This is my symphony

What I read & what I lived …

What I read

Friend Mary all but shoved this book into my hands: “You’ve got to read this so we can talk about it.” Not a bad recommendation, I’d say. And Sarah Blake’s The Guest Book gave me much to think about. There’s racism, for one. And bias, ethnic discrimination, and privilege. Which, I’ve got to say, sounds very antiseptic compared to the gut-punch the novel delivers.

Ogden and Kitty Milton have got it all. Wealth, education, and social cachet. They are white. There is tragedy in their lives, as in all families: when four, their oldest son falls out a window to his death. Their daughter has epilepsy. Ogden and his best friend Dunc Houghton are marked by what they experience in Germany as Hitler consolidates his power.

But overall, it’s a good life. The couple raise three children–Joan, Evelynn, and Moss–who experience All The Best that their parents can offer. There are private schools, housekeepers, clubs. The opera. The art museum. And rules, of course: “Enter every room with a smile. Speak to everyone, regardless of their place, as another human being … so as to create an atmosphere of goodwill around you … when one has money, one ought never talk about it, and one out to think about it as little as possible.” Evelynn is the child who embraces the Milton ethos, where Joan (due, in part, to the fact that because of her epilepsy she decides not to marry) and Moss (a musician at heart trying to please his father by joining the family firm) chaff against its confines. Joan falls in love with a Jewish man and Moss with a Black journalist, but is their free-thinking enough of an antidote to the racism that poisons their privilege?

The Miltons also owned an island (yes, an entire island) off the coast of Maine where the family has summered since the Thirties. And it’s on this island that the story pivots when Len Levy, a Jew, and Reg Pauling, a Black man, attend a family engagement party in 1959. Right on the cusp of the civil rights movement.

Let the secret-keeping commence.

Now, nearly sixty years later, the Milton grandchildren must decide if they can afford to hold onto the island after the trust money runs out. The problem is that they each read their family history differently, and the decision is muddied as family secrets come to light.

So is Crocket Island an albatross? Or an anchor? As in so many families, the answer to hard questions depends on who you ask.

What I lived

I’m just starting to read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. (Another book recommended by Friend Mary.) For months it’s rested with my bedside reading and for months I kept moving it to the bottom of the pile. I’m willing to face my own shortcomings in matters of race–at least I say I am–but it can be hard to look yourself in the mirror without makeup. And I think that’s what DiAngelo intends for me to do. As does listening to the Derek Chauvin trial over the past couple weeks, unable to deny the devastation my people have wrought. So when I read The Guest Book my white privilege radar was already on high alert; it can be so much easier to see the speck in someone else’s eye–even a fictional someone!–all the while ignoring the log in one’s own.

my works in progress …

And just as powerful a theme as race in The Guest Book is the whole idea of family secrets. Readers of this blog know I write about them quite often*. But that’s because I’ve seen firsthand their insidious effects: mental illness, substance abuse, toxic relationships, destroyed marriages, ruined finances.

But isn’t a secret what you tell your best friend when you are seven-years- old, hanging on the jungle gym at recess? Isn’t a secret is what you share with your favorite stuffed animal right before you fall asleep at night. What you shyly, tentatively, tell your first love. Secrets are sweet bits of ourselves that we lavish on those we love.

Talking about family secrets is nothing less than whitewash for something far more odious. People who wouldn’t dream of telling a lie, people who pride themselves on truth telling–they seem perfectly fine with family secrets. Why stir the pot? Why open old wounds?

What we forget is that even when one thinks the shit has been covered, it still stinks.

*Just a few of my ‘family secrets’ posts:

The Ninth Hour
The Winter in Anna
The Dinner
Sarah’s Key
The Two Family House

What I read

This month’s book club read is Fredrik Backman’s Anxious People and it will stay with me for quite some time. Imagine a bank robber at the end of their rope–no job, no apartment, worried about losing custody of their kids. Imagine a motley assortment of lonely hearts and misfits, held hostage after that bank robbery fails. All of them those ‘anxious people’, or, as the narrator repeats again and again, ‘idiots’. The novel is Backman at his finest, and his other characters–Ove, Brit Marie, Granny, Peter–would feel right at home between its cover.

The novel began a bumpy ride for me. I stumbled. I grew irritated. Something about the writing was off. And I was, quite frankly, tempted to quit. (Pssst. Don’t tell my book club!) Had Backman lost his touch? Was something lost in translation? But, oh, no, dear Reader. No. It is genius. So if you find yourself faltering for the first fifty pages, don’t despair. Your stick-to-itiveness will be rewarded.

Each of those misfits has a story–heart-wrenching, poignant, melancholy. There is sharp-tongued Zara, a banker tormented by her compulsions; Roger, the retiree drifting rudderless, and his wife Anna-Lena, who tries to fill that void. There’s Julia, pregnant and not a little overbearing, and her long-suffering wife Ro; Estelle, age eighty-seven, and lonely as lonely can be. Jim and Jack, the father-son police team, who take charge of the hostage situation, and sort it all out after. (Or do they?) And the bank robber turned hostage taker, of course.

But it’s in the coming together that each character is thrown a lifeline. Our modern problem, according to Backman, is that “most people never become individuals to us. They’re just people. We’re just strangers passing each other, your anxieties briefly brushing against mine as the fibers of our coats touch momentarily on a crowded sidewalk somewhere. We never really know what we do to each other, with each other, for each other.” And “the greatest loneliness in the world [is] when no one is walking beside you toward your destination.”

Turns out the greatest blessing is walking each other home.

What I lived

A couple months ago I met some folks–AirBnB hosts, they were. A lovely home in a beautiful setting. But, I was pretty certain, not of my political persuasion. My radar was fine-tuned, critical and ready to judge. It was, after all, a few short months after the election and only a few short weeks past the Capitol insurrection. Surely my judgement was justified …

But how foolish I was.

These kind people were among the most gracious I have ever met. They shared their life stories openly and freely. They welcomed me into their home with such sincerity, I felt like a distant cousin. We laughed. We sipped Kahlua. Sat by the fireplace and talked some more. They asked about my life at home and didn’t bat an eye when I told them it was complicated. We talked about our dogs. (Did I say we laughed?)

I thought about the antipathy so many of us feel towards each other in the U.S. today. Especially those who aren’t in our tribe, who don’t share the same politics. We reject them out-of-hand, because, well … they’re wrong. I’ve come to realize when we put up those walls, when we stay in the mind ghettos we create, we miss getting to know some pretty great folks. That love might be the way out of this mess, after all.

Turns out the greatest blessing is walking each other home.

What I read

I’ve had some pretty good luck lately waiting out Amazon emails for Kindle deals. Day after day they show up in my inbox. And day after day I drag them to the trash. But those algorithms must snoop around in my Wishlist because every now and then they throw out an amazing deal. One of my want-to-reads for only 1.99? 4.99? Yes, please. The secret is in the waiting. Gentleman In Moscow has been on my Amazon Wishlist for a couple years, and while it was frequently featured in those promo emails a few dollars under the list price, I wait for the real deals. In the past month I was able to purchase A Gentleman In Moscow and The Overdue Life of Amy Byler–each, I think at $4.99.

Gentleman was everything I’d heard it to be and more. In 1922 Count Alexander Rostov’s property is reclaimed for the People and he is placed under house arrest courtesy of the Bolsheviks; the Metropol, that grande dame of a Moscow hotel, becomes his home for the next thirty years. His freedom and privilege stripped, Rostov moves to an attic room that has room for a bed and a desk and not much more. But oh, what a life he lives. The companionship and dear friends he makes. The daughter he adopts. The food! The wine! The work in which he finds solace. In so many ways the novel reminded me of the forced isolation of this past year–and Rostov’s equanimity makes me blush when compared to my own reactions during 2020’s restrictions. This was one book that I wish went on and on and on.

Kelly Harms’s Overdue Life of Amy Byler got a favorable review in Bookmarks and I’ve never been led astray by their recommendations. This was no exception and while I have some reservations, they are petty. Amy Byler’s almost ex-husband, three years gone, shows up on her doorstep one day and wants to make amends to their two children, 12 and 15-years-old. Amy has been the quintessential single mom, keeping her household running, working long hours, and, above all, making sure her kids are living their best life. (Or, as best as she can provide.) That also means Amy hasn’t seen the inside of a hair salon or a clothing store (other than Target) for all three of those years. Resisting the suggestion that Mr. Ex takes the kids for a week to reconnect, she gives in and sets off to a librarian’s conference in New York City. And that’s where the fun begins. There’s professional acclaim! A new friend! A love interest! Makeover! Sounds like a made-for-TV movie or a Amy Poehler romcom, right? I almost felt as if the author intended for it to be made into a movie. (Maybe that’s a thing with young authors today?) But don’t get me wrong. This was a fun read. And Harms got so much of Mom Life right it hurt. So enjoy–but fine literature it is not.

There’s always a clunker, though, except this one was all on me. I saw $1.99 for Chasing Fireflys–something about a journalist–something about uncovering the mystery of an abused and abandoned young boy. The cover was pretty. Good enough to give a try, for sure. And in many ways, the plot was worth the read. The characters were engaging. The writing was fine. But. Ugh. I didn’t look at the publisher until very near the end when a dying character whispered, “Baptize me …” and I muttered, “What the heck?!” Actually, I said something a little more salty, but it wouldn’t be appropriate considering the publisher was Thomas Nelson. Yep. Contemporary Christian fiction through and through. So suddenly the “fallen” woman drawn with sharp lines (adult film industry, drug use, AIDS) made sense. The two brothers–stand-ins for Jacob and Esau–made sense. Unc’s incessant moralizing–yep, it made sense, too. *sigh* The Christianizing was so heavy handed as to be off-putting. So buyer beware!

UPDATE 4/1: Maybe Amazon reads my blog, too?! Yesterday I got another TBR title from my wishlist for only $4.99–The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue, who wrote the incredible Room.

What I lived

I clearly have a mouse infestation at my house!

I’ve polished off several of these little guys in the past week and a half and I am in love with the bright colors. What do you think? My favorite critter maker (as I’ve said on this blog more than a few times) is Ann Wood. You can read her blog and shop her wares at Ann Wood Handmade. The woman is truly an artist. I am a stitcher, no more. But stitching soothes my soul and makes my heart sing–and that’s all the justification I need.

And because Easter is only a few days away, I thought a few Tiny Bunnies might be a nice twist on Tiny Mice. I took some leftover wood-grained fabric I bought long ago in a fabric bundle (and hid it because I thought it was gawd-awful ugly) Modge Podged it on a tissue roll and voila! A stump for a bunny home. These will be sent along in the car with three of my Littles who are traveling to Wisconsin this weekend. (No worries. Bunny #3 is in the works …)

What I read

A Pulitzer Prize is given “For distinguished fiction published in book form during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.” But I’ve found in the past ten years that the writing is often too … what? … for my taste. Too bleak? Too outre? Too “matter of the moment”?

Andrew Sean Greer’s 2018 winner Less is a breath of fresh air.

And because so much has been written about the travels–and travails–of our hero, the almost-famous writer Arthur Less, and because those reviews provide the critical analysis the novel deserves, I’ll leave you to peruse the Washington Post and The Kenyon Review.

Instead, I’ll tell you why I think Less is a dear good thing:

  • Our hero’s experiences and his reactions to life’s twists and turns, while far from my own (Less, after all, is a single gay man turning fifty), remind me that there’s a lot to be said for optimism–even the kind that seems ridiculous in the moment.
  • Less is one of the few literary characters of late who doesn’t take himself too seriously.
  • His throwaway observations are anything but. Less’s insights are spot-on and guffaw-out-loud at times. Make no mistake–the novel tackles issues that are anything but humorous. Adultery and AIDS and loneliness and aging. But a little bit of wit speaks louder than the longest sermon.
  • Arthur Less is endearing. (Does anyone even like Olive Kitteridge or Theo Decker?!)
  • I loved this guy, plain and simple. And you can’t ask for more than that.

And this …

  • ” ‘What is love, Arthur? … Is it the dear good thing I had with Janet for eight years? Is it the dear good thing? Or is it the lightening bolt? The destructive madness …’ “
  • ” ‘Strange to be almost fifty, no? I feel like I just understood how to be young.’
    ‘Yes! It’s like the last day in a foreign country. You finally figure out how to get coffee, and drinks, and a good steak. And then you have to leave. And you won’t ever be back.’ “
  • “We all recognize grief in moments that should be celebrations; it is the salt in the pudding.”

What I lived

It was a good day, last Friday. Sunny. Warm. Spring was in the air, as they say. After bemoaning the fact that, according to our state’s initial estimates, I’d be getting my COVID vaccination in late summer, the supply and distribution picked up pace and I got my shot in the arm. Driving to the pharmacy, I teared up and worried I’d be a blubbering mess when I arrived–but the excitement! the relief! took over and by the time I pulled into the parking space I was grinning from ear-to-ear and couldn’t stop.

I chatted with a couple others in line for their vaccines. Friday was the day the U.S. reached 100,000,000 shots in the arm and we were part of that moment, this little cadre of 60-something retired teachers thrown together by an online scheduling algorithm. Waiting, waiting.

Me: I’ve never been more excited to get a shot. And I hate shots!

Pharmacist: Yeah, this is a fun one to give.

So. The months of shutdown. Weeks of quarantine. Four COVID tests. A loved one’s COVID diagnosis. The days and days of fever and fatigue he lived with. The financial toll it took on my household. The isolation from friends and family and hugs. That huge weight of worry.

It’s over.

That little shot in the arm? It’s definitely a good dear thing.

What I read … and lived

I just finished Hazel Prior’s novel How the Penguins Saved Veronica–a sweet (but fairly predictable) tale of how Veronica McCreedy finds purpose and healing after a lifetime of sorrow and rejection. After watching a documentary titled Earth Matters, Veronica travels to Antarctica to observe the scientists studying Adelie penguins–with the intent of leaving her millions to their research endeavors when she dies. You can probably imagine their reaction when an eighty-six-year-old woman writes to announce her impending arrival and won’t take no for an answer. Veronica is a force to be reckoned with and the team can only hope that the harsh conditions will discourage her from staying.

Of course she stays. Of course she finds love and connection and meaning–old age be damned.

But what is it, I want to know, with the spate of crochety-old-folks-turned-warm-and-fuzzy novels that fill the shelves over the past several years? Think about it, Friend. A Man Called Ove. Miss Benson’s Beetle. Heaven Adjacent. The Clock Dance*. The Misremembered Man. Lucille Boxfish Takes a Walk. Harold Frye. Miss Queenie Hennesey. Olive Kitteridge. Arthur Pepper. Good stories all, yes. Characters worth loving, to be sure. But why are all these old folks so darn prickly? So dour and gloomy? And why is it that we’re given the idea that to die happy we must set off walking across the country or butterfly hunt in the South Pacific or fly off to Paris?

Is this how the world sees us?

I became a bit leery of these portrayals when I noticed that many of the writers themselves are not even pushing fifty. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I understand that writers don’t need to experience a circumstance to write about it. Shakespeare didn’t need to kill a king in order to write Hamlet. Tolstoy wasn’t a woman in love, yet Anna Karenina is among the best. No, a writer’s task is to take us to places we’ve never been and show us a world we never imagined–to seduce us into falling in love with characters who live only on the deckle edged page.

I get that.

I don’t think it’s the Grand Adventure that bother me, but the fact that we are lead to assume that the Grand Adventure will save us. What I’m wanting are characters who mirror my own experience–and that of my friends–more closely. Characters who don’t waste seventy years of their lives walled off from others, stuck in their suffering. Characters who live with life’s dualities–connection and separation, joy and sorrow, plenty and want, success and defeat–and still manage to eke out some measure of happiness. But I’m guessing a story like that would hardly be a bestseller and there’s the rub.

But back to that book again–How the Penguins Saved Veronica? Get yourself a copy and enjoy. It’s a delightful read about a cranky old gal.

* Anne Tyler is an exception at eighty. So it’s probably no accident that her Clock Dance was one of the best portrayals I’ve read of an older woman coming to terms with her choices with equanimity, a woman who moves forward into the unknown and says, “There is no limit to the possibilities.” (Also interesting is that my thirty-something daughter’s reaction to Clock Dance was “Meh”!)

On my return trip, I was able to see the landscape of Oklahoma and Missouri which, on the way down, was shrouded in freezing rain and freezing fog. What did I miss in Oklahoma? Cattle. And range land. And more cattle. Along with dirt a shade of red I’ve never seen before. Reservation land always saddens me, and I thought of the Trail of Tears every time I read the signs: leaving Chickasaw nation; Entering Osage nation.

If you’re a con man driving a minivan and you approach a woman at a gas station asking for money because your laptop was stolen and you need to get to your grandfather’s funeral (huh?), and she politely tells you she can’t help you as she gets back in her car (after she notices your distinctive drinkers nose …) , it probably doesn’t help your case if you call her a bitch. I’m a firm believer in meeting ‘angels unawares’ but I doubt an angel would use such language. Just sayin’.

I lost my bank card in a gas station restroom–only discovering the fact a couple hundred miles down the road. On a whim, I checked the transaction online, looked up the address on Google, and found the gas station. I called. A big shout out to Kelly who is mailing my card to me. In fact, it just might beat me home. There are good people in the world, dear Reader. When your paths cross, remember to pay it forward.

Audio books. I’m just not sold. My son and his wife gifted me an Audible credit to bulk up my pretty skimpy Audible library. I tried. I really did. But I listen … and then look out at the countryside … and then my mind is off and running, and I have no idea what has transpired in the last fifteen minutes. Turns out I am quite comfortable with my own thoughts. How is it that I don’t get bored? I have no. idea. But driving seven hours a day, alone, with only the radio for company, is quite satisfying to me.

I’ve heard other Northerners say that the desert–with its sparse vegetation and dust and grit–lacks beauty. How far from the truth. It is different from the lush green of the Midwest, to be sure. But it’s different, is all. The desert is spacious and the plant life is startlingly beautiful. It teems with all sorts of critters and creepy crawlies: bobcat and javelina and roadrunner and jackrabbit and ground squirrels and lizards and birds, birds, birds. The quiet is astounding. And the sun in the springtime is a delight.

There is no greater joy than walking with a Little who stops to look out over that desert and declares, “I never pass up a beautiful view” or who pleads for yet one. more. game of Go Fish to “see who is the champion.” After 345, 689 games, I can assure you there is no champion in Go Fish.

Sometimes is it just as sad to return home as it is to leave.

What I read

Catherine Ryan Hyde is a good read no matter what–the plots are simple, yet compelling; the characters, rich; the resolution, straightforward. (I wrote about two other titles here and here.) Her novel Walk Me Home didn’t disappoint. The story opens with sisters Carly and Jen running away from home in the dead of a cool night in New Mexico. They are supplied with a backpack each, a $20 phone card, and two bicycles. Mom and her boyfriend died in a car crash the day before and the girls have no one. Sixteen-year-old Carly suspects Child Protective Services will close in on them soon, but she is certain they’ll find safety if only they can reach their ‘step-father’ Teddy in California. They leave the bikes behind pretty quickly (eleven-year-old Jen crashed hers) and start to walk. And walk. Across the Southwest desert, no less, following the roads, hiding in culverts, and begging money for candy bars from gas stations to keep themselves fueled. They are hot. Sunburned. Thirsty. Blistered and exhausted. But Carly is certain Teddy is their savior. (Jen–for reasons we eventually find out–is silent on the matter.)

The girls are near death when they are finally rescued by Delores, an elderly Native American woman, who feeds them, gives them shelter, and puts them to work around her property to pay off their debt. While Carly is wary and lashes out at Delores, Jen settles in quickly, relieved to finally have a safe place to call home. Jen loves the work and the animals. She finds a grandmother in the old woman while Carly sees only a jailer. Carly eventually sets out to find Teddy on her own–and the story takes a more serious turn when she discovers the truth behind Jen’s reluctance to reunite with Teddy.

Walk Me Home is a satisfying coming-of-age story–perfect for a quick weekend read.

What I lived

A walk in the neighborhood

Last week I flew the coop. (Figuratively speaking!) January was a difficult month with a loved one’s Covid illness and the worry and financial impact it brings. It’s been months since I’ve visited face-to-face with friends. Home life can be complicated. And it was suddenly just too much. So four days, three nights, and nineteen hundred miles later, I landed myself in Tucson to visit with my son and his family. The drive was character building, to say the least, what with lake-effect snow, freezing rain, and freezing fog. It was just me, myself, and I for hours and hours, and I came to think of Red Semi and RV-With-The-Bikes as friends along the way. (That, and the NPR radio hosts I listened to as I jumped from city to city and station to station.) I learned, once again, that I can do hard things. And I must say I thought about those little girls Carly and Jen an awful lot. Which got me to thinking just how many novels involve a journey and then I remembered teaching The Odyssey all those years ago and I decided we are all of us just putting one foot in front of the other and … well, such are the meandering thoughts when a day’s drive covers five hundred miles.

It’s lovely here in the desert Southwest. A cool (?!) 70 degrees. Sunny. And oh-so-full of loves. My end game is not sightseeing, but reconnecting with my sweet six-year-old granddaughter Luna whom I last visited just as the shut downs began in March a year ago. (You can read about that trip here.) By my first full day here I had the Grand Tour of the Barbie Dream House, went shopping for dinner fixings, picked out her birthday gift–a sewing basket of her very own!–and stitched what she is calling her ‘sewing basket gnomes’. Today will be more of the same, I’m sure. (Did I mention it’s sunny here?)

Life is good.

What I read

Last week I read two novels that, in content and style were distant cousins, but in spirit were as close as sisters. Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted is a dystopian Western set in the not-so-distant future, a mash up of Handmaid’s Tale and Hunger Games and a cowboy dime novel. Esther Augustus stows away in the Librarian’s wagon and is found two days after leaving Valor, Arizona. Esther’s father had promised her hand in marriage to one of his cronies–but Esther, still mourning the execution of her secret lover Beatriz is desperate. Desperate to escape her impending marriage and desperate to rid herself (as she sees it) of the curse of her desires. The Librarians are morally upright women whose task is to lend Approved Materials in small towns throughout Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. Joining their ranks might mean that she, too, could become morally upright. Except it’s soon obvious that the Librarians Bet, Leda, and Cye are not quite what they seem. For one thing, Bet and Leda are clearly a couple. For another, they transport more than just Approved Materials. Like rebels seeking to overthrow the authorities. Upright Women packs quite a punch in its too-short 170-odd pages–murder! gun fights! smuggling!–and it’s an anti-totalitarian, feminist, and queer-friendly tale well worth your time.

The Book of V by Anna Solomon weaves together the stories of three women: Lily, a struggling young mother; Vee, Lily’s mother’s one-time best friend; and Esther, queen of the Old Testament. I wasn’t familiar with the Jewish tale of Vashti and Esther, but Solomon deftly connects Esther with the modern women. And it’s a connection many women share: we compromise our aspirations and dignity for the sake of our partners and children. Lily finds motherhood stultifying and embarks on a chaste affair of the heart to gain control of her life. Vee’s marriage to a rising senator in the fifties ends in disgrace when she refuses his humiliating request at a Washington party. And Esther–a second wife just like Lily–must ally herself with the king’s first wife Vashti in order to save her people. Settling. Compromise. It’s the story of our lives.

What I lived

Never has there been a time when I have experienced such absolute delight in simple pleasures … and also incredible shadows. Times are sweet with the Littles in my life: I helped with virtual school when my daughter works–a walk now and then–loads of book-reading and Barbies and Do-a-Dot markers. I’m taking snapshots with my heart to last me a lifetime. My afternoons are often spent stitching critters and the time has come, I think, to start “stitch-bombing” (my twist on yarn bombing) the world with Mr. Socks and Very Nice Mice and maybe even Picnic Bugs. I’ve come to love a finger of bourbon on ice–I never saw that coming!–in the evening. Hour-long talks with a friend every week. Mass on Sunday. I can’t complain.

And yet.

It’s lonely sometimes. I miss yoga with Mary and drinks after. I miss flying to Tucson to visit my son and his family. I want to sit in Sweet Seasons for a couple hours with Denice. I miss a Girls Night Out. Hugs. Oh, how I miss hugs. We’ve had Covid in the house (not me) and it was nasty, just like they say. I follow the rules, but there’s a worry that nibbles around the edges: when? where? who? I watch too much news and mourn as our nation rocks with conflict. Our skies are gray in January. And February. And March!

The view at my feet …

But then.

There’s all those books waiting for me. A walk in the Gardens with my son. The scent of Murphy’s Oil soap after fresh-washed floors. Clean sheets. Aunt Alice’s wool granny square afghan at my back. The surprise of an Etsy purchase in the mail. A trip planned at long last.

I think I can do this.

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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.