Rising

What I read

Each year for Christmas I give my son Peter a Stephen King novel, usually one hot off the press. (And yes, with over 85 published books to the King name, that’s not difficult.) Last year’s was a slim little volume–a mere 160 pages–titled Elevation, and because it’s more novella than novel, and because it wouldn’t last more than an afternoon, he saved it for eight months. And then passed it on to me.

Now before you exclaim as I always did “I don’t read Stephen King because I don’t like horror” you need to know that King isn’t a one-trick pony. He has some great reads–even for a scaredy cat like me–that tend to the more magical and metaphysical.

Elevation is just that.

Scott Carey has been losing weight. Precipitously. And for a slightly overweight man pushing middle age that’s not a good thing. Except here’s the deal. No matter how much weight he loses? It doesn’t show: his clothes fit the same, belly still hanging over his belt just a bit. Odder still is the fact that Scott can put on his heavy winter coat and load his pockets with rolls of coins and that extra weight doesn’t register on the scale. And the weight loss is steady. First one pound a day, then two … until he realizes if it keeps up at the same pace, he will weigh nothing in just a few months.

But as Scott ponders the implications of such an event, he is also still very much in the here and now. And the here and now has him trying to resolve a conflict with his new neighbor Deirdre McComb and her wife Missy Donaldson. Upset that their dogs did their business on his lawn, he politely asks Deirdre to address it. And her hostile response was one that Scott hadn’t anticipated. A little digging around town tells him the women’s relationship isn’t welcomed by the residents in Castle Rock and the couple is feeling the sting of exclusion. To make matters even worse, their restaurant Holy Frijole is likely to go belly up.

But as he loses weight, Scott also begins to feel a peculiar pep in his step and an energetic spring as he walks around town. Suddenly a 12k Turkey trot in November seems like a good idea. He’s also discovered a way, he thinks, to bring the town and Deirdre and Missy together.

As Scott runs the race in blinding rain, he realizes he’s “never been happier in his life. Only happiness was too mild. Here, as he explored the farthest limits of his stamina, was a new world. Everything leads to this, he thought. To this elevation. If it’s how dying feels, everyone should be glad to go.”

Elevation is a sweet (yes, I did just say that about a Stephen King novel) magical story.

What I lived

This past weekend I went to a woman’s retreat led by Susan Duesbery called Learning to Love Yourself. I felt a little out of my comfort zone and that led to cold feet (as in What the hell were you thinking signing up for such a thing?! Now you’ll spend the weekend sitting in a circle sharing and God knows what else … I can be melodramatic like that!), but I also welcomed the opportunity to reset my head space and repair my heart which has had its fair share of bruising over the past few years.

And, oh, it was lovely.

The retreat was held at The Inn at the Rustic Gate in Big Rapids which is a Bed & Breakfast with a mission: to provide retreats that foster spiritual growth, renewal, and creativity. (Friend Denice has written several posts on her blog Denice’s Day about her time at the Inn; here and here are two.) Set on nearly 150 acres of meadow, woods, and wetlands, the Inn is truly a sacred space.

And the food. Oh. my. word. While Chef Sharon was mindful of vegan and gluten-free diets (those yoga folks, don’t ya know!) her dishes were simply delicious, and we felt the love in every bite. (Seriously, who wouldn’t feel love in her vegan Fudgies and peach upside down cake, her Asian salmon with pineapple salsa, her vegetarian chili and Greek salad?)

So just imagine a weekend with a little yoga. Some seated meditation. A releasing ceremony. Smudging. A labyrinth walk. Meals in silence. Group walking meditation. And time enough to read, ramble the woods, take a nap, and otherwise unwind. But do all that in the company of supportive women who are themselves seekers, always looking to understand their experience and grow in love with a heart that is soft and open.

The weekend was sweet and magical and if that isn’t elevation, I don’t know what is.

Walking with Hemingway

What I read

I finally read the book everyone (as in nearly 20,000 reader reviews on Amazon) has been talking about–Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing. And, oh my goodness. It’s worth every bit of the chatter.

You certainly don’t need me to give you a synopsis–and I won’t. Except to say it’s the story of Kya Clark, the Marsh Girl, who lives with incredible loss and isolation and eventually finds her own measure of peace.

I like a good story set in a time and place not my own, and Owens captured the beauty of living in the marshland along the North Carolina coast in the middle of the twentieth century. Kya was an artist (and an accomplished biologist) and I couldn’t help but wish the book had been illustrated with her sketches and watercolors. (I can see a companion volume, modeled on The Diary of an Edwardian Lady. )

I found an interesting interview with the author on this podcast–Owens is interviewed in the first twenty minutes–that includes an interview with Barbara Kingsolver, who also has a profound gift for laying the natural world in the laps of her readers so that we exclaim, “How exquisite … How inimitable … is our world.” There’s talk of a movie, and though I don’t usually watch The Movie of the Book, I might be tempted to in this case if only to see this countryside on a big screen.

Speaking of countryside …

What I lived

The water came up in a tile sunk beside the road, lipping over the cracked edge of the tile and flowing away through the close-growing mint into the swamp ~ “Summer People”

A few weeks ago I went on a Hemingway tour in northern Michigan with Chris Struble of Petoskey Yesterday. Many readers know that Hemingway spent his boyhood summers at the family home on Walloon Lake and later, after returning from the war, in Petoskey. But what remains of Hemingway’s time in northern Michigan is really the landscape itself.

So the trip was a wonderful blend of Hemingway lore (Chris is the current president of the Michigan Hemingway Society) along with readings from the Nick Adams stories. We got a feel for Hemingway’s life in Petoskey after the war and went from his rooming house to the library to the City Park Grill. We stopped at the Red Fox Inn and the Horton Bay General Store, both of which he frequented, then drove down a narrow country road to Horton’s Bay. Along the way, Chris read passages from the Nick Adams stories, and while there were no museums–and only one bronze sculpture–we were able to experience the countryside Hemingway loved so dearly.

602 State Street ~ Red Fox Inn

[Although I’d highly recommend a tour with Petoskey Yesterday, here’s a driving tour if you’d rather explore on your own. This article from the New York Times would make a great before-tour read. But be sure to bring along a copy of the Nick Adams Stories, and maybe a good Hemingway biography, to get the full effect.]

How it works

What I read

There is nothing like a Kate Morton novel to get a reader lost in time and place. Her stories meander, taking twists and turns that never fail to keep me reading into the night. (It’s rather amusing that I still think this way, considering I’m retired. But a lifetime of ‘shoulds’ reels me in still.)

Here’s what Lake House offers you, dear Reader.

There’s a police detective from London, exiled to the countryside because she leaked her doubts about a high-profile case to the press. An elderly mystery writer who tries to bury her past–literally. Babes in arms separated from their mothers. And a murder … or two.

And then there is all the Morton-esque charm. A once-great estate left in haste seventy years earlier. The English countryside with its meadows, woods, and lakes. The ravages of war. Love letters. A village festival. Pear cake. And suitable prospects for the lonely hearts.

I read Kate Morton during the summer … or snuggled on the sofa under a blanket when it’s snowing. She is a holiday kind of read. (See my impressions of two other Morton novels here and here). Before the summer ends, before you’ve transitioned out of vacation and into the bustle of the school year, pick up The Lake House.

What I lived

Last week I went to the Michigan Fiber Festival with friend Denice. She knows I’ve taken up hand-stitching again and that I’m on the prowl for stash bags. Fiber Fest, she said, would be just the place for me to explore new yarns. (Like all good friends, she’s encouraging like that.)

We saw pygora goats and sheep of every kind and alpaca. We watched a sheep dog herd and spinners spin and felters felt. A shearer shear. And I stroked buffalo wool and cashmere and angora. I brought home a bag of alpaca roving that still smells a little of barnyard and a kit to make felted soap that smells nothing of barnyard!

I met a Native American vendor–an elder–who looked at the handful of buffalo roving bits ‘n pieces I held out for her to weigh–I wanted to purchase just a bit to weave into the blankets for my Tiny Mice. She handed back the barely filled bag, and told me to tuck the fiber in my purse. “What the buffalo gives us is free,” she said.

When I came home and tucked my treasures away, I sat down and wrote a poem.

Because that’s how it works.

On the road

What I lived and what I read

Last week I took my first journey out on my own in the little trailer I call Bag End. I needed to see if the story I’ve been writing was actually set in southern Ohio (it is!) and I also visited a few historical sites: Grant’s birthplace and childhood home, and abolitionist John Rankin’s home.

Stonelick State Park

When we met for coffee the week before the trip, Friend Denice was reading David McCullough’s The Pioneers about the settlement of the Northwest territory–and especially Ohio. Perfect! (I loved traveling to South Dakota and Wisconsin while reading Pioneer Girl.) I started the book the weekend before I left and almost finished it in Stonelick State Park where I camped. The blind courage of those early settlers who couldn’t even make their way through the woods without clearing trees and who depended on a stockade fence (!) to keep them safe from Indian attack is beyond my understanding. I also thought about those indigenous peoples who had no concept of humans “owning” land and how incredulous they must have been when these white squatters had the audacity to take over their ancestral home. (Sadly, we know how the story ended.)

John Rankin House overlooking Ripley and the Ohio River

The rock stars of my trip were the docents who showed me around Ulysses S. Grant’s birthplace in Point Pleasant, his childhood home in Georgetown, and the John Rankin House in Ripley. They were engaging storytellers and ambassadors for Ohio tourism, and they don’t get enough recognition. At each site the guides suggested other landmarks to take in, which is how I learned about the John Rankin House, my favorite stop of the trip. The abolitionist Rev. Rankin was one of the first conductors on the Underground Railroad. He built his house on the top of a bluff overlooking Ripley, so he could track the movements of the bounty hunters in the town below. Runaways were led to his home by a single light in his window–it is estimated he guided over two thousand to safety.

Ulysses S. Grant sites

I learned a lot about traveling alone with Bag End. I officially hate trucks, expressways, and wind. But taking rural routes? While I loved the pace and the space the country roads offered, they added nearly 100 miles each way and the fatigue was overwhelming by the time all was said and done. I’ll need to move slower and stop overnight more often than I did–over four hundred miles in a day proved to be too much. But that’s what this trip was for–to figure out how I can comfortably roam on my own.

By the time I was within an hour of Stonelick, I knew my story was indeed set in Ohio. The corn fields and roadsides were exactly where I saw my character Patty walking, and the Gas ‘n Go could have been any number of seen-better-days garages. My soundtrack as I explored was a local blue grass station and I can imagine Pops humming along with If Teardrops Were Pennies. Although I didn’t work on the piece while in Ohio, I did some pretty substantial organization of the story–so I know which direction I’m headed.

Which is the whole point of a journey, no?

You brave and glorious thing

What I read

It’s hard to believe I first read Anne Tyler thirty years ago. I was a different woman then.

Tyler’s characters are finely drawn and I feel as if I know them–maybe not in this world, but in some other reality, perhaps. Her families are made up of people as different from each other as those in my own. There are movers and shakers, dreamers, ne’er-do-wells, and milquetoasts. They argue. They compete.

And they love.

Although there can be no rival to Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant or Accidental Tourist, Tyler continues to peel back the layers of family life in her novel Clock Dance. But her main character–unlike young Pearl in Dinner or Muriel in Accidental–Willa Drake has aged right along with me.

And it’s a breath of fresh air to read a novel about a woman of a certain age who is not done yet.

Willa’s life hadn’t been always smooth–an unpredictable, often abusive mother; an overbearing husband; widowed too early. And (not too surprising) a second overbearing husband, albeit a slightly nicer one. But rather than evolve, Willa adapted. She appeased rather than asserted; she bent instead of standing firm. Willa realized she was “cheery and polite and genteel and superficial”. And what did it get her? Not a thing. Her relationship with her adult sons was distant. Her husband’s likes and dislikes superseded her own needs. Even her job as an ESL teacher in Tucson was only tangentially related to her passion for linguistics.

And then, in typical Tyler plot-twist fashion, Willa flies off to help her son’s ex-girlfriend Denise (a woman she’s never met) recover from a gunshot wound. While Denise is in the hospital, Willa becomes a surrogate grandmother to Denise’s ten-year-old daughter Cheryl–and eventually finds herself an essential cog in the wheel that is their Baltimore neighborhood. The characters are also typical in their Tyler-esque quirkiness. There is Ben, the faded doctor with a washed-up practice. And Sir Joe (Sergio) the biker-cum-HVAC technician who fosters his fifteen-year-old half-brother Erland. Richard and Barry the gay couple down the street who lend a hand whenever needed. And Hal, the sad sack across the street, jilted by his wife Elissa for Willa’s son Sean.

They need each other like Willa needs them.

It’s a long time coming, but Willa finally–finally–realizes she has a choice: “she might try something new that she hasn’t even imagined yet. There is no limit to the possibilities.”

She will no longer come at life slantwise, as Denise once accused her of doing. No more pussyfooting around for this “brave and glorious” woman.

What I lived

I can’t even.

Willa might as well be me between the covers of a book.

And it was exhilarating–and something of a relief–to read I am not alone in becoming a “brave and glorious thing” … at any age.


The title for this post comes from a poem I’ve come to love about aging titled “Beneath the sweater and the skin” (Jeannette Encinias)–you’ll find it a nice companion to the novel.