Love at Second Sight

When my nephew from Southeast Alaska was just a tot, he came to Seattle and squinted up at the sky. “What’s that stuff in my eyes?” he asked. “What stuff?” asked his mom. “That shiny stuff.”

Oh, that would be sunshine. Yes, the sun does shine in Seattle, even more than in Juneau, but so not much lately. Our weather tends to be soft, our skies pastel.

It was autumn when we left Seattle last Friday.

Two hours later, we stepped off a plane into summertime.

The California sky was so blue!

 
The light was intense, and even the shadows seemed to take on a life of their own.

This was most noticeable in the courtyard of the Cantor Art Museum on the Stanford campus, where we saw a sculpture by Robert Serra.

It was 200 tons of iron, 13 feet tall, 67 feet long.  At first I thought it looked like smoke stacks on a steamer or scrap metal from an old factory.

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But there is more to it than meets the eye.

It is two interlocking figure 8s that we could step inside…

…to interact with…and become a part of the sculpture.

The slanting walls were surprising, but the effect was intriguing.

We felt like Alice going down the rabbit hole.

Each step brought a new view.

The interplay between light and shadow and sky was brilliant.

We viewed a hundred canvases, each one borrowing colors from the same palette…

…but every one a distinct new creation.

It was playful.

Energizing!

 

Definitely a case of love at second sight.

All words and images copyright Naomi Baltuck.

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Where Are We? Where’s Walter? And Where is That Fleeting Moment?

My daughter Bea’s spring break didn’t coincide with her Dad’s, so we took our first overseas trip together, just the two of us.

She was a sophomore in high school, but I knew she  would be college bound before I could blink twice, and her spring breaks and summers would likely be spent on internships, summer jobs, or traveling with friends.  Each moment felt precious and fleeting, except perhaps our first night in England, when my darling girl got very sick.  There was nothing fleeting about that night–it lasted an eternity!  But Bea rallied, and we made the most of every moment.

Each day I studied the map and planned our route, which ‘A’ road led to which ‘B’ road which led to tiny country lanes with no names.

“Why bother, Mom?  We always get lost anyway,” said Bea.

Good point.   If we asked a local for directions, the answer went something like this: “Right! Take the left fork, then the second right, go past three fields and take a left where the old oak used to be…”  Once I even had to knock on a stranger’s door to beg directions.

But a dandelion is only a weed if you don’t want it, and getting lost was an interesting diversion, so long as we were in no hurry, and we never were.  Our oft-repeated motto was, “We always get where we’re going…………………………………………….eventually!

I wanted to share some of my favorite places with Bea and do a bit of research for a historical novel, but mostly I hoped to discover exciting places new to us both.  On previous trips, I’d never made it to Canterbury, though the town had played an important role throughout English history.   So we moseyed to Canterbury, and stayed at Blackfriars, an inn that was once a 13th century friary.

At Canterbury Cathedral we had our tour guide all to ourselves.  I’d have sworn he’d stepped right out of a BBC special, with his gray hair, proper English accent, and Mr. Rogers sweater and tie.  He also carried a cane, and I suspect that he’d suffered a mild stroke.  Yet here he was, kindly sharing his expertise and his precious time with us.  We asked questions about the cathedral and even ventured into politics, current events, and other matters I’d always wondered about, such as, “What do contemporary English people think about Henry VIII?”  When our tour ran over–too many questions–our guide called the front desk for permission to spend another hour with us.  We felt so honored and grateful.  After saying goodbye to him, we went to the gift shop for our pilgrim badges.

We heard great stories from John the Boatman on the canal tour in Canterbury.  When we came to a particularly low bridge, he  warned us to duck.  As we passed under, he pointed out the groove worn into the center stone by the heads of boatmen not quite fleet enough, at least when it came to ducking.  How many times, I wondered, would you have to smack the back of your head before you caught on?  And how many boatmen had it taken over the centuries to wear a grove in the stone?

Some of our discoveries were due to fools’ luck.  On an evening stroll we stumbled upon this little coffee shop where in 1620, according to its proprietors, America began.  (It was the place where the Mayflower was hired to carry pilgrims to America. Using that logic, the soda fountain where Mr. Disney popped the question to the future Mrs. Disney is the place where Disneyland began.)  Nevertheless we took a photo for future reference, since we have a personal history and interest in the Mayflower.

We visited castles, museums and took high tea, but a trip to the grocery store was as much fun as Disneyland.


We love to try new things, especially when the second ingredient listed is sugar.

…and I think there should be a monument erected in honor of Mr. Kipling, for his contribution to the world–Mr. Kipling’s Exceedingly Good Cherry Bakewell Tarts.

But Bea and I don’t need a tourist attraction to amuse ourselves–we talk history, life, story and more story.  Wherever we go, Bea and I  inevitably produce an outline for a novel based on this era or that event, and England was a fertile and storied land long before we arrived.   We took turns brainstorming and talking each other through rough spots in our writing projects.  I’d just finished a draft of a women’s contemporary, Real Troopers.  One of my characters is Walter Clark, a retired F.B.I. agent, poet, and amateur astronomist.  He is older, with white hair, a good looking sixty-something.  But was he too good to be true?  Could someone like Walter exist in real life?  Bea and I invented a game, ‘Where’s Walter?’  On country lanes and city streets, we kept a discreet eye peeled for him.

“How about him, Mom?” asked Bea, casually nodding her head in the direction of a man walking toward us in the crowd.

“Too young,” I said.

“How about him?” asked Bea.

“Too old,” I said.  “Oooh, don’t look, Bea!  Turn slowly and check out that gent by the phone booth.  Could that be Walter?”

Bea pretended to stretch, discreetly twisting her head for a look, then gave her report.  “Walter would never have frown lines.”

She was right, of course.  We left Canterbury and The Walter That Wasn’t to depart for our next destination.  Not knowing if I’d have another chance, I had splurged for a night in a very spiffy 15th century B&B, The Olde Moat House, in Ivy Church.  There was a tiny hamlet with only a church and a pub, where two men were having a pint at an outside table.  We were coming from a different direction than we’d planned, but figured we would find our way there…………………………………….eventually.   After a mile or so, we realized we’d overshot the town and turned back.  As we passed the pub for the second time, one of the men jumped up and flagged us down.   I stopped and rolled down the window,  and he said, pointing,“The Olde Moat House.  It’s in that direction.  Look for a gate with two white posts.”

 “How did you know?” I asked.

“A mother and a daughter.” (He did NOT say “looking confused,” but he didn’t need to.)

For one night, Bea was a princess.


The next day we had tea at The Mermaid Inn in Rye.

The inn was there at the time of the Conquest.  It was so old they had to remodel in anticipation of a visit by the first Queen Elizabeth.

Our bartender was Paddy Mortimer, whose ancestor had come over with William the Conqueror.  (We forgave him.)  When he heard Bea had been ill, he mixed her the special orange juice concoction his mum always made him when he was sick, and served it to her on the house.  He had us wait five minutes for his shift to end, so he could escort us to our car park.  Thank you, Paddy, dear lad.

True ghost stories from Dover Castle must wait, as will the story of our visit to Battle Abbey, where we walked the battlefield on which the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, was defeated by William the Bastard, thereafter known as William the Conqueror.

I also wanted to take Bea to Battle, because it is the starting point of my historical novel, The Keeper of the Crystal Spring, which I co-authored with my sister Deborah.  It was a really special moment to share with my daughter.

So we had our eating moments,

and our bleating moments…
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…and even our cheating moments.

That happened on the Underground.  We were returning from London to our  hotel when I saw him.  Among the bustling crowd on the subway I saw Walter!  “Look, Bea,” I whispered.  “It’s him!”  Bea confirmed.  Yes!  We had a positive identification, but we needed documentation.  I whipped out my camera and said, “Smile!”  Bea did, and I shot right past her head to snap a creeper photo of Walter, concrete proof that he did, indeed, exist!  But the shot was out of focus, soI tried again…

By that time I was laughing so loud that I embarrassed Bea, and drew unwanted attention.   Thank goodness, the train stopped, and we all went our separate ways.  But now I know, somewhere in the streets of London, Walter exists!

I will tell you one more story, about the 650 year old Clergy House in Alfriston.

In the 1880s it was in a state of decay, and church authorities wanted to tear it down.  Living there was a ninety year old woman who had been renting the house from the church for many years.  She cried and begged them not to destroy her home and put her out onto the streets.  They took pity, and granted her permission to live out the rest of her life in the old clergy house, and then they would raze it.  She surprised them all by living another three years, just long enough for the right folks to found The National Trust.  They got organized just in time to purchase The Clergy House, raise the funds to restore it, and maintain it as a priceless national treasure, the very first property of many such historic treasures acquired by The National Trust.  When we toured the house, there was a smooth-edged little hole in the lintel over the front door, worn into the wood by six centuries of coming and going of the furry little bats living among the rafters.  Who would have thought such fleeting appearances by such tiny creatures would make such a lasting mark?

Fleeting moments occur, and often reoccur.  I think of the Canterbury boatmen who wore down a stone bridge with the backs of their heads.  But then there are the bats who have done much the same thing at The Clergy House, only they created a pathway to home, a far worthier pursuit than banging your head against a wall.  I’m more like a bat than a boatman.  Every expression of love, every shared smile, every conversation we have is a precious fleeting moment in time.  Just like it did for the bats, that moment builds upon itself, and the effect is cumulative.   I think of the empty nest I will be living in next year, but I will try not to feel too sad.  Bea and I have shared a lifetime of fleeting precious moments that have worn a pathway from heart to heart, and that will never go away.

Copyright 2012 Naomi Baltuck

Mom Always Said…

Hope for the best, expect the worst, and try not to be disappointed.   My mother’s life philosophy was actually pretty upbeat for a kid whose family lost everything during The Great Depression, including her father, who died of Brain Fever when she was only eight.  Grandma Rhea supported her children by sewing and taking in wash.  My mom shared a bed with Grandma, so they could rent out her room to make ends meet.  But they didn’t always quite make it.  In the freezing Detroit winters, they nailed blankets over the windows because they couldn’t afford coal to heat the house.

Their only book was the family bible.  But Mom found a copy of Alice in Wonderland in a box of textbooks left by a renter.  She read it cover to cover.  As soon as she finished, she turned back to the first page and started over.  She had discovered her passion and her escape–in books.

Mom was the first in her family to attend college, working her way through by reading to blind students.  A person of quiet, if impractical passions, Mom passed on normal school and secretarial school to study Classical Greek and Latin, French, German, and Russian.  Italian, too, but she said that hardly counted.  “After Latin,” Mom said, “Italian is a snap.”

I remember going home from college to visit one weekend.  There were index cards by Mom’s reading chair, on the kitchen windowsill, on the nightstand by her bed.  They had strange writing on them.

“It’s Greek,” she explained.  “Passages from The Iliad, by Homer.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I’m memorizing it,” she said.

“But why?”

“For fun, dear.  After I’ve memorized The Iliad, I’m going to memorize The Odyssey.”

As a young college grad, she had never shown any interest in men, and was still living at home while working for the War Department.  Grandma planned on having a spinster daughter to keep her company in her old age, unaware that Mom had already promised herself she would move out and find a place of her own by her 25th birthday, if she hadn’t gotten married by then.   Mom just hadn’t met her intellectual equal.  Then Harry Baltuck came along.

He was handsome, funny, brilliant; every woman in the office had her eye on him.  But he had eyes only for Mom.  She was so nervous on their first date that she threw up in his car.  Actually, she threw up every time they went out.  “But he kept coming back,” she said, laughing.

He was intrigued, and not just because she was determined to remain a virgin until her wedding night.  It was a very quick courtship.

His proposal wasn’t exactly story book.  “Well, what if we made it legal?” he asked.

“Would you wear a ring?” she countered.  And the rest is family history.

They traveled many peaks and valleys in their time.  They had seven children and eighteen years together.  She was still young when widowed, and Mom received several proposals from Daddy’s friends and army buddies; some decent and well-intended, others not so much.  But Mom didn’t take anyone up on his offer.  She never remarried, or even dated.  Books, once again, became her passion and her escape.

In 1989, I sat at her bedside as she lay dying of cancer.  It had been a long hard battle.  Mom looked up and caught her breath.  “Harry,” she whispered.

“What did you say, Mom?” I asked.

“Harry!”  She pointed toward the door, but I saw nothing there.

“Mom, do you see someone?”

“It’s Harry,” she said, nodding.  “He’s standing right there.”

Was it the delusion of a dying woman?  Or the love of her life, who had been patiently waiting for twenty-five years to take her home?

Let’s hope for the best.  Just like Mom always said, you have to hope for the best.

All images and words c2012 Naomi Baltuck

Weekly Photo Challenge–Unfocused (and focused were crossing a bridge…)

My daughter Bea thought her choice was made–a very good New England liberal arts college for women.  Cozy and friendly, safe and secure.  Then Stanford, a huge University with 16,000 students and a daunting reputation, offered her a place and very generous financial aid packet.

One day her path seemed settled, the next day she was on an airplane bound for San Francisco.  This blurry image, taken on the airplane, is the face of a high school senior trying to concentrate on socialistic realism for her history assignment.  But she is having difficulty focusing on her homework.  Was she afraid that she wouldn’t like Stanford?  Or that she would?

She tried to keep an open mind as she looked around.

It was pretty to look at.

Much to reflect on…

Athena, goddess of wisdom, which shall it be?  Door Number One, Door Number Two, or Door Number Three?

Bea had a good look.

And a good think.

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And went home.

P.S.

She chose Stanford.

Stairway (to Skellig Michael)

When we traveled to Ireland we visited Skellig Michael, a monastery founded by Christian monks in the 7th century.  Life there was remote and harsh, the weather often severe.   The monks collected rainwater to drink, raised a few animals and imported soil from the mainland nine miles away so they could grow vegetables on that barren little island.

If a monk made a rare crossing to the mainland for supplies, rough weather might strand him there for a week or a month.  To return to his spartan life in a cold stone beehive hut, he would have to climb 700 feet up these winding stairs, bearing whatever supplies he had fetched home.

On our life’s journey most of us earn our bread, raise our families, and pursue our passions.  Sometimes, like water flowing down a hillside, we take the path of least resistance.  What in your life do you care enough about to be willing to make this climb?

All words and images copyright Naomi Baltuck

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Beam Me Out of the Closet, Scotty!

Okay, true confession.  Only a handful of you know my closet is crammed with Star Trek gadgets like my Borg Cube piggy bank, my Star Trek sound effects keychain, and plastic pointed ears.  By the age of sixteen I had attended my first Star Trek Convention, and knew every classic Trek episode by name and by heart.  When I left for college, Star Trek stayed home.  Then life, career, and family caught up with me.

But Star Trek left its mark.  As a kid I watched a lot of junk on TV, hardly noticing the difference between good and bad writing.  Well, that’s not quite true.  I knew all the writing on Gilligan’s Island stank, but watched it anyway.  I was fourteen when I noticed that the Star Trek reruns I was watching ran the gamut in quality.  Most were fine, some shone brilliantly and others fell flat.  I began to compare and analyze each episode, from the trashy Turnabout Intruder to the exquisite City on the Edge of Forever.

Each show featured the same cast, and followed the same format.  Each began with Red Shirts, those unfortunate crewmembers doomed to a cruel and unusual death before the first commercial break.  Law of the Universe.  I could live with that.  Many resorted to technobabble to explain and/or justify that week’s dilemma and resolution.  I could live with that too.   So what made one episode a masterpiece and another an epic failure?

Strange new worlds, the aliens that populated them, killer epidemics, and intergalactic wars provided intriguing backdrops.  That was enough for the action figure collectors.  But it was the emotional complexity of the cast I found most compelling.  Kirk, Spock, and McCoy were all so different from each other.  What interested me was their reactions to problems, interactions with each other, and their internal struggles.

My favorite episodes were lighthearted, like The Trouble with Tribbles or A Piece of the Action.  Other favorites, like Friday’s Child or Journey to Babel, gave us comic relief in between moments of high drama.  Many episodes were thinly disguised commentary on our own society.

A few shows were obviously written by people who didn’t understand the characters or who sold them out to squeeze a plot from a limp and pale idea.  The Galileo 7  was bad writing, and character assassination, pure and simple, of poor Mr. Spock.

From the simple exercise of comparison and analysis, I learned that I love humor, and use it now in whatever I do.  I prefer character-driven fiction.  I learned how to set up a story, and build tension, and be true to my characters.

I hope you will embrace whatever series, book, or show inspired and helped make you the writer you are today, be it Star Trek, Nancy Drew, Harry Potter or The Simpsons.  Analyze it, explore it, own it!

Whatever works for you, may you live long and prosper

Was there a particular book, author, or television series that influenced or influences your writing?

Two Cents’ Worth

Before we had kids, Thom and I explored Ireland by train, by bus, and—please don’t tell my children—by thumb.  We were hitchhiking from Dingle to Tralee when a rusty green service van pulled over.  The woman offered a ride, so we tossed our packs in the back and climbed in.  It smelled a little fishy, but that’s probably because our driver was a fisherman’s wife.  We sat among coils of rope and scattered tools with a big black dog and two little blond boys, perhaps five and seven years old.  It was the little one who did the talking.

“My da’s bigger’n your da,” he said, in a proper brogue, like a feisty toy Irishman.

His mother explained, “Liam’s missing his da, who’s out on the water.”

We introduced ourselves, and Liam asked,  “D’ya have stars in America?”

“Like movie stars?” I asked.

“No, up in the sky.”  He pointed upward, just to be sure I understood.

“Liam just discovered the stars,” said his mother.  “It’s all he can talk about.”

“We have stars in America too,” I told him.  “They shine and twinkle, just like yours.  In fact, I think we see the same stars in America that you see in Ireland.”

“I have a cousin in America.  Her’s called Mary.  D’ya know her?”

“Where in America does she live?”

“Arizona,” said Liam’s mother, from the front seat.

“America is really big,” I told him.  “We live in Seattle, more than a thousand miles from Arizona.”

“Is that far?”

“Really far.”

“Well, if y’see Mary, ask if they have stars in Arizona.”

The boys were curious about America.  “Here’s a souvenir,” I said, and I gave each boy a shiny new penny.  “The man on this penny is Abraham Lincoln.  He died a long time ago, but he was our greatest president—sort of like a king.  He led America through our Civil War, and freed the slaves.”

It was twenty-five miles to Tralee, lots of time to share fun facts and answer Liam’s questions.  I felt like a proper ambassador, conveying not only goodwill, but an  insider’s view of America.

The next day I met Liam’s mother in the line for the ladies’ room at the Rose of Tralee Festival.  She said, “Liam loves his penny.  He shows it to everyone he meets, and says, ‘This here is the king of America.  He’s dead, and his daddy’s dead, too!’”

So much for the history lesson!  But it was also a lesson to me as a writer and a storyteller.  We each live in our own little world.  Before sending your story out into the big wide world, you might check to see if  you and your readers are on the same page.  Ask friends to read it and give  you feedback.  Set it aside for a little while and come back to it with fresh eyes.  Join a critique group or enter it in a literary contest; an honest evaluation is worth the entry fee.

Whatever  you choose to invest your two cents into, consider the exchange rate, and what might be lost in translation on the trip from one mind to another.  But with a little luck and a lot of practice, you and your readers will be looking at the same stars.

The Christmas Gang

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There is an ancient British tradition called Ganging, from the Anglo-Saxon word gangen, meaning ‘to go.’ For fifteen hundred years, in what evolved from a solemn prayer ritual, village folk would gather to go ‘beat the boundary.’ They walked all around the parish to impress upon the youngsters’ memories the place they called home. Their elders dunked them in dividing streams, knocked their heads against bordering trees, and made them climb over the roofs of houses built across the line so they would never forget.

Our family has a gentler holiday tradition, a celebration as much as a reminder. Our Christmas tree is nothing like those featured in House Beautiful. It’s topped with a Star of David, as we also celebrate Hanukkah. The oldest ornament, a cellulose umbrella, decorated my great grandmother’s tree. We carefully hang Grandma Rhea’s handmade ornaments, dioramas inside blown eggs dressed in velvet. My children’s contributions are made of Popsicle sticks, glitter, and clothespins. The marshmallow snowman has grown sticky and yellow, with a tiny bite taken on the sly from its backside, but it makes me smile, and bookmarks an era.

I hang up the key to the house where I grew up, and recall my childhood, running barefoot through the back alleys of Detroit. The little Polish dancer wears the same costume my dashing husband wore performing with his dance group Polanie. The glass pen celebrates the year my first book was published. A tiny guitar marks the year my husband broke his leg and, instead of sulking on the couch, taught himself to play guitar. It hangs near Eli’s tiny oboe, and Bea’s violin and clarinet. A small glass bottle contains ash from Mt. St. Helens, collected from my pants cuff in 1980, when I was caught bird watching in Eastern Washington during the eruption.

Each Christmas, we carefully remove our ornaments from their tissue paper cocoons. As we hang them on the tree, we retell the stories. It’s like a crazy quilt, where scraps of colorful memories are pieced together and, voila! E pluribus unum! From the contributions of individuals we have compiled a portrait of one family, and from the many generations we have pieced together one history.

Ganging, or beating the boundary, is a tradition that teaches children their limits and sets rigid boundaries. Instead of knocking our children’s heads against a tree, let’s invite them to help create an empowering communal story among the branches of the family tree, free of boundaries and limitations, celebrating their lives, so full of possibility.

©2017Naomi Baltuck