The runaway: Great Pause #7

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

A common thread

Great Pause #5

First Cozyblue project: Night Garden

A few months ago, I took my embroidery hoop in hand again after putting it down nearly thirty years ago. I’m not quite sure why I put it aside. Probably something to do with the fact that I was a single mom finishing my degree part time. That I had three kids to shuttle around. And then a new teaching career that asked for more hours than I had in a day.

Embroidery patterns have changed since the 70s and 80s when the patterns leaned towards cute or floral or country. Not really pieces I’d want to spend time on today. But then I found Cozyblue Handmade and Snuggly Monkey and I was hooked all over again. Mandalas and vines and sun, moon, and stars. Oh, my!

My hoop has been a lifeline during this Pause. I stitch and stab and worry about whether or not my leaf stitch is even; I focus on french knots and fly-stitches–with nary a thought of some lurking virus. Or a depleted bank account. Or missed grandchildren.

What’s on my hoop

Embroidery has become a kind of meditation that calms my fear and keeps me smack dab in the moment.

So how serendipitous that Tracy Chevalier’s new novel A Single Thread should offer me the the story of how the magic of needle and thread saves a young woman one stitch at a time.

Violet Speedwell is a “surplus” woman. During the Great War so many young men of marriageable age were killed that in the years that followed, a generation of women watched marriage, children, and independence pass them by. At 38, Violet languished at home with a demanding mother until she made the nearly unheard-of decision to move to a new job in another village … and life on her own.

One day Violet visits Winchester Cathedral on her lunch hour and finds that she has interrupted a service dedicating kneeling cushions created by the Cathedral Broderers*. Violet is drawn in by the prayers and music of the service and drawn to the community of women whose artistry would allow them to leave something of themselves behind.

So Violet befriends one of the younger broderers, manages to get her employer Mr. Waterman to allow her to attend the broderer’s Wednesday morning meetings, and begins to expand her life one stitch at a time. She goes on a summer walking tour alone. Dines out with new-found friends. She expands her role in Mr. Waterman’s office. And at long last stands up to her mother. Violet finds purpose in her work embroidering, while the group of women she meets anchor her.

Violet also finds herself drawn to the Cathedral bell ringers and their own mission. She meets Arthur, for whom bell ringing is just as much his life line as embroidery is hers, and bell ringing and brodering come to bookend the story. Quite literally.

If you are a needle worker, you’ll find the story especially engaging. A Single Thread both transported me to another time and place and connected me to this present moment where I’m grounded stitch-by-stitch.


* the brodery referred to in the novel is canvas needlepoint, not hoop embroidery–but the love of all things needle and thread is constant.

Forty days and forty nights

Great Pause #4

Depending on when you started counting, we’ve reached the forty day mark in this shut down, give or take a couple days. And just acknowledging that milestone makes this time feel epic. (Or apocalyptic, as the case may be.) It’s a number that carries much weight for People of the Book, be they Christian, Jews, or Muslims.

Forty. It rained on Noah. The Israelites wandered. Moses waited on Mt. Sinai. Jesus fasted. Muhammad received his revelation from Gabriel.

Isolated, all of them. Well, whaddayaknow!

So it’s no wonder that many of us are feeling the pull of this Pause–something calling us to turn inward and wait. Something Big is going to happen.

While it’s all well and good to await some sort of transformation, the Pause can also be rough. I want to use my time “productively” and so think I should be cleaning and organizing and painting (oh, wait … not that …) and doing all manner of spring cleaning. This is the time to finish the Great American Novel and fill reams of paper with poetry. Dive deeper into my relationship with my partner. Turn over a new leaf. Start afresh.

And there are some days when the stars align and all that is on the table. I strip the wallpaper. Bake the ham. Organize the junk drawer. Throw out the expired pantry items. (Sure jell with an expiration date of 2017–really?!) Walk in the park. Blog about the Great Pause. Read. And otherwise make myself useful.

Other days, not so much. There’s a heaviness that settles, some gloomy cloud of uncertainty. Days when my motivation dries up like the stink bugs belly up in my windows. I sit. I scroll through my phone. I read articles about the pandemic. I sit some more. It’s during these moments that I’m tempted to beat myself up for not being productive.

And then I remind myself: the world has shut down. There’s a virus loose and we don’t know who will catch it or how to stop it. We don’t know where it is or when if it will knock on our door. The business closed and the job dried up. In-come can’t keep up with the out-go. The future is uncertain.

Scary stuff.

So I am allowing myself a good measure of grace. If I tune out for a day (or two or three or …) so be it. I’m calling no harm, no foul. Just sit in the quiet and get through the Pause, I say. If the only thing I can claim after all this is over is that I came out on the other side physically and mentally healthy, it’s a win all-around.

“Let us embrace all this dithering and get in touch with our inner whim whams,” is my battle cry!

I have been reading, of course. Not always with great focus, but I do read on. (Is there any other way to get through life?) There’s been The Tatooist of Auschwitz for the cancelled book club meeting in April, a good story with writing that sometimes had a little to be desired. And The Keeper of Lost Things, a charming bit of chick lit that was diverting enough. Or how about A Man Against Insanity which looks at the early use of drug therapy at Traverse City State Hospital during the fifties. I’m about to start The Friend which has been sitting in my TBR basket for almost two years because the story turns on the death of a friend, a traumatized Great Dane, grief–and I’ll probably cry buckets. But it was a National Book Award winner in 2018, so it’s sure to be a great read. (And certain I’ll cry buckets.)

On a lighter note, I got my National Park Senior Pass in the mail and I am free (quite literally!) to go to any national park for the rest of my life. (Once they reopen, that is.) Please note I have no shame in declaring my possession of said senior pass because, come. on. Free national parks forevaaaaaaaa!

So I’m dreaming of my trailer and the open road and exploring beyond these four walls.

Home sweet home

What I read

You can’t go wrong with an Ann Patchet novel. Think about it. Patron Saint of Liars. Bel Canto. The Magician’s Assistant. State of Wonder. I need say no more … except, The Dutch House.

Patchett’s latest novel tells the story of the Conroy family. Patriarch, Cyril, makes good in real estate after serving in World War II and buys his wife Elna the Dutch house, a beautifully crafted (although ostentatious) home built in 1922 with marble floored foyer, a ballroom, rich wall coverings, delft-tiled mantels, and life-sized portraits of the original owners, Mr. and Mrs. VanHoebeek, still hung in place. The young couple moves in with their four-year-old daughter Maeve and begins the aspirational life that so many sought after the war.

From the beginning, Elna hated the house, spending her time instead on serving the poor in her local parish, leaving Maeve and eventually her son Danny to their nanny, Fluffy. In many ways Elna is a mother in name only–and she finally leaves the family when Danny is four to work with Mother Theresa in India. (Or at least that was the plan.) But Maeve and Danny have each other and their beloved nanny, as well as the housekeeper Sandy and cook Jocelyn. Cyril is distant and detached in that Greatest Generation kind of way, but the reconstituted family works.

And then Andrea Smith arrives. That wicked step-mother who fills the pages of so many tales. She even brings two step-sisters, but Norma and Bright are anything but mean. It’s Andrea’s arrival that pivots the story.

Danny and Maeve are sent to private boarding schools. Mrs. Smith (as the siblings still call her) marks her territory: favorite meals are taken out of rotation, family traditions spurned, and Maeve kicked out of a fairy-tale bedroom for her younger step-sisters. The two are persona non grata in their own home.

But it is the house that holds them in its embrace. Even when Danny is sent packing after Cyril’s death at age fifteen, even after the staff is let go, even after Maeve has made a life of her own and Danny marries, they return again and again to the house. The house, was, said Danny, “the … hero of every story, our lost and beloved country.” Sitting in Maeve’s car across the street after night falls, they wait while the lights switch on one by one and watch, trying to make sense of what once was and who they had become.

What I lived

I am myself an expert on houses. By the time I was thirteen I had lived in ten of them. Warren Road. JoyAnn Court. West Main Street. Ivan Drive. Brimfield. Summit. Edgewood. Sunrise Drive. Newcastle. Maxwell.

And each house held some sort of magic. The three flights up at West Main Street and my little ‘bedroom’ in the closet under the eaves. The sledding hill on Ivan Drive and the wide open basement, just right for learning to ride a two-wheeler with training wheels. The gravel road on Brimfield and listening to my dad laugh himself silly at the Smothers Brothers every Sunday night after I was tucked in bed. Summit, with its brown-painted wood floors that left chips of paint on the soles of your feet in humid weather and gauzy white curtains that floated on the breeze most summer nights. The woods behind Edgewood where we built forts, then played house for hours, and Sunrise Drive where Eric Sisson, my first crush, rode his pony over to give me a ride down the street. Newcastle, where my little brother got lost in the fields across the street on my watch, and where I made a pan of fudge to surprise my mom after work–only to have it upend in the freezer (where, for some reason known only to a budding 12-year-old cook I had set it to cool), milk chocolate drips puddling in the bottom of the cooler drawers in the ‘frig. And Maxwell. My final childhood home, fraught with family discord and drama, but a beauty unto itself, all timbered-stucco and brick. My bedroom with a window seat. (A window seat! Just like the girls in books …) Best friend down the street and bike rides around the lake.

Each and every house settled deeply in my bones, and I mourned each and every leaving. But I realize now that those houses have become heroes in my story.

Which is to say that a novel like The Dutch House reaches out, pulls me in, and settles me comfortable-like in its lap pages to watch the story unfold, just as I’ve watched my own.

Dreams die hard

What I read

Elizabeth McCracken’s novel Bowlaway is just about everything I want in a novel. The story is quirky, the characters unconventional, and the writing–oh, the writing! Think John Irving meets early Anne Tyler, then sprinkle it all with a dusting of magical realism.

It’s Massachusetts. Early twentieth century. And Bertha Truitt is found stretched out in a cemetery one frosty morning with nothing but a bowling ball, a candlepin, and fifteen pounds of gold in her possession. But wait! Bertha blinks, much to the surprise of her rescuers. One of the men who found her, Dr. Leviticus Sprague takes her pulse (she’s not dead!), and a policeman bustles her off to the hospital to recover.

And recover she does.

Bertha marries that Dr. Sprague. She builds a bowling alley–she, the inventor of bowling. (Or so she says.) Bertha makes her other rescuer, Joe Wear, her Man Friday. A force to be reckoned with, Bertha allows women to bowl in her establishment without a curtain protecting “men from the spectacles of feminine sport”. Bertha also rides a bicycle around town and is a suffragette. And her husband, Dr. Sprague? He’s a black man, a transplant from the maritime provinces of Canada. To say Bertha was ahead of her time is putting it mildly.

And so the story unravels over more than fifty years. There is an octagonal house, a birth in its cupola, drowning in molasses, and death by spontaneous combustion. A swamp creature. Of course there is heartache, betrayal. All the shortcomings–and perfection!–of what it means to be human.

But the characters. My goodness. Jeptha, a hydrocephalic pinsetter. Minna, a drummer and jazz singer. LuEtta, bowler extraordinaire. Margaret, the maid who becomes lady-of-the-manor. Nahum, the long-lost son returned. (Or is he?) Archie, the gambling ne’er-do-well.

It is the life blood of the Bowlaway, though, that keeps the story pulsing. The establishment nourishes the hopes–or cuts off the dreams–of every character. There is no escaping its influence.

One of the blurbs on the back cover called Bowlaway “an oddball masterpiece.” And, indeed, it is.

What I lived

How very unexpected find myself inside the story of a family business–and how it both feeds the soul and sucks it dry–when one that was dear to my own heart–a yoga studio–was closing its doors.

From the first time I stepped foot in the studio a dozen years ago, my heart opened at the smell of nag champa, the flap of yoga mats slapping the floor, the flicker of candlelight in the evening. It was a place to connect and stretch my Self … and when we had the chance to make it our own, I hitched my wagon to its star and dreamed away.

But as in many family endeavors, we humans tend to get in the way. There is conflict and disagreement and misplaced alliances of all sorts. (Even, God forbid, estrangement.)

I wish I could have closed the door with something other than regret. I wish I had said some sort of proper goodbye–but it happened oh-so-quickly, and we left ‘proper’ behind many years ago.

It will have to be enough to sit with the understanding that the star fell, and my wagon with it.

I guess I’ll search for stardust elsewhere.