UpNorth at 4

Pete and Moses and I stopped off at Rhinelander yesterday for a guest appearance on UpNorth at 4. 

Then we drove back down to Sturgeon Bay. We put in 500 miles in one day, and the dogs were both patient and well-mannered. But when we got in last night they both burst into a run as if they’d been released from the gates.

We are staying at a cozy place right on the canal, but we are all raring to go. It’s still dark, and too early, but we’re heading out. Don’t want to miss the ferry.

It’s Island time.

In Praise of Small Towns

W.I. Crossroads

My column that will appear in Sunday’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

 

A writer in a national magazine recently theorized that small town voters who are worried about the deterioration of American culture are “insular” and unenlightened, stuck in the past, resistant to progress.
Having grown up in a small town, and also having taught at a high school in the inner city of Milwaukee, I can say that most of my students and their families were also living in their hometown, and the hometown of their families. Does that make them insular? Or does it make them normal?

City life is fine. It is filled with cultural and social and employment opportunities that may not exist elsewhere. You can choose how and whether to connect with other people. But bustle is not for everyone, nor is anonymity.

Some among us choose to live in a different way. But it would be a mistake to believe that small town life is a bucolic and peaceful existence. Living in a small community is not for the faint of heart.

Small towns are a microcosm of the human experience, but with more intensity. You live shoulder to shoulder with your oldest friends, and your fiercest enemies. You daily encounter the person who cheated you; who stood you up; who broke your heart; and with people who know your complete history: every bad decision, every embarrassment, every moment of kindness (if any). In cities, there can be the relief of some anonymity, but not in a small town. Living in a small town is a psychologically raw way to live.

But small town life also requires a deep connection to community that city people may not acquire. It generally means that you go to church because that is what is expected, and what almost everyone does. It means you are surrounded by people who know you. In the city it’s called networking. In a small town, the network is your neighbors, and you are expected to participate. Your neighbors are the ones who gather around you to celebrate births and mourn deaths. They plow your driveway when you have the flu. They raise money to help in a tragedy. They put an arm around your shoulder. They make casseroles. And you, in turn, celebrate, and mourn, and plow, and comfort, and bake. This sharing and mutual support is as old as human beings. And it is good.

We live in a society in which the elites make a continuing push against the values of faith and decency and commonsense. The cultural gatekeepers seem to believe that someone who doesn’t live in your community can decide what’s wrong with you, and what you need. It’s an insult, and a barely veiled one. You are flyover country: insular, irrelevant bumpkins filled with prejudices, unable to participate in the enlightenment of the cities, destined never to be famous. Living in a small town means that you are aware of the scorn heaped upon you by city dwellers who think they are better, and you shrug your shoulders and get on with it.

Maybe resisting progress isn’t all bad. In an age of celebrity and reality television, of Instagram and Twitter, most small town people live out quiet, uncelebrated lives of dignity and depth. They work; they care for their families and their friends; they mow their lawns and mop their floors. They may not be famous or trend-setting. But they have lives worth living.

And that is something worth standing for.

Delayed Gratification

 

Pete and Baby Moses

We are expecting a new puppy: a companion for Moses, and a respite–and new pupil–for Pete. My husband has misgivings about a third dog, and–although I generally keep it to myself–so do I. But, sadly, we won’t have three forever, and I want Pete, the elder statesman, to help train the puppy.

The puppy will be a special one, like Moses, carefully bred to be healthy, smart, even-tempered, gentle, and sweet. Also long-lived. These German Shepherds often live to be 13 or 14 years old, which is long for a big dog. Every day I check the breeder’s website, to see the current puppies, and look for news of the coming event. But today I found out it won’t be late fall, but early spring.

I am a little disappointed, but it gives me time to continue my ruminations on names. Leading contenders for now are Marcus Aurelius (guess why); St. Augustine (remember Augie Doggie?); Herodotus (I know); and George.

Official dog names are usually kind of pompous, with the kennel name in the possessive first, followed by the particular dog’s name.  Still, it’s always possible to have fun with the form. With Peter and Moses we have New Testament and Old Testament represented. But the truth is that Moses’ name, although he is officially Moses, Prince of Egypt, was actually the result of my watching The Ten Commandments too frequently in my youth. I wanted to be able to shake my head sorrowfully and say, “Moses, Moses, Moses.”

I’m kind of leaning toward George. But I am open to suggestions. Drop me a line if you have a perfect name for a big, beautiful, new German Shepherd puppy. Did I mention that he’s expected to be 150 pounds? He’ll need something he can grow into.

If I pick your suggestion, I’ll send you a copy of my latest book.

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Moses, left, and Pete on Washington Island.

 

Between Despair and Pride

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I am reading some essays by Wendell Berry in which he captures–with great simplicity and concision–the necessity of loneliness. I think that is one of the reasons I love Washington Island so much: when I say that I feel more myself there than anywhere else, I think it is because I am alone there, and lonely there.

Loneliness is frightening. And that is part of what is necessary. I mitigate my loneliness with my dogs. They are soulful and joyous companions, and I need them, because the intensity of emotion is sometimes threatening.

And I would never walk in the woods in the dark without them, even though Moses likes to pretend he is a wolf: running off to return and stalk me silently along the far edges of the path. This is his great game, and he makes me feel that I am in a Russian fairy tale.

But in this loneliness there is also a settling in to the essence of self. It’s not an exercise in ego, but an escape from it. It feels, as the non-essential is pulled away, that the course of life is running along its proper path. I am simply myself. Again and for the first time. Theodore Roethke wrote “What falls away is always, and is near.” I think this experience is what he was referring to.

All this is to say that it has been a long time since I have been to the Island for any length of time, and I need to go there. My trip was almost cancelled this week by other kinds of necessity, and the thought of not being able to go created a rising panic that started deep. I need to go there to let the world fall away. I need myself back.

Berry talks of the right place in life as being between despair and pride. They are his opposites. I am ready to know whether they are mine.

I’d Vote for Them

Miss Marple for President

From The Bluestocking Salon:

Miss Jane Marple was born in an English cathedral close, a gentlewoman and lifelong resident of the village of St. Mary Mead. While most women of her generation devoted themselves to homemaking, Miss Marple leveraged her unflappable constitution and needle-sharp understanding of human nature into an unorthodox career in criminal justice. Weathering criticism and scorn from those who question the intellect and skill of spinsters, Miss Marple has quietly cultivated a sterling reputation as “the finest detective God ever made,” unmasking criminals from all walks of life and earning the respect of Scotland Yard’s top brass. Her tireless work over the years has saved countless lives…and laid the groundwork for a presidency rooted in fairness and fearlessness in the face of evil. Thus it’s only natural that Miss Marple would choose former police officer Hercule Poirot as her estimable running mate. Monsieur Poirot’s devotion to law and order shapes all aspects of his life, work, and moustaches, and his little grey cells and sophisticated worldview are matched only by his reputation across Europe and the Orient as one of the most unique personalities in law enforcement. United in their quest for truth and justice, voters can rest assured: Marple and Poirot are on the case.

I’ve always loved the kind of murder mystery in which bodies are decorously laid out on the library floor without a lot of fuss and bother, and the rest of the books concern witty conversation and much drinking of tea–or tisanes.  When I was living in Austria, I polished my German by reading translations of Agatha Christie novels. It was extremely helpful, but also led to a rather peculiar vocabulary.

I’m pretty sure that my taste for series of books in which readers can re-visit the characters like old friends came, in large part, from my affection for Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.

Miss Marple for President!

 

Points of Interest

One of my readers, Laura Holmes, made a trip to the Island recently, and made a point of searching out the locations in the books. She was kind enough to send me some of the photos.

She had ice cream at the Albatross;

Laura at the Albatross

She lay on the rocks at School House Beach;

School house beach

and she sought out my friend, Captain Bill, who was one of my best resources for information while I was researching.

Laura and Captain Bill

Captain Bill is mentioned in both books, but would only be noticed by those of you who read authors’ notes and acknowledgments. (Confession: I generally do not.) I missed him at my recent book signing. He was working that day, and apparently got to the book shop just after I had left.

He’s one of my favorite people.