I don’t cook much from scratch anymore—since Mack died, there are a lot of things I don’t do anymore—but every year for Thanksgiving at my sister’s house I make egg noodles. They aren’t hard to make, although making them is a little annoying and a lot time consuming. And messy. The flour gets all over me and the kitchen, and dried, eggy dough gets stuck to the counter top. I can’t stop rolling the dough until all dozen eggs and three pounds of flour are rolled out because my hands are encased in wet dough and getting it all off my fingers takes almost as much time as the rolling.
But no matter all of that. I make the egg noodles. For more than thirty years, I’ve been making the egg noodles. For all of the years Mack was here to eat those noodles, I didn’t mind making them. But Thanksgiving, a food holiday, was Mack’s favorite, and making noodles and eating noodles and thoughts of passing another Thanksgiving without Mack suck some of the magic out of those damned noodles. I half-heartedly try every year to get out of the noodle-making business and suggest that someone else pick up the tradition. But my egg noodles are special, pillowy and delicious, a family legend, and no one, particularly my niece Zoe, will let me off the hook. I need to make the egg noodles, and that’s okay. Some traditions should continue no matter how annoying or grief provoking, and I suspect I’ll make the family egg noodles until I’m dead.
So here I am, standing in my kitchen working up the courage to make noodles. It is quiet like death in the house and I shudder at being alone with my pre-holiday grieving and my noodles. I used to love to cook while listening to music, but one of the other things that I don’t really do any more since Mack died is listen to music. Music summons the ghosts, which stir up my grief into a hopeless melody of sorrow and self-pity. But a few months ago I started listening to 1920s jazz for brief intervals; and a couple of weeks ago I started listening to the blues. Shemekia Copeland specifically. Something about the old music calms me, and the spirit and humor of Copeland’s songs and the bad-ass-I’m-here-and-you’re-gonna-like-it sound of her voice give me strength.
Okay, then, I think, let’s invite Shemekia to this noodle-making party and see what happens.
I ask Alexa to shuffle Shemekia Copleland, and I get started on the noodles. The next thing I know I’m singing along and my hips are swaying and I’m rolling the dough in time to the music. I am shaking off the cobwebs of ghosts and grief with Mack laughing and cheering me on, helping me face another holiday without her. I am happily making noodles for the people I love most. Savannah will be here for the holiday, and she enjoys my noodles almost as much as Mack did. We will eat them together and remember our Mack, the food-loving, silly, joyful girl whose motto was to eat until it hurts, baby, and then eat some more.
I roll out the last of the dough and think to myself, wow. Instead of dreading Thanksgiving and letting my grief weigh me down low, I’m just here in my kitchen making noodles and singing the blues.
I had vanilla ice cream for dinner the other night at 9 p.m. I drizzled it with local honey and topped it with salted, roasted peanuts. I convinced myself it was food, an easy meal that would fill me up for the night. I was too tired to cook, too beaten up by the first day of October, a month that has haunted me since you left us. Anyway, I thought ice cream with nuts made the meal at least a notch above junk food. Not so bad, I lied to myself while I plopped the three small scoops into the bowl and added the toppings. When I added the whipped cream from the pressurized can, piling it up above the sides of the bowl, my “meal” went the way of indulgence, unwise for a lactose intolerant, middle-aged woman who should not eat anything so late, let alone ice cream.
But, of course, you showed up and nudged me, your face in my mind’s eye and your voice in my ear. “Eat it, Momma Bear,” you whispered. “Just do it.”
The ice cream was delicious, and I enjoyed it, even as I cursed myself for eating it so late. It tasted like a Payday candy bar. I love Paydays! Remember those, Mack? I often had one in my handbag when we were traveling all over the world for your basketball games. In the absence of gummy worms or sour Warheads, you would eat a Payday, in a pinch, even though you said you hated peanuts. Like you said you hated oats but always asked me to bake oatmeal cookies with dried cranberries. Like I say I hate ice cream because I hate milk, but I eat it often anyway because it is delightful and worth a little tummy ache.
You always come to me when I want to break my rigid rules, when I am pausing before something I enjoy, trying to talk myself out of it because I think I should. You help me see my truth and embrace it. You come to me almost every day, and you come for a million reasons, but when you come to absolve me of useless guilt and regret for being human, I am particularly grateful.
You are looking at me right now, smirking from the other side of my laptop screen. You’re giving me your crooked grin and shaking your head because I’ve spent too much time worrying about eating that late-night ice cream, and now, here I am, writing about it. Life is too short for lament, you say. Your stomach got over it and your heart was happy eating that ice cream, you say. I know you are right, but I cannot do it alone. I need backup. I need you. I will always need you.
You won’t want to hear this, Mack, but I am still grieving the loss of you. In that grief, I fight each day to live, and I power the struggle with my desire to make you proud. And because of you, because of my promise to you, I eat ice cream. I daydream on Sunday afternoons in a rocking chair on the porch when I should be doing the laundry or scrubbing a sink. I laugh out loud at myself when I trip on my own feet or bump my head on a kitchen cabinet I left open. I stop in my tracks to smile and giggle when some human absurdity catches my attention—like a middle-aged man walking down the street with his white socks pulled up over his calves, or pumpkin-spiced everything at the grocery store, or Pepper waking me up for a sip of water from the cup I keep for her on the bedside table. I know you are happy I can find laughter in this silly stuff, which lightens the burden of missing you. And I know the silly stuff is what gives me my best chance to see myself through the sorrow, to show me I need to go a little easy on myself.
You might like knowing that you taught me how to find joy, humor, and perspective. You continue to teach me these precious skills on which I must work but to you came naturally. You keep my serious in check, Mack, reminding me to laugh out loud every day if I can, especially on the days when all I really want to do is cry. You enable ice cream and pass no judgment. You are my guide in grace and gratitude and gusto; and all the positive attitude I am able to muster is all you, baby girl.
It would please you to know that am healthier than I was two years ago when I began charting a path all my own. I am becoming the human I need to be to live without you, to be independent, to put myself out there, and to find the right balance of productivity and pleasure, purpose and peace. I am still up and down, a little sideways, off and on, lonely, and uncertain. I am a work in never-ending progress. I still stand on wobbling legs, my heart skipping occasional beats to the broken rhythm of grief; and my progress of becoming is slower than I would like it to be. But my becoming is in progress, your spirit keeps me grounded, and though I don’t know where the path will lead me, I am walking there with you. I am moving forward in my remaking, in my becoming, and I am making a wish of it in honor of you.
A day without you is an eternity. Seven years? Infinity beyond an eternity.
And that is why I keep you with me. You are with me now and always. You are still laughing at me, making it a mission to keep me in balance. You are still lighting up what passes for my life without you.
You are not gone, my darling girl. You are here for ice cream. You are here to temper my grief. You are here to witness my becoming. No, you are here to be a part of my becoming.
I talk myself out of doing things because I feel awkward about doing them alone. All the time I do it. I talk myself out of doing things I enjoy because I don’t have a partner or a friend to do them with me. I’m afraid to be out in the world alone, and that is ridiculous. People go out in the world and do things by themselves all the time. I don’t need to be strong or cool or brave. I just need to make myself go, push my pathetic butt out the door. I don’t want to be a crazy old lady hermit.
So, a couple of weeks ago, I purchased a season ticket for one to attend all of this season’s premier shows at the performing arts center here at Eastern Illinois University. I figured plunking down $180 would be the answer for every excuse I might use to keep from taking in good shows that are right here in my little town. I went to the first show of the season last Wednesday, and I didn’t talk myself out of going because I already had a ticket. I felt a little self-conscious and uncool finding my seat alone, among hip college students, but it turned out that going alone was not that hard. I survived it. And although the show itself was not that great, I felt pretty great when I stepped out into the chilly night air after the show and walked myself to my car.
A good friend of mine suspects I might eventually like to do things by myself. I am less sure about that. But here are three things about which I am certain. One: I live alone now. I am a single woman without a partner, and I have no interest in finding a new one. Two: locating joy is hard enough for me in my melancholia without giving up the simple things that still have the power to make me smile and to lift my spirits. And three: I need to cut myself some sack for being tentative and shy about being on my own. I am an old dog trying to learn new tricks. I’m living alone for the first time in my entire life, it’s only been two years, and most of that time, good grief, has been during a global pandemic.
Change that makes us better takes time and patience. Change is a challenge. It demands hard work. And, hey, that is a fourth thing I know: I can do hard work.
Not today, I said.
So, this morning I didn’t let me talk myself out of taking my bike out to explore the Lincoln Prairie Grass Trail, just four blocks south of my house. It was not easy to beat down the excuses hammering in my head while I sipped my morning coffee on the porch. I am my own worst enemy, after all. What if I fall, who will pick me up? Should a woman be alone on a bike trail in the country? Who will tug me back home if the wind is too strong and I can’t make my heavy bike move forward (this really happened to me once, back when I did have a partner). What if I get a flat tire or get lost or what if what if what if wtf if… See? This is what I do. This is why I have been so unsuccessful taking myself out into the world on my own and doing things all by myself.
Today, I am riding alone.
I got on my beach cruiser, which always makes my heart skip rope like a girl. I smiled and pedaled all the way to Charleston Country Club and back. Just eight miles round trip, but a long ride for me. I enjoyed the sunshine and the lovely breeze, and I stopped by a few butterfly gardens along the way. I waved at passing cyclists, many of whom were alone, like me. None of us wallowing in the self-pity of loneliness. In the bargain, I didn’t fall or get a flat tire and it wasn’t scary. Not really. It was delightful; and I grinned the whole time like Mack always grinned when she was delighted.
It was another baby step on the road to confident single womanhood. It was a badge earned on this journey of mine to be at peace in my head and confident in my place in the world, as a single woman doing my own thing.
I can ride alone. I am riding alone. And that’s okay.
In the shade beneath the feathery emerald branches of a weeping white pine in a secret garden, I closed my eyes. My yearning for the spirit therapy of the dawn redwoods I left behind, along with the rest of my life in St. Louis, was quiet. I had arrived at the new altar of my peace. I breathed in the joyful air of finding a treasure, and I exhaled the end of a two-year search—or, rather, a waiting—for a new spirit place.
I am curating a new life and redefining peace for myself in a charming, craftsman bungalow on a corner lot in a sleepy college town. It is still a restless, sorrowful, lonely journey, but I am well most days and comfortably tethered to the earth. But now that I have found The Whiteside Garden, I have a place for my spirit to wander, for my mind to wonder, and for my heart to continue its journey of healing. I finally have a place to contemplate life, to contend with grief, and to get the hell out of my head for an hour or two each week, away from home. A place to amble and write and commune with trees.
I extract a great deal of the vitamins I need to be emotionally healthy by tending to my old house, reading on my breezy, shady porch, and spending meditative time in the yoga garden I created all by myself. But I have spent two years looking for a replacement for my health-giving, Wednesday morning strolls through the Missouri Botanical Garden. I’ve spent two years pining (pun here intended) for a place that is serene but engaging, bright and shady and lovely, restorative and transcendent. The Lake Charleston trails are too rugged, the sidewalks of my historic neighborhood too noisy, the college campus too populated with ghosts of the past, and the bike trail, although vibrant with wildflowers and butterflies, too unsheltered from the punishing Midwestern sun.
The dawn redwoods and the Missouri Botanical Garden helped me begin my spirit’s healing. And now the weeping white pines and The Whiteside Garden, just two miles east of my new home, will tend to my spirit going forward.
Who knew I only needed to get in my car and drive across a state highway and a corn field, to find my new spirit place? It’s funny how simple the remedies for our sorrows often are. Funnier still how long it sometimes takes to find precisely what we need, although the remedy is so close, within shouting distance, or just around the corner. And isn’t it frustrating that some of our remedies, the life-altering, precious, restorative life medicine we need is often hidden behind an experience or acquaintance that has not, as yet, crossed our path? Is it not unfair that we must sometimes wait for that remedy to emerge from the randomness of life, from serendipity and stupid luck?
Oh, that life is short and still we must be patient.
The planets do not align for our singular benefit, but sometimes we do win the universe’s lottery. In fact, I find it to be mostly true that the elixirs and balms that have helped me to survive my grief have found me when I wasn’t looking. It is no surprise to me that I would find my new spirit place by happenstance. That at yoga one Friday morning at the end of summer I would meet a woman, and that the yoga teacher would introduce us and tell her I was new to the area. That the woman would give me her docent elevator pitch for The Whiteside Garden. That I would venture out into a dangerous heat wave to visit the garden later that morning. That a weeping white pine would greet me like I had known her my entire life. That I would stand under her gentle branches, sheltered in the impossible coolness beneath them, and know that my spirit was home.
The Whiteside Garden, the lifelong labor of love of Eastern Illinois University botany professor Wesley Whiteside, is small and charming, hemmed in by a busy state highway and central Illinois fields of corn and soybeans. Yet to me, it a grand thing, a majestic replacement for my beloved Missouri Botanical Garden. The weeping white pine a gracious gift to fill the void of the dawn redwoods. This glorious new spirit place is the perfect size, the perfect setting, for me right now, where I am in time and space, where I am in my journey of healing. Opened to the public just three months ago, The Whiteside Garden is also a new kid in town, just like me. Yet, as Professor Whiteside, who died in 2015, began cultivating the gardens surrounding his home in the early 1960s, before I was born, his legacy garden will be a wise teacher.
Yoga in the park this morning was all about the spine. My soft-spoken teacher stretched and twisted and cooed us into shapes that make the back-body purr. The rising sun cast majestic shadows on the concrete of the pavilion. Shadows of my body, reaching and breathing into beautiful movement in the already-warm breeze of a Midwestern day in late summer.
This stretching reminded me that I am alive, like yoga always reminds me that I am alive. These shadows made me grateful. I am able-bodied. I am here. I am breathing. Imperfect and grieving and uncertain, yes; but also accepting and peaceful and hopeful that life might still bring me gifts. That I am deserving of those gifts.
The mantra of my first yoga teacher, more than two decades ago, was: “You are only as young as your spine is flexible.” I didn’t appreciate her mantra back then, because my spine was flexible. It was also young and supple and strong. I was in my early thirties. I did not yet know that my body would change and that life would make me rigid. Back then, I could still do flips in the backyard with my daughters, the muscle memory of competitive gymnastics still lithe in my muscles and bones.
Not so much today, now that I know the weight of living. In my fifties, I am starting over and feeling green, despite my graying hair. I am unbending, even though life has done its damnedest to bend me. I am strong, in spite of all I have endured. But I know all of this, and that is the difference. Knowing is what makes me flexible.
And this is, precisely, the point of yoga. To practice. To learn. To bend. Not just in body, but also in spirit. To remind us to breathe. To make us sit in our moment with all of the crap life heaps upon us. To witness our shadows. To know the beauty of our bodies to bend without breaking.
Sometimes, I think I am old and inflexible. But in reality, I am young and bendy. I am strong. I am human. I am flexible.
An old University of Illinois friend texted me the other day. “You haven’t blogged in a while,” he wrote. I was a little offended and didn’t believe him. And then I was surprised, because it was true. I hadn’t blogged in a while. But I have been writing. I’ve been writing quite a lot. Since my April blog post, I have completed two more chapters of the memoir and excerpted one of those new chapters for submission to a few literary journals. I spent June and July preparing a book proposal for a biography of Abraham Lincoln, and its fate is now in the hands of a university press. I have also done some prompt writing for my monthly memoir group and pounded out some wretched poetry.
So, yeah, I’ve been writing all summer. But Will was right. I hadn’t blogged in a while, and that got me thinking about writing and perceptions about writing and about how blogging is a really weird and wonderful kind of writing. Here’s the thing about blogging that sets it far apart from the other writing I do—the scholarly writing, the memoir work, and the poetry—blogging is public accountability for writing. Will’s note was a gentle nudge, a “hey, lady, get back to writing; what’s the matter with you?” nudge. Because with blogging, the writing process is public.
Blogging is active. It is in the here. In the now. Readers can see you writing or not writing. When I publish a book or article, no one thinks about me writing. They think about the words and the sentences and the ideas I have shared on the page. When I publish a blog post, they know I am writing. Blogging is comprised of the words and the sentences and the ideas, but it also places the writer in a space of motion. In the process of writing.
I love that motion, that public process of writing. In that space there is healing. Writing for me is a journey. Publications at the end of the journey are great, but they are not as important as the writing itself. Blogging keeps me up on my writing toes. I welcome that pressure, that nudging. I need it.
I started blogging for therapy in the fall of 2014. Writing my grief after the death of my daughter helped me feel. It helped me process and push through the emotional and physical wreckage of my broken life. My grief motivated the blogging, but the blogging also became a motivator to keep feeling and processing and pushing. Because blogging is a contract you make with your readers to keep writing, right? It is a promise to show up regularly to share a story or offer some artful prose or a little wisdom. It is immediate. It is the kind of writing that puts yourself out there in the world. It helps you find allies, to connect. It reminds you that you are not alone, and, in the bargain, it gives you a chance to touch souls who thought they were alone but because you are writing they feel a little less alone.
Heady and grand the thought of reaching others, yes, but that’s what blogging does for the writer. It makes you brave. It opens you up. The present tense of it is an inspiration. And because I still need to blog in order to keep feeling and processing and pushing, I am grateful for the public space. I am grateful people can see me writing and breathing and learning how to be human.
So, thank you, Will, for rekindling the fire. For reminding me that, no, I haven’t blogged in a while and, yes, I need to blog. I am compelled to share my stories and to offer a line or two of artful prose or a little wisdom. Well, maybe not that artful or that wise. I’m no sage. I’m just a middle-aged woman, finding her way in the world like everybody else, fumbling and falling, looking for ways to expel the demons, to figure shit out, to think out loud. To write. To be writing. Always writing.
On the outside, my long-haired chihuahua mix is golden and gorgeous. Her fur is the blended color of sunshine and fields of wheat turning autumn shades of amber. Her face is chiseled and dainty, and her delicate, pointed snout and dreamy, doe eyes would place Bug in the cute-as-a-bug category of dogs even without the glorious ears that stretch up as if to reach me when I call her name. Bug is sweet and gentle, my lamb, my snuggles, my dear littlest one.
On the inside of Bug, however, are scars and shadows on her willowy bones from anxieties I will never understand. She must be carried up the staircase to bed, but she scrambles down the steps quickly to breakfast all by herself every morning. She trembles at the sound of thunder, but she is brave in her demand that squirrels stay off our porch. She’s shy around men and distrustful of people in uniforms, but she adores the six people she has invited into her nervous little heart.
I adore Miss Bug for her goofy, heartwarming cuteness, even though loving her has required an acceptance of quirky, contradictory, and sometimes infuriating behaviors, like her interminable searching for the poop spot that will allow the least amount of contact of her precious butt with itchy or wet or unfamiliar surfaces. Patience is as important as love in my tending of Bug. If she were a human child, I would have her tested for Asperger Syndrome and practice strategies to improve her social skills and make her more comfortable with the spontaneous, unexpected things that pop up when you are a living creature on this crazy planet. But, Bug is dog, just seven pounds, and even though her neuroses have neuroses, she’s not that much trouble.
Most of the time.
Last night, though, around 3 a.m., just a couple hours after I had stopped reading and settled into a deep sleep, a scream like a banshee from nightmares pierced the quiet dark. My heart jumped like a startled frog into my throat, and I sat bolt upright in bed. I lunged for Pepper, my middle-aged Pomeranian with congestive heart failure, my mind going straight to painful heart attack. But she was sitting up, engaging her annoyance gurgle, having also been yanked from peaceful slumber by the terrible screech. I reached then for Bug, who sleeps on the pillow next to me. She wasn’t there, but I could hear her squeaking and struggling. I found her wiggling body tucked under and between our two pillows, her head pushed through the slats of the headboard. I pulled her free, and she melted into my arms. And then as if we were members of a freaky, psychically-connected chorus, all three of us let out long, whispery sighs.
I’ll never know for certain, but I think in her sleep Bug must have dreamed herself into that pickle between and under the pillows, woke up with her head in that scary and dark place between the headboard and the wall, and screamed out in holy horror.
Pepper rolled over on her back and went right back to sleep, while I tucked Bug under my arm, cuddling her deep into the comforter. I took some deep, meditative breaths to ease my body back into rest, and then I remembered I had heard that scream once before. A couple of years ago, while running up the long hallway of the loft where we lived in St. Louis, Bug screamed like a banshee from nightmares and fainted dead away. I thought she really was dead, limp in my arms when I picked her up. After a minute or two, however, she woke up and I rushed her to the vet. There was nothing at all wrong with her. The vet surmised that she might have twisted her leg or hyperextended her tiny knee while running fast, that she might have felt pain or a twinge or took an unexpected skid that scared her so badly she fainted.
Two years ago, I took my screaming, fainting chihuahua to the vet. Last night, I cuddled my screaming, terrified chihuahua and showered her with love and patience until she fell back into an easy slumber. Once her breathing was even and she was tucked away in a good dream, I closed my eyes and joined my funny little family in sleep.
She is wearing a black blouse with bold pink flowers. Cabbage roses, they are, as big as her smooth cheeks, which are blushed to match them. I recognize my grandmother in the photograph, but her sweet, hopeful gaze, and the invincibility of her youth is that of a woman I do not know. It is 1943. Kathleen is twenty. She is the wife of a young man who is leaving for war. She is a young mother of two baby boys, my own mother not yet a sparkle in her eyes.
On her young face, there are no lines etched by three decades of factory labor. None textured with the grief of widowhood, which will come to her when she is forty-four, less than a year after I am born. There is no trace of the sorrowful eyes that I remember, the eyes that were a window to the pain of her loneliness, raging diabetes, and the heart disease that would take her life before she turned seventy. No, this Kathleen in the photograph, wrapped up in the arms of a handsome, bright-eyed soldier, who does not know what the war will do to them, is a vision of hope, of purpose, and of life all out in front of her.
Would that we could know the innocence of our grandmothers. To know the girls that bloomed their wisdom. To be friends with the women they were when their best days were in front instead of behind them. My grandmother had grit and humor, grown of her struggles. She taught me to trust my voice and the power of raising it. I loved her and appreciated her rough edges, which often snagged the tapestry of expectations about traditional grandmothers.
She was special to me because she was my grandmother and she loved me unconditionally. She was extraordinary to me because she was a woman who survived great hardship and profound grief and still she could belly laugh at a dirty joke and find joy eating sweets against doctor’s orders, or watching professional wrestling, or teaching her grandchildren how to curse like male factory workers in the 1950s.
But I wish my affection for my grandmother could have been rooted more deeply, as well, in the whole being of Kathleen. I wish her life could have overlapped with my desire to know her better. I wish I would have asked her what it was like to be twenty. In 1943. When she was young and the world was at war. I wish I would have asked her about that crazy blouse with cabbage roses and the bright blush upon her cheeks, and what she was thinking when she posed with my grandfather for that photograph. A photograph that is an artifact of the 1940s. A photograph that is evidence of both my tether to and my distance from my grandmother, far away and across the distance of eighty years and two generations of a family.
By myself, I am walking, Mindfulness in all my steps, Heel to toe, toe to earth. Purposeful, with measurement. In the walking, in my presence, I find solace out of sorrow. Unaccompanied, I walk in silence. Yet I am not alone.
Mack is here.
Her presence in my present Is my permission. To breathe. To see. To find my feet. To find my peace.
By myself, the mornings Are coffee and worries. Blurry with my future, Foreverness of loneliness. Caffeine anxiety For future years of misery. I lose myself in the tyranny Of incapacity for grace and dignity.
Mack is not in this state with me.
Her no-show no surprise to me. To fret. To sweat What I cannot change and cannot know Just wastes precious time She did not get.
By myself, in bed at night, I fight to sleep. To be at rest. I toss and turn through history. Through memories of who I was When Mack was here. When tragedy was unforeseen. But when I wish upon the past,
Mack will not reminisce with me.
She sees no good In glances back. To dwell on loss, forget what’s not. It breaks her heart To see me lost.
By myself, I need to breathe. To learn to sleep. To find my dreams. To stay awake. With every step. Through every task. Through every day. I need to learn to live for now. To be content with me And how to be right here,
WhereMack will be.
Where joyfulness can walk with me, And Mack with me. How I can laugh And hope and see All the life in front of me.
For you, my dear Mackenzie, on your birthday. I am here. With you. In the present.
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)
♥ 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. ♥♥♥♥
—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. ♥♥♥