A Towel, and an Adventure

Our daughter in the barn, tending mini horses.

I spread a threadbare white towel over the only clean spot in the barn – the lid of a feed can – and begin cutting it into washcloth sized squares. In the stall beside me, a horse wheezes, struggling to breathe. She and the two others we’ve just rescued are suffering from “strangles”: pus-filled abscesses that swell and burst in her throat, making her gasp for air. Hot compresses held against her neck help – a little. Again and again, we dunk rags in hot water, press them to her weeping sores, and bring them away covered in mucous and blood.

Sam convinced me that rescuing three mini horses would be an adventure. He was right, if you define “adventure” the way Bilbo does at the beginning of The Hobbit: “Nasty uncomfortable things. Make you late for dinner.”

Sam is always ready for an adventure. I’m always ready for a nice cup of tea by the fire. I’m not sure why we still get along, but we do.

The towel I’m cutting up steadies me. It reminds me how far I’ve come, how much I’ve already survived. I bought it almost exactly twenty years ago, at the start of another sort of adventure. I was fleeing an emotionally abusive relationship with nothing more than a bag of clothes and a few beloved books. I rented a tiny studio and furnished it with cardboard boxes. I bought a futon mattress, two towels, and a single set of sheets – and almost didn’t eat at the end of the month because of it.

Since then, this towel has traveled with me from North Carolina to Vermont to Tennessee to Pennsylvania, has lived in eight different houses and apartments, has been used to wrap a baby and wipe a child’s dirty feet and sponge mud off a dog. These days, I don’t worry about whether I can afford to buy a towel, or a table, or a chair.

This towel has been with me for almost exactly the same amount of time as Sam has. It was the worst time to start a new relationship. I wasn’t ready. But some things come for you, ready or not. Saying yes (to Sam, to these sick horses, to everything else foolish I’ve ever tried) is a blind leap forward. No way to look ahead, no sense looking back. Nothing certain, except that it will be an adventure.

Rescue

The proposed mare, nameless for now

If everything goes as planned, there will be a new member of the family soon. A rescue mare.

This is a leap of faith. A money drain. And a life raft for our teenager.

Over the past few years, Kana’s riding has become more than a hobby: it’s therapy. “I love horses because I know they’re more anxious than I am,” she says. “My job is to tell them it’s OK. Even if I don’t think it really is OK.”

Kana cuddles baby Sage at the farm where she rides

The horse Kana wants to adopt, a thoroughbred mare with a troubled past, moves like anxiety made flesh. She prowls from one end of her too-small pen to the other, hooves barely skimming the ground. Dark and elegant, she stalks along the fence, nosing Kana’s hand as she passes. Her mind isn’t on the carrot she lips up from my daughter’s palm. It’s on tigers, slaughterhouses, whips. All the things that could possibly go wrong.

“Look at her,” Kana’s trainer says. “She worries.”

With good reason. As far as we can piece together, this horse has raced, worked as a brood mare, been sold at what those in the business call a “kill auction,” and finally ended up here, in a tiny yard at the PSPCA. Born to run with nowhere to go. At some point, her identifying lip tattoo was burned off, by someone who didn’t want the details of her past to be known. That can’t mean anything good. She’s about twelve, still gorgeous, and consumed by her own fears.

All this makes her the perfect project for Kana and her trainer. Kana wants to learn to train horses, to rescue a creature that needs her, and to ride really fast. I want Kana to conquer the horse’s anxiety, and perhaps learn something about her own.

In a lesson a few weeks back, I heard the trainer tell Kana: “Your job is to take the horse’s mind from her. Let her know it’s safe with you. She doesn’t have to think. She only has to do what you ask.”

Kana with Woody, her favorite horse at the farm where she rides. Humans are fine and all, but this horse might just be her best friend.

And vice versa. Kana needs projects that take her mind from her. Projects that say: “Look only at me, give me what I need, and everything will be all right.” I know this, because I need the same thing.

This morning, a colleague told me she admired my ability to “burrow into” my writing no matter what else was going on. I protested, because I’m pretty sure my writing went out the window last November along with every last shred of my sanity. I haven’t found my rhythm since. But my colleague insisted. Her teenager had been giving her problems. “And now,” she said, “I see that my writing is one thing I can control. I wrote a few pages today. I cling to that.”

A few pages. Bad ones. If nothing else, they demand my mind for time I spend on them. And one less horse shipped to slaughter – a small thing, but important. Even if, as might happen, this horse is never safe to ride. Even if the pages never become a book.

Kana and Woody

The proposed mare, worrying

Winter Honey

Finished products: over two gallons of honey, and about two pounds of wax. Winter honey is a mix of whatever the bees had stored. Last year’s was fruity, this year’s amber and spicy.

Spring honey is so pale it’s almost white. It comes from tree flowers: maple, locust, catalpa.

Fall honey, from goldenrod, is pungent and dark. My neighbor says it smells like old shoe.

But winter honey, the kind I’m pouring into jars now, is the kind you only harvest because your bees are dead.

According to my non-beekeeping husband, the sum total of all bee books is “your bees will die.” But they’ll do it in the most complicated way possible. When x awful thing happens (and it will), try this strange remedy (actual examples: shaking the entire hive contents out onto a bedsheet, dusting the bees down with powdered sugar once a week for a month, hanging empty boxes scented with lemongrass oil in trees near the apiary, stacking one colony on top of another with a few sheets of newspaper in between). Do all these things, master the skills, keep careful records. And then, your bees will die.

It’s true. In the past three years, I’ve had eleven colonies. Only two have survived a winter. I buy new bees every spring the way I buy new seeds. They’re happy and busy throughout the summer. And almost always, in the winter thaw, I find them dead and frozen in their cluster. All around them, their life’s work, the darkly glowing heart of the hive.

For six days now, my kitchen has been sticky with the dying of my hives, as I scramble to clean up the mess and take what’s left before the mice do. Seven frames of honey thrown away because of mold, thirteen stored in the chest freezer to feed the bees arriving next spring, and fourteen for the humans to eat. I’m trying the crushed comb method of extraction, which involves no extractor but far too many buckets, reams of cheesecloth, a long slow filtration process, and an explosive, slow-moving mess all over the kitchen.

The thing about honey, says Sam to cheer me up, is that you have plenty of time. He’s right. Pots of honey thousands of years old have been found in the pyramids, still unspoiled. (See the fascinating article here.)

What keeps me on my feet after a long day of teaching, after cooking and dishes and shutting the chickens in for the night, to filter honey and melt wax? The same thing that makes me open a blank file and begin to write when my eyes are itching for sleep. That makes me order new bees every spring. Sheer cussedness in the face of all that erodes, that molds, that dies. Not for the winter honey, but because if I sit down now I’ll fall asleep, and that in itself is reason enough to keep moving forward.

This is what happens after the end of everything. You get up, you keep going, and you salvage what’s left.

Best smells in the world: Sheets dried on a line in winter. Scalp of a contented baby. And warm beeswax with the honey just filtered out. I’ll make candles another day, when I’m not so tired.

Apamea

Photo: Bernard Gagnon https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10325900

These are dark days. Although this will never be a political blog, I give up on tiptoeing around that particular elephant: when world events are as dire as they have been these past few weeks, writing fiction feels silly. Selfish, even.

But here’s where fiction and the real world collided, for me, a few days ago.

I was in my favorite place, deep in the rabbithole of research. Six books lay open on the floor around me, none of them published in the past quarter century. For me, fiction writing demands real, hard research, the kind that goes far beyond what the Internet has to offer. Right now, I need to know more about 13th century Syria and Lebanon. All kinds of things: landscape, clothing, food, calendar, weights and measures, demographics. Also wetlands, because I need to know where you’d live, if you happened to be a swan.

Eventually, I always stumble on the right page, those crucial few sentences. That day, they were these:

 “Buhairah al Afâmiyyah: ‘These,’ writes Abu-l Fidâ in 1321, ‘consist of a number of lagoons divided one from another by beds of rushes, with lowlands covered by reeds. […] Its depth is less than the height of a man, but its bottom is so miry that a man cannot stand up in it. On all sides and all over its surface are reeds and willows, and in the middle there is a thicket of reeds and papyrus. […] On these lagoons there live all kinds of birds, such as swans, and the species called Al Ghurairah, and Sangh, and pelicans, and cranes. Also birds that feed on fish, such as the species called Al Jalth and Al Abyadâniyât, and other such aquatic birds. In no other lagoons of which I have knowledge are there so many kinds of birds as here. In springtime these lagoons are so crowded with yellow water-lilies that the whole surface is hidden thereby, and the water is as though covered by a veil from end to end, formed of their leaves and flowers. The boats thread their way through them.’” (Guy Le Strange, Palestine Under the Moslems, Beirut: Khayats, 1965, pp. 70-71)

This kind of source material nourishes me. It puts me in 1321: I see and feel what it was like to be there. But where on earth is Buhairah al Afâmiyyah? Sometimes, even a purist like me has to turn to the Internet. After a few keystrokes, I identified the ancient town of Apamea, with its stunning Roman ruins.

With one catch: those same keystrokes also let me know that Apamea no longer exists. Not as it did in the photos, the ones that make me want to drop everything and get on a plane. No, those are from before the war. Now Apamea has been looted, stripped. From my safe vantage point at the other side of the world, studying photos on Google Earth, I can only guess at the damage. I didn’t know I wanted to visit Apamea until a minute ago, and now I also know I never will.

And then, although I have social media and news sites blocked, and I’m trying to keep my head in a different place, that quiet place where writing gets done, suddenly it’s all right there in the room with me. The refugee ban. The fact that I should probably be, at that moment, driving to the Philadelphia airport to stand in solidarity, not reading medieval Arabic geographers while dreaming of pelicans and water lilies.

Why am I trying to write this book? In no sense am I the right person to tell the story: a series of diplomatic incidents between a Frankish lady of Beirut and Sultan Baybars, colliding with fragments of folklore from two or three cultures, none of them mine. I am a white person with no qualifications but a love of research, a familiarity with Western medieval culture, and a working knowledge of all sides of the Crusades, gained over years of wanting to teach my students what really happened. I know just enough to understand how many ways this could go wrong, how many real people I could hurt. But the story wouldn’t stop tugging my sleeve, and I was already writing it before I began to wonder whether I shouldn’t.

For now, I focus on doing my research, expressing the full humanity of all my characters, and acknowledging my own ignorance. It’s never wrong to want to learn more. It’s never wrong to write a first draft, to tell the story to yourself. Later, I’ll think about what comes next. The worst that can happen is I’ll have to throw it all away. And that’s only what happens with most of the novels people write anyway.

So I tell myself. But I am scared. Scared of doing this ham-handedly, insensitively. And, in my snug little office in central Pennsylvania, never having had to flee my home, never having been turned away by a country that had pledged to take me in, this kind of fear is itself a privilege.

These are the quotes I have above my desk right now:

“When fear arrives, something is about to happen.” – Leigh Bardugo

“You have to write the book that wants to be written.” – Madeleine L’Engle

“Never trust the teller. Trust the tale.” – Rabih Alameddine

 

Read about the probable looting of Apamea here and here.

 

My Best Reads of 2016

2016 wasn’t all bad for me. Besides signing with a literary agent (more on that in a future post), I read a lot of really good books. Here are some of my favorites.

This isn’t everything I read in 2016, nor were all these books published in 2016. These are simply books that I read and loved this year, and that I would recommend to others!

Since 2016 was my first year of keeping track of my best reads, I cheated and included a few truly spectacular reads from 2015 in the mix.

New Year’s Letter

Oh, 2016. We kept going. We kept it together, more or less.

Kana is in 10th grade, and enjoys math, science, and Latin. (Her parents approve!) Her real love, though, is horses. She has been riding at a nearby farm several times a week, and wants to adopt a horse of her own. We do have a horse barn on our property, which we use for chickens. We’ll see.

Kana and baby Sage

Kana and Woody

Kana and Clover

Sam continues to teach Latin, classical studies, and philosophy at Penn State Altoona, and to putter around our farm. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if his projects are progressing or not: I won’t tell you how many junk tractors he bought, “fixed,” broke, discarded, and/or sold in 2016. He also volunteers at the local raptor center.

Sam and a friend

I continue to teach French, women’s studies, and medieval studies at Penn State Altoona. I also continue to write fiction. I spent much of 2016 looking for an agent for my novel – not an easy task. Through a combination of persistence and luck, I eventually found the right agent, and my novel is now being submitted to publishers. If you want to know what it’s about, you can find out more on my author website: go to bhfindley.com and click on The Lost Heirs of Perceforest.

The highlight of my year was the week I spent hiking in northern England with my sisters Anna and Maria.

Ilam Church, Ashbourne

With Anna in stormy Yorkshire

With Maria in the Peaks District

Kana and I also climbed Mt. Washington.

Kana on the way up Mt. Washington

We said goodbye to our beloved cat Miles in April. He was brave, kind, and interested in everything from puppies to plumbing.

Miles back in 2012, with new puppy Lizzie

Although we’ll never be able to replace Miles, we were still unwise enough to adopt a new kitten in June. Toshi loves playing with the dog’s tail, biting the humans’ hands, terrorizing the adult cats, and sitting in the sink waiting for someone to turn the water on.

Toshi

The farm feels like a mess, but it produces things: veggies, peaches, honey, eggs. We have more potatoes and squash than we can eat, and we were still strip-mining carrots from the frozen ground in December. But some things never work: I can’t figure out how to grow artichokes, can’t keep weeds from strangling the asparagus or Japanese beetles from devouring the cherries, and didn’t find the time to make jam. All my bees died, as they do almost every year.

I don’t know yet how I’ll fight the darkness in 2017. I have no idea if I’ll manage to write another novel, or if the one I did write will be published. But I’m grateful to be doing the things I do, and living with the people I live with.

In 2017, may you find ways to be as brave as Carrie Fisher, as creative as David Bowie, and as steadfast as Muhammed Ali.

Kana and Lizzie

 

Retelling at a Distance: L’Amour de loin

Jaufré Rudel dies in the arms of his beloved. BNF ms. fr. 854, fol. 121v.

The twelfth-century troubadour Jaufré Rudel left behind six poems, four with melodies. One of them, words and music, is imbedded at the heart of L’Amour de loin, a medieval artifact at the core of a modern work.

L’Amour de loin (Love From Afar) is an opera by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, with a libretto by the Lebanese-born French author Amin Maalouf. It is based on a thirteenth century legend about Jaufré Rudel. For me, seeing the opera was a chance to reflect on retelling, and the particular challenges of retelling a medieval work for a modern audience.

The premise of L’Amour de loin is almost forbiddingly medieval. Jaufré falls in love with a woman he has never seen, the far-off countess of Tripoli, because of the good things he hears about her from travelers. It’s hard to imagine a less plausible reason. How is this possible, unless love itself means something different from what we assume?

It does. For Jaufré, being in love is all about writing poems. His impossible love is an excuse for his true obsession: his own words and melodies, which flow all the more freely because the lady who inspires them is an absent ideal. The trouble arises because she isn’t – she’s real, she learns how Jaufré is using her, and that knowledge changes everything. Her journey through the bewildering landscape of Jaufré’s obsession takes her from outrage to impotence (unable to compose poems, how can she answer her lover?) to rage.

All this is authentically medieval, an exploration of the self-destructive logic of courtly love. “If death were not so close, you would not be so near,” Jaufré sings to his lady toward the end of the opera.

Watching the story unfold according to rules laid down by a handful of poets writing in Occitan nearly nine hundred years ago, I thought of another kind of distance – that between the medieval story and its modern audience. Retold today, the legend acquires resonances its thirteenth-century writer couldn’t have imagined.

For this is a crusader story: the distant countess is a Frankish noble in the crusader state of Tripoli, in modern-day Lebanon. Jaufré, lord of a tiny principality in what’s now southern France, “takes up the cross” when he journeys to see her. This crusade isn’t about war, though; it’s about distance. The distance between East and West, the misunderstandings that arise from idealizing the other. The ruin that comes of trying to close the gap.

To tell medieval stories is to be confronted with that gap, again and again. Perhaps, the opera suggests, it’s best to acknowledge our distance. The far-off world of the past can never be entirely present to us.

In Act II, a pilgrim sings one of Jaufré’s songs to the countess. The delightful surprise for me (lost, I have to assume, on most of the rest of the audience), was that the song really is Jaufré’s – performed on instruments that didn’t exist when he was alive, but otherwise not so different from what he wrote in the twelfth century. The medieval poet is allowed to speak, not in the voice of the character who plays him, but in the voice of the go-between, the pilgrim (poetry is also a go-between), who sings it while apologizing for his faulty memory (history is also a faulty memory). Stopping and starting, bit by bit, the pilgrim delivers a flawed performance that he hopes is “more or less” right. Jaufré, when he hears that one of his songs has been performed “more or less,” is outraged. But, at this distance, “more or less” is all we have left.

Read the New York Times review of L’Amour de loin here.

Read Jaufré’s medieval biography (English translation by Rupert Pickens) here.

Found Materials

Leaf, feather, beak, stone

Leaf, feather, beak, stone

Most mornings, the dog and I go into the woods together, hunting for stories. Almost always, I come back with something in my hands. A bouquet of autumn leaves. A twist of grapevine, looped and curled. A horse chestnut, gleaming like a jewel. A bright blue feather.

These found treasures keep me company when I sit down to write. Usually, I clear them from my desk at the end of the day, but a few stay with me longer. I still have a piece of quartz broken from the bedrock of my family’s land in Vermont. The beak of a cardinal, found lying in the snow one winter, bright scarlet. And the skeleton leaf that spoke to me during one painful round of edits – I wanted to learn from the way it kept its shape, even with most of it gone.

I write to recycle another kind of found material. Forgotten stories, the ones that haven’t been told for so long they’re beginning to fall apart. I try to renovate them like houses, knocking down walls, prying away tired old ideas, patching leaks. Medieval stories weren’t built the way stories are today, and that’s both good and bad. I don’t aspire to be “authentic” so much as to recreate something useful. Something people might want to live in again.

“Being a writer” feels presumptuous to me. The alternative: being a redactor, medieval style. To wit:

  1. In medieval Occitan, poets were “troubadours”: finders. The things they “found” were words, phrases, images, poems.
  1. The writer’s material – the story-matter – is ancient, amorphous, vast. The task is to break off bits and struggle to impart shape to them, to make them “make sense.”
  1. Stories move over time. They grow and change. Not only the ones that are constantly retold: the neglected ones can change too, when no one is looking.
  1. To discover the truest version of a story, listen to it closely. It may be that everyone has always told the story wrong. There may be no evidence for this, beyond the story’s own complaint, its own demand to be told differently. Listen to the story, always.

Edits

Tomato jungle

Tomato jungle

I did it again – planted 27 tomatoes for three people. It seemed like a good idea back in January. I chose six heirloom varieties in all colors from red to green to gold, and knew I needed every last one.

But when August comes, the tomato vines fall on the peppers and kill them. The tomatoes themselves fall to the ground and rot. There’s no time to make sauce. Sam’s acid stomach starts to protest.

And I have to stand the plants up, cut them back, and make sense of them.

I love the superabundance, the privilege of going through and pruning after the fact. Growing too much, then choosing the very best. But pruning has to be part of the process or everything will die.

I’m getting ready to do the same thing with my book. Again. Editing it down to what really matters.

Making cuts to a project you’ve been with this long is like sawing off your own arm with a butter knife. But experience tells me it works. Sentences shed their adverbs. Scenes shed their dead weight. The story emerges from the thicket, the statue from the marble.

It’s impossible to have too many tomatoes, or books, or cats. But litter, and extra words, and vines that overrun the garden killing everything are a different story.

After editing, two of my favorites: mortgage lifter and green zebra.

After editing, two of my favorites: mortgage lifter and green zebra.

The First Four Years

Laura Ingalls Wilder had more sense than I do. She knew she didn’t want to be a farmer’s wife. I had the silly idea I might like it.

Laura’s husband Almanzo persuaded her to let him try farming for four years.* The disasters that followed are the subject of the last of the Little House books, The First Four Years.**

It's not as much fun as it looks

It’s not as much fun as it looks

We moved to our farm exactly four years ago. It’s safe to say we’ve had better luck than the Wilders: no crops ruined by hail, no diphtheria, no house fires, and no children dying in infancy. We also don’t have to make our living farming. But I’m not as tough as Laura, and some days just living on a farm is enough to drive me insane.

Here’s what our crazy experiment looks like four years in:

DSCF1214

Abundant garden veggies, and even more abundant weeds. That’s what we get for going on vacation for 2 1/2 weeks. There are tomatoes. If you can find them.

DSCF1219

Bees overflowing from their hives. I need to buy more bee boxes.

DSCF1222

Blueberry bushes I can’t find in the weeds.

DSCF1231

Several broken down tractors that Sam might eventually fix. At one point, there were five.

DSCF1234

More cats than we intended. If cats were a farm crop, we’d be all set.

DSCF1221

Seven hens that have stopped laying (the rooster is now in the freezer). When hens get too old to lay, you’re supposed to eat them and start over with new ones. But these hens are named Amelia Earhart and Marilyn Monroe and Boss Hen and… well, there’s no way we could eat girls with names like those.

DSCF1228

One border collie to run the show.

IMG_6177

Oh, and one girl who really wants a horse. (Disclaimers: This is not her horse. This is not our farm.)

Also nine pigeons, just because, and no wood in the woodshed for next winter because why would we plan ahead?

After four years, I’m beginning to realize things will never calm down around here. Never. There isn’t going to be a time when we’re “caught up” on farming. There will always be pokeweed in the flower beds, and Japanese beetles in the cherry trees, and Varroa mites in the bee hives.

Sam thinks I should relax and not worry about it. He likes to say, “the farm is my book.”

The difference is that we don’t have to live in my unfinished books. Luckily.

Conception-of-Alexander-from-History-of-Alexander-the-Great-by-Quintus-Curtius-Rufus-Netherlands-c.-1468-1475

What would that even look like? Maybe like this… (The Conception of Alexander, from The History of Alexander the Great by Quintus Curtius Rufus, Netherlands, c. 1468-1475)

DSCF1220

Also, what happens if I can’t find my writing shack in the weeds?

 

______

* Actually three, but they added a fourth “year of grace” because their first three years were so unsuccessful.

** It’s also the only book in the series that was not edited (rewritten) by Laura’s daughter Rose. It reads very differently from the others. The Ghost in the Little House by William Holtz argues that Rose’s rewriting made the Little House books what they are. It’s an eye-opening read — especially if, like me, you’re interested in writing and rewriting and what goes into making a good book. I highly recommend it!