In some ways it’s hard to call up the emotions of that day. In other ways they are as alive as ever. I wrote this piece a week after the towers collapsed.Read More
From bestselling author Luanne Rice, a haunting and emotional short story, never-before released, and free to all readers. On the eve of a wedding by the edge of the sea, a once-in-a-lifetime storm sweeps through a family farm on the Connecticut Shoreline and sets in motion the events of The Night Before.Read More
IT COULDN'T HAPPEN TO ME
I met him right after my mother died. We fell in love right away. In retrospect there were red flags, but I didn't know how to read them.
He had a hard luck story, an awful childhood. Hearing about it filled me with compassion and a desire to help him. Now, looking back, I don't know how much of it was real. Lying came with the package.
I saw the good at first. He was friendly, funny, interested in life. When I talked, he seemed to anticipate my next word, seemed to understand me better than I did myself. He listened to me talk about my mother's long death, and he'd hold me and tell me she was up in heaven. He meant it literally: puffy white clouds and angels with harps. This was new for me, a person who spoke of death in such simple, childlike ways, but I latched on and accepted the comforting image.
He also said, from our first night together, that we were Made in Heaven. "Heaven" came up frequently. I was a once madly devout child but had fallen away, and he was a serious Catholic, and I felt spellbound by the thought of my old faith, embodied by this man who said he loved me. We'd walk through the city and many walks included a stop in church. He'd light a candle and kneel, head bowed in deep prayer, and somehow that made my heart open a little more.
The beach; he did love the ocean, and so did I. We could spend hours walking the tideline in any weather, swimming when we could, lying on the beach and staring at the sky. He told me he loved surfing.
The courtship happened fast--a whirlwind romance--and lasted until we were married six weeks after meeting. (Not my first marriage.) Right after I said "I do" everything changed. He quit his job so I would support him, disappearing whenever he felt like it. He didn't speak to me so much as growl.
I was strong, "myself," at the beginning. But he wore me down. I was one way the day we married, and quite a different way by the time I finally left. My bones aren't broken, he never gave me a black eye. Yet his need for control depleted me terribly--to this day I'm shocked to think it happened at all.
When he yelled, his voice boomed so loud it reverberated through my bones. His eyes scared me. He raged at me. Or he'd go silent for days, not saying one word but giving off hateful energy, brushing past me hard enough to knock me aside. His physical changes were extreme and violent, frequently instantaneous; I felt I was watching Dr. Jekyll turning into Mr. Hyde.
After a while we'd make up and he'd beg me to understand HIS pain, and not to leave. He could be so charming, seeming to love me. People on the outside saw a handsome, friendly man. Sometimes I saw him that way, too.
I had close women friends. I would confide in them. Some got sick of seeing me drain away; they must have felt frustrated to watch me be stuck in such a bad, destructive relationship. They would say something real to me, and I would agree, say that I had to leave. Then he'd be nice again, and I'd remember the harsh words my friend had spoken about him. Eventually my friends drifted away. Or I did.
Seeing the relationship was like looking through a prism: now it looks this way, now it's completely different. What is real?
His first wife is a great woman. We respected each other from the beginning and became good friends as we went along. She was one of the few people I could really open up to--because she got it. While pregnant with their child, she'd been hammered on the head by him, one night when he'd come home late from the grocery store where he worked. She still has skull pain and hearing loss from that beating.
He had gotten arrested for beating other women--after his first wife there were girlfriends, and incidents, and nights in jail. He learned not to use his fists. If you don't leave marks, you won't get arrested. He told me that he had once broken a woman's jaw in three places, the message being that he could do that to me.
Why did I stay with him?
Check out the Cycle of Violence diagram. That part when you decide to believe his explanations, is called the fantasy or honeymoon, and it happens over and over, and it's unbelievably destructive. Each time I decided to stay, it chipped away a little more of myself.
I used to drive past a domestic violence center in a nearby town, but I never entered--wasn't that for women who were bruised and bleeding?
Holidays became a time to brood and suffer. He'd brood, I'd suffer. Eventually we shut everyone out. He liked to sit in a big armchair, right in front of the fire, staring at the flames. If I interrupted his fire-watching, he'd glare as if he wanted to roast me. I spent many many hours feeling dread and fear. Paradoxically, he was big on sending out Christmas cards--it was all about the show, giving the appearance of a marriage. He kept a detailed list of people who would receive our cards each year. He wrote them out and addressed the envelopes. He'd sign them, "May your New Year be blessed!" He spoke about God and religion frequently, had prayer cards and rosary beads and miraculous medals and spiritual books. Meantime he wouldn't be speaking to me.
Driving ragefully: it got worse toward the end. Once we were heading to Woods Hole, and I said or did the "wrong" thing, and he told me he was going to kill us both, drive us into a tree. He sped up, onto the shoulder--I felt and heard that buzzing friction of pavement designed to let drivers know they're going off the road. I was terrified.
Sometimes there is an actual incident that tells you you've had enough. There is also a cumulation of everything that has happened all along. That day of road rage was the end for me--I told him I wanted a divorce, and this time I meant it. When his ex-wife's father heard, he called me and said, "He's left a lot of wreckage in his wake."
I went to that domestic violence center I'd passed so many times, and found loving support. The women there really helped me realize emotional battering is as bad as any other kind. I wish the courts and our society would recognize that emotional and psychological abuse leaves scars which, although you can't see them, are just as terrible and deep.
At one point I began writing a novel (writing has always saved me) about a woman who was married to a man with secrets. The husband was a white collar criminal, a banker who had committed fraud. Researching the character, I spoke to an FBI agent in the Oklahoma City field office. I told him the scenario, then told him about my own marriage. He told me I should try to talk to women he was involved in with before me, to see if he had treated him the same way.
I remembered one woman's name. I tracked S down and called.
"I've been waiting for your call," she said, when I identified myself.
She knew he wouldn't change. That is a pattern with abusers--the behavior continues on and on. She described his patterns--so familiar to me, his abuse, the way he had made her feel it was all her fault even while taking every single thing she had, sucking the life out of her. I loved her then, and I love her to this day, and am forever grateful to her for sharing with me. She came to court, to support me in the divorce. He went after everything I had, hired a lawyer who made sure the divorce would go on a long time--trying to wear me down--an abusive divorce to follow an abusive marriage. I will never forget the look on his face when he saw his old girlfriend, my new friend, walk into the courtroom.
Here's what I know: I'm strong and independent. I have wonderful friends and family, including his ex, and a life and career I love. Domestic violence can happen to anyone. To learn more about that, and to get help, I recommend reading Patricia Evans's powerful book The Verbally Abusive Relationship, and to visit websites such as The National Coalition for Domestic Violence and the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
My own linked novels, Summer's Child and Summer of Roses, as well as Stone Heart, The Perfect Summer, and Little Night deal with domestic abuse. I am proud to be involved with the Domestic Violence Clinic at Georgetown University Law Center, headed up by Deborah Epstein. Law professors and students advocate for victims of abuse in Washington, DC. They take their cases to court and fight for them. Their work is extraordinary.
Good luck to anyone reading this--with love and support to you.
(The painting at the top of the page is Tea by Mary Cassatt.)
My novel LITTLE NIGHT deals with domestic violence and its devastation on the women in one family... Thank you to all the readers who've written me with their own stories. I am honored and grateful.
The night is blue and smells of lemons. Standing outside I listen to the waves and look up at the stars. I am far away from the place I grew up and it comforts and somehow surprises me to see the familiar constellations. "Arc to Arcturus," is one lesson my sisters and i learned. By following the curved handle of the Big Dipper, we found Arcturus, one of the brightest stars in the sky. It glows warm and orange, easy to admire with the naked eye, and part of the constellation Bootes. What is it that makes us want to identify the stars, find out way around the sky? Does it help us know where we are on earth, not in a precise latitude/longitude way, but our place in the universe? We are all here for so short a time. When i look at the stars I think of love. The stars tell a love story if only you spend the time to read it. This is how I want to live: at peace, guided by the stars. People far away look up and see the same celestial bodies at the same time, or hours apart. The sky brings us together, not only with the living but also the dead.
Below is an excerpt from a recent article in Martha's Vineyard Magazine. One foggy July day at Lucy Vincent Beach, my four baby-sitting charges and I built a sand castle. It was my first summer on the Island. Salty chill, clay bluff curving above, black rocks jutting up, echo of a distant bell buoy – it was a deliciously moody day. Sifting for pebbles and bits of quahaug shell to decorate our drawbridge sent me dreaming.
Nearby, a young man surfed out of the fog. He walked over and crouched down to drizzle sand turrets onto our castle, then disappeared back into the pea soup without saying a word. Out of these elements, a short story was born – and my first brush with the Island’s creative muse. I was fourteen.
I love winter. It’s partly the drawing in, staying warm, keeping together with family and friends. But just as much, it’s bundling up, walking in the snow, feeling icy weather, watching changes in nature. Leaves are down; more light and sky are visible through the branches. On clear nights, the stars seem to catch on the boughs, swinging so close to earth you feel you can almost touch them.
There’s nothing better than the winter beach. Storms push the tides higher, and equally tug them out so far the tidal flats seem to go on forever. Rolling waves, high wind blowing foam of the white crests, while rafts of water birds—buffleheads, surf scoters, brants, red-breasted mergansers among other winter residents—take shelter in coves.
Two years ago I experienced the Winter of Magical Birding. A nature photographer friend and I saw everything. One brilliant freezing day we went down to Barneget Light. We stood on the long stone jetty observing Harlequin Ducks, their brilliant masks and notable white dots visible as they fed in the seaweed just below our feet on the jetty’s leeward side.
Another excursion into the Catskills brought sightings of fifty, a hundred, White-winged Crossbills and Red Crossbills. It was an irruption year, and the small passerines had flown down from the boreal forest in search of a fine cone crop. The day was cold and snowing, and we were surrounded by forest. The crossbills thronged in a stand of blue spruce, attacking the cones, and I’ll never forget the bright sight and the sounds of seeds being cracked, their hulls clicking as they fell to the ice-encrusted snow.
The third and greatest sighting occurred on Jones Beach, where a young male Snowy Owl had decided to spend a few days. We arrived just past dawn, watched the rising sun’s light turn the owl’s white feathers golden. More than any other bird I love the exquisite and mystical Snowy Owl.
Snowies live on the tundra, and when lemmings, their preferred food, are scarce, they fly south and search out flatlands that remind them of home. Beaches are perfect, and they have the requisite food source: mice and voles.
That day my feet and hands froze, but it was worth it. I walked down the beach, watched the waves crash, saw a surfcaster catch a late-in-the-year Striped Bass, watched seagulls breaking quahog shells and eat the clams inside, and saw an enormous flock of Snowy Plovers fly in from the east. Even better, I spent long hours with the Snowy Owl.
Late afternoon when the sun went down, the light glowed rose pink, illuminating the owl’s feathers. He stared straight at us, all the hunger and mystery in his yellow eyes, and suddenly took flight. Wide wings spread, he flapped once, and went into a silent glide over the thicket of dried beach grass. Darkness came fast, and he was lost to view.
That might be my favorite metaphor for winter. The nights are long, and it might seem light will never return. The dark brings contemplation, inspiration, a feeling of things vast and unknowable. But I’m filled with anticipation, the way I felt as a child with a glittery Advent calendar and a fresh window to open every day, a new candle to light each week, knowing Christmas would come.
Winter lasts long, but it’s beautiful, and then there is spring.
[Essay written for the catalogue of Linden Frederick's November 2011 exhibition at the Forum Gallery, New York.] Night Neighbors: Linden Frederick
By Luanne Rice
The night is dark, and you’re all alone, or maybe you’re not. The road takes you through town after town, headlights coming at you, and you see houses, not so different from the one you grew up in, a trailer park in the hollow off the interstate, a motel with its neon sign flickering out, steam billowing from a brick factory, a spooky Victorian with one light in a downstairs window, and the road feels really long and lonely, but then you see…
Linden Frederick starts the story and leaves it to the viewer to finish. Twenty years ago I bought my first of his paintings. No larger than two inches square, it shows a full moon rising above a distant ridgeline. With detail so real, specific, and compelling, that tiny picture drew me into itself. It told me about a woman leaving her husband, and I wrote it down, and it angled its way into the first fiction Linden inspired in me.
Another painting, The Night Before (2006,) captures hardship and one December’s dusk. A turquoise double-wide squats in a snowfield of raggedy pines; an old-model car tilts, as if on a flat tire, in the driveway alongside. A vermilion streak on the horizon—an unmistakably winter sunset—illuminates clouds overhead. More snow coming, and you can feel the cold. Through the trailer’s window a Christmas tree glows with colored lights. Who lives there, where did they find hope instead of hopelessness, what grace made them decorate that tree?
So many of Linden’s paintings feel as if they’re set on the edge of town, away from the center of things. They touch the part of us that exists on the outside looking in. He paints what is. He doesn’t pretty things up, but he doesn’t have to: he finds beauty in the ordinary, familiar, and lost. The most literary of painters, he is also the most mystical—a metaphysician illuminating the dark night with headlights, a Christmas tree, the glittering neon of an ice-cream stand, a line of yellow light shining through a neighbor’s drawn curtains. His work reminds me of the Luminism school of the 1800's, yet is immediate and of-the-moment, so luminously captures the time in which we live. I think of it as being geographically northeast--Maine, especially--but it is purely American.
For two decades, since I bought that first small painting, Linden Frederick has inspired my fiction. I keep a second apartment in Chelsea just to hold his paintings. It’s where I write. I’m surrounded by all this work that acknowledges big loneliness, but offers connection and consolation. He reminds me of my neighborhood, of growing up in a factory town, of my grandmother’s summer cottage.
And I’m moved by the celestial phenomenon that fills his work—turn of day, shadows falling while the sky remains brilliant blue, full moon, crescent moon, the Big Dipper, the first streaks of dawn.
For one of my novels I used an epigraph from Albert Camus: “In the depth of winter I finally knew that within me was an invincible summer.”
I was staring at one of Linden’s paintings when that thought came to me.
Summer House, 2009, oil on linen, 40 x 40 inches
Painting at top of page: Highwayman, oil on linen, 35 x 35 inches
The Rocks at High Tide is one of my first published short stories. It is one of many three sisters stories I wrote early on, and a predecessor to my first novel, Angels All Over Town. It came out in ASCENT. I was so fortunate to be plucked from the slush pile by the brilliant editor Dan Curley. He went on to publish several other stories of mine, and helped me connect with the editors of other literary magazines.
Dan was wonderful. I remember having a story accepted at another small magazine about the same time as my first publication in ASCENT, and Dan insisted that I let him claim me as his discovery, that he be able to say that ASCENT published me first. How flattering that was to a young writer. I'd thought no one could possibly care about such a thing.
He was a great champion of fiction writers, and I am so grateful for all his support and guidance. We met only once--he was reading from his own fiction at the library in his hometown of Bridgewater, Massachusetts. He'd mentioned the reading casually in one of his letters, and I knew I'd get there no matter what. And I did, and we met, and our work went on for many years, and when he died--so many years ago now--it took me a long, long time to get over.
Please click on the link below to read the story. (Thanks to Mia Onorato, an incredible writer herself, for ransacking the bookshelves at Hubbard's Point, finding the magazine, and scanning the story to me.)
[A short story, exclusive to this website. Illustration by Amelia Onorato.] The Selkie and the Man
By Luanne Rice
I knew right from the beginning that I would kill for him. A life for a life; the one he had saved was mine. Gray-green waves curling into themselves, wind blowing the tops off, trails of dirty foam across the sea. He saw me struggling, perhaps even heard the crunch of my bones. I know he saw the blood.Read More
I wrote this in 2009. Impact
by Luanne Rice
1977 seems a long time ago. I was twenty-one, a research assistant at the National Academy of Sciences. My job included attending hearings of the United States Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on the impact of offshore drilling. The hearing room in the Senate office building was beautiful but overwhelming. I sat in the gallery with my pad and pencil, taking notes as Senator Lowell Weicker, from my home state of Connecticut, questioned witnesses. Senator J. Bennett Johnson of Louisiana was on the same committee, and his questions were quite different. This was a battle--they couldn't have been on more opposite sides of the issue. I felt proud that Senator Weicker so clearly wanted to protect the shoreline.
Decisions would be made to determine whether oil leases would be sold to allow oil development on the Outer Continental Shelf of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. At the end of each day I returned to the Academy building, wrote up my notes, gave them to Dr. Rick Burroughs, the project's staff officer.
My job included reporting on studies about oil exploration and impact in the Shetland and Orkney Islands; the disaster at Union Oil’s Platform A five and a half miles south of Santa Barbara; the Torrey Canyon tanker stranding on Seven Stones Reef off Lands End, and the devastating effect of oil spills on offshore, near-shore, and onshore environments. I read about the composition of crude oil, relative toxicity of its parts, the carcinogenic activity of hydrocarbons, the fact that petroleum contains acutely poisonous compounds.
Exhibits presented at the Senate hearings included photos of oil spills: oil-tar lumps along tide lines, oil-coated shore birds struggling, dead lobsters, dead cod, tidal creeks glistening with gas rainbows, bilge leakage from oil rigs. There were photos of funnels, booms, and skimmers trying to contain spills, hugging quantities of sticky, slimy oil against the spartina of marsh banks.
It wasn't just a job to me. I had grown up loving the beach and all the coastal wildlife. Working as a research assistant on the NRC study felt like a great privilege. More than anything I wanted our marine environment to be protected.
The scientists working on the study were Chairman Philip L. Johnson of the Oak Ridge Associated Universities; James H. Carpenter of University of Miami; Chuck Drake of Dartmouth College; Robert A. Frosch of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Claude R. Hocott of University of Texas; Ralph W. Johnson of the University of Washington; Don E. Kash of the University of Oklahoma; James J. O’Brien of Florida State University; and Lawrence R. Pomeroy of the University of Georgia.
The scientists convened that summer at Dartmouth’s Minary Center and made their conclusions: “Where vulnerable bays, beaches, estuaries, and marshes are present, special studies are needed to determine precautions to be stipulated in the leases; the technology for protecting these susceptible environments appears to be readily available. It is essential that concerned environmental groups be involved in these surveys.” (p. 61, NRC National Research Council. 1978. OCS Oil and Gas. National Academy of Sciences, Washington DC.)
A ban on offshore drilling was imposed, protecting our coastlines and marine environments. That ban has been renewed every year for the past twenty-six years until now; this year our legislators have given in and will lift it, a devastating development to those of us who love the oceans and shorelines. Oil companies and the builders of drilling rigs will make money. Shorebirds, marine mammals, bluefish, crabs, and people will be at risk. Small towns and ways of life will change.
If drilling takes place off your beach, your marsh, your favorite dusty beach road will turn into a four lane highway before you know it. Can you say you're not affected by photos from the Exxon Valdez spill, the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the stories that have come out about death to animals and habitats? I can't.
The prospect of drilling seemed unthinkable in 1977. It's even more so now.
 “Oil Pollution of the Ocean,” Max Blumer, Contribution Number 2336 of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
Written on a random flight, who knows when, on one book tour or another. up in the sky
by Luanne Rice
when i fly, i go up in the sky.
it's true, and i'm up here now.
all around me is blue, except for long cloud highways leading to and from canada and other places. below me, there is haze. through it i can see rivers, ponds, towns, hills, roads. i am in a dream.
in the dream i join a parade of people, strangers, pulling suitcases on wheels, bumping along the jetway and over the narrow space between it and the jet door, and onto this large conveyance. it is a jet plane. i almost never dream of parades. and as a waking hermit, i rarely, well, never, march in them--but that's not even the strange part. the surreal part of this dream is taking off from the ground, going up into the sky, in a flying machine. this is not my natural element.
i did not always feel this way.
when i was young, i was as one with the sky. i flew with abandon. i'd go flying with my cousin--a true beach boy with whom i used to go crabbing at the rocky end of the half-moon beach known as hubbard's point, an experience about which i wrote my very first published story. his name is tom. when tom was 16, even before he could drive, he got his pilot's license. he wanted to get as many flight hours as possible, and i was right there beside him. we flew everywhere. we buzzed his teacher's house in harwinton. we flew home from the airstrip near waitsfield, vermont in a snowstorm.
we used to charter an old seaplane. he would land in the boats-only area right by the crabbing rocks at the end of the beach, to pick me up. i'd swim out to the plane and climb onto the pontoon and into the cockpit. my seat would be soaked with salt water. he'd turn us out to sea, and we'd bounce over the waves. the plane was so old that when he took off and banked right, the passenger door would flap open and i'd be looking straight down at long island sound.
fearless children we were.
then there were the paris years. i lived in paris with my first husband. his name was also tom. we were young and in love. with each other, with everything. every day i would walk along the seine for hours, trying to memorize the exercises my tutor, madame piochelle, had given me. "allo, allo, ici george, qui est la?" "c'est moi, jean!" "vien jouer avec moi?" "oui, j'arrive." "a tout a l'heure." "a tout a l'heure." i would also shop at the marches, especially rue cler, for our dinner. once i bought a whole rabbit. i don't remember how i cooked it, but i do know that i have bad dreams about it now. tom loved my cooking, and i loved doing it for him. to me, that was the essence of love.
once on the terrace of chez francois, near the pont de l'alma, i met bono. actually he said his name was paul , I didn’t figure out he was bono until a bit later. this was just before joshua tree. we started talking--about love, being irish, being american, being writers, and love again. what else was there but love? nothing.
during that time, my mother developed a brain tumor. i flew home a lot, to see her. that was the first time i remember feeling skeptical of flying. would the plane get airborne? would it actually land? maybe i was really afraid of something else, like losing her. i'm not sure. but the way i got myself through those feelings was to think of my father, who had been in the air force.
his name was tom, too.
world war ll, he was stationed at a base at north pickenham on the wash, north of london. he was only 23. he trained for a year in colorado springs. before that, he'd never been in a plane. he grew so close to his crew--as close as brothers. he was navigator-bombardier. once in england, flying missions over france and germany, he stood out and was promoted to the lead plane in the eighth air force. he refused to leave his old crew--his new crew had to literally carry him and his possessions to their nissan hut. the very next mission, his old crew was shot down over helgoland.
that's not the part that inspired me, exactly. although writing it, i see that it sort of did. somehow my father kept going. i can only imagine his grief. he flew on d-day, over normandy. his was the first plane over dresden, shot down on his way home. he was irish-catholic. i think of him, a beloved and sheltered boy from a close hartford family, thrown into war. he had a very sensitive soul.
promoted to the lead plane in the 8th air force, he was the very first plane over Dresden. on his way back from that dreadful bomb run he was shot down. other planes, his friends, went down in flames all around him. he parachuted out, crash-landed in a tree in occupied france and broke his back. he was rescued by a family with three daughters; they hid him in their barn. after he got home and married my mother, they had three daughters. my sister rosemary also has three daughters.
during my paris flying years, i would quell doubt and fear by thinking of all the times my father flew without getting shot down. over 25 missions. back and forth over the english channel, during tempests of all kinds. wild winds blew, making the plane shake. they would lose altitude, but just keep going. i imagined his old bomber, strafed with shrapnel, taking off and landing again and again.
there i was on the concorde--who was i to worry? i was really just a spoiled traveler. anyway, my mother wound up coming to paris to have her chemo at the american hospital. i didn't fly as much after that. although tom took me to venice for my 30th birthday. we stayed in a sweet hotel behind la fenice.
i heard placido domingo singing in the courtyard.
one night tom and i took a water taxi to the lido. i had to put my feet in the sand and feel the salt of a brand new, to me, sea. i thought of thomas mann. there are times when i'm an existential beach girl. but i guess if you're reading this, you know that by now.
the next time i felt tense about flying was many years later.
through life, life, life.
many beaches later. mistakes, mysteries, flights and passions later.
okay, here's the story. i was on book tour in summer, 2001. trans-canada, from fredericton to vancouver. at the time, i was in the midst of a tragic, unbecoming, and completely abusive non-love situation. my third marriage. snares had risen from the depths, wrapped themselves around my ankles. that made it hard to fly. how can you rise--above the earth, above anything--if you are tethered from below?
my itinerary took me amazing places. halifax, toronto, calgary, banff, lake louise. being so far away and so often up in the air let me see my life with some persective.
look down through the clouds and see what is.
that book tour saved my life. it showed me my strength, and that I didn’t have to stay with him. kick him out, reclaim myself. surround myself with real love—not twisted, psycho control masquerading as a marriage. I was out of there.
thank you, sky, for holding me aloft.
thank you, plane, for taking me away.
thank you, my own strong heart, for never giving up.
i know i can fly because guess what? i’m doing it right now.
still, it's a dream.
First published in Good Housekeeping Magazine’s Blessings column. Later reprinted in the book Blessings: Reflections on Gratitude, Love, and What Makes us Happy. God Moves in a Mysterious Way
by Luanne Rice
I’m the oldest of three sisters, something that defines me as much as my name. “You’ll have many friends,” our mother used to tell me. “But you’ll only have two sisters.” I knew she said that to them, too. She didn’t want us to take each other for granted, but she was an only child and didn’t understand: life without them would be like life without air, water, or blood—things I wouldn’t last long without.
When we were young, my sisters and I shared a room. Sometimes after they fell asleep, I’d walk around the room touching the bedposts. Talisman, prayer, or just craziness, I’m not sure. I shared that room with them for eighteen years, until I went to college. My first nights away, I couldn’t sleep because I couldn’t hear them breathing.
That doesn’t mean I was a perfect oldest sister. I raided their sweater drawers. My middle sister got a beautiful fair-isle sweater—sky blue with white and pale green around the neckline—for her sixteenth birthday—but I wore it without asking whenever I could. Also, I flirted with my youngest sister’s boyfriend, danced with him too long at a winter dance one time.
We were all two years apart in age, walked each other to and from school. The day I got my license, I taught them to drive. We could make each other laugh with one word or glance. When I saw my mother trying to balance the checkbook, fretting about making the mortgage payments, I vowed to protect my sisters from them; I remember feeling the weight on my shoulders, knowing that I wanted them to stay happy and innocent. I wanted our complicated family to be simple and predictable, so my sisters wouldn’t have to worry about anything.
Was that where it all started? Arrogance on my part, to think that they couldn’t handle life as it was, that I had to run interference for them? Or was I just a not-good-enough older sister, a bad example, selfish in sweaters and selfish in life?
As adults, I moved to a city, they stayed by the sea. I have cats and a career, they have beautiful children. They got married and built lives; I got married and divorced. Three times. I felt like the family embarrassment and failure.
When I look back now, I can’t even define the precise moment that we stopped speaking to each other. I know that it happened after our mother died, when we no longer had the glue of her long, terrible illness to hold us together.
At first we stopped getting together as often. The time between calls grew longer and longer. After a while, the calls stopped, and I remember a moment when it dawned on me—maybe the worst moment in my life—that they had decided to cut themselves off from me and my untoward life. Looking back now, I realize that my life was difficult for them to deal with, and they had to step back. And because I didn’t know how to stop them, I let them.
The silence was so terrible, even now it hurts to remember. Being alone is one thing—but after having grown up with such closeness, it was almost unbearable. I began to have holidays with friends—people I love a lot. But every Thanksgiving morning I’d feel bereft, wanting my sisters instead.
One day I couldn’t take it any more. Literally. I was in a rocky, abusive marriage—my last. It pushed me over the edge. An early winter night in 2002, I jumped into Long Island Sound with my computer. I ended up at McLean Hospital, frozen inside and out, swimming in grief.
I called my sisters.
They came to me. Not in their cars, not up the highway, but straight back into my life. They let me know they loved me. It took a little time, but we saw each other. We talked. They know me better than anyone. Our history is in our hearts, in our skin. Maybe that’s why our time apart was so excruciating—I felt I had been ripped in half. Coming back together has been the greatest blessing I can imagine, and it has shown me that with sisters, love means never having to say “I was a jerk.” It means forgiveness and never having to touch the bedpost to ensure that we’ll always have each other.
Nightbirds in Central Park by Luanne Rice
When I was young and under the complete command of my heart, I moved to New York. I was searching for art and artists and writers and a place that could accommodate my life’s intensity and call it “creativity.”
My friend Brendan Gill, drama critic at The New Yorker, gave me several invaluable instructions. One was, “Writers always think they have to drink a lot and be miserable, but don’t,” and another was, “Go to Central Park.” He told me that as Connecticut natives we required a lot of nature to balance urban thrills, and over the years I have discovered that he was completely right.
Although I love Poets’ Walk, the Bandshell, Cleopatra’s Needle, and the allées of crabapple trees in Conservatory Garden, my favorite places in Central Park are the most wild—the Ramble and the North Woods. The park is situated along the Atlantic Flyway, a migration corridor traveled by birds that fly at night, navigating by the stars, landing at sunrise in the greenest spots they see. Central Park is a great oasis for birds.
Last weekend was the Bio-Blitz, a twenty-four biological survey of the park. Organized by the Explorer’s Club, it attracted many nature-lovers to participate. In all, they counted 838 species. I had planned to join the Friday night moth-counting contingent, but during peak hours I found myself engaged in a different exploration: walking across the Brooklyn Bridge with two friends from Hartford, one of them thirteen, on a search for the Brooklyn roots of the rapper Jay-Z.
But I visit the park frequently and have remembrances of observations past… During the Christmas Bird Count on December 19th, 2004, the word went out that a Boreal Owl, rare for these parts, had been spotted in a tall pine behind Tavern on the Green. I headed over, and stood with Cal Vornberger as he photographed the shy, beautiful bird. Another favorite time was the night I went owling. In March, 2002, my friend E.J. McAdams, then an Urban Park Ranger, invited me to join an expedition to track screech owls. We met at the Boathouse, and our party consisted of several avid birders, including Charles, Lee, and Noreen, famous to people who know the story of Pale Male, the red-tailed hawk who for ten years has courted, hunted, nested, and raised seventeen chicks atop the penthouse next to Woody Allen’s.
At night the city is enchanted. It just is. You stand at the edge of the park and look around at all the buildings twinkling with lights—the Plaza, the Dakota, the San Remo, the Beresford, the limestone palaces on Fifth Avenue—and New York City is a magical landscape of wit and glamour, and there’s an orchestra of taxi horns and boom boxes, and at any second someone wonderful will come along and ask you to dance. Just outside the park, New York City is still a place of human dreams.
But walk inside the park’s perimeter, and suddenly you are solidly with nature—the place Brendan warned me that I must find. After sunset, Central Park is the wilderness, vast and dark. That March night was chilly. E.J. told us that to find owls at night, we had to look for unexpected shapes in the bare trees. We tried to walk silently, like trackers, scanning branches overhead with an unfocussed gaze.
We made our way around the Lake, and our first sighting was just south of Bow Bridge. As promised, the screech owl looked “unexpected”: an out-of-place smudge in a graceful network of maple branches. We stood still, watching for a long time, until she flew. And then we followed her into the Ramble.
A screech owl’s call is the opposite of its name, mysterious and descending, like a backwards horse whinny. We tracked that owl till we lost her, and then we looked and listened for others. During that whole night, our group rarely spoke. We each had our own reasons for being there, in the wilds of Central Park on a cold not-yet-spring night, and I know that I was lost in a combination of meditation, awe, and gratitude for my Connecticut-born connection with nature.
On Cedar Hill, in the east-seventies, there is a stand of red cedar trees where in recent years four Long-ear owls have roosted. Like other owls, they sleep by day and hunt by night. By staking out the trees at dusk, it is possible, with patience, to observe the “fly out.” I witnessed it once; E.J. pointed out how each of the four owls left the trees in a completely idiosyncratic way. One hopped to the end of a branch, then flapped toward the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Another zoomed straight up, like the Concorde. One hulked like a gargoyle, seeming to indict everyone and everything on the ground, and then flew menacingly into the night. The last waited a long time, as if deciding whether to actually go or not, and then looped west, toward Belvedere Castle.
It is a great thrill and honor to observe the fly-out; only one person I have ever heard of has ever seen the fly-in, and I was with her on the Night of the Screech Owls. Noreen. Tall and stately, she has a cascade of bright white hair and eyes that are steady and compassionate. One New Year’s Eve, it is said, after watching the Cedar Hill fly-out, she decided to stick around the park till just before dawn and wait for the owls to come home.
That’s a much more difficult proposition, because they don’t return all at the same time, and they arrive from different directions, and the sun hasn’t yet risen over the East Side, and the owls fly in so fast you’re not quite sure you’ve seen them. But according to park legend, Noreen did—that New Year’s Day, she saw the fly-in.
Although I walked beside her that March night, I didn’t ask her about the story. Our screech owl-seeking group progressed north in silence, over the Seventy-Ninth Street Transverse and past Shakespeare Garden, into more relatively tame park regions as we made for the North Woods—the dense woodlands and steep bluffs in the northernmost reaches of the park.
But we never got that far. We spotted an owl along Central Park West. Just across the busy street, the exhibit “Baseball as America” was opening on at the American Museum of Natural History. The great columned entrance was stunningly illuminated red, white and blue as limousines discharged various Yankees, Mets, and other baseball and museum lovers.
There, bathed in the museum’s patriotic glow, was a screech owl perched on a low branch. To get the best view, we had to actually exit the park and stand on the sidewalk at West 81st Street. People were clustered, watching for Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams and Joe Torres, who were rumored to be attending the opening. We had to edge through the throng, to get closer to the owl. Two crowds of people standing in the same spot, facing in opposite directions.
The owl was oblivious. He was gray and white, eight inches tall, so close I could look into his ferocious yellow eyes. In true New York fashion, he let everyone else go about their business while he went about his: killing a mouse. Wings spread, he slashed downward, hit his prey as it ran, and ripped it apart—gobbling bloody entrails made redder by the gala museum lights.
Most of the bystanders missed seeing that murderous show. They forgot to glance over the wall into the wilds of Central Park, fixed as they were on the American pastime, on the enchantment of Manhattan, on their own human dreams.
I have my own human dreams. I have made many of them come true in New York City. But part of me is still a Connecticut girl at heart, and Brendan’s words are never too far from my consciousness: “Go to Central Park.” Oracle, sage: thank you for knowing me, for reminding me of who I am. Nature is in my nature.
Besides, I still have to see the fly-in.
(Photograph by Cal Vornberger: Two fledgling Eastern screech owls, Central Park, North Woods. www.calvorn.com)
Butterfly on the Tide Line by Luanne Rice
Walking the tide line, I came upon an Eastern Comma Butterfly in the wet sand. The front edge of a wave pushed it higher on the beach. I thought the butterfly was dead, but then I saw one of its legs move. I picked it up. I carried it to the top of the beach thinking I would lower it into the tall grass where it could die, but it held my finger with a sharp grip. It began to walk up the back of my hand.
I sat in the sand holding it. We stayed there for a long time. The sun felt warm. Ants crawled around the sand. The butterfly was still, its wings glued together, sticking straight up. It looked as if a bite had been taken from its wings, but it was so symmetrical I believe that was just their shape.
Brown spots on dark orange wings, like a monarch but with no white markings. Raggedy wings, big eyes. She had only one antenna visible. I thought the other had been torn off, but it was trapped between her wings. She worked to free it and did. Now two antennae waved. Four legs walking. Up my hand onto the sleeve of my sweatshirt. Over my shoulder, onto my back. She positioned herself in full sunlight. We stayed there a long time. She was drying her wings.
She moved her wings apart. A little, then back together. Stillness. Her big eyes. No more walking, then many more steps onto my shoulder. She tilted. Her wings opened. Now she closed them again. Wide wings, grains of sand stuck to them. A small patch of sand where the wing joined her thorax. As her wings dried, the sand fell off grain by grain.
I slid off my sweatshirt and placed it on my towel with her on the shoulder of the sweatshirt in the sun. I went to swim. I just ducked in, stayed a few minutes, came out. She was still there in the sunlight. The wind ruffled her wings. They were open now and stayed open. The sun was setting; I was getting cold. I waited, wishing she would fly. I felt my hopes getting up, but checked them. Maybe she would try to fly and not be able to. I thought of my youngest sister. She had once watched a Monarch butterfly emerge from its chrysalis. It had crawled onto her finger and taken flight from there. She’d described to me the feeling of tiny claws on her skin. I had known that with my butterfly. I wanted her to fly, but she didn’t. The sun was going down.
I didn’t want to leave her on the beach. I picked up my sweatshirt with her still clinging to the shoulder, wings open. Carrying her across the sand, I spotted a young gull, dark markings, standing on one foot. On the body, right where the second leg should have been, was a scrap of red. Blood, from where the leg had been—recently, from the blood and ruffled feathers—torn off.
Every day is a heartbreak. You can’t save everything. Maybe you can’t save anything. I carried the butterfly on my sweatshirt. The sea breeze picks up just before sunset, and I was afraid she’d blow off my sweatshirt when we crossed the footbridge, but I shielded her with my body and she hung on.
We climbed the steep stone steps up the wooded hillside. When we got to the yard, I left her on my sweatshirt on the ground by the back door. Her wings were open, then she closed them. I went to take a shower, an outside shower under the sky, with vines climbing the latticework. The water felt hot and good. When I came back around the house, she was gone.
Sea Education Association by Luanne Rice
November 1975, Woods Hole.
One stormy November night, studying in a carrel at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) Library, I picked up my pen, wanting to capture the moment. Feelings of being at SEA, living in Woods Hole, learning about the oceans from great teachers, preparing to join WESTWARD in the Caribbean… I wrote: “The wind is howling across Eel Pond, clanking in the halyards of boats on their moorings. Soon I’ll be going to sea. What will happen?”
I still have that notebook. Looking back now, did I realize then that I was in the midst of the single most influential experience of my life? I knew that I wanted to be a writer, and at nineteen had the resounding sense that I was completely unqualified by life to write about anything worth reading. SEA changed all that.
We met WESTWARD in St. Thomas, and I was assigned to C-Watch, with Mike Phelps as the watch officer. I spent the first night on lookout—standing at the bow, watching for obstacles, more vigilant than I had ever been. The wind was so salty and warm, the sea flashed with bioluminescence, and by the time I was relieved by the next student, I was already transformed by the fact of having helped guide my ship and shipmates through the night.
Our cruise track would take us through the Lesser Antilles, across the Old Bahama Channel, and into the Turks and Caicos as we tracked humpback whales. We hung hydrophones over the side and recorded their songs. We watched the whales breach and dive, swim alongside the boat with their newborns. The science we did challenged previously held ideas about migratory routes and about where and when the whales mated and birthed their young. I internalized the experience of what I observed and felt, and I have been writing about it ever since.
So many of my characters have benefited from my experience with SEA. The oceanographer in ANGELS ALL OVER TOWN, my first novel, got started aboard a schooner like WESTWARD. The marine biologist in SAFE HARBOR researched humpbacks in the Caribbean. I write a lot about artists who paint nature, and I attribute their attention to the beauty and minutiae of various species to my time spent in the shipboard lab. The meteorologist played by Gena Rowlands in the film version of CRAZY IN LOVE studied in Woods Hole and used to hear the halyards clanking in the wind blowing across Eel Pond.
Most of my novels take place on oceans and shorelines; I can’t even imagine my work without everything I learned from my time in SEA. Not just the facts taught in class and on board ship, but the sense I gained of the world and my place in it. The enormity of the sea, the capacity we have to sail it, our responsibility to each other, to future generations, to the sea itself…
I stopped believing that young writers, including myself, lack things to say—instead, it’s more a matter of learning to trust oneself and one’s voice. Even so, I consider SEA to be my Hemingway experience: Young Woman and the Sea. I sailed by the stars, followed whales, climbed a mountain on Mona Island, spent Christmas far from land on Silver Bank, watched sharks in a feeding frenzy in Mayaguez Harbor, pondered existence.
Amy Gittell, my Woods Hole roommate and WESTWARD shipmate, has remained a wonderful friend. I’ve always felt grateful to Dewitt and Lila Acheson Wallace, founders of Reader’s Digest, for giving me the scholarship that made my time at SEA possible—ironically, my work is now published in many languages in their Select Editions, and my gratitude extends to SEA every time I see one of those volumes and realize how much of my material comes from my time there.
One of my favorite words, and states of being, is inspired. To inspire means, literally, to breathe life into, to impel, move, or guide by divine or supernatural inspiration.
I think back to the wind that long ago November night, when I wrote: “Soon I will be going to sea. What will happen?”
Now I know: I was about to be inspired.
For more information about SEA, please visit www.sea.edu.
In Honor of Reading Lolita in Tehran: a Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi by Luanne Rice
August 30, 2005
I was born in the United States, where we have a Constitution whose First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, and I have lived here my whole life except for two years when I lived in Paris, in the Eighth Arrondissement, overlooking the courtyard of a hotel with red awnings, which was hardly oppressive. So I’m humbled to be writing this in honor of Azar Nafisi’s visit to the library.
While I lived in Paris, I took a train to Amsterdam to see the Anne Frank house. In fourth grade at Vance School in New Britain, we had read her diary. The small everyday details of Anne’s life made me love her, and feel I knew her. Like me, she had loved and rebelled against her parents, liked a boy, fought with her sister.
She had also lived in hiding from the Nazis, watched neighbors being dragged from their homes, worried her family would be killed—and written about it. For a young girl living in the secret annex, that was an act of dissidence. Here is a quote from Tuesday, April 4, 1944:
“I want to go on living even after my death! And therefore I am grateful to God for giving me this gift, this possibility of developing myself and of writing, of expressing all that is in me. I can shake off everything if I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn."
Writing as salvation… Anne wrote what the world wasn’t supposed to read. The power in that act is nearly unfathomable to those of us protected by the First Amendment. Reading brought me into Anne’s world and changed me, showed me what one voice can do. Her words have always meant so much to me. Not only for what they say, but for the very fact she wrote them.
The area is called Point O' Woods, but now it might as well be called Point O' No Woods. The new houses have air-conditioning—who needs the sea breeze, and who needs shade? Instead of the rustle of leaves overhead, walk down the road and hear the low, constant hum of a big air-conditioning unit.Read More
The title itself is an invitation. It appeals not just to the reader’s mind, but to her senses—a call to abandon the mundane and visit the riverbank to feel the wind on your face, hear it rustling the willows. The novel opens with Mole, “working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home.” He has dust in his eyes and throat, whitewash all over his black fur. But, “Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.” By the end of the first paragraph, Mole has quit his work to pop up into the sunshine—as I now invite you to do, by entering the world of this wonderful book.Read More
nothing captures the bittersweet nature of love and place better than hemingway's "islands in the stream." in the first section, "bimini," thomas hudson lives in a house on a hill overlooking the sea. he has created an isolated life as a painter, has sworn off love to protect his own heart and women's, and heads down to mr. bobby's to drink. his three sons come to the island for the summer, and even before they arrive he's dreading their leaving.Read More
This is an extract of a story that appeared in WOWoWOW. You can read the full story here. Torn
by Luanne Rice
This year — the year my cosmic sweater began to unravel — I began to write The Deep Blue Sea For Beginners. I wrote it because I felt I had to knit life back together with words. Among other things, I’m D-3, which means I’ve been divorced three times. My third was so spectacular that it made Liz Smith’s column not once but twice, and involved the following dialogue with an FBI Agent:
Me: "But he doesn’t seem like a con man!"
FBI agent: "Do you think con men announce they’re con men? Did you meet him at church? A self-help meeting?"
Me: "He said he could help me believe in myself again."
FBI agent: (chuckle) "He’s got it down. He’s a predator. You were vulnerable. Did he ask what you did for a living?"
Me: "I told him I was a writer. He wanted to see my work … we walked to a Barnes & Noble."
FBI agent: "Guaranteed, he was calculating your assets before you showed him half your shelf."
That conversation took place five years into a brutal, dishonest, abusive marriage. By that time I’d dropped or been dropped by all my friends. One friend said he felt I was "disappearing." I figured it was because I wore long, flowing things and straw hats. "I don’t mean your clothes," he said. "You. Where are you in there? What happened to Luanne?"