This is my symphony

What I read & what I lived …

(noun): a high degree of gratification or pleasure; extreme satisfaction

Merriam Webster

This year I’ve got my eye on delight. It seems like a perfect fit for where I am now. Happiness carries a little too much emotional weight for me, and joy is ever-present. It’s the extra-in-the-ordinary that gives me pleasure. So delight it will be for 2023.

This month I found a quick way to use vintage hankies for a window valance and it makes me smile every time I walk into my kitchen. That’s delight. The extra-in-the-ordinary. And I repurposed the old high chair I brought over from Mom’s after she died, having no clue what I’d use it for. (Pinterest for the win!) A couple weeks ago my son and I resumed our Sunday walks–in the sun, mind you! And last Saturday we made our annual trek with the Littles to Frederik Meijer Gardens Animal Adventure event where I pet a silky soft chinchilla. (And a snake, but that’s another story.) Last week I started Ann Wood’s 100 Day Stitch Challenge and although I’m already behind, I have page one almost finished. And both of my eight-year-old grandchildren are writing books. Does it get much better than that?

I’m also starting to reclaim some of what I lost in the past several years. I figure I can continue to live the narrow life I became accustomed to–or I can recover a life that looks outward. So for a birthday gift to myself I bought a ticket to Mozart’s Requiem in March. I also got tickets for Broadway Grand Rapids’ My Fair Lady and Frozen. (Frozen will be my granddaughter’s birthday gift and a My Fair Lady is a friend date.) Going out and about used to be such a big part of my life when I was first married–and I don’t think I fully realized how much I missed it. My day-to-day finances are strong and sound and I can surely manage an event every now and then.

It’s no secret that one of my greatest delights is the stack of books I have waiting for me. I’ve had the Thursday Murder Club books by Richard Osman pop up in my Amazon feed, but the blurb sounded a little trite: a group of old folks meet weekly in their retirement village to discuss unsolved crimes. Too treacly, I thought. (The books are set in the English countryside, so treacly is perfect here, Reader!) But when Bookmarks magazine gave the third novel in the series a strong review, it was time to rethink my snub. And am I ever glad I did. Despite reading good things about The Bullet That Missed (#3), I began at the beginning with The Thursday Murder Club where four friends–Joyce, Elizabeth, Ibrahim, and Ron–pore over cold case files on Thursday afternoons. Oh, what one does for fun when you’re seventy-five and bored. Their retirement home, Coopers Chase, has been billed as “Britain’s first Luxury Retirement Village” and we’re not talking smelly boiled cabbage and gray linoleum floors here, folks. Coopers Chase was built on the grounds of an old convent in the Kentish Weald and it’s a wonderland of rolling hills, beautiful landscaping, orchards, a pool complex, bowling green, and oh-so-comfortable apartments. These residents are sharp as a tack and active–so it’s no surprise that they find themselves in the middle not one, but two (or is it three?!) real life murder cases. Osman’s characters are witty and engaging, but he doesn’t shy away from showing the losses and poignancy of aging.

Another series to add to my TBR pile and another delicious serving of delight for me.

Ramona Quimby was good kitty.

Mind you, she wasn’t even technically mine. She was my daughter’s, adopted eighteen years ago after Leann’s first year of college. The plan was for Ramona and her litter mate Beezus to join said daughter when she had a place of her own. But you know how those things go.

We chose her because she was a tiny little thing. Too tiny, it turns out–maybe only five weeks when we brought her home, the vet said. Sad, really, because without the mothering she needed, Moni (as we called her) never quite got the hang of happy kitty life. She was bullied (unbeknownst to me for some time) by our other two cats and often hid or perched herself atop the refrigerator. House sitters could go for days without seeing her when we traveled. When I discovered the cats were blocking her access to food, her food bowl and water joined her up on the ‘frig where she seemed quite content to monitor life from a distance. Moni would rarely let us pet her; even the slightest approach on our part and she’d scurry away. Cuddles were out of the question. She never made a peep and I was convinced she couldn’t purr. And her long black coat was a mess of snarls and mats since the little thing missed out on those lessons her momma should have taught her before she left the litter.

But after the other cats crossed the Rainbow Bridge and especially once I was alone myself, she began to come out of her shell. She’d curl up on the loveseat. Sleep under the bed or behind a chair by the heat vent. She would head butt me for pets. She’d call me every morning for breakfast. (Usually at 5 AM, no less.) Sometimes she even tolerated a flick of the brush or two. And at the very end–heart-sick, weak, and suffering–she tucked her head in the crook of my elbow and snuggled in for one last time. It might not be too much of a stretch to say we helped each other heal.

A good kitty, indeed.

I’m happy and relieved to have weathered my first holiday season alone. Or, truly alone, I should say. Last year we were busy caring for Mom and making her last Christmas as lovely as possible under the circumstances. I was surrounded by extended family and hospice workers, and I was busy as heck.

In the past twelve months I’ve become even more acutely aware that I need to take hold of happiness wherever I can, independent of others. (Thanks, Mary from Alanon!)

Believe you me, I grabbed that brass ring this holiday whenever and wherever I could. There was a quick trip to Frankenmuth and new ornaments. A gnome puzzle and light show at Fredrik Meijer Gardens with the Littles. Holiday gatherings with friends. Snow shoveling. Keeping the bird feeder filled for my feathered friends. Christmas ham with corn pudding. Cookies, even, although only one batch. Christmas Eve mass in the middle of a blizzard. A New Year’s Eve reservation for one. All moments of happiness and blessing.

Which is not to say that in light of my losses there wasn’t loneliness and tears. Only a little, though. I’m learning–bit by bit–to embrace the life I’ve made and let go of expectations. Because it’s those ‘shoulds’ that mar my peace.

To close the year, I finished a most amazing book: Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Latecomer. I haven’t read a single bad review, and there’s a reason for that, dear Reader. The Latecomer was thought-provoking, witty, and crushingly honest. The novel centered on a wealthy and privileged New York family, the Oppenheimers: wife, Joanna, codependent as fu** and her emotionally empty husband Salo, along with their in-vitro triplets who have no use for each other.

It took no effort to layer my own experience onto Joanna’s and see that it’s her storybook expectations of family and Salo’s secrets that get in the way of any possibility of happiness. (How’s that for art mirroring life?!) There’s this bit on conflict, and although not directly about family life, it’s apt:

Here is the sad truth about messy things: they did not resolve themselves. They got resolved … by grunt and confrontation and maybe a little screaming, followed by … deliberate and redemptive hugging. Mostly, though … messy things just jolted on until they shuddered to a halt in exhaustion.

p. 191 The Latecomer

And then there were four Oppenheimer siblings and their trajectory changed. Whether that latecomer is little more than a deus ex machina is up for debate, but I found her a clever plot-devise for breaking open the family so that it can heal. Or at least resolve their mess with “a little screaming … and redemptive hugging.”

This one’s a keeper.

I can’t say I know much about midwifery, female escorts, or homeopathic practitioners, but author Chris Bohjalian’s novels–Midwives, The Guest Room, and The Law of Similars, for instance–let me step into shoes I’ve never worn. Last month I read his Hour of the Witch, a story centered on life in one of the first settlements in the New World.

The main character, Mary Deerfield, is a young woman living in Boston at the turn of the 17th century. Her husband is abusive. And when he finally causes her severe injury, she makes the courageous decision to file for divorce. As might be expected in a novel about an independent minded Pilgrim woman, Mary is accused of witchcraft. There’s the matter of the three-tine forks she uses, said to be the devil’s pitchfork–in reality, her father, an importer, has gifted her these new-fangled utensils from England. There’s the fact that she is ‘barren’ and doctors with herbs. And as anyone who remembers their history lessons about Salem, once the seed of doubt has been planted, anything out-of-the-ordinary in her life makes her suspect. But I was disappointed that the plot and characters bordered on boilerplate. I’d heard this story before. Tell me something I don’t know.

I did appreciate the quick refresher on Pilgrim life because I recently traveled to Plymouth, Massachusetts to tour All Things Pilgrim. And as luck would have it, Bohjalian included a bibliography that led me to a phenomenal book about the first settlers titled The Times of Their Lives. Even more serendipitous was the fact that the book’s author, James Deetz, an archaeology professor, was one of the first directors of the Plimoth Plantation Museum (now Plimoth Patuxet), one of the sites I visited.

And Deetz (unlike Bohjalian) did make me see these “Pilgrims’–they called themselves the Saints–in a new light.

Deetz based his book on archaeological digs in and around Plymouth. His careful research debunked many of the myths handed down in American legend. The Times of Their Lives reveals a more accurate picture of life in those early settlements; Deetz writes about all aspects of the Pilgrims’ lives: religion, crime, marriage, farming. Deetz told the Los Angeles Times that we could “better understood [their lives] if we think of the Pilgrims as bawdy Elizabethans, which they were. They were hearty drinkers, they liked to dance, and they swore. Court records from Plymouth Colony show drunken behavior in public, fighting, swearing.” Not exactly the impression I was given in my elementary school Weekly Readers.

My trip to Plymouth was very much like reading The Hour of the Witch. The monuments and landmarks presented the conventional view–and anyone who grew up with those Weekly Reader images should have been satisfied. But the reality of this nation’s settlement is more than granite and rocks.

Plimoth Patuxet Museum was an amazing site, the entire village constructed by interpretive staff and volunteers using “period techniques and tools.” The interpreters took on their persona fully, speaking in the dialect of the early 1600s. Visitors can converse with the interpreters and they never break role. On the rainy day I visited, I spoke with two young men sheltering for the day in Master Bradford’s house; a young couple, newly arrived; and a single woman anxious to find a husband. In the late 1970s, a move was made to include the Patuxet Native people in the narrative and today there is an adjacent Native American village.

I am glad to have visited Plymouth (and Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard) but I’m even more grateful to have read Deetz’s work to serve as a backdrop–one that challenged our cartoon version of events.

What I read

This month’s book club read is Jessica Francis Kane’s Rules For Visiting. And just as the back cover blurb states, the novel is “a nourishing book, with its beautiful contemplation of travel, trees, family, and friendship”–“a perfect antidote to our chaotic times.” I couldn’t agree more. And come Monday when five women discuss women’s friendships in light of this novel … what’s not to like?

May Attaway is forty, single, and living at home with her aging father. She is a landscaper for a local college and her life is cramped, hemmed in, as May says in the very beginning, because she had “reached a point where the balance of the past and all it contained seemed to outweigh the future [that] I no longer understood how to move forward.” May has no hobbies, nor does she want any. She reads books, but doesn’t finish them. She barely knows her neighbors, though she has lived in her house for her entire life, not a stick of furniture or photo on the wall changed from childhood. And she has few–if any?–friends. Sure, she is friendly with her co-workers, but those relationships don’t lend themselves to late night heart-to-hearts.

We suspect May is living a life interrupted–but interrupted by what, exactly?

May begins to think about the long-neglected relationships in her life after she reads a magazine feature about a young writer who died in an airplane crash. The online comments were a testament to friendship and May immediately realizes what she lacks. She also becomes drawn to eavesdropping on friends’ conversations in the coffee shop and sees friendship quotes displayed everywhere on all manner of household kitsch: mugs and tea towels and decorative signs.

Friendship is sweet beyond the sweetness of life.

St. Augustine

As happens in many a good novel, May receives a serendipitous gift which, of course, just might change the course of her life. Because her landscaping work has gained the college some publicity, she is rewarded with five weeks paid leave to use in any way she chooses. So May sets off to see those long-neglected friends, planning overnight visits in much the same way that Jane Austen’s characters visited friends: for a fortnight. (In fact, May inadvertently starts a hash tag trend #fortnightfriends.) There’s Lindy, her girlhood friend, a young mom whose house is Instagram perfect, and Vanessa, a middle school friend, who lives in New York City, and is step-mom to twin eight-year-old boys. There’s also Neera, her college friend, whose marriage has crumbled, and Rose from graduate school who lives in London.

May visits each friend for several days, armed with Emily Post’s Etiquette, her road map to being a house guest. She follows the rules, buys a suitable hostess gift, and reconnects–some visits more easily than others. Until her visits, May’s conversations and observations sound hollow–detached–and so I was taken aback by how kindly her friends welcomed her. Compassionately, even. As if there was some great sadness hanging over her.

And there was.

Emerson said, “Happy the house that shelters a friend” but I think it’s really we who shelter each other.

What I lived

I so related to May. It was clear from the beginning that trauma had frozen her. If you’ve ever lived with someone whose trauma ran so deep they played defense 24/7, you know it does not lend itself to healthy relationship. My life turned upside down as a result of that trauma–and I came to recognize my own trauma stemming from their often unpredictable and erratic behavior. So I understand why May pulled in. When the pain runs deep, it’s often easier to isolate than reach out.

It’s good friends, the support of my children, and these Littles that keep me going.

Alexis turned six and she was one excited girl. The middle child, she is stuck between older brother’s outgoing nature and little sister’s cuteness and so she delights in being the center of attention. When she was a toddler, her favorite book at my house was Betty Bear’s Birthday and I read it over and over and over again. We all had that book memorized. (In fact, I would sometimes hear her brother whispering along as he played Legos on the floor while I read it for the millionth time.) When she turned four I had the first ever Betty Bear’s Birthday tea, replicating the last page of the book where Betty Bear celebrates with her animal friends. They eat nuts and berries and cookies. It’s become a thing. This year, Lexi helped me set up and was delighted to use NeeNee’s real tea set. We did have a little cherry juice incident when the kids tried to squeeze cherry juice into their lemonade–but, hey! We were outside, so no harm, no foul. (Just cherry-stained fingers!) Because we used my mom’s tea set, tender-hearted Jonas wanted NeeNee to join the tea party, too: he ran inside, got his framed photo of her, and put it on the blanket. Natalie proceeded to talk to NeeNee in heaven and in some strange way, it felt like an oh-so-perfect way to celebrate Alexis Elaine, her namesake.

What I read and what I lived

Chef Boyardee pizza mix – strawberry Kool-aid – chicken and biscuits – smelt – hot water bath canning – strawberry picking – bread and butter pickles – Jell-0 – Swanson TV dinners – Coney Island dogs – hot German potato salad – Ernest & Julio Gallo wine – dumplings – stewed tomatoes – orange juice concentrate – bologna sandwiches

Kathleen Finn’s 2014 memoir Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good brought back growing up in the sixties and seventies more vividly than anything I have ever read. It’s got to be the food. Her story is not a flashy one. Finn’s parents were hard workers from the east side of Michigan whose paychecks never quite stretched far enough to feed and clothe a family of six. Mom gardened, canned fruits and vegetables, and shopped for the children’s clothes at St. Vincent de Paul’s. The men in the family fished and hunted. The big treat on Friday night was popcorn and Kool-aid. There was plenty of love to go around, but children weren’t coddled–nor did they expect to be. Birthdays were one gift events. Daily chores were a fact of life. Even Grandma Inez brooked no nonsense–if she sensed an tiff brewing between the cousins, she’d say, “You got time to argue? Then you’ve got time to sweep the kitchen. Here’s a broom. And you, here’s a rag. Go dust the living room.” Girls wore knee socks and Mary Janes; dads smoked Kents and drank Old Milwaukee beer. TVs sported rabbit ears.

If you grew up in the sixties and money was tight, Kathleen Finn’s Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good is sure to stir up some memories.

It was, in many ways, my own story. My mom, too, worked on and off throughout my childhood and, like Kathleen, I was a latch key kid before latch key kids were a thing. Until I was eight, my dad was a college student and worked part-time at any number of jobs. To say money was short is an understatement. We moved nearly every year–to a cramped ticky tacky ranch, a drafty old 3-story house, a newly constructed duplex in a subdivision–our housing choices dependent on how much money was coming in. Mom shopped for school clothes at Sears or “Monkey Wards” and then only on sale. (I remember being ecstatic when she came home with three pairs of new play pants, only to have my happiness dashed when we realized that they were ‘husky’ sized. I wore them anyway, waistband practically up to my armpits!)

I guess I’m finally of an age where hard times have turned into the good ol’ days.

After the elementary school carnival

So after reading Burnt Toast is it any wonder I wondered what my own children would remember? Like the Finns we had some hard times, too. After their father and I divorced, I was right back where my own parents were when Dad was in college and starting his business–always a dollar short and robbing Peter to pay Paul. I scrabbled together work as best I could while I commuted to class at a university fifty miles away: I cleaned houses, an office, and worked in a bookstore. Dinner was sometimes pancakes and sausage–a treat! the kids thought. In reality, it was a cheap meal. I made a dish I called caterpillar, biscuit dough jelly-rolled with browned ground beef and slathered before eating with ketchup. I added little biscuit dough eyes and antennae which is how the dish got its name. We ate Kraft macaroni and cheese because it was fifty cents a box. There was a time or two when I arrived home and found my mom had left a bag of groceries in the kitchen. We laugh now, but I marched my kids down to the local convention center each winter where a local grocery store held a food fair–an extravaganza of vender booths giving away food samples and pre-packaged portions and coupons. I bought them each a $3 “under 12-years-old” ticket which entitled them to fill up a grocery bag with as many free goodies as we could find, treats for a month or two depending on how I rationed them out. If I worked a little extra or had some birthday money to spend, nothing felt as extravagant as a Little Caesar’s $5 pizza on a Saturday night.

Surely nothing evokes memory like the food we eat growing up.

Stove Top stuffing – tuna and noodles – Little Caesar’s $5 pizza – grape juice concentrate – frozen peas – Kraft macaroni and cheese – sloppy joe – grilled cheese and tomato soup – ‘breakfast’ cookies – crescent rolls – 19 cents a pound turkey legs – hot dogs – Hawaiian Punch – chicken pot pies – baked beans – SpaghettiOs – fish sticks

What I read

In June 2020 when the world was still shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a group gathered on the piazza in front of the Cathedral of St. Andrew to hold a vigil for racial justice. George Floyd had just been killed. Peaceful protests during the day turned violent at night. Tensions ran high. We weren’t even holding in-person services, yet nearly one hundred people showed up, lawn chairs in tow, masked and socially distanced. The Cathedral intern that year was seminarian (now Fr.) Mike Crukshank and I’ll never forget his message. He urged the largely white gathering to stand with our Black brothers and sisters in the fight for justice, but to stand behind them. He urged us to be wary of co-opting a movement that was not ours and emphasized that our work in this fight was as allies. We needed to listen, not lead.

So listen I have.

If you haven’t read All That She Carried by Tiya Miles, you’re missing a powerful story. Miles writes about a sack found at a rummage sale and now housed in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The sack was embroidered with this message:

My great grandmother Rose

mother of Ashley gave her this sack when

she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina

it held a tattered dress 3 handfulls of

pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her

It be filled with my Love always

she never saw her again

Ashley is my grandmother

Ruth Middleton, 1921
courtesy Middleton Place Foundation

Miles traces the lives of those three Black women–Rose, Ashley, and Ruth–and lays out for us the realities of enslaved women and a first generation free woman. The writing is not meant to entertain (it is at times academic), but rather to reveal the “the creativity and fierce resourcefulness of people who preserved family ties even when official systems refused to do so” (link). Yes, it is a story of the inhumanity of slavery, but at its heart it is a love story.

As I was finishing All That She Carried, I heard an NPR interview with cookbook writer Nicole A. Taylor about her new cookbook Watermelon & Red Birds, the first Juneteenth cookbook ever published. The book is a compilation of recipes that are Taylor’s “spin on the traditional African-American food table,” but I found myself just as interested in her chapter intros and the book’s sidebars, both of which gave a cultural context to the food and Juneteenth celebrations.

Shhhhh. Listen.

What I lived

We are smack dab in the heart of summer. Fireflies flash at twilight. Sprinklers hiss in the afternoon. I’ve got sheets on the clothesline and iced tea in my glass. No cicadas yet, but they will be coming soon, bringing with them the beginning of the end. (Of summer, anyways.)

I’m reading as though my life depended on it. Last week was the first anniversary of the end of my marriage (or at least the acknowledged end) and I’m comforting myself with books, slow stitching, and an occasional sweet treat. My favorite escape-read last week was Hillary Clinton & Louise Penny’s State of Terror. You know a plot is compelling when you finish the book in thirty-six hours! Another Bowl of Mending is in progress (I’m calling this one Sun, Moon, and Stars) and I’m fairly certain I’m stitching it for my granddaughter Luna. The Littles finally finished Lexi’s donuts puzzle and the kitchen table is my own again.

Yesterday I walked up to my brother and sister-in-law’s. (They bought Mom’s condo after she died.) We went through stacks and stacks of old recipes and I brought home quite a few which I plan to frame.

Speaking of recipes, here’s a new one I found on Instagram for blackberry syrup. Simmer and reduce 1 pint blackberries, 1/4 cup of sugar, and 1/2 cup of water, then strain. I’ve added this to my iced tea and tonic water (with maybe a splash of gin?!) and you can be sure I’ll freeze some for a taste of summer in January. I have another recipe for Amish garden tea (sweet mint tea) and planted a whole bunch of mint last spring for that little experiment. I’ll report back on the garden tea once I’ve tried it.

What I read

Writer Ann Patchett’s husband said of her idea for Run, “Dump that opera book [Bel Canto] you’re working on, and go to that really, really great idea you had for a book.” I couldn’t agree more. Because while I’m an Ann Patchett fan, Bel Canto, despite the award winner it is, was not my favorite. But like Patron Saint of Liars and Dutch House and State of Wonder, this engaging and thought-provoking novel checks all the boxes for me.

Former Boston mayor Bernard Doyle raised his boys alone after his young wife died. They were only fifteen, five, and four and Doyle did the best he could while pursuing his political ambitions. Eventually, family roles are assigned: Sullivan, the bad boy; Tip, the smart one; and Teddy, a saint. What might seem like an asterisk here is the fact that Tip and Teddy are adopted African-American birth brothers, but it’s the pivot on which this story turns.

When the story begins, Tip and Teddy are in their twenties, fussing and fuming that Doyle has–again!–insisted they accompany him to a speech by Jesse Jackson (Doyle has political aspirations for at least one of his boys) and the reception following. While they walk to the car after the rally, an East Coast blizzard is raging, and as Tip steps out into the street, he is pushed out of the way of an SUV bearing down on him. Tip is only slightly injured, but the woman who pushed him is in serious condition because she took the force of the impact. The police take Doyle, Tip, and Teddy to the hospital–along with the woman’s eleven-year-old daughter Kenya.

And that’s where the plot gets interesting. Because Kenya knows a lot about the Doyle family. She is also utterly alone: no relatives or family friends to call for help. And so Doyle reluctantly takes the girl home. The rest of the story reveals just who the woman–Tennessee Moser–is and why she acted to save Tip. As luck (or a good plot twist!) would have it, big brother Sullivan adds even more conflict to the plot when he shows up on Doyle’s doorstep just as the family returns from the hospital, Tip on crutches, and a young Black girl in tow.

In true Patchett fashion we get incredible insight into so many facets of life: trans-racial adoption, the priesthood, precocious athletes, politics, birth mothers, poverty, and wealth. Run is one of the best novels I’ve read this summer.

What I lived

Now this is the good life.

It’s the peak of strawberry season. We wait eleven months for these few precious weeks in Michigan, and I’m making the most of it. I went strawberry picking with my daughter and three grand Littles (their first time picking) and I think it’s fair to say we made some memories. The seven and five-year-old caught on quickly and picked like champs. Three-year-old Natalie insisted that Grammy pick the berries, then hand them over so Natalie could put them in the quart container. Of course a lot of strawberries were eaten in the process–just look at Lexi’s strawberry juiced chin!

I don’t know about you, but I am definitely team shortcake over here–and that means biscuit shortcakes. Not pound cake, not angel food cake, and certainly not those spongy little yellow round things that store bakeries like to claim are shortcake. Nope. It’s crumbly shortcake biscuits and smashed berries with real whipped cream. (No ice cream, God forbid!) I think there’s something about the buttery biscuit and the sweet berries with the fat from heavy whipping creme that makes it heaven. I eat shortcake as a meal in June and I used to tell my kids that was okay because it has nearly all of the food groups: bread, fruit, and dairy.

I also made my first Bowl of Mending thanks to Arizona artist Tonia Jenny. Oh, my heart, this one was slow stitching at its finest. I’ve already got bowl #2 cut out and designed. It’s so good to see my sewing room floor spread with fabric again.

What I read

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi is set in India. The year, 1955. Thirteen years before, Lakshmi Shastri escaped her abusive husband Hari, and over the years makes a new life for herself as a henna artist–and an herbalist who helps wealthy women prevent (and abort) pregnancies. The life she establishes in Jaipur is a far cry from the one she left where her parents’ fortune was ruined after her father was accused of siding with the Separatists. An incredible artist, Lakshmi’s henna work is remarkable in its intricacy and the hidden images she adds to give her clients good fortune. Like many women who step outside the life that society has established for them, Lakshmi walks the fine line between dishonor and respectability.

But on the whole, life is good. Lakshmi is building a beautiful home of her own, although she sometimes struggles to keep her account with the shifty builder Naraya up-to-date. She could afford to hire eight-year-old Malik as her errand boy. Lakshmi had saris and salwaar-kameez to spare. Her upper class clients sometimes gave her lavish gifts.

But that all starts to slip through her fingers when Radha arrives. Radha, the sister born the year Lakshmi left her husband. Radha, the Bad Luck Girl who tried to pick up the shameful pieces that Lakshmi left behind. Radha who, from her earliest memories, had been the target of the Gossip-Eaters. At thirteen Radha is headstrong and romantic. She does not suffer fools gladly. Custom and class mean little to her, and she balks at Lakshmi’s many rules. It is Radha’s naiveté–and headstrong nature–that threaten to destroy the life that Lakshmi so carefully built when she falls for the son of one of Lakshi’s wealthy patronesses.

Sometimes stories of India fall into a trope of the exotic. And while The Henna Artist will transport you to a time and place that is lavish and extraordinary, it is also the story of one woman’s realization that maybe the hustle necessary to commission an intricate mosaic tiled floor is less important than being true to oneself. At the end of the novel, Lakshmi says, “I would no longer call myself a henna artist but tell anyone who asked: I healed, I soothed. I made whole … I would leave behind the yearning to rewrite my past.”

Lakshmi is a rich woman indeed.

What I lived

I’ve felt a little like Lakshmi in the past couple weeks, running from one thing to another: child care, tutoring, yard work, cleaning to-do’s, exercise. I have to admit that I didn’t think my retirement would fall along these lines. And while I worry about money, I am considering reducing my work days next school year from three to two. There are days I don’t have much time at all to do nothing. But friend Denice and I did manage to squeeze in a day of fun in Shipshewana last Friday. She had never been to my beloved E&S Foods, and I had never been to Yoder’s and Lolly’s for fabric, so we both saw something new.

Denice is a wonderful photographer as anyone who reads her blog knows. And while traveling by car, it’s usually her patient husband Bruce who is Master of the Three Point Turn when she calls out “STOP!” for a photo opportunity. As Denice tells it, he ‘lovingly’ turns around, backs up, or whatever else he needs to do so that she can point and shoot–all the while muttering a few well-chosen expletives as he does. Reader, I’m not ashamed to say I channeled my inner Bruce on the trip with some of his favorites. Let’s just say dadgummit and goldarnit will have to suffice here, but the photos below are testament that the turn-arounds were worth every minute.

I said in my Holmes County post, I might be the only person I know who considers food and fabric appropriate souvenirs. I was wrong. Denice does, too. She hooked me on the tiny pretzel balls and animal crackers at Yoder’s Meat and Cheese, and I had her at the mini-M&Ms at E&S where we wandered the aisles to the background chatter of Pennsylvania Dutch. We both bought some fabric, except Denice was on a mission for a quilt background, whereas I just sorted through fat quarters until I found something that called out to me. I came home with cinnamon rolls and oatmeal and pickles. (Remember my “Life is Delicious” post?!)

We chatted there and back about books and family and death & dying and betrayal and heartache and growing old. Denice is a darn good listener and I hope I’m the same for her.

I might always worry about money, but I am rich indeed.

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There’s a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen

What I read

I’ve made mention before of my love for all things Three Pines and Inspector Gamache, but Louise Penny’s ninth Gamache novel How the Light Gets In has got to be my favorite. I settle into these novels like a long awaited homecoming. That quaint village,Three Pines. The scones and licorice pipes and scotch and bacon. Neighbors through thick and thin. And all those heady references to literature and history. Fairy-tale like, to be sure. But like fairy tales, the books are familiar and I return to them again and again.

In How the Light Gets In we have the murder of the last remaining Ouellet quintuplet. (The Ouellet’s were, Penny tells us in an end note, inspired by Canada’s famous Dionne quints.) Constance Ouellet visits Myrna shortly before Christmas to reconnect with her former therapist and promises to return. Instead, she’s found murdered in her small Montreal home. But we also have the culmination of Gamache’s battle against his immediate superior Chief Superintendent Francoueur, who, previous novels revealed, has taken up Pierre Arnot’s vendetta against Gamache. We witness the extent to which Francoueur has turned the homicide division against their Chief Inspector and how he has fallen in their esteem. Exhausted by the conflict and all but admitting he has been bested, Gamache goes so far as to tender his resignation.

Or does he?

Of course, part of the charm of the Gamache mysteries is the resolution–and Penny outdoes herself in How the Light Gets In. I spent the better part of a rainy day racing through these pages, curled up in my recliner, blanket tucked around me: a little slice of Three Pines right there.

What I lived

It should probably come as no surprise that right about now, I’ve got an irresistible urge to plant three pine trees somewhere in my yard.

Used book with a message

But I have a city lot and I’m already trying to rein in my yard as it is. I need to make it more manageable so that I can continue its upkeep on my own for as long as possible. (Professional lawn care is so expensive.) I’ve spring-cleaned the beds and borders, and I’ve got a landscaper coming to reposition some plantings and remove some brush. (She’ll also add a much longed for raspberry border behind the garage!) The raised beds are planted, albeit much more conservatively this spring. Heck! I even seeded over some bare spots on my lawn.

For years I’ve told myself the story that I don’t have a green thumb. (“I can’t grow a darn thing!,” she lamented.) I ceded all that to my ex-husband a decade ago. But I’ve been trying to rewrite some of the stories I’ve allowed to limit me. Because really? Yes, my peas might be straggly–my herbs might need more sun–the mulch I used might not work … but what have I lost, really? Some time. A little money. Ok, a lot of work. The question might better be what have I gained? And the answer to that question is simple. I’ve learned. What not to do. What to do differently. My vision just might take some time.

Now that’s some kinda metaphor for life right there.

Last week I also read the much-talked-about Midnight Library. I had been hesitant to read it because the novel seemed to oversimplify a pretty heavy idea: what if you could try out the many different lives you might have lived and choose from among them? My used copy arrived with this sticky-note attached and I was almost ashamed of my book snobbery. But, alas, I’ve not reviewed it because I wouldn’t know what to write. From my perspective, the novel takes a meaty stew of a concept and reduces it to jello: crystal clear and much too sweet.

As I read I couldn’t help mutter to Nora Seed as she agonized over her choices, “There’s no magic bullet, no perfect world. Just deal with your shit, girl, and get on with life!”

I guess all this is to say that that’s what I’m trying to do with this life I have that I never expected. Rewrite the stories I’ve told myself that no longer fit. Dream of Three Pines. Plant some tomatoes. And get on with it.