When I first saw the sign, I snickered.
I’ve been traveling a lot this summer—long days in a car, routines upended, meals eaten out—and I’m definitely more “thickly settled” than I’ve been in a while. That’s common for someone my age, I suppose. But the unexpected sign seemed a mocking public rebuke.
Of course, the sign was warning us of the population density outside Athol, Massachusetts. Here in Kentucky—a rural state by all accounts—we’re more accustomed to seeing “Congested Area” signs when a curve in the road reveals a cluster of homes or other indications of human activity.
Perhaps New Englanders adopted their expression back in the mid-1700s, when most of these towns were established. A few moments later, as we approached the iconic New England village of Petersham, there stood another “Thickly Settled” sign. I could count three or four houses dotting the rim of the beautiful town common, a gathering place for all 1,200 people who live there. The expanding roll around my middle, I thought, is denser.
By all appearances, Petersham hasn’t changed since the 1950s, when my family lived there. The Unitarian church is still at the center of the green, with the handsome stone library just a couple of doors down. Across the common, the general store still serves the residents, although the current proprietor is more interested in selling you healthy snacks than the cigarettes I remember buying there for my mother when we visited some years after moving away. The town hall is next door. And in the middle of the common is the obligatory bandstand, where we enjoyed a concert by the Petersham Band on Sunday evening.
The closest gas station? Fifteen minutes north or south of town.
Harvard Forest, the 4,000-acre research forest where my dad worked, is just down the road. We were in Petersham to meet with the director of the Forest, David Foster, who had invited us to review the voluminous materials relating to my father’s work currently housed in their archives. Julie Hall, Harvard Forest archives assistant, had covered a long cherry conference table with sleeves of photos, scrapbooks, published materials, bulging pocket folders of research notes and presentations, and correspondence between my dad and other staff scientists. I couldn’t hold back a few tears as I surveyed the treasures on the table and considered the painstaking care of the archivists who had stored these materials for nearly 70 years. I settled in at the table and consumed as much as I could in the few hours I had.
Then we headed back outside to walk through the surrounding woods, the target of much of the research ongoing at the Forest. I discovered that Prospect Hill Road—a path my father frequently mentions in the journal he kept while at the Forest—is not a road at all, at least in our lifetimes, but a 2.5-mile loop trail through the forest, passing tagged trees and research equipment. We walked amid beeches, oaks, pines, and maples; dense ferns nearly disguising stone walls built by early settlers; twisted trees that survived the 1938 hurricane; hemlocks severely threatened by the woolly adelgid; 300- and 400-year-old black gums in a swamp area. It is a gorgeously diverse woodland.
Back at the parking lot in front of Shaler Hall—the red brick office and classroom building named for Kentucky’s own Nathaniel Southgate Shaler—I looked around one more time at the buildings and the land so familiar to my parents so many years ago. As a young couple hoping to start a family and build a career far from their Kentucky home, my parents faced many challenges while in Petersham. But the area evokes a sort of nostalgia for me. My dad still has a presence there. The people welcome us as if we naturally belong. The woods beckon. In town and at the Forest it’s as if time has stood still, even if my graying hair and growing girth attest otherwise.
For an up-close view of the work going on at Harvard Forest and how scientists there are striving to measure the toll of climate change, I highly recommend Witness Tree by Seattle environmental reporter Lynda V. Mapes. You can watch the daily changes in the 100-year-old red oak she observed for more than a year by accessing the Harvard Forest webcams here. Scroll to the bottom of the page for a view of Mapes’ witness tree.
It’s like a geode I’ve successfully cracked open but haven’t yet had the chance to examine. It’s waiting there expectantly, with all its sparkling treasure, this ancient trunk with its broken clasps and brittle leather straps.
It arrived yesterday, a mysterious portmanteau that holds within its confines the length and breadth of my great-grandfather’s restless mind and peripatetic wanderings: the sermons outlined, the teachers certified, the schools visited, the marriages performed, the eulogies delivered, the newspaper articles written, the farm business documented. His journal from 1876. Notebooks from his Georgetown College days that include Greek and Latin translations, advanced math, and notes about his roommates’ romances. The camera he took to Europe and the Holy Land in 1911. The pebbles collected from around the world. The 1920 registration card for “Old Danger,” the Ford he never drove. Sheet music and a piano method book. Virtuoso panegyrics to exotic lands.
All of Bro. W. D. Moore’s extraordinary life seems compressed in this chest. Photos, letters, postcards, itineraries, sermons, ledgers.
I’m itching to dig through it, to read every one of the letters and finger each artifact, trying to imagine his life. It may take my lifetime to look through it all. But it’s beckoning me to set aside my plans, ignore my commitments and kneel before this sarcophagus that holds another man’s secrets. What could possibly be more interesting? Or more important?
But, alas, it has to wait. I’m off on another adventure of my own, seeking to learn more about Dudley’s grandson, Martha’s youngest boy, my father. When I return from that journey, I’ll carve out the time to dive into this treasure chest and immerse myself in the minutiae of an uncommon life, a life that spanned nearly 80 years more than 100 years ago.
The trunk arrived after a curiously circuitous journey, after having been lost to the family for a number of years. I had no idea it even existed until a few months ago. It evidently has landed in my home now because others believe I have room to keep it—or, rather, that I will keep it safe. Or perhaps they know I’m a sucker for historical family documents. Whatever it’s tortuous path, it’s here now, for a stay of uncertain duration. Anyone interested is welcome to come visit and pan for gold.
As I’m able, I’ll share items from its contents that I think might interest you. Let me tease you with one of my favorites: a rare informal photo of the respected and beloved itinerant preacher.
“I can’t believe those two boys built that cabin all by themselves.”
And with those words I discovered one more among us who still remembers Camp Last Resort along Salt River.
On Saturday I had the privilege of chatting at length with another of my dad’s first cousins: Jane Moore McKinney, the older sister of John Allen Moore to whom I dedicated the book. At age 96, her smile lights up the room and she demonstrates the same knack for storytelling as her two brothers. Her memories are clear and precise and she is a delightful conversationalist, even though challenged by encroaching deafness. Her grammar is impeccable, reflecting the education she received as a young girl at an Atlanta academy associated with Emory University (her father worked for the railroad at the time). For example, my editor’s ear perked up when I heard her say, “He was seven years older than I…”
She talked of our Aunt Sallie hauling heavy containers of milk from Grandpa Moore’s milking barn to the road to be picked up by a truck from the cheese factory in Lawrenceburg. She described how her future husband, stationed at a Navy facility outside Atlanta during World War II, leaned out of a passing streetcar madly calling her name as she stood along Peachtree Street. (She had met him once before. Click here to listen to her relay that scene.) She described life in 1940s boarding houses and sharing a bathroom with four other couples. I learned that before her marriage she had dated my mother’s cousin—and my father’s friend and classmate—George McWilliams, whom she spoke of repeatedly and fondly.
When I talked to her on the phone about a month earlier, using a TTY device, she assured me drolly, “I inherited the deafness: It wasn’t something stupid I did.” She wanted to be sure we knew she had been driving and attending her weekly supper parties just a couple of years ago. Spending time with her this weekend, I have no doubt she charmed everyone at those gatherings. Now, frustrated by having to rely on a wheelchair, she seems bewildered that her body has begun to bow to age.
I had met Jane briefly at a couple of family funerals. I knew she was fond of my dad. But, inexplicably, I had never made the short trip to Owensboro to get to know her or her children.
So the traveling trio of Goodletts—my cousins Sandy and Bob and I—arranged a brief visit with Jane, her daughter Jane Allen, and her son Jim. This is the legacy of publishing The Last Resort. By delving a bit into my father’s story, I have been inspired to spend time with family I hardly knew. I am getting to know John Allen’s family and Jane’s family, and I have visited their brother Joe and his wife, Jean, who rescued me when I was a lost high school student in Atlanta years ago. I have spent hours talking to two of my first cousins as we traveled across the South—two cousins who had launched their careers by the time I was a child settling back in Kentucky after my father’s death. I look for reasons to get in touch with my McWilliams cousins, my Hanks cousins, and my Birdwhistell cousins. And I am delighted by all my interactions with them.
Unexpectedly, I am finding family and family connections endlessly fascinating. I wish I had had the impetus long ago to reach out to them. As one of the youngest of my generation, I think I was mildly intimidated by all my interesting older cousins. But I’m glad I rounded up the courage to push myself into their lives in some small way. And I am deeply grateful for the opportunities to get to know them.
Jane's daughter, Jane Allen McKinney, is a nationally recognized artist. Her immense sculpture, towering over the Tennessee State University Olympic Plaza, is constructed of metals representing the actual percentage of gold, silver, and bronze medals the university's athletes have been awarded.
Thor finally took a day off.
Mind you, not a full 24 hours. But from sunup to sundown on Friday we had no storms. No rain. We even had some moments of sun. It was a welcome respite after days of threatening weather.
But later that night, the heavy rain returned and we’ve bounced in and out of splotchy sunshine and rowdy storms ever since.
I’ll spare you another screed about climate change. What’s the point? We’ve all heard about continuing flooding across the Midwest, the South, and even the Northeast. Homes and businesses damaged, lives lost. Let’s just get used to it, shall we?
Now that summer is here, the forecast indicates we may finally move into a drier pattern, at least temporarily. The Mississippi River is below flood level in some areas. Sunshine is predicted here in Kentucky this week. There may be opportunities to get out and enjoy the seasonal wildflowers as they once again stand tall among the impudent mushrooms.
Unlike Thor, I’ve managed to take more than a day of rest this month. I’ve backed off the writing and editing to relax those literary muscles before the next phase. Perhaps in July I’ll hunker down again and reacquaint myself with a more disciplined daily routine.
But it has been nice to look up from the task at hand and engage with the world beyond my computer screen. And I’m glad Mother Nature granted me one day to paddle around the lake and visit some of my amphibious neighbors.
If Sol does indeed manage to disarm Thor for a few days, I’ll wipe off the mildew and head back outside to pay homage to brighter days ahead.
This part isn’t supposed to be fun.
But, for some reason, it is. Perhaps it’s only because I’m on the front end of the process, and it’s still fresh and new. The rejections haven’t started rolling in yet, overwhelming my inbox.
At this stage, at least, I’m finding it fascinating to research literary agents and small independent presses, trying to discover that perfect fit for my novel. The whole publishing industry seems like a giant corn maze: I just need to take my time, peer around each corner, decide whether to go this direction, or maybe that direction. I expect I’ll find something interesting—even if not useful—either way I go.
It’s an extraordinarily complex business, or so it seems to the uninitiated. There are so many layers, so many ways you could get tripped up. In fact, it may be because the odds seem so long that it feels more like a game than anything of serious import. It’s like playing Monopoly or Risk, where you can go all in without suffering any real consequences. I’m some anonymous sad sack submitting my first-born to a sophisticated, highly literate, beautiful person in New York or Chicago. What can I possibly expect?
They say that the writer-agent relationship is like a marriage. You look for someone you trust, someone you like, someone who shares your taste, someone who has your best interests at heart, someone who will stay with you for the long haul. That seems much more interesting than looking for a business manager. And it shifts the emphasis away from that piece of writing—which can make you morbidly insecure—to the human being who is going to share this journey with you, who will take your hand and guide you through the impenetrable process.
Recently, at the 2019 Books in Progress Conference at the Carnegie Center in Lexington, Ky., I was buoyed by award-winning author Chris Offutt’s approach to this phase of writing. When he was a young man, a graduate of the esteemed Iowa Writers’ Workshop—someone with talent and credentials and well-known mentors—he struggled to submit his stories to literary journals. His peers prodded him, but he just didn’t think he could face the ego-busting rejections. To flip the script, so to speak, he decided to set a goal for himself: 100 rejections in one year. He was ecstatic as each one arrived in his mailbox. He kept a careful tally. The rejections stacked up. Then one day, the mailman delivered something unexpected: an acceptance letter from the Coe Review. He was crestfallen. Having amassed 86 rejections, he had just missed the goal he had set for himself.
At the same conference, I attended a panel discussion that included a successful young writer and her equally young agent. (I’ve heard the average age of agents is 27, a real obstacle for a woman of a certain age who has written about a middle-aged couple who lived nearly 100 years ago.} The writer revealed that she had searched for an agent for eight years. She kept writing, undeterred, and she kept looking for someone to give her a chance. She and her agent have now enjoyed a 10-year career together. It was clear they have a supportive, mutually beneficial relationship. They poked mild fun at each other and finished each other’s sentences, just like an old married couple.
I can promise you I won’t be that dogged. I’m highly suspect that my lifespan will even extend another eight years, let alone my determination to publish a novel. I’ll be swept away by some other shiny object long before then. Another project. Another hobby. Another way to test my mettle.
But, for the next few months, I’ll do the necessary research. I expect I’ll send scores of query letters and receive an equal number of rejections. I’ll keep Chris Offut’s approach in mind, just to maintain my equanimity. And if something positive happens, I’ll remind myself that finding an interested agent is just the initial step. Then you typically endure another grueling editing process. Then agonize as your book is submitted to publishing houses for new editors to scrutinize. And if you’re really, really lucky, then you get to go through lengthy contractual negotiations and watch helplessly as the publisher’s creative team comes up with a new title and a book cover you’re not sure about. Then it’s time to pore over that final proof, looking for any remaining errors or typos while you secretly fret that the book is no good after all.
Yeah, I’d better grab my fun while I can.
Some people use a metal detector to find hidden treasure from the past. In fact, Rick and I talked to one such fellow the other day as we were loading our bikes in the car after a short ride through the Bluegrass countryside. Rick, never shy about approaching a stranger, asked the young man, Rob Mattingly, if he had found anything of interest there on the grounds of Great Crossing Park in Scott County.
That launched a far-reaching conversation that revealed, among other things, Mattingly’s startling grasp of regional and family history as well as his specific knowledge of glass bottles from 1870 to 1910. He had even done some searches on property in the Gilberts Creek area of Anderson and Mercer Counties. After hearing a brief summary of how his early family settled in Marion, Washington, and Nelson counties, we decided if he wasn’t related to the Goodletts he may well be related to the McClures—Charleen Goodlett’s family.
A couple of weeks before that excursion, Rick and I had joined cousins Sandy Goodlett and Ben Birdwhistell as we examined the amazing collection of a native Lawrenceburg resident, Brent Hawkins. Brent’s treasure trove of historical photos, maps, documents, whiskey bottles, and furniture—all related to Lawrenceburg and Anderson County—nearly knocked us off our feet. Most of his artifacts had been collected the old-fashioned way: by talking to area residents, expressing an interest in their family histories, and attending estate sales. Once we were able to focus our over-stimulated senses, we concentrated on the old steamer trunk full of memorabilia that once belonged to our great-grandfather, Bro. W. D. Moore. Watch for more about those findings in an upcoming blog.
Nearly a year ago, Murky Press’ resident archaeologist, David Hoefer, using one of the tools of all contemporary scientists and historians—the online search—stumbled across another family relic: my father’s paper titled “Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey.” Written in 1948, that term paper—identified as a “book”—is now preserved at the Harvard Botany Libraries. We know not why or how it found its home there. It’s more of a history of bourbon distilling in the U.S. than it is an examination of the plants used in the distilling process. But, in light of the purpose of the university’s Economic Botany Library, it does make sense: “The Economic Botany Library…specializes in materials related to economic botany or the commercial exploitation of plants. Subject areas cover ethnobotany, medicinal plants, hallucinogens and narcotics, crop plants, edible and poisonous plants, herbals and other rare pre-Linnean works….”
Since all of the materials in the botany libraries are non-circulating, we were struggling to get our hands on a copy. That’s when Brad Wilson, Bobby Cole’s son-in-law, stepped in to complete the excavation. A modern intrepid explorer, Brad, who happened to be in Boston for a family matter, crossed the Charles River to visit the Harvard campus in Cambridge and found his way to the proper library. There, with the kind assistance of the library staff, he dug out the infamous paper written by the war-weary, homesick graduate student.
I want to thank Brad for his role in unearthing this piece of family history. And, since I’m writing on D-Day, I want to recognize Bobby Cole and John Allen Moore and Rinky Routt and George McWilliams and Lin Morgan Mountjoy and John D. Goodlette and Vincent Goodlett and Billy Goodlett and John Campbell “Pud” Goodlett and all the other boys of The Last Resort who helped deliver Europe and the Pacific region from tyranny.
With a nod to my father’s four rules for field work*, history is where you find it. It’s personal. It’s regional. And it has implications for the entire world—for all of us. If we don’t honor it, recognize it, study it, and willingly take a few lessons from it, we will not endure.
On this day we honor the remaining veterans of World War II. We honor those who gave their lives on the shores of Normandy and all across the globe during that conflict. And we hope that our country’s leaders will once again consider the lessons that history can teach us.
Perhaps they can learn a thing or two from Rob Mattingly and Brent Hawkins, two average citizens in a red state who have invested hours and hours of their lives getting familiar with the past.
*Abbreviated version of Professor John C. Goodlett’s Four Rules of Field Work:
1. Water, generally, runs downhill.
2. Plants occur where you find them.
3. Never get separated from your lunch.
4. Never go back the same way you came.
For more about the Bond & Lillard Distillery, read Family Spirits.
For more about the discovery of my father's paper on bourbon, and his affection for the spirit, read Bonded to Kentucky.
In memory of Brad Wilson’s mother, Dixie (1937-2019), who raised one heckuva son.
On Monday, May 6, the world learned how the United States intends to monetize climate change for our benefit.
While speaking at a meeting of the Arctic Council in Finland, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo never once mentioned the phrase “climate change,” even though the council has recently focused most of its energies on this issue in that increasingly fragile region. Newsweek reports that Pompeo did, however, point out that “Passageways opened up by retreating sea ice could turn the Arctic into a ‘21st century Panama Canal,’ creating new trade routes that could ‘potentially slash the time it takes to travel between Asia and the West by as much as 20 days.’”
In other words, as the ice melts and polar bears, seals, and Arctic foxes lose their habitat, humans will have unfettered access to the treasures beneath the ice, which we will then distribute to American households in record time. Oh goody. The AP reported that “[Pompeo] called the Arctic ‘a frontier of opportunity and abundance’ with untouched oil and gas reserves, unmined uranium, raw earth minerals, precious metals and gems.”
So for those of you worried that melting polar ice might lead to devastating flooding, punishing storms, loss of habitat and inhabitable land, and the demise of native species, fear not. Speedier trade with China and Russia and access to new oil and gas reserves will offset all of those chimerical problems.
What made the Secretary of State’s seemingly careless but certainly intentional comments even more disturbing was the release that same day of the UN’s global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystems. As Brad Plumer of the New York Times wrote:
“The findings were sobering: Millions of acres of wetlands and rain forests are being cleared away. As many as one million plant and animal species are now threatened with extinction because of farming, poaching, pollution, the transport of invasive species and, increasingly, global warming. Almost everywhere you look, nature is vanishing before our eyes.”
But, it appears, nobody much cares. Especially not our national leaders. Which is why the hundreds of international experts who collaborated on this report tried to frame it in terms that will help humans—the sentient perpetrators of much of this willful destruction—understand what price they will pay for this assault on the earth’s biodiversity. In brief, our quality of life will suffer as we deal with such inconveniences as costly natural disasters that upend our lives and diminishing foodstuffs we have come to crave.
According to Plumer, the report takes pains to explain how “Natural ecosystems…provide invaluable material services to people, from mangrove forests that protect millions from coastal flooding to wetlands that help purify our drinking water to insects that pollinate our fruits and vegetables. The loss of wild plant varieties could make it harder in the future to breed new, hardier crops to cope with threats like increased heat and drought.”
If the science behind this catastrophic issue won’t rouse you to take notice, perhaps poetry will. Plumer concludes his article with this metaphor presented by Sandra M. Díaz, a lead author of the report and an ecologist at the National University of Córdoba in Argentina:
“Life on Earth is an intricate fabric, and it’s not like we’re looking at it from the outside. We are threads in that fabric. If the fabric is getting holes and fraying, that affects us all.”
Mike Pompeo, in his threadbare suit, might want to pull on a plastic rain slicker to protect himself from the big one.
Tim Cooper of Oakdale, Minn., has served as my coach and chief cheerleader as I completed my first novel, Next Train Out. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
I have been fortunate to have observed the writing process Sallie has been engaged in over the last year. To say that it has been an arduous task would be an understatement. But the finished product is a work of art, a work of social relevance, and a work of empathetic exploration that seeks to meld the personal with the historical amid an examination of love and justice.
This past week I have been reading the great Chicago writer Nelson Algren’s essay “Do It the Hard Way.” In this piece, Algren explicates what is “true” in all great writing. He urges authors to be true to themselves and never sell out for the sake of commercial expedience.
But Algren’s essay is so much more than that. Indeed, it can be read as an exhortation to the writer, the reader—to all of us—to seek out and validate the lives of the marginalized and disenfranchised. To listen carefully, uncritically, to their voices, their cadences, and their language and to then relish its uniqueness.
Sallie has two main characters in her novel: her grandfather, Lyons Board, and his fourth wife, Effie Mae. I have told Sallie that I think there is a third major character: language. For, as you will see, Next Train Out is a novel of the vernacular, a novel of linguistic nuance that respects the musings of an Appalachian mother from the coal camps of eastern Kentucky and the sardonic quips of a privileged central Kentucky rake equally.
And beautifully. In his essay, Algren asserts that “if you listen long enough, the commonest speech will begin to ring like poetry. [And] poetry it is, the best and the truest: the poetry of the ball-park and the dance hall, of the drugstore at noon, of the pool room and the corner newsstand, of the Montgomery-Ward salesgirls reminiscing on the streetcar or bus.”
I don’t believe Sallie is as familiar with Nelson Algren’s work as I am, although we have discussed his writing and his life—and Colin Asher’s new biography of Algren—over the past months. I do know, however, that she has somehow internalized Algren’s dictum. Consider these two examples:
Nelson: “I hate t’ see the Spring ‘n Summer come so bad,” she was telling him, “I just don’t seem so good as other people any more. Sometimes I’m that disgusted of myself I think: ‘Just one more dope, that’s you.’ I won’t set up there in that room another Spring alone, thinkin’ stuff like that…I hate t’ see the Spring ‘n Summer come. So bad.” (from "Do It the Hard Way," collected in Entrapment and Other Writings)
Sallie: “Me and Lyons, we’ve been together a long time. At least for me it feels like a long time. Seven years. That’s forever after your last husband was kilt within a year of your marryin’ him, and your first husband proved to be a scoundrel after you birthed him four children. Well, maybe that marriage lasted longer than I remember. I just know I was ready to be rid of ‘im. The traitor.” (Effie Mae in Next Train Out)
Poetry, indeed. Poetry. When you read Sallie’s novel, plunge into the rhythm, the poetry of her writing. Yes, enjoy it on a macro-level—the story is marvelous, the narrative trajectory compulsively readable. But please, please, engage it on the micro-level, too, the level of the sentence, the word. I think we learn more about characters by the way they speak than we do any other way. Each of Sallie’s characters has a distinct voice that propels us to a greater understanding of who he or she is. This is a novel of social relevance that embraces Algren’s call for justice.
It remains only for me to confess something to you: I am a little bit in love with Effie Mae. I think about her often, and I think that I would have been a suitor, too, if the opportunity had presented itself. I know that you, too, will love her, and Lyons, and all of Sallie’s peripheral characters.
Read this novel. Love the characters and their voices. But Effie Mae’s mine.
David Hoefer, co-editor of The Last Resort, looks skyward for inspiration. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
My favorite science fiction movie is The Thing from Another World, produced (and possibly directed) by Howard Hawks in 1951. Based on a classic John W. Campbell pulp-magazine story, The Thing tells the tale of a group of American scientists and military personnel stationed in the remote Arctic North who fight off a superhuman alien invader with a crash-landed UFO that is likely in the vanguard of worse things to come. The movie ends with the victorious survivors gathered around journalist Ned Scott filing his news report over the radio. Scott admonishes his listeners to be prepared for further trouble; indeed they must remain alert and, he says, “Keep watching the skies!” [photo credit]
That phrase has always stuck with me, though without the sense of impending danger that is integral to the movie. No, the reason to keep watching the skies, especially after dark, is the beauty it reveals and the pleasure it brings. Though mostly unmentioned in The Last Resort, I have to imagine that Pud and his pals indulged in some nighttime sky-watching of their own. (There is, for instance, a reference to a beautiful moonlit evening in the entry for May 29, 1942.) As soon-to-be scientist and soldier John Goodlett would have known, nature is not limited to Earth.
This same realization came to me during a recent late-night foray in celestial observation. I was outside in pleasantly cool weather, head tilted up and eyes straining, to see the Lyrid meteorite shower, which reached peak viewing in Louisville during the evening of April 22. An hour of intermittent scrutiny netted three sightings, with a possible fourth. Of course, stargazing was made for ancient agriculturalists and mountaintop astronomers rather than dwellers of the inner suburbs. I’ve never forgotten the spectacular night skies over Ghost Ranch from my digging days, when I was looking up in the dark rather than down in the dirt. The fewer the humans, the better the viewing, and north-central New Mexico is a place of relatively few humans.
That said, I had some limited success on the 22nd with the aid of high-tech tools: a Web site, Timeanddate.com, which first clued me in that there was a reason to go outdoors, and an iPhone compass, which helped me locate the Lyrid radiant in degrees azimuth. (I had to guess the altitude, using the much-less substantial protractor I carry around in my head.) That wasn’t the only technology that popped up on this occasion. I was surprised by the number of off-planet contraptions—some jets but also quite a few satellites—that were partaking of arcs through the sky. The spangling but austere nights of a world before the Wright Brothers are being replaced by busier tableaux, like a gentle picnic suddenly swarming with fire ants.
Meteorites are aptly described as shooting stars. Those I saw appeared in brief flashes, streaking parallel to the horizon rather than moving to intercept it. My iPhone compass may have been useful but not so the camera; the seemingly random appearance of the Lyrids made obtaining a still photograph impossible. I’d have been better off with a time-lapse device, the visual equivalent of a Geiger counter. What images I do have are salted away in memory, but I’ve included these graphic elements from the Internet, as inexhaustible in its way as the infinite skies that surround us.
I have completed a novel. Six months ago I wasn’t sure that I could do it. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to. I had lost confidence. It was requiring too much sacrifice. I had pushed away friends and family. I skipped events and family gatherings so I could work. My aging body was balking at the sedentary lifestyle writing required. I just wasn’t sure I had it in me.
And, now, what is surprising me the most is that I am satisfied with the result. After all that time poring over those characters and those settings and those words, I am not tired of it. I am not eager to leave it behind. I find the book compelling. I enjoy reading it. It doesn’t make me cringe. It makes me happy.
Oh, sure, I know it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But I feel that I have accomplished what I set out to do. I have written a story about my grandfather’s life, as best I could imagine it. I think I have told a good yarn that the reader will want to see through to the end. I have enjoyed crafting sentences that I hope will appeal to those who love words. And I believe I have created two characters who might just stick with you. I expect I’ve made Lyons a little more sympathetic than he actually was, but I had to give the reader a reason to care about him, even if he remains an enigma.
The other surprise turned out to be Effie Mae, Lyons’ fourth wife and the other major character in the book. Everyone who has read any portion of the novel seems to love her. In the beginning, I had no intention of assuming her voice and writing from her point of view. She just came to me one beautiful day while I was sitting on my back patio reading a book about writing. But she is now the glue that holds it all together. Getting to know Effie Mae is a reason to read the book.
Now, after a few days of breathing deeply, I begin the next phase. I have submitted the book to one independent publisher. I have met with one agent and have another meeting scheduled at the end of May. If none of those options pans out, I will begin the hard work of researching agents and trying to persuade one that my book will appeal to readers.
Of course, I have an ace in the hole. I happen to run a little outfit called Murky Press that I know will be interested in publishing this novel. In fact, the sages at Murky Press seemed to portend the challenges, and the joys, of writing it:
“We at Murky Press believe peering into our past may help untangle the present. Trouble is, the past can be mysterious. It can be, well, murky. It takes some effort and some patience to interpret what the past is trying to tell us. And we may still get it all wrong.”
Perhaps it’s my good fortune that with fiction there is no right or wrong. It’s all make-believe—even when it relays the truth. So if I am able to transport the reader to a different place and time, and to inspire some empathy for people whose lives may be unlike ours, then I’m going to kick back and celebrate a job well done.