Jun 6 2020

Bird life

Birdhouse

I was digging a hole in the garden dirt when I heard the terrified screeching. I couldn’t tell what was making the noise but it was coming from almost in front of me, from under the deck. The slatted doors leading there were open. I walked over to them and looked in.

It was dark, with thin streams of light falling on the assorted rubble strewn around. A few feet in front of me, sitting primly with her front paws close together was Coco – her soft brown mottled fur the perfect camouflage. She was watching me. She looked guilty. The gentle sound of fluttering coming from the bicycle parked to my right caused us both to turn our heads at the same time. By this time my eyes had gotten used to the dim light and I could see that a small brown bird had gotten its leg caught in the grid of the wire basket hanging from the handlebars. It was hanging upside down and occasionally tried to release itself by flapping its wings. As I stood watching, Coco walked over to the bird and gave it a gentle push with her paw. The bird started screeching and flapping its wings in her face and she backed off. I shooed Coco away and reached for the bird, gently extracting its leg from the basket. I saw that it was injured, with a superficial wound along its back down near its tail.  It flapped wildly and afraid that I might crush it, I let it fall the 8 inches to the ground. It hopped madly to a protected cubbyhole among a pile of decaying plasterboard. Coco’s eyes remained glued to the little bird. Hunched over and squatting down, I made my way over to the bird and picked it up, making sure this time I had my hand firmly around its body and wings. It screeched and then lay quiet in my hand. I worked my way out from under the deck with Coco close behind.

But what was I going to do with this little bird? It wasn’t anything special. Just a little brown bird with dark speckles along its feathers. It seemed full-grown. And it was wounded. I didn’t have the knowledge to be able to tell if it could survive. I knew that I had already decided I was not going to bring it to a vet. I also knew I didn’t want Coco to kill it.

We have a small wooden birdhouse screwed on to the trunk of a pine tree on our country house property. It isn’t painted or pretty. But it has one very special attribute; it has a video camera inside it that is connected by a very long cable to the TV in our house. Every spring we watch as a pair of small birds, either blåmes or talgoxe, feather their nest inside, lay their eggs and hatch tiny baby birds. We watch as Mr and Mrs bird take turns sitting on the eggs and feeding the gaping mouths that hatch. We can even hear their peeps on the TV as mom and dad feed them. We call it Bird TV and we like to keep the TV on during the day so we can watch the action as we go about our own business. But this year there was a calamity in our bird house. Mom and Dad bird had hatched 9 hungry little babies this year.  We watched as they energetically took turns bringing food to their tiny offspring. Towards the evening one of the parents would settle itself down for the night – first poking all the little bodies deep into the nest then spreading itself over the babies, and with a final flutter tuck its head under its wing to go to sleep. After about a week of daily bird life, we didn’t turn on the TV for a few days – it tends to get a bit repetitive – and just let them get on with their lives. When we finally checked in with our tenants, there seemed to be no movement in the nest. It was still too soon for any of the babies to have grown feathers and flown away. At first we thought the camera feed had crashed and froze. But we could see small bits of grass and feather down moving in the air. The camera was still live but no baby birds were. What had happened? We could just barely make out in the black and white image the shape of a few baby birds’ unmoving open mouths. Had the nest been attached by some predator? We looked out at the bird house and could see no mom and dad trying to get in. Had they died for some reason or been killed by something? There was no way for us to know.

We turned off the TV. We haven’t looked at Bird TV since.

I carried my rescued bird to the back of the house where there are trees and places she might be safer – out of reach of Coco – trying to figure out where to put her. I had decided in my mind that my little brown bird was a her. She was calm in my hand. I could feel her rapid heart beat rock her body through my gardening glove. Coco followed me – silent and slow – but not close. I couldn’t put my bird among the leftover planks of wood piled under this side of the deck – too open and easy for a cat to get at. What about in my son’s abandoned koja, his airy tree house built 4 feet off the ground? The roof was decaying but the half-walls were still sound, the floor strewn deep with undisturbed yellowed leaves from many summers past. It had a door that still closed. Coco couldn’t get in but would the bird be able to fly away when it felt a bit better? I loosened my hand. Where was Coco? I couldn’t see her nearby. My bird flapped her wings and flew 3 feet away, to land near the tumble of old metal supports left over from building our deck. They were piled on top of a half rotted wooden pallet lying close to the ground. She quickly scurried underneath. I saw Coco come out of the shadows and walk over to the pile but there was no way she could get underneath. My bird would be safe there.

But for how long? To live or to die? Like the nestlings in our bird house, I would never know what happened.


Apr 27 2020

Life and Death in the Country

Its morning. Full daylight. I can see white edges of frost along the back of the deck chair through the corner of the bedroom window. I’m in bed, barely awake. My eyes feel dry and teary at the same time. The sun has not yet risen above the eastern treeline so it must still be very early. I want to stay in bed but I have to pee so I open the bedroom door and go out into the main room of our country house. On my way to the bathroom I note the absence of cats.

I close the bedroom door on my way back to bed. The barely visible sun is silhouetting the trees now. The clock on the living room wall said 6am. No need to get up yet. I lay back in bed, calmly tallying up all the little aches and pains that seem to have become my normal. My eyes are closed but my ears are awake. A cat is softly meowing on the other side of the door. I try to remember if their food bowl was empty. The meowing continues. It’s probably Coco, she’s the whiner. Do I want to get up? We keep the bedroom doors closed because we don’t want the cats to run in from outside and transfer all the ticks they have picked up on their fur on to our bed. Or to deposit dead animals onto the bedroom rug at our feet while we are still asleep.

I drag myself out of the warm blankets and open the door expecting to see a cat lying down in front of the door jamb waiting for me. Nope. A sleek brown shadow scuttles past my feet into the bedroom and immediately pushes her way behind the door, searching. We store a large window screen and an insert that enlarges the dining table there. Coco is very determinedly trying to poke her nose behind all this stuff.

Shit!! She is hunting!

Custard and Coco on the hunt

I carefully move the screen to the other end of the wall. I move the top of the table insert a few inches away from the wall and look down behind it. A tiny grey shape is crouched next to the baseboard, equidistant from each edge of the insert. I didn’t even see him run in. I hear the cat door open and Custard saunters in, joining Coco in looking behind the door, one on each side of the insert.

“We have a mouse!” I yell.

My husband is still in bed, staring at his phone. His poor hearing means he is completely oblivious to all the excitement.

“There’s a mouse in the bedroom!”

“What?”

“Behind the door!”

“You have to chase it out of the room or catch it. Do you have a plan? You have to have a plan.”

I have no plan. Håkan starts to get his pants on and prepare for a hasty exit. While the cats keep watch on the mouse I go and get the broom from the living room. I angle the insert towards the door and start to brush the mouse in that direction. It moves closer to the door but then suddenly does an about-face and runs under the bed, two cats in close pursuit.

“It’s under the bed now,” I say.

“What are you doing about it?”

“Nothing. I’m letting the cats take care of it.”

I hear the tippy-tap of tiny feet and the rustle of plastic bags from under the bed. The cats are making mad dashing sounds. I stand along the wall and wait. After a few minutes Coco emerges from under the bed, the tips of her fur bristling with pride and a still moving clump in her mouth. She carries it out to the big room and puts it down under the dining table, waiting for us to praise her. It lies there, nothing moving except its rib cage, in and out, in and out, a mile a minute.

I stand there, uncertain. Before I can decide what to do, Coco picks up the mouse, gently, like she would a kitten and carries it out through the cat door. I lock the cat door behind her and watch as she brings it down the steps and on to the lawn where she again puts it down. Custard joins her on the lawn. He lies down and makes himself comfortable as he watches her start to play the eternal game of cat and mouse.

I stand on the deck, a heavy fleece jacket wrapped around me, watching them. After about 10 minutes of the Coco vs Mouse match, our tiny prey makes a mad dash past Custard and glides in under the planting boxes, safe from Custards grasping paws. I breathe a sigh of relief. Yea, mouse.

Epilogue
About an hour later, after I have breakfasted on a slice of Håkan’s home-made bread, I hear the cats trying to get in through the cat door. I never unlocked it. I walk over to the door and look through the glass. Both cats are sitting there. A very dead mouse with its head eaten off is lying on the door mat.


Apr 5 2020

Corona times

We are living in strange times now. Corona times.
For many weeks the Corona virus has been traveling – on a world tour – starting in China, spreading through Asia, running around Europe, and jumping the fish pond over to America. And yes…it’s here in Stockholm too.

We are not yet under lockdown like Italy and Spain. But most of my younger, still-working friends have been ordered by their employers to work from home, my son included. Universities and all high schools have been closed & are trying to do online teaching instead. I have no idea how that’s working but I saw a funny video on YouTube about that. Schools for children who are too young to stay at home alone are still open but if their parents are home, often the kids are kept home too, regardless. The thinking about keeping schools open for younger kids is that the government wants the parents who work in the healthcare field & have young kids who need minding, to be able to continue going to work.

All the activities I had written in my calendar, such as writing workshops, board meetings, plans to meet friends and any other miscellaneous events have been cancelled. I cancelled my doctor’s appointment that had been booked over 6 weeks ago because who wants to go to a place all the sick people go to? All activities in the Jewish community are cancelled except burials, food delivery to old people and some Saturday morning services. All the big Seders are cancelled. My annual J.A.P.S. Seder, gathering my Jewish/American/Swedish gang, is also cancelled due to the fear of passing the virus from hand to mouth along with the chicken soup. I went to Bajit, the big new Jewish Center, on Friday to buy matzah. The place was empty and only 1 person at a time allowed in the shop. Me & the other 2 people on line all waited our turn far from each other. Hand sanitizer was everywhere to use while we waited.

And speaking of hand sanitizer, I can’t find it to buy in any of the stores. And Håkan has looked on-line. Nadda, nothing to buy there either. I can understand that. In these plague days it works better than lamb’s blood. But toilet paper? What’s the big deal about hoarding toilet paper? I can not understand that at all – it’s not a plague of diarrhea.
Dare I say it??? People are idiots.

But key words these days are definitely “social distancing” and “self-quarantine”. Or in other words STAY AT HOME!

But I do get out. My friend Barbara, working from home and living on Kungsholmen, walked over to Reimers last week and we took a long walk together on Långholmen. We foot-bumped first, keeping safety in mind. There were other people also out walking but everyone kept their distances. We stopped at the Långholmen värdshus in need of fika. We had the whole place to ourselves and enjoyed coffee and a bulla. There was lots of hand sanitizer there too.

I still go to my local grocery. I see people from my neighborhood there – but everyone keeps their distance – this is Sweden after all. Nobody hugs or talks to each other anyway, a simple nod is enough if you meet someone you recognize. Even in normal times, people sit as far away from you as a park bench allows. This is not Italy, France or Spain. Swedes are not huggy types, they are good at aloneness and don’t need much encouragement to isolate.

And it seems neither do we – Håkan, Bevin and I. My little family hardly notices the new societal rules operating now. All three of us are introverts and staying cooped up in our home doesn’t seem to be a problem for us – that’s how we usually live. I am mainly the only one who goes out now and its just to the grocery store. Occasionally I will walk the 20 minutes to Hornstull and go to the large Hemköp grocery there or maybe the drugstore. Once I also went to Clas Ohlson because we needed good glue. Hemköp has started special early morning hours for seniors but the way I figure it, I’m retired, I no longer have to (or want to) get up super early in the morning. Especially not to do grocery shopping! I try to go later in the morning or early afternoon when its not too busy and we customers can keep a decent distance from each other.

Bevin, a programmer at Ericsson, has been working from home now for the past 3 weeks and his longest walk is from the kitchen to his bedroom. He spends his evenings and late into the night socializing online with his pals around the world. No worries about catching anything that way except maybe a computer virus.

Håkan spends most of his time sitting in front of his computer screen, commenting on Facebook or watching TV programs there. He is busy devising all kinds of plans for growing sweet corn out at our country house this summer, ordering necessary things online. For weeks now, he has been bugging me about completely moving ourselves out to the countryside, trying to justify the move by saying that we are supposed to self-quarantine. He is so happy to finally have society on his side. But I am resisting. It’s still too early for me and too cold to turn the water on yet. But we have been out there a couple of times already just for day trips to plant potatoes and to get his corn seeds started in his new mini-greenhouse. Easter weekend will be our first overnight stay.

So this Stay at Home directive hasn’t changed much for us personally. My apartment is not a bit cleaner! I haven’t painted new colors on the walls of any room. My freezer is still mainly filled with ice instead of enough food to last months. And my kitchen cupboards are still cluttered, as are my closets. If I am not laying about on the sofa to read, then I am laying on the bed. And I only have enough toilet paper and paper towels to last for the next week. I spend a lot of time looking at Facebook but that is just a distraction from what I should be getting done on my computer. And just for you dog lovers who have been spreading nasty rumors around social media about cats, our cats are exceedingly happy that we are all home. Coco wants to always keep Bevin company by sitting on his keyboard, so during his working hours he has to close his door. She lies patiently outside, waiting for him to open it.

But as I said we are all introverts here – we need others to plan activities that can entice us out of our homes. And I admit, looking at my empty Google Calendar is a bit depressing. Though, secretly, I am happy not to need to put on makeup or get dressed in clothes I haven’t worn for the past 4 days. Putting on my Extrovert Coat in preparation to leave my home and venture out there in the wider world takes energy. So I have started calling people instead of just texting. I have been using Skype to talk to friends and family in the US. And I have participated in two Zoom meetings! I think a lot of self-isolated folks must be doing that now – there is not a web camera to be found, either in stores locally or even online!

So us introverted folks are coping OK but what about all my extroverted friends out there? You know who you are…all those of you who have kept inviting me to do things with you out there in the world even though 60% of the time I say I can’t (because I don’t want to leave my cozy shell) and yet thankfully you keep asking. Life now is probably harder for you guys. So while this is going on, give me a call and let’s talk…either by phone or Zoom or Skype. Drag me out for a walk in nature too – I promise to keep my distance.  I hope you all are also doing OK and I promise to say yes next time you invite me to eat dinner with you, or even just fika, after this is all over.

I know that a lot of people out there are feeling anxiety or fear due to this pandemic sweeping the world. I don’t really know what to say that could make them feel better. But my go-to advice that I like to keep in mind, is taken from one of my favorite books, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. I like what Ford Prefect tells Arthur Dent, when Arthur finds out that the Earth is about to be demolished to make room for a hyper-space bypass.

“Don’t panic,” he says, “and always know where your towel is.”

Stay healthy everyone.


Aug 8 2018

The Writer’s Trip

This past May I had a chance to take short trip to France, to learn some more about writing.


The tip of my elbow is sticking out from under the duvet. It’s a duvet, not a påslaken. I am in France and I am freezing! I have come to the south of France for 5 days, to Provence, to a small town named Cotignec to participate in a 3 day long Writers Retreat/Workshop. It’s a small workshop, just the 8 of us, but still…
And did I mention I was in France?

When I was about 15, my mother bought me a small notebook with lined pages. It had a beautiful cover of turquoise patterned silk and a string bookmark attached to its spine. What it didn’t have, was one of those cheap locks on its open end, so it wasn’t what I would have called a girly diary. It didn’t say My Diary on it either, for which I was very thankful. My mother gave it to me, maybe as a birthday present, but maybe not. I don’t remember anymore. As she handed it to me she said, “Here. You can write down what you are thinking about in this book.” I think she gave it to me to get herself off the hook because she was the one who I always kept tossing all those thoughts at. She had gotten tired of having to listen to me.

The sound of voices downstairs wakes me. I poke my head out of my warm cave as I listen to an engine starting up and the sound of tires on the gravel driveway. Liz is on her way to buy fresh bread for breakfast. My first morning in Provence is about to start. I am staying in a large stone house, overlooking an incredible view of fields and mountains, together with 8 other people. I am here to enjoy the pleasures of real French bread and to write.

By the time I reached high school, I had decided that I was going to go to be an artist and that I would go to Art School. I didnt know yet exactly what I wanted to study. At the time, it was a toss-up between Fashion Design and Architecture. I knew it would be something that required the making of pictures. I wasn’t going to be a writer. Somewhere, I had gotten it into my head that you had to pick one or the other – words or pictures – because you couldn’t do both. That’s what I thought then. And I had long ago, already chosen pictures. I filled the notebook my mother gave me with words though – all the thoughts and ideas and opinions that took up space in my head got funneled down into those lined pages. But I made a decision, when I started putting those words on paper, that all I would do is write what I was thinking about or had an opinion about. I wasn’t going to make the words pretty or fancy or artistic or even be there for their own sake – because that is what I did with pictures. The words were just there because there was no more room in my head, so I put them on paper.

We have just landed in the airport in Nice and right away the four of us go to the small airport cafe and order something to eat and drink. I order coffee and a pain au chocolat. I need the caffeine after a night of almost no sleep and an uncomfortable three-hour flight – and the pastry…well, hey, I’m in France! Liz arrives in her rental car and we head off. The sky is grey and overcast and the air chilly as we drive through the damp French countryside.

I went to Art School – for Fashion Design – not architecture. But after a year and a half, I realized I didn’t want to design clothes for other people. So I switched to Commercial Art and came out prepared to be an Art Director or Graphic Designer or Illustrator. In the commercial art world, you had designers who worked with pictures and you had copywriters. The copywriters worked with the words. So that theory which I had back in high school turned out to be true. When working with a copywriter, I occasionally contributed to the words that were used but it was still the copywriter’s job to finish it. I continued to write my words in my lined notebooks. New ones had been bought and filled. I didn’t make up stories, like writers do. I only wrote what was True. Because I was a graphic designer, not a writer.

And so I continued – all through my career in New York City and even after I landed in Stockholm – it was always about the pictures. Occasionally, I still added words to my notebooks but less and less after I moved here. In 1991, I had my son and any thoughts of putting words on paper went out the door along with the dirty diapers.

And then the World Wide Web and the Internet happened. In the beginning of the new century, my friend Amy started up a website for English-speaking parents in Stockholm called ParentNetSweden. It was an ambitious undertaking and she needed content. She asked me if I could write some articles for her. Someone else would be doing the graphics so I said yes. I wrote about how one eats at a Swedish smörgasbord. I described what Swedish life in the countryside is like. I did a few book reviews. I wrote a review about The Lord of the Rings films and described going to Trilogy Tuesday here in Stockholm, dressed in costume. I found I had trouble keeping myself out of my texts. I wasn’t interested in statistics or facts. Instead I wrote personal pieces. I wrote pieces about how it was to move to Sweden and how I adjusted to life here. I wrote about being Jewish here. (Some of those stories ended up on this blog.) After a little over a year, the site closed down and we all moved on to other things but I had gotten a taste for putting words outside the boundries of my lined notebooks.

Everyone is sitting around the large oval dining table in Brynn’s kitchen; Ting, Eva, Liz, me, Cassie and Joe and Matt and Ulrika with their 2 month old baby Kay. Brynn, is Liz’s friend and he has graciously allowed us to invade his big stone house in Provence just before the tourist season starts. Several fresh loaves of bread, along with a multitude of cheeses and various spreads are arranged on the table and we sit around planning the next 3 days as we eat. Sleeping places are assigned. Weather is discussed – it seems like we brought typical Swedish summer weather with us, not the warm sunny south-of-France kind of weather that we have all been expecting. The weather report says it is going to be chilly with periods of rain throughout the week. We decide to divide our days into exploring the neighborhood and writing. When the sun is out we would leave the house to explore. The writing could be done when the rain comes down.

By 4 o’clock the drizzle has stopped and the sun is trying to show its face. A group of us decide to go off and take a walk down the country road. The air is still damp from the recent rain so I make sure to put on my hat. I don’t want my hair to frizz. We walk till we come to an unpassable puddle and then turn back. The bread and cheese from earlier in the day was starting to wear off and it was time to go have dinner at a charming little restaurant in the center of town.

When Facebook came along, my friend Janet talked me into joining. For the introvert that I was, it was like a hand finding its perfect glove. I could be opinionated, witty, contemplative, and clever with all my friends and I didn’t even have to go outside my door or put on my makeup. But you had to keep it short. No long-winded pieces for Facebook. And I had no control over how anything looked – it all looked like Facebook.

So eventually, the glove started feeling a bit too tight. One size fits all was never a good fit for me. I decided to start my own blog. My husband and I already had a domain name and the WordPress blog could go there. I looked through page designs till I found a design I liked and then redid it to make it personal and truly mine. (I was still a graphic designer, remember?) I could write as many words as I wanted in my blog and keep everything I wrote in one place. I called it Just Hilarie because it’s just me. So far, I’ve published exactly 84 pieces. But I’m not very prolific. I have a number of fits and starts that never got finished and I am the world’s worst publicist so very few people ever actually read what I write. I announce on Facebook and Twitter when I have a new piece up but, you know how it is…..

During my last few years at IGBP, where I worked as their in-house graphic designer, I would spend lunch times talking about writing with my co-worker and friend, Ting. She knew she wanted to be a writer. She read some of my blog posts and told me that the kind of stuff I wrote could be called Memoir. Wow! I was a genre! Ting suggested I take the University of Iowa’s online MOOC. It was titled Storied Women and I signed up. It was my very first creative writing class and it was definitely a challenge. I watched the video classes and I loved reading what the assignments were. I even managed to do 3 of them while spending a month in New York City.

Ting told me she was regularly attending a writers workshop and suggested I join her there. She said the group leader, Cassie, was very good. And Ting was right. I found myself planning my life around these alternate Tuesdays. By then, I was officially retired, which was basically a nice way of saying I was out of a job. I had been spending a lot of time wondering about what I was going to do with my life once retirement started. Unlike for my parents, retirement had never been my end-all goal in life. The work I did as a designer was who I was. It defined me. So who was I if I didn’t make pictures anymore? Attending these writing workshops seemed to be filling a gap in my new life.

After a few months, Cassie announced that she was offering a 9-session writing course. I signed up and for the next 5 months every other Sunday, I spent my time learning about Plot and Character and Structure and Dialogue. Cassie introduced me to writing prompts, which I loved. Many of the things Cassie discussed, I had probably been aware of, because I’m a reader. But no one had ever talked about them to me as things that a writer does consciously. I felt like something was missing when the class ended. But I continued to attend her workshops, occasionally submitting pieces to be dissected and workshopped. I loved having a piece workshopped! It reminded me of being back at Pratt, in art school, and putting an illustration piece up for a critique. After a session, a small group would often go out for a beer together and just talk, about writing, and life in general. I got to feel like I was getting to know these people. They were becoming my writer friends and a new part of my life.

When Liz texted me, this past spring, inviting me to join her and a few of the regulars from our Writers Workshop at her friend Brynn’s place in France for a kind of writers retreat, my first reaction was “Oh that’s a cool idea!” And then my sometimes irrational brain kicked in and started saying “No no no…can’t go. I hate traveling!”

Liz and Ting managed to talk me down from the edge of the windowsill and promised that everything would be fine. When I heard that Cassie and her Joe were going, I booked myself on the same flight so I wouldn’t be traveling alone and my brain quieted down. So at 5 am, one very foggy May morning, this very timid traveler, met up with Ting, Cassie and Joe at Arlanda Airport, poised for a new kind of adventure.

Our first morning in Provence was going to be rain-free so we decide to go exploring. Like the day we arrived, it was damp and chilly out so I put on multiply layers of my summer clothes, not forgetting my knit hat to protect my hair from the humidity. The sun was at least threatening to peek out between the scattered cloud cover. We headed off for a walk in the forest alongside a river. I’m not much of a hiker and among this bunch I have to admit I’m the old lady but I was determined to keep up. There were several sections along the path that I needed the help of our male companions to make it up the steep places. I figure it’s always nice to let men feel they are needed sometimes. We ended up at a beautiful waterfall tumbling from far above our heads into a still pond that made it worth the struggle to get there. After returning the way we came, with me getting help again from the boys, we wandered around the outskirts of the town, exploring small paths and finding hidden gardens. We took a breather at a very French cafe and I got to taste extremely strong espresso. We wandered to the center of town and stopped for lunch at a small Brasserie. We sat down to eat, at the tables outside, but after about 5 minutes, we looked at each other and unanimously decided it was too cold and we went inside for our lunch. We weren’t in Sweden after all, and we didn’t have to pretend we liked sitting outside in the cold just because it was summer.

We drove back to the house and gathered around the big table for our writing workshop – the real reason (or excuse?) for being here. Cassie lead us on an exploration of the use of Defamiliarization – how to use the familiar and the strange in writing to make your writing unique and original. She discussed how to make memoir speak to a reader. And then we did writing prompts! I wrote my very first piece of Science Fiction from one of these prompts! It was very short and not really very original but it took place on a space ship instead of planet Earth. And it wasn’t about me for a change!

After almost 3 hours of inspiration we were ready for more food. So around 5 pm, we hopped in the cars for a trip to Super Marché, a big supermarket, to buy food for dinner. It was great fun to wander through a French supermarket seeing what they sold. With bags and bags of food we headed back. Joe had volunteered to make pasta with a sunflower seed pesto. Also on the table was a huge salad platter, filled with bright red tomato wedges, slices of crisp yellow sweet peppers, red-tipped lettuce, juicy green-edged cucumber chunks and crunchy pieces of French bread left over from the day before and fried in olive oil and salt. The French bread crutons were good enough to eat by themselves. After supper, we huddled around the fireplace, struggling to get it lit in spite of the scarcity of dry wood, because we were all still so cold. My husband sent me a screen capture of a map showing temperatures around Europe with Sweden having temps in the 20s (Celsius) and southern France being down in the low teens. It’s not often Swedes can boast about warm weather and he was enjoying himself.

Tuesday morning was Market Day in Cotingac and the sun was predicted to show its face, so after a breakfast of freshly bought French breads we headed to town. We spent the morning wandering amongst the stalls and offerings. I bought 2 thick slices of French nougat to bring home to Stockholm. We ate fresh made crepes off a food truck for lunch. Mine was with ham and cheese and an egg – all the flavors dissolving together in my mouth. And then we were back at the house for an afternoon of writing. By this time the sunshine had warmed things up a bit so we dared to sit around the patio table on the terrace, with a view of fields and forests and mountains spread out before us under a bright blue sky studded with compact clouds. We started off with a writing prompt to get us thinking about Character – how to make our characters physically believable in their world. We practiced writing about Space (not the kind in Sci-fi) but up and down, in and out, the space a character takes up as they move around. Cassie led us on a discussion about Staging and Tableau – who is in the frame that you are writing about. And she discussed Stakes – something I am very poor at writing. You have to write characters who want something very much, she explains, something that they are in danger of losing. This is a way to create tension and makes your story interesting enough for the reader to continue to read it. I still have a lot of work to do on this. I am much too kind to my characters, unfortunately. Maybe because my character is usually me??

As the sun started to fade behind the mountains, it was time to make dinner. We ate eggplant parmesan and couscous with roasted mixed veggies. Again, it was a group effort but I tried to stay out of the kitchen. You know what they say about too many cooks. And as usual, there were lovely French wines to drink with the meal. The rest of the evening was spent around the living room fireplace – the firestarters finally figured out how to get it going and wood had been brought in to dry in advance. It was still cold outside and the glow of the burning wood was very welcome even if it didn’t really add much heat. We spent the time talking – getting to know each other on a more intimate level. It’s been a long time since I’ve done this kind of thing – talking with people who are relatively unknown – discussing life and who we are instead of talking about work or raising our children. It reminded me of being back in college or in the mid 70s when my friend Fern would invite me out to her summer share in Fire Island and we would hang out with the other house sharers. I like that. I like being one in a group of many – to be included in the conversation – to listen to what others have to say about their lives. I definitely don’t get to do that too often these days.

Wednesday morning was going to be sunny. So, everyone decided to drive off to explore another town a bit further away. I told them I wanted to stay at the house. I wondered if they would be upset if I didn’t go with them. Would they be worried about me because I didn’t want to join the group? I reassured them I was fine, just a bit tired. And it seemed ok. I admit to not being the best traveler. I have very little interest in exploring strange new worlds, new places in real life – reading Sci-Fi fullfills those needs for me. As much as I was loving being around everyone, this introvert (who knows how to pretend to be an extrovert) needed to spend time alone after so much socializing. Unlike a true extrovert who gets energized by being around other people, the energy needed by me, to be social, gets drained and needs to be replaced by spending time alone to recover. So I stayed at the house. I sat out on the flag-stoned veranda in the sun and stared out at the horizon of bluish mountains and dark green fields, watching the clouds move across the powder blue sky. I looked through my notes and read my Kindle. Brynn, the owner of the house was also there, puttering around with his new lawnmower or painting chairs, getting ready for the summer rental guests. When he took a break we sat at the table and talked for a bit. He was a Jewish guy, around my age, from Stockholm who had had an American mother, so we had a lot we could talk about.

When everyone else returned from their adventures, I was once again able to rejoin the group and we had our last writing workshop. Cassie talked about the differences between Story and Plot. We listened to a very character-driven short story called Emergency written by Denis Johnson and discussed how each scene works. And once again more writing prompts. As during each previous session, Cassie gave us the chance to read aloud what we had written and we workshopped each small piece. I always find these discussions of the work so enlightening. It is real, practical help – not just abstract theory.

The evening ended with a dinner of chicken and rice cooked by Brynn. And more wine and conversation round the fireplace till it was time for bed.

Thursday morning and it was time to travel home to warm, sunny Stockholm. How many times can I say that? We took a train back to Nice and then a bus to the airport. We were very late and really had to high-tail it though all the security and gates. But we made it on the plane. All that running and stress reminded me why I hate traveling. I’m never flying anywhere again. Yeah, right…

Summer is almost over now and I’m sitting at the dining table out at my own country house in Stavsnäs. The door to the deck is open and the lace curtain that hangs there stirs a bit in the warm breeze. Next to me on the windowsill lies a small flat wooden stick – the kind you put in gardens so you remember what you planted and are waiting to see grow. Cassie gave this to me after I finished her creative writing class. One end is pointed and the other end has a green ribbon attached. Printed on one side of the stick are the words Write & Write & Write & Write & Edit. On the other side is my name, printed in the same kind of block letters, and above it is the word Writer. Maybe I am after all.


Jul 19 2018

Summer 2018

To simply sit. To do absolutely nothing.

The air outside is warm – so warm that I don’t feel it surrounding my bare skin. I should get up and do something; sweep the deck clear of all the brown dried pine needles, put away the wood sander, coil the garden hose back on its holder, wash the dinner dishes from last night. So much that could be done. But I don’t move. The chair cushion is soft and encompassing, almost too warm under the shadow of the umbrella spreading its rust-tinged grey fabric over me. I don’t want to move.

High above me, in the upper reaches of the trees, the sunlit, dry and yellowing leaves of the birches flutter in a breeze that barely works its way lower, to move my hair against my neck and whisk away the dampness from my skin.

One time Jersey girl that I am, I close my eyes and imagine that the sound which the leaves make as they rustle against each other is the sound of salt water boiling up against the wide white sand of the Jersey shoreline. All that is lacking is the rhythmic pounding of the waves. But I can pretend, can’t I?

Last week, we washed the dirty grey from the deck’s wide boards. They look almost new-laid except for the uneven warping and dry fissures that give away the fact that they’ve been there a long time. In the sun, the wood is almost too hot to stand on with bare feet. They remind me of the Boardwalk, running along the Brooklyn beaches from Brighton to Coney Island, that I walked on with Grandma long ago. If I descend the staircase leading from the deck, will I arrive at the dry patchy grass of our sorry excuse of a lawn or to the blinding hot, white sand which leads to the far away water’s edge? My eyes are closed. Who can tell what I will find?

I still remember the summer of 1997. My son was only six years old then. We had an inflatable wading pool, nestled on top of the uneven moss and grass-covered rock below our tiny cottage, for him to splash around in. The summer was hot and long and dry. I emptied everything out of the mildewed tool shed, laying all the junk on a tarp spread on dried moss, without fear of anything getting rained on and wet – it hardly ever rained that summer. All summer, my husband and son spent hours lying in a hammock suspended between two birch trees, using paddles to swing themselves back and forth, pretending to be sailors on the open sea. That was also the summer we built our Friggebod. Or at least, the carpenters we hired built it. For many years, it was the only mold-free house on our property.

One of the birch trees gave up and died many years ago. We no longer have a good place to hang the hammock,so it sits rolled up on a shelf, in the over-crowded and still musty tool shed.

Five or ten years from now, I’ll sit with a cup of tea in my hands and remind friends of the summer of 2018 – how long it was, how hot it was, how sunny it was, and how dry it was. How wonderful it was. Hopefully, it will be the occasional exception to the rule, worthy of remembering and not become the expected normal Swedish summer.

It rained this year on Midsommar afton. It was practically the only rain we have had all summer. But, then, what would Swedish Midsommar be without a little rain?