To read–or not to read

What I read

Imagine you dance three waltzes with a man twice your age at your step-sister’s wedding–and the next morning he asks for your hand in marriage. Imagine you marry him twenty-four hours later. Imagine spending two nights as his wife before he leaves to lead his regiment in some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Imagine not seeing that husband again for two years.

You’ve just met Placidia Hockaday. (And because she is the second Mrs. H, Placidia is now step-mother to one-year-old baby Charles.) A whirlwind of a romance, to be sure, but it’s war time, after all. Major Gryff Hockaday lost his first wife to typhoid and felt he must “gamble his heart on winning something worth coming home to.” It’s my guess the scenario happened more times than we might think.

But what we also know from the beginning of The Second Mrs. Hockaday is that Placidia is in jail, charged with the murder of an infant son born while Major Hockaday was away, and the novel turns on the circumstances of that pregnancy and the baby’s death–a Sophie’s choice if there ever was one. Author Susan Rivers unravels Mrs. Hockaday’s story in a series of letters to her cousin Millie, inquest testimony, and diary entries discovered by Mrs. Hockaday’s son Achilles after the death of his parents.

I’ll be careful here because to say much more would be a certain spoiler. Let’s just say that Achilles Hockaday and his aunt Mildred face their own devastating choice. It was Major Hockaday’s wish that the diaries be destroyed so that no one would know the couple’s secret. Will Achilles honor that wish? Or will he read his mother’s diary and–perhaps–have his world destroyed by what he learns? When is it best to leave well enough alone?

It’s a powerful tale, Reader.

What I lived

I was as captivated by the story of Achilles’ Hockaday’s dilemma as I was his mother’s. To read or not to read, that is the question. What makes that dilemma even more intriguing is that fact that after I die my children (and grandchildren, for I’ve gifted my personal writing to one of them when they come of age) will read–or not–my journals and stories.

We parents spend years sifting through our children’s lives. We listen to their dreams and fears when they are young. Stand by them when they stumble. Pray that they turn to us when life gets difficult, hoping we can offer even a bit of direction. But what do those children know of their parents? Probably something of our childhood and family, our pastimes and jobs. But I’m guessing very little about our inner demons or what of life has made us heartsick. We parents are masters of the stiff upper lip, believing, perhaps, it is not the natural order of things to reveal the dark night of our soul to our children.

But my family will have the same opportunity as Achilles. They’ll become privy to what was sublime in my life. And what was hellish. If they read my writing, I hope they come to understand me in a deeper way.

And maybe–as did Achilles–allow the writing to soften their hearts.

A milestone

I started this blog over ten years ago because I love two things above all else: reading and writing. In 2009 I discovered this new(ish) blog thing, and thought, “I could do that!”

So I did.

[Here’s that first post from August 23, 2009.]

I wrote about books mostly. (And still do!) I didn’t care if anyone read my posts or not (And still don’t!) because I just needed to write, for gosh sake. To put my thoughts on “paper” in a way that didn’t feel self-absorbed. I am never more fully myself than when I am reading, so this is me--all four hundred and twenty two posts–at my best.

Several years ago I moved from Blogger to a self-hosted WordPress site, thanks to the help of Jennette Fulda from Makeworthy Media. Jennette is a blogger I follow, as well as a self-employed web designer, and I knew her professional touch would give my work the look it deserved.

Until recently, I blogged for Netgalley, receiving digital reader’s copies from publishers in exchange for an honest review. Choosing titles to request from their catalog was like Christmas every day for this reader. And then nearly two hundred titles later, it wasn’t fun anymore. The long list of unread titles on my Kindle made my palms clammy and I got restless. Time to move in a new direction.

After retirement I began to include not only what I’ve read, but also what I’ve lived. Let me be honest. That little change-up has stretched me. Writing about my life doesn’t come easily–I feel self-conscious in a way that I don’t when writing about books.

So much has happened in the past ten years. I gained and lost the same thirty pounds twice (!) and my hair is gray. Five members of my immediate family were diagnosed with cancer. My children left Our Town. Four grandchildren have squirreled their way into my heart. I watched a loved one struggle with addiction and recover. I lost my father. I have traveled more of the U.S. in the past ten years than I did in the previous fifty. I facilitate writing workshops. I retired.

You might not be able to tell from every post, but it’s all there–the good, the bad, and the ugly. Hidden behind a word, wrapped around a sentence, or tangled within a paragraph.

The one where I retired: Things that go bump in the night (Part 5)

I meant to update my retirement posts on the one year anniversary in August. Except life was busy. There was a trip or two. My husband’s surgery. Babysitting. And by that you can take away the fact that this retirement thing is just swell! I’ve had the time and energy and presence of mind to attend to life’s joys–and life’s challenges.

But let’s be honest. Over the past year, I have had a few bugbears to face down. These are the top contenders.


#1

Solitude has been a friendly companion, but I expected that and made sure I was ready to embrace its company. To a teacher, this isn’t the worst thing in the world. After dealing with the personalities of 100 plus students and 30 staff members day in and day out every year–solitude looked pretty damn good.

But my retirement experience is shadowed by the fact that in many ways I live the life of a single. My husband’s schedule stretches into the evenings and weekends, and most days we are ships passing in the night, except for conversations like, “There’s a plate in the ‘frig if you need to eat” and “Does the dog need to be let out?”

I am my own best activity director.

And I keep myself engaged in the world around me: writing, workshops, classes, volunteering, grand babies, coffee dates, and the occasional happy hour. But that’s because from Day #1 of retirement I was mindful about my days. Writer Annie Dillard sees a schedule as “a net for catching days” and “a haven set into the wreck of time”. It has been for me. The snow and ice last winter wrecked havoc with my days and I’m not going to lie and tell you I didn’t cry one day in January when I couldn’t go to tai chi class because of the weather. And when I locked myself out of the garage in March and couldn’t get my car to attend a St. Paddy’s Day party, I might have called an Uber.

Because the situational ebb and flow of human interaction that exists in the work world is gone, a game plan keeps me from floating aimlessly. Again, Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.”

And I want a life well spent.

#2

Because I no longer grade papers, plan lessons, write curriculum, email parents, students, and staff, attend meetings and parent-teacher conferences, and make copies, then come home to collapse before I take on dinner, kids, pets, and housework, I have plenty of time to cogitate–ruminate on–kick around and otherwise ponder all of the coulda-woulda-shouldas of life.

And since most folks retire in their sixties, we’ve plenty of years to look back on. Retirees (depending on their age) are in those last stages of life that Erik Erikson wrote about: generativity vs. stagnation and ego integrity vs. despair. What will I leave behind? Do I look back on my life and regret those coulda-woulda-shouldas? Or can I come to terms with how life has unfolded? I’ve returned to Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ book Women Who Run With the Wolves to remind myself how life is an unfolding of age-old stories and that my own stories embody wisdom and truth. I am fortunate to have years of therapy and doing the work under my belt, so I have made my peace. But I can only imagine the wallop that emotional baggage would deal a person who hadn’t.

Deal with your crap, people.

#3

Coin. Loot. Cash. All four-letter-words, if you didn’t notice–and a kind of conversational taboo. Pre-retirement it’s all anyone talks about; post, not so much.

I knew going into retirement that my financial picture wouldn’t make ad copy for Morgan Stanley. College at age 32, a late start in my profession, years as a single parent, and my husband’s commitment to his small business determined that destiny. Vacation home or cruises or trips around the world? Not. in. the. cards. Retirement for me had to be about something different–that ego integration and wisdom to which Erikson referred. And paying my bills, of course! If I could do both of those things, retirement would be a success.

And it is.

But after years having some measure of expendable income, I’m sometimes startled when I remember I must be more mindful, that it’s probably not wise to drop cash on a whim just because I need that new high end mascara from Ulta. Just because I want to replace my in-perfect-condition summer sandals for this year’s style. Just because dinner and drinks at that new place downtown sounds like fun. Those situations don’t bother me as much as they surprise me. It takes some time to get used to this fixed income thing.


Your scary shit may well be different–we’ve all got those things that nibble around the edges at 3 AM, don’t we? But those are mine.

At least for now.


[If you’d like a my favorite perspective on retirement, read Ernie Zalinski’s How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free. Zalinski believes that you will never have enough money squirreled away to retire if that’s your measure, so the book isn’t about finances, but everything else–the creative and emotional and social. It helped mold my sense of what retirement could be and gave me the courage to pursue it.]

Mercy

What I read

I’m a little late to the party judging from the nearly 13,000 Amazon reviews for Sue Monk Kidd’s Invention of Wings. The historical novel provides an imaginative back story for the Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina, Southern aristocrats turned Abolitionists and feminists. Kidd adds to their story a difficult and demanding mother, a spirited slave Hetty, and a glimpse into the social constraints of the South. Young Sarah, intelligent and headstrong, wants more than anything to take up law when she grows up–just like her father and brother. But that dream is punished out of her early when eleven-year-old Sarah writes a manumission letter for her personal slave Hettie. Such things aren’t done in the South. And certainly not by a girl.

Eventually, jilted by a suitor, torn by her father’s death, and weary of her mother’s cruelty, Sarah make her way North. She rooms with Abolitionist Lucretia Mott, then tutors the children of Quaker Israel Morris, becoming active in the fight to end slavery. After several years, Angelina joins her and together they inspire (and appall) audiences with their fiery speeches.

Invention of Wings is loosely based on the Grimke sisters lives, but the story Sue Monk Kidd weaves is captivating. It wasn’t until the novel’s end that I realized I had heard about these famous-not-so-famous women before. The Grimkes are the “G” in My Town’s public art project titled Rad Women A-Z which I wrote about here.

I also just finished a tender story about two young sisters titled This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash. I found the story reminiscent of Catherine Hyde Ryan’s novels: orphaned girls, fathers who failed, and attempts at redemption. Throw in a little baseball, 14 million missing dollars, and a bad guy–and you’ve got a story worth reading.

What I lived

We had a tree that we loved.

It was a majestic willow that grew far beyond our expectations. I gifted it to my husband nineteen years ago for his first step-father’s day. She shaded our beloved Trixie and got in the way of many a game of ladder ball. I grumbled after storms left her switches all over the backyard. Each summer the orioles would cling to her branches for cover before landing on their feeder.

But last week, after a stormy winter, wet spring, and windy September, I noticed her leaning. Then “Hmmm. Those roots are buckled more than I thought …” and later the same day, “Oh my goodness–it’s even worse.” Not a good sign.

Two days later the arborist came out and declared removal an emergency. Her branches leaned on the garage. She was a danger to people and property.

Over nearly twenty years, Willow watched our lives unfold–the good, the bad, and the ugly. We found a measure of grace in her shelter–and I hope her mercy remains with us still.

Blue skies

If I was to choose a soundtrack for my visit to Tucson last month, it would surely be Willy Nelson’s “Blue Skies”. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say I’d never seen the skies shining so bright–nor noticed the days hurrying by so quickly.

Now mind you, I missed August’s 100 degrees plus. Temps were between 85* and 90* every day and that was fine by me. While it rained buckets back home, I soaked up every bit of sun I could and felt good deep in my bones. (Morning coffee looking out over the Catalina foothills didn’t hurt, either.) I came to the conclusion that if I lived in the Southwest, I’d be one of those leathery old ladies with wrinkles galore, anti-aging skincare be damned.

I took a day to indulge myself at Canyon Ranch again. I’ve got something of the ascetic in me, so spending the money on this kind of luxury is not in my nature. But I don’t know how long I’ll have this opportunity–so indulge I did. The grounds were every bit as beautiful as I remembered them, the food (salmon tacos, herb iced tea, lemon sorbet) was delicious, and the service I booked–the detoxifying ritual–exquisite. Just imagine putting yourself in the hands of someone whose sole purpose was to make you feel cared for and nurtured–I was scrubbed and buffed and soaked and massaged into bliss.

This Little Miss was the main attraction, though. Mom and Dad took some long-needed time away, and Grandma and L got to hang out for five days. Just the two of us! Being a grandparent from afar is tough–but I try to stockpile as many memories as I can when we are together. We mini-golfed. Lunched on Japanese bento. Walked at Sabino Canyon. Picnicked in the shadow of the Santa Catalinas. Treated ourselves to gelato. I hope I left more happy memories than sad, but when you’re only four and your People leave (even for a few days), all the feels come crashing in. Grandma did the best she could to reassure, but often felt helpless.

And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that I also miss spending time with my son and his partner. They are warm, creative, and thoughtful souls I’d love to see more often.

The first day L went to preschool, I ran to the store, came home to wash dishes and straighten the house, and plan our meals. (It’s easy to forget how many tasks parents must cram into the spare hour or two with which they sometimes find themselves!) The next day I ventured out into Tucson. First stop: the De Grazia Gallery in the Sun. It’s a quirky mix of gallery, garden, museum, and working studio. Although Ettore De Grazia died in 1982, his property keeps his memory alive. More than once, I’d turn a corner to find an outdoor workbench or a metal sculpture of found objects and it was as if De Grazia had just stepped away. He was an eccentric and what I learned about the man himself was just as fascinating as his gallery. That’s the biggest take-away I’ve found on my travels so far–it’s not necessarily what’s on the itinerary, but the people (dare I say the characters?!) who make the journey worthwhile.

My second stop was Tohono Chul, a botanical garden and nature preserve. Only a third the size of the botanical garden in My Town, it was a manageable visit in one or two hours. The garden featured displays of the many ecosystems that exist in the Sonoran Desert–and since I tagged along with a docent, I learned as I walked. (See that tortoise’s red-stained face? This little guy had been feasting on prickly pear fruit!)

See L ride. See L scoot. See Grandma sit. We were racing, you see. And by racing, I mean that L tried out all her vehicles: trike, scooter, and balance bike. And I timed her on each, lap after lap, to see which vehicle “won”. This is racing even I can get behind!

Cut me some slack, friends. It was day 4 of 5 … and Grandma was tired.