This is my symphony

What I read & what I lived …

What I read

In this time and place–a New Year, the raging pandemic, my own struggles– Rachel Joyce’s Miss Benson’s Beetle was the perfect read, what with its story of an unlikely sisterhood, adventure and derring-do, following a dream deferred. Margery Benson is a a spinster lady in post-war England. She teaches (in a quite lackluster manner, it should be noted) domestic science in a girls’ school. Margery is “lumpy old woman”–tall and overweight with bird’s nest hair and a potato nose. (Do I even need mention nearly all of her frocks are brown?)

And when a random act of larceny propels her to leave her world behind and head halfway around the world for New Caledonia to search for the elusive golden beetle, Margery hires Enid Pretty–her opposite in nearly every way–as her assistant. Enid arrives for their four-month ocean journey in a bright pink suit, candy floss yellow hair, and sandals. With pom-poms at the toe, no less. Where Margery is a woman of few words, Enid’s flow endlessly. Where Margery worries and frets, Enid trips through life with endless optimism. She is the Tigger to Margery’s Eeyore. And while Margery tries to keep her at arm’s length, that is impossible.

So begins their hero’s journey. Both women, it turns out, are following their vocation: Marge’s, entomology; Enid’s, motherhood. Life hasn’t been easy or kind to either and the humiliations they endured in the past propel them to test themselves. There is one passport between the two of them. Lost luggage and supplies. A stolen Jeep. Heat and humidity and tangled jungle to battle. Meddling diplomatic wives whose snooping almost reveals their secrets. A cyclone and dangerous river crossing.

Miss Benson’s Beetle is proof that a coming-of-age story isn’t limited to young people. That it’s never too late to follow your dreams and find love–although both might be found in the most unlikeliest of places.

What I lived

It’s a quiet life I live now–much quieter than I imagined retirement would be. But it’s a good time for learning to live in balance, a good time to turn inward. When I read a book like Miss Benson (or the Book of V. which is next up for review) I realize in a very real way that it’s my relationships with women that have transformed me more than any other. They certainly offer more support than the romantic relationships I’ve had. [In fact, I’ve decided my pall bearers (long, loooooong time down the road!) will be women. Because they have carried me through life, they’re the ones who will carry me out. Quite literally.]

Other than such Deep Thoughts, I’ve taken on my grandson’s virtual school when Mom works and his sisters are at day care. I’m working through an online weaving course on my lap loom. And I’ve stitched more Mr. Socks than I ever dreamed I would.

Granted, life is quiet. But I am safe and warm. I have long chats with friends. I walk. I journal. I read, always. It’s true in my case, as it was in Margery Benson’s that, “Never in her life had she felt so near that porous line where her own body finished, and the earth began. And blessed. She felt blessed.”

What I lived

18,000 pages read
500 vlogs watched
150 podcast episodes
150 home-cooked dinners
75 masks sewn
71 Amazon orders
60 books
47 emails to Friend Denice
45 journal entries
30 restaurant take-out dinners
15 Revive & Thrive deliveries
17 Facetime visits with grandkids
12 stitched kitties
10 blog posts written
9 months
8 days camping
6 pedicures
5 haircuts
5 online meditation groups
4 trunks full to Goodwill
3 embroidery projects
1 flu shot
1 pound gained
1 sweet ol’ kitty euthanized
0 colds or sniffles (Can you say, “Masks?!”)

What I read

Tattooist of Auschwitz Keeper of Lost Things Doomsday Southern DiscomfortLost Girls of Paris Widow NashBecomingBridge of ClayOlive, AgainEvie Drake Starts OverThe Dutch House A Single ThreadIncomplete RevengeRadium GirlsLager Queen of MinnesotaHidden Valley RoadA Woman of No ImportanceThe Testaments Brutal TellingBury Your DeadState of WonderLaw of SimilarsMarch Handmaid’s TaleShine, Shine, Shine Making ToastMan Against InsanityNon Violent CommunicationWhite QueenThe FriendNiagara Falls All Over Again Flight Behavior

To the best of my recollection, this list makes up the first six months of pandemic reading. My favs are linked; non-fiction is bolded. (Some titles from the Maisie Dobbs and Louise Penny series are included, but I didn’t link those–even though they are well-loved–because they are like Old Friends and I’m biased in their favor.) I’ve read almost half again as many titles since the end of summer, but more on those another day.

Great Pause #8

It’s been a while, has it not?

And in the midst of a global pandemic where life as we know it has slowed to a crawl, I find it rather odd that I’ve not blogged more.

There’s definitely an emotional health aspect to this whole experience–one, I think, that is too often overlooked in our focus on face masks and social distance and hand-washing and Lysol wipes.

So I’ve sometimes had to do battle with my own demons: loneliness, isolation, fear. That unfocused feeling of moving from one thing to another to yet another without a real sense of purpose.

I’ve always lived by to-do lists. I’m a planner. I keep my ducks in a row. Every day has its own agenda and each task builds on the next.

But now?

I do some hand-stitching. Make a few masks. Bake a rhubarb crisp. (Or two!) Listen to NPR while I embroider. Dust a bit. (Well, maybe not so much …) Hang laundry on the line. Take a walk.

This little beauty from Taos Pueblo sits
on my writing desk

Don’t get me wrong. This “discomfort’ is one that only the privileged among us have leisure for. And my gratitude knows no bounds. I have a steady income. A house to call my own. Health! Friends who care for me.

Thanks to my husband the gardener our backyard is flush with zinnias and cosmos and gladiolas and butterfly bush and coneflower. The other day I watched a hummingbird flit from zinnia to butterfly bush and back again.

Her path wasn’t linear. Her flight seemed erratic. She hovered by each flower for only a second or two before zig-zagging off.

Kind of like me for the past two hundred and some odd days.

But no one on God’s green Earth would ever think less of that incredible little creature for her flight. Would never criticize her for lacking direction or being unfocused.

So I’m extending to myself the same grace. I’ll make like a hummingbird and flit through my days, moving from laptop to the kitchen sink to sewing machine and on out into the garden–without judgement. Compelled by whatever Inner Knowing pulls me forward and keeps me airborne.

What I read

My Nancy Pearl action figure on my writing desk.

This little lady right here, Nancy Pearl, my sister-from-another-mister–at least when it comes to all things fiction– recommended The Widow Nash … and all her other NPR listeners, truth be told. Like any of the other books I’ve read at her prompting, the story did not disappoint. (I’ve left a list of other titles she’s reviewed and I’ve read below.)

The Widow Nash settles in Livingston, Montana at the turn of the century. She lives for a time at the Elite Hotel where she mourns her husband, Edgar Nash, a man who fought in the Cuban war, but died of a lingering illness. Widow Nash becomes part of a cast of small-town characters who are either seeking their fortunes or running from their past–or both.

Widow Nash is indeed running, but her fortune has been lost. (Or has it?)

In reality, she is Leda Cordelia Dulcinea Remfrey. Dulcy. Her father, the wealthy mine-owner and inventor Walton Remfrey has just committed suicide in Seattle. And like a snake in the grass, Dulcy’s former fiance Victor insinuates himself into her life again. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Victor is just as violent as he was when she broke off their engagement after he raped her. Dulcy had cared for and chaperoned Walton since she was fifteen, following him all over the world from the mines he owned to the spas and clinics where he sought treatment for syphilis, and she is tired. Tired of a life which is limited by the demands of the men in her life and the repressive upper class.

So on the way to New York from Seattle, she fakes her death and eventually settles in Livingston. Here she meets hotel owner Eugenia Knox who runs the Elite with whatever panache she can muster in such a hardscrabble western town. Another widow, Margaret Mallow becomes Dulcy’s fast friend. The alcoholic police chief Gerry Fenoways whose sadistic streak is well-known. Samuel Peake, a newspaperman. And Lewis Braudel, the journalist who has his suspicions about her story, in part because Dulcy stole her fictitious husband’s back story from a novel Braudel had written.

Dulcy suspects that Victor’s thugs are never far behind, despite the fact that her family declares her dead after only a year. And her fears are well-founded. Will Dulcy be discovered? Will Victor drag her back to a life she no longer wants? There’s also that matter of her father’s lost fortune from the sale of a diamond mine–will his journals offer her any clues to its whereabouts?

The novel is washed in sepia tones–a touch dark, sometimes grim–but one that is totally compelling.

[Watch Nancy Pearl’s interview with author Jamie Harrison here–I think you will fall in love with her articulate, but unassuming and relatable, perspective.]

What I lived

If there is any fantasy that turns itself over and over in my head–especially during tough times–it is this one: I leave everything behind and reinvent myself some place far away. A simple apartment. Quiet. Solitude. No emotional entanglement (because no relationships, of course). I have thrown off the whatever I think is holding me down at the moment.

Of course, it’s only a pipe dream. Some fantastic plan I’ve concocted to step out of situations in which I feel trapped. Years ago what held me in place was my children; these days it’s my grandchildren. Because I could never leave those dear little hearts.

Bag End

During this Great Pause that fantasy has returned in full force. I’ve become obsessed with the Rubber Tramp movement, folks who leave “sticks and bricks” to live full time in their car, van, or RV. Entire YouTube channels are devoted to their adventures, but my favorites are Bob Wells’ CheapRVliving and Carolyn Higgins’ Carolyn’s RV Life. The vloggers are daring. Independent. Inventive. Free. Their videos are anthologies of how-to, travelogue, and personal philosophy. I can’t get enough of them–especially Carolyn, who also talks about the challenges women face on the road. For the past week I’ve been backtracking through her playlist in order to watch (almost) every one of her nearly five-hundred vlogs.

I see myself pulling out of the driveway, Bag End bobbing behind me, this Great Pause and social distancing and COVID-19 worries left behind in the dust. On the road I’ve got the whole world ahead and my tiny house behind. I boondock, maybe staying put for a week or two in one place before moving on. No shut-down for me …

At least in my fantasies.


Other Nancy Pearl recommendations reviewed on This is my symphony:
Etta and Otto and Russell and James 
Unbecoming
Miss Hargreaves 
August Snow
The Half Brother

Great Pause #6

This week I accompanied my elderly mother to the hospital for an outpatient procedure. I was, to be honest, more than a little apprehensive. Covid, I was sure, lurked in every crack and crevice, covered every surface. And while I was able put those fears aside, the experience was eerie. Arrivals to outpatient services are funneled down a corridor at six-feet intervals, stopping at a Plexiglas wall behind which sit two gatekeepers. We were given surgical masks to replace the fabric ones we wore, and I had to wait outside while a nurse determined whether or not I was permitted to keep Mom company during the procedure. The waiting room was nearly empty, chairs turned backwards at intervals to encourage social distancing. And in the busy outpatient radiology department, she was the only patient for the entire three hours we were there. Not exactly the normal state of affairs for this busy urban hospital.

My project at home has been stripping wallpaper from the room that was once my husband’s office, now slated to become my sewing room. I. hate. removing. wallpaper. But I took my time, only one wall a day to preserve my arthritic hands, and now it’s just waiting for new (self-adhesive! removable!) wallpaper to go up. It only took a pandemic and a shut down to get it done.

To keep myself on an even keel, I stitch (you can read about my adventures here) and I’ve returned to coloring some evenings while I listen to podcasts. I’ve been able to “attend” a few online meditation events offered by a perceptive and gentle energy worker, Susan Duesbery. She has several practices available on her website, and I can’t say enough about her practice. I continue to read, of course, but have had to adapt my choices to fit my current head space. I’ve tried any number of titles in the past two weeks, only to put them aside after only a chapter or two. It seems only comfort reading will do. So I’ve read two Louise Penny titles and have already decided my next book will be another in the Maisie Dobbs series. Let’s call this the macaroni and cheese of reading–warm, “I want seconds” comfort-food.

Friend Mary and I enjoy ninety minute happy hour phone calls a couple times a week–and it’s like I’m fifteen all over again and lying on the floor in my bedroom, twisting the cord around my fingers while solving All Life’s Problems. We only talk about what’s important and life-changing, of course: coloring books and re-organizing the basement and what’s for dinner and camping trips and virus fears and elderly mothers and garden weeds and summertime and eating too many cookies and face masks and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Mentioned and books …

And just like that, it’s all good.

Great Pause #5

First Cozyblue project: Night Garden

A few months ago, I took my embroidery hoop in hand again after putting it down nearly thirty years ago. I’m not quite sure why I put it aside. Probably something to do with the fact that I was a single mom finishing my degree part time. That I had three kids to shuttle around. And then a new teaching career that asked for more hours than I had in a day.

Embroidery patterns have changed since the 70s and 80s when the patterns leaned towards cute or floral or country. Not really pieces I’d want to spend time on today. But then I found Cozyblue Handmade and Snuggly Monkey and I was hooked all over again. Mandalas and vines and sun, moon, and stars. Oh, my!

My hoop has been a lifeline during this Pause. I stitch and stab and worry about whether or not my leaf stitch is even; I focus on french knots and fly-stitches–with nary a thought of some lurking virus. Or a depleted bank account. Or missed grandchildren.

What’s on my hoop

Embroidery has become a kind of meditation that calms my fear and keeps me smack dab in the moment.

So how serendipitous that Tracy Chevalier’s new novel A Single Thread should offer me the the story of how the magic of needle and thread saves a young woman one stitch at a time.

Violet Speedwell is a “surplus” woman. During the Great War so many young men of marriageable age were killed that in the years that followed, a generation of women watched marriage, children, and independence pass them by. At 38, Violet languished at home with a demanding mother until she made the nearly unheard-of decision to move to a new job in another village … and life on her own.

One day Violet visits Winchester Cathedral on her lunch hour and finds that she has interrupted a service dedicating kneeling cushions created by the Cathedral Broderers*. Violet is drawn in by the prayers and music of the service and drawn to the community of women whose artistry would allow them to leave something of themselves behind.

So Violet befriends one of the younger broderers, manages to get her employer Mr. Waterman to allow her to attend the broderer’s Wednesday morning meetings, and begins to expand her life one stitch at a time. She goes on a summer walking tour alone. Dines out with new-found friends. She expands her role in Mr. Waterman’s office. And at long last stands up to her mother. Violet finds purpose in her work embroidering, while the group of women she meets anchor her.

Violet also finds herself drawn to the Cathedral bell ringers and their own mission. She meets Arthur, for whom bell ringing is just as much his life line as embroidery is hers, and bell ringing and brodering come to bookend the story. Quite literally.

If you are a needle worker, you’ll find the story especially engaging. A Single Thread both transported me to another time and place and connected me to this present moment where I’m grounded stitch-by-stitch.


* the brodery referred to in the novel is canvas needlepoint, not hoop embroidery–but the love of all things needle and thread is constant.

Great Pause #4

Depending on when you started counting, we’ve reached the forty day mark in this shut down, give or take a couple days. And just acknowledging that milestone makes this time feel epic. (Or apocalyptic, as the case may be.) It’s a number that carries much weight for People of the Book, be they Christian, Jews, or Muslims.

Forty. It rained on Noah. The Israelites wandered. Moses waited on Mt. Sinai. Jesus fasted. Muhammad received his revelation from Gabriel.

Isolated, all of them. Well, whaddayaknow!

So it’s no wonder that many of us are feeling the pull of this Pause–something calling us to turn inward and wait. Something Big is going to happen.

While it’s all well and good to await some sort of transformation, the Pause can also be rough. I want to use my time “productively” and so think I should be cleaning and organizing and painting (oh, wait … not that …) and doing all manner of spring cleaning. This is the time to finish the Great American Novel and fill reams of paper with poetry. Dive deeper into my relationship with my partner. Turn over a new leaf. Start afresh.

And there are some days when the stars align and all that is on the table. I strip the wallpaper. Bake the ham. Organize the junk drawer. Throw out the expired pantry items. (Sure jell with an expiration date of 2017–really?!) Walk in the park. Blog about the Great Pause. Read. And otherwise make myself useful.

Other days, not so much. There’s a heaviness that settles, some gloomy cloud of uncertainty. Days when my motivation dries up like the stink bugs belly up in my windows. I sit. I scroll through my phone. I read articles about the pandemic. I sit some more. It’s during these moments that I’m tempted to beat myself up for not being productive.

And then I remind myself: the world has shut down. There’s a virus loose and we don’t know who will catch it or how to stop it. We don’t know where it is or when if it will knock on our door. The business closed and the job dried up. In-come can’t keep up with the out-go. The future is uncertain.

Scary stuff.

So I am allowing myself a good measure of grace. If I tune out for a day (or two or three or …) so be it. I’m calling no harm, no foul. Just sit in the quiet and get through the Pause, I say. If the only thing I can claim after all this is over is that I came out on the other side physically and mentally healthy, it’s a win all-around.

“Let us embrace all this dithering and get in touch with our inner whim whams,” is my battle cry!

I have been reading, of course. Not always with great focus, but I do read on. (Is there any other way to get through life?) There’s been The Tatooist of Auschwitz for the cancelled book club meeting in April, a good story with writing that sometimes had a little to be desired. And The Keeper of Lost Things, a charming bit of chick lit that was diverting enough. Or how about A Man Against Insanity which looks at the early use of drug therapy at Traverse City State Hospital during the fifties. I’m about to start The Friend which has been sitting in my TBR basket for almost two years because the story turns on the death of a friend, a traumatized Great Dane, grief–and I’ll probably cry buckets. But it was a National Book Award winner in 2018, so it’s sure to be a great read. (And certain I’ll cry buckets.)

On a lighter note, I got my National Park Senior Pass in the mail and I am free (quite literally!) to go to any national park for the rest of my life. (Once they reopen, that is.) Please note I have no shame in declaring my possession of said senior pass because, come. on. Free national parks forevaaaaaaaa!

So I’m dreaming of my trailer and the open road and exploring beyond these four walls.

Great Pause #3

And then the gloom lifted and it was time to get busy.

Last week I sewed almost thirty face masks for friends and family. I haven’t used my sewing machine like this in at least three decades. But I’m not alone–an entire movement of home sewers has risen up. NPR featured a story on men and women sewing masks, dubbing us craftivists. A friend-of-a-friend who runs her own home business (shout out to My Lovely Muse!) donated ten masks to my daughter’s floor at the hospital–and then shared fifty yards of elastic with me so I could start sewing myself. (Elastic is out-of-stock at most fabric store online, so this was like gold.) I passed some of that elastic on to a friend who was sewing masks for a homeless shelter and more to a friend who was making them for a nursing home. Pay it forward, people. Pay it forward.

My husband and I walk nearly every day in some local park or another and I have every hope that walking will continue to be part of my new normal. Reading comes in fits and starts. (Sometimes the focus just isn’t there …) But I cook nearly every evening and it has become something of a (soothing?) ritual. We are eating like kings! Not rich or exotic food, but healthy and homemade: jambalaya, pork roast, shrimp curry, chili, shawarma chicken bowls. I’ve also gained a couple pounds, but that, I know, is the result of the cookies and doughnuts and chocolate I’ve allowed myself. Indulgence goes a long way.

Last Saturday, hubby’s clippers in hand, I cut my own hair. Yep, you read that right. It’s not pretty and I will owe my stylist an enormous tip when she gets me out of the mess I created–but it’s shorter, at least, and I feel at least a teensy bit more … presentable. (The question is, for whom?!)

I want to hug these little faces …

Not visiting my grand kids is killing me. I Face time them a couple times a week, but the experience leaves something to be desired. At five, three, and one, the calls are a dizzying display of the ceiling or flashes of arms, legs, and foreheads as the two oldest wrestle the phone from each other. Our best ‘conversation’ was during craft time one day–my daughter set the phone on the table while the kids colored and cut. Once a week I’ve become the Happy Meal Fairy, dropping off goodies I normally wouldn’t consider fit for consumption because it makes them so happy.

I blow kisses through the window and for now that has to be enough.

Great Pause #2

Fine dining ala Hudson News

It was a new world I came home to on March 24. The airports were nearly empty. This time, no restaurants or bars were open, and very few shops. I didn’t anticipate the restaurant closures, so Hudson News provided my fine dining experience. Once seated for my flight, I wiped down my seat area (including the window and wall!) thoroughly with a handful of sanitizing wipes. The young couple behind me traveling with their toddler offered me a surgical mask as they watched me “clean house.” They had six, she said. Kindness continues even in the scariest of times.

The day-to-day of staying inside didn’t seem too terribly difficult. At first. An introvert, I feel inordinately qualified to spend long hours alone. I had books to read. Coffee at the ready. Needlework on hand. Closets to organize, after all. When (and if!) the weather turned nice, I would clear my perennial beds and transplant my peonies and the hydrangea bush.

And I did all those things that first week of the Great Pause–with enthusiasm and a sense of we’re-in-this-together. But what I didn’t expect was the gloom that soon settled over me. The dread of getting sick. Wondering if at that very moment the virus was multiplying inside me, every cough, headache, or muscle ache signaling “it” had arrived. Add to that the fact that my husband hadn’t worked in a weeks, so bills were mounting with no end in sight. (Promises of our stimulus check, unemployment, and SBA loans are bogged down in a queue with millions of others who are suddenly out of work.)

There were even some tears to accompany those fears.

But it’s amazing what we humans can get used to and two weeks later this all feels so. very. normal.

What I read

You can’t go wrong with an Ann Patchet novel. Think about it. Patron Saint of Liars. Bel Canto. The Magician’s Assistant. State of Wonder. I need say no more … except, The Dutch House.

Patchett’s latest novel tells the story of the Conroy family. Patriarch, Cyril, makes good in real estate after serving in World War II and buys his wife Elna the Dutch house, a beautifully crafted (although ostentatious) home built in 1922 with marble floored foyer, a ballroom, rich wall coverings, delft-tiled mantels, and life-sized portraits of the original owners, Mr. and Mrs. VanHoebeek, still hung in place. The young couple moves in with their four-year-old daughter Maeve and begins the aspirational life that so many sought after the war.

From the beginning, Elna hated the house, spending her time instead on serving the poor in her local parish, leaving Maeve and eventually her son Danny to their nanny, Fluffy. In many ways Elna is a mother in name only–and she finally leaves the family when Danny is four to work with Mother Theresa in India. (Or at least that was the plan.) But Maeve and Danny have each other and their beloved nanny, as well as the housekeeper Sandy and cook Jocelyn. Cyril is distant and detached in that Greatest Generation kind of way, but the reconstituted family works.

And then Andrea Smith arrives. That wicked step-mother who fills the pages of so many tales. She even brings two step-sisters, but Norma and Bright are anything but mean. It’s Andrea’s arrival that pivots the story.

Danny and Maeve are sent to private boarding schools. Mrs. Smith (as the siblings still call her) marks her territory: favorite meals are taken out of rotation, family traditions spurned, and Maeve kicked out of a fairy-tale bedroom for her younger step-sisters. The two are persona non grata in their own home.

But it is the house that holds them in its embrace. Even when Danny is sent packing after Cyril’s death at age fifteen, even after the staff is let go, even after Maeve has made a life of her own and Danny marries, they return again and again to the house. The house, was, said Danny, “the … hero of every story, our lost and beloved country.” Sitting in Maeve’s car across the street after night falls, they wait while the lights switch on one by one and watch, trying to make sense of what once was and who they had become.

What I lived

I am myself an expert on houses. By the time I was thirteen I had lived in ten of them. Warren Road. JoyAnn Court. West Main Street. Ivan Drive. Brimfield. Summit. Edgewood. Sunrise Drive. Newcastle. Maxwell.

And each house held some sort of magic. The three flights up at West Main Street and my little ‘bedroom’ in the closet under the eaves. The sledding hill on Ivan Drive and the wide open basement, just right for learning to ride a two-wheeler with training wheels. The gravel road on Brimfield and listening to my dad laugh himself silly at the Smothers Brothers every Sunday night after I was tucked in bed. Summit, with its brown-painted wood floors that left chips of paint on the soles of your feet in humid weather and gauzy white curtains that floated on the breeze most summer nights. The woods behind Edgewood where we built forts, then played house for hours, and Sunrise Drive where Eric Sisson, my first crush, rode his pony over to give me a ride down the street. Newcastle, where my little brother got lost in the fields across the street on my watch, and where I made a pan of fudge to surprise my mom after work–only to have it upend in the freezer (where, for some reason known only to a budding 12-year-old cook I had set it to cool), milk chocolate drips puddling in the bottom of the cooler drawers in the ‘frig. And Maxwell. My final childhood home, fraught with family discord and drama, but a beauty unto itself, all timbered-stucco and brick. My bedroom with a window seat. (A window seat! Just like the girls in books …) Best friend down the street and bike rides around the lake.

Each and every house settled deeply in my bones, and I mourned each and every leaving. But I realize now that those houses have become heroes in my story.

Which is to say that a novel like The Dutch House reaches out, pulls me in, and settles me comfortable-like in its lap pages to watch the story unfold, just as I’ve watched my own.