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Monday, September 30, 2019

“Nor Iron Bars a Cage”

The sky was overcast at first as I walked around Northport on Saturday morning, but well before the official beginning of Leelanau UnCaged (11 a.m.) the sun broke through — Hooray! — and spirits that were already high with anticipation took flight all over town. The idea for Leelanau UnCaged came years ago from Andy Thomas, a John Cage fan, which I admit I have never been, in general — not a fan of his art, at any rate, but there is room in the world for all kinds of art, and the Cage quotes around town speak encouragement to all:
Just learned that Susan Ager painted this sign. Thank you!
Getting ready!
Then it began in earnest, and throughout the village there was music, dancing, and drumming, and there were artists and craftspeople and vendors of all manner of food and beverage. I was in my bookstore all day, from 10 a.m. to nearly 9 p.m., but happy to be there, where the day’s first excitement came when UPS delivered an extraordinary flower lei all the way from Hawaii for my author guest of the day. Next Nancy Peterson’s son and one of her daughters delivered Nancy’s book, which began selling even before the author’s stated signing time began and continued throughout the day. 

Nancy Peterson and daughter Nina Muller

Nancy visiting with customers for her memoir
Nancy herself was lovely and gracious and smiling and photogenic, as always, and it was a joy to see the enormous turnout for her event and the gratifying number of people buying her book.

And that, in general, is how I spent the entire day: selling books and visiting with customers and friends. Through the big front windows I could watch vendors and strolling fair-goers, and I could see the light change hour by hour. That is to say that I did not feel in the least “caged” on my little treasure island. “Nuns fret not,” after all. I am living my chosen life, and it was absolutely lovely to see and feel and share the happiness that filled our little village on Saturday.

Thank you to all the organizers and volunteers and participants for yet another fabulous Leelanau Uncaged! It just gets better and better every year! 

Friday was rainy. Sunday was rainy. Saturday was a beautiful window of sunshine for Northport's annual festival of the arts and of life in general, and on Monday morning I caught a glimpse of something I hadn't seen two days before. Who is responsible for this wonderful little sand castle on the lot of the old restaurant, the lot awaiting its next incarnation? The castle promises future delights, and Northport will be ready.

Postscript: For the Richard Lovelace poem from which today's title is taken, see here. For another work expressing similar thoughts and from which I took the phrase "Nuns fret not," see William Wordsworth's poem here

Monday, September 23, 2019

Other People's Lives

A local friend who is now a new author will be signing her new book in my shop next Saturday (9/28, 1-3 p.m.), and Nancy brought me an early copy of her memoir this past Saturday. My husband and her late husband were friends. Patrick and David appreciated one another’s minds and enjoyed sharing conversation and occasional short road expeditions close to home. David and I were not altogether blind to the fact that Nancy and Patrick’s marriage had problems (whose doesn’t?), and they in turn were aware that we had been through plenty of drama ourselves. When I began reading the first few pages of Nancy’s book aloud to the Artist, however, we were blindsided by its revelations.

Nancy’s Peterson’s memoir, Dear Husband: Letters to an Addict, opened our eyes to a personal world that we had never suspected about this attractive couple we saw regularly around the village and once in a while (although only a couple of times in each other’s homes) on social occasions. We thought we knew them. It turns out we knew only the merest fraction of their personal, marital, and family world. 

Others knew more, as is apparent in some of Peterson’s “letters,” which are in fact ongoing journal entries she began addressing to her husband in September of 2009 and continued until after his death in October 2016. What is also apparent, though, is that even close friends, knowing of the husband’s alcohol and drug addictions, had trouble understanding why Nancy chose to remain in the marriage. 

But that’s just it. We only see other people’s lives from the outside. Others may confide in us, but we have only their reports, never their experience. We never know anyone else’s family from the inside — or even our own family from the experience of the other members of it!  And the same is true for other people’s marriages. Going deeper, Nancy Peterson’s memoir reminds us that within the marriage itself, between two people who may love each other deeply and passionately, ignorance and mystery always remain. And ignorance and mystery contribute to a world of misunderstanding and pain — though perhaps in other ways they shore up and make possible continued commitment and recurring delight. 

From a mood of resentment, the spouse appears in one guise; from a mood of desire, quite another; in a spirit of generous appreciation, something else again, and so on. Where in these various, varying perceptions is reality

No one is simple. Everyone is a mystery. 

Someone I know felt impatience for years with friends suffering from depression until she experienced depression herself during pregnancy. It was beyond her control, and that alone was a striking lesson. Now when she is in a grocery store and witnesses a young child having a screaming meltdown, instead of blaming the mother for bad parenting, she tells herself the child may be autistic, and both child and mother may be doing the best they can.

We are all mysteries, even to ourselves.

Once, long ago, an acquaintance asked me if I thought a third person we both knew might have mental health problems. “I’m not a good judge of what’s normal,” I replied. Growing up the oldest daughter of an alcoholic father also diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I had not found in eighteen years of  family life a solid baseline reading of normality to apply in later life. During spells of darkness, I questioned my own mental health.

My father found his manic-depressive illness an endless source of fascination and loved to talk about it. He would also periodically abuse his prescription medication to maintain the “high” that inspired him to do things such as book a flight from Chicago to Los Angeles on a whim or buy drinks for everyone in a strange bar or, or, or…. He denied his alcoholism for years (if he ever admitted it, I was not informed), aided by convenient misreading of a brochure he was given during one of his periodic hospitalizations, a brochure containing a checklist of maybe a dozen warning signs of alcoholism, taking the form “Do you ever do such-and-such?” My father’s interpretation of the questions was that only someone who answered yes to every item was an alcoholic. He never hid bottles, so could answer no to one of the questions; therefore, he was not an alcoholic and had no problem.

At my mother’s insistence, she and my father once legally separated, but before the waiting period was up that would have granted a divorce, her minister persuaded my mother to forgive and try again to save the marriage, and my parents remained together until my father’s death. In time, advancing age brought a leveling-off of drama. As time went by, my father could no longer drive and so could not disappear for hours or days on end. As he declined in strength, too, he watched more television and drank less and less. Toward the end, the addition of a pair of kittens to the household gave their last years together a new, entertaining, and joyful focus, distracting them from each other’s often annoying ways and irritating habits. 

What I appreciate most in Nancy Peterson’s story is the way she depicts not only the repeated disappointments, frustrations, and what feel like downright betrayals involved in life with an addicted family member but also the happy occasions and wonderful adventures she and Patrick had as a couple and with their three children. Also, the deep love and appreciation they felt for what was best in each other. Because all of it was real — the joy and the pain —. And because Nancy chose, again and again, to remain with Patrick despite the pain, all five members of the family had opportunities that would otherwise have been lost to face their own individual and mutual demons and to build loving memories of their years together. 

The addict and alcoholic are part of him, but not only him. This man, my choices, our lives together, and the life we built and nurtured in so many ways, are not black and white. They are complicated, intertwined, laden with deep feeling and regard, as well as a shared history. 
- Nancy Peterson, Dear Husband: Letters to an Addict

It’s easy to say, from the outside, that someone else should or should not have stayed in a marriage, but what someone sees from the outside can never be a complete picture. Either way, something’s lost, and something’s gained, and there’s no crystal ball in which to read ultimate outcomes.

Next Saturday will be a lively, busy day in Northport, with streets closed to traffic and art and music and dance and food and craft vendors throughout the village. So come on down, and anytime between 1 and 3 p.m., stop by Dog Ears Books to visit with Nancy Peterson, who will be glad to autograph a book for you. 

Dear Husband: Letters to an Addict could have been a bitter, tragic story. Instead, it is an ultimately celebratory account of one marriage and the adventurous, strong, successful family created by two imperfect human beings.

And, friends, aren’t we all imperfect, every single one of us?

Patrick and Nancy, together

P.S. 10/1/2019 - You can see photos of Nancy at her signing here, as well as more about a fabulous Saturday in Northport. 

Friday, September 20, 2019

Back to -- the World?

Back on home ground
Although I took two books along on our four-day, post-Labor Day getaway, one kept me occupied during my few hours of vacation reading, and it was only back home again that I turned to the second, another book set in France, this one stories by the poet W. S. Merwin of the countryside in which he lived for many years. He called it The Lost Upland. I'm now over halfway through the three long stories in that book.

I first thought of titling this post “Back to Reality,” then argued with myself over the tentative choice. After all, even the one September we spent a couple of nights of Mackinac Island, a place the Artist maintained was “not the real world,” my take on it was that people live there, work and raise families there, and that makes it as much “the real world” as anywhere else, even if the island economy is based on tourism. And the Lake Huron shore towns and cities do not begin to match Mackinac Island for quaintness or isolation, so we were only away, briefly, from our own responsibilities and schedules.

Vacation from reality? I was the one, not the territory we visited, taking as much of a break from present-day American life as possible. By seeking out with him my husband’s departed forebears in cemeteries and museums and churches, plunging into the area history of shipping and lumbering and early farming, and pausing to linger over long-abandoned rural sites where only the mice and bees are busy these quiet fall days, I picked up books, postcards, ephemera — but never a newspaper. When the Artist turned on television news at night in a motel room, my earplugs let me roam ancient peasant roads with Alain-Fournier’s fictional characters. I had a little bookselling talk here and there when meeting colleagues in the field, and that was fine. I really did not want to hear a word about what was happening in Washington, D.C. Time enough for that when we resumed our normal lives.

Then the Artist picked up a newspaper, and the world intruded. But it was not the outside world! It was conflict and hostility within the very territory that had been absorbing our attention and screening out, for me, angry political voices elsewhere! And here’s that little story.

One of the small towns we had planned to seek out was Posen, where the Artist’s mother, at the age of 17, had once had a memorable and amusing date in Posen. It was a story she loved to tell. So we wanted to visit the town and also look up her brother’s Lutheran church, his first church when he finished seminary. Posen had had its annual Potato Festival the week before, and I was somewhat disappointed that we couldn’t have experienced that — until we read the newspaper account.

Apparently one political party had more or less hijacked the Potato Festival Parade and turned it into a partisan political rally, and the other political party naturally and vociferously objected, but what was done was done. Small towns don’t get too much smaller than Posen. Still, differences of opinion don’t need a large population, and a week after the festival sore feelings still rankled and would not easily be laid to rest. 

Oh, brother! Now I was glad we had missed the festival! The story even took away a little of my jones to venture away from the shore in search of the little town, but we went ahead and found it. The church turned out to be on the edge of Metz, three or four miles away, a town so much smaller than Posen that it seems to contain not a single going business concern, its claim to fame still the fire that destroyed it in 1908. We took a few photographs at the church and went on our way. It was a grey, overcast, drizzly day, and I imagined the few remaining residents of Posen and Metz, indoors in their houses, whether raucously celebrating victory or stewing resentfully over indignities, still consumed with their little country farm-festival-turned-political-conflict. In its small way, the story struck me as tragic. I saw my country torn apart in the Sixties, and it is painful to see battle lines drawn again between groups of Americans.

Change of scene: I keep in touch with my Arizona ghost town neighbors by text, e-mail, and Facebook, and the most recent thread of conversation among us was not about hummingbirds or rain but about giant agribusiness livestock confinement facilities in the Sulphur Springs Valley and consequent severe drops in the water table. The basic story wasn’t news to me. All of us have seen those confined cattle on the Kansas Settlement Road, and falling water table and failed wells have been in Cochise County news for years. The link one neighbor sent, however, moves the story from “same old” to brink of catastrophe. I watched that news story all the way through, and it's a heart-breaker.

I find it bitterly ironic that traditional ranchers who chafed at any kind of government regulation, who wanted no one telling them how many cows they could run or how much water they could use, may soon be put out of business by corporate giants who saw an opening and grabbed it. No limit to numbers of animals? Good, we can cram in thousands on a few acres! All the water we can pump? Great, we’ll put down wells as deep as two Empire State Buildings! Your little 200-foot well on your little forty acres has run dry, and you can’t afford a new well? Sorry! This is how free enterprise works!

Another change of scene: I’m not on vacation now and am looking reality in its sometimes smug, too often self-satisfied face again (politics, stripping of environmental protections, etc.), but when I wake up at three in the morning I still turn to something other than news, which brings me back to W. S. Merwin and The Lost Upland. As I was reading there in the quiet, peaceful dark, thoughts of my own emerged, sparked by the book. European countries, I was thinking, have never had what they could mistake as limitless frontiers. Farmers there have always had to take care of the land they had. The countries themselves are small. Their limits, I was thinking, have been their salvation.

And then I reached a series of episodes in the story Merwin called “Shepherds.” Yes, the relentless engine of change was already bulldozing its way into southwest rural France, in the form of multi-story confinement sheep facilities. Certain local factions considered the confinement “cruel,” but that was “a minor argument about the new ‘industrial’ barns,” one dismissed as “sentimental.” Inevitable pollution could not be so easily brushed aside. 

The statistics differed depending on who supplied them, but they agreed that many thousands of sheep, over a period of months until they attained the desired weight, would eat, evacuate, and eventually bleed, and that the results would have to be removed continuously. And for this, the developers maintained, they must have water. It must come in clean, which was not difficult along the valley with its small clear crayfish streams winding through woods. On the downstream side of the new barns the current would emerge full of the warm contents of bowels, bladders, and veins of lambs and sheep fattened on chemically souped-up feed.  
- W. S. Merwin, The Lost Upland
But there was no stopping the engine. Those pushing for “progress” wanted municipal slaughterhouses in nearby towns closed, as their businesses would be vertically integrated and process animals from conception to the market. Historic old roads and bridges would need to be destroyed to make way for wide, modern truck routes. A web of connections linked the “modern farmers,” as they saw themselves, to governmental officials and large chain grocery stores. Eventually even the conservative peasants were carried along by the tide of “progress.”
They moved reluctantly, helplessly, resentfully into debt and the use of unknown forces that they had been told were bettering them and that they knew were taking them over and would obliterate them.

Nevertheless, those who could afford to do so took to keeping two separate flocks of sheep, a commercial flock raised on chemicals and inside buildings, and a smaller flock raised the old way, pastured, for family consumption and for sale to discriminating restaurateurs. Merwin says nothing about fresh water for the flocks moved from pasture to pasture. In what sense was the upland “lost”? It still sounds quite charming in this lithub piece, though clearly no longer affordable to a college student putting himself through school by waiting tables and saving money by wearing secondhand clothes.

I tried this morning to work Esau into the American story of polluted and lost natural resources, but it felt like too far a stretch. It does seem to me, though, that Americans think of freedom not only as a birthright and an absolute but also in pragmatic terms, as a means to increased wealth. Thus in our greedy determination to have no limits whatsoever on our freedom and property rights, we too easily forget that natural resources are themselves limited, that the earth is finite. I suppose a southeastern Arizona homesteader could haul water for household use and maybe even to support a couple of feeder cattle for home consumption, but for how long? And where will future pottage come from when the resources bought by the birthright are gone? 

Pragmatism is not pragmatism when it doesn't work. And there is no "getting away." We are still here, and we still have to live together, one way or another. Or go extinct. For now I continue with the Merwin book, even as I can no longer consider it escape reading.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Part III and the End of Our Wandering (For the Time Being)

Pine River Motel, Cheboygan, Michigan
Cheboygan with a ‘c’ is in Michigan, Sheboygan with an ’s’ in Wisconsin. Both are white European spellings of an Ojibway word, but which one? Does the name come the word for "passage between lakes," "sewing needle," or "place of ore"?

The Artist’s memories of a long-ago night spent on the edge of Cheboygan were unlovely, and so when the two of us had subsequently passed the same way we did so quickly. This time was different. To begin with (and it was a happy beginning), we found the motel pictured at the top of this post, where we had a clean, comfortable, roomy but cozy room and there was plenty of space outside, well off the highway, to walk a dog. We had our choice of restaurants in close range. If only we’d had in-room coffee, I could have stayed for a week, before even seeing the town itself. Initially the Artist was not so sure. He didn’t remember there being “much to see” in Cheboygan. But he agreed to give it a chance. 

We found a long Main Street lined with businesses, many of them open even on a quiet September morning. Alice’s Restaurant fell somewhat short on its “best coffee” claim; breakfast, however, was nothing short of delicious. You already know we visited the bookstore, because I gave that away in Part I of my story. What really captured our hearts, though, was the Lake Huron shoreline at Cheboygan — like a shoreline in a dream, it was, all reedy and undulating, with parks and open space and a long boardwalk out to a viewing platform.

Cheboygan, like Alpena, is confusing to navigate, since its shoreline and river mouth conspire to make a regular prairie grid impossible for more than a few blocks. For true wanderers, of course, irregularity of layout adds interest. So did the town’s houses, churches, and other buildings, both historic and modern. We were glad to see the original Carnegie Library now being used for cultural events and to find a big new library not far away.

Old Carnegie Library

New public library

My guess is that the old church now called “Huron Street Tabernacle” is the old St. Charles Catholic Church. Just a guess, but an active Catholic Church we saw as we were coming into town, with the name St. Mary’s above the door, is now St. Mary’s/St. Charles, so — . In any case, the Tabernacle is in rough shape.

Huron Street Tabernacle

St. Mary/St. Charles
I did not photograph any of the old mansions or the fabulous old horse chestnut trees we found. Sometimes I need to let my eyes and mind make their memories unaided. But we wandered and circled and poked around until we found ourselves on a road leading out of town, past what looked like an old schoolhouse.

Outside town --
When I consulted the map, I saw that we could stay on that road south until we reached an east-west road that would take us over to Alanson, so that’s what we decided to do. Back on familiar territory, we were happy to stop for coffee at the Dutch Oven Bakery in Alanson (now that was the best coffee anywhere on our trip), and I went a little nuts making purchases before we left — bread (David’s choice), plum bread (out of this world!), jams, and a terrific little spice cookie made there called dry bones, which are very delicious and quite addictive. Beware!

Dry Bones from Dutch Oven Bakery, Allison, Michigan
We made one last exploratory stop down the road at King Orchards for apples, and if I hadn’t been so unrestrained at the Dutch Oven Bakery I could have spent much more than three dollars at the orchard store. There’s not much better than a Michigan apple, though, unless it’s a whole bag of apples, and that bag was all we needed to get through the rest of our last day of travel.

Small glimpse of all that's outside

Little taste of what's inside
So we did not get over the Bridge this time. But getting away doesn’t have to mean going terribly far or staying away for a long time. Four days can suffice and did for us this September. Besides, close to home, a couple of hours are often enough to refresh our spirits….

Road to Cedar -- always a good county cruise....

Monday, September 16, 2019

Wandering Strangers, Part II

Old railroad depot, Harrisville
I’m still sorting through impressions and memories of our brief four-day September getaway, and it’s good that I have photographs and maps and other sources of information, because I’m finding it all too easy to forget which day we were where and what town offered what delights. Also, now that a friend has asked me for tips about places to visit and stay on the back roads of the Lake Huron shore, I realize all over again (once more consulting those maps and photos) that much of the joy for me of the northeast corner of the state is that there are no expressways. I-75 runs up the middle of the lower peninsula to Mackinac City, but east and west of that monster, high-speed highway cruising is more intimate. In the northeast corner, only occasional passing lanes widen the highways from their usual narrow, winding ribbon. 

We did wander off US-23 several times. For instance, between Tawas and Alpena we left the highway to tour Harrisville, and north of Harrisville we took Lakeshore Drive as far north as Black River, and north of Alpena we ducked inland to search out Posen and Metz. There was our real back roads expedition to Lincoln and of course the twists and turns, while mildly lost, that took us unexpectedly through Curtisville and Hale. But in thinking how to answer my friend’s question, I realize that she doesn’t really need to search out back roads — and wouldn’t find much lodging out there if she did — because most of the Lake Huron shore, at least between Tawas and Cheboygan, is reminiscent of Traverse City 50 years ago. It is log cabins, tourist cottages that look like little Monopoly houses, and one-story mom-and-pop strip motels for miles and miles. That’s what gives the area its charm, as far as I’m concerned. 

But there are a few towns large enough to be considered cities, too, namely Alpena, Rogers City, and Cheboygan.

Twenty years ago the Artist and I hit on the idea of escaping early spring cabin fever with a drive over to Alpena. At the time there was a fabulous old used bookstore there (last time I checked, it was up in the Keewenaw, in Calumet — yep, still there) that served as our destination for an overnight trip. We also sought out the John A. Lau Saloon, named for a ship-owning great-uncle of the Artist’s. Two decades ago, Alpena was a pretty sad place — but then, so was Northport as recently as 15 years ago. On more recent visits we have noticed new energy in Alpena (as many return visitors have noted in Northport), and last week we discovered for ourselves the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, an informative, entertaining, and definitely worthwhile stop back along the river. After all, the very name Thunder Bay is thrilling, is it not?

It’s obvious that a group or several groups of people in Alpena have been working hard at making a name for their town as “Sanctuary of the Great Lakes.” The obviously complementary themes of shipwrecks and diving are incorporated into every aspect of their publicity, and the art theme has been braided in, too, as you can see in the photos below. 

"Dive into reading!"
One of the most unusual and amazing places we visited in Alpena, however, had nothing to do with water or ships or diving or art. It’s a shop with the mysterious and intriguing name 'Traveling Ladders,' housed in an old pharmacy, where most of the old shelving and drawers and many of the old bottles and boxes — some of them still holding contents from a century ago — are still in place, along with unrelated antiques and some tasteful modern reproductions. The view from the (slightly scary) mezzanine took my breath away. And I loved the old painted floor. So much to see! My purchases were in the line called ‘ephemera,’ not books but charming little printed paper antiquities. 

I highly recommend a leisurely stop at Traveling Ladders. I guarantee it's like no place you've ever been before. Afterward you have your choice of several good places to get coffee or lunch or dinner nearby, which will give you a chance to recollect your wits and let your head stop spinning.

Storefront in Rogers City that caught my eye
We did not linger (in the rain) in Rogers City but pushed on west to Cheboygan, another town that seems to be undergoing a renaissance similar to that of Alpena. If we hadn’t decided to make for home by nightfall, we would have explored Cheboygan much more thoroughly. As it is, we saw enough to whet our appetite for another, longer stay in the area. 

But I’ll save my Cheboygan photos for another day and one more travel post that will bring us right back to where I am today, here in Northport.