thomasjefferson.jpg

There we were, listening to Thomas Jefferson (seen here in a download from the Colonial Williamsburg website) and Patrick Henry debate the merits of funding religion and religious leaders from a special tax levied by the state of Virginia.  No, we aren’t time travelers.  We were watching the fabulous re-enactors of Colonial Williamsburg here at Chautauqua Institution in Western New York. 

After a riveting hour–and yes, history can be riveting when imagination is used in the presentation–Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson asked the audience of hundreds of people to vote.  But before they could, of course, since the year was 1782 and this was a Virginia matter, just a few rules had to be followed. 

All Virginia citizens were asked to stand.  Then, since only men were citizens at the time, all of us of the female persuasion were told to take our seat, as were Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and anyone else who was not a Protestant.  So far so good for my husband, who at that point was one of a handful still on his feet.

Next we were told that, of course, since only whites could vote and certainly not slaves, anyone not of European origin and not free, should sit down.

By now, very few were upright, of course.  Next we were told that only landowners whose property was in excess of fifty acres, or anyone owning a home in Williamsburg or Norfolk were still eligible, and everyone else should find their chair.

Michael, as partial owner of land near Mr. Jefferson’s own Monticello, was able to continue standing, but only just. 

By then, he was alone.  Asked to vote, of course, he voted with his neighbor, even though Michael himself is one of “those clergymen” who would benefit from Patrick Henry’s special fund.  The afternoon’s lecture was over.

Truly, what a fascinating, even poignant reminder of our hard won right to vote, a right many of us who were not left standing yesterday often take for granted.  The afternoon was also, of course, a reminder of the blessing of religious freedom not funded and regulated by the state but allowed to take shape and form by the people who are served by it.

Yes, a riveting hour.  History can be riveting, particularly when once again we are made aware of the multitude of ways we are affected by the men and women who came before us.  I, for one, was glad to be reminded. 

Teacher at blackboard.jpg

This past week I had the good fortune to teach Writing the Mystery Novel here at Chautauqua Institution in Western New York.  I really wasn’t sure how many students would sign up.  The offerings here are many, and this was fairly specialized.  But the perfect number of students arrived, and we commandeered a room that was ideal for our needs.  Then we got down to business.

I’d forgotten the exhilaration of standing in front of a group of students.  The realization that I do, indeed, know something about the subject at hand.  The fun of answering questions.  The joy of hearing other people’s creative ideas.

I’d also forgotten how much work teaching can be.  No matter how much you know or think you do, you have to be able to impart knowledge in an interesting way.  Lesson plans are required.  Weeding through a dozen ways of saying the same thing to find the most useful is imperative.

So first, to all you teachers out there, as your school year begins?  I’m applauding from the sidelines.  You have my gratitude.  Your contribution is immeasurable.  And to all you students?  Pay attention.  Many things you’ll need to know in life CAN be taught in a classroom.

And sadly, some can not.

Only when I began to work on my plans for the week did I “remember” how many elements come into play when plotting and planning a novel, much less a mystery with all its specialized plot threads.  How could I, in five hours, touch on the most important–and how did I decide what those were?  How could I leave time for questions?  How could I leave time to begin to brainstorm our own mystery, set right here at the Institution (which is indeed a strange term for this amazing place.)

Exactly what can be taught in five hours or fifty, that will help anybody begin and finish a novel? 

This question falls into the category of unanswerable questions, joined by others such as “Why on earth did THAT book make it to the bestseller lists?”  Or “She/he’s such a wonderful writer, why isn’t she/he on every bookshelf?”  Or “Exactly what do all those people see in vampires?”

Years ago I taught a continuing education class, and by the end I was certain I knew which of my students would go on to great careers and which would never publish a novel.  I was wrong.  Not across the board, but enough times that I gave up predictions.  I also gave up pretending to know what makes a saleable novel and what doesn’t. 

Still, here’s one thing I do know.  There’s one element I couldn’t teach my students, one element that makes all the difference between success and failure, one element some of those continuing education students actually had in abundance, and the element some of the other students did not have.

Perserverance. 

Writing a novel is not magic.  Bestsellers or literary masterpieces do not suddenly appear in our heads waiting to be typed into our computers.  They take work, dedication, months with our seats in a chair, months of staring out the windows.  Those who are willing to put in those months and willing to take whatever well intentioned and intelligent criticism they’re given to improve their work are way ahead.

I hope some of my Chautauqua students are among them.  After all somebody HAS to explain the mysterious body we left floating on Lake Chautauqua.  I just hope I don’t have to wait too long to find out which of our long list of suspects was responsible.

Pres house Chautauqua.JPGFull disclosure.  This is not MY porch.  In fact this porch belongs to the president of Chautauqua Institution, here in Chautauqua, New York.  The little cottage I’m renting this month has a porch, too, although not nearly as scenic.  In fact almost every house on the grounds has one, close to the street and easily accessible to anybody walking by.

And people do access them.  “I see you’re from Virginia.  I used to live in Richmond,” they say. Or “May I pet your dog?  I miss my beagle back home.”  Or “You look comfortable.  Not going to the lecture this morning?”

I love this.  I love porches.  I buy calendars with porch of the month offerings. I drive by porches and imagine entire novels set there. Whenever I move I tell my Realtors that a porch is first priority.  They laugh and ignore me, so I’ve yet to find the perfect house with the perfect porch in the perfect porch community, but I know that “next” time, I’ll be luckier.

Because I need a porch.  And so do you. 

For many years architects and builders considered a front porch a necessity.  This was the place where residents went to catch a breeze, to relax together, to watch the comings and goings on their street.  Neighborhood watch programs?  Who needed anything official? The porch was the eyes and ears of the community.  Then came suburbia, expansive back yards, decks and patios and barbecue grills where friends could relax together away from the observant eyes of everyone else on the street. 

“Oh, maybe there’s not much of a front porch at this house,” my Realtor says, “but look what a great back yard it has.  And the sunporch.  Don’t you love the sunporch?”

Actually, I do love my sunporch.  And my oh-so-private backyard just ten minutes from the White House.  But I also love my squatty little front porch, not meant to be more, really, than a spot to get out of the rain while I look for my house key.  I still sit on the one chair it allows and watch cars pass on the street, children walking to school, neighbors tending their flower beds.  Sitting in that beat-up wicker chair, I feel connected to them.  They say hello when they pass, or take a few steps my way so we can chat about who’s done what and why.  And my real life neighbors are as nice as any here, in this porch community.  But getting to know them is a struggle, and sitting there, I always feel like a spy.  Out of place.  Trying to create a neighborhood that doesn’t quite exist. 

Architecture as a barrier to community.

Porch communities aren’t perfect.  When you’re thrown together with strangers, you take pot luck.  When we rented this house, we were sandwiched between two of the nicest families on record.  We were lucky.  I understand that might not have been the case.  I’ve heard stories.  Even here.  I am doubly grateful for the people fate set me next to. 

But that’s why life is a porch.  Because we are in this life together.  We are always in community, whether we choose to be or not.  And it’s good to be reminded of this, even when we need to go inside sometimes and close the front door.   


Thumbnail image for Emilie with film folks in front of Ath.JPGThose of you following my blog know I’m spending some time this summer at one of my favorite places, Chautauqua Institution in Western New York.  Chautauqua is unique in many ways.  The grounds are both historic and lovely, the lake it sits on is picture perfect.  And in addition to the usual summertime pursuits, Chautauqua is and has historically been a center for lifetime learning.  Each week of the nine week season has a theme, and Monday through Friday, a world class lecturer addresses an outdoor amphitheater filled with thousands of people eager to hear his or her take on that week’s subject. 

The subjects for the past two weeks have been “On Cinema” and “Imagine,” tailor made for a novelist.  The morning lecture is only a portion of the program, which also includes a wonderful symphony in residence, opera and theater companies, chamber music and various soloist concerts, and additional lectures all over the grounds on a number of subjects.  In fact one of the things I had to learn twenty years ago when I first experienced this amazing place was to schedule “porch time,” into my daily equation.  This year I’ve scheduled a LOT of porch time.

Chautauqua is also a place of wonderful “serendipities,” things that just come together as if by magic.  “Lagniappe” a New Orleans term for that extra “something” shopkeepers used to give customers, is also a daily experience here.  I find lagniappe every day, in something that’s said in a lecture or worship service, or in a performance, something I wasn’t expecting but turned out to be a special gift.

I experienced both serendipity and lagniappe last week when during cinema week here Frank Buchs of Polyphon Productions–second from the right in the photo above–contacted my publisher and asked if he could visit me on a quick trip to the US.  Frank produced the two German television films that aired in May from my novels Out of the Ashes and Smoke Screen.  When I explained that I was not at home but he could visit here, he did, bringing with him Barbara–far left–and Carsten–far right.  Barbara Engelke is the production company’s head writer and Carsten Kelber their creative producer.  I’m the shrimp in the middle (at nearly 5’8″) beside my husband Michael in the red shirt. We’re standing on the steps of the historic Athaeneum Hotel, where we ate lunch on the porch overlooking Lake Chautauqua.

What a special event to meet the team that produced my movies, then to find out what great people they are and how in sync we are about the prevailing themes in my novels and how they translate to film. I had the joy of seeing both movies on DVD with English subtitles before Frank and friends arrived, and it was fun to discuss what they did and why.

A delicious meal is always enough of a reason to call an afternoon a success, but there was more besides.  It looks like there will be additional movies in my future.  I’m overjoyed to tell you that, even as I’m scared to say too much until we’ve finished our discussion.  I’ll only say that we had a lovely afternoon, and Frank liked Chautauqua so well he’d like to shoot a film here someday.  Who could blame him?  It is, after all, a place for serendipities and lagniappe.  Who knows what might come of that lunch together?

 

Lemonade 2.JPG

I have my own set of “commandments” to live by.  Not that I take exception with the basic ten.  These are additional commandments, and I’ll confess some of them come from a pop philosophy poster I found in a gift shop.  The poster is happily at home on my study door, and although now that I’m away, I can’t repeat most suggestions verbatim, I do remember a few of the most important.  One, never pass a child’s lemonade stand without stopping, and two, never say no thank you when someone offers a brownie.  (Also, always wave at children on school buses, but I digress.)

I chose this morning to begin my first read through on Fortunate Harbor, next summer’s novel.  Happily at home on the front porch of our vacation cottage, I noticed activity next door.  Our neighbors have had grandchildren visiting all week, and we’ve enjoyed the sounds of children, music, laughter and of course, the occasional sibling/cousin spats.  It makes our stay here more homey, but today a new element appeared.

Today the annual lemonade stand was erected.

Turns out the grandkids sell lemonade every summer, to raise money to benefit the fund that brings programming to this fabulous institution on Lake Chautauqua.  And this year was no exception.  This morning they set up just in time to catch people heading across the grounds to a host of different worship services, and stayed just long enough to catch them on the way back.  I was fortunate to watch the action.

Here’s what I learned on this cloudy Sunday morning. 

One–if you build it, they will come.  Of course Kevin Costner told us that already, but the lemonade stand was a good reminder.  Dreaming’s nothing without follow through.  I like that.

Two–take time to encourage children to help change the world.  Never tell them they can’t, because it’s a lie.  Think I’m off base?  Read about Isabelle Redford, then come back and we’ll talk.

Three–Trust the kindness of strangers even as you keep a watchful eye.    While Mom supervised from the porch, I witnessed one man who left two quarters for the children and told them to give the next two glasses of lemonade free.  Those recipients cheerfully did the same.  I stopped counting.  Paying it forward is always a joy to behold.  

Four–Assume your efforts will be rewarded.  I’m sure nobody warned my three young neighbors that it was possible no one would buy their lemonade or eat their chocolate chip cookies (which are, in my set of commandments, synonymous with brownies.)  The kids sat at their stand fully expecting to sell out, and indeed they did to a supremely grateful audience, just before the heavens opened and a cloudy day became a rainy one.

Five–Pay attention.  I’m no longer talking about the kids.  They didn’t need that lesson.  I needed it.  Again and always.  Notice all the lovely things around you, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing.  Take time to appreciate the smallest miracles.  The crunch of a homemade cookie, the tang of lemonade, the people who bought food and drink they didn’t need and left far more money than the children asked for. 

Life can be difficult, messy, unappealing, terrifying.  And sometimes life is a lemonade stand.  Maybe it’s up to us to mix the sweet with the sour, just the way my young neighbors did. Then share the result any way we can.    

 

Emilie at Chautauqua Lake.JPG

Right this moment are you 1) Frantically trying to do at least two things at once?  (And yes, yelling at the children or the dog does count as one.)  2) Leisurely planning a leisurely day?  3) Wondering who those lazy people who said yes to #2 think they are?  4) Trying to remember the meaning of the word leisure.

My friends, we have a problem.  It’s summer, the typical time to relax and enjoy the fruits of a long, hard year.  A chance to play with the children, watch concerts in the park, enjoy family reunions with relatives from far and near. 

And yet. . . and yet. . . if you haven’t been taking the occasional breath all year, contemplating snowmen and spring wildflowers, staring out the window for a portion of your day with nothing else on your agenda, you may be in my boat. . .

I’ve forgotten how to relax. 

Yes, that’s right.  I’m at Chautauqua Institution, in gorgeous Western New York, and I’m still running around trying to accomplish three things at once and wondering why that’s impossible.  I’m still piling up things to do, feeling guilty about the things I haven’t added to the list and trying not to snap at the people around me.

And why?  Because, it’s the first week of vacation.  By next week, I’ll get up late, smile a lot, stop making lists while Nemo and I go for our 3 mile morning walk, forget to show up for programs and better yet, be happy I did.

Recharging our personal batteries is essential for productivity.  Try to forget this step and everything grinds to a halt.  Eventually we run down, wear out, find ourselves on the scrap heap of life.  Or sometimes, like a two year old who’s been overstimulated, we just keep going and going until we fall to the floor, for what looks like no good reason, screaming and kicking.

I’ve come to the place where I recharge with the least amount of fuss.  Most of us have a place like that.  It might be down the street at the local coffee shop.  It might be on a cruise ship.  It might be in our childhood bedroom with Mom downstairs making her famous blueberry muffins.  It might be in a beach chair or in a tent on a mountainside.

I bet you know yours, don’t you? I know your answers will vary as widely as my examples.  Relaxation, letting go, recharging? It’s all about your state of mind.

In this week of transition, I’ve learned one important thing.  I wouldn’t need a week just to remember how to relax if I’d taken more time to recharge through the year.  So now, I’ll put that on a list. Note to  myself:  Relax more.  Don’t forget.  Plan ahead for it, in fact start planning immediately.  

Or maybe, I’ll just go take a nap.