Scorched and Trembling:Locked in the Fiery Pages of Historical Romance

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My Nana’s favorite novel was Gone with the Wind. She read it at least once a year, from 1936, the  year of its publication, until almost in 1980. She once told my aunt that if she could have any life she wanted, she’d choose to live on a plantation in the ante-bellum South, like Scarlett O’Hara. My aunt said, “But that would mean you’d have slaves!” and my Nana just shrugged her shoulders.

Can you hear my aunt’s gasp of shock at her own mother’s callous attitude?

My Nana was not a student of history. She probably never read a nonfiction account of slavery or the biography of an enslaved person, or any  of the slave narratives collected through the Works Program Administration. If she had, she could not have so easily dismissed the evils of the slave-dependent society with a shrug.

What Nana longed for was the effortless comfort and ease of fictional plantation life as portrayed in a sappy novel. Gone with the Wind is revisionist history, a contribution to bolster the myth of The Lost Cause. The book is (as Wikipedia states) “written from the perspective and values of the slaveholder and tends to present slaves as docile and happy.”

My poor Nana’s reading experience would have been totally derailed if Margaret Mitchell had sent Scarlett O’Hara to some place like Nigger Toe, Virginia.  There enslaved persons audacious enough to make an unsuccessful run for freedom had their big toes chopped off. Just a few drops of splattered blood on Scarlett’s dainty gown would have had Nana throwing her book across the room!

Gone with the Wind  is Scarlett O’Hara’s book, infused with the viewpoint one might expect from a woman of her time and place and class.  Margaret Mitchell drew upon family history for inspiration for historical background to the compelling plot . She herself was a descendant of slaveholders, Confederate veterans, and post-war entrepreneurs. When she writes, she can’t help but reveal the bias and blindness of her own caste. (This is true for every writer, of course.) That wasn’t so glaring to a typical white reader in 1936, but it doesn’t wear well.

If Nana had summoned up just a smidgen of empathy to the unnamed and unnumbered persons in the deep background of the book — the “servants” whose unpaid labor made possible the gracious life described in the opening pages — she might have felt differently about the book.

My mother and my aunt had no respect their own mother’s choice of reading material. Not just GWTW, her books in general. Their mother was a source of shame to them. Letters from my mother and my aunt always included book titles and the names of favorite authors. My Nana’s letter were about what birds she’d seen and how the neighbors praised her zinnias.

I came to share my mother’s and aunt’s opinion of light fiction, romance novels in particular. I read voraciously and I read serious novels and non-fiction, not trash like romance novels. People who read romance novels just didn’t measure up. A degree in English only hardened my attitude.

I remember arguing with a professor that The Hobbit could not be literature. He seemed amused as I fumbled around, trying to defend my assertion. Real literature does not have dwarves and dragons in it. (And yet, at the time, college students extolled Stranger in a Strange Land as profound! Go figure.)

After I married, we had subscriptions to “The New Yorker” and “The Saturday Review”. We read the short stories and the novels by the authors who wrote those short stories. My aunt and I exchanged letters with commentary on the works of John Updike. My husband and I stacked books double until the bookshelves bowed: fiction, history, biography, art, philosophy, etc. And if anyone pulled any one of those books off a shelf and read the title, it could only add to our fine opinion of ourselves and our superior choice of reading matter.

il_570xn-851240582_2khmLike my mother and aunt, I judged other people by what they read. You could be ever so nice, but if there were no books or magazines in your house you obviously weren’t my intellectual equal. This hard shell of disdain suffered its first crack when I visited the home of  my daughter’s advanced piano teacher who was also a social worker. Except for her piano, every surface in her front room was stacked with Harlequin Romances. She could read the look on my face.

“With my job,” she told me, “I need to come home to happy endings.”

It was just a couple of years after that I got sick — really, really sick. So sick I couldn’t read anymore. I could read separate words but the last word in a paragraph no longer connected to any of the preceding words or phrases. I lost comprehension. The brain fog of chronic fatigue syndrome and the disabling pain of fibromyalgia knocked me flat.

My mind was clearest first thing in the morning, so I’d use that window to draw up a list of the essential chores of the day. That list — which I kept going back to over and over in the course of the day in a futile attempt to remember what I was doing — that list was the only literature I read. Since I seldom got through the list of mundane chores (load the dishwasher, wash white things, cook supper) it fell into the category of fiction.

After some time, maybe a year, maybe eighteen months, my down times weren’t quite as down and there were longer periods of mental clarity. Not mental sharpness. But I could read again.

I may have begun reading cozy mystery first. Agatha Christie certainly. These were easy to follow, amusing, not intellectually challenging. I wasn’t up to that. Thinking hard hurt (it still does). If I had enough wits about me to think hard, there was always a checkbook to balance, a grocery list to draw up, a family concern to address.

Like a lot of other things, I don’t remember when I started reading romance novels. We hadn’t had a television for a decade so, flat on my back, I wasn’t watching TV. There were long stretches of every day when I was awake but not well enough to do anything. If I was going to live through this illness without going insane I needed distraction without overstimulation.

Historical romance fit the bill. Also some sci-fi and fantasy (yes, even with dragons). I read the young adult fiction that the kids brought home, too. I gave up literary pretence in favor of a compelling plot and a happy ending. I was too upset with my own life to read anything with rape scenes, the tension of a stalker, a nightmare come to life, or any realistic portrayal of cruelty or suffering. I read for escape.

Slowly, I grew not-as-sick and am now able to read serious authors, too. But when I feel a imagesplunge coming on, I load up my Kindle with the likes of Mary Balogh and Eloisa James, Georgette Heyer and Marion Chesney. The best romance has echoes of the wit of Jane Austin, the playing of different characters against each other.

I may have to spend several days in a row reading until I am glassy-eyed. In spite of all those happy endings, I get depressed. When I find myself impatient with a romance novel, skimming to see how the plot works out, I know I’m starting to come out of my slump.

And how are these historical romances I read different from Gone with the Wind?

The sweeping changes in the southern United States were not mere background for Scarlett’s drama but a central component of the novel. The novels I read usually only pay lip service to historical events. They are all set in England. The main female character may find herself left without partners at a ball in Brussels as the officers rush off to Waterloo in their dancing slippers. Or perhaps, as in a book I recently finished reading, the Duke lost his first wife to the guillotine. In the newest crop of books, there seem to be many soldiers with PTSD.

There are thick historical romances with color cut from the encyclopedia and pasted on the pages. I find these heavy going. I don’t think I’ve ever finished one. If I want a lot of facts I can look them up myself, thank you. I like plots that keep moving.

The basic plot of a romance novel is some variation on this:

  • Man and Woman meet and hate each other on sight
  • Each fights his/her growing attraction to the other
  • Multiple misunderstandings keep them apart
  • They declare their love for each other
  • Something — a kidnapping, a knock on the head, a righteous parent — pulls them apart
  • They unite
  • They marry

In recent years, authors include graphic sex scenes. I usually skim over these, though the phrases used to describe the act intrigue me. How does a writer come up with this stuff? I don’t think Margaret Mitchell would approve. I’m not sure I do!

At one time (maybe still?) GWTW was considered literature. Jane Austin is literature, but Georgette Heyer is not. Eloisa James is the daughter of poet Robert Bly and a tenured professor of English Literature at Fordham University. Does that make her books serious literature? Do they teach these texts in women’s studies classes?

The decades between GWTW and my preferred novels have not eradicated the problem my aunt pointed out to my Nana. The main characters in my books are outrageously wealthy and their riches and privilege are accumulated through exploitation, cruelty, and callousness. There’s no way around it.

Authors themselves are getting bothered by this. Today’s author’s would never — like Heyer did in one of her novels — base her English aristocrat’s wealth on holdings in the colonies worked by slaves. Authors today sometimes try to minimize these failings in the characters: the Duke runs an enlightened orphanage for street urchins who think of him as the father they never had; the Earl is a generous and attentive landlord and builds a school for the village and refuses to enclose his lands; Lord So-and-so speaks passionately against the corn laws. Sometimes the female half of the love-interest rescues abused horses or dogs. As for the legion of servants required to maintain the persons, clothes, and palaces of this fictional aristocracy, under the benevolent hero’s care, they are well-treated, well-fed, loyal and content. If they are necessary on the main stage to move the plot along they are colorful characters. Sound familiar?

I can breeze by a little of this 21st century political correctness, but a little goes a long way. You simply can’t make “the wealthiest Duke in England” — which would have been stupendously wealthy in real life– a “man of the people.” Any author who tries ruins her book by calling attention to the underpinnings of the fantasy.

I’m not a social worker with real tragedy and uncertain outcomes shoved in my face every working day. I’m just one reader out of millions with my own not-so-good time to get through and I want an entertaining plot with a few laughs, likable main characters, and a happy ending.

Just like my Nana.

 

 

 

 

Where have all the matrons gone?

Margaret Dumont

Looking at me you would not know that I am skinny. I have always been skinny and still am — at least in my head.

I was underweight the first half of my life. Even after socking on the pounds — 35-50 of them– during pregnancy, I’d shrink right back down to my skinny self. (Though after that fourth time, my waist never returned.) But then, in my mid-30s, I got knocked down by “yuppie flu” and gained thirty pounds in less than a year. My appetite thermostat reset, leaving me always hungry and too sick to move.

I no longer look or feel like myself. I have never been outwardly skinny again, and I have never gotten used to the body I now live in. My own expectations have been disappointed.

My mother had different expectations for me.

Mama was skinny and  stacked. When she hung the wash outside on the lines, she always hung her double-D white cotton bras on the inside lines between sheets or towels. In our small town, Mama had to special order her super-size bras at the dry goods store down on Main Street.

I also wore a bra. It was what teenagers did back then. But I didn’t need it. I disappointed Mama’s expectations for me.

f6353318f0b8a65d80c9e426ad0be696Her expectations were not unrealistic, given the genetics. She and her surviving sister were both quite well endowed. (After my aunt’s mastectomy, she confided that she wished they’d cut the second one off, too: the weight was a strain on her back.) Both my grandmothers, my father’s sister and mother’s aunts were all busty women. So what were the chances that I’d take after a skinny, flat-chested great grandmother?

Good enough, apparently.

My mother was disappointed for me. Boobs were an advantage, in her book. And she loved me and wanted me to have every possible advantage.

My two flat-chested great-grandmothers died in their 90’s, still skinny. My mother and her sister were skinny, too, and I got to share their high metabolism as a kind of compensation prize for being flat-chested. I could eat more cake and cookies than any of my friends and never gain a pound. And I was comfortable inside my washboard self.jpg

Once, in the early days of my first pregnancy, I was pounding away at my ancient typewriter and noticed some obstruction when I hit the carriage return: my swollen boob was in the way. It was inconvenient.

So this flat-chested woman got to “enjoy” being well-endowed during pregnancy and lactation. Of course, I knew that big boobs attract unwanted attention but I hadn’t owned that before. Later, when E.M. told me, sorrowfully, how no man ever looked her in the face when he talked to her, I understood her pain in a new way.

My breasts, insignificant as they were, worked when I needed them but I preferred them small. I liked the way my clothes hung on me and I liked moving around easily.

Now, I’m not skinny (outwardly) and I no longer have a high metabolism. Clothes don’t fit right.

And who are my models for this new self?

Women like my paternal grandmother no longer exist. She was stout, with trim ankles and feet in low heels. She wore pearls and furs and hats. Her dresses were belted at the waist.She was a fine figure of a woman. She was a matron.

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Great grandmother 

Unlike my grandmother, I have no pretensions to a standing in society, which was part of being a matron. It took some money to achieve that look, but the general demeanor was available to any  self-respecting woman of a particular age.

My grandmother was the primary matron in my life. But even when I was a child, matrons were an old-fashioned concept. Wealthy society matrons like Margaret Dumont were often foils for the antics of the Three Stooges or the avaricious desires of Groucho Marx  and those were old movies when my brother and I saw them at the Castamba Theatre for 25 cents a ticket. When I was in high school, grown women started buying into the glorification of the youth culture. My own mother dressed like a teen-ager. People often mistook us for sisters.

Now, almost all the models in all the magazines and catalogues are super-skinny, photo-shopped skinny on top of that, no matter what their age. My grandmother could enjoy her bonbons and bridge mix. These models look like they count the calories in lettuce leaves!  What happens to women in a culture saturated with unrealistic feminine ideals?

Consider Dolly Parton, a talented and estimable woman, with a rich voice and a loyal, generous heart. Even she is not able to be who she is. She found it professionally FERN BRITTON MEETS...DOLLY PARTONnecessary to surgically augment her breasts and have more “work” done as she aged. The way she looks now is a distraction from her beautiful voice.

What does it say about our culture when a woman like her needs to put herself under the knife to remain relevant in show business? When Carrie Fisher/Princess Leia appeared on screen as General Organa, she had to endure cracks about her weight — and she’d lost weight for the film!

I’d like to think matrons still have a place in a church ladies culture. But, as a Quaker from an unprogrammed meeting, I’m not part of that community, so I don’t really know if it exists. Hillary Clinton’s pant suits and precise blonde haircuts might suffice for some women (and most other female politicians). The gravitas necessary to a proper matron is there, but it’s an image primarily (I believe) adopted to be inoffensive.

Where is the contemporary version of the matron, one sans girdle and garter belt? A look I can emulate, without extreme dieting, manicures, or a face life? Dressing with character is an art and not everyone has the eye for it. I have some non-skinny artist friends who dress with style and aplomb, people who put fabulous looks together from thrift stores and consignment shops. But us ordinary people, who don’t have that talent, also don’t have the funds to hire a dresser to do it for us.

To be realistic, I just don’t have what it takes to pull it off. With low-to-no energy and extended bouts of inertia, I’m not up to it. It takes effort to create that look and energy to generate the aura that holds it all together.

Me? I guess I’ll just stay comfortable and insignificant in elastic waist jeans and denim jumpers. My signature fashion statement? Hand-knitted wool socks.

Margaret Dumont never had it so good.

But she sure looked super!

 

 

 

 

 

Ignore at Your Peril

One of my mixed media collages. The central image is a linocut I printed up just to use in collage.

It’s the start of a new year — the season for self-assessment and goal-setting. The season for lists proclaiming The Best of 2016: the best movies, the best books, the best headlines, the best Facebook Memes, the best tacos, etc.

Now that I am an experienced blogger — twenty posts in four months!  (I am trying to be funny here) — I have an obligation to share what I’ve learned in an end-of-year list!

So here it is — the best advice on blogging that I didn’t quite follow!

#1    All writers must blog.

  • Unpublished writers blog to build a platform to impress potential literary agents.
  • Published authors blog to promote their books.

To be honest, Point #1 is not something I just learned last year. Point #1 is something that speakers at James River Writers Writers Workshops have been pounding into my head for uncounted sessions. Point #1 is advice I resisted because it seemed to me that if every writer is writing a blog there couldn’t possibly be enough readers to go around. I thought I didn’t know anybody who read blogs.

Actually, I myself read blogs.

My sister writes the lovely Stag Beetle Power for homeschoolers in Portland, Oregon. I live on the other side of the continent but she posts occasional photos of my nephew and lots of photos of gorgeous scenery and close-ups of wildflowers and critters. And it’s packed with news of interesting local exhibits and workshops and great parks.

I have a high school friend who has traveled Tibet by pony and Europe by bike and walked the Camino de Santiago. She blogs to share her travels with her many friends. There is a lively young family I know, with adorable curly-headed children, who appear in a blog about their life, overseas and stateside, and I look at that. Their photos make even Cleveland look good. They post mouth-watering images of the exotic foods they cook, too.

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A watercolor that was intended to show the chocolates.

 

And writing blogs? There are some great ones. I’ve been reading those for years. my  Miss Snark, Literary Agent is my favorite. (Alas! She no longer writes this blog. The archives, however, are an entertaining education.) And Evil Editor! Bless his heart! He’s always ready explain “why you don’t get published.”

And, predictably, there are lots of blogs about blogging — LOTS! (And much of the advice is contradictory, beginning with the basic premise above that authors must blog because their readers will look for them even though many writers, like myself, are unpublished and nobody is looking for us.)

And, like most everyone else, anytime I want to know how to do something — roast chicken, knit cables, make a snow globe — I Google it. And often I end up finding the information I need in someone’s blog. So I was reading blogs even though I thought they weren’t blogs. Maybe everyone with a computer is also following one or two blogs and thinks they aren’t.

Maybe there are enough readers to go around.

#2    Writers are wise to develop a public personality before they need one.

Obviously, I learned this too late to apply it to my blog.

Besides, I don’t have the energy to develop a personality.  A personality requires upkeep and there’s a whole list of stuff I’m already not keeping up with!

Presenting a deliberate, alternative personality? I couldn’t do that with a script! Brain fog and bouts of exhaustion make me choosy about how I deplete my stamina.

It might be fun for a party, on a night I was up to it. Blue eye-liner and false eye-lashes and a wig. Maybe a hat with a sweeping ostrich plume and dangley earrings. I wouldn’t even have to say anything! I could just look mysterious. Maybe I wouldn’t even have to sit up straight. I could sort of drape myself across a piece of upholstered furniture.

That would be an easy public personality. Too bad it won’t work in a blog.

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Sometimes my watercolors also lack focus 

#3  Consistent subject matter is essential for a successful blog.

Okay. Just give me a D-. “Things I am Thinking About Today” is just NOT a consistent theme.

But, it’s early days yet. If I keep writing, maybe I’ll sight a Compelling Theme, like a drowning swimmer, bobbing up in this sea of words. And maybe I can throw out a life-buoy and pull it to shore and get a acquainted it. (Don’t hold your breath!)

In the meantime, this undeveloped personality will aim for consistency in the frequency of posts. It’s a modest goal. I might even pull it off.

But will anyone read it?

 

 

Who, Me?

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I was mincing fresh rosemary at the kitchen table when my daughter said, “I met a woman who reminded me of you.”

Daughter told us she’d been in Jo-Ann Fabric buying pillow forms for the cushion covers she’d tie-dyed as gifts.* Those of you who shop at that store will remember how the registers are at the end of a u-shaped corrider formed by shelves stocked with candy, magazines, and other enticing items. On this particular day, just a few days before Christmas, the line was long. Daughter suspects a store policy of under-manning  registers to keep customers in line longer, right next to the enticing items, and thus more likely to make impulse purchases. Which is what she did: she stood in line long enough to notice attractive wrapping paper displayed right next to her and decided to buy a roll.

We all have heartbreak in our lives. Your heartbreak may not look exactly like mine but if you shared yours I would know what it felt like. I’ve felt it, too. One heartbreak of mine is that my daughter got sick at about the same age I did. Some of her symptoms differ from mine, and her doctors haven’t told her she has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or SEIDS. Her doctors have a number of titles for her set of symptoms. But the end result is the same: deep and utter fatigue, unrelieved by rest. It’s a life changing condition, as, sadly, some of you know from personal experience. I wouldn’t wish it on an enemy. It breaks my heart to see my daughter struggle with the limitations imposed by this disease, whatever the doctors decide to call it.

And she was struggling that day in JoAnn Fabric. She was dead on her feet as she waited in that long check-out line with the two pillow forms she’d gone in for and the long roll of attractive gift-wrap clutched in her arms.

Then the woman in line in front of her turned around, looked at the gift wrap, and said, “Oh! I thought that was a cane! I thought you had a cane decorated for the holidays.”

My daughter said, “No, it’s not a holiday cane, but that’s a good idea.”

“I use a cane sometimes. I’d buy a decorated one,” the shopper said. “And I bet lots of other people would, too.”  And the woman was off and running with one suggestion after another for decorating canes for the holidays.

Daughter, in the meantime, is zoned out, so tired she wonders if she won’t fall right over.

But the woman goes on with even more ideas for holiday canes, culminating in a suggestion she acted out, right there in the check-out line, as if she were striking an imaginary someone with her imaginary holiday cane. “And you could use a holiday cane to wish someone Happy (thwack) Holidays (thwack) to (thwack) you (thwack)!”

Finally, my daughter reached the check-out counter where the clerk completed the transaction and asked “Would you like a receipt?” My daughter said yes and the clerk waved her arms at the register, intoning, “Come to me! Come to me!” as the paper spooled out of the machine.

There in my kitchen, we all laughed. (There were four of us. The main cooking was being handled by my son and daughter-in-law.)

In defense of the clerk, my daughter said she might have been punch drunk after too many days of too many customers too close to Christmas. Daughter had no explanation for the fellow customer wielding the imaginary cane.

“And she reminded you of me?” I asked.

“Yes. You are always talking to people.”

“Like that?”

And everybody laughed again.

It’s moments like this that make me miss my mother. She always appreciated my jokes, which was understandable because they are cut from the same cloth hers were. For example, when a couple of turkey buzzards were stalking around in the side yard, I called up the steps to Mama, “Hey! You aren’t dead yet are you?” And she riffed off of it. (This was before her diagnosis of terminal cancer. Too bad, in a way. That would have made for even better material than just being 80+ years old. We shared a kind of dark sense of humor.)

When we were kids, my brother made our joke-fest a trio. These days, my brother and I don’t exchange gifts. But sometime in the fall, I came across the perfect present for him: A Three Stooges figurine.three_stooges_figurine

My brother loved the Three Stooges. He could make all the noises that went with their eye-pokes and hair pulling. He had memorized his favorite Stooges routines. Who could forget Moe splitting dollar bills with Larry and Curly? Moe sat in the middle and dealt to both sides. “One for you, and one for me, and one for you, and one for me, and one for you, and one for me . . ” When we were kids, I couldn’t forget this routine because my brother tried to use it every time he dealt cards.

And for reasons lost in the mists of time, the Three Wise Monkeys were a family joke, too. See no evil, hear no evil, say no evil. This figurine I found was the Three Stooges version of the Three Wise Monkeys. So it should be a perfect gift for my brother.

I wrapped the box ten times, in ten different wrapping papers. I wrote out a tag saying something like “Ben and I hope you will like this wonderful goat milk soap as much as we do. It is so smooth and creamy. It is hand-crafted by a local artisan who milks her own free range goats and plucks her own organically grown herbs.” This tag was to deflate his expectations. I didn’t want him to get his hopes up.

Of course, he opened the gift the day it arrived. He left me voice mail complaining about unwrapping ten packages for only one gift. And I’m not sure he liked it, but he did say he’d put it on top of his TV, so that’s a good sign, right?

Oh well, I probably won’t send him a gift next year. Where would I ever find another gift as perfect for him as this one?

Maybe I’ll spot something while I’m waiting in that winding check-out line at Jo-Ann Fabric. Maybe — in that first set of shelves funneling customers toward the registers — maybe the perfect gift for my brother will be in plain sight — right between the Santa Pez dispensers and the selection of festive holiday canes.

 

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*A perfect heart in a lovely, pure red sits in the center of each design on the cushions. My daughter is really good at tie-dye!

Merry Christmas!

christmas-card

This week I experienced a streak of unusual energy, prolonged mental clarity, and almost bubbly cheerfulness. It felt wonderful! And it lasted for several days.

Maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow and feel that good again. With a chronic illness, you just don’t know. It could happen.

It was great to feel organized and effective: To feel, at the end of the day, that I’d been present and active in my life, not just watching through a smudged window. I felt happy about the chores I got done, not weighted down by the things I hadn’t gotten around to yet. And since the chores this week included wrapping presents, hanging a few lights, and plugging in our little Christmas tree, I was possessed by Christmas spirit. It was wonderful! (Did I say that already?)

My usual state — which varies in degree — finds me distracted, dizzy, muddled, in pain, nauseous, etc. Sometimes I have a background headache. Sometimes it’s a migraine. But what’s more consistent is a sense of failure. I never feel like I’ve done anything, even if I have. I just walk through my life. At the end of the day, I fall into bed weighted down with what I haven’t done. If I’ve managed to write two pages, I only remember that I didn’t write ten.

Today I didn’t write at all. I stumbled over my piano assignment. I did the laundry. That was good. What did I do the rest of the day? Anything besides drink cups of ginger tea and move things around?

I’m sure lots of other people — normal, healthier people —  also sometimes feel they spend major portions of their allotted time on earth moving stuff around. We own so many things. Dishes that have to be washed and put back on the shelves. Groceries that come out of the bags and into the cupboards. Somehow the trash can fills and has to be emptied. Newspapers, mail, magazines, books — a tide of paper, in and out, in and out, day after day after day!

For those of us who can’t always stay on top of this, it’s a struggle. And the world is not kind to those who don’t pay their bills, file their taxes, never sort the mail. (This is not me, in spite of my chronic problems. At least, it’s not me today.) Modern life can overwhelm us.

So I’m sure, that underneath lots of Christmas trees, wrapped up in shiny papers and bows, there are hardcover copies of books on  How-to-Declutter and Simplify Now!

We are a people of irony. We long for a simple life while we bring truckloads of more stuff into our house every year — at no time more obvious that Christmas. The packaging alone will overflow our wheelie bins.

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But this week, still glowing from that string of good days, I don’t feel like I’m an empty package myself. I’m happy about the holidays even though I ran out of energy before I ran out of chores (again). The Christmas lights are amazing, the giant inflate-able snowmen and T-Rex’s- holding-candy-canes are festive, and the lights dancing in patterns across the front of the houses are little miracles. And, look! Here’s our neighbor, wearing a Santa hat while he walks his dog. All good!

And while I may not feel as good as I did yesterday, I am still enormously pleased with my best decorating idea this year: battery operated twinkle lights trimming the cuckoo clock!

So I hope you are enjoying yourself, too, and, like me, have everything you need to be comfortable and happy, in spite of whatever the world might throw at you!

 

 

 

 

 

Do-it-yourself/Make-Do Christmas

Peace

We didn’t think we were poor. Compared to most of the people in the world, or even millions of other people in the United States, we were sitting pretty.

There were six of us in the family. We lived in a three bedroom, two story house with a fenced yard and large block garage and we could cover the mortgage and the utilities on Ohio’s unemployment benefits when we had to. We had union health insurance so we could go to the doctor and the dentist.

There was always plenty to eat, thanks to careful planning (think rice and beans, vegetable soup, and stir fry with brown rice) and the grandparents’ large garden and their canning skills. I baked the bread, made the yogurt, and “volunteered” at two co-ops. We had two cars that usually worked, and when they didn’t work, my husband worked on them. I thrifted, refinished, sewed, mended, patched, and cut hair. Friends stopped by daily and our parties were potluck and included all the kids.

We just didn’t have much in the way of expendable income.

Christmas present for the kids were chosen with care. We couldn’t afford too many, and we couldn’t afford to go into debt for the holidays, so each present had to be something they wanted and something that should last.

I kept my eyes open for stocking stuffers all year — small, age-appropriate toys or gadgets that would make an interesting bulge in a Christmas stocking. These were stored in a box in the closet beneath the stockings themselves.

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Linocut Christmas card

The boys would clamor for the tallest Christmas tree that would fit beneath the ceiling. We waited to buy that tree until the last minute, when the few that were left were marked down to half price. They were also — every single one — crooked. We lodged the trunk in a metal bucket, among bricks, and filled in with pea gravel before adding the water. The skirt was an old sheet. It could be a challenge to set up a crooked tree, but once the decorations were on, no one could tell. (We hoped.) One year our tree had so few branches that our oldest son dubbed it the Christmas Spear.

After we bought presents for four kids, there wasn’t much money left to buy presents for anyone else. And half the joy of Christmas is giving presents. Those years when we were especially cash-strapped, we still wanted to give presents.

Luckily, before I got sick, I had boundless energy.

One year I ordered potpourri ingredients from Frontier Herbs through our coop. I combined star anise, lavender, rose petals, some essential oils and I don’t remember what all to make a very fresh potpourri blend. My daughter and I stitched up sachet bags and sachet cats with embroidered faces– dozens of them — from fabric scraps and ribbon and lace left from other projects. We boxed the bags and cats into gift sets and wrapped them up and mailed them out.

We were so pleased with how they turned out! We thought they were wonderful!  We set them off hoping the recipients liked the gifts one smidgen of how much we liked them.

Another year, my daughter and I paint and varnish to decorate clothespins — lots of them. We painted them all different colors and then painted designs over that first coat. These were an unexpected Christmas gift, to say the least. (They proved durable. I’m using some that outlasted my mother and my aunt.)

One year we made fantastic rum-soaked Christmas cakes and gave those to everyone. I put up luscious peach jam and handed those out.

For the Mothers’ Milk Bank Club Annual Bean Dinner and Christmas bazaar, I sculpted hundreds of salt dough ornaments. Each cat, or angel, or Santa, etc  was individually rolled and pinched into shape (similar to these). Every Teddy bear wore either Lederhosen or skirt. Every lion had a curly mane and every sheep had fluffy wool. I painted each figure in  multiple bright colors and didn’t spare the polka dots, swirls, tiny flowers or eyelashes. Each received three coats of varnish. I set up an assembly line in the dining room to churn them out. And I did it two or three (?) years in a row.

Other years I made appliquéd crib quilts which were raffled off at the bazaar.

There were bigger projects. My husband and I built, finished, and partially furnished two big doll houses, one for our daughter and one for my kid sister. And I assembled a set of reproduction antique porcelain doll head and limbs onto a cloth body and stitched up a Victorian wardrobe as a surprise for my daughter.

And one year my daughter learned to play piano pieces from a Scott Joplin sheet music book as her Christmas gift to me.

It was a challenge, making Christmas while making-do. A lot of our friends were in the same position so it felt normal to us. But as other families in our straits moved to greener pastures, and my husband’s jobs grew further apart and further away, we weren’t challenged anymore — we were stressed. We finally had to say goodbye to that house and that life and move to greener pastures ourselves.

It was during that move that CFIDS/SEID struck me down. I got out of the moving van with a case of flu, we thought, and it never went away. I am much better than I was in those first years, but I don’t take on any more big Christmas projects.*

Bobo with his rawhide wreath
Bobo with a holiday chew toy

Now there’s just the two of us and Bobo, the world’s best (because he comes when he’s called) dog, in a four bedroom house. We don’t buy a tree or fill any stockings. I just take the tree out of the box, set it on the mantle, and plug it in. It’s less than ten inches high and wears its ornaments all year. The stocking are hung by the chimney with care but they’re just decorative, too. A few strings of lights in the windows are the final touch.

These years, when I’m up to it, I make Christmas cards, usually linoleum block prints

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Socks. (Like you didn’t know that!)

turned out in assembly line fashion like those salt dough ornaments years ago. But the only Christmas presents I make these days are the knitted sort.We still have everything we need and plenty to eat (too much!). Nowadays, we even have some of that expendable income we used to hear rumors about to use toward presents.

But picking the right gift? — that is still a challenge.

 

 

*Well, except for the needlepoint piano bench cover I made for my daughter and her husband. The first year they got the blank canvas and a promise. The next Christmas they got the finished cushion featuring life sized portraits of sock monkeys Leslie and Fred.

 

 

Sparkling Shadows

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We Quakers like to think things through. We use queries and testimonies to gently guide us, and we may use clearness committees to examine weighty decisions like marriage or a career change. After a few years of Quaker process, we may find certain phrases have taken up permanent residence in our brains.

So if, for example, one were tempted by a handsome Christmas catalogue from Goldspot.com, specifically the pages displaying the ink (I am a sucker for color swatches), one might consider this avarice in the Light of query #5: “Do you practice simplicity in speech, dress, and manner of living, avoiding wasteful consumption? Are you watchful that your possessions do not rule you?”

Since I already own a bottle of black Monteverde Ink that I have been quite happy with and may last me the rest of my life, and I only have two pens with refillable cartridges, strictly speaking I am not in need of any more ink. So perhaps purchasing more is “wasteful consumption.”

However, after sleeping on it, I began to see that colored ink could do things black ink just couldn’t do in quite the same way.

Who wouldn’t welcome a letter penned in violet ink? And wouldn’t it be splendid to address envelopes with a calligraphy pen filled with glittery grey ink?  And wouldn’t grey ink work well under vellum in a collage.  And it was just two bottles of ink.

[Honesty compels me to reveal here that I already have an entire room of art, crafts and sewing supplies.]

So, yes, I gave in to temptation in spite of the queries. I ordered the ink.

When the package from Goldspot arrived it was larger than I had expected. Inside, each bottle of ink was presented in its own box and each box was individually cushioned in its own bundle of bubblewrap. One box was sparsely illustrated with scattered cryptic img_9158sketches. The other box was black splashed with gold and silver. Just owning such clever packaging made me clever, too, right? (Such are the dangers of consumer culture. We identify with the products that call to us.)

So I filled my pens and sat down to answer letters.

I had seven letters from inmates to answer.

Here you may be wondering something like this: How did this woman come to be exchanging letters with seven prison inmates?

The first is a high-school friend of my son’s.  He was my “gateway drug,” you might say. His letters showed me something of what it is to be locked away from normal human society, to live under arbitrary rules, to be constantly on watch and watched.  The worst was, he wasn’t even safe inside. I don’t remember giving much thought to prisons before he was sent to one, any more than any other common garden-variety  knee-jerk liberal. Visiting our young friend at these places — he didn’t change his ways just because he was behind bars so he kept getting into trouble and getting transferred to more and more “secure” institutions — was awful. The search prior to visitation could be humiliating, depending on which guard was on duty. The clang of the locked gate behind you — the walk between steel mesh walls topped with razor wire — the constant surveillance in the visiting room — all underscored your powerlessness here. And that was just a visitor’s experience!

Alongside our testimonies and queries, we Friends are guided by certain parts of the Bible (like every religion I know anything about, we also pick and choose which portions of our holy texts appeal to us — though unlike some, we constantly reexamine how the text speaks to us today).  This from Matthew 25 remains clear: For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. ‘Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ 

I have my own physical challenges that severely limit my stamina and interfere with my ability to keep commitments. But letters? I can write letters, especially to someone willing to wait. And inmates? They are experts at waiting and any day a letter arrives is a good day. A letter is a kind of visit and it’s my small offering against the pain of the world.

So I did an on-line search for other inmates who write letters. That’s how I connected with an inmate in Texas. She has since been paroled and writes about the challenges of re-entry. Another pen-pal is a lifer in Pennsylvania. In past years, I sent Christmas cards to inmates using pre-printed address labels from  Virginia-CURE. A few of those men wrote back and we began corresponding. Another inmate wrote a letter to our meeting asking for help finding a job and farm work upon parole. I passed his plea on to another member and now he writes to both of us. (But he hasn’t been satisfied with our help because he’s still locked up. He was counting on us to convince the governor to commute his sentence. In our defense, we have made efforts to bring his case to the governor’s attention.)

Letters from inmates can be hard to read and harder to answer.

There are still people who believe prison is like a country club and better than a retirement home: free food, free clothes, free housing, free medical care, free college and HBO. Why don’t we kick out those criminals and move Grandma into her own cell?  I have never seen “Orange is the New Black,” but surely the show has disabused viewers of this notion that inmates have a cushy life and are just mooching off law-abiding taxpayers.

Depending where a prisoner is housed, he or she may be required to buy their own uniforms, shoes, socks, underwear, jackets, hygiene needs, stamps, paper, etc.  And they can only buy from the prison commissary at inflated commissary prices.

One man writes: I definitely need a television here because we are locked down in our cell most of the day. My old television ceased working a few months ago. Would it be too much to ask if you can contribute some money towards the price of the television. It is exactly $214.

Private companies make money on every bag of potato chips and pair of cotton briefs sold and the state gets a kickback. In Virginia, JPay even makes a profit on every phone call, every email, every video chat (and some prisons no longer allow in-person visits) and every music download from or to state inmates.

The letter writer missing his TV? I transferred $25 into his account. JPay charged me an additional $5.95 for the privilege.

Some prisons allow inmates to have magazine subscriptions or new paperbacks mailed directly from approved vendors. I pay for a sports magazine for one friend and I asked another if he would like any particular book. Amazon assures me that a new, paperback copy of Roget’s Thesaurus is on its way to him.

Prisoners themselves do a lot of the work of the prison and sometimes work for private companies “outside.” Slavery is still legal for prisoners. They get paid pennies per hour and may be disciplined if they refuse a job. They may be rewarded for good behavior with a good job and can lose it for bad behavior.

There may be no jobs available so if an inmate doesn’t have anyone on the outside to send him money he has nothing to do and no money for “extras” (indigent inmates are provided bare minimums). They may be in solitary for 23 out of 24 hours, trying to stay sane. (Here’s a link to an article sent to me by one man “in the shoe”, the man wanting money to buy a TV.)

So one of the reasons it’s hard to answer letters from prisoners is that once they get to know you, they may ask for things. And the longer they are in prison, the less likely they will still have friends and family alive on the outside.

  • I have been incarcerated for almost 36 years . . .
  • When I came to prison in 1983 . . .
  • I just turned 30 years old. I am a man now but I have been locked up since I was 17 and I don’t have any of the responsibilities of a grown man . . . prison infantilizes you.

All of my pen-pals desperately want to be freed.

What purpose is served by locking people up and throwing away the key?  It doesn’t make sense to warehouse such a great number of people for most of their lives. It’s a waste of money (unless you are JPay or the private prison industry) and it’s a loss to families and communities. [I freely concede that there are a few people– the worst of the worst, the criminally insane — who should never be let loose on society again.] Most people do change and do reform. We need a system that recognizes that.

Inmates tend to put a lot of thought into their letters. They deserve to be answered in kind.img_20161209_222816

So I wore myself out*, writing seven thoughtful, individual, multi-paged letters in one day. By hand. In deep violet ink. (We don’t want too blatant a nonconforming color or the prison censors might reject the letter.) I folded each letter into a Holiday card (generic greetings for the non-Christians) without glitter or layers to upset the aforementioned censors. And I addressed the envelopes with my inexpert calligraphy in Sparkling Shadows ink — a smoke color with subtle gold highlights that might make it past the censors (though at some prisons, the inmate only gets a Xerox copy of the envelope).

I don’t know if my pen-pals will notice the violet ink or even get to see the Sparkling Shadows ink. I don’t know if any of them will appreciate it if they do see it.

I saw it. It made me feel better.

In a world that can be overwhelming, there’s the small delight of colored ink.

 

 

*Not an exaggeration.

 

 

Facebook sucks my brains out

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When you look at a herd of cows, do you recognize individual bovine faces? or do they all look pretty much alike?

This must be how we appear to those outside our own particular group: not individuals — not unique — just another (in my case) typical white female of a certain age.

Maybe we cows can tell each other apart, but even a distinctive coat is not enough for a non-cow to see me as a person and not just one of the herd.

But as a particular individual within the group, I am very much aware of what I perceive as my differences from every other member of the herd. I suppose each cow may also fancy herself as unique from all other cows. Do all cows experience the world in the same way? Do all humans?

The reason I ask, reader, is that I suspect it is my own wavering cognitive impairment that allows Facebook to suck my brains out.

I had never intended to sign up for Facebook and I didn’t open a Facebook account entirely voluntarily. A daughter-in-law told me that if I wanted to see photos of my grandchildren they would be posted on Facebook. It was convenient for her to share the pictures with the entire family at once. Did I want tons see the pictures? Guess how fast I set up a Facebook page.

At first I only “friended” family members and I only accepted as Facebook friends people I actually knew outside my computer. But then I made a few acquaintances through the comments section under the posts of friends and I accepted those friend requests, too. Then I set up an account in my maiden name so I could play Scrabble against myself (we are pretty evenly matched) and catch any old school friends who might be looking for me.

Since this was before I’d heard of Pinterest, I set up a third FB page just to repost and save amazing images or thought-provoking quotes or just over-the-top funny stuff.

Before I knew it, I wasn’t only checking Facebook for new pictures of my grandchildren, I was also reading about my husband’s cousin’s Alaskan cruise or a friend’s remodeling project or an update on a former classmate’s surgery or an obituary for someone’s dog. Because of my illness — CFIDS/ME, Fibromyalgia, SEID — I am not out in the real world as much as I would like to be. It can be hard for me to nurture or maintain friendships. These glimpses into the lives of my Facebook friends were a nice connection. And I like looking at pictures of other people’s children and grandchildren.

Of course, for a while politics consumed everyone on Facebook to an even greater extent than it did for the same people just walking around in the real world. Instead of an occasional post pleading a worthy cause, my FB feed was a barrage of political re-posts with little personal news.

I think I lost some FB friends during this onslaught. I don’t keep track, but I think some people unfriended me. When I read racist, bigoted, or factually challenged posts, I called the person on it. I was never nasty and, I hope, I wasn’t self-righteous. I unfriended one nephew myself: he didn’t even make sense and he wasn’t nice.

I am delighted to report that some of the comment threads on my FB feed were genuine exchanges of opinion. Civility reigned. Understanding, if not total agreement, was reached. Respect was burnished. All this in Facebook conversations.

Though the election is over (well, except for that pesky recount), there are still more political posts on Facebook than the normal stuff like cat videos and inspirational prayers and photos of roasted turkeys with cranberry sauce. I skim over the partisan to catch the more personal posts: a new granddaughter for some nice people, a fellow writer’s newest book or new blue car, a movie review, etc. All good.content But maybe there’s too much of it?

When I am tired but still, for some reason, am compelled to check for private messages on Facebook, I find myself reading the public posts, too. And before I know it, I am zoning out. Here’s a music video — with dancing! Here’s an insightful comedy sketch! Oh! these baby possums are SO cute!

Two hours later I am still flipping through the posts, looking for the next good thing. This happens more often than I want to think about.

So here’s my question: Is this just happening to me or is Facebook sucking the brains out of you other cud-chewers, too?

 

Sock Monkeys I Have Known

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I just texted my daughter: Give me a topic for a blog post — any topic. Sock Monkeys I have known? My favorite neighbor? Vegetables?

The truth is I couldn’t think of anything to write about because I am that worn out. I look normal, but then there is a reason Chronic Fatigue is one of the “invisible illnesses.” And if you ask me what I’ve done today I might remember washing a couple of windows, practicing piano, doing some laundry.I can remember that Emily Kimball, the Aging Adventurer, came by to have me trim her hair.

But I feel like I haven’t done anything for days. In spite of the perfectly gorgeous fall weather –red maple leaves against a cloudless blue sky, warm sunshine, butterflies on the just-about-done-for mums — I’m not quite connected to the world.

Let’s blame it on the election.

For example, after Emily arrived with a gift of unidentified leafy greens (not arugula, not watercress, etc.) and I was setting out the scissors and the clippers, she asked me how I was. I told her I was tired from getting swept up in the giant wave of emotional reaction following the presidential election. Swept up, dragged across the sand, and spit out limp on the shore! I was tired and there just couldn’t be anything left to say about any of it.

Then we BOTH proceeded to talk about the election for the next twenty minutes.

It’s no wonder I’m tired to the bone.

I’m not as bad as I could be. For example, I can make a decision about what clothes to wear and then put them on. I am keeping up with my morning exercises of making the bed and fetching the newspaper from wherever it has landed in the front yard. Then, usually, I practice piano. But the rest of my day seems to drift by, untouched by human hands, wasted. Rationally I know that I may have talked to someone or gone somewhere or done something, but it feels like I’ve spent the day doing nothing except reading novels. (I’ve read three or four or more in the last week.)

So I don’t have much to write about because I’m floating somewhere outside my own life.

So — what about those sock monkeys?

The first sock monkey I ever met was made by my friend Charlotte Henson. She brought him to the hospital for my new baby boy. Except, my baby was a girl, not a boy, but Charlotte had to rely on word of mouth for the birth announcement because the Shelby Daily Globe would not print the usual birth announcement for an unmarried woman. We removed the felt vest and little bowtie on that monkey and I made her a dress. A gender specific sock monkey seemed important at the time. She was Henson Monkey, named after her maker.

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Favorite book of a favorite grandson or two.

Henson became Anna-baby’s fast friend. When I went back to college, Anna brought Henson along with us. And there Anna and Henson played with blond, curly-haired Brian and his sock monkey who lived across the courtyard of married students’ housing on Mill Street. (I was the only not-married person to live in the complex.) Those sock monkeys got quite the workout on the exterior stairs and balconies of the apartments.

It was there on campus that I met the man who eventually made an honest woman out of me (as they used to say, and without irony). I stitched up sock monkeys for the first two of our boys but by the time my little girl’s third brother was born, she made the sock monkey for him. (We thought he was going to be a she, so Leslie Monkey wore a dress. She kept the name and the dress.)

Leslie Monkey and her fellows led interesting lives. Our middle son had the stuffed animals perform in a rock band. His sock monkey, Fred, was the lead singer. When the stuffed animals played baseball, Fred was the pitcher.

Over the years, with the help of my son-in-law’s keen insight, we’ve come to understand sock monkeys in general as sneaky tricksters. (Leslie Monkey is the exception.) Never buy insurance from a Sock Monkey!

These days my daughter makes sock monkeys for the grandchildren. I make the baby quilts.  But I always have sock monkey materials on hand and there’s no telling how many I’ve stuffed for other babies. Once I even made miniature sock monkey portraits for myself and my mother and a few friends. And I needlepointed a piano bench cushion with sock monkeys for my daughter and her husband. I’ve sent out sock monkey Christmas cards. I printed kitchen curtains with sock monkey linoleum blocks.  The same design worked on onesies.

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Is Santa Sock Monkey going down the chimney with that sack of toys? or coming UP

In 1999, I etched sock monkeys onto glass coffee mugs for my daughter’s Christmas present and she made me a millennium monkey commemorative plate. Once, Charlotte made a miniature flying sock monkey for me. Another friend gave me a sock monkey mug. A quilting friend gave me sock monkey fabric. And our favorite Christmas decoration is the sock monkey Santa snow globe my daughter made. Our son-in-law even wrote a sock monkey Christmas carol!

 

 

I am not a collector and I don’t collect sock monkeys. You wouldn’t come into my house and say, “Oh! This woman has a thing about sock monkeys.” You wouldn’t even notice at all.

And I can prove that sock monkeys are sneaky.

They’ve snuck right into this blog!

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Plan to be Well

Detail from linoleum block print, Lakeside series, JBH.

Right now, there is a wondrous light show going on just ten minutes away.

I am not there.

Life in a vibrant city offers more people, events, music, art, theater, volunteer opportunities, etc. than even a person in perfect health can keep up with. Life anywhere (assuming basic needs are met) is a rich offering. We all make choices about how we will spend our time. Even if — as we sometimes wish — we could be in two places at once, we still couldn’t experience everything.

I had plans for this afternoon. I ended up in bed.

Like countless others, I have limited energy. CFIDS/ME or Systemic Exertional Intolerance Disorder, or whatever else someone comes up with as a label for my group of symptoms, is a chronic condition with no known cure. Pain, vertigo, tinitus, brain fog. deep fatigue — all are worsened by too much stimulation or effort: Noise, lights, action — or thinking.*

Before this disease, I was curious about everything, high-spirited, and ready to throw myself into a challenge.

Not anymore.

I remember well when I was much sicker than I am now. I couldn’t keep up with the essential duties of a wife and mother. My children suffered. My husband had to pick up the pieces even as he feared for my life. In spite of every test the doctors could think up, there was no diagnosis and thus no prognosis.

I am convinced that the main reason I am doing better is because I have learned to be careful. If I write a time and place in my date book, I leave white space on the dates around it so I can rest up before and recover afterwards.

If I am getting ready to go somewhere and my head hurts too much for me to pick out clothes to put on, I know I don’t have the strength to go. I am still learning to be comfortable with canceling plans when I have to. I still feel guilty about it when it happens. If I’m not willing to take a chance on having to cancel, I can’t make plans at all.  I require a lot of down time — but too much time alone is not good for me either. It’s worth the effort to spend time with good-hearted, engaged people.

This morning, my plan was to stay home before joining the Quaker quilting group this afternoon. I did stay home. But an old friend telephoned.

highquality_pictures_of_ancient_english_letters_170435Except for a few months on a college campus, Anne and I have never lived in the same town. We met in a poetry class and our friendship grew stronger through countless letters, occasional phone calls, and rare visits. Anne is a cancer survivor, several times over. A few months ago, she left voice mail on my phone to let me know she can no longer see well enough to write letters. This was a blow to me. I can only imagine how much worse it is for her, who wrote letters to everyone, often.

It can be difficult for me to make friends or to maintain friendships. I especially treasure the friends who have stuck by me. So if Anne calls, which is still not often, I will answer the phone if I can. We had a long conversation this morning. And afterwards, I went back to bed. I slept through my quilting group. Later, I apologized to the quilters via group email.

Of course, it wasn’t the phone conversation that did me in. I did too much yesterday — met with friends for coffee in the morning, worked with my friend/collaborator on our Knitting Nana novel in the afternoon and then played with the grandchildren. No downtown. Overstimulated, I didn’t sleep well.

Yes, I am not as sick as I was. But I’m not as well I’d like to be or I’d be at that light show right now.

Oh, well. Life is still wonderful.

There’s always a next time. Maybe next time I’ll plan better, not be done in, and I’ll see that light show.

 

*E.g. I could think hard about the punctuation in this sentence but then I’d be too worn out to finish typing the rest of this post.