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.

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.

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.

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.

Country mouse

For weeks I’ve waited to post about my visit to Canyon Ranch in April because processing my visit was like trying to fit a square peg into the round hole of my experience. I had nothing with which to compare it. When I was gifted a spa package several years ago, the day consisted of beauty treatments at a local upscale salon: facial, body wrap, pedicure, makeup. So when my son and daughter-in-law gifted me a day at a Canyon Ranch Tucson, I was a bit wary–how would I ever fill nine hours with facials and mud wraps, for gosh sake?

Desert spaces

The night before my visit I was a little–okay, a lot–apprehensive. I’m a Midwesterner, born and raised, and we are a self-effacing lot. Don’t draw attention to yourself and that sort of thing. I wasn’t familiar with the ins and outs of what a day at the Ranch would entail and had all those first-day-of-school jitters. Where do I go? What do I wear? Who do I ask for …?

I worried I’d stick out like a country mouse among the rich and famous spa mice.

One of the many garden spots for reflection

But think of Canyon Ranch as an upscale sleepover camp for grownups, with an emphasis on health and wellness. (You could almost hear my sigh of relief!) The Ranch offers a wide range of services, from spa treatments to fitness classes to nutrition to bodywork. For the more spiritual, there’s crystal energy, tarot card reading, and handwriting analysis. For the sports enthusiast? Golf, archery, biking, and tennis. And, yes–there is also a whole range of skincare and salon services if a little bit of pampering is what you crave.

The nectar of the gods

Bless my daughter-in-law’s heart. She walked me through how my day would work at the spa: how the lockers were situated and how to choose a steam room … right down to where to get my robe and slippers and what to wear–or not wear!–in the whirlpool. And my son (who works at Canyon Ranch) left for work early to walk me around and get me familiar with the layout. His best advice? (Other than “Use the map and follow the signs!”) “Remember, it’s the job of everyone on staff to make you feel as comfortable as possible.”

And they did.

The two-mile loop

I started my day with a neuromuscular therapy treatment for chronic pain I manage, and then whirlpooled in my altogether. I walked the Ranch’s two-mile perimeter, looping around the 200 acre property located in the beautiful Sonoran Desert. I went on something called a Soul Journey where I was surrounded by sound and music as an incredible facilitator used guided imagery to create a sacred space for healing. My son met me for lunch at the Canyon Ranch’s Grill where the menu emphasizes a plant-based diet and whole grains. And then I ended the day soaking in a poolside whirlpool. (Turns out I’ve got a thing for whirlpools!)

My day was a delight, plain and simple. The grounds were gorgeous and offered up beautiful spaces to relax and restore. The staff was gracious and accommodating. The women I chit chatted with were interesting and their lives sounded not too different from my own.

And I never for a minute felt like a country mouse.