Reading in the Year of the Plague

During this year of our plague, two thousand and twenty, I spent roughly a third of my waking hours working as a scholarly editor (thank goddess I am still employed), a third sprucing up the 1919 bungalow with overgrown yard I purchased in October 2019, and a third escaping within the pages of books. Losing myself in other people’s stories and reading about faraway worlds and experiences from the safety and comfort of my heavenly front porch was my best remedy for coping with the isolation and emptiness of the year. Reading books has been a balm on my anxious bones; and audio books, too, helped fill the vast silences of my days and nights. Books have been great friends, keeping me company and joining in the chorus of my voice echoing off lonely walls.

I read fifty-five books this terrible year, nearly double the leisurely reading I might have done if the pandemic had not isolated me from friends and family and travel. My reading journey this year began on New Years’ Day with The Giver of Stars and concluded December 28 with Girl, Woman, Other. In my reading this year, I escaped to rural Kentucky, London, Australia, the Holy Land, and the Pacific Crest Trail in the American Northwest. I read novels, memoirs, collections of poetry, history, and one work of philosophy. I enjoyed books about nature, coming of age stories, and nineteen works of historical fiction, my favorite pleasure-reading genre. I solved mysteries, walked the streets of seventeenth-century Amsterdam, shivered in Alaska winter, traveled back to 1950s India, learned about the brain and personality of the American crow, and raged at the injustice that is bound up tight in the DNA of American democracy.

I smiled. I frowned. I laughed. I wept. I pondered. I learned. Books are so magical in their power to influence our emotions and challenge our brains.

As a historian, I read history books and articles and bend over historic documents during my work days, and pleasure reading provides an important counterweight to all of the scholarly reading I do. However, pleasure reading this year took on a more important purpose. I felt a pressing need to escape the political and biological chaos of the world around me and to fill the silences of socially distanced family and friends. In that context, I read far more light-hearted books than I have allowed myself the luxury of reading in decades, and I embraced the soothing joy of audio books to cope with a new and unwelcome brand of quiet. Books helped me cope with that quiet, and although I am happy to bid farewell to 2020 and will not remember it fondly, it has been an epic year of reading.

And for all the books I read—the great, the good, and the meh—I am grateful. They remind me that stories are at the heart of every human experience. That stories nurture and guide us, teach us, remind us of the past, get us through our days, and inspire us to face the future. Stories reveal the breathtaking diversity of life experiences, but they also remind us of our shared humanity. Stories help us understand the world and ourselves.

In no other time in my life do I think that books have been so important, so loved, so appreciated, so damned necessary. This is my humble ode to my 2020 reading list, filled up with books that nurtured and inspired me, kept me sane, and carried me through the long, lonely year. It is also a kind of portrait of my life this past year, a record of my travels, a log of the characters I met along the way, and the stories I heard from the comfort and safety of home.

Alphabetical Annotated Reading List for 2020 (Each includes my love rating)

Love Ratings

Finished the book. I give books about 25 pages, and if I finish a book it gets at least one star.

♥♥ Pretty good story, writing meh.

♥♥♥ Solid writing. Good story. Enjoyable, useful and/or important.

♥♥ Excellent writing and story. Taught me something and/or took me away and I was happy to go.

♥♥♥♥♥ Wonderful. Breathtaking. A book for my lifetime master list of great books.

Bauermeister, Erica, The Scent Keeper (2019), fiction. This story about a family who smells memories is mystical (and odd) and mildly interesting.

Burton, Jesse, The Miniaturist (2014), historical fiction. I likely would not have picked up this book in a typical reading year, but listening to it on audio was quite agreeable. I think my daughter Mack was right when she said: “Everything sounds good in a British accent.”

Cameron, Claire, The Last Neanderthal (2017), historical fiction. Meh. I really don’t remember why I even finished it. Good idea, poor execution, and I don’t recommend it.

Chevalier, Tracy, A Single Thread (2019), historical fiction. A sweet story about a single woman in the decade after WWI, when a generation of women in England was adjusting to a heartbreaking dearth of young men.

Girl with Pearl Earring (1999), historical fiction. After reading A Single Thread , I remembered how much I loved this older book I had read many years ago. This time around, I listened to the audio book. Chevalier is a great writer of the genre. If you’re new to her, start with this one or At the Edge of the Orchard (2016), which is my favorite.

Coehlo, Paulo, The Archer (2017), fiction. As a rule, I don’t read much nonfiction by men, frankly because so few of them write well-formed, realistic female characters. So why would I bother with the Brazilian Coehlo, you ask? I loved The Alchemist, and so decided to try this novella, a fable like that older book. Bad idea. Definitely my worst reading decision of the year, and I only finished it out of respect for the renown of the author and because it was mercifully short.

Diamonte, Anita, The Boston Girl (2015), historical fiction. This book is a good story about an immigrant girl in the tenements of Boston. I listened to it on audio, read by the actress Linda Lavin, who elevated the story. She was a brilliant narrator. One of these stars is all hers. ♥♥♥

Diaz, Joanne, My Favorite Tyrants (2014), poetry. Witty and deep, this Illinois poet is incredible. So good. She teaches at Illinois Wesleyan, and I saw her do a reading from this book in January before the pandemic cancelled 2020. Not all of the poems are great, but a few of them are sensational. ♥♥♥

Doyle, Glennon, Untamed (2020), nonfiction. Doyle is a social media darling who offers some valuable nuggets in this book. I appreciate Doyle’s voice, and I follow her on Instagram. She is smart and observant as fuck. But, I must say, the book was a tad underwhelming, and a bit overhyped. ♥♥

Erdich, Louise, Future Home of the Living God (2017), fiction. Two stars because Erdich is a great writer, and there is some great writing on the pages of this book. However, this futuristic story did not capture my imagination. ♥♥

Ervick, Kelcey Parker, The Bitter Life of Božena Nȇmcoá: A Biographical Collage (2016), nonfiction. Part history, part memoir; has words and images. This book is so weird, impossible to categorize, and so wonderful because it is brilliantly off kilter. ♥♥♥♥

Lilian’s Balcony: A Novella of Fallingwater (2013), fiction. Ervick is a creative storyteller. I met her at a writer’s fair and workshop at Eastern Illinois University early in 2020, before we knew there was a virus lurking. She views writing as more than words in ink on a white page, preferring to tell stories with images and space as well as words. Function and form commune with the voices of her characters, and she likes to blur the lines of genre. I love her work, and she’s a fun follow on Instagram, because she draws memoir almost daily (that’s a bad description of her work, but check her out, she’s great). ♥♥♥

Evaristo, Bernadine, Girl, Woman, Other (2019), fiction. Winner of the Man Booker Prize, Girl, Woman, Other is a triumph of writing, of the powerful voice of female characters who know who they are, and of storytelling across race and gender. The diversity of voices in this creative work scream from the mountaintops that their stories matter. That all of our stories matter.  ♥♥♥♥♥

Gregory, Philippa, Three Sisters, Three Queens (2017), historical fiction. Written by a popular British writer of historical fiction, this book is about Margaret Tudor, Mary Tudor, and Catherine of Aragon. Oh, the intrigues of British royalty during the Middle Ages. And, yikes, the human drama of medieval life in general. ♥♥♥

Hamilton, Gabrielle, Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef (2012), memoir. My surprise book of the year, written by the chef of the award-winning New York restaurant Prune. Gorgeous writing about life and food. Read it. It is fabulous and there are mouth-watering descriptions of food. ♥♥♥♥

Hannah, Kristin, The Great Alone (2017), historical fiction. Pretty good coming of age story, but the star of the book is Alaska. Lovely. Vivid. And fucking freezing. ♥♥♥

Harjo, Joy, An American Sunrise (2019), poetry. Want to cry? Read this collection of poems by U.S. Poet Laureate Harjo about the Trail of Tears, history, grief, cultural annihilation, and memory. Wow. Breathtaking. Horrifying. Heartbreaking.  

Harper, Michelle, The Beauty in Breaking (2020), memoir. A female, African-American ER doctor, Harper puts her deft fingers on the heart of racism in America and caresses out of her stories the truth of our shared humanity. After I read the book—in two days, it is that good—I watched Harper on Zoom in a book talk and Q&A, and she is an impressive woman. She is a bright-sider, despite all the ugly she has seen, and her perspective was a welcome viewpoint during this year of our biological and political plague. ♥♥♥♥♥

Haupt, Lyanda Lynn, Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness (2009), nature. I only discovered Haupt last year, but I’m hooked. She is a spectacular writer and gives the reader science and nature with pure joy. She is birder with a great sense of humor, and her knowledge and insights are wonderful. Love her work. ♥♥♥

Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild (2013), nature. I am obsessed with Haupt’s view of nature and her funny bone on the intersection of humans with nature. Her eco-sensible philosophy is inspirational, and she has made me a more observant citizen of the spaces I share with birds and squirrels and other wild animals. She has a new book coming next year called Rooted, and I can’t wait. ♥♥♥♥

Hoffman, Alice, The Red Garden (2010), historical fiction. Hoffman is a very popular author in the genre of historical fiction. However, her books for me always just miss the mark. This one was creative and enjoyable, but not great. ♥♥

Holmes, Linda, Evvie Drake Starts Over (2019), fiction. I chose more light books this year than is typical for my tastes, because pandemics are pretty damned depressing. But this book was a little too romancy for me. If I’ve learned anything from this year of magical reading, it is that prefer books that are more substantive than this one. ♥♥

Joshi, Aika, The Henna Artist (2020), historical fiction. Joshi’s story of a single woman making a life for herself in India in the 1950s reveals much about caste and gender and human dignity. Great story with very good writing. ♥♥♥

Kendi, Ibram X., How to Be an Anti Racist (2019), nonfiction. It is not enough to just not be a racist (is there I better way to state this—I tried but failed!). In America, white people must become actively anti racist. This book by an important historian of race should be required reading for every high school student in America. ♥♥♥♥

Kendzior, Sarah, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America (2020), nonfiction. A journalist and anthropologist who studies autocratic and dictatorial regimes, Kendzior offers a lucid portrait of the horrifying story of Trump’s rise to the presidency and depicts American democracy dangling precariously from a cliff. She’s lives in St. Louis, where I lived from 2012-2019, and I knew about her work and followed her on Twitter before she became well known. She’s super smart (PhD, Washington University), and she minces no words. She’s not an optimist, though, so if you’re looking for a bright spot in the dark of night, don’t look here. ♥♥♥

Kidd, Sue Monk, Book of Longings (2020), historical fiction. This was the bravest book I’ve read in a decade, the biblical story of Jesus from the perspective of his wife. Fabulous writing and sensational female characters set in the stark historical context of the Holy Land in the time of Jesus. Brilliant. Stunning. One of my favorite books of the twenty-first century. Shout out to my dear friend Sandra who recommended the book to me by saying: “Stace, I know you don’t do Jesus, but you have to read this book about his wife!” ♥♥♥♥♥

The Invention of Wings (2014), historical fiction. I had missed this novel about the life of Sarah Grimké, a historical hero of mine, because it was published in the year my daughter died. In a normal year, I would have read this book by an author I loved and a historical topic that intrigued me. But my grief robbed me of reading for almost four years. I stopped reading after losing Mack because I couldn’t let my mind go long enough to get through a novel. Thank goodness my joy of reading and my ability to read returned to me in 2018, and I am grateful it was here for me this year when I needed it so much. In this book, Kidd takes too many literary licenses with Sarah’s story, but her writing is always good and the story moves along at a good clip. ♥♥♥

Kingsolver, Barbara, Unsheltered (2018), fiction. I’ve been a fan of Kingsolver forever, and this book is the epitome of her. Kingsolver knows humans better than almost any writer I’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy. Simple story paired with good writing is Kingsolver’s method for uncovering the beauty of the human heart, and this book is her, per usual. ♥♥♥

Letts, Elizabeth, Finding Dorothy (2019), historical fiction. This story of L. Frank Baum’s wife, Maud Gage Baum, who consulted with MGM on the production of The Wizard of Oz offers some interesting stories of Maud Baum’s early life and her famous suffrage mother Matilda Gage, and it offers some provocative observations about Judy Garland. Good story, but a little draggy. ♥♥

McLain, Paula, Circling the Sun (2015), historical fiction. Mediocre novel set in the overlapping contexts of the Out of Africa story. Privileged white people in Africa. Kind of boring. And definitely passé. ♥♥

Miller, Madeline, Song of Achilles (2011), historical fiction. I read this because I loved her novel Circe, but this book is not as good. However, for full disclosure, I suspect I didn’t like this one as much because it is about a man and Circe is about a woman. I prefer a women’s perspective on things, even regards ancient mythology, thank you very much. ♥♥

Moriarty, Liane, The Husband’s Secret (2013), fiction. Moriarty is my latest guilty pleasure, because I relate to the quirky, middle-aged women who inhabit her stories. I started reading Moriarty’s work last year with Big Little Lies and Truly Madly Guilty, and I appreciate the dark corners her humor. ♥♥♥

The Last Anniversary (2005), fiction. Sisters and secrets.  ♥♥♥

Nine Perfect Strangers (2018), fiction. Wacky characters in an absurd settling. Mayhem ensues. Laugh out loud funny. ♥♥♥♥

Three Wishes (2003), fiction. Funny, heartwarming sister drama. ♥♥

What Alice Forgot (2009), fiction. A story of amnesia with Moriarty’s usual compelling characters. I made my way through five of Moriarty’s light-dancing books this year, and what fun they were. On audio, they are made even more delightful by the talented Australian voices of the two fantastic readers who narrate them. Moriarty doesn’t set the world on fire, but she tells a good story and makes a reader giggle and gape. ♥♥♥

Moyes, JoJo, The Giver of Stars (2019), historical fiction. This book offers a fictionalized story about the Packhorse Librarians, women during the Great Depression who delivered library books to people in the hills of Kentucky. It’s pretty good, but the happy ending is contrived and disappointing. ♥♥

Oliver, Mary, Upstream: Selected Essays (2016), essays. Stick to her poetry, which is gorgeous. These essays, published late in her life, not so much.

Orlean, Susan, The Library Book (2018), nonfiction. Interesting story of the devastating L.A. Public Library fire written by an excellent journalist who is also a great writer. It’s a bit plodding in its methodical retelling of the events of the fire. I liked that level of detail, but it’s probably not for everyone. ♥♥♥

Owens, Delia, Where the Crawdads Sing (2018), fiction. A truly lovely novel with a haunting human story told among the vivid images of a disappearing landscape. Gorgeous prose and an unforgettable female protagonist. ♥♥♥♥

Penny, Louise, A Better Man (2019), mystery. This book is part of a great mystery series I love, but it is a weak book in the series. However, I recommend the entire series, which is chockablock with loveable, eccentric characters, gorgeous (and frigid) Canadian landscapes, and great literary and historical references. The series is much more than the standard detective story. It weaves together the lives of Inspector Gamache and his wife with the residents of a strange and isolated little town where the stories are set. Start with the first book Still Life and keep on reading…there are sixteen books in all (and the seventeenth is scheduled for 2021)! ♥♥

Richardson, Heather Cox, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America (2020), history. If you want to understand why America is in such a political mess these days, read this book. Richardson, a political historian and expert on the history of the Republican Party from Lincoln to the modern day, studied American history under the great Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald at Harvard, and I have admired her work for years. She is one of the most trustworthy and talented historians working today. ♥♥♥♥

Rutherford, Edward, New York: The Novel (2010), historical fiction. Rutherford’s book sweeps broadly across time, setting fictional characters, connected through the generations, in the (fairly accurate) history of one of the world’s greatest cities. The sweep, I think, is why I enjoyed this fictionalized story of New York, which began with the Dutch in the colonial period and ended with stockbrokers in the 1980s. ♥♥

Sedaris, David, Calypso (2018), humor. Is there any writer who is funnier than Sedaris? That’s a rhetorical question. I love, love, love this guy. Calipso is not his strongest collection, but it has some dandies; and I happily recommend any of his books or audio book (he reads them himself). I met him once at a book signing, and my signed copy of Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls is a treasured possession.  ♥♥♥

Stedman, M. L., The Light between Oceans (2012), historical fiction. I was haunted by the many sides of loneliness depicted in this story, set in Australia after WWI. Did I relate a little too directly in my isolation to the two lonely characters in the story who inhabited a lighthouse on a remote island? Maybe. Whatever, I enjoyed the book.  ♥♥♥

Stockett, Kathryn, The Help (2009), historical fiction. I had never seen the movie or read the book, and I selected it this year as an audio book. It is a good, albeit problematic, story, the dialogue is fantastic, and the black women in the novel are compelling characters. The readers of the audio book elevated the story, and their brilliant reading added that fourth star. ♥♥♥♥

Strayed, Cheryl, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2014), memoir. I am very late to the party on this one, but it is a fascinating, well-told story. I liked it. As well, in reading this book, I learned not to ever, in a million years, no matter what personal difficulties befall me, to go looking for myself, all by myself, on a hiking trail more than four or five miles in length. ♥♥♥

Strout, Elizabeth, Olive Kitteridge (2008), fiction. Many of my friends love Elizabeth Strout, but I am less enamored of her writing. Olive is, however, an intriguing character, and I hope I do not become the cranky old lady she turned out to be. ♥♥♥

Olive Again (2019), fiction. I did not really think I needed more adventures of Olive, but this book was not without its worthwhile scenes of Olive’s strange interactions with the world. ♥♥♥

Ware, Ruth, The Death of Mrs. Westaway (2018), mystery. Not my usual fare, but this story was fun and this British writer definitely has found a niche. ♥♥♥

In a Dark, Dark Wood (2015), thriller. Not my cup of tea, and I think Ruth Ware might be crazy. The pandemic has been scary enough; I should have skipped this one. ♥♥

West, Lindy, The Witches Are Coming (2019), essays. West’s cultural critiques are hysterical, and she is dead-on balls accurate in her observations about Trump, social media, and an array of other topics, as well. ♥♥♥

Wetmore, Elizabeth, Valentine (2020), historical fiction. Yowza! This is a stunning first novel, set in the bleak oil landscape of Odessa, Texas, in the 1970s. And it is an important novel, too, with its beautifully crafted story of race on the border. Gut-wrenching. Haunting. It will make you scream and cry and mourn the pain that humans are capable of inflicting upon the “other.” ♥♥♥♥

Wilson, Catherine, How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well (2019), philosophy. I picked this book up in late December 2019 on a “new book” display cart in the library at Eastern Illinois University, where I hold a “local scholar” library card which grants me 16-week borrowing privileges. The book’s cover intrigued me, but it sat on a shelf in my office for weeks and weeks. I never picked it back up, and then the pandemic came and the library closed, and all of the books I had checked out were renewed through October. And so, with time and automatic renewal, I finally cracked it open; and although I probably would not have ever gotten around to reading it if not for the pandemic, I’m glad I picked up and even more glad I read it. It’s basically the philosophy of me. I understand myself so much better now. I am an Epicurean. Who knew?!! ♥♥♥

Zabin, Serena, The Boston Massacre: A Family History (2020), history. A fresh approach to the American Revolution that depicts the blurry lines between patriot and loyalist. A friend of mine who is a professor of political science at St. Olaf College recommended the book, because she knows Zabin, who is a professor of history at neighboring Carleton College in her Minnesota town. I like reading books written by people I know or with whom I have some personal connection.

Winter Ughs and Uggs

Winter coming on as a global pandemic heats up is a one-two punch to my gut. Even winters passed with dear friends in warm kitchens and cozy pubs doesn’t melt the ice between me and the jerk Old Man Winter. The bitter air, the sleet and snow, the short days and the overcast skies, and turtlenecks and fleece that make my thin hair fly out kooky away from head make me grumpy. Seasonal Affective Disorder is not fake news. I get it every year. Black Friday means red-hot shopping deals for most people, but for me Black Friday means the arrival of my winter blues.

I hate the cold months. I abhor snow flurries. And as a daily pedestrian, I abominate sidewalk skating rinks created when an Illinois winter storm can’t decide whether it prefers to drown me in freezing cold rain or bury me under the snow. I am a sun worshipping, flip-flop wearing woman who loves to sweat and to bake my skin in the heat of a muggy Midwestern summer. I like my arms free of sleeves. I want to live every day in bare feet without socks and shoes hindering the wiggling of my painted toes. I love my freckles, bursting in July and August, when tomatoes are ripe and cold beer beats the heat at a backyard cookout with friends.

Summer is my season, and Thanksgiving, otherwise known as the American launch of Christmas, marks the end of it. No more Indian summers to keep me in denial. Thanksgiving fills up my belly with my sister’s wonderful food all jacked up on carbs and calories, but it leaves my summer-loving heart bitter and empty. Every year, just as the Thanksgiving sun sets and I’m falling into a food coma, winter shows up. It watches me get all liquored and fooded up on Thanksgiving, and as if to smite me—because that’s the kind of season winter is, a smiting season—it moves in while I am weak and whining about how much unhealthy food I have just consumed. And then, that jerk throws his winter blues at me when I’m too fat to get out of the way.

I don’t have a lot of coping strategies for my winter blues. My way is to cry about the cold, badmouth sledding and snow angels, and blame winter for my bah humbugging of Christmas. All of the standard winter rituals get me down. But there is one personal winter ritual that doesn’t completely ruin my life: the rotation of shoes in my closet. I put away my flip flops and Birkenstocks and hiking sandals, because they cannot make me happy when the temperatures drop into the thirties. I pull out my embarrassingly extravagant collection of Ugg boots. When the weather turns cold and wet in the days after Thanksgiving, and the furnace has kicked on to stay on for the next three and a half months, I slip my feet into a pair of my beloved, shearling-lined Uggs.

Ahhh. Toasty and warm. Uggs give me a spirit power. Uggs are my way of sticking up my middle finger to winter. The first feeling of this ritual cuddling of my feet makes me smile. It makes my toes and my heart toasty warm. I know I will still curse the winter, swear at every flurry that flies. But I also know that my feet will be luxuriously warm all winter while I dream about next summer.

Holidays are hard without Mack. This year I also had to endure Thanksgiving without Savannah and her husband Levi, without my mom and her husband Mike, and without my friend Dan, who has been joining our feast for years. Grief is always a challenge, but in a pandemic it has tested the limits of my ability to cope. Thank goodness for my sister Tracy, who fed me, albeit in the driveway at a healthy distance from her and my brother-in-law Jason and their daughter Zoe.
I did enjoy a couple of holiday cocktails, including this gin and jam with fresh cranberry sauce and rosemary. I toasted Mack, like I always do, after curating my perfect last bite in her honor: homemade egg noodles, mashed potatoes, and a dab of fresh cranberry sauce.

Mums and Memories

ghost white mums in the garden, tinting to purple, hinting of MACKENZIE and the day I lost her, six years ago wednesday.

ghost white mums in the sunshine, embracing the autumn, while I brace for grief the color of milestones in hues of dark days.

mums and ghosts in the garden, tinting my memories, hinting of MACKENZIE, the love and the joy of her, forever from sunday.

That face—forever.

Ode to My Silver Maple

The tree in my backyard is going away. She’s a silver maple, 70-feet or so in height, stretched out wide across the lawn, her branches heavy with shiny, lush ivy. She’s been standing in her spot, growing up and out for more than thirty years, shading the back side of my 1919 bungalow and sheltering generations of wildlife families. Her presence in the yard was not a factor in my decision to buy this old house last fall, but when I first toured the property and stood under her cooling canopy on that muggy August afternoon, I pictured summer evening meals with friends beneath her leafy umbrella. I certainly had no plans until recently to kill her.img_1632

She’s not dead or rotting, and she’s not that old, either. But she’s a tree-quirky thing and potentially dangerous. Her codependent trunk, with its five enormous branches, and her daring proximity to my backdoor make her a menace, “unfit for a small yard” said two arborists who sealed her fate with pronouncements of eventual doom. “She’s gonna come down at some point,” said one of them, “and she might take out your house in the bargain.”

Her massive limbs reach halfway across my roof and also threaten the cottage behind me, along with the back porches of the old, historic homes on either side of my house. She’s on borrowed time in her uprightness, vulnerable to injury by a lightning strike or by heavy winds in thunderstorms, which are frequent on the Illinois prairie. It is better to bring her down peacefully and to keep the insurance companies out of it. In my head, removing the tree is a smart choice. In my heart, I feel a little bit like a murderer. Unlike the arborist who is cutting her down for a king’s ransom, I cannot take such a purposeful felling lightly. I feel the natural as well as the unnatural weight of responsibility for the tree’s demise. I have even shed tears over my decision, not only for the dent her removal is putting in my savings account, but also for the loss of the tree’s beauty and for the well-being of her current inhabitants.

There is a red squirrel, a fat one with a fabulous tail, who I see most mornings from my bathroom window, as she is perched on one of the tree’s outstretched branches. That squirrel is a friendly neighbor, and I cannot explain to her that her home will be soon be destroyed. What will the warbling vireos do now but move on down the street, perhaps too far away for me to hear their lively, insistent singing. I expect, as well, to lose my regular midnight visits from the barred owl, who coos high up in the silver maple’s branches. I’m less remorseful about the fate of a colony of five million box elder bugs living in and around the tree, but my heart aches for the nesting cardinals who will not return to my back garden in the spring.

img_1634Seeking professional advice on the tree and deciding to defer to the expertise of arborists forced me to overrule the faintness of my heart to kill such a large, living creature. Instead of dwelling on my nature-loving feelings for the tree, I’ve been thinking about all the hours I will be able to read instead of raking her fall leaves and her damnable helicopter-seed pods. I’ve imagined all the herbs I will be able to grow next summer, just outside of the back door, where the sunshine will paint the yard in the place of the deep shadows cast in the last living summer of my silver maple. It will be lovely, I remind myself, to fall asleep to the rolling thunder of a storm instead of being frantic and awake, waiting for the tree to crash down through the roof and kill me and the dogs in our own bed.

Yes, yes, I know, I know. It’s just a tree, and I’ve never been that much of a treehugger anyway. She is a tree, I agree. But is a tree really just a tree? Isn’t a tree also a beautiful, green, living thing, cleansing the air, providing shade, sheltering wildlife, and connecting us to the earth? My tree has lived well and fulfilled her promise, providing fast growing shade and massive sanctuary for birdsong. I think she is deserving of this ode, because it is not her fault a previous owner of my house planted her so thoughtlessly. I honor her utility and grace and beauty; and when the chainsaw makes its first assault upon her bark, I will feel the pain of it.

I suspect, however, that it will take me far more time to recover from the size of the check I will write to pay for the tree’s removal than from the size of the space the tree will vacate in my back garden. Perhaps the high cost of removing a 70-foot silver maple is a penance for murdering her. Perhaps the economic pain of this felling will help me ease some of the heartache of losing the tree and the shade and the birds, as well.

 

 

 

 

Finch Finds Fern for Family

CHARLESTON, Ill., May 25, 2020— A pair of house finches have moved into the scrawny fern on the eastern side of Stacy Lynn’s porch. The mother-to-be finch built the nest secretively sometime last week, and it was discovered today that she had laid four eggs in it. She was seen sitting on the eggs and tweeting. Tweeting as in chirping, not as in Twitter. Finches in this neighborhood are not yet online.

Momma Finch Looks On

Stacy Lynn, the home owner and a new bird nerd, said she was surprised to discover the eggs. “I’ve been hearing that finch and seeing her fly out of the fern,” she said, “but I had no idea she’d made the nest!”

“I’m delighted, and I can’t wait to meet the babies,” she added.

Since the nest will soon be home to a family of six, bird protective services stopped by for a home visit. As the situation was investigated, the male finch, a first-time father, puffed up his red feathers, bold like a cardinal, and nervously watched from a nearby tree.

A cardinal couple on the other side of the front lawn looked on, and six house sparrows and a common grackle made up the crowd that had gathered in the rosebud tree next to the sidewalk.

To secure the little family’s new home, there is a temporary restraining order around the immediate perimeter of the fern. That order, along with a moratorium on the watering of the fern, will help ensure the health and wellbeing of the unborn chicks. Stacy Lynn has agreed to respect the young family’s privacy.

The mother finch and the eggs are safe from the weather in the fern, which is under the eaves, and although the nest is very near Stacy Lynn’s front door, she assures the bird authorities that there hasn’t been much activity at the door in the past two months anyway, so she said the young finch family would not be inconvenienced by the gathering of strange people. All agreed the little family would likely thrive in this location.

The planet is dying, the world finds itself in the death grip of a terrifying pandemic, and American democracy is going down the tubes, but all the creatures in the yard, including a fat angry bee that kept buzzing the reporter, agreed that the news of four baby finches on the way was happy news. Happy news, indeed. It’s a sign of hope and the beauty of life.

“Nothing better to celebrate like new baby birds in springtime,” hooted the barred owl up the block.

Calm, Cool, and Creative

Pandemic. Social distancing. Restaurants and bars shuttered. Cultural institutions and libraries closed. Economic crisis. Political dysfunction. Sickness and death. Uncertainty. Shelter in place. Isolation. Time. Oh my god, it is bonkers, and there are hours and hours of extra time to allow my anxiety to overwhelm me and surrender my spirit to despair and loneliness. And Netflix. And biting my cuticles bloody and freaking the fuck out.

Breathe in through the nose. Breathe out through the mouth.

I refuse to give myself over to loneliness in this time of quarantine, because I am finally starting to crack the code for living alone in peace. Besides, I am not alone. I have my dogs, the internet, and a cell phone with unlimited usage. I’ve already had countless text conversations with my mom, sister, and several friends. I’ve enjoyed lengthy telephone calls with my daughter Savannah in Chicago and my friend Sandra in Springfield. I had a scheduled video chat with my friend Bridgett in Olney, who doubles as my writing coach. All of these “social distance” interactions with beloved people in my life brought laughter, wisdom, and brilliant inspiration.

Deep Sigh regarding Netflix, though, because it is tempting to settle down in front of it and binge watch for days and days. I will not waste time watching Netflix. I refuse to give myself over to Netflix. Ok, so here’s my plan: I will allow Netflix to provide limited, curated therapy. Because if I’m honest, all the news about infection rates and death tolls, economic losses and news about people who are losing their livelihoods, and the daily buffoonage from the White House will make me crazy. The kind of crazy that yoga or meditation or contemplative walking cannot soothe, let alone undo. That’s the kind of crazy that requires me to get out of my own head. That’s the kind of crazy I usually combat by hanging out with friends in a cozy, noisy pub or cheering for a team during a televised sporting event. Netflix will have to step up and be the pub or the basketball game. Periodic episodes of Schitt$ Creek will lighten my mood on rainy days when I cannot work in my yard or go for a long walk. Father Brown’s singular concern for the souls of murderers will make me believe, at least for an hour, that all humans can be cast in their own tales of redemption. And when I think the entire world is going to hell in a hand-basket, I’ll watch a few episodes of the Great British Baking Show and remind myself that healthy competition is, indeed, possible, and you do not have to kill everyone around you or step on people to win at cake, politics, or life.

I am lucky. I am grateful. I have worked from home as a scholarly editor for eight years, so I don’t have to figure it out or patch it together like so many people now are scrambling to do. My job relies on NEH funding, which makes me nervous. But for now, it is secure, my paychecks are coming, and I do not have to worry about food or shelter or paying my bills. My daily life will not change all that much, and I will continue to do work that challenges my mind and makes my heart sing. I am going to continue my yoga and meditation routine, and I intend to be restful and calm during this isolation. Instead of seeing this predicament as forced isolation, let’s say we are hibernating. We are bears, cute and cuddly and warm in our homes, resting up for all the living we will do when humanity finally kicks this pandemic’s ass.

With a little help from my human, furry, and television friends, I will be calm and keep my cool. In the space of that quiet solitude, that beautiful serenity in my lovely new home, I vow not only to stay calm and keep my cool but to also make the most of my time. To cook. To draw and to color. To freestyle my yoga practice. To read half a dozen books and make a worthy effort to catch up on the New Yorker. But most importantly to write. Hours and hours and hours of extra writing. I will keep writing in my daily journal as well as blog and work on the revisions of my memoir. I am going to spend so much glorious time at my computer writing that my aging knuckles will get sticky.

Last week in the Washington Post I read an interesting story about Isaac Newton. During the Bubonic Plague of the 1660s, Newton’s college closed, forcing him home to his family’s estate. While at home, he wrote a paper about some math he was working on (math that became calculus); and he sat under that famous apple tree. I will do nothing so important as inventing calculus or defining gravity in my isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. None of the trees in my yard produce anything big enough to knock brilliance into my head. However, like Newton I’m going to be creatively productive in my isolation. I’m going to engage my brain. I’m going to see all this extra me-time as a gift and do my amateur best to make the most of it.

I’ve already made scones and homemade granola and expended a lot of nervous energy doing “art.” Living well, especially under duress, is about the process and the journey. I’m not a chef or an artist, but I enjoy cooking; and drawing, I very recently learned, is a scary challenge that makes me smile like a fearless six-year-old on the monkeybars.

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Mack-Day Mood

Today would have been, should be, Mack’s twenty-sixth birthday. Maybe twenty-six would have been the age when she finally admitted she was a “grown-ass woman.” Oh, probably not. Who am I kidding? It was a status she was never eager to attain. When she was ten she declared to me her intention to remain ten forever, and I could see in her dirty, freckled face that she was speaking her truth. I never doubted the veracity of her assertion, either, because even when she became a serious student in college she never let go of the child she was at ten. Both of her parents are old souls, but a youthful heart was in Mack’s DNA. She inherited my father’s Peter-Pan gene, the gene that sits between the goofball gene and the I’m-gonna-eat-junk-food-and-sit-on-the-couch-in-front-of-the-TV-all-day gene. She inherited both of those other genes from Frisky Pratt, too.

As Mack’s inner circle of close friends are each making their own way in the world now as grown-ass women, I have been passing many melancholy minutes lately wondering where Mack might be living and what career she might be pursuing if she was still here. So deeply pulled into these wonderings, or daydreams I guess you might call them, I sometimes wake up and fifteen minutes are lost and a vivid scenario of Mack’s could’ve-been life is flashing like an illustrated storybook in my brain. Mack dreamed of a writing career in television, and that is my favorite daydream for her. She’s a writer for a sit-com in Hollywood. She’s working with Joss Whedon to bring back Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She’s pitching Mack’s Makin’ Bacon, her own comedy cooking show for the Food Network. Or she’s living in my guest bedroom writing a screenplay. Goodness but do I yearn for that latter daydream. But daydreams are not terribly productive, I’m afraid, and Mack’s old-soul Momma Bear usually awakens from those daydreams emotionally bruised, sadness giving way to anger at all that Mack missed out on and all the things that have happened that I have been denied sharing with her. Like her twenty-sixth birthday.

Milestones like birthdays are trigger points for grief. The day will be rough. There isn’t enough candy in the world to sugar coat that truth. The paradox of my grief is that every day I must live in a world without my daughter, I get another day of practice living in a world without my daughter. The pain is no less keen, but the callouses of long-time sorrow limit the blood loss when the sharpness of a milestone, or a bad day, break open the heart. Again. And again.

I will no doubt pass a few melancholy minutes. However, I won’t be wondering what Mack would be doing on her twenty-sixth birthday, because I’ll know exactly what she would be doing if she was here. She would be embracing social distancing, happy for an excuse to be alone on her couch in front of the TV, eating junk food. She’d settle in for a birthday-binge-watching bonanza, surrounded by Funyons, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, sour candies, two giant cans of Arizona Iced Tea, and the best looking Italian sub, wrapped in plastic, that was available in the deli case of the convenience store where she shopped for her birthday feast. She would get comfy with her two dogs, one an Irish wolfhound and the other a pug, and both named for characters on television (maybe Leslie and Ann, but who knows with that kid?). She would spend the day watching shows she’d already seen a hundred times, consume her food in cozy sweatpants and reclined repose, text her besties and her momma and her sissy, giggle to herself, and tweet about the upsides of quarantines and restaurant closings and how she wished her school had been cancelled for a month when she was a kiddo.

Mack would not be mad that COVID-19 ruined her birthday, cancelling dinner plans or drinks with friends. She wouldn’t see it that way at all. She would look at the down time as a chance to relax, be alone with her own thoughts, and do absolutely fucking nothing. Every day I miss Mack, and today I’ll miss her more. Every day I talk to her, and today will be no different. She’s heard a lot of swearing lately, because I frequently dial her in for my dialogue with the morning and evening news. She’ll laugh as I let the f-bombs fly, and she’ll shake her head at me because she thinks I let the orange moron and his clown-car of a government get too much under my skin. “Sure, Momma Bear, he’s a genuine ass,” she’ll say, “but don’t let him push all of your buttons.”

As soon as my eyes pop open I’ll miss kissing Mack on that big freckle on her left cheek. I’ll shed some tears into my morning coffee. I’ll take Mack with me to vote in the Illinois Democratic Primary, let her pick which old codger I vote for, and I’ll tell her how furious I am that I didn’t get to vote for Elizabeth Warren. I’ll try not to swear at NPR, protect one or two of my buttons, and take Mack’s lead and relax. It’s her birthday, after all, so we all should let her make the plan. I’ll probably need Mack’s spirit to stick around for the entire day, and maybe she’ll bring her grandpa with her. I trust Mack will chill me out when I get upset that COVID-19 is keeping me from the draught Guinness I traditionally enjoy on her birthday. I trust she will keep me grounded in the present, holding my hand as I take the day as it is and give myself up to the cool breeze of life, hitting my cheeks and reminding me to live and to breathe and to refrain from counting the calories and the dairy content of the Mac-n-Cheese my sister is planning for dinner.

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Mack Day 2020 will be a rough day. That is no lie, and certainly no joke. But when it’s over, I will put my head down on my pillow next to gratitude. Gratitude for Mack and her presence in my life. Gratitude for the vibes of a Mack-Day mood. For twenty-six years, first in person and now in spirit, my daughter has been teaching me about life. I am not always a quick study in Mack’s be-chill school, but old souls always at least try to be at the head of the class. I am a work in progress, and Mack knows it. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion she hangs around not only to tease me and to teach me, but to make sure I don’t beat myself up for not getting straight “A”s.

Fiction and Truth

I started reading Pasty, a novel by Nicole Dennis-Benn, for a book club I have just joined. As I read and floated into the book on the soft clarity of the writing, I tried to understand the title character, who in the very early pages of the book abandoned her five-year-old daughter Tru in Jamaica to move to the United States. Patsy wasn’t rich in Jamaica and she lived in a depressed, struggling town; but she had a decent secretarial job and a family, food on her table, and a lovely and smart little girl. Unlike so many immigrants who leave their homes to better the lives of their families, Patsy was not going to America to make a better life for her daughter. She was going for her own selfish reasons; she was leaving her daughter to be with her best childhood friend. When Patsy left Jamaica, she lied to her daughter in her sweet little face that she was coming home. Patsy boarded a a plane to New York, leaving her daughter to live with a father she barely knew, and she had no intention of ever returning to retrieve her.

My tolerance for Patsy decreased as I turned every page, the prose quickly incapable of overcoming the pain the narrative delivered to my heart. In the early pages, as Patsy settled in with her friend’s family in New York, while she learned how to navigate her new city, and when she applied for jobs as a nanny, Patsy gave me no reason to understand her. She offered no righteous explanation for the abandonment of her daughter. She was shallow and cruel, and I did not wish to know her.

I have a hard and fast rule about the books I read for leisure. I give them twenty-five pages to draw me in; twenty-five pages should be enough to make me love them or at least want to keep reading to see if I can love them. There are too many good books in the world that have the potential for making my heart sing to spend time reading even one that makes me miserable. But in this case, I turned page 25 and kept reading, no matter how much the story was breaking my heart and making me angry. I read for the sake of the book club. I did not want to attend my first book club with some people who have not yet met me without having read the book in its entirety. Without having given the author a fair trial. Without having given Patsy time to make me know her, to want to know her. 

On p. 115, Patsy decided to call home. Finally. After weeks in the United States—while poor Tru cried and cried every day and desperately yearned for her mother—Patsy finally picked up the phone to call her daughter. Just as she heard the child excitedly rushing to the phone to talk to her mom, Patsy put down the receiver. A coward, she hung up on her baby, and abandoned her all over again.

I could read no more after that.

If this book was memoir instead of fiction, I would have tried harder to empathize with Patsy’s choices and her motives. I would have given her time to explain why she gave up her precious child. But does a fictional character deserve the same effort, the same time, the same compassion? Does a fictional bad mother deserve the same human consideration? The old me might have said yes for the sake of good prose. Fiction is supposed to stretch the boundaries of what you think you know and understand. It can reveal what the truth cannot. Maybe the old me would have been more patient, as the story of Patsy unfolded. But the present me was failing to sympathize with a fictional mother who turned her back on her child. The present me has no time for untrue horror stories with which I possess no responsibility to grapple.

In my new realm of existence, I have no tolerance for despicable or shallow fictional characters with whom I cannot relate. I see no compelling reason to read a novel about a fictional woman who chose to abandon her daughter when I am a real woman forced to live without one of mine. Reading past page 25 was my own damned fault. I should not have let the author who dreamed up this character to punch me in my heart for ninety pages after I knew better than to keep reading. Yet I cannot help but feel like it might be partly the author’s fault, too, that I feel so aggrieved, that Patsy throws such sharp elbows against the bonds of real mothers and daughters.

Maybe Patsy turned out okay for all of the characters in the end. If it were memoir and I had stopped reading, I would have checked in on Tru and made sure she was okay, at least. But because it was fiction, I can let it all go now that I have written my peace about it. Good writing alone just doesn’t cut it for me these days. Good writing cannot atone for characters with whom I could never connect on a human level. I don’t want to spend time with fictional characters I would not wish to know in real life. Not anymore. Life is hard enough without letting a work of fiction beat me upside my heart. Life is too short to read books that poke my grief with a stick.

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Silence

The radio scratches in my ears, and from the back seat I can just make out the balls and strikes count through the AM static. My little sister is next to me in the back seat, jabbering to my mom, who is the front passenger seat, her head turned around jabbering back at my sister. I have no idea what they are saying, and I do not care. I am trying to read my book.

My dad is driving and smoking and keeping a score card. The car windows are cracked open to keep us from choking to death, and the wind noise is crashing into the radio static, occasionally mixing with a sudden clarity of the radio signal and the baseball announcer calling a play at the plate. My dad curses and bangs his fists on the steering wheel, and the Reds are losing, and still I am trying to read, dammit, and we have another baseball game worth of driving, and I am losing my mind in the chaos.img_9486

Can’t the quiet of my book overcome us all? What would be the cost of one hour of silence in this car? What could I pay them to whisper? Why is there always radio static and sisters and moms jabbering and wind noise and dads yelling at baseball games?

Today, I live alone. Silence is a precious joy of my life, treasured, filled up with reading one book after another, with New Yorker magazines sprinkled in between. And oh my goodness, but the quiet is divine. But there are days when I would trade in all of my books and my solitude for one hour in the backseat of the car in the chaos of my childhood, my mom and sister jabbering away, my mind unsettled by the wind noise and the Reds playing on the radio through AM static, and my dad cursing the blown call at the plate.

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Note: I was lucky and am grateful to have been invited to join a monthly memoir writing group called Past Forward. It is a group of bold and brave people who write their hearts and memories and share their writing with each other. For each meeting, we write from an advance prompt on a particular topic or theme, and when we get to the meeting we are presented with another writing prompt on which we write quietly for twenty minutes or so. After the writing, we spend the remainder of the time sharing our prepared and spontaneous writing with the group. It’s a courageous new experience for me, reading aloud my creative writing, and it is stretching me in wonderfully uncomfortable ways. Some of the most enjoyable writing I have ever done has taken place in the quiet space of that spontaneous writing, sitting in a circle with other writers who are willing to share and to listen. I wrote this piece at the most recent meeting, the spontaneous prompt was “Silence.” 

 

Women Walking

Nearly every single day in my professional work as a scholarly editor, I learn wonderful and random historical facts and fascinating untold or little known stories about the American past. While my research focus each day may be very specific, looking for a date or trying to identify an obscure reference in a letter, my eyes are always wide open for facts or stories that reveal the humanity of the historical figures I study.

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Julia Lathrop at work at the Children’s Bureau.

Recently, I was scanning through a biography of Julia Lathrop and mining information for a series of footnotes on this important reformer and close friend of Jane Addams. Lathrop, a native of Rockford, Illinois, and a graduate of Vassar College, was a social settlement worker and resident of Hull-House in Chicago for twenty-two years. During that time, she investigated and wrote about tenement and labor conditions, drafted and lobbied for labor laws to benefit women and children, became the first woman appointed to the Illinois State Board of Charities, worked for the protection of immigrants, helped establish the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, and contributed to the development of a juvenile court system in Chicago, which was a brand new thing under the progressive sun. And as if all that work in Chicago and the great state of Illinois was not enough, she became the first woman to head a federal agency when President William Howard Taft appointed her to head the newly created Children’s Bureau in the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1912. In that post, Lathrop established the hard-hitting mission of the agency and won fame and widespread respect as a leader. She retired in 1921, having accomplished the life’s work of at least a dozen good men.

I am in awe of Julia Lathrop. She was a fearless, funny, brilliant, fierce, sharp-dressed, bad-ass, social justice warrior. I am just an editor and historian, who is only occasionally funny. I wear yoga pants and study social justice warriors from the comfort of my home office. Julia was a super hero, and Stacy is just a scholar who is lucky to study the life-changing work that the women of Hull-House did to make the lives of children, women, laborers, and immigrants better at a time when women were supposed to shut-up, stay at home, and take care of their own familes. Nothing more.

So, okay. I’ve got nothing in common with Julia Lathrop, right? I am not fit to shine that woman’s patent-leather, Edwardian boots.

But then I read in the Lathrop biography one of those human stories for which I am always on the prowl. All of sudden, I could picture the two of us, J. Lathrop and Dr. Stacy, spending an hour or two together, walking. Because holy cow, and oh my lands, it turns out that Julia Lathrop was a walking fool, just like me! Lathrop starting walking for exercise when she was a student at Vassar, which encouraged outdoor activities for women, and she was a life-long “just do it” walker. Not casual strolls around the block or through the park. Nope. Not for me, and not for Julia, either. I’m talking about regular, serious, long-distance, walk-even-if-you-don’t-have-to kind of walking.

On Thanksgiving Day in 1919, when Lathrop, age 61, was the head of the Children’s Bureau and living in Washington, DC, she set out on a long walk with her friend and Children’s Bureau colleague Grace Abbott. Lathrop was an affluent woman and agency head who could have easily called for a car and driver, but she wanted to walk the three miles to the Pan American Union Building to attend an international labor conference. And so, she walked the three miles and made an appearance at the conference, where she no doubt uttered a few brilliant statements about her work and probably disarmed at least one over-important man with her charm and good humor. After the conference, she and Abbott ate some Chinese food with friends and then walked the three miles back home.

I love this story! It is precisely the kind of human story I look for amid the lofty historical facts of the lives of the American super heroes I study. I am captivated by the idea of Julia Lathrop walking across Washington, dressed, no doubt, in a fine frock and a hat that was the bee’s knees. She was an accomplished, successful, extraordinary woman. Yes, she was, indeed, a super hero. But in one way, she was just a woman. A woman who walked. Just like me.

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Julia Lathrop, Jane Addams, and Mary Wilmarth in Washington, 1913.

Note: Both images are from the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. The digital images available online are amazing and easy to search, browse, and enjoy. Click the link, type in a subject that interests you, and see for yourself: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/