Mud Season (Or, “Signs of a Literary Spring”)

Vermont is a land of seasons–hard seasons.  There is nothing subtle about them, from the rich green landscape of summer, to the reds and golds and oranges of autumn, to the icy, interminable wasteland of winter, and the riot of color that signals the rebirth of spring.  People in New England often say, “If you don’t like the weather, wait around five minutes.  It’ll change.”  Except . . . that’s not necessarily true, especially this time of the year.

 

March is, arguably, Vermont’s least attractive month.  Winter hangs on, stubborn, digging its frostbitten fingers into the earth.  Snowstorms still arise.  Freezing rain and melting snow that re-freezes overnight create conditions more suitable to ice skates than shoes or tires.  Trees remain bare, their trunks gray and brown against the rust and heaviness of the low-hanging clouds.  And as the month pushes on, the days inching inexorably forward toward a longed-for if mercurial April, there is enough snowmelt that the grass finally emerges after being buried and hidden since November.  But it’s not a green, healthful-looking grass.  No.  It’s yellow and flattened, bereft of vibrancy.  It will be weeks before it begins to turn.

 

Perhaps more than anything, though, March in Vermont is famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for its mud.  Rural Vermont is replete with dirt roads that wind along and through the hills and valleys of the state’s rugged terrain.  I myself live on a dirt road, and when Mud Season–as they refer to it here–arrives, well, let’s just say you need a good pair of boots and a tolerance for swerving while driving along the rutted, grooved surface of the road.  Some tire grooves are a foot deep or more–and many drivers have become stuck over the years during Vermont’s season of mud.

 

This all grates on the residents.  Cabin fever sets in.  After all, come March, Vermonters have endured nonstop Arctic conditions for months.  We long to see the tangible manifestations of spring.  The calendar, late in the month, tells us it’s spring–but it doesn’t look like it, and it sure doesn’t feel like it.  I always think about Groundhog Day, February 2nd.  If old Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow, we’ll still be cursed with six more weeks of winter, they say.  That’s supposed to be the bad news.  But, in Vermont, if, on February 2nd, you were told there would be just six weeks left of winter, you’d celebrate.  Six weeks?  Is that all?

 

And yet . . . and yet . . . for all of its bleakness and unwillingness to yield, a Vermont March offers hope.  There are shy, subtle hints that Old Man Winter is retreating, or, at least, about to retreat.  On the surface, these hints can be easily missed if one focuses exclusively on the sub-freezing temperatures, the snow, the ice underfoot.  But they are there.  Like the daylight–which increases.  The four-o’clock evenings of November and December have melted away to longer afternoons and later sunsets.  (Not taking into account Daylight Savings Time, which, of course, creates its own species of havoc!)  There are also the blackbirds and the grackles, who arrive by the middle of the month, returning from their winter migration.  And . . . what’s that?  A sneeze?  Runny eyes?  A scratchy throat?  It’s not a cold.  It’s the first manifestation of seasonal allergies, the pollen that is my lifelong scourge stirring somewhere, unseen, in the shadows.  No life, no renewal is evident.  All looks as stripped and cold as ever.  But something is happening.  A latent life-force is awakening.

 

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It can be like that with creativity, too.  Much like the seasons of our natural world, there are seasons in our creative life, as well.  Sometimes we’re swept away in the lava flow of words, ideas, images, inspirations, epiphanies.  Other times, however (and far too frequently), we lie fallow and windswept, our stories, our paintings, our songs snowed under, cut off from the light.  It’s as if we’re lost in a maze, with no idea how to find our way out.  In the distance, around the corner, through the mountain pass, there is an other side abundant with flowing waterfalls and fields of flowers, basking in the midday sunshine.  We long to get back to that place, where the art seemingly creates itself.  And when we’re not there, we wonder if we’ll ever return.

 

The winter wilderness, when ideas seem perpetually blocked, can cause a sense of panic.  Will I ever get a good, workable idea again?  Has the well run dry?  Is that it?  Am I done as an artist?  Have I written my last story? Believe me, I have been there.  (I was there in the months after finishing The Singularity Wheel.)  And I’ve learned that, sometimes, when we’re particularly fortunate, we emerge from our unwanted creative sabbaticals with a flourish.  A new story comes, like a gift from the muse, and you feel as if you must write it immediately.  A picture forms in your mind, as if by magic–and you know you have a tour de force in the making.  Such unasked-for inspirations are the ultimate highs.

 

But other times, and probably far more often, the rebirth of your creative self is gentler, quieter, less flamboyant.  It doesn’t soar from 23 degrees to 84 degrees Fahrenheit in a single bound.  It takes time.  Maybe a new idea comes, but it needs work still.  The foundation is there.  Now you need to build up, create rooms for the characters in which to live and breathe, and dream. But you’re moving.  You are escaping the dark heart of literary winter.  You have discovered the way out of the maze.  Now, you just have to get there.

 

One step at a time.

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It’s cold today–temperatures not even reaching 20 degrees.  But the sun is shining high in the sky, and the rays are soothing.  And above me, ahead of me . . . what’s that?

The distinct, watery sound of a red-winged blackbird.  The first time I’ve heard a blackbird this calendar year.

 

I look at him, perched on the bare limb of a sugar maple.  He returns my gaze, a knowing sparkle in his eye.

He understands.  Despite the frigid conditions today, he realizes.  And he’s returned.  He’s flown hundreds and hundreds of miles for this.

Spring is almost here.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

When the Lilacs Bloom

Spring, in my neck of the woods, is easily the most longed-for season of the year.

All too often, however, spring is like a bashful pixie, a reluctant, shy, embarrassed late-arrival to the all-season party where winter dominates the proceedings and monopolizes the conversation. Eventually, though, as the pages of the calendar flip forward, day by day, we reach the month of May, when spring finally unfurls its plumage, the self-consciousness gone, the reticence of March and April a forgotten thing.

pixie

 

Almost overnight, it seems, grasses that were yellow and brown turn a rich, verdant green.  Buds appear, as if by magic, on the trees.  Colorful grosbeaks and bobolinks return to the area, and the year-round songbirds sing louder and longer, as if basking in the long-awaited, nearly forgotten warmth.

grosbreak

 

And. perhaps most spectacular of all, May is when the lilacs bloom . . .

This weekend, I will take the seven-hour drive from Vermont, my adopted state for the past eleven years, “back home” to Rochester, New York.  I’ll visit my parents, my brothers and sister, extended family, and old friends.  I look forward to it.  It is always nice visiting my roots, inspirations, the people and places who have been there for me from the beginning.

rochester

 

And, time permitting, I will also make a point to see the lilacs.

Rochester has long been nicknamed the Flower City, and no time of the year embodies this more than the month of May, and no single piece of real estate more so than Highland Park.

highlandp

 

Situated on the city’s south side, Highland Park is home to the largest collection of lilac bushes in the United States, boasting more than 500 varieties of lilacs and 1,200 plants in all, bedecked on a green hillside that spans 22 acres.  Every May, for a span of ten days, the park hosts the Lilac Festival. It’s an enormous event, bringing in more than 500,000 visitors from around the world.

lilacfest

 

For me, though, I most enjoy the park early in the morning, before the food and craft stands open, before the crowds gather–when there is still dew on the grass and when you can listen, without interruption, to your thoughts and luxuriate in the heady fragrance of the lilacs.

lilacs1

 

lilacs2

 

I savor it, savor them, drinking them in because I know they will be gone within a fortnight, the delicate petals fallen, the purples and pinks and lavenders stripped away, the color show over and done until the same time next year.  It always seems sad that such a magnificent display should be so brief, such a bounty so fleeting.

highlandsummer

 

Perhaps it is.  But it also serves as a reminder.

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Have you ever been struck by an idea, something so inspired, so riveting, so full of life and vitality that you instantly knew you had to let it out?  Maybe it was a concept for a short story, or a new focus for a novel.  Maybe it was a poem, gift-wrapped, arriving in total, the lines and rhythms dancing before your eyes like gemstones.  Maybe it was a landscape or a street scene for you to paint, the contours, shadows, and nuances perfectly clear in your mind’s eye.  Maybe it was a tactic, an approach, a way to sway your audience or win the approval of your coworkers on a long-debated and polarizing project.

gems

 

Moments like these are energizing, and often hit us without warning, a creative bolt from the blue, as it were.  They are as invigorating as they are rare.

boltfromblue

 

Sure, ideas strike every day.  But how many of them make you stop what you’re doing mid-thought, or distract to the point where you forget the supper in the oven or fail to see that red light switch over to green (the motorist behind you will certainly let you know should this happen–and yes, I speak from experience!)?  I know for me, such ideas only occur infrequently, and there is no way of guessing when they will come.

redgreen

 

I’ve tried to figure it all out.  Is there something specific I tend to do that might encourage the best ideas to strike?  Is there a certain TV show or movie I should watch?  Maybe a book I should read?  Or maybe a particular food . . . perhaps a “creativity diet” that exists, a certain combination of vegetables, starches, and nuts that assures at least one winning idea per day?

creativediet

 

But if there’s a secret magic formula, I’ve yet to discover it.  The muse strikes when it will, a capricious, fickle thing, as inscrutable as the undiscovered wonders at the bottom of the sea or the farthest reaches of space.

farthestreaches

 

The truth is, those earth-shattering ideas that rock my creative world and send paradigm shifts running through every page of a manuscript are as rare and transitory as the lilacs that grace Highland Park for a fortnight every spring.  And maybe that’s as it should be–for all of us.  If they struck every day, they would no longer be special, no longer demand our attention and make us take notice.  They’d become ordinary, just another check mark on the to-do lists of our lives.  “Brush teeth, check.  Make breakfast, check.  Pick up groceries, check.  Pay the bills, check.  Be inspired by fabulous, Pulitzer-Prize-worthy idea, check.”

pulitzer

 

As tempting as it sounds (especially in those seasons of writer’s block) to have an ideas-on-demand app that we could tap into anytime we want, I kind of like it the way it is now.  Not everything should be so convenient and easy.  Some things are meant to be special.

Like Highland Park in the month of May . . .

ilacsend1

 

. . . when the lilacs bloom.

lilacsend2

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Quiet Moments, Green Meadows

“Everything in life is writable about,” Sylvia Plath once said, “if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise.”

plath

 

Everything?

Sure, large events are worth writing about, both joyous as well as painful–perhaps a wedding, a graduation, a medal of honor; a death, an accident, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity lost.

graduation

 

Who among us hasn’t experienced life-changing moments, moments we want to record on paper or in song, on canvas or in film?  This is at the heart of what it means to create art . . . to take an experience, highly personal and unique to you, and then share it with the world, making it, as if by magic, accessible to everyone, a universal tribute to the human condition.

art

 

But what about the small moments, the quiet times, the everyday jobs?  What about that time you shared a lighthearted conversation with a friend, or had lunch with a coworker?  What about the special meal you prepared last Thursday or the audiobook you’re listening to as you commute to your job each morning?

smallmoments

 

Are these things writable too?

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Every year, on a weekend in May, I take the seven-hour drive from the hills of east-central Vermont, where I live, to Rochester, New York, where I grew up.  This year, that weekend has arrived.  I’ll be heading out first thing tomorrow morning.

rochesterbetter

 

I always enjoy the drive.  May in the northeastern U.S. is a special time, a time made for driving across the countryside.  Lilacs bloom, showering the land with a riot of color–deep pink, lily white, warm purple.  Tall grasses, lush-green, sway in the breeze.  And the trees, bare and gray for so many months, are now bedecked with the leafy accoutrements of spring.

lilacs

 

The towns, too, are alive, as if awakening from a winter-long slumber.  Before merging onto the New York State Thruway, I travel through places with names like Hudson Falls, Schuylerville, Fort Ann, and Fonda.  Small towns, old towns, with local diners and rambling farmhouses and village squares that, very easily, I can imagine as cinematic set pieces for a Frank Capra classic.  It’s all very nostalgic, and it creates in me a stirring, a yearning, an appreciation.

hudsonfalls

 

Driving through the towns, I see children playing catch, a lemonade stand on the corner, a couple walking their dog.  And I realize–it’s good to be alive on this spring day, in the 21st century.  It’s good to be going home.

lemonadestand

 

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I lived countless “little” moments in the house where I grew up, the house where my parents still live.  There were so many, in fact, they tend to merge in my mind, one upon another upon another, like an old home movie playing at triple speed.  But I remember.

homemovies

 

I will always remember  . . .

. . . all the times I played with my brother.  We’d re-create baseball and football seasons with our favorite game, Strat-O-Matic.  Or we’d go into the backyard, and he would play quarterback and I would run routes, pretending I was playing in front of a hundred thousand fans on a Sunday afternoon.  I was just a kid, of course, nine years old, eleven, twelve, and at the time I may not have appreciated the attention my brother gave me as much as I should have.  But I’d like to think that, deep down, I did.  He is nine years older than me.  He was a junior in high school, a senior, then a college student, and still he found the time, and the desire, to be there for me.

strato

 

Is that worth writing about?

Or what about my mother?  Some of my earliest memories are of her reading picture books to me.  I was three years old, and she play-acted the scenes and made the stories come alive, no doubt planting a seed, creating in me a love of reading and writing that would stay with me always.

beanstalk

 

Is that worth writing about?

Or what about my friends, who lived in the old neighborhood?  The same friends who inspired Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski in The Eye-Dancers, not to mention various supporting characters who pop up throughout the course of the novel.  I remember the games we invented, the trouble we got into, the things we would talk about on those clear summer nights when the stars, twinkling like precious diamonds, spread across the great dome of the sky.  We’d wonder–is there life up there, somewhere?  Are we really alone in the universe?  We didn’t think so.  Not then, and not now.

nightsky

 

Is that worth writing about?

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These quiet moments, these small moments, these green May meadows of the soul–soft with morning dew, carpeted with dandelions and velvety to the touch–are the sorts of places that encourage us to stop and linger for a while, to ponder where we’ve come from, and where we’re going.

dandelionmeadow

 

To reflect on the ever-expanding, layered embroidery of our lives, the day-to-day happenings that comprise the bulk of who we are and what we do.  And what and who we love.

And that’s something worth writing about.

memoriesmoments

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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