Emerging from the chrysalis

We were privileged to be present for the monarch butterflies’ entry into the wider world! Our friend Alec nurtured them through the process of spinning their chrysalises, and yesterday they emerged. It took a couple of hours after this video, but then they opened their wings and flew away. Off to Mexico!

 

 

The Role of Place in Fiction

 

collapse bridge

Wild Mountain begins with a spring ice jam in the river that smashes into the covered bridge. Then throughout the story spring slowly emerges in this Vermont mountain town and in the lives of its people. My readers have said that they like the sense of place, the presence of nature and the environment, in my novels. So I’m excited to join in a panel at the Burlington Book Festival on the role of place in fiction and poetry. If you’re in or near Burlington on September 16th, come join us for an interesting discussion.

to pre-order the book:  Wild Mountain

 

America’s Stonehenge

 

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On a wet and cloudy May afternoon I turned into the sandy driveway and parking lot, stepped out of the car and looked around. Tall pines and deciduous trees surrounded me, and small boulders marked a path that wound up the hill toward a dark cabin, barely visible through the trees. Was I in the right place? This looked like a campground entrance. Was this “America’s Stonehenge,” where you could see standing stones and stone circles that dated back to a prehistoric age?

In my novel Wild Mountain, Gus, the mountain hermit, discovers an ancient stone circle, a secret spot where spiritual and astronomical energies converge, and now I was excited to see for myself what I had written into my story. But while part of me was filled with awe and anticipation, another part was skeptical. What if this place was just a tourist trap?

And sure enough, when I made my way up the path and entered the cabin, I was greeted by displays of “America’s Stonehenge” mugs, key rings, refrigerator magnets, postcards, and a video. Narrated in the style of Orson Welles predicting a Martian invasion, the video gave less information than I had already got on the internet.

I stepped out the back door onto another hilly path. Here were rocks and boulders galore, and as I ascended the continuing hill, I could see a series of stone structures – half-walls, great slabs of rock, and little caves on an open ledge. When I went closer, I saw that the caves formed rooms or chambers.

Now I was beginning to sense a little of the awe – maybe this really was some very ancient place – marred only by all the signs, arrows, and numbers posted on each artifact.

Around the bend and walking onto the ledge, I could peek into the stone chambers. Here was the “Oracle Chamber,” and here the “sacrificial chamber,” both with their mysterious functions.

The pathway extended up to a plateau and a pyramid-shaped stone marking the opening into a field. Through the center of the field, with its dome of bright sky and border of tall trees, a mowed section allowed a view to the distant horizon. I read in the guide map that I was on the “ astronomical trail.”fullsizeoutput_18a3

This long and winding trail passed stones that marked the equinoxes, the winter solstice sunset, the sunrise at summer solstice, true north, and so on.

Alignment. Eons ago human beings had here denoted the changing of seasons, the transforming of night to day and day to night in the same way these changes happen today. This was a place where the timeless rhythm of earth and sky and our place within that rhythm were marked by an alignment of stones. I was beginning to feel an alignment within myself, a clearing in my brain and an opening of spirit, that merging of human and nature that to me is nothing short of divine. Maybe my character Gus was onto something.

There are stones marking astronomical events throughout New England. “America’s Stonehenge” is in Salem, Massachusetts America’s Stonehenge

On Writing Wild Mountain

An Interview with Caitlin Hamilton Summie

  1. What inspired you to write WILD MOUNTAIN?

I wrote my first novel from the point of view of two women, and after that I wanted the challenge of doing something different – writing from a man’s point of view, and writing a short story. I had read a newspaper article about a covered bridge destroyed by an ice storm in a small Vermont town, and I had a male friend who was intellectual, charming, and a wanderer. I thought it would be fun to put someone like him together with a really grounded native Vermont woman in an ice storm that collapsed the bridge. Thus began a short story.

Most writers tell the story of one person, perhaps a handful, but your novel grows slowly to become the story of an entire community. Why did you decide to write so expansively?

I wrote the short story, and it was published in a literary magazine, but then I wanted to know what happened next. New characters began to emerge, and then I thought about an interesting time in recent Vermont history –just before the Freedom to Marry vote – and set the novel then. I think I’m just a novelist at heart. I grew up on George Elliot and Tolstoy, and their novels somehow became imprinted in me as models. There is a whole world around the main characters, and I want to see how all of this affects or changes the story.

  1. There is a real love of place in your novel as well as a reverence for the natural world. Do you spend a lot of time outdoors? Do you live near mountains?

I live in Vermont, where everywhere you go you can see beautiful mountains, rivers and farmlands. I hike, bicycle, and swim in the lakes, and I have always loved being outside in nature. In my writing I love to delve into a particular setting and describe not only the landscape but the unique culture of that place, and imagine how that setting affects our human life. My first novel was set on the Delmarva Peninsula, a vast sandbar surrounded by ocean.

  1. As much as your novel is about community, several of your characters arrive in WILD MOUNTAIN craving solitude and simplicity—and maintaining it, to a degree. Is this true of Vermonters, that as often as the community gathers, many people are inclined toward privacy?

Yes! The Back-to-the Land movement in the 60s and 70s was big in Vermont, and still is. That universal longing to live simply and in tune with nature continues to bring people to Vermont.

  1. You work in counseling and theology. Do these professions create empathy or enhance empathy? Do you believe this empathy is critical to your keen character development?

Once you enter into the life of a minister or a psychotherapist (or both, as I did) you can’t help but have your assumptions and prejudices about people challenged. You are almost always in supervision and/or peer groups with others and meet a wide diversity of people and situations. We are there to help, and we are entrusted with people’s deepest pain. If we didn’t have empathy to begin with, we learn it. Someone once said that a novelist plays God and therefore needs to ultimately have compassion for all the characters. I think that’s true, and for many of us, reading novels is our way of understanding the world. When I read a book and can sympathize with even the most unlikeable character, I feel my world expanded.

  1. In your novel, there is a character whose spirituality is based on more ancient beliefs and another character who is Wiccan. As someone who works within a specific religious tradition, was it hard to write about different faiths?

Actually, although I come out of a specific religious tradition, I have been involved in many, and I work with people of all faith traditions. As the great spiritual teachers say, in all deep and authentic spiritual paths, there is more that we have in common with others than not. As a writer I love to get into the mindset of characters who find meaning in different ways and then see how they interact.

  1. This is your second book. Can you share in what ways it is different from your earlier work and in what ways it is similar?

Both SEA LEVEL, my first novel, and WILD MOUNTAIN depict a small town caught up in a community battle, and both include a variety of people feeling both personal and community tension. Nature is important, almost a character itself, in both books. And both stories find some resolution through spiritual connection at a funeral. But Sea Level, whose two main characters are a clergywoman and a pagan artist, is more about religious beliefs and church conflict, while Wild Mountain’s community conflict is political.

  1. As a working professional, how do you find the time to write?

Ah yes, the perennial question. SEA LEVEL started as an arts project for my Doctor of Ministry degree, a way of depicting family systems, church conflict, and spiritual development in story form. That meant I allowed myself the time to write, and it also meant I was motivated to finish it. Then when I got to Wild Mountain, many years later, I had the guts to keep going on it. When did I do it? I don’t know. I think I snatched the time away from other things that would have made me more comfortable financially.

  1. There are many life transitions in this novel: from being single to being in love, from not being present as a father to seeing a child regularly, from parenting to stepping back because the child is really now an adult, from living to dying, from holding up to falling apart. Yet the novel bears the weight of all these transitions and changes. Was it difficult to manage all the changes? How did you decide which character would bear each weight?

Well, as I said, I felt I knew Frank from the beginning, though he quickly stopped resembling my old friend. But I knew his character, his personality, and so I could travel with him through his optimism, his parenting guilt, his devil-may-care-ness, and see where that would lead him. Same with Mona. As the story progressed, I discovered more about her, as I did about each person’s character, and then I could project them into a new situation. This is the fun and the challenge of writing! Creating a coherent world. And of course that means going back over and over again, revising, revising, revising, so that those transitions make sense.

  1. The novel begins as a 200-year-old bridge collapses, and the town begins to debate the merits of rebuilding. This is a beautiful metaphor for what happens in many people’s lives. There is no question here. Just an observation. But would like to share an observation about craft, or your writing, or this novel that the distance of now being done writing it has allowed you to see?

It’s so interesting that you would see that metaphor. I just recently realized that the broken bridge was a metaphor for a broken community. It brought out anger and resentments and the different political motivations. There Is a battle over finances and then about the deeper values of the personhood of LGBTQ people. Who deserves a place at the table? Can a lesbian who is fighting for gay marriage be the chair of the select board? And how does reconciliation happen? Here is where the spiritual dimension comes in.

Delphinium Lust

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Delphiniums from last summer’s garden

 

The night before the biggest snowstorm of the year, and I was dreaming of delphiniums. There is one plant company that seems to know exactly when to send me their luscious pictures of flowers. In this northern New England climate, coming into the end of winter, when I’m longing and yearning for the end of winter, this catalogue puts visions of flowers dancing through my head. All the varieties I didn’t get to plant last year or the year before, or the colors I don’t have, come streaming into my imagination. I have a couple of blue delphiniums, but do I have the deep blue with the black bee? I don’t think I have a mauve pink shade yet, and this double-blooming, multi-flowered, blossom-bursting one in the catalogue must be exactly what I need for the coming summer. Ah, summer. Who can imagine it when there is four feet of snow outside the window? Flower company, you reminded me.

A hymn for Solstice, Advent, Hannukah

Here’s a hymn text I wrote a few years ago, offering it here for winter solstice today. When I started my ministry career as a parish pastor, in a yoked parish in southern Delaware, I learned to love this hymn tune, Foundation. But I always felt that there was a dearth of Advent hymns. So, thinking of darkness and light and healing, I wrote these words for the tune. (it’s posted on the national United Methodist Church website, but it takes a lot of maneuvering to find it!)

In the Still of the Winter 

  1. In the still of the winter, the dark of the year,

there’s a watching and waiting for God to come near.

My heart, like a traveler who’s lost in the night,

feels a yearning for comfort, and longing for light.

 

  1. From the silence of evening, from shadow and sleep,

comes a numinous star like a voice from the deep.

How long must I wander, how far must I roam?

I am here, I am with you, and I’ll lead you home.

 

  1. I am here in the stars, in the dark of the night.

I am always within you, and I am the light.

I am who I am, sings the God of my soul.

In your waiting and hope I am making you whole.

 

Suggested Tune: FOUNDATION

12.12.11.12 (529, United Methodist Hymnal)

Sung slowly, meditatively.

IMG_0319Daisy was shy. Well, maybe the word should be terrified. When we picked her up last Saturday, she had come in a van full of dogs from North Carolina. An hour late, the van finally arrived at the parking lot of this emergency vet building, and, with three other families, we waited in the cold night air outside its door. Before the arrival, Koa, our seven year-old granddaughter, had been running back and forth to the median strip between the parking lot and the road, shouting, “I’ll be the first to see Daisy!”

When the handler called her name and led her out of the van, Daisy was trembling. A sweet furry puppy, we all wanted to pet and snuggle her, but she didn’t want to get out of that van. It was very cold here in New England, quite a change from North Carolina. And what a big change for this little puppy that had been born and lived her life so far in a shelter full of other dogs. We had to carry her to the car where she rode in the back seat next to Koa. Koa, delighted, was her most gentle and loving self.

Now, a week later, Daisy is still scared when we go outside onto the sidewalks of our street, but she likes going into the back yard. In the front, the street is a quiet one, but occasional cars and people go by, and every time they do, Daisy freezes. When she stalls and digs in her heels, we’re learning to stop and wait, then step ahead and lead her (as per Cesar Millan, the dog whisperer.)

Now that we’re dog owners again, we’re noticing all the other dogs and their owners, getting tips from our dog-owner friends, and will have a consultation with a dog trainer recommended by our new vet. Daisy is happily chewing on rawhide bones and toys (as well as a few other things,) chasing balls, and enthusiastically wagging her tail for all the petting and snuggling we can give her.