She ain’t heavy, she’s my sister

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.”

Pandemic by the numbers

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.

Make like a hummingbird and flit

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.

The runaway

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

It’s all good

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.