Ambling and rambling through life

ramble v. 1 to move aimlessly from place to place 2 to talk or write in a long-winded wandering fashion

amble v. to go at a slow, easy pace; stroll; saunter

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Perfect Word

A couple of years ago, a friend asked me to pinpoint and describe an instance where an author used exactly the right word to convey a particular feeling.

I chose to explore one of my favorite books, The Giver, in which Lois Lowry uses one of my favorite words, yearning.

I was reminded of this little writing exercise while reading Lowry’s newest novel Son, the conclusion to The Giver and the quartet that includes Gathering Blue and Messenger (It also turns out that Lowry graduated from the University of Southern Maine, where I just completed an M.A.).

Yearning appears throughout Son, a conscious and deliberate word selection by Lowry, whose own son was killed in the crash of his fighter plane. I was originally hesitant to read “the thrilling conclusion to The Giver” because there is a beauty to not knowing what happens to Jonas and Gabe after they descend the snowy hill into the music-filled village. Post-reading, I still don’t think the story extension was necessary, but seeing  Lowry cope with her personal tragedy through writing the text of Son, particularly with the use of yearning, made it a worthwhile and emotional read.

Below is the original piece I wrote. What are your examples of authors using the perfect word? I'd love to hear from you! 

In the opening pages of Lois Lowry’s acclaimed novel The Giver, the main character Jonas searches for the “right word” to describe his feelings about his community’s upcoming selections, where, as a 12-year-old, he would be assigned the job to perform for the rest of his life. With the ceremony fast approaching, Jonas thinks he feels frightened, but upon recollection of another time when he felt “stomach-sinking terror,” he realizes that frightened is “too strong an adjective” for this case. Because he has waited a long time--in anticipation--for his assignment, he instead determines he feels eager. Still, though, that’s not the right word. At the pit of his stomach, he also feels a “little shudder of nervousness” every time he thinks about this next big step, and he resolves apprehensive most precisely describes his feelings.

Although precision of language is a central aspect of “Sameness” in Jonas’s community, his approach to determining word choice epitomizes the welcomed struggle every writer encounters—that moment when she pauses in the middle of writing a sentence to filter through the profusion of words whirling around her mind in search of the perfect one. Choosing the right word in the right context with the audience in mind is not only the most challenging task for a writer but also her most powerful tool, and Lois Lowry uses it most skillfully. In two particular instances in The Giver, she reveals her powerful connection with her character Jonas when she chooses the right words to evoke certain feelings.

For example, from the beginning of the story, Lowry chooses to use the word “release” to exemplify the acts of euthanasia and infanticide in Jonas’s community. When an infant helplessly takes a needle to the forehead because he’s the smaller twin, or when an elderly woman is told by the community when she will take her last breath, they are said to be “released.” This word has an undertone of liberation, relief, and letting go, leaving the reader to empathize with the released characters but also develop a curiosity about what the releasing ceremony is all about. Rather than explicitly describe these events as they occur in the story, Lowry evokes a sense of wonder in readers who then experience Jonas’s epiphany right alongside him as he grows horrifyingly aware of the reality of his community’s disturbing secrets. In choosing the word “release,” Lowry conveys Jonas’s and his community’s naiveté and blindness, which the reader can identify with and then experience Jonas’s feelings of anguish and distress upon discovery of the reality withheld from him his whole life.

Another example of Lowry’s perfect word choice comes on one of the last pages, after Jonas has escaped from the community and is trudging up a hill in the snow with the infant Gabriel, whom Jonas has saved from “release” for crying too much at night. Jonas tries to draw a memory of sunshine, and he begins to feel “tiny tongues of heat” (talk about perfect imagery!) warm his body, and “for a fleeting second” he wants to keep it for himself. This selfish moment soon passes and is followed by an “urge, a need, a passionate yearning to share the warmth with the one person left for him to love.”

There’s just something about the word yearning—its diction wholly exemplifies its meaning. As you articulate “yearn,” it extends across your tongue like you’re reaching with the word out in front of you for something lost, something missing, something loved. It evokes longing and aching, and Lowry uses it perfectly in a series of adjectives. The sequence is crafted crescendo, building up from a simple “urge” and “need” to “passionate yearning.” This cadence of words illustrates Jonas’s realization of his intense love for Gabriel, intensified by the fact that Jonas didn’t know anything about love, compassion, or yearning for the first 12 years of his life; love is completely wholly absent in Lowry’s world of “Sameness.” Lowry could have stopped with “urge” or “need” or other words like “desire” or “long,” but her choice of yearning evokes much more compelling feelings, especially as Jonas fights for his and Gabriel’s life, climbing a grueling hill on a cold, snowy night.

Friday, September 16, 2011


Rambling about some recent ambles:

Coffee Shop

Bard Coffee, Middle St. in the Old Port

I wandered into this charming café last Sunday afternoon while strolling around the Old Port, per a housemate’s recommendation. Although I don’t drink coffee, I do enjoy working/writing/reading in coffee shops while sipping tea or hot cocoa, so I’ve been on the hunt for a café worthy of becoming my “regular spot”. Bard meets all of my conditions: yummy chai tea (and a good price for the size), friendly staff, good music mix, plenty of seats and moreover a variety of seats (tables and chairs in the corner by the window or leather sofa and chairs around a coffee table with local newspapers and other publications), a bulletin board showcasing flyers about upcoming events, and lastly, homemade gelato which you can sample for free and not feel boorish about not buying a scoop. Since I just had a book to read (Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw) I decided to not take up a table and sat on the comfy sofa. I can definitely see myself returning regularly with my class work.


Dogfish Bar and Grille, Free St. in the Old Port

Wednesday is Open Mic night at this casual bar and restaurant, where local artists can perform live in front of an eclectic audience. A classmate of mine has a friend from Bowdoin College who was the featured artist this week, so I joined them to take part in the tradition. There was no cover charge, and I learned a lot about guitar harmonics from a peculiar fellow in an Elmo T-shirt. Oh, and they have Shipyard Pumpkinhead on draft. Enough said.


Whaddapita!, Forest Ave.

Located just a few blocks from my house, this Mediterranean restaurant’s vibrant colors are illustrative of the bold flavors found on the menu (I’m not cut out to be a food reviewer, am I?) Ever since returning from a semester abroad in Greece, I’ve been searching high and low for a Greek restaurant that serves gyros with fries stuffed in them, as is the custom in Athens. You can imagine how my eyes lit up when I saw on Whaddapita!’s menu board “Gyro Pita, …wrapped with a combination of homemade fries, tomatoes, red onions…” Score! And, it cost only $4.39. It was kind of small (there’s a deal to buy two for $8.29) but the Mediterranean folk are all about small portions. The pita was a little soggier than my liking, and the service was slow given that there only a handful of other people. In the hospitable Greek spirit, though, they offered me two pieces of baklava--for free!  This will definitely become my favorite lunch spot, especially since it’s so close to my house and campus. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Lighthouses, Rivers, and Bookstores

My tall bedroom windows face east, allowing abundant morning sun to shine in. On Saturday, I awoke to that natural alarm clock and resolved I could not stay indoors. I got dressed, brushed my teeth, packed a few snacks, and grabbed my Maine map—all that is required for a day of ambling.

After hopping on 295 North, I decided I would take an exit when…it felt right. I thought Exit 28 sounded good, so I followed Route 1 North through the towns of Bath, Wiscasset, Newcastle and Damariscotta, and then I headed due south on routes 129/130 to Pemaquid Lighthouse Park. Built in 1827, the lighthouse sits on a huge, rocky outcrop at the tip of one of the many peninsulas along the Maine coast.

About a dozen other people strolled around the well-landscaped grounds, scaled spiral steps to the lighthouse’s observation deck, and ventured out onto the rocks. The offshore Hurricane Katia also made her presence known, churning up some strong waves and rip currents. I walked out on the rocks to a safe distance and perched myself atop one of the ridges and ate the southwest turkey wrap and clementines I brought for lunch. Although it was a perfect reading spot, listening to the waves crash against the rocks, I found myself absorbed in observing the waves swell and then roll in and back out. It was also interesting to study the rip current. I’ve certainly been caught swimming in my fair share of rip currents and have seen them at the beach; but sitting about 40 feet above the waves offered a new bird’s-eye perspective of the current, as water rushed from the left, converged with water from the right, and the resulting channel of churning water receded back to sea.  

After about an hour wave- and people-watching (lots of tourists in khaki shorts and white sneakers…) I wandered into the Fishermen’s Museum, which offers a look into the area’s maritime history. Lobster traps and other old fishing equipment adorned the walls, and a records room containing old logs of shipwrecks and the lighthouse captains piqued my interest. I then walked up the spiral staircase to the top of the lighthouse, where I examined the original Fresnel lens and took in the beautiful view of the ocean. The clear blue sky allowed for glimpses of some of the islands scattered across the adjoining bay.

Back in the car, I opened the map and decided to head back north to the Damariscotta area. Along Route 130, I saw a sign for “Fort William Henry Historical Site” and turned left. There I found “Colonial Pemaquid,” a National Historic Landmark—a pretty legitimate designation, so I decided to amble. I walked across excavations of 17th- and 18th-century structures, including Fort William Henry, which played a role in 17th-century wars between the English and Native Americans (you can read more detailed history here). The artifacts museum was closed, and a wedding party started to congregate on the grounds, so I moved on. I look forward to returning and exploring more, though.

I continued north along Rt. 130 to Damariscotta, where I spotted the Maine Coast Book Shop and Café. I found a parking spot and strolled along Main Street, featuring a myriad of charming, independent shops and galleries. I meandered into the bookstore and browsed Maine hiking and trail guides. While I skimmed through the options, I overheard one of the workers assisting a customer find a book titled “Nothin’ but Puffins.” They were having a difficult time locating it on the shelves. After settling on Moon’s Maine Hiking, I turned around to find the field guide section and decided to browse there a little, too. My eyes immediately spotted “Nothin’ but Puffins” on a lower shelf, so I called the clerk, still frantically searching for the book, over. She was so grateful and exclaimed that I deserved a sticker. Thinking she was joking, I just smiled and said I was glad I could help, and I proceeded to browse through the Staff Picks. A few minutes later, while I read the back of The Scent of Rain and Lightning by Nancy Pickard, the woman enthusiastically gave me a sticker featuring a colorful dragonfly, with a green thorax, blue abdomen and pink wings and legs. For those of you who don’t know, the dragonfly is my favorite insect (and means a lot to me, but that’s a story for another day), so I let my inner child prevail with excitement and stuck the prize to my shirt.

While I made my purchases (the hiking guide and a few postcards), I asked another clerk if she could recommend any nearby trails along the Damariscotta River. She gave me directions to Dodge Point Public Reserved Land, just a few miles away on River Road (how appropriate). I found it easily and was thankful for a convenient and helpful bulletin board displaying trail information. I trekked along the Old Farm Road Trail, which traverses along old farm roads (again, how appropriate) used by farmers in the 19th century. At the first junction, I decided to continue along the Shore Trail, which follows the shores of the Damariscotta River and offers access to sand and pebble beaches. With no one else around, I sat on the sand and snacked on some almonds, taking in the river’s tranquility, an antithesis to what I observed just a few hours before. For as beautiful of a day it was, I encountered only a handful of other hikers on the pebble shore, where they watched their dogs frolic in the water; and except for passing one family about 0.2 miles into the Old Farm Road trail, I had the trails to myself.

After the hike, I decided to continue along River Road, a scenic drive with tall firs on both sides of the road. About eight miles later, I came to a junction with Route 27. I could turn right to go to Wiscasset and connect with Route 1, or turn left and go to Boothbay Harbor. The latter name sounded familiar, so I turned left, and a few miles down the road, I arrived in another quaint little town. It was now about 6:00 p.m., and with a wonderful autumnal chill in the air, I decided to amble once again. I could immediately tell the town must be hopping with tourists in the summer, with shops along like Daffy Taffy Moosehead Coffee Shop (which was sadly closed for the day) along the main street. After sitting by the harbor for awhile, I strolled into Sherman’s Book and Stationery, where I bought some more postcards, and then the Friends of the Library Used Bookstore.

Walking back to the car, an older couple asked me if I knew where Gleason Fine Art was, which I just happened to walk by. I confidently provided directions, not disclosing I just finished my first visit to Boothbay Harbor. They didn’t need to know.

With dusk approaching, I decided to head home to Portland, knowing I would be driving south and west with good views of the sunset. I was not disappointed—the sky was painted in bright pink and orange in the west, but that was not the only treat. Wispy altocumulus clouds also slowly slipped by the rising, almost-full harvest moon in the east. I looked for places to pull over along 295, but alas, the sky sightings will have to remain mental pictures.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


Dear readers,

This blog has been long in the making. Ever since I documented my semester abroad in Athens, Greece in 2009, I’ve contemplated sharing my experiences trekking across New England and serving with AmeriCorps over the last two years.  Alas, procrastination and ambivalence trumped motivation and creativity; although I regularly record reflections and experiences in journals, I’ve lacked the incentive, and shall I say aplomb, to transmit my thoughts out into the “void”.

Well, somehow I gathered the courage (okay, I’ll admit, it also had a great deal to do with my slight affliction with technophobia…), and here I am, ready to introduce you to my grey matter.

What is the purpose of this blog, you ask? Perchance…I’ll write about exploring and living in Maine. I’ll tell you what grad school is really like. I’ll reveal thoughts about the books I’m reading, the music I’m listening to, and the shows I’m watching. If you’re lucky, I may rant about politics.

Mostly, I will ramble about my ambles.