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Friday November 21, 2014

A literary thanks: Maine writers reflect on what they're thankful for this year

Bill Roorbach

Cathie Pelletier

Elizabeth Peavey

Tess Gerritsen

Monica Wood

Sarah Braunstein

We asked a few of Maine's most admired writers to reflect on things they're thankful for. Maybe it's the doughnut shop down the street or a well-earned mountain view.

We asked writers because they're good at detail. They observe well, and interpret.

What is it about living in Maine that makes it all so rewarding?

In his essay, Bill Roorbach reflects on the challenge of coaxing vegetables from the western Maine soil. For him, it all comes down to the chickens.

Novelist Cathie Pelletier gives eternal thanks to the St. John River, on the banks of which she was born, and which welcomed her back when she returned after many years away.

Portlander Elizabeth Peavey is thankful for her fast-paced urban life, and grateful to get away to the quiet of the Maine woods.

Tess Gerritsen, a master of suspense, appreciates the opportunity to make music with her midcoast musician friends, who gather in coffee shops and bars for Celtic fiddle jams.

Monica Wood gives thanks for living in an art-loving city where human connections matter — at the theater, the library and the C-store down the street.

Sarah Braunstein, a Portland mom, gives thanks for the playground equipment at her son's school, her son's teachers, her son's community, and, ultimately, her son.

Here are their Thanksgiving stories.

Click each author's photo at left to read their stories.

 

Portland

My son just started attending the East End Community School in Portland, and that place and its people are what I'm thankful for this year. I'm thankful for its playground, for the spider web climbing apparatus with its views of Mount Washington, for this height that reminds children there is a world outside, a big world, places to be seen.

I'm thankful for the children of Portland, children from all over the world, with so many languages and stories, how every morning they come together at the top of this hill, this hill of all the hills in the world. They gather here, the basketballers and jump-ropers and hop-scotchers and the little ones, the new ones, watching, getting ready to join.

I'm thankful for Mrs. Coffin and her colleagues, teachers who make a grown person want to go back again, fall under the spell of such gentle instruction. And I'm thankful for the after-school staff at Portland Rec, for Annette who teaches the children to knit, who donates her own yarn so the girls and boys can learn this ancient craft, so that their fingers might master something besides video game controllers.

I'm thankful for that moment when I walk into the school at the end of the day. The lobby is strangely quiet. Down a hall, they are seated at tables, drawing, solving equations, knitting. The lights of our city shimmer below. Cars stream along the interstate. Up here, in this room on this hill, my son is deep in concentration. He is transforming a skein of yarn into a hat. I say his name; he looks up. I am thankful for that boy.

— Sarah Braunstein was named one of "5 Under 35" fiction writers by the National Book Foundation. She is best known for her 2011 book, "The Sweet Relief of Missing Children."

Camden

Twenty years ago, I found my passion in a Rockland coffee shop. I'd stopped in for coffee one evening at the Second Read, where a weekly Celtic jam session was under way. It was love at first tune! I'd played classical violin as a child, but I'd never heard music like this, jigs and reels and hornpipes that made me want to jump up and dance. This was music I could learn by ear, music meant to be played with others.

I went home, dusted off my old violin, and started learning the tunes. And through those tunes, I've found some of my dearest friends. On Maine's darkest, coldest nights, you'll find us fiddling away together in our homes or in coffee shops or bars. We share tunes the way cooks share recipes and writers share stories. We squabble over tempo and rhythm, and we always seem to forget the name of whatever it is we're playing, because we're older and grayer now and our memories are starting to slip a bit - even if the tunes stay with us. Some of us are darn good musicians, some of us are rank amateurs, but who cares? It's the music that brought us together. And keeps us together.

One night at a recent jam session, I looked around the room at friends I've now known for decades. There was a woodworker and a boat builder, a doctor and a massage therapist. How thankful I am that music — and Maine — helped us find each other.

— Tess Gerritsen is best known for her medical and suspense books, including "The Surgeon," "Vanish" and her latest, "Last to Die."

Photo credit: Melissa Hobbs

Portland

I have recently been splitting my time between my Portland home and a borrowed camp with no electricity or running water on the south branch of the Dead River, where I am working on my book. So when asked to select just one Maine thing I am thankful for, how was I to choose? Then I got stuck on the concept of thankful vs. grateful. (For example, I'm grateful I was invited to take part in this feature, but I am thankful I don't have a real job and have to perform such complicated assignments on a daily basis.) As you might gather, nothing is ever easy with me, but here goes:

I am thankful for the indoor composting toilet (can you say 3 a.m. and 13 degrees outside?) at the camp and grateful for the use of my friend's shower up the road, but I am thankful when I get back home to my 6 p.m. lavender bath, with the New Yorker, NPR and New Guy IPA.

I am thankful blaze orange goes so well with my almost entirely black urban wardrobe and am grateful the only critics casting judgment on my hick-chic look are the opinionated crows.

I am thankful I can still sometimes stay up to go see my old pals Darien Brahms and Chicky Stolz when they play at Ruski's, but I am grateful to return to my woods music: the tympanic explosion of flushed partridge, the jays on lead vocals and the red squirrel's irate aye-yi-yi carumba!

I am grateful for this camp, its view of the November sun bedazzling the river through falling snow and for the quiet, Internet-free days it affords me, but I am thankful when I return to the thrall of my other life — the drinks and deadlines, teaching and meetings, parties and plumbing.

I am most thankful for my strong Maine-girl legs and for the countless miles I have logged over the state's backwoods and wild spaces, as well as Portland's trails and city streets. I am thankful I feel equally at home teetering across Katahdin's Knife Edge as I do teetering over one of Winnie's martinis at Portland's Katahdin restaurant. I am grateful that I can have both my Maines and don't have to choose.

— Elizabeth Peavey is best known for her humor columns, essays and books, including her collaboration with painter Marguerite Robichaux, "Glorious Slow Going."

Photo credit: Sam Mitchell>

Allagash

The first thing I see outside my window each morning, and the last thing I see at night, is the St. John River. I was born to that river, born in this house on its banks. Our family graveyard overlooks the river, lined by birches and chokecherry bushes. The river is the road my ancestors used when they came to found this town, in 1833.

I have my morning coffee with the river. Summer evenings, the river and I share a glass of wine. The river is a book with chapters, bringing Abenaki legends from upstream, and ending with a Maliseet legend at the Reversing Falls in St. John, Canada.

All those years I lived "away" and wrote novels, the river was there, as constant in my fiction as it is in reality. Thomas Wolfe knew that the traveler has difficulty going home since the past is lost forever. But the river was here before I was born. It will be here after I'm gone.

In the spring, once the ice has broken and run, the returning birds — mallards and mergansers — find the mouth of the spring, some 200 feet from my window. Summers are busy, with herons, eagles, ospreys and tourists. Sometimes, I see a moose or two swimming from shore to shore. To prepare for winter, the river seals over, the way a wound heals. It stops talking. No more rips and rattles. But each spring, like Lazarus, it rises, and the birds and I give thanks again.

— Cathie Pelletier is best known for her series of stories about her fictional Maine town Mattagash, including her latest, "The One-Way Bridge."

Photo credit: Doug Bruns

Farmington

I am thankful for the challenge of vegetable gardening in western Maine. Over a lot of years I've shifted my focus entirely. Oh, I still battle with getting tomatoes to ripen, and love nothing more than peas. And always carrots, in 10 colors.

The shift has been toward greens that can take a few frosts, even freezes, such that I can make a rocking salad clear into December most years, or roast Brussels sprouts for Thanksgiving dinner. And toward root vegetables that keep. I've got sacks in the basement with 15 kinds of potatoes this year, and six gallons of carrots in the fridge, a bushel of onions in the shed, 100 heads of garlic, my own. Did I mention beets? They keep quite well, and pickle even better.

I've also learned not to can more than I'm going to consume. No more long days making 20 quarts of dill pickles when I only eat, say, six.

At Thanksgiving, I'll thank the earth that brought all this bounty forth, thank my body for more or less holding out, thank my daughter for helping (don't complain about today's 13-year-olds to me!), thank my guests for eating, thank the compost pile for taking in the scraps the chickens don't want, and while we're at it, thank the chickens: You can't make a great pumpkin pie without great eggs!

— Bill Roorbach is best known for his latest novel, "Life Among Giants."

Portland

On the first day of every month, the Citgo/Xtra Mart at the end of my street offers free coffee. What lures me in, however, is the fellow behind the counter, a handsome black man with graying hair who speaks in a sonorous baritone. I would gladly listen to him recite the phone directory, the Book of Genesis, or the bylaws of a charter commission, but I settle instead for his smiling, reliable "How're you doing today?" Meeting his eyes over the Dentyne and beef jerky, I feel a little wing-lift of human connection every time, a sense that I belong to this neighborhood, to this city, to the family of man.

I moved to Portland as a very young woman for one reason: it was Maine's largest city, a center for arts and culture, a place to commence my creative life. Even thirty-eight years later, I can hardly believe I live in this vibrant city of actors, book lovers, artisans, and entrepreneurs who share the "backyard" of Casco Bay's crushed-diamond waters. Portland gave me everything I once yearned for. And yet, I most deeply love my second hometown not when I'm all dressed up for a book launch, or waiting for the curtain to rise on a world-premiere play, but in the tiny, tender moments - let's call them "Xtra Mart moments" - that remind me of my first hometown, where they knew me even if they couldn't summon my name, where they looked me in the eyes and said hello.

— Monica Wood is best known for her memoir, "When We Were the Kennedys" and her novel "Any Bitter Thing."

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