Monday, April 27, 2009


The fact that I found myself being so frightened the other night when I thought there was someone in my basement, got me to thinking about being afraid. I mentioned that I've always tended to be afraid when alone in a house (as opposed to an apartment). Now why is that? Actually, there are two questions there: why frightened in a house but not an apartment, and why frightened at all?

Well, I think I answered the first question in my last note: in an apartment there are people all around, people who would hear should you start screaming, should furniture start getting thrown around as you try to fight off your attacker. In a house there's all that space between you and your neighbors. You're essentially trapped in your own little box with whatever the danger is.

But as to the fear itself, what, exactly, am I afraid of? Being murdered in my bed? While I'm not afraid of death, I suppose I am afraid of violence. I'm afraid of being physically hurt. Quite literally I am afraid of a crazed "ax murderer," or someone with a knife. Getting hacked or stabbed, whether or not it's to the death, has got to hurt! And one doesn't, somehow, think of home invaders as just coming in and shooting people, quick, clean.

I've never in my life watched one of those Friday the 13th movies, in which teenagers or lone females are first terrorized, then slashed to death by some manically cackling fiend. But I've seen the occasional brief clip, and I've assimilated, the way we do all kinds of cultural knowledge, what they're about, the gist of them. These are way unlikely scenarios that, nonetheless, suggest unpleasant possibilities. Once the mind has had a possibility suggested to it, particularly a possibility that would negatively impact the Self, it's extremely difficult to wipe that possibility from the mind (and why is that? I suppose because self-protection is such a high priority for the organism. My psychologist friends will have to tell me...)

Like every other woman, I'm afraid of being raped, although it's not the sexual congress I'm afraid of, it's the violence that would inevitably accompany it. Rape is certainly a much more likely scenario for a woman living alone than being hacked to death. I am not physically strong, could not successfully fight off an adrenalin-charged male, not unless I could get a good grip on his balls. So I'm afraid of suddenly finding myself at some creep's mercy. Some creep with a knife.

But even when I was quite young, and had no inkling of slashers or rapists, I would be afraid when, for example, my parents would go out for the evening, and leave me in charge of my younger brothers and sisters (the youngest I ever was when this took place was 14; that's what I mean by "very young"). The least unfamiliar sound would spook me. And there what I think I was fearing was the unknown. What – or who – is making that sound? If I don't know I can't prepare myself, can't know if I'm equipped to deal with it. I don't want to be unpleasantly surprised! I usually supposed it was either a burglar or a peeping Tom, and felt ill-equipped to deal with either one.

This fear of the unknown of course accounts for the very common fear of death. We don't know what lies beyond death. Will we be equipped to deal with it? Do unpleasant surprises await us? Those of us who are very religious may, indeed, be convinced that we do know, and that "knowledge" may give us courage in the face of death. But for the rest of us – and I suspect even for the faithful, in fleeting, unguarded moments – there is this sense of an abyss that we would be stepping into. The fires of hell, with eternal pain and suffering? That's what I was brought up to believe awaited non-believers, and once an unpleasant possibility has been suggested to the mind...

Or simply non-being? And if the latter...what's so bad about non-being? Nothing to deal with there. No coping necessary.

No, it's not death that's the scary part. It's the getting there.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Home invasion

Two nights ago, in the middle of the night, I had to call the police. I honestly thought there was someone walking around in my basement. My basement is on a level with my backyard – down a considerable slope from my very small front yard – and there is a door to the outside. Naturally I keep that door locked, but locks never deterred a determined burglar (or ax murderer). After a couple of minutes of listening, sure that what I was hearing was not the usual creaking of my little wooden house, or anything produced by the fairly brisk wind outside, I leapt from my bed and made for the telephone.

Yay 9-1-1. An instant person who doesn't waste time: "What is your emergency?" I told him my address and said, "I think there's someone down in my basement." I felt a little bit as though I were in a movie, although in a movie I would have had my back to some dark doorway – while the audience was yelling Get out of there, run! – and all of a sudden an arm would have wrapped around my throat from behind, and garroted me. Now I told the officer that "I think I'm going to go outside." I didn't feel up to dealing with some maniac who might come crashing through the door to the basement – breaking the two locks on it to do so – at any moment. That door was all of two feet from where I stood. Actually, I knew this was an unlikely scenario, but I was surprised at how frightened I felt, and being someplace where I could run seemed like a good idea. So I pulled on my robe, that I always leave thrown across the end of my sofa when I go to bed, in case somebody rings my doorbell in the middle of the night, and went out onto my tiny front stoop. And in maybe a minute two police cars pulled up. I was amazed and impressed with the speed of the response, but then I don't guess there's a whole lot of high crime taking place in Gardiner, Maine at 2:30 in the morning.

One fellow went around back; the other went inside with me, down my basement stairs that are so narrow you have to turn sideways to get down them. He tried the door, walked all around, poking into dark corners with his flashlight. Door was locked, no one was lurking behind the furnace. The fellow outside caught no one skulking in the bushes. So they went away, assuring me that it was probably the wind (but I knew the wind did not wear shoes).

And within three minutes I was on the phone again. This time what I had been hearing sounded like a body thumping up against the side of the house, right outside my window. "I really am not crazy," I said. "It may be an animal, but it's something." The fellow on the phone sounded a little less eager to protect and serve, but he said they'd send somebody back out. And in the meantime I put back on my fake-leopard robe, got a hammer out of the utility drawer, and the flashlight from where I keep it beside my bed – this is in case I wake up in the middle of the night and the power's gone out, so the night light I keep burning in the kitchen is out, and either I have to make my way to the bathroom, or I hear noises. This girl keeps herself prepared for all contingencies – and I went out to investigate myself.

Mind you, I have a gun. This dates from when Micheal and I were living out in the country in southern Louisiana, and he would be working offshore for three weeks at a time. I've always been a scaredy-cat when alone in a house at night (not in an apartment, which is what I lived in for most of my adult life, since then you have people all around you); and both Micheal and I had felt it would simply level the playing field if one of those times I heard a noise that frightened me, it actually proved to be a human being with dishonorable intentions.

But I haven't fired the gun in years; haven't even cleaned it in years. Couldn't remember if it was loaded. So decided I'd be better off with the hammer. So there I was, clutching the hammer and swinging my little flashlight around at the side of my house when the police arrived the second time. The young officer (who I think was amused by the hammer) sent me back inside while he walked all around the house. And then he came inside and informed me that I did indeed have an animal. Seems there's a nice big hole up under the eaves by the chimney, an open invitation to any homeless animal who can climb.

After the police left, while I was still standing in the living room, I heard my home invaders, yes, quite clearly over my head, rather than under my feet. I grabbed the broom and pounded on the woodwork that runs around the ceiling (couldn't really pound on the ceiling because it's a dropped ceiling, one of those cardboard things). Kept it up until whoever was up there got quiet. "I have to sleep!" I yelled at the interlopers. Then I went to bed. And today I informed my landlord that he needed to board up the hole.

So there you have the big excitement of my week. Definitely one of those times I could have used a man around the house. He could have gone outside with the hammer and the flashlight.

Monday, April 20, 2009


Yesterday while I was preparing one of my meals, I was listening to my Statler Brothers album. I'm one of those people who still has a large collection of vinyl records, and still listens to them. This particular album is "The Best of the Statler Bros.," and came out in about 1975. It features on the cover a formal portrait of the wives of the four "brothers" (two of them, Don and Harold Reid, actually were brothers, although nobody's name was Statler), in old-fashioned dresses and hairdos. A note on the cover says that the contents of the album was Mercury's (recording company's) idea of the "best of" the Statler Bros., but the pictures on the outside were what they themselves considered the best aspects of themselves. Hokey, but cute.

Anyway, this is a great album, truly representing "the best of." And what these brothers were so good at were clever lyrics – they at least co-wrote every song on this album – and harmony. I can remember the first time I heard "Flowers on the Wall," on a car radio – I was a know-nothing teenager, but I recognized clever, original lyrics when I heard them. ("Countin' flowers on the wall/that don't bother me at all./Playin' solitaire 'til dawn/with a deck of 51./Smokin' cigarettes and watchin' Captain Kangaroo/Now don't tell me/I've nothin' to do...") And these lyrics were sung to a chipper tune that belied the singer's lovesick misery. Irony in a country-music song – hah! Actually, I was hearing this on a rock station; the song was an early example of the kind of cross-over song – part country, part rock – that you hear all the time now.

But the big thing with these guys was their harmonizing. Their arrangements melded their voices together so beautifully, so perfectly. Like the chorus on "Susan When She Tried" ("No there's never/been another/who could make me weak inside/and give me/what I needed/like Susan when she tried") – all those voices, every one of them a good, and distinctive voice, rolling over, under, around one another.

In this masterful use of the different voices the Statler Brothers' arrangements were like those of another group for whom I have a big liking: the Everly Brothers (yes, yes, I know I'm talking Golden Oldies here). Their "Greatest Hits of" album, that features on the cover a picture of them not in their 1950s pompadours, but their early-70s longish hair and peasant shirts, has example after example of their wonderful, if more adolescently adenoidal harmonizing. I have this album, too, and was listening to it just the other night. You can't beat "Gone, Gone, Gone" for the harmonics throughout, not to mention a high energy level and great guitar-playing. Or the harmony on the falling notes of the chorus of "Kathy's Clown" ("Don't want your lu-uh-uh-ove anymore/Don't want your ki-ii-ii-isses/That's for sure./I die each time/I hear this sound/Here he cuh-uh-uh-omes/that's Kathy's clown/that's Kathy's clown...) Supposedly the Everly Brothers' harmonies influenced the Beatles!

It's occurred to me that a really good relationship should feature this same kind of harmony. Each of you "singing" at the level you sing best, and the differences complimenting each other. I used to say about my husband and me, that we were a perfect example of opposites attracting. This was certainly problematic at times; how could it help but be? But when we got it right – when he helped me to relax by being playful, when I helped him to be a good citizen by assuming we would recycle, would go vote, would pay our bills – when he drove and I read the map – when he cooked and I washed the was beautiful harmony.

Sometimes a melody isn't enough; you need that harmony.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The rail trail

This morning I walked a mile on the Rail Trail, then the mile back to my car. The Rail Trail is a very pleasant paved walk running from Augusta through Hallowell and Farmingdale to Gardiner. It follows, funnily enough, the old railroad track, which in turn follows the Kennebec River.

The railroad no longer runs along this stretch of track, though there has been some talk of extending the Downeaster line, which runs between Portland and Boston, north to Brunswick, and diehard train fans cherish a hope that eventually train service as far north as Augusta could resume. Last May there was a special chartered train trip between Rockland, on the coast, and Augusta, with the train stopping for a couple of hours in Hallowell, so people could sight-see and attend the annual meeting of the Maine Rail Group (a "non-profit group working to enhance rail service in Maine"), one of the sponsors of the trip. The old Hallowell depot was located just across the street from the library, and while the depot building is no longer there, the platform is, and that's where the train stopped. I was able to run out with the library's digital camera and take a few pictures of the 50s era train, as it huffed and clanged in place.

But back to the trail that runs beside the rail. The trail is much used, by joggers, bicyclists, women pushing baby carriages, couples walking their dog, individual strollers like myself. This morning traffic on the trail was moderate; several times I was quite alone, which was especially pleasant. Just me, the wide, blue river down below – easily seen because our deciduous trees are still without leaves (yes, on April 19th – this is Maine, don't forget – though green buds are beginning to bulge and split), steep, granite-slab-littered embankments reaching up on the other side to the backs of houses that line Route 201, the road that runs through the four communities, and that I follow every day to and from work.

Indeed, the sound of traffic was the only thing that kept the experience from being perfect. Just can't escape the eternal hum of the combustion engine (will electric cars be quieter? Hybrids?) I think about my friend Linda, and her lovely home in Connecticut, just off the Wilbur Cross Highway. You can't see the road, thanks to all the trees (in New England trees hide a multitude of sins), but you can hear it, at all hours of the day and night. Same thing on the Rail Trail, though there is the occasional moment of silence, when there doesn't happen to be any traffic going in either direction.

This morning I wanted to walk a part of the Trail that I'd never been able to see from the road. At the southern end of Hallowell the path disappears under 201 and cannot be seen again for quite some time, until you get to about the middle of Farmingdale, when all of a sudden the trail is running right beside the road. So I was exploring, venturing into unknown territory, something I always enjoy doing (I often turn down a street or road I've never been down, just to see where it goes).

I walked a different stretch of the trail a year or so ago, starting at the northern end of Hallowell and walking about a mile into Augusta. Then I had especially enjoyed a little wooded area high on a bluff above the river. I had stood and looked down through the trees at a couple of motor boats whizzing up the river, then back again.

I had thought that the Rail Trail was specific to this area, but have learned there are rail trails all over the country. There's even (of course) an organization, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, dedicated to supporting and publicizing these walking (biking, jogging) paths. And the organization has (of course) a web site: Walking does everybody good, and walking where there is beauty to be seen and peace to be enjoyed is an absolute positive. So...more power to them.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Game

In 2006 I read the book Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Loved it, as so many people who have read it, have. Was very taken with an exchange the author had with the husband of a friend during the "Eat" part of the book, which took place – appropriately – in Italy. Gilbert was saying that she really loved Rome, of course, but some-how it was "not her city." And the friend's husband said, "Maybe you and Rome just have different words."*

He went on to explain that every place has a word that sums it up. The word for Rome, he said, was Sex. He asked her what she thought the word for New York – where she lived and worked back in the States – was. "Achieve," she decided. And the word for Los Angeles was Succeed (as she says, there is a subtle but important difference.) Although Gilbert thought at the time her word might be Seek, she finally concluded this year-long journey that she was in the midst of was actually a kind of attempt to find her "word." The one thing she was sure of was that her word was not sex.

I fell in love with this idea of A Word. So what was my word?. The very first thought that sprang to mind was Tell. Because, let's face it, I like to tell people things. Either in my writing, or verbally. But immediately I began having second and third thoughts. I was obsessed with accomplishing something, in my life in general, and even on every weekend. So maybe my word was Achieve? More hemming and hawing. No, I decided, Achieve really did not sum me up.

So then, what about Write? Or Travel? Two activities I am passionate about. I was by this time having a back and forth email discussion on the topic with an ex-college roommate, who was as fascinated as I by what we were now referring to as The Game. Interestingly, Susan's husband had announced that his word was Play, which both Sue and I concurred with completely – and I had decided that my husband's word had been Enjoy, since what he was most concerned with in life was just enjoying whatever came his way – but Sue and I were both vacillating on our own words. Did that mean we were both more complicated, more multi-dimensional, than our respective spouses, making it more difficult to reduce us to one word, or did it just mean we didn't have a clear grasp on what was most important to us, or what really drove us?

Susan finally announced that her word was Spirit – which I didn't completely see – and I finally concluded that my word was Connect, with lots of fancy footwork to support this. For example, it has always been very important to me to stay connected to people, even with all the moving around I've done in my life. My oldest friends go back to sophomore year in high school, despite having lived, only briefly, in even the same state with some of those friends in the intervening years. Likewise I have remained connected to most of the people I was friends with in college, though we are also spread all over the map. I have remained friends with several ex-lovers.

In my writing, it has always been important to me to connect the people I was writing for with what I was writing about. This was, naturally enough, especially true in my travel writings – I want people to see what I'm seeing, understand what I'm feeling about wherever I am – but in everything else I write as well. And as I said to Sue, even my interest in genealogy seemed to spring from this desire to connect, in this case the past with the present with the future (and one of the regrets of my life is that, since I have no children, the connection ends with me).

But now I've come full circle. I think my word is Tell. Because – just look at this blog – I like to tell people things.

*Gilbert, Elizabeth. Eat, Pray, Love. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Making it official

One of the reasons I went to Texas in February was to buy my gravestone. This was something I'd been wanting to do for some time, but had held off partly because of the expense, and partly because buying your tombstone (and/or grave plot) seems like an official inner acknowledgment that you're going to die. So o.k., it looks like I'm going to die.

And when I die, I want to be buried next to my husband. Unfor-tunately, my husband is buried, most inconveniently, in the small town of Terrell, thirty miles east of Dallas. Leaving aside the fact that I live in Maine, the largest number of family members live in San Antonio, a six-hour drive from Terrell. I also have a sister in Colorado Springs, a brother in Santa Fe, and one in Connecticut. How eager is any of them going to be to have to make arrangements for a funeral in little ol' Terrell, especially if somebody also has to schlep to Maine to pick up my "cremains" (the appalling term they use for what's left of you after you are cremated).

So I figured that if I went ahead and had my gravestone made and installed, the family would be more likely to honor my wishes about where I want to be buried, instead of just planting me wherever it was most convenient. (This, mind you, would not be done out of a lack of love or respect, but simply because the rest of my family lives as financially precarious an existence as I do, and they have to be as practical as possible.) Since I have told everyone I want to be cremated (which I actually don't – I would much rather my casket and bones be available to eager anthropologists, thousands of years from now – but it's unquestionably the most practical choice for a Starving Librarian, with an equally strapped family), all they will have to do is carry the small box containing my cremains to the site, say a few words, hopefully some of them amusing, and have the funeral home bury the box in front of the stone that will already be in place. And, oh yes, they'll have to fork up $100 to have my death date etched on the stone.

My friend Joey was surprised that I couldn't handle these arrange-ments over the Internet. Perhaps I could have, that and/or the telephone. In fact. I had called the funeral home a couple of weeks before my trip, to inform them that I wanted the same kind of stone as my husband, and when I would be in town to sign the necessary papers and pay the necessary money. I wanted to go in person be-cause this kind of major purchase is not something I would want to do either electronically or over the phone, and because I was wanting to visit my husband's grave anyway,

One of the drawbacks to living in Maine (and being a S.L.) is that I am unable to visit Micheal's grave more often than every couple of years. For me, it's a gesture of respect to, shall we say, put in an appearance. Here I am, Micheal, I haven't forgotten you. I always like to set out a couple of new artificial flower arrangements (fresh flowers are nice, but last no time at all), make sure the place is tidy. Making sure a grave looks nice says to the world, here is someone who was loved, cared about.

But who is that assertion for? Does the world really care? Would I be upset if I drove through a cemetery and there were no flowers on any of the graves? I think...yes. It seems to be a selfless act, an act honoring the memory of a loved one, and the absence of such acts would suggest a colder, more sterile world. Admittedly, the memory that is being honored will last only as long as the person, or persons, with the memory last. Then the grave will become nothing but a curiosity for those folks – like myself – who like to wander through cemeteries, reading headstones. But that's o.k. Then the markers will speak for themselves. Micheal's grave says, "Beloved of Melody." Mine will say, "The traveler rests." That will sum us up nicely, I think.

There's also the possibility that the loved one himself, or herself, may be out there, hovering in the ether, appreciating the gesture. I'm skeptical about this, but it's one area in which I would love to find that I was wrong.

So they've been encouraging us to get out there and spend, to help get the economy moving again. This was my rather odd contribution to the economy: the purchase of a (for me) very expensive grave marker. I would rather have purchased two business-class air fares to Paris, for my sister and myself (I had promised her I would take her to Paris for her 50th birthday, and she is now 58), but I guess the economy will take what it can get.