Sunday, May 24, 2009


The weekend of May 16th I drove to Pennsylvania to attend the graduation from Bucknell University of my goddaughter, Alexandra. The actual graduation ceremony was on Sunday morning, but they had events all weekend. Arriving on Saturday afternoon, I was able to attend the casual Grill (i.e., dinner), with Alexandra and her parents, followed by the interreligious Baccalaureate Service, followed by the traditional candle-lighting ceremony. At the dinner I was most impressed by all the young ladies (including my goddaughter) wearing strapless dresses – not evening gowns, you understand, but casual-nice dresses , evidently the latest fashion trend, of which I had been oblivious – and by the fact that the buffet offered chunks of fillet mignon. The piece I had was overdone...always an unfortunate thing to do a good steak...but still, it was fillet mignon. For hundreds of parents and other guests (siblings, grandparents, people like me). Perhaps even more than the beautiful, almost stereotypical campus, and the hefty price tag I knew Alexandra's parents had paid for her education, this told me Bucknell was not a poor school.

Not being a religious person I wasn't particularly eager to attend the Baccalaureate Service (after I learned that that was what a Baccalaureate Service was, having never been exposed to that definition of "baccalaureate,") but it proved to be very moving, to a large extent because of the music. For one thing there were bell ringers! It gives me unmitigated joy to listen to bell-ringers, and the Rooke Chapel Ringers, under the direction of one William Payn, up there in his long silver-white pony tail, were spectacularly good. The first piece they did was called Radiance, and I was impressed to note that it was by Dr. Payn. Looking online I see that he's produced quite a few handbell compositions. He's also arranged a collection of Disney tunes, e.g., Whistle While You Work, Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, for handbells, which I'd love to hear.

But part of the pleasure of a handbell performance is watching the performers. The concentration is intense, but these young people also seemed to be really enjoying themselves, particularly during their second piece, Bizet's Farandole (a farandole being a festive "community" dance traditionally performed in France). I am not someone who uses the word joy lightly, but this music, and the intense, occasionally grinning young people performing it with such gusto, gave me joy.

And most of those young people were also in the Rooke Chapel Chorus, which also performed! They just set down their bells and moved to the other side of the stage when it was time to sing, which they did beautifully. I felt compelled to compliment Dr. Payn on both groups' performances when I saw him at the later candle-lighting ceremony, and hoped he would convey my praise to the young performers, since I know praise, with applause, is the gods' own nectar to performers.

Early in the Baccalaureate program there was a Call to Prayer, by representatives of the Christian, Jewish, Muslim and ? faiths. The question mark has to do with the drum performance; I wasn't clear what faith that represented. But the Kyrie performed by a young woman named Kerry Flanigan was absolutely gorgeous. It was like listening to a Gregorian chant of one voice; I was transfixed. And likewise the call to prayer by the young, black Muslim Zafrullah Kamar, was very powerful. Most such calls that I've heard have sounded thin and nasally, but young Kamar had a deep, resonant voice, which gave great emotional and, yes, spiritual, heft to the haunting chant, which is longer than the snippets we're accustomed to hearing on news programs reporting the latest terrorist attack somewhere in the Middle East.

The candle-lighting ceremony is usually held in the main Quad, but due to the high possibility of rain, it was held in the Field House, admittedly a less atmospheric environment. If nothing else, the impact of the bagpipes was completely lost – they just became a vague, faintly irritating screeching behind all the crowd noise – which, since I love bagpipes, I thought a real shame. We sat through a bunch of speeches (including a spirited one by the president of the class, aka my goddaughter), then they turned out the lights, and the graduating seniors, who had lined up around the vast room, passed the flame from one candle to another. It was truly impressive to see, and I would think, to be a part of.

When I graduated from college I took part in no ceremonies at all. For one thing, I graduated in the middle of the year, and while I could certainly have attended the official ceremony in June, at that time in my life I simply had no interest in doing so. I was six years older than most of my classmates – most of my friends were professors, or my roommates – having started to college full-time at the age of 25, after having been on my own for several years, even having been through a marriage. I don't really regret missing any of that stuff but for the young, fresh-faced kids I was looking at at Bucknell, these ceremonies, these rites of passage, will surely provide deeply satisfying memories. And they certainly will for their proud parents.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Patriotically seeking the sea

Monday, April 20th was Patriots' Day here in Maine, as it was in Massachusetts, both states commemorating the Battles of Lexington and Concord, which ushered in the Revolutionary War (Maine was still a part of Massachusetts at that time; hence the shared holiday.) As usual I had closed my little library, and I took advantage of the free day to drive to Boothbay Harbor on the coast. Just needed to go somewhere, and felt the pull of the sea that I occasionally feel, and that living in Maine enables me to respond to.

To get to Boothbay Harbor from Gardiner you drive first to Wiscasset, which I mentioned in my note of June 20, 2008 ("prettiest village in New England"). It's a pleasant drive of green, not-quite-flat farm fields, backed by trees, for the most part evergreens, so that even though the deciduous trees in this part of the world were still in the bud as opposed to the leaf stage, the world was green. The farmhouses were for the most part unprepossessing. In Maine you often see farms with impressively large old New England houses, many with the big barn attached (weather, weather, weather); but these were small farms, newer houses (not new you understand, just newer than the 1800s). There were also plenty of other houses, too, here and there beside the road. This is a thickly settled area, despite being so rural.

It gives me great satisfaction to drive through such countryside. I find it...comforting. Cozy. I compare it to the land I was passing through on my drive to Maine from Colorado in September, 2005. Highway running straight as a stretched-out ribbon across eastern Colorado and Kansas. Flat, flat, flat. Trees a rarity, usually planted as windbreaks around the farmhouses with their tin barns. The overriding color, beige. The land, the wheat, the corn, it was all beige. Certainly you got a feeling of wide open spaces, and I could see how that could appeal, but it was anything but cozy, anything but comforting. When I would get out of the car at a gas station the wind, blowing unhindered from the Rockies to the suggestion of hills in western Missouri, would mess up my hair, throw my skirt around, and lodge grit in my pores.

No, I'll take the central Maine landscape over that of the midwest any day.

At Wiscasset I crossed the Sheepscot River, dramatically wide there, and on that particular afternoon heavily populated with sitting...not ducks...terns. And/or other gull-type creatures. They looked like hundreds of bobbing white buoys, being buffeted by a brisk breeze.

Just beyond the bridge Highway 27, which I had followed all the way from Gardiner, turned right, and made its curving way through a much tighter landscape – hills and curves more numerous, fields smaller, woods closing in more. Passed a small restaurant called the Edgecomb Eatery, thinking my God, someplace actually calls itself an "eatery." Passed a lot of small businesses in homes beside the road – On Board Fabrics (what would they feature, different kinds of canvas?), a place selling handcarved furniture, lots of art galleries.

You hit Boothbay first, skirting around a rather forlorn little common (no trees!), then there's a bit more thickly settled countryside, then the "mall" stretch with the supermarket/movie theatre/Subway contingent. And then there you are in this little village of narrow, tightly packed streets, endless bed-and-breakfasts, art galleries, souvenir shops, all the kinds of establishments that go with a wildly popular tourist destination.

Happily, I was hitting the place before the season started; it was all but deserted. I've been there in high summer, and it's the proverbial zoo: cars creeping through those streets in search of nonexistent parking places, shops so crowded you can hardly move. But now I could park in the big, empty lot in front of the fire station and walk the two short blocks down to what is officially the Public Boat Landing, but is known to everyone as Fisherman's Wharf. There I was able to get a dose of exactly what I was craving: that clean, damp sea smell (what is it, seaweed?), the lonely sound of seagulls calling, the metallic slap of rigging against mast as a boat gently rocks in the water. A fisherman was shutting down his boat, Jazzmatazz. With a name like that you might expect somebody young and hip, but this guy looked like most fishermen: middle-aged, grizzled, saggy, getting into his beat-up old pickup and driving away.

Whale watch excursions are very popular at BBH, and there was an enormous boat, the Harbor Princess, waiting for the season to begin (traditionally Memorial Day weekend). It was anchored next to an equally enormous hotel – long and narrow, rather than tall, and covered with the pale gray shingle you often see on houses near the sea – for which I could see no name. The only sign I saw was advertising a tarot card reader in the ground floor corner unit. However, a dip into that indispensable resource, the Internet, tells me it's The Inn at Fisherman's Wharf. Exactly the kind of place you wouldn't want to stay at if you're a light sleeper, with all the harbor cruise and whale watch boats – not to mention the smaller guys like Jazzmatazz – right outside your window.

A walk up Commercial Street, which runs beside the harbor, took me past Bay Shirts, pining for business on this quiet day, with a large green moose sitting on a fake tree stump out front, wearing a fetching T-shirt. Farther up the street were two of the B&Bs you find mentioned in the guidebooks: the Greenleaf Inn, with a red English telephone booth beside the walk that leads up to the door, and across an expanse of paved-over grass, the Admiral's Quarters Inn. Both are large white houses that have been added onto all over the place. They, too, would not be quiet places to stay at the height of the season, but might be pleasant off-season, and would certainly be convenient for everything.

After regretting that I could not eat in the Tugboat Restaurant across the street (even though I know from experience that restaurants located in unusual buildings – like tugboats – inevitably have mediocre at best food) because it was closed on Mondays, I pulled myself away and headed home. I'd had my small touch of the sea.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


When I was walking the rail trail in Hallowell the other day I crossed the most wonderful stream. A footbridge takes you over it, and I found myself pausing for a good five minutes, leaning on the wooden railing, mesmerized by what I was seeing and hearing.

The stream drops down in a zig-zag through a shallow, heavily wooded ravine. Every now and then it turns into a tiny, miniature waterfall, as it drops down slightly to the next level. And it makes a wonderful sound, the kind of steady, rushing-water sound that could lull you to sleep. There are large rocks and even out-and-out boulders, both in the stream and lying about on the sloping land to either side. Indeed, there is a fat wall of obviously finished granite blocks, marching to the edge of the stream on one side, then con-tinuing a very short way on the other. I was thinking this must be the remains of an old bridge, but conferring with Hallowell's historian, who very conven-iently is one of my little library's Board members, I learned that it's actually the remains of a dam.

Sam also informed me that this is Vaughan Stream, once part of the Vaughan estate, the Vaughans being one of the oldest and wealthiest Hallowell families. But in the 1830s, with the demise of the Second Bank of the United States, the Vaughans lost a good deal of their investments, and were forced to sell much of the land along the stream. A number of businesses were built along it, including a sandpaper plant just above the dam. No doubt the stream is much more pleasant now, shaded by the tall trees on its banks, than in its industrial heyday.

Streams are to be found everywhere in this area. And by this area I mean not only the Augusta area, but the state of Maine – for that matter, the region of New England. Water, water, everywhere. I was ill a few weeks ago, and when I finally began feeling somewhat better I decided a short walk through my neighborhood would get my sluggish blood flowing. I passed numerous narrow wooded areas through which water was inevitably flowing. I would walk to the side of the road and peer down at where a narrow trickle of water was wending its way over, under and around mossy rocks, fallen branches, small granite boulders, past banks pale brown with old autumn leaves. The water would be coming from beneath the road on which I stood, so then I would walk to the other side of the road to see whence it came. Sometimes there it was, twisting and turning its way to the pipe under the road that would enable it to continue its quietly gurgling trip down to the Kennebec River. They'd obviously interrupted the stream by bringing in rocks and earth, piling it up, with a pipe running through for the stream, then paving the top.

But sometimes the steam wasn't to be seen on the other side, just somebody's yard. So where was that water coming from? Or as in the case of the creek directly across the street from my house, that wends through a little woods beside the handsome white-with-black-shutters house on the corner, where does it go? It certainly doesn't continue on the other side of the road, because there's my house, my yard. The secret life of water...

So here we are, surrounded by water, taking it for granted, not even noticing that it is with us in all sorts of unexpected nooks and crannies, often not knowing where it's coming from or where it's going. And in many parts of the world – in many parts of this country – water is a rare commodity. If there is a stream, even a river, it may be dry during the dry season. In other parts of the world, what water there is may be badly polluted (we've been working hard in this country for the past thirty years to make that less the case here). And those in the know tell us that water people can safely use for drinking, cooking and bathing is going to become increasingly rare, thanks to both global warming and the aforementioned pollution.

I was thinking what a shame we couldn't bottle some of the trickles and creeks and streams with which New England abounds, send the water where it's needed. On the other hand...would I want to drink that stuff?

Friday, May 1, 2009


I just finished a marvelously entertaining book called Medicus: A novel of the Roman Empire, by Ruth Downie. The part of the Roman Empire it's concerned with is Britain, circa 117 A.D. The emperor Trajan has just died, and it looks like Hadrian will replace him – that fellow who, as we all know, went on to have a huge wall built between England and Scotland, in an effort to keep the marauding Picts and Scots out. So that gives you an indication of the time period.

It's a period, and a place, about which relatively little is actually known, as the author frankly admits in a Note at the end of the book. Nonetheless, Downie does an impressive job of conveying a believable world in which slavery is taken for granted, in which all bathing is done in public baths – and is done frequently! in sharp contrast to, oh, about the next 1800 years – in which the conquering Romans have been on the scene long enough to be accepted by the local populace – that part of it that hasn't escaped to the mountains of Wales, and will never accept – but is still resented.

There's a lot of humor in the book. A good deal of that humor comes from the fact that the hero is a put-upon doctor for the Roman army (the "Medicus") who can never seem to avoid doing the decent thing, even when it seems to run counter to his own interests, and who is in endless battle with Roman bureaucracy. Indeed, one of the more interesting of the author's touches is showing how ancient bureaucracy could be as ubiquitous and as much of an irritant to those under its thumb as in the modern world. It's also interesting to see how advanced ancient medicine was in many ways, especially when compared with the medical practices of the Dark Ages and medieval period that followed. They did cataract surgery!

At any rate, the often-grouchy Gais Petreius Ruso makes the book, as he tries to concentrate on the guide to first aid in the field that he's trying to write (in warm wax, with a stylus) while the puppies his house mate has inflicted on the household run riot, as he sadly wishes the slave he bought in the street to keep her from being abused could cook better, as he keeps insisting "No, I'm not!," every time somebody says, "Oh, you must be the doctor who's looking into these killings."

I'll admit to being a big fan of historical mysteries, and the further back in time, the better, mainly because the more ancient the history, the more interesting I find it. I have very much enjoyed the Brother Cadfael mysteries of Ellis Peters, the Catherine Levendeur mysteries of Sharan Newman – both of these series being set in the 1130s and 40s, when Stephen and Matilda were fighting over who got to be ruler of England (and think how different history might have been, if Matilda had won), although the Cadfael books are set in England, and the Levendeur ones in France – and I've also enjoyed the Justin de Quincy mysteries of Sharon Kay Penman, which are set at the very end of the 12th century, when Eleanor of Aquitaine's son John is continuously plotting to replace his brother, Richard the Lion Heart, as king of England (Justin de Quincy serves Eleanor – the first book in the series is called The Queen's Man – and he solves mysteries along the way).

In all of these I am as interested in learning about how people lived in these times and places, as I am in following a story, and having a mystery solved. And all of these books do a splendid job of giving one a real sense of what it might have been like to live then, and there.

Obviously Medicus describes a world much more ancient, and about which much less is known, but we still get a good sense of what it might have been like, then, and there.