Still Life, Louise Penny

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with a couple of friends from a yoga class I used to have time to take before I had to balance the work from home/mom lifestyle (if you’re  a parent and manage to do this and still go to such classes, bless you – I wish I were that person, but alas, I am not). The three of us are from different generations, and I never get tired of seeing them because as much as I love the company of my peers, it’s a precious gift to have long talks with women who have have experienced so much of the world, such passionate careers, and such diverse relationships. I always leave laughing, buoyed up by their stories and by the long list of book recommendations we’ve shared with each other.

811sqbhadjlFor the past six months, both of them have desperately been trying to get me into the Chief Inspector Gamache series by Penny, and while they’ve been on my list, they’d never quite made it to the top. Unfortunately, a new one had been released just before our last get together, which meant they did a lot of excited whispering back and forth (kindly keeping me from being spoiled, while simultaneously piquing my curiosity to an annoying extent). I finally gave in and ordered the first one for my kindle while waiting for our food to arrive.

I read Still Life while fighting off a few bad nights of insomnia that culminated in a stomach bug, and I can definitively say that Canadian cozy mysteries are the best medicine. Obviously, I’m already deep into the second volume, but I think the most delightful part of the whole experience was the email chain that resulted from telling my friends that I had finally caved.

From K: And they just keep getting better and better! Enjoy! So glad you started them. But don’t be like T and read them out of order. That’s just too upsetting.
From T: Happy you are hooked. Remember it is (still, I believe) a free country – read books in any order you feel like reading them.
Honestly, I was sick as a dog when I read their replies, and I still laughed. In order (like the obsessive compulsive I am) or out, Louise Penny has all three of us completely hooked. Even fighting over them is fun, possibly because it’s been a long time since I’ve gotten to share a great series with people I can also share a meal with, and possibly because a little Canadian escapism is just the ticket for getting through this crazy winter…
Peter was willing the water to boil so he could make tea and then all this would go away. Maybe, said his brain and his upbringing, if you make enough tea and small talk, time reverses and all bad things are undone. But he’d lived too long with Clara to be able to hide in denial. Jane was dead. Killed. And he needed to comfort Clara and somehow make it all right. And he didn’t know how. Rummaging through the cupboard like a wartime surgeon frantically searching for the right bandage, Peter swept aside Yogi Tea and Harmony Herbal Blend, though he hesitated for a second over chamomile. But no. Stay focused, he admonished himself. He knew it was there, that opiate of the Anglos. And his hand clutched the box just as the kettle whistled. Violent death demanded Earl Grey. (pg 46)

Waterwings, Cathy Song

We’re on vacation this week in Kauai. We don’t take vacations very often because we live so far from family that we spend most of our travel time and budget visiting the people we love, but this is one of our favorite places to return to. My husband and I have been coming for years now, and every time, I’m struck by the island’s stillness set in a vast sea, by the pride of the people in their state, in the protective sense of community that extends to inhabitants and land alike.

I wanted to share this beloved poem by Cathy Song, a wonderful Hawaiian poet, to commemorate our first day of “rest” (as different as that may look seven months pregnant with a toddler in tow). Every time we come here, I find new stories that could only be told in or about Hawaii, but this piece I love because it feels both of its place and universal.

Waterwings

The mornings are his,
blue and white
like the tablecloth at breakfast.
He’s happy in the house,
a sweep of the spoon
brings the birds under his chair.
He sings and the dishes disappear.

Or holding a crayon like a candle,
he draws a circle.
It is his hundredth dragonfly.
Calling for more paper,
this one is red-winged
and like the others,
he wills it to fly, simply
by the unformed curve of his signature.

Waterwings he calls them,
the floats I strap to his arms.
I wear an apron of concern,
sweep the morning of birds.
To the water he returns,
plunging where it’s cold,
moving and squealing into sunlight.
The water from here seems flecked with gold.

I watch the circles
his small body makes
fan and ripple,
disperse like an echo
into the sum of water, light and air.
His imprint on the water
has but a brief lifespan,
the flicker of a dragonfly’s delicate wing.

This is sadness, I tell myself,
the morning he chooses to leave his wings behind,
because he will not remember
that he and beauty were aligned,
skimming across the water, nearly airborne,
on his first solo flight.
I’ll write “how he could not
contain his delight.”
At the other end,
in another time frame,
he waits for me—
having already outdistanced this body,
the one that slipped from me like a fish,
floating, free of itself.

Either the Beginning or the End of the World, Terry Farish

I just checked the archives, and according to my own tags, I only read two YA books in 2016, and two in 2015. I couldn’t believe it was true, so I went to my next source – the Kindle library on my phone – and according to that, I must have mistagged at least one post last year. Depending on whether or not I consider Alan Bradley’s Flavia deLuce series to be YA, which I’m on the fence about, I could possibly count up to three more, but I was still shocked. I consider myself to be both an advocate for and great lover of Young Adult fiction, and yet apparently, I now read more memoirs, biographies, and poetry than I do YA! Without a doubt, mystery and urban fantasy still claim the top spots, but without data, I would have put YA right up there with them. I don’t when that shift started taking place (apparently, sometime in 2014), but it does explain why it took me longer than I expected to get through Farish’s new book.

51rvex-bhvl-_sx331_bo1204203200_She is an absolutely brilliant writer. The poet in her blends stunningly with her work with immigrant and refugee communities in New Hampshire to create stories that are as unique as they are powerful. Her book The Good Braider remains in my top twenty more than five years after reading it. Either the Beginning or the End of the World is no less lovely. Written about a young woman growing up on the New Hampshire seacoast with her father, a struggling fisherman, Sophea finds herself falling in love with a PTSD vet just as her estranged Cambodian mother and grandmother make their way back into her lives.

I have many friends who have made trips over the last decade to Cambodia. To a person, each has told me what a spectacular and heartbreaking country it is – not because of any ongoing poverty, or awe-inspiring landscape, or charming handicrafts made in quaint villages – but because it had an entire generation forcibly and violently disappeared. This had led to an unprecedented sense of community between the people who live there; one man told me that if he was fortunate enough to get a job, it was only right he share that work with a brother or cousin or uncle – if he didn’t, he might have more, but that man would have nothing. Always, he told me, we’d like more work, but it’s better to share what we have.

Farish winds the brutal history of the country into her book with subtle power. Her protagonist is a girl on the brink of independence, a young woman who has little concept of her own past, much less that of an entire people. She has been raised by her American father, but she comes of age with her Cambodian family, and their presence in her life, while often a frustration and betrayal for her, is all the more powerful to me in the America we live in today.

Should I Still Wish, John W. Evans

I don’t know how the heart makes decisions. Maybe love is something born again in different bodies so it can keep moving forward. (loc 819)

It’s hard to write about a friend’s grief. John and I are not close, but I see him with his family often enough. His youngest son and mine went to daycare together for a few months. Practically a year before that, we were at a barbeque together in my neighbors yard, and all the boys – his three, our neighbors’ two – were running and screaming while the adults ate outside, me casting an ever watchful eye on the tiniest member of the wolf pack, who chose the moment right after my first bite to fill his entire bouncer seat with the kind of mess only the keepers of a bunch of boys could raise a glass of wine to, and laugh at.

51y1utsranl-_sx322_bo1204203200_He’s that kind of friend – a person I see at birthday parties and on Halloween, or occasionally when he’s picking up his kids from his mother-in-law, who lives just three houses down from us. I probably know her better than him now, since she often welcomes my wandering son into her home, overflowing, as it is, with her easy-going love and an abundant collection of dump trucks and stuffed animals. We don’t share close confidences or go on vacations together, but I enjoy both the John I see at the park or in an overcrowded kitchen and the one I encounter on the page. The one is boisterous and quick-witted, the other, neurotic and searching. When we stop to chat, he is confident – simultaneously the brilliant Stanford lecturer and the father of three bright, energetic boys. He is only overshadowed by his wife, who is one of the most straightforward people I’ve ever met. It’s hard to imagine her functioning at any level below excellence, and yet she makes me laugh and feel immediately comfortable and happy, a genetic disposition I envy, since I’m more likely to identify with the pen and ink sketches of John’s anxiety than with Cait’s welcoming competence.

Reading this book was an exercise for that anxiety. I simultaneously loved it and couldn’t stop thinking about whether I was intruding. Who am I to know how he and Cait fell in love, or how, eight years on, he feels when he has to enter the woods? Not a stranger, to enjoy the rise and fall of intermingled grief and joy from a distance, nor a close friend, who might already know these vulnerabilities scrawled so gorgeously across the page. I am in between. I think too much about it, and it makes me laugh because the John contained in these pages thinks too much too.

I suspect that people who know him better might gently urge that he live a little more in the moment, and that both of the women he loves, his first wife and his second, would not hold him accountable for either the highs or the lows he experiences. Such is the blessing of being loved by a non-writer. I can’t speak for painters or dancers or cinematographers, or their partners, but we writers are, in general, an overanalyzing breed. We run the bad connections on repeat as much as the good, our brains searching for what we missed, what we destroyed, what we could have done to make our lives easier.

My sister-in-law, a neuroscience post-doc, once simplified the science of it for me. She said, “You’re making the connections stronger, you know. Every time you rethink the memories, bad or good, you’re building them up.” And after that, I started a meditation practice for when the past crept up on me. I would instead imagine relentlessly a tree, or an expanse of sand, or a curled wave, until the urge to flagellate myself, or wallow, passed.

This works for me because I need it to – I need to live mostly on the peaks or trails right now, because becoming a mother has made my already thin skin translucent when it comes to the valleys of the world. There’s no room to punish myself for not knowing how to live perfectly in the past when the world is presenting, on a daily basis, a pain and degradation I could hardly have imagined even six months ago.

This spring, my son’s brother will be born into a different world, one overflowing with stories of grief rather than reconciliation – of John on the mountaintop paralyzed by tragedy instead of John on a street corner, raising signs of tolerance with his children and wife. We need both stories to remind us, however hard it may be, that we’re alive. Not every person we’ve loved, or every person who deserves to be, but us. We are here. We are a collection of the tragedies and exultations of existence. We are carved from the pain into a call for compassion, and we might fail a thousand times at joy, but it still exists, if we wish it.

On Turning Ten, Billy Collins

I had a book I was going to post about today – that I should be posting about, since I promised my friend John, and his editor, that my review would be up – but the reading of it has been so sad, so perfectly January, that I haven’t been able to bring myself to rush through. It’s not a long book, and it’s not nearly as aching a story as his first (if you haven’t read it, and you can bear a brilliantly written tragedy, you should), but it’s harder because he and his family are friends now, while in 2014, he was barely an acquaintance.

I’ll have it done by February, for sure, and I look forward to telling you about it, because John’s one of those writer friends I love and hate for being so damn good at what he does. In the meantime, here’s a little bittersweet Collins to carry you into what promises to be a divisive weekend.

On Turning Ten

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

The October Daye books, Seanan McGuire

Happy New Year, folks! I realize for most people, this is the first (dreaded, though hopefully, abbreviated) work week back after the holidays, but since we decided to travel a little later this year, I’m still bouncing around the east coast visiting family on both sides of the proverbial tree. It’s strange to be seeing so many people who are back from vacation and feeling – let’s charitably say “a little grumpy” – rather than catching them in their most festive moods.

cover_rrI’m not sure I’d suggest it as a general practice. Too many people have started new diets this week, or all of a sudden have to get up early to go to the gym rather than meet us before work to enjoy a bear claw while our toddler climbs all over them. It’s not my fault that they’re in the middle of a detox while I’m still in a treat baking frenzy! (Okay. It is my fault, but to be fair, I’m so over-sugared at this point that I feel like my whole body has been set to perma-vibrate. I have to give these cookies away or die trying…)

In the meantime, I’m just trying to get the stink of 2016 off by binge reading a little urban fantasy. I couldn’t even pick one of the books to review because in the last month, I’ve read six of the ten that have been published, and it wouldn’t be fair to try to limit my love of Toby Daye to just one volume (except book 4 – this isn’t much of a spoiler, but I hate storylines that center around the protagonist being falsely accused. It’s one of my least favorite tropes, and unfortunately this book is integral to the larger plot, so it can’t be skipped. It just wasn’t my favorite.)

She’s my favorite kind of heroine – self-sacrificing, unfailingly sarcastic, a lone wolf who’s absolutely plagued by people who love her and won’t let her go careening off without, at a minimum, moral support. She’s been the perfect remedy to the chaos of December, the onset of head colds, and the insane desire of children to be fed three relatively well-balanced meals a day while wearing passably clean clothes. As a bonus, when I checked out her website, I saw that McGuire is already slated to release at least three more volumes in the next three years, which is great news for future me! (Present me is still content to have four more books on standby to get through the Northern Hemisphere’s most detested month.)

Of course, this means I “have” to finish those books, and then read something more…nutritious in the next two weeks, since even I can’t justify posting about this series twice in a month. Oh January – this is why everybody hates you…

It’s almost Christmas, and for once, we’re not getting on a plane (at least not until next week). We won’t see our families until New Year’s, instead opting for a cozy holiday with our own tree and the company of our dear friends and neighbors on Christmas morning. In the past, we’ve alternated between my husband’s family in Colorado and mine in New Hampshire, and this would have been my family’s year; however, this Sunday marks a momentous day for me and mine – the day of my mother’s retirement from 37 years of ministry in the UCC.

Her ministry has been instrumental in shaping who I am. Her particular sense of humor, her tireless efforts for the justice and dignity of the most vulnerable among us, and her enthusiastic acceptance of all people and all faiths has influenced more people than I’m sure she could ever imagine. She is far too humble to think of herself as a tide changer, but those of us who know her know the truth – she is a light, a warrior of love, and a beacon for those who love the church and those who have been mistreated by it. She is dearly loved and deeply admired for her perspective, her compassion, and her faith, and while I know she has many more years of world-changing in her, she’ll be doing it from a different venue now.

In honor of this incredible transition, today I’m sharing a poem she wrote about Christmas. In addition to her work in ministry, she’s the author of more than twenty books and spent a year as a poet laureate, in addition to having taught writing for several decades. For me, there is no better way to ring in this holiday weekend than by considering her words and the overwhelming love she has for this difficult, hard to love world.

Improv on Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch who Stole Christmas, Maren C. Tirabassi
The grinch on the inside of Who you and Who me
who shrinks from the carols and ducks under the tree …

The grinch who fears weight gain and avoids every store,
with chestnut-roast muzak and wreaths on the door …

The grinch who dreads greedies and commercials for toys,
and deplores the way sadness is wrapped in fake joy …

This grinch has a heart that is just the right size,
but it hurts so at Christmas that it is no surprise …

That with all of the darkness, the hurry, the haste,
with all of the “must-do’s,” the parties and waste …

The grinch on the inside of you-grouch and me-beast,
the grinch who hates candlelight service and feast …

The grinch who is lonely, and feels like a stranger,
the grinch who’s disgusted when I rhyme with “manger” …

Finds that all of the stories of this Christmas season,
the Scrooges and Nutcrackers point to one reason.

It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, Fred Claus,
and the Polar Express are all written because –

There’s a mystery here, there’s a wonder, a glow,
that comes not from a package or starlight on snow …

That is not about family with its comfort or grief,
and is not about having some perfect belief …

It’s all about God, who won’t come the right way.
who jumps out of the church, as well as the sleigh …

God who needs diapers but takes myrrh in a pinch –
this God who sends babies is in love with each Grinch.