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Chasing Muse: Finding the “Wild, Silky Part of Ourselves”

Tricia Erikson-3high

Reaching the summit in the Saddleback Mountain Challenge. Photo courtesy of Saddleback Mountain.

People pay good money to chairlift up a mountain in civilized fashion and then ski down for pleasure. I just paid to snowshoe straight up 2000 feet in single-digit temperatures to brave a gnarly descent. But, then, I’m not a mountaineer, I’m an island writer chasing a muse.

When I shuffled to the starting line of the Saddleback Mountain Challenge an hour earlier, racers appeared in a motley assemblage of equipment that reflected their strategy. Most wore Randonee skis adorned with “skins” that could be removed at the peak, allowing a rapid descent. A few people wore snowshoes with a snowboard strapped to their back; their descent would be swooping, graceful. One man wore two halves of a snowboard strapped to his feet, halves that would be reunited, presumably, once he achieved the peak. And then came the smartypants distance runner — one of two women in the pack and the only one outfitted with just snowshoes to wear, both up and down — that’s me. Halfway up the mountain, I reconsider the wisdom of entering this challenge; wind-driven ice cements to my hair and face, and bounces off my fingers, bare and hot from exertion. What was I thinking?

Tricia Erikson-4lo

Brown hair turned white in Arctic conditions. Photo courtesy of Saddleback Mountain.

Reaching the peak, I pass a number of racers who stop to switch their fancy gear to downhill mode. One-two-three of them. I wonder: do they admire my strategy of using the same gear for the entire race? Nah.

I yank on my coat and gloves, pull up my face guard, and lumber onto the mountain’s shoulder. My left ear loses feeling to the flesh-freezing wind, no doubt casting me even more as the Bride of Yeti. Then I reach a point where the race route narrows to a two-foot wide shelf, little more than the ridge of a snowdrift. As if on cue, I stumble onto the precipice. A normal audience would gasp as my center of gravity plunges over and back from the edge, but the ski patrol sentry quips, “Nice catch.” That’s high praise up here.

Tricia Erikson-2med

Running across the peak on snowshoes. Photo courtesy Saddleback Mountain.

Finally, I stand alone at the top of the designated downhill route, a narrow chute. It’s name: Muleskinner. I try not to take the name literally or conjure images of how it might apply to me. But, if this route were a highway, the sign would flash orange neon letters “Go back, 50-60% grade.”

Given the promised first-place prizes of season ski passes for the winning man and woman, the racers ahead of me are pushing hard; I just want to survive. Avoiding last place would be a bonus. Descent on snowshoes: my strategy faces a crisis. Facing this downhill reminds me of facing a blank page, or worse yet, a manuscript with extensive need of editing. I don’t want to do it. What am I afraid of? Falling? Getting lost in a snowbank? Those rank as givens today. I decide I’m most afraid of not finishing. I abandon all pretense of sanity and step over the edge, on purpose this time.

To my shock, the deep, fresh powder has been scoured away by wind, leaving porcelain-smooth white ice disguised as snow. My snowshoes respond by rocketing downhill, spinning me sideways. There is nothing to grab, nothing to stop me. Channeling my five year-old self, I sit down hard and push my snowshoes out in front of me. With buttocks serving as my snow-tubing device, I shoot straight down Muleskinner, stopping in an explosion of deep powder. Able to stand again, I run downhill until hitting another porcelain plate of ice. Repeat the sit and slide until powder impact. Stand and run. Midway down Muleskinner, a couple of the guys that I had passed on the peak, pass me–one of them with graceful swooshes, the other guy resembling a human snowball.

Tricia Erikson-1

Reaching the finish line. Photo courtesy of Saddleback Mountain.

Why am I doing this? It wasn’t until after I crossed the finishing line (looking indeed like the Bride of Yeti), after I had driven back to Portland and reached home by ferry, that I read Mary Oliver. Only then did I find words for what I was doing on Saddleback Mountain–I was taking care of the “wild, silky part of ourselves without which no poem [and, I would add, no writing] can exist.” Oliver describes this inner muse as a “mysterious, unmapped zone” that “comes before everything, even technique.” She warns that “It can wait. It can stay silent a lifetime.”

This is what I fear more than Muleskinner. That silence within.

In “Wild Geese” Oliver writes, “You do not have to walk on your knees, For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting…Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–over and over announcing your place in the family of things.” Seriously? Does this mean I didn’t have to grind up and down that flesh-hungry mountain on snowshoes to find my “mysterious, unmapped zone”? Mary Oliver would probably say that I could discover beauty in the everyday world around me. But, no, on this day, I needed the mountain to shatter a deep silence, to shake the silence apart the way the wind knocks rime ice from evergreen needles and casts the shards into the howling spit of the storm.

 

Thank you to Eleanor Morse and my fellow writers in the Sudden Fiction group for sharing Mary Oliver with me at the moment I most needed it and to the staff of Saddleback Mountain for running a first-class ski area with the biggest heart I know.

Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, you may subscribe in the upper right corner athttp://www.peaksislandpress.com.

Secret Weapons Against Winter: Write or Plunge into the Sea?

sandalsinsnowMy willingness to jump into a 40 degree ocean does not prove me crazy. Yet, many shake their heads, say “better you than me,” shudder, and turn away. Maybe I’d rather they didn’t understand how alive I feel, walking across snow in sandals, peeling off layers on a breezy winter beach with my heart rate quickening at the thought of the icy sea needling my skin. Maybe if people knew that, afterward, the whole body flushes with warmth, bright light and giddy laughter then they would want to polar bear plunge, too. Then the wintry beach would be crowded with other island souls, desperate to unmuffle the months between winter solstice and the spring equinox. Nah, not happening. Many more islanders harbor a different secret weapon against the Maine winter: writing.

Thanks to the Sudden Fiction writing sessions of Eleanor Morse and Nicole d’Entremont, we huddle around the woodstove and beat back the winter darkness with our words. I love how Maine author extraordinaire Stephen King explains this type of literary defiance in his essay “On Impact.” King wrote, “it’s the work that bails me out. For me, there have been times when the act of writing has been an act of faith, a spit in the eye of despair. Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.” As the temperature plunges, the snow piles up against the window, and daylight resists the earth-tilting nudge to lengthen, we fight our way back to life by wielding our pen (and sometimes even by plunging into the sea).

Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, you may subscribe in the upper right corner athttp://www.peaksislandpress.com.

Writing on Basement Walls: What inscription will you leave in 2015?

Portland High School, courtesy of Wikipedia

Portland High School, courtesy of Wikipedia

Imagine that you are descending stone stairs down to the basement in a 150-year-old high school to a room known as the Graffiti Room. Does this sound like a writing prompt or perhaps jacket copy for a mystery novel? Mention of this Graffiti Room popped up in my daughter’s college application essay recently. In her words, “the floor, ceiling, and all four walls are covered with students’ names and graduating years. Layers and layers of signatures blanket the historic walls…in a few months I will sign my name in this room, leave my mark on history, and become a part of the tradition.” I realized that when my daughter inscribes her name on the wall, she will share space with her grandmother who would have written her name nearly seventy years earlier.

I don’t generally advocate for writing on walls, furniture, trees or rock outcrops either, but, the layering-of-names tradition hit me. I have never been bitten by the “I was here” bug that would prompt me to write my name on a wall, but isn’t striving to write similar? When writers write, aren’t they grasping at truths, inscribing them, and leaving them behind like names scrawled on a wall? Think inscription, trace, epigraph, literary footprints.

I used to struggle with cynicism towards academic publishing; I still harbor frustration with the jargon-ridden, inaccessible nature of the genre. My prejudice shifted when, after delivering a presentation at a conference in Arizona, a few undergraduate and graduate students asked me to sign their copy of my book “Voices of a Thousand People.” This wasn’t a book tour, far from it. I don’t think my presentation even mentioned the book, but, to my surprise, they eagerly shared their excitement to meet me and how much they loved “Voices.”

Despite my reservations about academia, my work had spoken to these students, fired their imagination, and fueled their passion for learning. Even though writing often feels like a selfish endeavor — the journey toward flawless craft and research, the search for inspiration, and the quest for publication — it remains similar to writing on walls. Writing leaves a trace, a literary pathway for making and sharing insights with people the writer may never meet.

So if you’re struggling with your writing (as I have been this past year), embrace the notion of writing on walls. Writing is not just a solitary endeavor. The act of writing reaches out and touches others, makes connections and shared meaning that we all crave. Keep writing. As you face 2015, ask yourself: what delightful discovery do you want to leave for others to discover in a basement room?

Here are the Peaks Island Press entries that readers most visited in 2014:

Most Read Article about a Peaks Island Writer
Eleanor Morse: Coming Home to Writing

Most Read Article on the Writing Process
Nicole d’Entremont: on family stories and 5 tips for writing an historical novel

Most Read Article on Peaks Island Literary Life
Book Love: An island tradition welcomes babies

Maine Snow Days

SnowBikeDeliciously naughty. Forbidden. That’s how it feels, burrowing under the covers after hearing the news – “it’s a snow day!” Billowing snowflakes muffle the outside world, even the thudding of snowplow blades. Then freezing rain clatters against the windowpane and glams up every twig and bough in sight. And the day ahead yawns – empty – like a cave that’s never been found. I concern myself with finding slippers, stoking the wood stove, boiling cups of tea, and considering whether the power will stay on – or not. Snow days. Those days – when the calendar stands still and the world transforms itself in white – bind my loyalty to life as a Northerner.

Collaborating with professional photographers: Alban Maino

Alban Maino shooting at the Seashore Trolley Museum

Alban Maino shooting at the Seashore Trolley Museum (courtesy of Phil Morse)

Writers are not always the “lead partner” when they work with photographers, but if you are the point person for a project, you should ready yourself to collaborate successfully so that another joint project will follow.

Because the Summer Guide issue of Portland Monthly Magazine published my “A Streetcar Named Narcissus” — an article named after a vintage, interurban electric coach at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, I’ll use my collaboration with photographer and filmmaker Alban Maino as an example.

The Narcissus–once a high-speed engineering marvel–bears the distinction of having transported Theodore Roosevelt Jr. between Lewiston and Portland, Maine on August 18, 1914. Ken Burns’ newest documentary series The Roosevelts: An Intimate History has turned the grand lady Narcissus into a bit of a celebrity, prompting me to ask my friend, Alban Maino of Dreamland Medias, to help me document her painstaking restoration. Here are some takeaway tips from that project.

Tip #1: Plan for the unique conditions of your site. I shouldn’t say “this was an unusual shoot,” because the fact is, every photo shoot is unique. For a writer to lead a successful collaboration, they need to learn as much as possible about the conditions under which the photographer must work and PLAN AHEAD. The idiosyncracies of the location might require particular accommodations of footwear, clothing, photo equipment, or even mental preparation. The more the photographer knows, the more prepared he or she can be.

Photographer Alban Maino captures the "Narcissus."

Founded in 1939 and spanning a 330 acre-campus straddling the Kennebunkport/Arundel town line, the Seashore Trolley Museum has grown into the largest electric railway museum in the world. Its comprehensive collection of vintage public transportation vehicles includes electric streetcars, buses, omnibuses, trackless trolleys and subway cars; one of these electric railroad coaches “the Narcissus” – once a high-speed, engineering marvel – bears the patina of having transported Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. between Lewiston and Portland on August 18, 1914. Less than a month after the Portland-Lewiston Interurban line (PLI) opened to acclaim as Maine’s fastest and finest electric railway, Teddy stepped up to the glossy green coach, climbed through an elegantly arched doorway, and took one of the plush, green seats, most likely avoiding the smoking compartment where his traveling companions puffed on cigars. (Copyright Alban Maino)

Tip #2: Do not underestimate time. In order to photograph the Narcissus in natural light, I worked with Narcissus Project Manager Phil Morse to have the Narcissus untarped so that it was exposed to natural light. A team of volunteers labored for hours to uncover the vintage interurban vehicle; consequently, our photoshoot needed to coordinate precisely with the volunteers’ efforts, as well as align with good weather.

Tip #3: Be a safety nut. The physical conditions of photographing the Narcissus were demanding physically and slowed the project down. In order to get the frames that he wanted, Alban scampered more than twenty feet up onto the salvage “trucks” or undercarriages of trolleys nearby. The dramatic photo of him above – dubbed “the crouching tiger” by Phil Morse – illustrates how conditions must be navigated carefully and safely.  While the photographer is looking through his lens, you can help make sure that he doesn’t step into harm’s way.

Tip #4: Advocate for your partner. Photographers like to receive pay and credit just as much as you do. If a job pays only by the word or a flat fee and doesn’t remunerate for the photos (which is annoying, at best), then share the fee fairly. Also, particularly in our digital age, photos are more easily published on the web without adequate credit or without any at all. This was a problem on this particular assignment. The photo credits on the printed version of the magazine were tiny and missing altogether from some of the content published online. Despite aggressive advocacy on my part, the outcome was disappointing and unacceptable to both of us. This is not necessarily unusual. Be prepared to voice strongly your concerns. In the meantime, enjoy some select photos of this project that Alban has posted in an online album at http://www.espritvoyageur.net/trolley/

Portland Magazine article on Seashore Trolley Museum

Portland Magazine article on Seashore Trolley Museum

 

Restoration of stained glass window of "Narcissus" interurban car (copyright Alban Maino)

Former President Theodore Roosevelt would have gazed at the passing Maine landscape through the Narcissus’ stained glass windows – framed by mahogany paneling with gilded striping and inlaid with holly and ebony – now under restoration (copyright Alban Maino).

 

Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, you may subscribe in the upper right corner athttp://www.peaksislandpress.com.

Death by Dissolution: Mark Green and Ocean Acidification of Casco Bay, Maine and everywhere else

mark-green2Although Mark Green, Ph.D. has authored nearly two dozen peer-reviewed scientific journal articles, we might refer to him as a sci-fi horror author of something called “Death by Dissolution.” Except, sadly, it’s not sci-fi and the National Science Foundation-funded research and oyster farming experience of this Peaks Island resident and St. Joseph’s College professor have shown that what he writes is the awful truth. The ocean – here in Casco Bay, Maine and everywhere else – is becoming acidic at an unprecedented rate, unprecedented in the last 20 million years, or so.

Mark Green presents on ocean acidification on Peaks Island

Mark Green presents on ocean acidification on Peaks Island

Last night, the Peaks Environmental Action Team (PEAT) sponsored Dr. Mark Green’s presentation of “The Health of Casco Bay.” Green explained, “What I want to talk about is a global issue, something new on the radar screen of science – ocean acidification – also known as ‘climate change’s evil twin’ or ‘the other CO2 problem.’ This is a global phenomenon that will impact Maine as much as it will everywhere else.”

You’re probably already familiar with the effects of combustion of fossil fuels and the destruction of rainforest that, collectively, result in loading the atmosphere with billions of tons of carbon every year. Can we deny that this is driving global climate change? Green says no, that “by every conceivable measure, we are changing the climate. The CO2 is now higher than at any time in the last 20 million years and increasing at a rate greater than 100X anything that occurred during that period of time.”

St. Joseph’s College magazine described Green as “the first scientist to prove tiny juvenile clams were dying primarily because their shells were dissolving in less alkaline conditions.” The National Science Foundation has encouraged his pioneering science by awarding him with multiple grants to continue his research related to the effects of ocean acidification on sea life.

So, as a society, do we care about this acidification? Green compared news coverage of the Kardashians and of ocean acidification from 2011 to 2012 – the result? A 46:1 ratio of what received coverage in the media. That estimate is no doubt wildly conservative, given that it doesn’t count social media. So even if most of us aren’t paying attention, why should we care? If I understood Green correctly, a quarter of the carbon dioxide load that we are “dumping” into the atmosphere is “absorbed” by the ocean. As the CO2 in the atmosphere increases, so, too, does the amount absorbed by the ocean. In turn, as the carbon load of the ocean increases, the pH of seawater must go down, thus becoming more acidic.

Green projects that, if we proceed with “business as usual” energy usage and lifeways, by the year 2100 the ocean will reach a pH of 7.8 and “everything in the ocean that we know right now would not exist, with the exception of some jellyfish. No corals, shells, or phytoplankton (the base of the food chain). What we have already done is irreversible, at least, not reversible in less than tens of thousands of years. One publication predicts that coral will be unable to grow anywhere even by 2050.”

Green’s message is confident and straightforward, “There is no mitigation, no bioengineering to fix this. This is a global issue and there’s nothing we can do except turn off the CO2 pump, stop putting so much CO2 into the atmosphere. You cannot refuse this science. To refute this science would be, literally, like arguing there is no gravity.”

Sooo, if you’re feeling a “fatalistic stupor” or suffering from “environmental fatalism,” then check out this article in a sustainability newsletter or this one in The Atlantic . Then when you’re bolstered, you can read more about the impacts of shellfish harvesting in the Maine economy in the Bangor Daily News  and about Maine’s commission that has formed to study this problem in the Press Herald. For pictures of Mark Green oyster farming, see Basket Island Oyster Co.’s facebook page. If you missed his talk, you can watch a video on St. Joseph’s College YouTube channel below.

Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, you may subscribe in the upper right corner at http://www.peaksislandpress.com.

American Idol mania brings film crew to Umbrella Cover Museum

American Idol visits Umbrella Cover Museum

American Idol visits Umbrella Cover Museum

Nancy 3. Hoffman — singer, accordionist, pianist, musical director, Curator/Director of the world’s only Umbrella Cover Museum, and author of “Uncovered and Exposed” hosted a film crew from American Idol today.

Visiting our fair city of Portland for the American Idol bus tour auditions, a film crew sought out Nancy here on Peaks Island to film a quirky, local attraction.

American Idol bus on Maine State Pier

American Idol bus on Maine State Pier

Nancy said, “They Came!! American Idol has filmed me and the Umbrella Cover Museum!! It was crazy – they arrived at 4:50 PM; I greeted them playing my accordion at the ferry. We jogged up the hill; they filmed, I blabbed, I sang the theme song, and played. We jogged back down the hill and they made the 5:00 boat. Whew. If it does not get cut it will be on [American Idol] in January or February! Do not hold your breath.

So keep an eye out for Portland and Peaks Island as we may show up on this season’s popular show, or, come and visit the Umbrella Cover Museum in person or ready Nancy’s book.

Here is some nice footage of Nancy in her museum on Peaks.

 

Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, you may subscribe in the upper right corner at http://www.peaksislandpress.com.

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