I’m always looking for a story. I never set out with pre-conceived notions regarding what the story will be. There are people I meet that spark my interest immediately. They share a story that resonates. A lightbulb goes off. The story falls in my lap.
Or it could be a place I find interesting because it tells a story of who we are. As Nobel laureate Albert Camus once said, “with clear-sighted earnestness it illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.”
When I am on the road I am living in the moment. Life’s distractions are sitting in the backseat. Depending on where I’m traveling and who I meet, I sometimes feel like an outsider. An exile in my own country. I try to report the good stories I find. Unfortunately, these days there is a growing amount of negativity and I can’t ignore it. It is part of the story we are currently living. To pretend it doesn’t exist is to turn a blind eye despite the fact I believe there are more kind and generous people than mean and angry people.
My first destination on what I have coined my Hometown Book Pop-Ups was the place where my writing began. Ipswich, Massachusetts. I had lunch with a former co-worker, one of the few people I worked with who was still there. We met at a brewery and caught up on kids, work, travels, and life. Then I had a little time to kill so I walked around the town where I spent four years in a cubicle. A flood of memories returned.
Carrie, the friend I was meeting after lunch, has lived in Ipswich all her life. I met her long before I worked in the cubicle. She was dating my brother-in-law and was a lifesaver the day I came home from the hospital with my youngest daughter who had an infected blocked tear duct and was on stomachache inducing antibiotics. Carrie occupied my two and a half year old while I rocked and rocked my newborn.
Carrie is fighting the battle of her life right now. Diagnosed with a rare form of melanoma she had her arm and part of her shoulder amputated. It has been two years of grueling procedures, operations, and treatment. She has shared it all on her Facebook page and shown us all how to be brave and honest, and also fragile and human.
And still, she offered to host a Hometown Book Pop-Up. We met at the Kosciuszko Club. Words with lots of vowels always trip me up. Words like pernicious, auspicious, obnoxious. So like the locals I call this place the K Club. Carrie invited some friends. We chatted about books, shared drinks, and had a good time. Carrie’s mom is the bartender here and also an old friend of mine. There was some discussion about something Trump had recently done that two of the women liked. I avoided politics. I wasn’t here to argue.
Carrie’s doctors have told her she is now on palliative care and she should live life three months at a time. So she cashed in her pension and her 401K and went out and bought a pontoon boat with a Bimini cover. Ipswich is like many small towns, insular and full of gossip. A place where people have a lot of opinions and share them with their lifelong neighbors. Some people are judging her for this decision to buy a boat. The only comment I can offer is “People”. It’s a shoulder shrug sort of opinion, as in I really don’t know what to say.
After the Hometown Book Pop-Up Carrie and I and one of her friends from the Trump conversation went to a pizza place. Carrie was wearing a sleeveless summer top. We somehow started talking about health insurance, bills, and the rising cost of rents in the area. The friend pays a thousand dollars a month for her apartment and only earns $1200 a month.
“How do you pay your other bills?” I asked.
“I economize. I make do.”
I couldn’t help asking, “How? You need food. You have a car. You need gas and there are always repairs. New snow tires. Oil changes. What do you do for health insurance? Does your rent include heat, electricity, WIFI?”
No, it did not include utilities. But she said she wasn’t a taker like other people. She was managing on her own, like we all should. Carrie later told me she inherited some money. I never did quite figure out her politics. It didn’t really matter. She was a very nice, friendly woman and her hair raising stories of illegal Mexicans in Tucson, Arizona sounded like something out of Breaking Bad. I didn’t know what to believe but we had a nice night.
Meanwhile, a little boy in the booth behind me was standing on his seat and staring at our table. Carrie was talking about the people who were judging her for buying the boat. She used the word ‘shit’. Then, speaking softly, she said in a slight whisper, “That little boy won’t stop staring at me.”
The little boy’s mother spoke loudly. “It’s because you used a bad word that he doesn’t know. We don’t use words like that.”
Carrie apologized and they left a few minutes later.
“Sometimes I can’t help but hate people,” Carrie said.
I had a million questions.
“If he doesn’t know the word shit how did he know it was a bad word?” “Was he staring at Carrie because he is an innocent child and had never seen a woman with one arm?” “Was it the mother’s own discomfit with Carrie’s appearance and her inability to explain the situation to her son that set off her anger?”
We all agreed this woman missed a teaching moment and instead lashed out with anger instead of empathy.
“Don’t worry about it,” I told Carrie. “It says more about her, than you.”
A single woman sitting in a booth across from us spoke up.
“You’re exactly right,” she said. “I watched that whole exchange. The woman and her husband or boyfriend or whoever he was never stopped playing with their phones. The kid was bored and fascinated with you. He’s just a kid.”
We invited her over to our booth and started a lively conversation. She is also a writer and took one of my promotional bookmarks. Her son came out of the kitchen and gave her his paycheck. She does his banking because he’s busy with school and work.
“He’s a good kid,” she said. “A hard worker, too.”
The use of this expression can mean many things. There are all sorts of people. Every one of us agreed there is a lot of anger in the world right now. Some people think they can say whatever they want. They are used to hiding behind email and Facebook/Twitter comments. But now anger is creeping into our daily dialogue. Our President leads the way. This weekend he called football players sons of bitches for exercising their 1st amendment rights.
From Ipswich I drove to Exeter, New Hampshire. My former Reverse Commute. I was staying with my good friend Liz who helped me put together a Hometown Book Pop-Up in my old hometown. When I texted her on Saturday she told me to call after two in the afternoon. From noon until two she was driving the tractor that was pulling the Democrats’ float in the Brentwood Home Days parade.
Liz ran for local office, and lost to a Republican. She volunteers for numerous charitable organizations. She is tireless, fearless, and dedicated.
She now belongs to the Woke Book Club. It was started by a New Hampshire woman who had never been politically active before the 2016 election. Liz invited me to come along and she’d introduce me to the group. It ended up being a Pop-In on my end. They asked me to join their discussion of Dark Money by Jane Mayer. It is about the Koch Brothers and other billionaires and the rise of the radical right.
For almost two hours, we had an earnest intelligent conversation. Some of the readers didn’t quite finish the book, it was too frightening and upsetting. Everyone took turns speaking; the moderator let us sometimes ramble. It was an amazing afternoon and good to see concerned Americans engaged in trying to affect change during troubled times. I even sold several books after the meeting and can’t wait to get some feedback from this intelligent, friendly, caring group of men and women.
We also stopped by to visit an old neighbor of mine. When we sold our house and moved to Florida he was planning on getting off the grid and becoming more self-sufficient. I would say he is well on his way. His front yard is now an apple orchard. He also grows and sells vegetables, garlic, honey, and maple syrup from his sugar shack. Chickens roamed the yard. He heats with wood and uses candles for lighting at night. He gave us some delicious apples, giant juicy tomatoes, and garlic to take home. We also sampled candied pears he was drying in a toaster like thing in the garage.
I spent the weekend at Liz’s lake house in the Belgrade Lakes region of Maine where we met up with our husbands who went fishing on Saturday. Liz and I drove to Augusta to look for a protest. We were angry and exhausted by the continuing onslaught of Republican attempts at repealing healthcare. We wanted to find Susan Collins, the Republican Senator from Maine. All we found was a small, quiet American city on a muggy Saturday afternoon.
Liz told me about a mural that was removed from the State House and relocated to the Maine State Museum. It was lovely and I was troubled by the fact Republican Governor Paul LePage did this. All I can say regarding this is: History Matters.
HOMETOWN BOOK POP-UPS: AUGUSTA, ME The Maine Workers' Mural that was removed from the state capital because a Republican governor thought it represented socialist/communist ideas. The 1st panel represents Child Labor when children as young as 8 years old worked in factories as recently as 100 years ago. The 2nd mural represents Women Textile Workers holding white handkerchiefs as a symbol of the impure air conditions created from lint. Other panels depict the enactment of The Secret Ballot to protect workers from intimidation from employers and the 1937 Shoe Strike when workers walked out of shoe mills seeking fair wages and shorter hours. Despite federal laws legalizing the right to organize workers were beaten and jailed for marching and speaking up. Don't think this can't happen again. #payattention #resist #workersrights #speakup #historymatters #murals #publicart #visitamuseum
And PEOPLE. As in POLITICIAN PEOPLE.
As I travel to different parts of the country on my Hometown Book Tour I will be sharing a series of photos – signs I find on front lawns throughout America. I’m calling this series Messages From America and I’m sharing them on Instagram. I considered whether or not I should share all of the messages I find along my route and decided it is a positive message I want to send. If I find some negativity, which I’m sure I will because I saw those Confederate flags and other messages when I traveled South last spring, I’ll mention them but I don’t think I’ll photograph them. There are plenty of good people in all parts of America, even ones with differing opinions. Those are the stories I’m sharing.
“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples” ~ Mother Theresa.
After all, how many train wrecks do we need to see?
*** If you’ve been enjoying the stories I’ve shared here during the past five years, please buy the book. It’s available here: