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.

The livin’ is easy …

What I read

Our book club read this month was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Since we had a few absent members, we met at Panera for discussion and a sweet treat–a little change up from usual. This book club was total serendipity. We first met and organized on a neighborhood social media platform and the mix of women is amazing. We are all pretty much on the same page when it comes to current events, we are a comfortable mix of married, divorced, remarried, and widowed, and our ages are within a decade of each other.

But I digress.

Eleanor Oliphant is a touching character: a survivor of childhood abuse, socially illiterate, and incredibly endearing. (I even wondered aloud if Eleanor might be on the spectrum.) But when this fragile woman with a horrific past meets love and friendship, she finds within herself a strength I think few of us possess. And courageous?! Eleanor comes to realize she must face her tormentor to put the trauma behind her.

Now if I sound cryptic here, I really don’t mean to be. But this is one novel where it might be best to let each reader discover Eleanor as he or she reads the novel, especially since Honeyman makes a style choice that is not revealed until the end of the novel.

It won’t, however, hurt to tell you about Eleanor’s first-ever friend, Raymond, the IT guy at the small graphic design company where she works. Raymond is frumpy–Eleanor dismisses his baggy pants, trainers, mussed hair, and whiskers. But he treats his elderly mom like a queen and is kind to a fault. Which brings us to Eleanor’s second-ever friend, Sammy. Eleanor meets Sammy (if you can call it that) when he collapses on the street outside her office building. She and Raymond come to his aid, staying with Sammy until the ambulance arrives. That ‘stay with him’ part was all Raymond’s doing, though. Eleanor thought Sammy was a drunk, homeless old man and would have stepped right over him in true Eleanor fashion if Raymond hadn’t convinced her they couldn’t leave him. From there, Eleanor, Raymond, and Sammy–and even Sammy’s family–are irrevocably connected.

And it’s in that connection that Eleanor begins to heal.

What I lived

Actually the title of this post is something of a misnomer. Although yesterday was the first day of summer and we are barreling into July at breakneck speed, it could hardly be described as “summer-like” in this Great Lake state. We have had day after day of cloudy skies and rain. Lake levels are at an all-time high and beaches are underwater. And can you say chilly? It’s been one of the coldest, wettest springs on record–and summer isn’t turning out to be much different.

So can you blame a girl for picking up a needle and starting to stitch a little? (Reading goes without saying!) I haven’t done any hand stitching since my children were young when I crafted my little heart out: cross-stitch, basket weaving, doll-making, and more. But by the time my daughter was three, I was working part time–and then it was divorce and back-to-college and all the craziness such life events bring.

I have missed it.

So a few weeks ago I took a hand loom weaving class from Jennifer Haywood of Craftsanity–and although the piece I started in class was an embarrassment (I’ve since unwoven it Penelope-style!) I ordered some yarn stash packages from an Etsy seller, and I’m now weaving my little heart out.

I’ve also stitched four of Ann Wood’s Very Nice Mice with the thought of gifting my granddaughters some cute little friends–with no end of teasing and puzzlement from my daughter and husband. (“So you retire … and start sewing little mice for … what, exactly?!”) But my ideas keep growing. What if I weave each mouse a little bedroll or gunny sack? And this boat is a no-brainer, since don’t the Tiny Mice (as I call them) need some sort of transport for their journey? (Because of course mice such as these are on a journey.) And what if each Tiny Mouse came with a story about who they are and from where they came?

Oh, my. I have surely missed this whole stitching game …

Artsy fartsy

art·sy-fart·sy/ˌärtsēˈfärtsē/adjective INFORMAL•DEROGATORY
1. associated with or showing a pretentious interest in the arts.

No one would ever call me artsy fartsy. This, despite the fact that my father was an architect and a watercolorist. Let’s just say I didn’t get his art gene! Mind you, I love visiting the Chicago Art Institute–but mainly because I like to see the famous paintings in real life like Sunday Afternoon and Nighthawks and Child’s Bath and American Gothic. And I’m one of those I-know-what-I-like type of museum goers. When it comes to art, I’m usually out-of-my-comfort-zone.

But this past month I’ve seen some fine art– both as in fine art, and fine. art. Friend Denice and I went to the Muskegon Museum of Art to see an exhibit of Patricia Polacco, children’s book writer and illustrator. The exhibit was in honor of teachers and so it was fitting that I attend with Denice, a retired school librarian and book store colleague in our previous lives. My familiarity with children’s books ended with my time at Pooh’s Corner (a children’s bookstore), so I wasn’t familiar with the illustrations on exhibit, but I sure did fall in love with some new titles. Especially An A from Miss Keller, in which Tricia takes Miss Keller’s creative writing class and gets the greatest accolade of all–Miss Keller’s comment, “You’ve given your words wings.” Now that, my friends is what I miss about being in the classroom–the opportunity to watch kids soar.

My Town recently installed public art on electrical boxes throughout the downtown area. Based on Kate Schatz’s children’s book Rad Women A-Z the twenty-six installations feature rad(ical) women from Angela Davis to Zora Neal Hurston. Represented are women in entertainment, the arts, science, and civil rights. I was lucky enough to join up with a walking tour of the exhibit that just happened to include the ribbon cutting for the installation–and writer Schatz walked along, too! The boxes were painted by local women artists during Women’s History Month. We walked up hills and down and heard stories of incredible women, many I’d never heard of before. (Look up the Grimke sisters and Lucy Parsons.)

Can you say “Carol Burnett”?!

It might be telling that both exhibits were inspired by children’s books where, my experience tells me, the best writing and artwork is often to be found–and certainly the greatest Truths.

Perfect for a beginner like me.

Love and Marriage

What I read

Roy Hamilton and Celestial Davenport are on their way up. College educated young professionals in Atlanta they are confident and accomplished–Roy, in the business world; Celestial in the arts. Theirs would be a good life, stepping from one rung on the ladder of success to the next.

Their marriage isn’t perfect: there is her fierce independence and his flirtations. Their marriage is young: only eighteen months give or take. But love? They had it. Passion. Check. Commitment. You betcha.

And then Roy and Celestial’s world turned on its head after a night in a small town hotel when Roy, a good Samaritan, is accused of rape, arrested, and convicted. But innocent, no doubt.

What happens to that marriage when the couple is separated? Roy’s sentence is twelve years, but Celestial’s lawyer uncle gets busy appealing the conviction, and, for a time, weekend visits and letters seem to hold the marriage together.

Until it falls apart. Celestial’s hand-sewn dolls–and the artist herself–gain some fame. A woman has needs. Not only for sex, but for companionship and a co-created life. It is in the human soul to want a partner. So Celestial finds herself a married woman engaged to another man.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones also tells the story of parents who drop the ball and parents who never even caught it. Of parents who play the game with skill. Jones explores love and loss and the glue holds men and women together. Or doesn’t. Hers is a tender perspective on that old proverb that the greatest act of love is letting go.

What I lived

I’ve done this marriage thing twice. It’s complicated. Even more so when the principle players don’t have their shit together and must explore the idea that they might have built a house of cards.

Or not.

When it comes to love and loss, I tend to side with Glennon Doyle’s Love Warrior philosophy. But that requires a whole lot of vulnerability and willingness to trudge through the muck. Sometimes that just ain’t happening for one of the players or another. Sometimes the warrior becomes a conscientious objector.

Like I said, it’s complicated.