April 2005

Spire among crabapples

Spring is the season when I fall in love with Keene all over again.

Like any love-at-first-sight affair, I recall the first time I drove into downtown Keene. My ex-husband, Chris, and I had been living in Hillsborough, NH for several years, and we passed by Keene every time we drove to or from Vermont, where his brother and sister-in-law live. Every October, I’d want to check out Keene’s famed Pumpkin Festival, but every October, we’d have other plans for that weekend. And so it somehow came to pass that in the several years we’d lived a half hour away in Hillsborough, I’d never actually seen the downtown heart of Keene.

Keene sentinel

In the summer of 2001, right before the attacks of September 11th sent the U.S. economy into a tailspin, I had quit my part-time teaching job at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, NH and was looking for a “real job” outside academe: anything that would pay a full-time salary and provide health benefits. My search was ill-fated. Nobody wanted to talk to (much less hire) a grown woman with absolutely no experience in the corporate world: simultaneously under-experienced and over-educated, I was virtually unemployable. Years before, I had sent my CV to every college within 45 minutes of Hillsborough, which is how I’d gotten my job at Saint Anselm in the first place. So by either luck or fate, at the end of June, 2001 the phone rang with a tasty offer: a full-time adjunct position at Keene State that would provide a much-needed salary if not health insurance.

As I drove into downtown’s Central Square on my way to a job interview at Keene State, Keene was boasting her summertime loveliness. Keene’s Main Street is so lovely that it impressed even Thoreau, whose mother was born here and who passed through town on his way to Canada in 1850:

    Keene street strikes the traveller favorably, it is so wide, level, straight, and long. I have heard one of my relatives who was born and bred there say that you could see a chicken run across it a mile off. I have also been told that when this town was settled they laid out a street four rods wide, but at a subsequent meeting of the proprietors one rose and remarked, “We have plenty of land, why not make the street eight rods wide?” and so they voted that it should be eight rods wide, and the town is known far and near for its handsome street. It was a cheap way of securing comfort, as well as fame, and I wish that all new towns would take pattern from this….Keene is built on a remarkably large and level interval, like the bed of a lake, and the surrounding hills, which are remote from its street, must afford some good walks. The scenery of mountain towns is commonly too much crowded. A town which is built on a plain of some extent, with an open horizon, and surrounded by hills at a distance, affords the best walks and views.

Keene is a great place for walking, both in and outside of town, and I sensed that from the first moment I drove through Central Square on my way to Keene State. Central Square is a circle fringed with quaint shops in historic buildings and set with a flowering gem of green at its heart. From that hub, Main Street heads straight south toward campus, a wide, tree-dotted boulevard that makes for great walking. From the moment I first drove into downtown Keene, I thought to myself, “I could picture myself living here.”

Sentinel with spire

As either luck or fate would have it, I felt similarly comfortable on Keene State College’s lush green campus, which looks the most alluring during summertime when few students are around to appreciate it. I remember the day was sunny and I wore a kelly green dress; I remember the grass and trees were gleaming with the same brilliantly verdant color. Although I knew Keene State couldn’t provide the health benefits I sought, I also knew that I had promised myself in the spring to find gainful employment by July 1st. As either luck or fate would have it, my interview at Keene State was on June 21st, giving me a whole week to decide whether to accept or decline the job.

As you have probably surmised, I accepted that full-time adjunct job; since then, I’ve paid for my own health insurance. For the first few years I worked at Keene State, we still lived in Hillsborough, so three days a week in all sorts of weather I drove the 45-minute one-way commute over a ridge of mountains. It was a lovely drive as commutes go: on my way to and from Keene, I saw wild turkeys and deer on the sides of the road, a lone coyote carrying a dead groundhog, and a bald eagle silently winging its way over a mountain lake. In winter and at night, though, the commute could be tricky: one morning I saw the driver of a tractor trailer truck standing helpless as a local emergency crew tried to retrieve his truck from the river embankment it had slid off, its nose skimming the water while its tail hung from a mangled guardrail. It was during those white-knuckled winter commutes over icy hill and dale that I started calling my 1993 blue Subaru the “Little Tank,” for she kept me on winding mountain roads while cars around me fish-tailed, spun-out, and landed in ditches.


In the summer of 2003, Chris and I decided to sell our house in Hillsborough and move into an apartment here in Keene: a conscious decision to downsize. Chris was trying to make it as a full-time musician, and the house that seemed modest on his tech salary bore more mortgage than I could handle with even a handful of adjunct teaching gigs. In retrospect, that decision to move to Keene was a fateful one, for the house we owned together was the biggest commitment (lacking kids) that held us together. Last summer when Chris visited Keene to close our joint checking account after having moved to Vermont, I remarked that dividing our assets and getting a uncontested divorce was easier, legally speaking, than selling our house had been. “Selling our house was the best thing we ever did,” I remember him remarking. “If we hadn’t done that, we’d never be doing this.”

I often remember that moment as we drove in my car (the Little Tank) to the bank and then to the lawyer to drop off another set of paperwork severing our legal ties. I remember that moment because it affirmed that yes, we were both on board with this decision: yes, moving to Keene, separating, and ultimately divorcing was all part of the plan, painful as it might be. Earlier this week I spoke with Chris, and he mentioned he’ll be leaving Vermont in June; after trying to decide whether to wander the country a while or move straight to San Francisco, he’s decided to move back to Boston, to the Cambridge Zen Center…at least for now. “Are you planning to stay in Keene in the fall?” he asked, and I said yes. Although I’ve no family keeping me here, and although I can’t say with certainty this is the town where I’ll someday die, for now Keene is perfect: a place with blue skies and flowering trees where I have a sunny apartment within walking distance of a job I love. Although I adore both San Francisco and Boston and countless points in between, for now I’ll let Chris be the wanderer. For now I’ve found the prettiest town on earth, and I’m perfectly content to stay a while.

Today’s Photo Friday challenge is Fancy, and there’s nothing fancier than a Mary Kay salewoman’s pink Cadillac. This one has a vanity plate which reads “MK-AOK,” which I suppose says it all.

I pass this painted farmstand on the side of Rt. 140 in Winchendon, MA every time I drive home from either Boston or Providence, but before Tuesday I’d never pulled off to snap a picture. Although roaming the world with a digicam sometimes threatens to become an obsession–it’s easy to let the lens come between you and a direct experience of the world, unpixelated–wandering with a camera also encourages you to stop and smell the metaphorical roses. Why would anyone stop at an out-of-season farmstand whose only wares are painted ones?

Truth be told, I pulled off to park at this farmstand not to snap a picture of its fancifully painted facade; I pulled off to park at this farmstand to walk back along the road to photograph this sign:

I always smile to see this Beware of Rocky and Bullwinkle sign, a reminder that as I approach the New Hampshire border, I am re-entering the land of Moose and Squirrel.

Yesterday on my way to delivering a carload of Dharma to the Providence Zen Center, I took a detour into downtown Worcester, MA. Coney Island (home to the best chili-dogs this side of Tony Packo’s) was closed, but this brick wall on the side of the building beckoned. What is it about a blank brick wall that is so appealing? Is it the warm red color, or the fact that someone gave enough of a damn to paint these bricks? Is it the mystery inherent in that watch-your-step doorway and the bricked and boarded windows? Or is it the hint of hope–spring-green weeds–sprouting from the cracks in the lower left and far right corners? Perhaps a blank wall (like a blank page) demands embellishment, an imaginary doodle between the lines that begs and begets narrative. There’s a story in this wall as surely as there is a story behind it. Where is the Worcester poet ready to rise up and tell it?

Buck a Book store closing

Several kalpas ago (or so it seems), everyone in the blogosphere (or so it seemed) was doing this little “pass the stick” book meme. I, of course, never got passed that stick, thereby reliving both my elementary school days when I was inevitable chosen last for kickball and my high school days when, at my prom after-party, a bunch of my classmates passed around a joint but didn’t even ask if I, Little Miss Straight-A Goody-Two-Shoes, wanted to partake.

(Yes, it’s true. I’ve never smoked even a cigarette, much less a joint. The Most Outrageous thing I did at my prom after-party was steal a couple illicit sips from someone else’s beer. I’m probably the only person in America who could cleanly run for political office, the opposing party being entirely unable to find any Youthful Indiscretions to pin on me.)

Anyhow, now that the aforementioned Book Meme is so last month, I finally got passed the stick, thanks to ever-intrepid Pinko Feminist Hellcat, who mentioned Little Ol’ Me when she participated in the “Everyone’s Doing It” book meme. Now, I’ve actually met the Hellcat…in fact, I met her in person before I’d ever read her blog. (Truth be told, I decided to blogroll her site unseen after she complimented me on the sandals I was wearing to a friend’s cookout last summer. I might be a Goody-Two-Shoes…but like any girly-girl, I take pride in those shoes!) But apart from the fact that I’ve met her and she’s the one who finally picked me for the blogosphere’s equivalent of kickball, I simply love referring to someone named Pinko Feminist Hellcat. (Really, you should try it: I dare you. Try to work the name “Pinko Feminist Hellcat” three times into casual conversation today and see how fabulous it feels: “I read on Pinko Feminist Hellcat…” or “My friend Pinko Feminist Hellcat…” or “My personal savior and goddess Pinko Feminist Hellcat…” Fabulous, isn’t it?)

Anyhow, here (after kalpas of anticipation) is my contribution to the infamous Book Meme.

  • You’re stuck inside Fahrenheit 451. Which book do you want to be? I’m smart enough to recognize this as a trick question. If I were stuck in Fahrenheit 451, I would be…Fahrenheit 451. Next question?(In all seriousness, I’ve actually not read Fahrenheit 451, which is remarkable since in high school I was a great fan of Ray Bradbury’s short stories. I gather from other people doing this meme, though, that the question refers to people in the book chosing to memorize books that otherwise would be destroyed by the “Firemen” in charge of ridding the world of immoral literature. So if I had to memorize a book doomed to extinction, I suppose it would be Marilynn Robinson’s Housekeeping, which is one of my all time favorite novels. It seems I already have pieces and parts of this book woven in my head like poetry, so memorizing it would be the next step. (And no, I haven’t yet read Robinson’s Gilead…but it’s on top of my summer book pile.)
  • Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character? No, actually…does that mean I’m not really a dyed-in-the-wool bookworm? (sigh…)Instead of developing crushes on fictional characters, I typically am not swayed by book romances. Whenever a heroine “bags her man” and gets married at the end of a book, I’m usually woefully disappointed: in fact, one of my favorite novels goes against the usual Marriage Plot by having the female protagonist die unexpectedly rather than marrying the bland nincompoop she’d foolishly gotten engaged to. (If you’re not afraid of literary spoilers, click here to see which novel I’m referring to. Or click here to see another book-fave in which the female protagonist chooses to sacrifice herself to a hungry lion rather than continuing to live with a pompous and serially adulterous jerk. To the lions, I say!)

    In all seriousness, I think the conventional Marriage Plot is my single most hated literary trick of them all. I loved Middlemarch until Dorothea got married (twice!) to jerks who weren’t good enough for her, and of all the outrageous lines in English literature, the one that maddens me most is that doozy from Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married him!” What?!? Marrying an egomaniacal asshole who keeps his first wife locked in the attic is supposed to be a Happily Ever After ending? You won’t see Pinko Feminist Hellcat doing that!

    (See? Already I feel fabulous…)

  • The last book you bought is? The last four books I bought were

    All of these titles were remaindered at the Boston Buck-a-Book’s going-out-of-business sale. Even though it was a going-out-of-business sale, I had to pay a full buck for each, which seems outrageous to me: in a store called Buck-a-Book, shouldn’t on-sale books be less than a dollar? But alas, each of these hardcovers had been originally tagged at $5.00, which makes me understand, perhaps, why Buck-a-Book is going out of business, given their false advertising and all.

  • What are you currently reading? I’m still reading (and loving) Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, which I’ve commented on here.
  • Five books you would take to a deserted island: Okay, this is another question that is worded in an interesting fashion, since the question asks for five books, not five titles. So if I choose editions that contain several books in one volume, I can bring an entire library to that island. So after much thought, I’ve decided the volumes I’d bring would be Library of America editions of the following:
      Henry David Thoreau’s major works, including A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Walden, Maine Woods, and Cape Cod.

      Willa Cather’s early novels and stories, which happily includes O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Antonia.

      Flannery O’Connor’s collected works, which includes A Good Man is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge.

      William Faulkner’s 1930-1935 novels, which includes As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, and Light in August, and

      this edition of Herman Melville, which includes Redburn, White Jacket, and Moby-Dick.

    If that collection of classics doesn’t keep me busy on that deserted island, I don’t know what would.

  • Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why? Well, first I need to remember who on my blogroll hasn’t participated in this meme… I think I’ll pick Shane because his entry on reading Stephen King as a youngster cracked me up, that girl because she’s well-read and is not afraid (in true Pinko Feminist Hellcat fashion) to tell you what she really thinks, and Kevin because he’s a sharp-eyed critic and a fan of Camille Paglia, whose new book I’m itching to read.

So…there you have it: my contribution to the (once) ever-popular Book Meme. “This is Lorianne’s brain, and this is Lorianne’s brain on books. Any questions?”

Orchard fence

Robert Frost once wrote “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Although good fences might not make good neighbors, I certainly love the look of an old stone wall, like this one surrounding an orchard in Hillsborough, NH. I once saw a moose effortlessly leap over this wall, so it’s not keeping any of Nature’s neighbors out. But it looks picturesque nevertheless.

While I’m on campus beginning my action-packed final week of spring semester classes, I’ll leave you to do some wandering (if not wall-hopping) of your own. Hank from Wild Thoughts magazine has recycled an old post of mine titled “Stone Girl Dancing,” which questions the stability of stone. And elsewhere in cyberspace, Marcia from The Heart of New England is featuring a revised version of my vintage posts on the Minute Men of Concord and Keene. I hope you won’t mind savoring leftovers while I’m off teaching classes, grading papers, and administering end-of-term evaluations. Something there is, after all, that loves golden oldies.

Stone wall

During Friday’s walk at Fox State Forest in Hillsborough, NH, I marveled at how bright green moss had gathered on nearly every non-rolling surface, stumps and stones alike.

Stone bridge

When people think of New England, they often envision pristinely painted covered bridges spanning peaceful streams, and we certainly have a pleasing assortment of those structures here in southern New Hampshire. But the real architectural pride of New Hampshire is her remnant of old granite bridges, erected in the early 19th century by Scottish stone masons who eschewed mortar. That these structures have lasted over a century of New Hampshire weather with the annual cycle of freeze and thaw that sent the iconic Old Man of the Mountain tumbling from his perch is testament to the enduring strength of a well-constructed arch.

Rooted in the chinks

The double-arch stone bridge that spans the Contoocook River off Route 9 near the Stoddard-Antrim border is no longer open to vehicular traffic. Instead, a small parking area and historical marker encourage tourists to pull off the busy road linking Hillsborough and Keene in order to admire and take pictures. Although I wasn’t born in New Hampshire, I quickly began acting like a local when I moved here some six years ago, which is another way of saying I’d never pulled off Route 9 to admire the Stoddard bridge even though I passed it several times a week in all weathers while driving to and from work.

During the four years I lived in Hillsborough, NH, I often drove over several old stone bridges that are still in use, including the double arch that spans Beard Brook at Jones Road.

Beard Brook bridge

Although those 19th century Scottish stone masons built these bridges without mortar, modern engineers have determined that that some of them can withstand the weight of motorized vehicular traffic and blacktop, a fact to which I can personally attest after having driven my pickup truck over this one-lane bridge many times during my Hillsborough days.

Weight limit 6 tons

One claim that puts Hillsborough on the historical map is the fact that it is the birthplace of Franklin Pierce, fourteenth President of the United States. Pierce’s stint in Washington was so unremarkable that he was the only incumbent President who failed to be renominated by his own party.

Hillsborough’s real claim to fame, I think, is her handful of still-usable stone bridges, edifices which have stood strong for much longer than Franklin Pierce’s feeble four-year tenure and still work.

Still standing

Not only are many of the bridges of Hillsborough County still functional, they all are scenic, being built of the same granite stuff that undergrids the entire state and blending beautifully into their surrounding landscape. The stony jewel in Hillsborough’s crown is the single-arch bridge at Gleason Falls, a structure which transports cars over Beard Brook year-round while the tranquil shallows below the falls serve as a popular local swimming hole in the summertime. Wouldn’t you like to cool your heels within sight of this bridging beauty?

Stone bridge at Gleason Falls

With arch-stones as meticulously crafted and set as granite vertebrae, the stone bridges of New Hampshire’s Contoocook Valley are among her hidden treasures. Made out of Mother Nature’s own bone, these old edifices seem destined to last as long as the boulders and trees that surround them, safely spanning as they do the very waters of Time.

Above Gleason Falls

After seeing how 19th century Scottish stone masons spanned the rivers running through southern New Hampshire, you look with a more critical eye toward the modern structures that cross these same watercourses. Skirted with a tumble of granite rubble, the modern-day Route 9 bridge over the Contoocook River looks stable enough, but will it pass the test of time? In 150 years, will this bridge with its modern materials and construction be as strong and beautiful to look at as the arching remnants that dot this corner of New England like stony jewels?

Route 9 bridge

Today’s Photo Friday theme is Soft. Take it from someone who knows: there’s nothing softer than a comfy pair of pajamas. I took this photo of a mannequin sporting Aeropostale fleece monkey pajamas while Gary and I were in New York City this past December. Although I personally prefer flannel glow-in-the-dark puppy pajamas, Amy from ever so humble clearly prefers fleece monkey pajamas. It is this sort of jammie diversity that makes for a soft and comfy world.

Yesterday we had a spot of June in the middle of April, with daytime temperatures in the 80s. Although I was on campus teaching all day, I took advantage of between-class breaks to sit outside on the quad where everyone was out in shorts, sundresses, and sandals, just like summertime. When I got home from teaching, the first thing I did was change out of my long sleeved shirt and khakis into a polo and capri pants, appropriate attire for walking the dog along the Ashuelot River, where I figured he’d appreciate a cooling swim while I hunted for wildflowers.

When I assign John Muir’s Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf in my American Literature of the Open Road class, I warn students that Muir is crazy about flowers. Hearing someone wax ecstatic over every new posy quickly gets annoying if you aren’t botantically inclined. So I know that springtime is when I’m apt to tax the patience of even my most tolerant blog-readers: “Really, Lorianne, you aren’t going to spend more time here talking about more wildflowers, are you?”

Well, uh, yes…I was going to talk about a couple more wildflowers…the first being one I expected to see, and the second being one I didn’t. The photo at the top of this post shows Trout Lily, also known as Fawn Lily or Dogtooth Violet (Erythronium americanum). I hoped to see it blooming on the bank of the Ashuelot River since I’d seen it there this time last year. The photo on the left shows some variety of Bellwort (Uvularia): in Ohio, Large-flowered Bellwort (U. grandiflora) is the common species, but this New Hampshire specimen looks more like the sessile-leaved variety (U. sessilifolia). If it is Sessile-Leaved Bellwort (and the next time I see it, I’ll have to get down on my hands and knees to check), that would be a happy accident since U. sessilifolia is also called Wild Oats. Wild Oats! Who knew that when I changed into a polo and capris yesterday, I was preparing to sow (or at least admire the sowing of) some Wild Oats!

Regardless of this particular wildflower’s name, yesterday’s spot of June has vanished. This morning, it’s 45 degrees Fahrenheit as I type these words: a forty degree dip since yesterday! Living in New Hampshire in the springtime means you have to adapt to now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t seasons: one day’s high very quickly slides into the next day’s low. Once you realize that New Hampshire’s precocious summery moods are ephemeral, you learn to seize these moments when they come: in retrospect, I’m thanking my lucky flowers that I took the time yesterday to cool my heels amongst Wild Oats.

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