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.

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.

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.