Three time’s a charm

I am not superstitious but my mother always said things come in threes. If Mama broke a glass or spilled the clothespins, she might say “That’s once!” or “That’s twice!” followed by a deep sigh and “What next?” And something always was next, if you were looking for it. My formative years I watched her looking for it.

In the last few weeks, we’ve escaped the Grim Reaper twice — slipped right through his boney fingers.

Lord preserve us from #3.

The first time we gave him the slip, we were out in our all-around-great “new” car. We were just coming into an intersection when a solid wall of metal and glass materialized in front of us. BAM! The next thing I remember was opening the car door to let out the white smoke. Exploded air bags, it turns out, stink like burning plastic.

You could say, as our daughter did, that government regulation saved our lives — the mandatory seat belts and air bags. And the two nice young men (17) in the other car were also unhurt, though the responding police officer could not convince the driver that a blinking yellow light did not grant him the right-of-way. (“I’ll let the judge explain it to you,” he had to tell him.)

After the initial shock, we were simply thrilled to be alive and whole and find each other also still alive and whole beside us. Every shining leaf on every tree and bush was a miracle. Life was glorious!

In a few days, though, we were sad about the loss of our good car. And, of course, dealing with tight-fisted insurance companies is enough to dampen anyone’s mood.

Two weeks after that accident (“That’s once!” SIGH), my husband came down with flu and sciatica, self-diagnosed as many of us will do in these situations. After five days of worsening symptoms, I dragged the man to a doc-in-the-box where we were quickly sent on to the ER. The “flu and sciatica” was bacteria in the blood from an infected abscess in his back. My big, strong, healthy husband was under the scythe — but the hospital pulled him back  before The Reaper could swing his blade. It was a near thing.

He’s recovering at home now. He has a PICC line for six weeks of intravenous antibiotics and also a wound vac for the incision at the base of his spine. Everywhere he goes, he is accompanied by one erratically gurgling medical device and another occasionally beeping device, each enclosed in its own personal black shoulder bag.* My husband is pretty much himself again, except he tires easily. He is a little stronger each day. And, once again, we are relieved to both be still alive and together.

Whew!

But: “That’s twice.” SIGH!

My mother also used to say that new shoes on the table were bad luck. We don’t have any new shoes to put on the table so we can’t stop putting them on the table to prevent bad luck. Garlic is supposed to deter vampires but I’ve never heard anyone claim it works on Old Man Death. Eventually, the Grim Reaper calls on us all.

There might be another way to look at this. Maybe I can finagle this 1-2-3- into infections of paperwork? The car accident generated it’s own paperwork: reports and claims and counter claims (we are still working to get fair compensation for our car). The life-threatening illness itself is spontaneously generating paperwork and there are sure to be mess-ups in the insurance filings creating even more paperwork. And — Behold! Number #3! — deadlines for income taxes are coming up fast! (We haven’t started yet.)

Death and Taxes! That old duo!

Taxes roll around each year and the Grim Reaper is always waiting in the wings. I’ll try to keep up with the paperwork and I hope I have time enough to take care of it all. As we were just so clearly reminded — twice! — we aren’t guaranteed another day.

But –please! —  if you don’t mind, we’ll happily pass on another glimpse of that fellow in the black robes. We don’t want to see him again for a good long time!

 

*(At first, these esoteric, computerized devices upset us. What if we pressed the wrong button? What if we tied a knot in the tubing? But now that we’ve become better acquainted with them, we can sleep through their usual noises though they aren’t the kind of  friends we can take to Quaker meeting. They gurgle and chirp 24/7.)

 

The Necessity of Levity

My usual stay-at-home garb is paint spattered, ink stained denim. But, a few weeks ago, when I had somewhere to go, I donned a brown skirt and white ribbed sweater and red knee socks festooned with frolicking sock monkeys. I topped off my outfit with red polka-dotted glasses.

I went to a demonstration. No one at this demonstration [For clean water. Why do we need to stand up in favor of clean water? Isn’t this, like, a no brainer?) noticed my sock monkey socks or my polka dotted glasses. Or if they did, they didn’t say anything to me.

But I was amused. And, Lord knows, we can all use a bit of light-hearted nonsense once in a while. Or, in my case, regular doses throughout the day.

Take that demonstration. Listening to heart-broken people describe their homes and bodies poisoned by coal ash pools leaking into the well water — that’s enough to make me cry. And it did.

Corruption is no laugher matter — and there’s so much of it! Is there really more than ever? It seems like it these days. To paraphrase comedian Jonathan Winters’ observation on little green men: “It’s everywhere! It’s everywhere!”

We are drowning in bad news. Venality chokes us, and waves of corruption pound us and toss us up onto cold, gritty sand, disheartened and desolate.* Where can we find the get-up-and-go-and-keep-going to oppose all this vileness? We need energy to stay sharp, to march and demonstrate, to write effective letters, to make phone calls, to organize and publicize, etc. —  but are we too demoralized from a daily barrage of awful news to stand up? Flattened  by despair, how are we to pick ourselves up get going again?

There’s plenty of advice out there about nurturing mental health: good food and good fellowship; fresh air and exercise; a dog or a cat or a loving spouse; sleep, meditation and music (maybe in reverse order?); gratitude and a sense of community. But following this good advice requires initiative I just may not have when I’m depressed by events in the wider world. And as a person with CFIDS/Fibromyalgia, my tank is never full anyway so I’m easy to knock down.

Levity lightens the gloom! For me, a little bit of silly is not a distraction from the serious side of life, but a figurative Chinese gong reverberating through my body to call me to attention.  Ask not for whom the cuckoo bird cuckoos! It cuckoos for thee and for me — to make us look up from the muck at our feet and gaze upon the blue sky. (Here I refer to a real cuckoo clock hanging on my own dining room wall and real muckety-muck bullshit.)

There is also a solar powered crystal rainbow maker in my south facing kitchen window.  On a sunny day, I can look up from the headlines on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and find brilliant snippets of color circling the room, a mess of little nudges to remind me to laugh and loosen up.

Somewhere in this house two plastic parakeets are clipped to light fixtures or curtain rods or a chandelier. They move around. The sight of one of these silly lime-green things can be another little reminder not to take life too seriously. Our book shelves support some heavy non-fiction but there’s a joke book on the back of the toilet and happily-ever-after romance novels on my Kindle. I always read the cartoons in the New Yorker before the features and the comics in the Richmond Times-Dispatch before looking at the editorial page. (Some of the letters-to-the-editor are funny if you forget that the writer probably didn’t think so).

Our yard sports a few ridiculous touches, too.

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A dose of levity can bring me around. I am serious because a joyful life is worth fighting for and I need to laugh because it’s the only way to stay serious and keep fighting for a joyful life.

What keeps you going?

(* Please scorn/chuckle at this purple prose.)

Oh, say can you see?

Pearl Harbor Day was yesterday. I remembered. And I didn’t fly the flag.

We found a flag holder screwed beside the front door when we moved into this house. We bought a flag, a deluxe, made-in-the-U.S.A. stars-and-stripes. As a Quaker, I chose not to repeat the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, which, when all is said and done, is merely a piece of cloth heavily weighted with symbolism. There are principles above ” my country right or wrong” and one sets those principles aside to pledge allegiance to the flag.

Are you a person who loves your homeland? The trees, the bird singing on the wing, the smell of the air? the swell of the hills and the blue mountains rising behind? the shush of surf? the racket of a city street? Any of these can call up home in the mind’s eye.

On the other hand, a nation state is a political construct.  As a powerful symbol, a flag may stand for both and be revered. But, under the same flag in a different year, ordinary citizens might fear the soldiers marching behind it. Any symbol, in the wrong hands, can be used to incite hate and violence.

Yesterday I didn’t hang our flag from the house not because I disrespect the servicemen and civilians who died when the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. No, that wasn’t it. I didn’t hang the flag because I was briefly overwhelmed by the pattern of what we, as a nation, choose to remember and honor.

Our national holidays — no matter what the original intention in setting aside a particular day — seem to glorify our military and deify our veterans. The “Freedom isn’t free!” chant drowns out any nuance.

We are admonished to remember Pearl harbor. Shouldn’t decency call us to fly our flags half mast from government buildings all across our country on August 6?  That’s the day when many peace organizations and religious groups remember Hiroshima & Nagasaki.

We rightfully celebrate the birth of our nation on Independence Day. Maybe we should also recall the (according to some estimates) hundreds of thousands of people who cleared and worked the fields but died of contagious diseases before the Europeans moved in and took over? We celebrate Columbus Day but do we, as a people, recall the Trail of Tears or Wounded Knee?

And while we’re at it, let’s revive the real meaning of Labor Day — to honor the struggles and celebrate the achievements of organized labor. Outlawing child labor, securing the right to organize, establishing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and more, were no mean feats and have saved countless lives. People died for these protections. “Freedom is not free.”

Labor Day might also be a day that we, as a nation, lay wreathes at the Tomb of the Unknown Worker in honor of exploited/enslaved labor, those buried beside the railroad tracks they built across the prairie or laid in unmarked graves beside the fields they tended. And those others who built our cities dug our canals, blasted tunnels for our roads, toiled from sun-up to sun-down huddled over sewing machines or looms. Juneteenth, which has been an official national holiday since 1997, could be celebrated by everyone, as it should be.

What about greeting cards for Jan. 31, the day the first Social Security check was issued in 1940? Or ritual toasts on June 29 in appreciation of the national highway system? or maybe toasts of clean, safe water on December 2 to the Environmental Protection Agency? “Freedom is not free!”

Let’s toss out the crass commercializing of every one of our holidays. (What kind of holiday do retail workers enjoy when Labor Day is yet another day of sales?)

When I was a child, we pinned simple red crepe paper poppies to our coats on November 11, and thought about all the young men slaughtered in that gruesome war, The War to End All Wars, World War I. They weren’t gods, those dead boys. They were people. We mourned.

We are a country ever yearning toward our ideals of our Declaration of Independence, a country still becoming. We are only ever momentarily the triumphant “Star Spangled Banner.” We are always “America the Beautiful.”

Must our national holidays be all bluster, war-mongering and mindless flag-waving? Will   our proud nation ever learn to symbolically bow her head and ritually acknowledge past failings? Can we, as a people, lift up our many civic acheivements in joy and celebration?

Until then, perhaps I need black streamers for my flag or a wreath of red poppies for my door.

 

 

Step by Step

Yesterday, a friend called me to ask if I wanted to carpool to the demonstration downtown today. I said, no, my husband and I  plan to go to a different demonstration on Monday, in front of a different building downtown. This the third time since January that I’ve turned down a friend’s invitation to one demonstration because I had another demonstration lined up. These days, there is no way I can attend them all.

And how did you react to Donald Trump’s presidential election victory?

A handful of my relatives and close neighbors were jubilant — but not my Quaker meeting. We are deliberately non-partisan, but we are liberal. Inside our clear windows and plain grey walls there were tears, wails and the gnashing of teeth. (This is not totally an exaggeration.) Meeting might have reached unity on draping our front doors with black crepe swags if our clerk had proposed it.

We were gobsmacked! Corporately and individually we had been knocked off-center. We thought we were striding onward and upward toward (our vision of) a better world when suddenly the whole country took a detour! How did this happen? Why didn’t we see this coming?

In hindsight, it is obvious we were infected with complacency. Progress, it seems, is not inevitable. Those of us vulnerable in any way now know fresh fear.

But for most of us in our Quaker meeting, cocooned in relative comfort and security and our white skins, we didn’t grasp the depth of insecurity, fear, frustration, homophobia and racism running through a broad swath of our fellow citizens. We just weren’t looking for a resurgence of hate and discrimination. Who voted for Trump, anyway?

It’s not that we weren’t aware of the other people around us. But ours is a stratified society with neighborhoods and schools determined by income. Even our meeting membership is, to some extent, limited in class diversity. We who are comfortable are never forced to mingle with the hungry. We take up collections for food banks and we do charitable works. We know the statistics and support legislation to alleviate poverty.   Daily frustration and hopelessness isn’t ours.

But Trump’s strongest support came from people with annual incomes of about $70,000. For most of us, neither racism nor homophobia is a daily insult. But racism and homophobia and misogamy lurk all around us and are breaking the bonds of inhibition  loosened by leaders like Trump with no compassion or shame. Even worse, some ministers reinforce these messages.

Quakers revere their more famous members of the past who were on the right side of history. And we are justly proud of the American Friends Service Committee and the Friends Committee on National Legislation (to name just two Quaker groups out in the world doing good). One day future generations may even revere a few of us current Quakers who are made of the same stalwart stuff as those abolitionists, suffragettes, and civil rights workers.

But most Friends are like most other people. We aren’t heroes. We aren’t activists. We don’t like to rock any boats or cross any lines. We think we know the difference between right and wrong and we vote accordingly. Besides, when Obama was president, we believed, the country was in good hands. We didn’t have to worry.

Then we wake up one morning and Donald Trump is president. We are in shock!

After a great deal of moaning and commiseration, we begin to climb out of this deep pit of despair. For the first weeks and months following the election, we administered self-care: prayer, readings, journaling, music. As a meeting, we decide to hold a retreat on Responding to Challenging Times. We calm down. We see that the sun still rises. Now we are ready to face reality.

There is some recognition that the problem is not Donald Trump. The problems were there all along — even while Obama was president — and Donald Trump is just a manifestation.

Now, along with millions of other people, we are paying more attention. We are swept up in that wave of others rising to assert decency and tolerance. We have our senators on speed dial. We subscribe to email newsletters chock full of alerts on committee hearings,

Pete Seeger

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notices of demonstrations, talking points to share with our legislators. We write to the editor, pressure lawmakers with phone calls and letters. We are energized around common concerns. We hit the streets (peacefully, of course). We send post cards and make phone calls to other voters. We canvas. We hang signs and share Facebook messages. We not only vote — we get-out-the-vote.

VOTE
Collage postcard to encourage voting

IMG_20171026_001709.jpg Remember when we flooded town halls, demanding answers from our elected representatives? And when we were shut out of  the those town halls, new groups (run predominately by women) organized their own town halls with local experts to examine social issues and look at possible solutions. Grass roots efforts found candidates and supported them with time and money.

Here in Virginia, these efforts have paid off in the midterm elections. In spite of  gerrymandered districts that heavily favor Republicans, Democrats tossed out incumbents and took seats all over the state. They won in districts the party itself gave up on. And those new delegates are more beholden to the voters than they are to the Democratic party. (May we hold their feet to the fire.)

Ten months into Trump’s administration we are sticking it out. We persist.

But “Eternal vigilance is the price of Liberty” is a tall order. How long can we keep this up? Will we slip back into our old patterns and trust Democrats to take care of our interests?

Blind trust didn’t work the last time. It brought us Donald Trump — and the continuation and expansion of endless war and income iniquities and the occasional child dead of a toothache through lack of health insurance and too many children hungry while their parents work hard at jobs that keep them poor. Even if Hillary Clinton had won the election, to what degree would that have changed? Would we have paid as close attention? Would we have witnessed and acted — or blindly trusted that Things Would Get Better?

We citizens have begun to feel the power we have. Will we use it? How will we use it? Or will we elect a few good people and go back to thinking elections are enough to fix everything?

Take heart. Take heart.

Persist.

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A short and helpful guide book for navigating our alarming political climate.

 

 

A rude reader

There are times when words swim away from each other as I read them, refusing to hold formation and carry the author’s intent. I have to set aside serious reading and pick up light fiction. This malfunctioning of my mind can plague me for long, tedious stretches, and is accompanied by physical lassitude. All I do, for hours and hours, is lay on my back and read.

(Once, an ignorant person said to  me, “I wish I had as much time to read as you do.” God bless them. May they never have first hand knowledge of this disorder or watch it overtake someone they love. )

When I feel that lethargy creeping up on me, I load up on fiction, usually historical romances. I don’t even have to expend the energy to get dressed and drive to the library. I can log onto my local e-library from home and download books to my Kindle. Or I can buy the latest volume from a favorite author through Amazon and be reading it within minutes. Instant gratification! (Not perhaps, my first choice, but I can’t have world peace or better health so I’ll just  be happy with what I get.) Unlimited, entertaining, easy-to-follow fiction is just a few clicks away. All praise to the writers toiling away in attics who make my existence tolerable.

I want only to pass my unproductive hours carried along by a pleasant story. (My husband asks me how I am. “Worthless,” I say, as I look up from the text of yet another bodice buster.) I don’t want to ever read a paragraph twice trying to understand it, or be sidetracked by poorly placed flashbacks. Humor is welcome, but please — no serious threats to the main character. It helps if the heroine is insulated from sordid toil and care by obscene wealth, but the author must never trip up and somehow remind me that obscene wealth is usually accumulated by someone else’s toil and suffering. Please, authors, don’t pop the bubble of my belief prematurely. It will disintegrate all on its own  after I finish the book.

When my primary “activity” is reading, my conversation suffers. My poor husband listens patiently while I outline plots of books he would never crack open in a million years. I don’t have much to say about the books I like. But when a book fails me, I can go on for awhile. Here are a couple that failed me.

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Winner of BEST HORROR NOVEL (August Derleth Award) at British Fantasy Awards 2016

The Girl from Rawblood

This novel was not for me. It’s not even a genre I usually enjoy. I downloaded it anyway because the blurb was intriguing and the action is rooted in the love of a house. I can identify with attachment to a family home and a particular place. Amazon rates the book 3.5 stars and the first reviewers are convincing in their praise. Maybe a well person would not have struggled, as I did, over the frequent time shifts. Maybe regular readers of the genre would not have been flummoxed by the circular plot, a chicken-and-egg quandary. Or how the terrible curse passed down through countless generations culminates (sort of) in one who is not actually a blood relation. Exactly how does that work?

Though there were some boring sections and at least one dry-as-dust character, over all the writing was masterful. There were descriptions of Italian and English countryside that almost had me smelling the seasons; intimate, historically accurate renderings of settings for three generations of the haunted family; and subtle moral parallels between vivisection and lobotomies. But I did not like this book. I only finished it to see if the author pulled the material together. I don’t think she did.

This book was not for me. Maybe it is for you.

The Indigo Girl

Amazon rates this book 4.5 stars. This book promised to be the story of a 16 year old girl

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A deeply-researched work of historical fiction, based on the untold story of Eliza Lucas, an extraordinary sixteen-year-old girl in Colonial-era South Carolina, whose actions were before their time.

left in charge of a small plantation when he father leaves. She never sees him again.

I only got a few pages into the novel before I deleted the book from my Kindle. I took irrational exception to the first person narrator repeatedly referring to her enslaved persons as “Negroes” and “Negro ladies” or “field hands” or “the driver,” all in tones of respect. Yet, in that first chapter, without a hint of irony, Eliza Lucas tells us that “A fantasy of mine . . .  (is). . . To be not owned as chattel by a father or one day a husband.”

In these times of bans on Mark Twain for using the N-word, how does an author stay true to a historical setting without making a reader cringe? How does an author present a slave owner as a sympathetic character?

It might be that Natasha Boyd worked both those tricks and I just didn’t stick with her long enough to find out. It looks like a good book. You read it and let me know.

 

The Revelation of Beatrice Darby

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How much courage does it take to be yourself? In a decade when good girls conform to strict expectations, Beatrice Darby is about to find out.

Now here’s a third, perfectly good book that I didn’t like. Like the other two, the cover appeals to me. This one promised to be an coming-of-age story. I thought the writing was clunky. I didn’t make it through thirty pages.

It has 5 stars on Amazon (but only 15 reviews).

Give it a try! You might like it.

 

Someone — a whole group of someones — worked hard to write, edit, and publish these books. I feel guilty when I don’t like a book. It is a rejection of someone’s hard work and therefore unkind. I don’t want to be unkind. So please — read these books and make up for my rudeness in rejecting them.

 

It’s Greek to me

Did you take Latin in high school? I did.

Latin I was a great solace.There was comfort in the clear structure of the sentences and the rules for regular verbs. The passages chosen for us would-be scholars to translate were straight forward and factual. I reveled in memorizing vocabulary words. I wrote and rewrote conjugations until I had them down pat. It was easy to be right.

These beginning forays into Latin were a stark contrast with the sad silence permeating my family life. Words not spoken — even in the mother tongue — can never be understood.

By the time I started my second year of high school Latin, the atmosphere at home had pretty much engulfed me. I didn’t keep up with my assignments and my attempts at translation shared an opaque quality with the conversations in our kitchen. Only my stellar Latin II project –a family tree of Roman gods — saved my grade. I passed.

A year or so later I headed off to college where I discover that a liberal arts degree required language credits. I ambitiously signed up for Russian, seduced by the sinuous curves of the Cyrillic alphabet. I immersed myself in mastering the handwriting. Since I was also  taking a lettering course in the art department, I had calligraphy pens, ink, and tracing paper on hand and I traced that exotic script over and over. Too bad I didn’t dedicate even half as much time to mastering the vocabulary assignments. I limped through the oral exam and quit after one quarter, convinced I was incapable of pronouncing foreign words.*

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I wasn’t confident of English pronunciations either. Like the little girl reading out loud in my second grade class who said is-land for island, my pronunciation was often a product of my reading. We adults know that you can’t depend on a written English for reliable clues to the spoken English word.

But what to do about that language requirement now that I’d dropped Russian?

One beautiful spring day, I joined a group sitting on the grass under the budding trees on the college green. A handsome young man was bragging that he knew an easy way to complete the language requirement. You could take classical Greek and never face an oral exam. The pre-req was two years of high school Latin.

So I signed up. (The handsome young man did not.)

Classical Greek had the clarity of sentence structure I found in beginning Latin, but our assigned texts had more substance and nuance than I’d ever seen in my high school text book. Some Greek words carried meanings that no single English word embodied. A translation might be accurate and still be a bad translation. After a few hours studying Greek, my dreams tumbled with verb declensions and vocabulary lists.

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I felt a flush of triumph when Greek phrases appeared in English literature. (English writers of previous centuries did that once.) I understood those squiggles! I might need my English-Greek dictionary, but I could puzzle it out!  My personal relationships were still indecipherable but these Giants of Literature couldn’t hide anything from me!

And now? Latin and Greek are both pretty much Greek to me. I fantasize about giving classical Greek or Latin another try. There are classes on line and lots of colleges close by. (There are probably classes in understanding family members and other humans, too, but life has taught me enough to comprehend most situations and when to let the others go.)

But there’s only so many hours in the day and I’ve already taken up the study of a second language. On a piano. I’ve been at it a few years and I’m slow. Piano music is no longer a mystery to me and — with practice — I can play simple music, with occasional stumbles. Currently I’m attempting to play a little trill as a graceful ornament instead of an audible cringe.

I may never be fluent, but I have hopes.

 

 

*I read somewhere that “recent studies” say it helps to be a little bit drunk while learning a new language. (But I’m not good at drinking either — no tolerance — so I guess that won’t work for me. Let me know if it works for you.)

A little night music

Even with your eyes closed, night time in Oaxaca, Mexico, is different from night time in Richmond, Virginia. One reason for this is that buildings in Virginia are sealed up from the weather while buildings in Oaxaca are open to whatever the heavens offer. Even the dentist office is opens to a courtyard.

In Oaxaca, we slept in a room screened off from a small interior courtyard. At night, as I fell asleep, I could hear a brass band playing from a square two or three blocks away, laughter and chatter from every direction, a men’s chorus practicing somewhere close by, sporadic barking from rooftop dogs with strong objectors to the people passing below,  and occasional fireworks. (Oaxacans, it seems, consider concussive booms essential to any celebration.) I fell asleep while life went on exuberantly in the city around me. It was an exotic kind of quiet to my ears, almost too stimulating for sleep, but I fell asleep easily and slept well anyway.

Those night noises were all festive, as far as I could tell. My sleep was never disturbed by the blare of hyped-up TV drama, that artificially charged communication designed to upset listeners and reel them in for commercial messages. I never heard voices raised in anger, children crying, or drunken carousing.

Sitting with our morning coffee on the rooftop patio above our bedroom, the buildings stacked on the hills behind us looked down on us, and the other rooftops spread below us were punctuated with flowering trees. Beyond the city, mountains appeared suspended in the low-hanging clouds.

CardOne morning we drove into those mountains, up and up on switchback roads. Our ears popped as the landscape changed. We arrived in a well-kept village clinging to steep slopes with bright flowers trailing over stone walls, hummingbirds the size of sparrows, and goats tethered in the yards. Here we hired a guide to help us hunt for mushrooms. The guide and his bright-eyed seven-year-old daughter led us further up the mountain roads, “fenced” on both sides with huge agave plants, and then on into the pine woods. Two or three hours later, our mushrooms were served to us cooked with fresh trout and soft tortillas in the shade of a pavilion.

That night, we bunked in a comfortable cabin at an eco-lodge still higher up the dirt road. After the maintenance crews left, we were entirely alone. We finished a late meal of grilled steaks and veggies and broke out the dominoes as dusk enveloped our picnic table. Before we (literally) bunked down, we stood on the porch in the chilly dark and looked out across the clearing. No lights anywhere. No sounds except for one bird calling from the edge of the wood. Inside, we slept under wool blankets while logs sizzled in the fireplace and the orange light of flames flickered on the walls.

Just after sunrise, we stood on the cabin porch again. We were inside a cloud. The trees were shrouded. The silence was broken only by solitary bird calls somewhere in the trees we couldn’t see. There was a sound like a river running in the valley below us where there was no river. It was wind passing through the tall pine trees. There was nothing else. It was profoundly quiet.

Back in Virginia, in my own bed, I sometimes wake briefly during the night, as I did this a.m. The windows are open for the cooler air. Everything is quiet.Lakeside moon

Of course, quiet here is composed of layers of sound: The distant whoosh of traffic; the occasional shudder of trains coupling from down in the rail yards; the soft whine of a far-off siren. Closer by, frogs call and answer from the drainage ditches, crickets chirp, and a mocking bird pours out his myriad songs into the night that holds us all, note after note after note, all that sweet liquid clarity falling down into the dark.

This quiet is familiar, and comfortable in its familiarity. I am home and the night is playing my song.

 

3 Ways to Get Over It!

We all have out buttons that beg to be pushed. Yours may be different than mine but they are probably equally unimportant in the wider scheme of things. Unless you are an evil dictator with the power of life and death over your cowering subjects, history will remain unaffected by your flare-up when somebody slams a door.

These last few weeks, due to chronic fatigue/fibromyalgia, I’ve been mostly out of commission. I look normal enough, I guess, if you overlook my horizontal posture. When I do stand up I usually lean against something. Sitting? my elbows are propped on the table and my hands hold up my head. Flat or upright, my brains are mush.

With so little energy to draw on, you’d assume I’d just let little things pass me by — that any buttons I have are obviously wired to dead batteries. Go ahead, you might think. Use ‘you and me’ instead of ‘you and I’ as the subject of a verb. Insert random apostrophes. This poor woman may have that coveted* degree in English but she’s in no shape to react!

And you would be right! I am powerless in my own life. Go ahead and push my buttons. I can’t get it together to lecture you on your transgressions so rub it in my face.

Yes, life goes on even when I can’t take part. To fill the hours, I read ten novels this week — eight historical romances, one YA fantasy, and one literary novel (the least enjoyable). — while wonderful things happened all around me. [Editor’s note: The writer does, in fact, go places and do things — just not as many of either as she would like. She’s waving around the proverbial half-empty glass here and spilling a good bit of it in the process.] Real life — engaged, active, vibrant — passes me by. In the meantime, the garden is weedy, the bank balance is a mystery, and the refrigerator is bare.

But if you think a debilitating illness is guaranteed to make you a more patient person, forget it. Struggling with such a condition can bring you to temporary state of acceptance. You might, briefly, step outside the pain and experience yourself as clear water flowing over and around rocks in a dappled stream bed. But this state will not last. At least, it never does for me.

Little things still get me.

After Quaker meeting [Ed: See? she does go places.] another Friend and I were bemoaning how others had come into the meeting room before the hour and, even though some were already settled, they whispered and laughed and walked around greeting others. Why don’t they know that meeting for worship begins as we center, not by watching the hands of the clock? Both of us confessed our disappointment to hear any Friend substitute the word “consensus” for  the word”unity,” the end result of our Quaker process. And too many who should know better refer to our meetings as “silent” instead of  “waiting worship.”

How spiritual is it to get irritated by misunderstandings of spiritual practice?  But without understanding, can there be full appreciation?

While I was taking a stranger on a tour of our meeting house, she asked me, “What do Quakers believe?”  I began with “Quakers believe there is that of God in everyone, that we are all equal in the eyes of God. We believe in continuing revelation, that if God ever spoke he is still speaking.”

Afterwards, a Friend asked why I didn’t just recite SPICE — Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality? This never occurred to me. To me, the core of the Religious Society of Friends is how we arrive at what we believe. There is nothing simple about simplicity or peace or integrity or community or even equality. We have to know how to ask the right questions in the right spirit to put our beliefs into action. Quaker process is a gift to the world.

The irritation of a grain of sand can result in a pearl. Irritation, carefully examined, can guide us to the right questions. We can benefit when we allow ourselves to flow like water around the irritation, calmly taking it in. Quaker process is a way of setting aside ego and listening beyond words. It is not efficient. It’s painstaking and time consuming. To some of us of a certain temperament, it can be irritating. But that’s the price of unity.

Usually, though, there aren’t profound messages in the things that push our buttons. I get perturbed if I trip over my husbands size 13 boots or he doesn’t close a drawer all the way or forgets to turn out a light. He gets ticked if I run cold water in the sink when he’s washing dishes or I turn off a light he needs or I slam a door. We each try to avoid pushing each other’s buttons or over reacting when one of our own buttons gets pushed. That’s the price of getting along.

Some days, I watch myself getting ticked off about everything and snapping at everybody. This is a sign I’m falling into a bad place with the CFIDS/Fibromyalgia again. And then I have to spend most of the day apologizing. And that’s really irritating!

So the the heading of this piece is misleading. I don’t know 3 Ways To Get Over It — I don’t even know one. I get irritated by lots of things. I probably always will. Occasionally, my irritation is instructive. But most of the time, I just take it in stride and step over it.

How about you? How irritating is it that this piece contains no answers?

 

 

P.S. One suggestion: music. I’m listening to The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane.

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*Obvious example of irony

DIY Romance Novel

Have you ever consumed romance novels like potato chips? One right after another until you are licking your fingers to pick up the crumbs at the bottom of the bag?

I just read ten or twelve historical romance novels in less than a week. My other “activity” was sleeping. My excuse is my usual illness — chronic fatigue/fibromyalgia — with the added thrill of a novovirus. (I am recovered from that nasty bug, thank you.)

Over the years, I’ve read uncounted hundreds of romance novels set in England between the loss of the American colonies and Waterloo. But I can’t write them. The books are total fantasies to me. I have an inability to suspend disbelief and that is fatal to composition.

But maybe you can!

First, choose a heroine from the selection below. These are all main characters I’ve met in one or more books and if I haven’t met them yet I probably will in the next book I read. These women are English, of course, and with rare exceptions, they are seventeen to twenty five years old.

  • The Governess. This heroine is a classic. She’s a gently-bred young woman from on old* family,  though recently impoverished. The governess forged her own references and lives in fear she will be discovered. She disguises her beauty by hiding her glorious tresses under  a matronly cap, wearing ill-fitting clothes and ugly spectacles and sometimes even hunching her back or feigning a limp. She may be fleeing from an arranged marriage. The children are recent orphans and love her and she’s a gifted teacher. Or maybe they are awful and she’s about to be sacked.
  • The Young Widow. Her late husband was a bully or a pervert or a wastral or a gambler or a drunk or (if she’s still a virgin) a homosexual. She may believe herself repulsive because her late husband couldn’t consummate their marriage. She is  left penniless and must marry again — and soon — if she doesn’t want to starve. If she has children, she is a devoted mother, and will marry anyone to provide them with all the advantages of their rightful station. Society believes the widow is heartbroken and will never recover from her grief.
  • The Bluestocking. This foolish woman is so over-educated she’s ruined all chances of womanly happiness. She pretends she doesn’t care and studies astronomy or botany or hieroglyphics. She can read Latin and Greek! She doesn’t need a man. She doesn’t even want a man.
  • The Diamond of the First Water: This beautiful young thing is the toast of the town. Exquisitely gowned and coifed and suitably demure, eligible men swoon at the sight of her, but she longs to be loved for her true self, not her looks.
  • The Kid Sister. After her mother died in childbirth, her indulgent father and brothers let her run wild. She can ride, shot, swear, and puff on a cheroot with the best of them but now her ferocious great-aunt takes charge to mold her into a fashionable, compliant miss. Our tomboy is laced into corsets and carted off the London to snare a rich, titled husband. But her less than lady-like ways offend society. She’s a disgrace! Oh — and she’s secretly in love with her brother’s best friend.
  • The Wallflower. This mousy, plump, firmly on the shelf spinster is barely tolerated in her brother’s house where her sister-in-law resents her every bite of food. No man has every looked at her twice and no man ever will. At twenty-five, she is resigned to being the poor relation for the rest of her life, always an aunt and never a mother.
  • The Madcap. This is a girl who rescues abused dogs from street urchins and brings them home, fleas and all. Or she might adopt one of the street urchins. Or an elderly cart horse. Impulsive and adorable, her heart leads her into compromising situations verging on scandal. She lacks decorum. Respectable gentlemen avoid her like the plague.
  • The Girl Next Door. The girl from the bordering estate has always been in love with her handsome neighbor but all her sees is his former playmate. How will she convince him she’s all grown up?
  • The Soiled Dove. Circumstances beyond her control forced her onto the stage/into the demimonde. She has a loving heart, but love and marriage is not for the likes of her.
  • The Virgin. This beautiful and pure-minded soul was inexplicably born into a disreputable family. She makes excuses for her father or older brother as long as she can but when they die and leave her with nothing but bills, she must bargain whatever she has to marry money, even as she shudders at her own base motives.

I could go on — but you get the idea. Any likeable young woman in a desperate situation will do for your heroine. If she’s not plucky and brave on the opening page, she will be by the last page. So pick one of these heroines or invent one of your own.

The heroes are always English, usually thirty to thirty five, invariably “one of the wealthiest men in England.”  These gentlemen, are magnificent, dangerous specimens —  superb horsemen and fencers and boxers. Under their immaculately fitted jackets and trousers, they hide the physiques of Greek gods (judging from the Elgin marbles). Lesser mortals can’t meet the commanding gaze of their piercing amber eyes (or stormy grey eyes, or unearthly blue, or even pale green). They move with leonine grace. If one of these men enters a ballroom unexpectedly, the awe-struck assembly falls silent. They are skilled at eluding the snares set by manipulating mothers with marriageable daughters.

  • The Arrogant Duke. The Duke is as rich as Croesus and he is in the market for a bride worthy of himself. He requires impeccable lineage, a generous dowry, stately bearing, and good taste. Love is beside the point.
  • The Rake.  He is a gambler who never risks more than he can afford to lose, a drinker who is never loses his head, a lover who never loses his heart. He beds only widows and other men’s wives. He hides behind his reputation as a shallow man, but he’s really a spy.
  • The Soldier. After he unexpectantly inherits the family title, he resigns his commission . He must marry and get a heir, but he feels guilty for surviving when better men fell. Love is the last thing on his mind.
  • The Dark Earl. After several years exile on the continent, he’s returned to London. Maybe he killed his best friend in a duel. Maybe he abandoned his betrothed at the alter. Now he needs a wife. Any wife.
  • The Noble Bastard. He was born on the wrong side of the blanket, educated as a gentleman. He makes his own way — as a pirate, a financier, an industrialist or a gambler. Maybe his swarthy good looks come from a mother with Moorish blood or a maharaja’s daughter. He might be a companion to the sons of a good house, but he can never marry one of the daughters.
  • The Widower. His adulterous wife died in childbirth. He is bitter and vows to never love again but, for the sake of his small children, me must marry again.

In todays’ politically correct historical romances, feel free to create a hero who secretly funds a home for orphans or a school for reformed street walkers or a haven for retired race horses.  Today’s enlightened hero usually knows the names of his servants, pays them generous wages, favors progressive reforms, is a responsible landlord and good steward of the land and treats his lessors well. Sometimes he is emotionally scarred from a bad childhood or a bad love affair. Sometimes he is too proud to enjoy life.

edeb64001da99f2869d18c9408acb3b3(And it’s anachronisms like these that throw me right out of the book and makes me laugh. Like English lords during the Napoleonic Wars were SO concerned about the well-being of the servants. And their stupendous wealth never came from children mining coal or slave labor on a sugar plantation. Some contemporary authors feel compelled to make these men out to be paragons of virtue even by today’s standards.)

To me, no matter how writhing with hidden hurts, or how motivated by high morals, the heroes are not particularly interesting. Their only excuse for existing is as a vehicle for the heroine’s happiness. I read to see the woman saved from starvation/despoiling/a life of thankless toil and delivered into a life not just of new gowns and jewels and pin money, but of perfect happiness. At the end she must be respected, deeply cherished, and sexually sated. (But I really don’t need the details though the current fashion is for pages and pages of details! Oh, Jane Austen and Georgette Hayer and Marion Chesney, you set such a good example! Biting wit! Clever conversation! Chaste sex. Why must time march on?)

So — you have chosen your fair lady and her hero and you are about to have them meet each other, however unlikely. The more unusual the situation, the better. Have the girl fall out of a tree into a pond where your hero bathes unclothed. (Maybe someone else already did that.)  Have them, two strangers, be discovered in a dark room alone and be obliged to marry. Have one crawl into the other’s bed by mistake during a thunderstorm at a house party.

Make sure they hate each other on sight, or, conversely, fall in love on sight and fight the mutual attraction through 75% of the book. It’s typical to have them consumate the relationship halfway through the book but — you are the author! — you can have them, somehow, engaged in sexual intercourse on the first page if it leads only to confusion and keeps them apart for another two hundred pages. Because that’s the whole plot: one thing after another keeps them out of each other’s arms. Choose from below:

  • They love each other but won’t admit it.
  • She gets kidnapped.
  • He gets bonked on the head and gets amnesia.
  • They are about to confess/make love/blurt out the truth but are interrupted by one crises after another.
  • They endlessly misunderstand each other.
  • One of them is convinced the other is in love with someone else.

Me? I’m really tired of kidnappings, so please skip that plot device when you write your romance.

For additional interest throw in a haughty mother-in-law, a younger brother begging for money from the new bride,  a jealous ex-mistress, murder attempts by the next-in-line for the dukedom, a ghost, or a mysterious bequest. Just find some way to keep the lovers apart for almost all of the book while simultaneously maintaining enough tension to keep the reader interested. It should be easy. After all, I’ve given you all these prompts and told you what’s essential.

Even if I can’t write one of these, it’s only a romance novel.

It’ll be a piece of cake.

Let me know when you’re done. I’ve got my fork and I’m ready for another book.

 

 

 

..

*And aren’t all families equally old? But we all know what this means, so I won’t belabor the point further.

Knock! Knock! Ready or not?

#1 Secret for Hosts

My house is a mess right now. All the kitchen stuff is in open boxes set on, around, and under the dining room table. There is a gaping hole where the kitchen sink used to be and the countertop is in pieces at the end of the driveway. Every piece of furniture is not-so-lightly dusted with yellow pollen, an annual offering from Mother Nature.

So when my good friend Mary calls and says “I can arrive tonight!,” what do I say?

A.   Oh, dear! I’m sorry, but that will be inconvenient.

B.   Which hotel will you stay at?

C.   What time will you get here?

I picked C. Then my husband and I scurried around. We moved the lumber out of the guest room and put the furniture back where it belongs and washed the sheets and picked a bouquet of naricissi for the upstairs bath. (It was clean. We hadn’t been washing paint brushes in there.)

Once, during a party at my house (a different house than this one), one of the guests told me that she envied how I could invite people into my home —- and here I forget exactly how this tactful woman phrased it — but what she meant was that she envied how I felt free to invite people in when my house was torn up. We’d ripped out the wall-to-wall carpeting without refinishing the scruffy flooring or replacing the baseboards.

She implied that she did not always feel free to invite people over. My friend lived in a large, handsome home, beautifully decorated. She and her spouse worked hard to keep it nice. They were generous hosts and set a lovely table. Even the landscaping was DT516immaculate. When would home like hers not be ready for guests?

And, if I lived by her standards, when would a home like mine ever be ready for guests?

We lived in this house more than ten years before the landlady agreed to sell it to us. We rented because it’s a duplex and my mother lived in the upstairs. Now her former apartment is a guest suite with a connecting door to our living room. But after decades as a rental, this house suffered from a lack of TLC. As owners, we’ve done some major work, but we can’t do everything at once. We may not live long enough to get around to everything.

The roof is new but the replacement windows are not holding up so well. We ripped up the carpet here, too, and haven’t (yet) refinished the floors. Plaster crumbles around a few of the windows. The woodwork is splotchy with mismatched paint. You get the picture. Not “Architectural Digest”.

And then there’s the dust and dog hair.

In the house I grew up in there was a place for everything and everything was in its place. This was less true in my bedroom and not true at all in my brother’s room. The remainder of the house was neat and dust-free.

The only telephone in that house was tethered to my father’s double sided desk. The phone was a black, heavy unit with a rotary dial. Daddy seldom used it, but, in his mind, telephones belonged on desks — so it was on the desk in the most uncomfortable room in the house. And if you were the fidgety sort and fidgeted with anything on that desk — a pencil maybe — you’d hear about it later. Later, because you were almost certainly not gabbing away on the phone and fidgeting with pencils or the like while Daddy was sitting on the other side of his desk. If Daddy was at his desk, phone conversations were as brief as possible and pencils stayed where they belonged.

That house was always ready for company but company was a rare thing for my parents. Occasionally, we might find Mama with a friend at the kitchen table with cigarettes and coffee when we got home from school, but never on the weekend. Our friends might be around during the day but seldom for a meal and never overnight. There were no dinner parties and few gatherings of any kind at our house.

My husband is not like my father, but I have more than enough a-place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its-place genes for both of us. We have to compromise. He tries not to leave his workboots where I’ll trip over them and I try not to nag.

When our four children were little, neatness was not a top priority. There was still a place for everything and important things — my keys, my glasses, the checkbook — stayed there. But laundry, toys, books, records, and magazines migrated freely, in herds and solo. We vacuumed and dusted anything at eye level. (Once, a friend cleaned for us after my father-in-law’s death. She lifted, intact, a hollow skin of dust from a vase way up on a high shelf.)

If we invited people in for a meal or a party, we cleaned up first. But our friends usually just showed up unannounced and made themselves at home. It was a messy house, in need of a good cleaning and repairs, but there was always a place to sit and a cup of coffee for anyone who stopped by.

My mother did her own cleaning, and took pleasure in it, until, at 85 and with only a few weeks to live, she hired someone. I cancelled the last scheduled cleaning, since Mama was no longer responsive. Maybe I shouldn’t have. Maybe the sound of the vacuum cleaner would have soothed her.

Mama expected me to keep as clean a house as she did herself, even though there were many days I couldn’t get out of bed, laid low by CFIDS/fibromyalgia. My husband was on the road for weeks at a time and my boys still at home had jobs and school and their own lives and barely kept up with the dishes. But I still had a China cupboard with open shelves and, once, Mama walked up to it and drew a line in the dust. “There,” she said. “Now you’ll have to clean it!”  I didn’t. I summoned what energy I had and chewed her out. (And I got rid of the China cupboard.)

What does all this talk of dusting and neatness have to do with being a good host?

Everything and nothing.

Like everyone else, I appreciate a well-maintained home, with art on the walls and flowers bordering smooth, green lawns.  I am happy for my friends who wake up to this everyday. I like visiting them in their beautiful homes, but I doubt that I will ever acheive this sort of perfection.

I like my space neat and orderly for myself, so I can find my keys or my scissors or the electric bill or my shoes. And it’s easier to keep up with things now that there’s just the two of us, even if our dog sheds. There are usually dust puppies drifting around. If we invite people to visit, we clean before they come, as much as we can. If friends drop-in, we like to open the door and say “How nice! Come in!” And then we sit down and enjoy our guests.

Guests are not ticket holders for the Spring Home and Garden Show. If they are, and they come to our house, they’ve come to the wrong house and garden!

But I can make you a cup of tea or coffee and listen to you tell me about your life or the book you are reading (or writing) or your latest project, whatever it is. I hope you leave knowing I was happy to see you.

And that’s what I want , too. I want to feel that you are happy to see me. Isn’t that what we all want?

So don’t wait until your house is perfect — perfectly clean, perfectly neat, everything repaired. Open your door with a smile. Apologize for the mess and the car hair if you must — but just say “Come in. I’m happy to see you.”

This isn’t the Spring Home and Garden Show.

This is your life.

 

 

 

 

P.S. Can you read WELCOME written in the pollen/dust in the photo above?