May 23, 2009

Emily Dickinson in My Head posted by Leann Sweeney I am not a poet or even a playwright or a screen writer. I am mystery novelist. But for the last two weeks Emily's words have been rolling around in my head. The poem is a short one: It dropped so low in my regard I heard it hit the ground, And go to pieces on the stones At the bottom of my mind; Yet blamed the fate that fractured, less Than I reviled myself For entertaining plated wares Upon my silver shelf. Brilliant person, that Emily. If you haven't heard--and I know you all have, right? :) -- I have a new book out, first in a new series. the Cat, The Quilt and The Corpse. It has been the biggest challenge of my life considering the state of my health for the last several years. Every word was a challenge. I cried with frustration nearly every day. Told myself I sucked almost as much. Could I do this again. Really? Could I? And yet I did. And now the book has been born and it seems to be doing well. I care that people are reading, but I also care that I accomplished what at one point I thought was nearly impossible. Go me. (For today, anyway.) So why the dreary poem, you ask? I will be as vague about some things as possible and yet clear about other stuff. My own silly insecurities for the most part. I, like most authors, do signings. I like to think this is a mutual deal. I help them, they help me. One event every year is very special because when I do this one, I really feel like a writer. I meet people who read my books and they tell me that I make them smile and escape and be happy. This is why I write and is why I keep writing. This time, something happened that took me aback. The energy in the store when I arrived was lacking. I felt it when I walked in the door. Busy store, but that's always the case. But I felt rather like a book on the shelf, rather than a person. I made the best of it, took control as much as I could and talked to the people gathered to meet me. But see, when my introduction came before the talk I gave, rather than hold up my book, the introducer chose another book to talk about, one they really really liked. Was I crushed? You betcha. This was all so different. So unexpected. And of course, being the idiot I am, I couldn't leave it alone. I dwelled on this for three days. And since I had more work to do at the store because a few books had not been signed, I chose to mention this to the "introducer" when I went back. I said, "I was hurt by what happened. Maybe you could have held up my book, too." That didn't go over well. Tears came. Idiot all over again. But then, in the days that followed, Emily's words came to me. Everything happens for a reason. To be clear, I do not think I have a huge ego. I hope I do not across as a diva. I am just a simple woman with a very emotional side who mistook people for friends, when it's really all about business. And I fully understand that I am NOT the person who will be keeping the store running--not that I ever really thought that was the case to begin with. But I understand now that the universe decided I needed to be a little more humble, needed to stop entertaining those "plated wares upon my silver shelf." So... Done and done. Now maybe I can quit thinking about this and concentrate on cat writing PS: If you are one of the two people to comment on this yes, self-indulgent blog, then I would be happy to send you a signed advanced uncorrected proof of The Cat, The Quilt and The Corpse.
CEMETERIES Posted by Sheila Connolly (with Sarah Atwell as consultant) It's hard to believe that the ladies of Writers Plot have been blogging together for over two years now. I checked, because I wanted to make sure I hadn't written about cemeteries too much–I believe I have restrained myself admirably. But it's Memorial Day–and it's also my birthday, so I'll write what I want to! I won't bore you with the details of my early fascination with cemeteries, although it has been steady (a high-school friend and I used to bicycle our way to various local cemeteries, then sit and picnic there–okay, we were weird kids.). My grandmother and mother introduced me to a few of the "family" plots, and I'm glad we saw them together. It's a sort of passing of the torch, and I'm inflicting the same tradition on my daughter, who is bearing up quite well. In fact, my mother used to joke that her dowry consisted mainly of five family cemetery plots. I'm still looking for a couple of them, but I haven't given up yet. It's not that I'm a ghoul–I'm a historian. Most people aren't aware that cemeteries are a repository of documents, an archive in stone. The Daughters of the American Revolution agree, and absent any written evidence, will accept photos of tombstones as proof of kinship or relationship. Of course, a stone can be unreliable: witness the variations of spelling within a single family plot, especially among the earlier examples. Apparently people weren't quite so hung up on spell-checking in the 18th century. Worse, people have been known to inscribe erroneous information on tombstones, most likely because they themselves weren't sure of birth dates. Major confession: when my grandmother died in 1993, we had a family debate about what birth date to put on her stone. You see, she had been orphaned early and had no official birth record (that we have ever found), and it seems that every time she filled out a formal document–marriage license, Social Security application and the like–she changed the year. We think she was born in 1899, but by the end of her life she preferred 1904. So what did we put on the stone? 1904, because it was her choice, and we were honoring her. Yes, we lied, on a very permanent record. Tombstones often tell us a lot about people. In keeping with the Memorial Day theme, let me tell you about my favorite great-great-grandfather, Silas A. Barton, buried in Waltham, Massachusetts. Obviously I never knew him–he died in 1914. But among all my known ancestors, he left the broadest and possibly the most interesting trail. We think he was born in Ware, MA (no documentation), and also lived in Vermont for a bit, and later Stoneham, Lynn and Waltham. He was one of the founders of the General Electric Company and worked for them in Boston for a few years. Silas was the youngest of four brothers, and they all served in the Civil War. But Silas was only 16 when he signed up (he needed his father's signature to get into the army), and while his brothers fought in some of the major battles of the War, Silas spent his entire military career of three years at Fort Independence in Boston Harbor, keeping New England safe (he did a good job, didn't he?). He never saw a battle. However, his military service was one of the defining points of his life. He was heavily involved in Grand Army of the Republic activities after the War, in Lynn and Waltham, and even assisted in planning a huge regatta on the Charles River. His obituary refers to him as "Colonel" Barton, which is an honorary title. On his tombstone, the only personal information included is: "Corp. Co. D, 1st Battalion, H.A. [Heavy Artillery] Mass. Vols." That service shaped the adult man he became. All right, enough of the heavy stuff. I also have fun in some cemeteries, because there are all sorts of weird and wonderful tombstones. For example, the Victorians for a time experimented with metal markers, with a faux-stone finish. You can usually spot them a mile away because they share a bluish-grey color, and because they last very, very well, so they're still crisp and sharp. [Short research detour: they're made of zinc, although called "white bronze." They were popular from the 1870s through the early 20th century. Many of the manufacturers also made monumental statues, primarily of firemen and soldiers–if you look, you can probably find some local monuments that feature them.] They're also endearing because they're kind of mix-and-match. You chose your basic shape, and then you could add the decoration of your choice–swags, ships, garlands. And of course your personal data were added too. All the bits and pieces were bolted on. Wonder why these never became truly popular? They've outlasted quite a few contemporary stone monuments. There was, however, one short-coming: you couldn't make them too large, because then they started to collapse under their own weight. And then there are the whimsical markers–those covered with flowers, or stones carved to resemble trees or logs, which I love. I offer you a couple of particularly charming examples. The Boynton plot in South Hadley has a central ivy-clad tree (or stump). The plot perimeter is defined by smaller stumps, while the personal markers within are little piles of stones with scrolls. The Dickinson tree is a bit less formal, with the pertinent information "tacked" onto the bark–and a delightful bird peeping out of a knothole. I could go on, but I won't. My point: a visit to a cemetery does not need to be a sad event; it can be a celebration of those who came before us, who shaped us personally, and our towns, and even our country. Those buried there deserve to be remembered.

Lorraine Bartlett

Five women, five weekdays, many surprises.

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