Newburyport Literary Festival Goes Virtual TODAY!

NBP FestivalHey, everyone. When COVID-19 struck and changed all our lives, the lovely folks behind the Newburyport Literary Festival were convinced it spelled the end of this year’s event.

NOT SO! Just check out their website, Newburyport Literary Festival to find out about all the wonderful options.

I’m delighted to be part of things, and will appear, live and in person, at noon to talk about ELEPHANT SPEAK: A Devoted Keeper’s Life Among the Herd.

I hope you’ll join us!

I don’t want to write about the pandemic, so you get this instead.

fire-123784_1920

Photo by David Mark for Pixabay

I shift closer to the fire, toss on a log, make the sparks fly. It’s my night to sit up with the children that can’t sleep and I’m damned if I’ll do it cold.

I look around the circle at their pale faces made healthy-rosy by the flames. We’re worse-off than some, better than most. It’s a rare day they go with nothing in their bellies.

Back when it all went to shit, lots of people rushed for their money. Don’t know where they thought to spend it. Maybe they figured it would buy them out of this nightmare. Some hoarded and barricaded indoors and turned their backs on those in need, then acted all surprised and hurty-feeling when those others turned their backs on them in turn and let them die in the Beyond.

Me, Gwennie, and Johnny took a wagon to the library. We been friends since way-back and book lovers before that, and it was the hardest job we ever had, saying yea or nay to this book or that, judging whose words would live and whose die, pages turned to pulp by seasons of rain and snow, or burned to ash in a fire lit by some poor jamoke trying to keep warm.

We come first for the books that would get us by physically–the how-tos on gardening and repair and building and putting up food for winter, root-cellaring and the like. We went back again, this time with two wagons, and took favorite novels and a dictionary and such to put aside for those evenings when a body’s soul flickers like a Tink-candle and all but goes out.

I hold my hands to the fire. “What’s it to be, then?” I wait for the shouts, each naming a favorite story. They don’t none of them really care; they just want to be read to. So I read, the cadence of my voice rising and falling, mouse-high or bone-deep depending on the character and what I think they might sound like. The children pillow their heads on arms, old backpacks, each other. One by one, they fall away, asleep, dreaming what I hope are pleasant dreams in this often unpleasant world.

“You’re a good teacher.”

I look up. Mallachy sits across the way, cross-legged tailor fashion. I never saw him arrive, but that’s nothing unusual. He’s a quiet one, but he loves the stories as much as any of them. Next year, when he turns twelve, he’ll take his place among the readers and his turn at the fire, keeping watch against whatever’s out there that wants to extinguish the light.

I shrug in reply.

“No,” he says. “You are. They learn. You make them feel safe.”

I poke the fire. The last thing they are is safe and they know it, which is why so many of them have trouble sleeping. If they feel safe, I’m doing them a disservice. But how long can a body go on, week after month after year, feeling nothing but terrified?

“I don’t want to be too good. Bad has its place.”

He doesn’t say anything, but I can tell he doesn’t understand. I jab the sand with a stick and listen to the distant roar of breakers on the rocks beyond the dunes. One of these days, I’m walking into that surf and not coming out. Maybe tonight, because I don’t know if I can explain it the way Mallachy needs to hear. I can share what another has thought, but coming  up with my own words is a hardship.

“Look, I grew up in a place where children weren’t valued. Then I went off to school and it was more of the same. My first teacher hated kids, you could see it in her eyes. Another one physically segregated the class into the smart kids and the stupid ones. Used those words. And those of us at the stupid tables, well, we knew we weren’t stupid, but live through a year of that sort of ridicule and you come to believe it. Maybe they only hated their jobs and not us, but they certainly didn’t want to do the work of teaching. They’d rather paint us stupid so they wouldn’t have to.”

“You’re not stupid.”

“I know that. But for decades I thought I was. Too much and too many in the world painted it true, telling me over and over, no, you can’t have this good thing you want because you don’t deserve me, you’re this or you’re that and me taking it because I’d been taught it was so, and forgot the real truth hidden inside me.”

He sidles up close to the fire and stares across at me with eyes like a fox. “What changed?”

“Me.” I look past my fingers into the flames, cup my hands to hold the light. “I got mad. Furious. And so damned tired of being told no. I decided they were wrong, that they’d been wrong all along. I didn’t realize they were wrong, and I didn’t believe they were wrong. All that came later. But I made the decision they were wrong and told it to myself every day until I knew it was true.” I glance around at the sleeping children. “What I want for them is a little bit of rage to keep them warm, keep them honest and true to themselves.If I leave them with anything, it’s the knowledge that no one has the right to take the fight out of you.”

Mallachy nods. Between one eye blink and the next, he’s gone, faded back into the shadows. That’s one who sleeps soundly because he believes he has nothing to fear. But these here, they think they do.

I reach out and curl a small hand inside mine. Stretched out behind me, my years feel bigger than the Before, endless, and too damned many yet ahead.

______________

Copyright Melissa Crandall 2020

 

March Events

As the ELEPHANT SPEAK launch date approaches, I thought I’d give everyone a run down for the month of March (so far):

March 4 – KATU “Afternoon Live” appearance (to air between 2-3 pm)

BOOK LAUNCH – Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside Street, Portland, OR                      at 7:30 pm.

March 5 – Elephant Lands Keeper Talk – Oregon Zoo, 4001 SW Canyon Road, Portland, OR                    at 12:30 pm. Book signing to follow at Gift Shop.

March 6 – Roundabout Books – 900 NW Mt. Washington Drive #110, Bend, OR at 6:00 pm.

March 7 – Sunriver Books – 57100 Beaver Drive, Bldg. 25C, Sunriver, OR at 5:00 pm

March 14 – Bank Square Books, 53 West Main Street, Mystic, CT from 1-3 pm.

part0

 

Harlan Ellison, 1934 – 2018

HarlanWe had some fierce thunderstorms today and now I know why. It was Harlan, making his presence known to the cosmos, kicking ass in Heaven.

He’s been my favorite writer since I first encountered him via his collection I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream. I was a teenager, angst-ridden and isolated, a nerdy island in a sea of the cool when I happened upon the book. I picked it up because I thought it was written by Theodore Sturgeon. (It was an understandable mistake, as Sturgeon’s name was emblazoned on the cover in HUGE LETTERS–he’d written the introduction–while Harlan’s was not.)

From that moment, I was hooked. His books were difficult to find at the time. Ferreting them out was laborious, but a labor of … I don’t want to say ‘love,’ as that sounds too fannish, but it’s certainly been a lifelong labor of appreciation.

It was my good fortune to meet Harlan several times. He made me laugh. He made me cry. He could be rude, abrupt, caustic, and in the next moment display kindness and empathy. He was eminently human.

And, God damn it, I’ll miss him.

When Reading Leaves A Bad Taste In Your Mouth

food-man-person-eating

Photo courtesy of pexels.com

“Milk takes on the flavor of what it’s next to in the refrigerator.”

If you’re a fan of Stephen King, you’ve undoubtedly read that quote or something like it more than once. I’d heard it long before King made it known because, like him, I grew up with a mother born and raised in Maine; way up Maine in “The County” –Aroostook, for those of you not in the know — about as far as you can go without becoming Canadian.

As a child, I incessantly nagged my parents to move to Maine. My grandparents were there — well, Pop was there; the one grandparent in four who actually paid attention to me — as well as a plethora of cousins my own age. Back home in New York, I had a grandmother who apparently hated everything in the world except her son-in-law and her boxer dogs, a handful of disinterested aunts and uncles, and cousins all vastly older than me. (When you’re a kid, a gap of 6+ years is vast. We won’t get into the 12+ year difference between me and my sisters.)

But back to the milk.

The saying works because it’s true. Store some chopped onions next to your carton of milk if you don’t believe me. If you’re a parent, you’ve seen the phenomena in your children once they begin school. They go off that first morning, your little kindergarten angel, only to return as Satan having, in the space of a few hours, picked up all sorts of noxious behaviors.

Where I find the truth of that quote applies to me is in the books I read. Assuming they write long and hard enough, each writer develops his or her own voice … or should. If not, there’s a real problem that needs addressing. That being said, writers also “borrow” from other writers.

We’re not talking plagiarism, which is a much bigger issue and should never-ever-ever happen. What I mean is that as you read something, you may find bits and pieces of that other writer’s style slipping into your own work. And that’s okay, so long as you don’t lose yourself in the process. Personally, I don’t mind a dash of Harlan Ellison or Barbara Hambly, Terry Pratchett or Stephen King sprinkled over the top of what I write. Hell, they–and several other writers–have been some of my best teachers on this long road of learning the craft. (You do read, don’t you? I mean something more than blogs or the newspaper? As a writer you must, and if you don’t, shame on you.)

But sometimes that unconscious tendency to borrow backfires.

I’m reading a book right now. It’s new, recently out, and no I won’t give you the title or author. It’s good … I think … although I swing between viewing the protagonist an independent woman and a chronic whiner. But the thing is, the damn story is bringing me down, man. It’s delivering no creative spark, no impetus to go at my own work with renewed verve. Instead, it’s draining me of the urge to write at all. Worse, it’s making me feel old and that, goddammit, is not acceptable. So I’ll be returning the book to the library unfinished, yet to even reach the heroine’s basic conundrum (assuming there is one).

Because, see, I can’t afford to take on that sort of flavor.