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 Her husband’s likes and dislikes superseded her own needs.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.

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.

Sisters & secrets: The Ninth Hour

What I read

Alice McDermott is one of my favorite writers. I haven’t read all her work, but That Night and Charming Billy are books that have stayed with me. McDermott’s characters are finely drawn and her sense of what it is to be human is spot on.

The Ninth Hour is no exception. It’s a story of women who, while their lives might be restricted by the actions of men, are enlivened by a circle of women. Annie is young, newly married, and pregnant when her husband Jim gasses himself in their Brooklyn tenement. The Church refuses him a Catholic burial and Annie is bereft. The Little Nursing Sisters of the Poor step in. Sister St. Savior and Sister Jeanne prepare Jim’s body and sit vigil with Annie. They see to the burial in an unmarked grave. And they put Annie to work in the convent laundry with Sister Illuminata, a demanding taskmaster who comes to care for Annie in her gruff way.

Annie’s life–and, in turn, her daughter Sally’s–is as full as life can be for a poor widow and orphan in the early years of the twentieth century, and most of that can be attributed to the safe harbor the nuns provided. But as her years of mothering Sally come to an end, Annie feels drawn to the convent’s milkman Mr. Costello. She misses the companionship of a man. Sally, meanwhile, contemplates becoming a postulant and in her training begins to care for Mrs. Costello, his invalid wife, in their home. The story opens with the cover up of Jim’s suicide–and from there the secrets snowball.

The Ninth Hour is a story about the weight of secrets and how our lives often pivot on a single word left unsaid or an act concealed. Deceit can throw a shadow over an otherwise happy life–but it is for each of us to decide what good might be possible should what was hidden come into the light.

What I lived

I must admit I’m always a little shy around Catholic sisters. As a convert I don’t have the stories so many cradle Catholics revel in telling–there were no sisters rapping knuckles or throwing chalkboard erasers in my Protestant upbringing. But I also don’t have a sense of familiarity and ease around them, either. They are a bit mysterious.

Despite the fact that women religious are under the thumb of the Church’s patriarchy, the sisters I’ve met are curiously powerful women. And despite the sacrifices they make as religious, their sense of agency is solid. (One sister I knew would loudly replace “Him” with “God” in the liturgy wherever possible.) Or maybe I’m just judging sisters based on my own biases. I do take weekly yoga classes at the local Dominican Center, and, on occasion attend one program or another the sisters offer–I’ve walked the labyrinth and zoned out with Zentangle; I’ve meditated on the St. Francis sculpture path. Yesterday I took a class on the rosary. I admire the Dominican sisters’ spirituality and commitment to social justice. But it’s stories like The Ninth Hour that help me understand these strong women.

Beauty of a different sort

My earliest memories are of tree canopy and the smell of fresh cut grass, of singing sand and lapping waves and drizzly Sunday afternoons. I’ve never known a life that isn’t saturated with green, that wasn’t waterlogged.

My world, clothed in beauty–what I see when I hear the words, “And God saw everything she made, and behold, it was very good.”

Last summer when I traveled for the first time to New Mexico for a writing retreat, I allowed myself a few days of travel on my own to explore countryside I’d never experienced. I was enchanted with the wide open spaces and touched by a spirit (Spirit?) that blew in and out and around on the breeze. And I filed Santa Fe’s high desert beauty in my heart under “magic”.

How’s this for a driveway? Their home sits at the base of the Catalina Mountains

I traveled back to the Southwest in April, this time to Tucson, where my son and his family recently moved. And of course, they were the main attraction! But the country? It was no less breathtaking New Mexico.

Puzzle fun at the visitor center

When Grandma comes to stay only twice-a-year, the first day or two are best spent doing, to ease into the visit and get comfortable with each other again. So we played mini-golf and went out for a bento lunch and did some grocery shopping. Just down the road from my son’s house, the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area in the Coronado National Forest is a fine place for exploring with a four-year-old. (It’s also one of granddaughter’s favorites!) The visitor center has a sweet little corner with books and wildlife puppets and crayons and puzzles–the perfect spot for some kid time–and we took a tram ride deep into the canyon. A saguaro forest covers the sides of the mountains, the Sabino Creek runs swiftly over the nine stone bridges we crossed–and dozens of hikers walked alongside the tram, trekking the four miles to the top on foot. The one-hour tour was just right for a precocious four-year-old. She listened and looked … and answered every one of the rangers throw-off comments as if a response was required. Ranger: “Is everyone loving this beautiful weather?” Granddaughter: “YES I am!”

The Sonora Desert is the most bio-diverse desert region in the world.

When work and day care sent the family their own ways, I drove out to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Every “What to do in Tucson” site I read before my trip rated this a Must See. And it was. A kind of botanical garden-cum-wildlife rescue-cum-nature preserve, the museum is spread out over 98 acres; walking paths cover over 2 miles. Very manageable even in the heat. I only spent about three hours at the museum, but I could have stayed the day. The docent-led tour I took to orient myself was a great place to start. (Plus I learned to tell the difference between cat prints and coyote, and distinguish cougar poop and from wolf–truly a life skill not to be missed!)

Barren … that’s what I expected of the desert–a dry, dusty landscape. It wasn’t. The desert was blooming with color and awash in dusky green. Every morning the quail and cactus wren and Gila woodpecker chattered, while hummingbirds flitted from tree to tree. The sky was clear and lapis blue, the mountains benevolent and watchful. Giant saguaros lifted their arms in benediction.

Beauty itself, wearing different clothes. And it was very good.