Tears for fears

Great Pause #2

Fine dining ala Hudson News

It was a new world I came home to on March 24. The airports were nearly empty. This time, no restaurants or bars were open, and very few shops. I didn’t anticipate the restaurant closures, so Hudson News provided my fine dining experience. Once seated for my flight, I wiped down my seat area (including the window and wall!) thoroughly with a handful of sanitizing wipes. The young couple behind me traveling with their toddler offered me a surgical mask as they watched me “clean house.” They had six, she said. Kindness continues even in the scariest of times.

The day-to-day of staying inside didn’t seem too terribly difficult. At first. An introvert, I feel inordinately qualified to spend long hours alone. I had books to read. Coffee at the ready. Needlework on hand. Closets to organize, after all. When (and if!) the weather turned nice, I would clear my perennial beds and transplant my peonies and the hydrangea bush.

And I did all those things that first week of the Great Pause–with enthusiasm and a sense of we’re-in-this-together. But what I didn’t expect was the gloom that soon settled over me. The dread of getting sick. Wondering if at that very moment the virus was multiplying inside me, every cough, headache, or muscle ache signaling “it” had arrived. Add to that the fact that my husband hadn’t worked in a weeks, so bills were mounting with no end in sight. (Promises of our stimulus check, unemployment, and SBA loans are bogged down in a queue with millions of others who are suddenly out of work.)

There were even some tears to accompany those fears.

But it’s amazing what we humans can get used to and two weeks later this all feels so. very. normal.

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.

The calm before the storm

Great Pause #1

In mid-March I flew to Tucson for a long-planned visit with my son and family. Governor Whitmer had closed schools in Michigan a few days before, and Covid was starting to spread across the state in Detroit, but life carried on six feet apart for most of us. Airports, though, were quiet, and the mood was somber. My flights ran at about 30% capacity and the airlines reassigned seats so that each passenger was seated alone. But I felt no panic, only a little worry (I did a double take when I realized my age put me in the high risk category for complications), and my back up plan if flights shut down was to extend my stay or rent a car and drive home.

When I left Grand Rapids at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Arizona was business as usual, but by the time my flight landed that evening, schools and restaurants had closed. Which made for a delightful visit with this little lady! With nothing to distract us we read and explored the neighborhood and went on scavenger hunts and even ‘flew’ to Paris to “see the big clock” with one pink princess suitcase. (Grandma was alternately ticket-taker, flight attendant, and traveling companion.) We cooked dinner together and watched Harry Potter. I learned I had troll hands, “fluffy” arms that invited squeezing, and looked like a man. (Leave it to a five-year-old to keep one humble!) My daughter-in-law went out once for groceries; I went out once for Thai take-out–other than that we feathered our nest with memories.

Three days before I was due to fly home, a stay-at-home order was ordered in Michigan and businesses closed, one-by-one. My flight was cancelled and I had to settle on leaving a day early to avoid connecting flights through Detroit or Chicago, which were by that time, hot-spots.

Just six days later and life as we knew it had shifted.

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.

Dear Jeanine Cummins,

What I read

Dear Jeanine Cummins,

It’s been quite a ride, hasn’t it? I can’t imagine working on a novel for five years and then *voila*–publicity tour cancelled–death threats–hateful reviews. (I guess if anything else, the blowback has spoken to the power of the written word … but I’m sure that’s little consolation and hardly how you thought this would turn out.)

Let me start out by saying that I raced through the first half of the book. You had me from the first page. I was riveted as Lydia and Luca raced to escape Los Jardineros. Held my breath as they hid in the missionary van and jumped onto La Bestia. The action was movie-like in its suspense; the characters just like me. Very John Grisham-ish, I thought.

And that was my first hint that something was not-quite-right. You see, Lydia seemed so … white. I get the whole we-are-all-the-same-on-the-inside thing, but Lydia’s story–a migrant’s story–was one about which I knew nothing. I wanted to see the world through her eyes, not my own. I wanted insight into the immigrant experience, but what I got was fiction that recycled features from the evening news. And this was probably my biggest disappointment: you wrote in tropes, cliche. Exciting ones, don’t get me wrong. But I wanted more.

I should probably mention I read nothing about the American Dirt controversy until after I finished the novel. My bookish friend Denice lent me her copy with an urgent, “I need to know what you think about this” and I didn’t want others to sway my opinion. Even the two of us spoke only briefly about the controversy.

And after reading several articles, I feel as though some of the criticism was well-founded. But even though the reviews might have some merit, I don’t think the entire burden should be laid at your feet. Flat Iron Books did you wrong–they were looking to make publishing waves and a whole lotta money and you got caught in the cultural cross-fire. Flat Iron heralded your book as literary fiction when in reality it was an exciting thriller, and you took most of the flack.

But, Jeanine, some of those reviewers were just. plain. nasty. I’m so sorry. Sadly, in our Trumpian universe people–even those who are woke–even those who have been on the receiving end of invective themselves–feel justified in name calling and taking broad swipes at those with whom they differ. Even *gasp* liberals and progressives. Whatever happened to respectful discourse?

Would I recommend American Dirt? Yes. With maybe a side note to read one of the articles below to put the novel into perspective. Was I sorry I took the time to read it? Not at all. As I said, it was an exciting thriller. It might even make a good movie.

But most importantly? It made me think. And that’s what compelling stories are all about.

What I lived

Following the American Dirt threads through the interwebs and reading link after link was fascinating. My takeaway? Listen. Just listen when you know little about a culture or experience that is not your own. Don’t stand on your liberal (or conservative!) soapbox and preach. Just. shut. up.

Here are some threads for you to follow, Dear Reader . Listen carefully.

Washington Post: Publisher cancels ‘American Dirt’ book tour: ‘Serious mistakes’ and ‘concerns about safety’ This article has a video excerpt of Cummins speaking at Politics and Prose Bookstore which is worth watching; just listening to the strain in her voice, it’s easy to recognize the toll this has taken on the author.

AP: Author tour for controversial ‘American Dirt’ is canceled Oprah chose the novel for her book club read and has faced some backlash from the Latinx community; concise read.

Slate: Will the American Dirt Fiasco Change American Publishing? Great discussion of how publishers might avoid a debacle like this in the future.

Texas Monthly: The Real Problem With ‘American Dirt’ Regional perspective with tons of links for additional reading, including this link to titles about the migrant experience written by Latinx.

1A (NPR): What The Controversy Over ‘American Dirt’ Tells Us About Publishing And Authorship A panel discussion focusing on “who has the right to tell what stories?” One quibble–one of the panelists scoffed at the fact that Cummins had Lydia ride La Bestia when a middle class woman in Mexico would have gone to the airport and taken the first flight to Canada. Except that Lydia did think of that and didn’t want her name showing up on the flight manifest. That made me wonder just how closely some of the critics read the novel.