Two Walks Through Town

Recently I walked down Lyme Street in the early evening.  Spring is just beginning, and the first peepers had started to call from the Lieutenant River.  The sky was spellbinding a shade of blue so dark and clear it made me look up for a long time, until the moon rose.  Some of Old Lyme's graceful houses and galleries had their lights on, glowing warmly from within.  

The Cooley Gallery

The Cooley Gallery

I passed the Cooley Gallery, my favorite art gallery in the world.  Many years ago Jeff introduced me to the work of Linden Frederick, an artist whose paintings, mostly nocturnes, are as luminous as a clear night's sky in early spring.  Each tells a story.  The gallery also shows Maureen McCabe, my former art professor at Connecticut College, an artist whose intricate collages weave together magic, symbolism, Irish legends, French history, fortune-telling, standing stones, and much more.  Each December the gallery holds the beloved All Paintings Great and Small exhibit, incorporating deliciously small works by many of its artists.  I never miss it.

Stars had just started to appear, and I tried to capture a photo of them with my iPhone.  You can see them just above the old church.  It's a private house now, but once it was Christ the King.  My parents were married there and both their funerals, separated by years, were held there. When i walk past, i silently thank the building for being the keeper of timeless joy and sorrow.

I took another recent walk on a rainy day.  Lyme Street is as beautiful in daytime, all through the year, in any weather.  It's April, so I visited the daffodil field.  In full bloom behind its classic wrought iron fence, I stopped to look, to feel the essence of spring in Old Lyme.  There was something all-the-more enchanting, seeing it on a gray day, with mist falling and scraps of fog blowing in from the river.  Standing there, it took me back in time, made me forget the year, the century, let me feel the beauty and history of this place where I'm lucky enough to live.

The Beautiful Lost

Three Things to Know About Maia

Ever since her mother left, Maia's struggled with depression -- which once got so bad, she had to go to an institution for a while. She doesn't want to go back.

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At the Library

Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library

Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library

I am working on my new novel, doing most of my research at the Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library in Old Lyme, Connecticut.  The 1897 brick building sits on a small hill, shaded by venerable oaks and maples, its curved granite steps and white columns graceful and inviting. Lots of writers have worked here including my friends David Handler and Dominick Dunne.  We all set some of our novels in fictional versions of Lyme or Old Lyme.  David's is Dorset, Dominick's was Prud'homme, and mine is Black Hall.

           The old part of the library contains a reading room that feels cozy, a literary home.  Its walls are lined with landscapes by plein air painters who visited town around the turn of the last century. They stayed at Miss Florence’s boarding house just a half mile along Lyme Street and set up their easels to paint the local beauty: hills of mountain laurel, cottage gardens, tidal inlets, rocky shores.  Over a hundred years later, many of the scenes they chose are unchanged.

            Old Lyme is located at the mouth of the Connecticut River, where it flows into Long Island Sound.  There is water everywhere.  Creeks, streams, marshes, and five small rivers create a particular quality of light that attracted the artists.  The light is both delicate and intense, changing the landscape from second-to-second. 

            The Tonalists founded the Lyme Art Colony, joined later by painters who gave birth to American Impressionism. I am inspired by this place just as the artists were; it's been the setting of nearly all my novels.

             The library’s reading room has a fireplace. Years ago, when I was nineteen, I wrote at this same table and often saw Dr. C. Philip Wilson, the father of a friend, sitting in an armchair beside the fire, engrossed in the New York Times or a book.  It gave me comfort to see him there. He was kind and understanding, always interested in what I was writing.  

            Dr. Wilson was a well-known psychiatrist in New York City, and he and his family spent summers here (as my family did.)  He was tall, with dark hair and a serious, almost penetrating gaze that relaxed into a warm smile.  I felt him wondering what I was doing all day-every day at our small-town library instead of at college while his son, my age, was off at Princeton.  He made it very easy to tell him that I had dropped out of college because of depression.  As the season went on, he would ask how I was doing, and I remember how he would listen with quiet compassion, and encourage me to keep writing. I wonder whether he realized how much those conversations meant to me.

            He made me feel as if I mattered.  It was a tremendous gift to a troubled young writer.  Over the years he and his wife would come to my readings at the library and local bookstores.  I still have notes they sent me, filled with generous praise, cheering me on.  Once the three of us ran into each other at the Florence Griswold Museum, for an exhibit of works by Bruce Crane.  His palette was reserved, unlike the bright, sunny colors of summer gardens and sparkling blue coves used by many of his American Impressionist friends. 

Bruce Crane, The Waning Year, 1884.  Oil on canvas, 42 x 72".  

Bruce Crane, The Waning Year, 1884.  Oil on canvas, 42 x 72".  

            Crane seemed to favor autumnal, elegiac and slightly melancholy scenes, such as one of an autumn marsh, with tawny reeds and tarnished silver waters.  I remember standing with the Wilsons in front of a winter landscape—a snow field against a pewter sky, the horizon a narrow, brilliant slash of orange.  We stared at it for a long time, as if watching an actual sunset, waiting for the sun to go down.  

            The painting, and Crane’s canvases in general, drew me in. I felt an exhilarating darkness in his work.  Crane had spent years visiting Old Lyme.  His wife Jeanne was hospitalized with mental illness.  In 1902 he divorced her and married his stepdaughter, Jeanne’s daughter Ann. 

            I didn’t know those details at the time, but now I wonder if Dr. Wilson sensed Crane’s family pain, if that was why he’d regarded that sunset painting with such deep attention.  Or perhaps I’m just, in retrospect, imputing the compassion he felt for me and others to the artist and his family.

            Not long before Dr. Wilson died, I ran into him in the city, on Fifth Avenue.  The day was sunny, and across the avenue Central Park was cool and green.  I felt so happy to walk with him for a few blocks.

            We caught up on news about our families and books—he too was a writer.  I wish I remembered more of the details of that talk, but what stays with me was the familiar warmth, the sense of his fathomless interest and curiosity in the world.  Parting, we said we'd see each other in Old Lyme.

            That was the last time I saw him.

            These days, working in the reading room, I miss Dr. Wilson.  I glance over at the armchair by the fireplace and can still see him there, still hear his voice and feel his presence.

             The loveliness of an old library is carried through time by the ghosts who loved it in their day. the stacks hold memories of the many dear readers, the many dear friends. The library holds many stories, including our own.

The reading room.

The reading room.

 

 

My Other Family

When I was ten I joined a second family.  Although I loved my own, one day after school I stumbled down a flight of stairs into the Whitneys' garden at 588 Lincoln Street, and fell in love with all of them.  Mrs. Whitney was the most intrepid mother imaginable.  She wasn't protective and introspective, internal and artistic like my own mom--she encouraged adventure, travel, and exquisite, borderline danger.  She climbed the highest trees, taller than any rooftop, and I followed.  She'd take the family skiing at Mad River Glen (whose motto is "Ski it if you Can") and like the Pied Piper led us all slicing down black diamonds--the iciest, most mogul-ridden trails on the mountain.  She taught me to do backbends and back-walkovers, how to ride a bike no-handed, and how balance across a narrow ledge above a steep waterfall and not look down or be afraid.  She told me stories about teaching in Panama, Switzerland, and New York, and she ordered me to find a way to live overseas at some point in my life.  (Eventually I did--I moved to Paris.) She said that in Panama she'd take her students up on the school roof just to grab a bit of fresh air, and in New York she shared a small Gramercy Park apartment with another young woman and they'd dance the night away and have to prop their eyelids open to teach the next morning.  

Mrs. Whitney (she wanted me to call her Betty Anne, and it was a hard transition--she was of another generation; in fact, as she put it, she was my other mother, and since I couldn't call her "Mom," having one of my own, I had long since settled on "Mrs. Whitney") and I stayed close throughout life.  When I dropped out of college for depression, she gave me Sibelius and James Galway records and told me cross-country skiing would help me, that I would feel more alive in the cold, gliding over the snow.  After she sold the house in New Britain (the year the twins were born the family had moved to 655 Lincoln, conveniently just across the street from us,) she relocated to St. Simon's Island and became a bookseller at G.J. Ford Bookshop.  She instantly became part of the community, and she loved recommending books and hearing what everyone was reading.  They invited me down for a signing several years ago, and I loved seeing her in action.  When I ran into Mary Jane Reed, the store owner, at Winter Institute earlier this year, we hugged and tearfully had a Betty Anne Whitney moment--it was the first time we'd seen each other since she died.

That was something I couldn't face at the time.  Death is part of life, and Betty Anne was decidedly unsentimental about it.  But losing someone so important to me, a person who was integral--I'd call her every week, or she'd call me, we'd laugh and cry about everything, she'd help me make sense of the vagaries of relationships, and more than anyone she'd celebrate my books--the writing of them, their publications, she was as proud as my real mother was before she died--was seriously impossible to bear.  I dealt with it in a very private way, and for a while it was too hard to talk to the other people who had loved her so.  Including, and especially...her four children.  

A Whitney-esque day at the beach.

A Whitney-esque day at the beach.

See, they are the other part of my other family.  To say I adore them is an understatement.  I babysat them every single day after school from when I was ten until I went to college.  Tobin was already born when I started, and I held Sam the day she came home from the hospital.  The twins, Sarah and Palmer, were the sweetest, and I couldn't put Sarah down--I carried her everywhere, and her mother used to joke she was glued to my hip.  Tobin has always been graceful and thoughtful, a caring teacher at a school for the deaf, Sarah is director of alumni relations at St. Joseph University, Palmer is a successful businessman who shares his dad's love of sailing.  All have amazing families. 

Yesterday I had the most wonderful visit from Sam.  She and her three children are on vacation, staying in a hobbit house in Topanga.  We spent the day together, and in typical Whitney-fashion this involved climbing on the craggiest, steepest, most precarious rocks, taunting surf that was smashing against the cliffs, and finding a restaurant that allowed for running around after dinner because there is so much energy.  We also needed books, because this is a majorly reading family.  Sadie, my goddaughter, is an epic reader and a talented writer, Annie loves all books and gave me several fantastic book reports as we scrambled up to lifeguard station #3, and Tobin knows every spell in Harry Potter and also beat me very skillfully in a ruthless game of Dots.

Sam, Sadie, Annie, Tobin, and Sam's old babysitter

Sam, Sadie, Annie, Tobin, and Sam's old babysitter

And Sam...how to describe how much I love her?  She is an inspiration to me.  A Telemark skier, a back country hiker and camper, the most caring woman ever.  She went to Tibet with One Heart, to bring life-saving childbirth practices to the women there, she and her sister Sarah worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, and she is now a nurse-midwife for the most at-risk moms and babies in Salt Lake City.  In DREAM COUNTRY I called her "the best midwife in the west," and she is.

Quintessential Sam.

Quintessential Sam.

Oh, how life comes around.  I grew up babysitting Sam, and now she has great kids of her own.  I feel so lucky to have them in my life.  I love that they are as daring as their grandmother would want them to be, and also that they are readers of the first magnitude.

Two of the young readers.

Two of the young readers.

A Day of YA at the NYPL

A week ago I was at the New York Public Library, doing a panel for the NYC Teen Author Festival.  This was great and illuminating for me in so many ways.  First, the NYPL.  My favorite building in New York, a haven for readers and writers, its wide front steps facing Fifth Avenue and guarded by lions Patience and Fortitude.  As a young writer, before having a book published, I spent countless hours in the reading room (because my apartment was too small/cold/dark, pick one or all) writing and doing research.  Little did I ever suspect that one day I'd have a book published and be on a panel there, right there in the library, with wonderful writers.

But mainly it was great because of the people involved.  David Levithan moderated the panel on perspectives.  I sat on the stage with fellow YA novelists Francisco Stork, Beth Kephart, and Carolyn Mackler.  Our discussion revolved around these questions (from David) and a few more besides:

What perspective do we, as adults, bring to our novels when we write about teenagers? How do we balance what we know and what our characters don’t? Why do we find ourselves revisiting these years, and what do we learn (even years later) by writing about them? How do you acknowledge the darkness without robbing the reader of finding any light? In this candid conversation, we’ll talk to four acclaimed authors about being an adult and writing about teenagers.

The conversation was so thoughtful and I learned a lot from and about my co-panelists.  One thing that seemed clear about all of us is that we draw on experience but use our imaginations, and that we write from our hearts.  I know that my heart was very full the whole time--I felt very supported by David ( fabulous writer as well as editorial director at Scholastic) and Aimee Friedman--my extraordinarily brilliant and nurturing editor who also writes gorgeous novels--sitting up close in the audience. They have shepherded me into the world of YA after my whole life spent writing general fiction, adult novels.  (I never called them adult novels before, and it sounds vaguely racy, but it's necessary to differentiate my other novels from this young adult one, THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF SISTERS.)

Also in the audience was my forever literary agent Andrea Cirillo and many of her colleagues, all of whom I adore, from the Jane Rotrosen Agency.  Later Andrea, Chris, Rebecca, Danielle, Amy, Julianne, Jessica and I went around the corner to the Bryant Park Grill to have a drink and debrief.  We sat outside under heaters (it was very early March chilly) surrounded by trees wrapped in twinkling lights.  Andrea and I have been in Bryant Park so often--with my former and beloved editors from Bantam, for literary festivals like New York is Book Country, and last spring we made a fast trip to see the Chuck-Will's-Widow, a first for that park.  

It was a great day.  I may be a week late in blogging about it, but I'm still thinking about last Friday, turning it over in my mind, all the marvelous moments.  

With Aimee Friedman in front of Fortitude at the NYPL.

With Aimee Friedman in front of Fortitude at the NYPL.

My wonderful agent Andrea Cirillo and from right, Rebecca Scherer, Julianne Tinari, Chris Prestia, me, Amy Tannenbaum, Danielle Sickles, and Jessica Errera--lovely geniuses and part of my amazing team at JRA.

My wonderful agent Andrea Cirillo and from right, Rebecca Scherer, Julianne Tinari, Chris Prestia, me, Amy Tannenbaum, Danielle Sickles, and Jessica Errera--lovely geniuses and part of my amazing team at JRA.