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.

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.

Tale and Testament

What I read

Before I read Margaret Atwood’s recently published sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, I thought maybe a second reading of the first was in order–especially since it had been thirty-some years since I’d read it. (I haven’t watched the television series because, well, you know … books.) I remembered how I felt after reading Handmaid’s Tale more than I remembered the plot. Of course, the visual of Offred’s dress and the handmaid’s role in Gilead stuck, as did main character’s near escape early in the novel. But I knew the intervening decades had softened my reaction to the novel and that a dive back into Offred’s dystopian world was in order before reading The Testaments.

The book has held up well, my friend, which is a pretty devastating thing to write. Our current political and social climate seem to put women at-risk for a Gilead-like scenario even more than thirty-five years ago.

The Testaments, is more back story than sequel. (We don’t explicitly find out what happened to Offred as one might expect in a sequel–but the savvy reader is sure to get enough hints to satisfy.) Even more accurately, perhaps, it’s a story that spins off Offred’s. The novel is told through the recovered testimonies of 369A and Aunt Lydia. Through 369A’s record, we learn about the daily lives of girls and women in Gilead–their marriages, education, and relationships with each other. And we also get the perspective of the Aunts and their role and unique position of power, especially the much-hated Aunt Lydia from Handmaid’s Tale. Both accounts also allow the reader to get a glimpse of how the underground Mayday organization operated.

Atwood’s handling of the sequel is masterful. In learning those back stories, we understand, rather than condemn. Even more chilling, readers might see themselves in the characters’ motives, choices, and reactions.

And while you might choose to deny it, Atwood seems to imply that the Aunts might be us.

What I lived

My then-husband bought me The Handmaid’s Tale –I don’t think he had any idea what it was about–for some celebratory day or another. Christmas. Or maybe my birthday. In 1985 had just started reading Ms. magazine on the sly. I was a stay-at-home mom without a college education who didn’t have a credit card to her name or any independent income. We were Evangelical Christians and, for me, life was starting to chaff.

A couple years later the shit hit the fan and life was never the same.

I’d like to think that I’d have enough inner resources now to resist any Gilead wool pulled over my eyes. I’m resilient. Educated. Independent. But the past several years make me doubt myself. The Old White Men in charge are pernicious in their policies for and attitudes about women. If you can say, ‘Grab them by the pussy’ and ‘Brett Kavanaugh’ in the same breath, how can you think otherwise?

And there are my own personal shortcomings. That longing to partner with The One. The dream of a fairy tale ending and happily-ever-after. A nasty little word called codependency. My self-zipped lips.

But then I remember–there is always hope. Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum.

Escape: one book at a time

What I read

Lately I’ve been going through books like a pregnant woman munching pickles, driven by some insatiable hunger to read, read, read. I’ve been mad for books that carry me off, but don’t require too much thinking–stories that are sheer escape.

I wrote about my fling with Stephen King last week and with Kate Morton a couple weeks before that. Here’s what I’ve added since:

Pardonable Lies: A Maisy Dobbs novel (Jacqueline Winspear)
Maisy Dobbs, girl detective. I love her. A gumshoe who meditates and relies on intuition to solve crime– in 1930 waaay before all this New Age stuff. I warmed slowly to Maisy Dobbs, but I’m hooked now. It’s the woman and her life that have me captivated, not the crimes. In this book, Maisie refuses to believe that a young girl has savagely murdered the step-father who prostituted her. In exchange for top-notch legal representation for the girl, Maisie agrees to take on the case of Sir Cecil Lawton. Sir Cecil needs Maisie to confirm his son’s death in the Great War (his body was never found) to honor a deathbed pledge made to his wife. And, of course, there’s a mystery in that soldier’s disappearance just waiting for Maisie to solve.

The Clockmaker’s Daughter (Kate Morton)
In true Morton fashion, we’ve got multiple narrators–strong women all–telling this story. Elodie, an archivist, becomes enchanted by the contents of a satchel as she catalogs a collection: a photo of a mysterious woman and an artist’s journal capture her imagination. And lead her to question her own impending marriage and her talented mother’s tragic death–both wrapped up somehow with an old gabled country house on the Thames. A charming ghost tells the story of that house, how the death of a fiance and a lover on the same tragic night drove one man to despair. It’s Kate Morton. What else need I say?

The Cruelest Month (Louise Penny)
This was my second Inspector Gamache novel, but I read the series out of order. I started with A Fatal Grace ( #2), went on to The Cruelest Month (#3), and just bought the first Gamache novel on a Kindle deal. Not the deepest or darkest of crime novels, it wasn’t difficult to fill in the gaps. The setting, Three Pines, a little village in Canada, is really the main attraction, as are its residents: Ruth Zardo, cantankerous poet; Clara Morrow, the self-doubting artist; Gabri and Olivier, hoteliers extraordinaire; Myrna, bookstore owner and sage. And, of course, Chief Inspector Gamache and his crew who come down from Montreal, always at the ready to solve a murder–and battle internal conflict within the Surete. There’s nothing like settling in with old friends.

The Red Notebook (Antoine Laurain)
The Red Notebook is chick lit at its sweetest. Laure is mugged while returning home late one night and can’t get into her apartment without her keys. She is dazed from a blow to the head, so she secures a room at the hotel across the street until the doorman can let her in the next morning. She collapses on the bed … and slips into a coma. Laurent, book store owner, finds her purse the next day and is intrigued by its contents: a red Moleskine notebook, a gilt cartouche, a lovely bottle of perfume, a hair clip, red plastic dice, and a dry cleaning ticket. He spends hours pouring over the items, trying to analyze the woman, but her identity is a mystery. And one that Laurent sets out to solve. Both Laure and Laurent’s personal lives were at loose ends before the accident–could the purse be the thing that brings them together? (But, really, what woman wouldn’t fall for a hero who runs a bookstore?!)

So. much. goodness.

The reading binge isn’t much of a mystery because old habits die hard. After nearly three decades of cramming my reading into summer vacations, August still brings about the same tendency: I used to read fast and furiously during the waning weeks of summer, trying to keep lesson plans, essay grading, and staff meetings at bay until the very last minute. And I guess that rhythm is still part of my nature.

But there’s something else. All the books center on women who doubted themselves, but overcame those doubts when life insisted. Face-to-face with the worst imaginable, they rose and slayed their dragons.

And I like that.

What I lived

Hospital waiting rooms suck

A family member’s recent hospitalization brought with it all the normal worries and uncertainties that come with an illness. But quite unexpectedly, it also triggered memories from some years back of a time in my life characterized by terror, confusion, and uncertainty. A situation I tried to vanquish at the time, not yet realizing the chaos wasn’t mine to quell.

But we forget–women, especially, I think–that our power isn’t found in improving circumstances, but in transforming our inner landscape. That’s where real peace can be found. Where doubts are overcome. And demons conquered.

So today I’ll raise a glass and give a nod to the women who carried me away the past few weeks–Maisie. Clara. Elodie. Birdie. Laure–reminding me that the only way out is through.