A Luminous Presence

I was already a huge fan of Toni Morrison. Her writing is raw, powerful, and at the same time beautiful. Now — after watching the documentary TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM — wow. I don’t toss the word “hero” around much, but she is one to me. Through her stories, she will always be a luminous presence in the world.

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What to read?

People joke about “so many books, so little time.” You can even buy a t-shirt with the phrase splashed across the front. But it’s true — there are so many books, and for me, who just turned 68 . . . well, I can do math. And so I find myself increasingly wanting to read very selectively, and only the books that will push me the most as a writer, and as a person. How do you decide what to read, or what to skip?

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Remember When?

Two weeks ago, I traveled from Oregon to Kentucky to attend my 50th high school reunion — Danville Admirals, Class of 1969. What a trip it was, both in the literal sense, and the metaphorical — across the continent, and back in time.

Reunions are centered on memories, and the attendees trigger them in each other, often just by being there. You see the teenage face hidden but still recognizable among the wrinkles of age, and zoom, you’re seventeen again. Well, okay, not seventeen. But you’re at least in touch with the feel of it once again.

Some of the memories triggered in me at my reunion were so fuzzy they seemed like dreams, made all the more mysterious by the passing of decades. Others were vivid. Someone would say, “Remember when?” And the next thing I knew I was behind the wheel of that blue Chevelle again, on a double date, driving too fast on Gwynn Island Road. I hit a patch of gravel, did a tire-screeching doughnut, took out a farmer’s mailbox, and ended up in the ditch. Everyone piled out of the car and stood there in the middle of the night, car engine clicking, cicadas chirping, and said . . . nothing. Well, until the farmer came out in his pajamas to see what the hell was going on. We all started apologizing at the same time, even though it was only the driver’s fault; that would be me. But the farmer just shrugged — that damn mailbox post was rotten anyway and needed to be replaced — and helped us get the Chevelle out of the ditch. As so often happens in youth, the consequences didn’t match the level of stupidity. My stupidity.

Remember when?

Reunions are centered on memories, but part of their geometry is measured in negative space, too — those who aren’t there. Some weren’t at my Class of ’69 gathering because they are no longer among the living. Out of 140 or so grads, over 30 have passed away. But then there were the classmates who are still living, but chose not to attend. Another kind of memory was triggered by that lack. High school was overall a pretty good experience for me, but I remembered those for whom it wasn’t. They didn’t fit in, were maybe a bit quirky, or just different from the norm, and so suffered. Those who suffered the most tend to stay away from reunions. Sure, there was some drama and angst in my teen days. I got my heart broken, and flunked out of trig, and at times felt misunderstood. But the bottom line is that I did not suffer. I was lucky. Lucky to be born into a position of privilege: white, cisgender male, straight, US citizen, native English speaker, well clothed and fed, a complete family that supported my dreams, just to name a few perks. I was of the majority — the acceptable majority — in every way. No wonder I had a good high school experience. No wonder too many don’t.

Some will call me a naive idealist, but going to my 50th reunion renewed my hope that there will come a day when every adult can look back and at least know they had equal opportunity — to have dreams, and a level playing field on which to work hard to fulfill them. And when they return to their 50th high school reunion, they’ll laugh with their classmates like I did, and say, “Remember when?” And the memories will be good.

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Collaborative Experimentation

Many thanks for all the birthday wishes. 68 is going pretty well, so far. I’m still trail running, and riding my mountain bike, and climbing, and writing a lot, and — this may be the most amazing part — I even got my office purged of junk. See? Isn’t that nice? (Tom pats self on back.) My theory is that a clear space will equal a clear head and ergo more room for creativity. Anyone have any data that supports or refutes that notion they’d like to contribute? We’ll think of it as collaborative experimentation.

Leave of Absence

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In 38 years of writing, there has never been a time in which I haven’t split my energies: writing and teaching 5th grade, writing and teaching ESLin Japan, writing and teaching kindergarten, writing and traveling all over the country (and the world) to do author visits in schools, writing and serving on the faculty of Vermont College of Fine Arts. For 34 of those 38 years I have also been an involved dad, helping Debbie raise our two daughters, Kelsey and Amy.

That has changed. (Well, not the parenting part; you never stop being a parent.) I am beginning a leave of absence from VCFA. This will allow me to concentrate on my next young adult novel (tentatively titled Blowup), a middle grade novel, as well as several picture books. To say that I’m excited is an understatement. I am totally stoked!

The flip side to this elation is knowing that I won’t be in Montpelier in July for the VCFA residency. Which means I won’t be able to meet in person with my previous students at the picnic tables under the big maple and talk about writing. Or to sit in the audience clapping wildly when Max and Adam give their graduate readings and deliver their lectures, then cross the College Hall stage along with the rest of their stellar class to receive their MFA diplomas. Or to to stay up late with beloved and brilliant faculty in the Noble Landing Lounge and discuss . . . well, anything under the New England stars. I will miss all of that, and I’m very very sorry.

Still, in my mind I will take a walk with each and every one of the VCFA community who mean so much to me — down to the waterfall by the old mill, and soak in that beauty together. Once on the trail together, always on the trail together . . .

 

What is art, anyway?

After a discussion at breakfast about art and how it is defined, a question arose: If the same aesthetic mindfulness brought to the arts we have traditionally considered “official” (painting, music, theater, writing, dance, etc.) is brought to something most people would brush off as “ordinary” — say, pruning an apple tree, or setting the table for dinner, or folding laundry — can that be art too? And if so, what would your ordinary art(s) be?