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I'm no expert on the lives of today's literary icons. But I am guessing that Salman Rushdie has never given a reading in a cow barn/bowling alley. Joyce Carol Oates hasn't either, I'm sure. And neither Orhan Pamuk nor Alice Munro have likely even considered it. But then again, none of these writers (as far as I know) is acquainted with the astonishing Clare Dolan.
Clare lives in Glover, Vermont, where she runs the Museum of Everyday Life, a converted cow barn in which she chronicles the history of those objects we keep close at hand—the pencil, the toothbrush, and the match, to name a few. Clare's an excellent curator and display builder, and her writing about artifacts is as good as you'll see in any museum. But to say all this gives you little idea of what it's like to spend time in her orbit: she lives right at that place where curiosity and artistic intelligence meet unrestrained joy.
When Clare asked me to read from my story collection at the museum's Day of the Dead celebration, I didn't know what to expect—other than it would be wonderful. I arrived to find kids and grownups decorating sugar skulls, youngsters building tiny boats for a regatta, and Clare's friend and museum assistant Leah registering entrants for a 5K trail run. The tables were packed with food, the stovetop covered with pots of hot cocoa and mulled wine, and everybody was in a genuinely festive mood, despite the cold outside.
At 2 pm, Clare led the young sailors to the tiny stream at the back of her property, near which she had made altars to the dead she wished to honor. She told the kids about the Day of the Dead, then plunged barn-boot deep into the stream to shepherd boats through the hazards of the race course. After a thrilling race, all the kids were declared winners.
At 3PM, the 5K race began, and a dozen or so runners braved the chill and wind, dressed in everything from a sweatshirt and shorts to pajama pants and hiking boots. After a brief, break, it was show time in the barn.
The Museum of Everday Life sits on the barn's upper floor. Down below, where empty stanchions, cement floors, and manure pits have been repurposed as a bowling alley, Clare and her helpers had set up benches, decorated a stage, and laid out a table full of hot food and drinks.
After the Kick the Bucket Band performed a rousing version of "Oh, Susanna," I was on, sitting on an upturned plastic bucket and reading to a packed house. Forget those dreams of pristine bookstores filled with discerning literary readers! Forget the glory of the university lecture halls! I had a roomful of Vermonters, wrapped in their winter coats, cups of cocoa in their hands. All around us were the spirits of those who had passed, and outside by the lake a bonfire roared in the darkness. What more could any author ask?
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