Today was typical. I walked the quarter mile down the hill from my little house to the Inn for breakfast. I learned that one of my dear friends, Norton, a man nearing ninety who has been to the mountain every year for nigh onto to three decades, had some sort of episode last night (he has blood pressure problems) and was transported to the Middlebury Hospital. Information about him is hard to come by because no one here is a relative.
I skipped the lecture, which was about writing lyric poetry, specifically the ode, in favor of an hour spent reading and writing comments for the pieces that were up for discussion in my workshop today. My classmates have been remarkably generous with their time regarding making notes and talking to me about my work, and I feel a real sense of obligation to return the favor. The workshop, once again, was as instructive for me as I hope it was for the writers whose work was under scrutiny.
After lunch (which brought news that Norton will be released from the hospital pending good results on a stress test which cannot be administered until the equipment for administering it is repaired) I came back up the hill to read and write in the silence and seclusion I need to balance all the extroverting I do at the conference.
A thunderstorm that lasted about ten minutes began as I was getting ready to go to the Gala Book Signing and Reception (capital letters used because it’s an official event of the conference). I was going to drive anyway because I can’t easily lug my bag of books and my messenger bag, especially for a return trip in the dark. The event was planned for an outdoor area, but the threatening weather moved it inside to the barn.
I wound up getting only one signature. I don’t do well in a cocktail party scene — I’m just not cut out for it. I was ambivalent about having the books signed anyway (once a volume is signed I am reluctant to part with it, even if I don’t really like it, and I have to keep in mind that I am nearing capacity in my house for storing books). Some of the faculty whose books I have were deep into conversations, and I am just reluctant to interrupt them.
The book I did have signed was Name All the Animals, a memoir by one of the fellows, Alison Smith. (Fellows are talented newcomers who have one book published.) I’d been attracted to it by the blurb on the cover (it’s about coping with the death at eighteen of a sibling to whom she was close in age and spirit), and bought it even before I was drawn into her story at her reading.
I went to dinner, and then to the evening reading as well, nonfcition writer Ted Conover and then novelist Helen Viramontes. That’s a lot of readings for me to process in a single day. I’m not an auditory learner, and often the words can wash over me without leaving much of an impression. But the atmosphere in a reading, the energy that is created from the connection between writer and listeners, can be infectious. I look at these people, who really aren’t all that different from me, at least in terms of their human-ness, and think, well, I can do this. I can find the perseverance to just keep writing, line after line, scene after scene.
It was well past 9:30 when I drove back up to my house. I’d left lights on in the living room because it’s such serious darkness here — no street lights and no starlight tonight — that the walk up the driveway or even the walk from the car to the porch can be difficult.
My headlights caught a red fox standing between the gate into the back yard and the hedge under my bedroom window. It was chewing on something, a mole, I hoped, and not the cheery little chipmunk who lives under the porch and suns himself every day on a built-in bench beside the back door. I was surprised that the fox didn’t scamper off as soon as my car drew near. My neighbors’ cat at home certainly would have. Instead, the fox merely stared directly into the headlights and kept worrying whatever it held in its mouth.
I stopped in the spot beside the walkway where I usually park. I shut the car off, but suddenly everything went so deeply dark that I felt nervous about getting out of the car and perhaps running into the fox, or a companion it might have brought along. I turned the car back on, and there was Volpone, still staring straight into the lights. It shook its head — it seemed to be finished with whatever it had been eating. And then it turned and walked away over toward the campus, squeezing through the wire fence and disappearing west across the driveway to Tamarack.
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