For years, I’ve been imagining a magazine under the Korongo Books imprint about life in the White River Valley. Then, 2020 happened. Stuck in France, homesick for Vermont, I decided the best way for a writer to keep in touch with her hometown would be to write about it. Better yet, get other people to write about it. I spoke with Lynne Gately and Kate Branstetter at Kimball Library in Randolph and offered to give a writing workshop if Kimball would host it via Zoom. The workshop, I said, would focus on diaries.
Although diaries are often thought of as private records, I wanted people to be able to share them. Through individual diaries, I explained, I wanted to create a collective story about the year 2020 as it is experienced in our small corner of the world, and I wanted everybody to be able to participate, whether they were hooked up to the Internet or not. I wanted to use diaries as a means to break through the social isolation of Covid-19, as an antidote to loneliness and grief.
It turned out that the clever people at Kimball had already come up with a similar idea. In fact, they had already implemented it! They were calling it The Book. The Book is a community journal that can be checked out of the library, added to, and checked back in. People can add words, pictures, or both. Kate Branstetter, Kimball’s community outreach librarian, is the mastermind behind The Book. Immediately, I recognized in her a kindred spirit.
Korongo has always been about community-building, and so, of course, has Kimball. We wanted this new workshop to have as wide a reach as possible. That meant including valley residents who are not connected to the Internet. Hmm. A print publication about life in our valley would accomplish that.
Suddenly, my hypothetical magazine had a mission.
Our first issue is all about diaries. It includes excerpts from several diaries kept by people with strong ties to our Vermont community, as well as a few tips on starting your own diary.
Shirly Hook, author of the story collection My Bring Up (Korongo Books; 2019), writes about keeping an Abenaki garden and spending time at a camp that can only be reached by boat.
The artist Dorothy Calhoun Fago kept a journal while living at Menig nursing home in Randolph Center and added a new drawing every day. For D’Ann, art was a way of engaging with people and with the physical world; we’ve included some of her final drawings here.
Pat Menchini and Lydia English were living across the road from Menig, in Strode Independent Living, when Lydia was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Pat began her diary as a way of coping with the loss of her beloved.
A Mother’s Diary, by Robert Cooley, is one of the family memoirs I was editing last spring—the one that inspired the Kimball workshop. When Robert began reading his mother’s 1936 diary, it brought back memories of his childhood in Randolph Center. He added an introduction, which we’ve excerpted here, and wove his own narrative into his mother’s account, turning a simple diary into a memoir.
P.A. Cooley, a native Vermonter who now lives in Oakland, California, answered my call for help with the diary project by sitting down every day for a month and writing about the life of a married gay man who works in a skilled nursing facility; he posted each new installment on my Facebook timeline.
Emily Howe is one of my all-time favorite diarists, a Tunbridge mom who posts regularly on Facebook and Instagram. When I saw her report of a day-trip to a very quirky and wonderful state park in Hubbardton, I almost fainted with homesickness. You’ll find some of her photographs of Taconic Ramble State Park here, as well as directions from the Vermont State Parks website on how to get there.
Finally, there’s an excerpt from my new book, Becoming Madame Texier, which will be published by Korongo in November. The excerpt is based on a diary that I kept in 2017, while I was living in France, during a period that felt apocalyptic, at least to me.
If only I had known what was coming.