Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Uprooting to England

I type to the whine of chainsaws. Most of our hundred year old white pines, towering high above our home, have died of a mysterious infection. Feeling the thud of falling trees brings home my own uprooting. Or is it transplanting?

We are moving to England for the year. My husband, Henry, is taking a research sabbatical at Oxford University, his alma mater. Our children will be attending English schools, and we’re even taking the dog along. Henry and the kids have dual citizenship, but my visa states that I’m a “settlement wife!” I do feel like a pioneer venturing into a new life.

In England I will be researching my third novel, NOT CRICKET (renamed A MATCH FOR EVE). My first two novels were set in my home state of Maine. NOT CRICKET's Evelyn Levesque is a Maine native on a junior year at Oxford University. She returns 20 years later to track down her first love who disappeared mysteriously (plot changed).

Like my central character, I spent my junior year at an English University. I had a rather dramatic trip overseas. My flight to London was cancelled when the plane exploded on its way to NYC over Lockerbie. Henry was beside himself until he learned that I was not on that doomed flight.

The next day I flew to London undeterred, assuming security would be top notch. My hometown of NYC changed so much after 9/11, but the shadow of terrorism has hung over England for decades. You learn to live with it.

My last long stint of living in England was in 2004. Henry ran the Colby-Bowdoin-Bates study abroad program in London for six months. Our children attended an English school like Hogwarts. My son won enough house points to attend a cricket match at Lord’s. We had many good adventures which I relayed to friends and family via bi-weekly e-mails. This time it will be easier with a blog.

England already feels like a second home. Raising a mixed nationality family, it helps to spend time in both countries. We are lucky that academia and writing provide the flexibility to do this.

I’ve always planned to write a novel about the Anglo-American experience. Despite a common language, there are cultural barriers leading to amusing misunderstandings. I consider myself bilingual after 17 years married to a Brit. Do I have stories to tell!

It may take a couple of weeks for me to get back on line, but I will keep this blog running weekly about our adventures abroad. We plan to travel to France, Italy, Kenya and other countries. It won’t be just vacation. I will be alternating research on NOT CRICKET with revisions on S.A.D.

First I need to finish packing and preparing the house for our lodgers (already thinking in English vernacular!) Next Wednesday we will be flying across the Atlantic and won’t return home until July 2008. After friends and family, the hardest thing to leave behind is my personal library, but I hear there are a lot of books in Oxford!

And now to answer the desert island question:

Books for the plane:
Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights
(it takes place in Oxford if in a different dimension)
Kirin Desai’s Inheritance of Loss
(well recommended literary fiction)

Books I shipped:

For Writing:
Strunk and White – the classic writer’s manual
The Brief English Handbook- another for checking grammar
Points of View – a collection of different narrative points of view
A new journal

For S.A.D:
Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener for my Bartleby character– I still have my copy from high school
Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes since S.A.D. is also set in public high school
Four nonfiction research books

Valerie Martin’s The Unfinished Novel – brilliant short stories about artists and writers
Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants-excellent example of first person present and past tense interwoven narratives, a form I’m considering
Ian McEwan’s Atonement – as an alternative form, a book in chronological parts, also very English

Books I will buy in England:
A dictionary, a thesaurus and a baby name book
Does Cricket for Dummies exist?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Moose Crossing

An e-mail from someone in Windham, Maine:

I have never seen a newborn moose. This one was not even a half a mile from our house. The mother picked a small quiet neighborhood and had her baby in the front yard at 5:30 am. We were out bike riding when we came upon the pair. The lady across the street from this house told us she saw it being born. We saw them at 5:30 pm. So the little one was 12 hours old. What an awesome place we live in to see such a site!

Note: If you know who took these moose photos, comment below so I can credit the photographer.

Recommended Books:

The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer
Beautifully written story about a wealthy Jewish family after the Iranian Revolution. On page one the father is arrested and disappears. This new release is a remarkable debut novel, reminiscent of Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
A lighter summer read. Run away and join the circus. A portrait of Depression era America with an odd but endearing cast of characters. Rosie, the elephant, steals the show. The narrator was a circus vet now trapped in a nursing home and his aging body. As fast, busy and entertaining as the big top.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Wolfe's Neck Park

The first time I visited Wolfe’s Neck Park in Freeport, I had my newborn daughter strapped to my chest. My three-year-old son fished for periwinkles in the tidal pools with his new friend, Baxter. His mother, Sarah Worthing, was a fitness coordinator for L.L. Bean with a teacher’s knowledge of coastal habitats. I had arrived in Maine.

When my daughter started pre-school, I returned to Wolfe’s Neck to paint. I had been an oil-painter, but watercolors were easier to take on location and less toxic around my children. It took some experimenting and a summer course at M.E.C.A., but soon I learned to appreciate the way watercolor flows like the sea.

Soon after I resumed my art, I started writing my first novel, Moose Crossing. I was looking for work I could do from home while living in a remote location, and the two occupations complemented one another. There are only a few good months this far north for painting en plein air. Also a novel takes so much time to complete, but a watercolor is a day’s work. Selling my paintings was a fast reward.

About the time I was planning to approach galleries with my portfolio, a well-established literary agent, Jean Naggar, signed me on as an author. I realized it was hard enough to find the time for one career, let alone two, while raising children. I chose to focus on my writing.

I have a backlog of paintings to photograph, catalog and sell. Two have found a new home in California this spring. As an anniversary gift, the couple bought a view of Googin’s Island in Wolfe’s Neck Park and another of Reid State Park in nearby Georgetown.

On Sunday my family went back to Wolfe’s Neck. It was only fitting since I had named S.A.D.’s protagonist Agnes Wolfe. After an intense ten days straight of revising S.A.D., draft two was done! I worked faster because I had extra time.

Both kids had gone to Maine Audubon’s fabulous Hog Island Camp. It felt odd to be home and childless for the first time in thirteen years exactly. My son had his birthday at camp, and I’m still trying to get my head around the idea of him being a teenager. My youngest is now ten. When did that happen?

My husband and I didn’t work the whole time. We snuck off to the beach on a 90-degree afternoon. We went out to dinner together and with friends on short notice. Two Bowdoin couples, who don’t have children, came to dinner and stayed up late drinking Pimm’s cocktails. No kids to wake up with our conversation and laughter. Life felt like it had back when Henry and I were in grad. school. Sort of like taking off ski boots at the end of a day on the slopes.

Still, I’m eager to hit the trails again with the kids. With S.A.D. out with my next two readers and experts fact-checking sections, I’ll enjoy the excuse to go to the beach and slow down a bit. I have to admit I’m already thinking about my third novel, but that’s a story that can wait a couple more weeks.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Build Consensus before a School

Last Thursday an unofficial straw vote rejected building a big consolidated school at the site of the old Brunswick high school. On Friday the local paper ran my op-ed criticizing the leadership on this issue. Today the superintendent resigned.

This is an opportunity to rally community support for a new, smaller school with a K-5 grade configuration as was the original plan. A second straw vote could ask voters to choose between the two options and help the town find consensus. Below is my op-ed which ran in the Times Record 7/27/07:

Brunswick may lose state funding for a new elementary school. This would be a serious setback because the town needs a new school to replace portable classrooms and accommodate all-day kindergarten.

With a lawsuit pending against the State Department of Education and Brunswick residents criticizing the proposed grade configuration, the 750-student school size as well as the proposed site, it would be a grave mistake to ignore the problems.

The original proposal to build a new, small K-5 elementary school to replace Hawthorne School and the mobile classroom units received broad support. Yet when the school size grew beyond 500 students and Superintendent James Ashe proposed a K-2/3-5 grade configuration, a large number of citizens objected.

Additionally, many have complained that there has been too little public involvement and participation in decision-making. In response, the School Board and the school department have asked the public "to trust the process."

How can there be trust when the "public process" has resulted in the same proposal Ashe offered nearly two years ago?

People are as frustrated about the process as the results. Trust needs to be earned not demanded.

Last November Kathy Thorson, running on a platform of small K-5 schools and equity, beat the incumbent, a proponent of trusting "the process." She won the at-large School Board seat by a significant margin in every single district in Brunswick. We have no better indicator of what would happen if a large grade 3-5 school were put to a town vote, the final step in the state-mandated process.

At the April 30 public hearing, an overwhelming majority of citizens spoke against the Educational Specification Committee Report's recommendation for K-2/3-5 configuration and called for more discussion and public input. Without any further deliberation, the School Board on May 9 voted 5-3 to accept the reconfiguration.

In June the Elementary School Building Committee voted to build a 750-student "double school" for grades 3-5 at the site of the old high school. The architects recommended replacing the old structure. In response, 71 residents have filed suit against the State Department of Education. Some object to the need for a new school, others to tearing down the old high school.

Even if these citizens fail to halt new school construction, this suit indicates public dissatisfaction with the new school proposal. Add this suit to a number of critical opinion pieces in The Times Record, to the public hearing testimonies and to the last at-large School Board election, and it would be foolish to conclude that the new school would easily pass a townwide vote.

Those who have voiced dissent in the past have been labeled "a special interest group." There have been claims that "a silent majority" supports a new grade 3-5 school. Yet there has been little evidence of broad public support, and such dismissive comments do not build consensus.

The lack of consensus and a grab bag of objections to a big public project bring to mind the public safety building that was voted down by a townwide vote in 2003. People had a broad range of reasons to object to the plan, but it was an up-or-down vote.

We need a new school just like we need a new public safety building, but the need itself will not be enough to guarantee passage of a project that has consistently ignored the public's concerns.

How do we build consensus?

The first step is opening the process to public input. We have an opportunity on Election Day in November to add a nonbinding ballot question on the new elementary school proposal. The question could ask whether the voter supports the new school proposal, and, if not, to check off the reasons such as grade configuration, school size, site, etc.

The ballot responses could help the town re-examine the new elementary school proposal and make necessary changes to ensure broader public support. Ideally, the school department and the Elementary School Building Committee would have already asked these questions of the public. It is not too late to ask them now.

The danger of plowing ahead without consultation and consensus is that we will forgo a new school and fail to meet the needs of the children. Brunswick has good schools, involved parents, dedicated teachers and staff and many civic-minded citizens. Let us pool our great resources to bring our town together and reach consensus. We have so much to gain and even more to lose. Ground has yet to be broken on the new school.

To read more of my op-eds and political letters search the archives section:opinions and keyword:Sarah Laurence and Sarah W. Laurence. Click on the tag below for more information on small schools.