Category Archives: Books

The Bug-Eyed of Notre Dame

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Yesterday, a writer-client I’m working with came into my studio with news that Notre Dame was on fire. Her voice was mournful, and I’ll admit that I was doing calculations re: the proximity of my cousin G, who works at a neighboring campus in South Bend, when the writer said, “The spire is down” and then I knew she meant the French one, not the Fighting Irish one in northern Indiana that I’ve been to periodically since childhood.

 

She filled me in on the details and my heart sank. We turned to her work and I spent the next two hours delighting in her words and ideas, and was able—thank you Headspace app—to stay focused on the words at hand though my brain kept trying to slink back to the idea of Paris without Notre Dame, of history without that particular touchstone.

 

As soon as she left, I watched the footage and had a loud, honking weep. I felt all twisty with grief and briefly considered walking up the street to St. James Cathedral until I looked at the clock and realized mass would be in session and what I wanted was quiet and contemplation in a beautiful space, not words and ritual. So I cried some more, ate some peanut butter crackers, and got on with my life. Like you do.

 

Here’s the thing: I’ve never been to Notre Dame. I’ve never been to Paris. I’m not really Catholic. My only experience with The Hunchback of Notre Dame was watching the Disney version only because I was interested in how Demi Moore would play Esmerelda. If I’m watching a historical movie in which the English are fighting the French, I root for the English. (If the English are fighting the Irish, that’s a whole other thing.) Despite four years studying French, the only phrase I’ve committed to memory is les belles vaches du Normandie (that’s the beautiful cows of Normandy for those of you who are not bilingual like I am), and I can wish a guy I knew in 8th grade who has spent his adult life in Paris Happy Birthday en français if I double-check the spelling with Google Translate before hitting “post.”

 

So I’ve been thinking about why I shed more tears over timber and stone than I did over the last five mass shootings in the U.S. or the forest fires last summer, and I’ve isolated it to a few reasons why it seemed so terribly sad to me, a person who has self-ostracized from France because I fear being sneered at by Parisians who think Americans are gauche.

 

I am a self-reflective person, so let’s get that category of over-indulgent mourning out of the way.

 

Notre Dame has been on my bucket list since 1981 when I stumbled into Madame Rutkowski’s French I class in high school. I’ve always assumed at some point I would get to France. I imagined I would admire the cathedral and then make my way to Chartres, Reims, Rouen, Mt. Sainte Michel, and I would end in the Louvre and only then truly worship at the altar of art. I did not like Madame Rutkowski, and she did not like me much. But I realized later in my life that she was an incredible teacher even though most of us were mediocre students at best, and if she were still alive, I would write her a note and tell her that, thank her for making me interested in French history, architecture, art, Roman aqueducts, boules, Le Petit Prince, the sites of Paris and the fantastical way the city unrolled like a snail shell from the oldest arrondissement where I wanted to start my exploration. These are the reasons—not the language or her or even Audrey Hepburn—that I came back for French II and French III.

 

And so, let’s be honest, that weep was for myself. It seems clear now in the light of the next day that Notre Dame will rise from the ashes. Whether it is fixed up in my lifetime, and whether I happen to be in Paris when it’s open to the public is another story. But even if it is, I will be keenly aware that parts of it are now a facsimile and it won’t feel the same. It’s illogical, but I’ll know. When I was at Canterbury Cathedral looking at the steps that were worn away by penitent pilgrims who had crawled up them on their knees for centuries, I was moved. Those steps could be replaced with something new made to look old, sure—the same smooth, uneven dips in the stone could probably be duplicated with a machine of some sort—but I would know it was a fabrication.

 

Which brings me to the second reason for the tears of Notre Dame. I hate when history is lost to us. The picture that got me going in the first place was the one shot up in “The Forest” that featured all the wood that had been there for centuries. Even though I assume your average tourist couldn’t go up to that peaky bit of the attic and rest her cheek on the timbers, the idea that she could until yesterday and now she never will be able to wrecked me. Who touched those beams? Who made sure they were hewn to specifications so they fit where they were supposed to? Who got damaged backs and hands and feet moving those heavy timbers before there were mechanized pulleys and cranes? I would feel this same way if the fire had engulfed some centuries-old hovel that had housed peasants. It’s not about the grandeur—it’s the loss of that connection with people from all those yesterdays ago.

 

The news today is that one of the particular problems with a rebuild is that the forests that supplied the oak for that skeleton have all but disappeared because humans kind of suck and don’t let things grow when there’s a profit to be made off of old-growth forest—and sure, “The Forest” was maybe an early pillage of the forests, but I can forgive a little of that if it’s used for something beautiful and meaningful and lasting. I love a touchstone with the past, and while I’m happy to focus on how all is not lost—and how no one died—yesterday the loss seemed too much to absorb. Like an erasure of generations of people and events. Goodbye.

 

And finally, there is the thing that made me howl loudest when I re-watched that spire fall, wondering what would be left when the fire was quenched. What I’m beginning to realize at this late juncture in my life is my “thing”: I need for the world to be beautiful. I don’t like ugliness in general (Z can attest to this as my eye automatically goes to whatever is hideous or wrong with the city on our nightly walk), but more specifically when something beautiful dies because of natural disaster or human ignorance or arrogance, a combustible cloud of grief and rage builds inside me. I feel like Nancy Kerrigan crying WHY? after her knee was whacked, thus dashing her dreams.

 

We don’t really do beauty anymore, do we? Not the beauty that requires craftsmanship, forethought about future generations, purpose outside of making a buck. Instead, we do serviceable. Or interesting. Or ironic. Or provocative. We’re so busy looking forward, disdaining the past, that we don’t realize that our buildings and our sculptures and our uppercase Art has more to do with causing a stir now than it does to satisfy an inner need for beauty. So when something lovely, something painstakingly crafted via nature or human hand, disappears, it feels visceral.

 

I become obsessive and start harping on things like pole-barn churches being built on formerly beautiful pasture or the buildings in Seattle that have artful edifices and courtyards that are callously bowled over for un-interesting steel and glass to house the elite people who can afford a vista, with no concern about how it looks on the outside to the those of us forced to stare at it daily. The view out for the few is all that matters.

 

That massive, ridiculous staircase sculpture—an ode to consumerism and wealth— in New York City’s Hudson Yards is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.

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Maybe its beautiful if you’re a bee. Or a cyborg.

I don’t hate it. It’s interesting. I suppose were I to climb it the views might be spectacular, though there are certainly more picturesque and striking views in other parts of Manhattan. I can see how tired parents might love exhausting their children on those 154 flights of stairs. But there is nothing there as groundbreaking as a flying buttress. It doesn’t please the eye so much as entertain it. If it imploded tomorrow or eight centuries from now, it wouldn’t be a huge loss to civilization. I’m never going to sit on one of those steps and get chills because it feels holy, the way I once did in the interior of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House Complex in Buffalo (maybe the last period in the modern era when true craftsmanship was still celebrated) or get tears in my eyes when I see light streaming through the oculus in the Pantheon in Rome.

 

I know. I know. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

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People love Portland, Oregon—they have a sort of revered affection for it that I’ve never caught. Maybe it isn’t Portland’s fault, my lack of enthusiasm for it. I have had a series of unfortunate events there beginning with my first trip when Z and I were engaged. I loved him to bits, had no question about my future with him, but I’d begun having “The Terrifications” about leaving home. Other Portland failures on that trip included my early disappointment in how much like a warehouse the famous Powell’s Books looked, when what I really want in a bookstore is a few leather wingbacks, a fireplace, and a learned Person of Letters smoking a pipe and reading some dense tome while I browse nearby.

 

I was similarly disappointed in my inability to locate Voodoo Donuts.

 

Also, we happened upon a parade of naked bicycle riders, a sight almost more disturbing than Notre Dame burning yesterday. All that pale, jiggle-y flesh daring us to find fault with it as it bumped down the street.

 

Subsequent trips have been no more pleasant, have included repeat disappointments with Powell’s, inability to locate the donuts, and an overwhelming sense that everyone there isn’t as interested in showering as they are in other parts of the country AND the sure and certain knowledge that my having noticed this means that I’m too square and superficial to fully understand Portland and its celebrated weirdness. The last trip, last summer, ended unceremoniously when I had a full-on panic attack while I was driving home during rush hour. My brain was fizzing and pinging because there were too many people—in my lane, on the road, on the planet—and they were sucking up my oxygen and seemed hell-bent on making sure I never ever got home.

 

Also, if I’m being completely honest with you—a policy of mine—I have to admit I do not really like Portland’s poster boy, Fred Armisen. He makes me more uncomfortable than naked bicyclists and rush hour traffic in an unkown city combined. And no, I don’t know why.

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King Street Station, Seattle

A few weeks ago, Z and I took the train to Portland, which was a labor of love. I was itching to see my friends from my old MFA program, who were in town for AWP. It had been five years since I’d seen some of them, more years for others, so seeing Chickpea, Quill, Geeg, and the Beard was worth whatever pain and suffering Portland was prepared to dole out.

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A little ambiance at King Street Station, Seattle

Our trip started in Seattle’s King Street Station, which was built when things were still made to be beautiful at the turn of the last century, designed by a firm that would later go on to be associated with Grand Central Station in New York City. When Z moved here 12 years ago, it was being renovated after years of disrepair and “modernization” had wrecked it (plaster reliefs, tile mosaics, and marble replaced with sheetrock and dropped acoustical tile because when is that not a good idea?). But now, it’s grand and old timey again, and I’m sure people would argue that it’s inefficient, but I feel really endeared to the way that train travel—the tickets, the assigning of seats, the check-in and boarding process—is so analog. Everything is paper, a lot of it handwritten. All of it adds up to a sense of how things used to be and, frankly, it seemed less tedious than waiting in line to board a plane.

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I wanted to steal one of each of these.

What was disappointing, however, is that when we were actually on the train, we were looking forward to lunch in the dining car. We were both expecting linen table cloths and Hercule Poirot, but instead we got the equivalent of concession stand and some crowded stools, so we staggered back to our seats with our hotdogs and drowned our disappointment in the view of Puget Sound and a few glimpses of the Olympic Mountains on an otherwise grey day.

 

In Portland, we stayed at the Woodlark Hotel, a building that had been an old hotel, then had been slated to be demolished years ago, but someone with foresight (and money) rescued it, and opened it recently—nicely remodeled. The desk clerk happily informed us we’d been upgraded to a space with more light, so I swung the room door open with relish only to discover a king sized bed with a path around it (i.e. the same as our own bedroom at home), a “closet” that was brass pipes jutting out of the wall, and a desk and chair built for young Swedish children (unfortunate for Z since he had papers to grade while I was swanning around with my friends). It did have the promised window with a view onto the busy street below, and I decided to appreciate how bijoux it was and how much I preferred it to a modern, air-tight space with no sense of itself.

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Hotel closets have never been so stylish and accessible!

Also, the fine folk at the Woodlark were so proud of the wallpaper in our room that it was duplicated on the coasters, room key, and the home screen of the TV. For four days I felt like I was in a steampunk jungle.

 

Whenever I see this particular set of friends, I’m surprised by how it feels like we said goodbye a month ago and no time has passed. We quickly dive into conversations about writing and life and memories from a decade ago when I met them as a homesick first semester nonfiction writer. They were all considerably younger than I was and almost done with the program, but they invited me in and that made all the difference. They saved the experience for me—made it fun, instead of an ordeal, taught me the ropes of handling the sometimes grueling residencies, and bought me a birthday tiara to help me celebrate my 42nd birthday the year The Terrifications began in earnest.

 

I’d like to regale you here with amusing anecdotes from those three days, but the truth is, it wouldn’t be interesting or entertaining: inside jokes originally constructed after too much alcohol, conversations about writers we like/loathe, stories about bodily functions and housekeeping. We went to Powell’s Books and I liked it better as I wandered around with Quill and Chickpea, recommending books to each other—focusing primarily on display books because they were face out and required no bending over. We weaved around streets looking for a place where my unsophisticated palate could be sated with something that wouldn’t completely bore them. I tried to find my bearings on the streets that all seemed the same to me (I never could figure out which direction was north, where the center of town was, or come to a conclusion about why a city so much smaller than Seattle seemed to have twice the homeless population.) We went to the river, a serviceable working river, but no beauty. My favorite bit, the Portland sign in Old Town that’s the shape of Oregon with a deer leaping away, as if it too is frightened of Fred Armisen.

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A serviceable river. I do love those little bridge turrets!

Chickpea and Quill made it a goal to get me, finally, blessedly, to Voodoo Donuts, where we waited in a long line while looking at pictures of the donut treasures awaiting us—donuts covered in breakfast cereals, bacon, bubble gum, and shaped like joints and rude body parts. Getting a treat there is an event, though Chickpea was chastised by her server for ordering a single donut, “just so you can say you’ve been here” which was kind of off-putting. Surely half the people in that line were there so they could say they’d been to this temple of donut worship.

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My final review: Voodoo donuts are okay. I don’t really get the hype. I know it’s blasphemy for someone living in the Pacific Northwest to say this, but I’d rather have a Krispy Kreme.

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At least there’s one thing I can tick off my bucket list.

 

Our first night visiting our friends, Z and I rode the light rail back to the Woodlark. A security guard at the train station when we arrived told me it’s the best light rail system in the U.S. and maybe it is. (I can’t really judge—Seattle’s isn’t very complex or expansive.) But I didn’t love it. I’m used to riding public transportation, I’m used to the odd squabble, the random strings of curses at no one in particular, dogs of all varieties sometimes growling at each other. But on our ride home—at a respectable hour—a preppy looking dude with a black eye got on and began fake-punching and mouthing off to other people on the train. He wasn’t a racist, he said, but he was Special Ops and could throw the two guys at the back—who were Black—off the train if he wanted. There was a lot of back and forth between the three of them, and one of the guys said, “Dude, you’ve already got a black eye.” Later, they got off the train, shuffling past the instigator, and one guy mumbled, “I’m out of here. I can’t go to jail tonight.”

 

This left Z and me and a few other people further away for him to perform for. Whatever he’d been smoking or sniffing made silence an impossibility for him. He sidled up to us, asked Z if he was a doctor, and without really waiting for an answer said he was a doctor. A Special Ops doctor who worked for the CIA. We kept our eyes trained on the floor, hoping he’d catch a clue. But he kept up with his rambling chatter. Too close. Too unstable. He flexed a muscle and told me to feel it. I finally looked at him and said sarcastically, “No thanks.” He said to Z, “She’s got big eyes.” (Z insists he said, “She’s got big, beautiful eyes” but I’m pretty sure it was just “big eyes” said in the same sneering tone that Billy McGathey once used on me in 7th grade Home Ec not to look at him with my “bug eyes.” (I’m not sure why me looking at him was a problem—mostly I was just unimpressed with his seamstress skills and certain that my big eyes weren’t actually buggy.)

 

I don’t know if Z knew things with this guy were likely to get worse, or if he could sense that his wife was a middle-aged woman with occasional hormone instability and two Long Islands in her gullet. I wasn’t afraid of this swaggering, black-eyed twerp, and what’s more, I kind of wanted him to threaten us because I felt suddenly fierce with rage that he’d fake-punched a miserable looking guy in front of us, forced the squabbling guys behind us to listen to his bullshit about not being a racist when the first people he swaggered up to were people of color, and making the few remaining people on the train stare at the floor trying to make themselves small targets for his inebriated malice. I haven’t been to a gym in 7 years nor have a lifted anything heavier than a laundry basket in recent years, but I felt so angry at how ugly he was being that I was yearning to pop him on the nose.

 

I also suddenly wanted to talk about myself in the third person after punching him: Big Eyes has spoken.

 

I’ve never hit anyone in my life and I’m wildly uncoordinated, so it wouldn’t have ended well. The swaggering, black-eyed twerp and I have Z to thank for ushering me to the door at the next stop where he and I stood on the corner for ten minutes waiting for the next, less crazy train.

 

Because Z had a lot of work to do and because of the distaste I now felt for both the light rail system and Evening Portland in general, the last night there, I took an Lyft out to meet my friends. I chatted all the way to the ‘burbs with the driver, a transplant from Atlanta who had come out two years ago to help her college-student daughter adjust to her new west coast life. She was friendly and chatty and I was hepped up on caffeine. She said Portland wasn’t really working for her. It had been an adventure and she was glad to come out to help her daughter, but her daughter was making her own way now and she herself wasn’t really making any friends. When she moved in, she had introduced herself to her neighbors because she thought it would be nice if someone would maybe notice if a burglar was crawling in her window or she was dead on the doorstep, and she’d like to reciprocate that favor. Instead, they politely blinked at her and then shut their doors. She shrugged. Maybe she’d try Portland, Maine, next, she said. So I told her that I’d gone to grad school there, that that’s where I’d met these friends I was visiting, that I thought she might like it, but it would be very different from Atlanta too.

 

Chickpea and I sat around the rental unit for a couple of hours while the conference goers were off getting themselves registered. We talked about Maine and dogs while she cut up crudités and I gave myself a sort of Tarot reading with Quill’s new faerie cards. (It was unsuccessful, though the faeries indicated I perhaps had an unhealthy relationship to the outdoors. Which is true. I’m kind of allergic to it.) The others arrived, we stuffed ourselves with snacks and then left for supper and stuffed ourselves with food at the paleo, dairy-free, gluten-free restaurant where it seemed to be a requirement of the other customers and the staff to wear big, knit caps. Two of us were leaving the next morning, the other three were staying for the conference.

 

I hate this, the goodbyes. I waved farewell as they crossed the street, climbed into my Lyft where the music was soft and the driver was silent. He wove through the traffic while I wiped away a few tears. The Portland sign glimmered in the distance as we crossed the river. How can you miss people who you’ve really only ever been with for maybe forty days of your life all told?

 

It makes no sense. It also makes no sense that an ancient building I’ve never seen in a country where I’ve never been can move me to tears, whether standing intact or aflame.

 

It’s all illogical. But it’s my heart.

 

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Union Station, Portland

The Drumming Unicorn of Elliott Bay and Other Terrors

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There’s someone who sometimes puts on a rubber cat mask and plays French music on an accordion down by the market, appropriately in front of Left Bank Books and to the left of a florist that has big displays of exotic looking flowers. It’s probably only because the music reminds me of the movie Amélie, or maybe it’s because the “cat” plays with such gusto, but I love seeing it.

 

Somewhere, I have a fuzzy photo of it that I snapped for you, but I can’t find it, and since you can’t see it moving jauntily in time to the tune, hear the music, smell the flowers, dodge the tourists headed to Pike Market, it wouldn’t make much of an impression anyhow.

 

So just believe me when I tell you this accordion playing cat is comic, yes, but also kind of glorious, and if you are ever in Seattle, you should try to see it and drop a buck in its accordion case.

 

Oh, wait. Z is invested in your understanding the glory of this cat (even though he is allergic), and found this photo online:

 

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I told you it was glorious.

 

But down on the waterfront there’s this other person who wears a rubber unicorn head and bangs the hell out of some upturned buckets and shakes his head wildly as he pounds out a beat, and I find it completely—and irrationally—terrifying. As in I grab Z’s hand if I’m not holding it, and if I am, I squeeze it harder, and try to hurry us along.

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Best enjoyed from a safe distance.

The sun might be setting, but it is still daylight. The unicorn is all wrapped up in the music and likely bears none of us ill will, plus there are plenty of people around even if it did. And still, I get chills that I can only equate to my first irrational fear, which was the Lincoln-Mercury TV ad that had a cougar that would rest on top of a sign and then let out a fierce roar as the announcer said, “At the sign of the cat.” I was a toddler, and the first time I saw that commercial I burst into tears. This may well be one of my first memories.

 

I can still hear the jingle Lincoln-Mercury  leads the way and get chills.

 

I ask you, is this not terrifying? Watch until the very end of the video.

 

My parents thought my overreaction to this ad was either hilarious or adorable, and so when the commercial came on—and it was always on—they would say, “Look Bethy! It’s the kitty!”

 

The kitty? THE KITTY?!

 

Eventually, I got used to the commercial but would sometimes feign terror in an attempt to recreate their original delight, though I didn’t have to feign much because just now when I was sifting through clips of those commercials to show you, I was, let’s just call it, uneasy.

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This is NOT a “kitty”!

Last night Z and I were doing laundry in the building’s basement. It is not a horrible laundry room—I’ve been in much creepier ones, specifically two in Chicago that were reminiscent of murder scenes in a horror flick. It is bright blue and well lit and has cameras in it. In general, I’m not afraid to be down there by myself. Even so, last night Z stayed behind to collect our items from a sluggish washer and sent me upstairs with the dry clothes to commence folding. I had the laundry bag in one hand and the doorknob in the other as I was leaving when he called after me because he needed another quarter. He was the only other person in the room. I know his voice. There was no chilling music playing. We hadn’t been talking about anything creepy or watching a police procedural with a serial killer. He said a very non-threatening, “Babe, I need another quarter.”

 

And yet I screamed. He might as well have been Freddie Krueger or the Wicked Witch of the West saying, “I’ll get you, my pretty!”

 

Like my parents, he thought my overreaction was hilarious.

 

I have an hyperactive amygdala, which accounts for the shrieks and squawks when I’m surprised, but I also have an overactive imagination which accounts for my inability to sort my fears into tidy categories like: irrational, rational, and rational but improbable. To me, everything is a possibility because I can imagine it is. So while I know everyone has to deal with the fears they might have about losing loved ones, jobs, health, new or strange situations, global nuclear annihilation, etc., I’m pretty sure the bulk of the population doesn’t worry about unicorn drummers chasing them down the waterfront. They don’t worry that a sewer rat is going to pop out of their 2nd story toilet on a Wednesday afternoon. They don’t worry that if they get rid of that one ugly sweater they really don’t like anyhow that one day they’ll be in a situation in which they have no sweaters and desperately need that ugly one to keep them warm.

 

They don’t—I’m guessing—fear talking to a stranger because they will never be free again to have their own thoughts but will instead spend the rest of their lives listening to this stranger chunter on.

 

Which brings me to the Silent Reading Party at the Sorrento Hotel. I love the Sorrento, which is near our apartment building. It’s loaded with old world charm—a dark lobby with a fireplace, wood paneling and deep sofas that harken back to a Seattle I wish I’d known. While it doesn’t seem like a quirky place, on the first Wednesday of every month it hosts said silent reading extravaganza and people wait in line for a place to sit and crack open a book. I’ve been meaning to go to it for as long as I’ve lived in the city, but I never have because it seems like such a weird thing to do: sit in a room full of strangers a block from your actual apartment and read in a dimly lit room in silence.

But also, like that accordion playing cat…how glorious. Every month I mark it on my calendar. Every month I “accidentally” forget to go.

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Aside from the weirdness, here are the main reasons I haven’t gone:

 

  • What if there are rules you have to follow that I don’t know and am then chastised for not following?
  • What if I hate it?
  • What if I meet someone there who ropes me into becoming part of their book club or writing group or cult and I’m never free again?

 

These are pretty much the fears that have shaped my life:

  • not knowing rules/breaking rules I didn’t know existed/being chastised for breaking said rules
  • hating something/being bored by something that I’d previously thought I would enjoy (ex. calling Z from the restroom at intermission of Wicked and begging him to phone in a bomb threat so I wouldn’t have to watch the second half) and still having to sit through the rest of the event
  • getting trapped by other people because I don’t know how to excuse myself or say no

 

 

A college classmate of Z’s who I know emailed to see if I’d be interested in going to the silent reading with her. We were both English majors and the few times we’ve seen each other, we’ve talked about books. This seemed like a win because I wouldn’t have to go to the Sorrento alone, she had been before and thus knew the rules (don’t talk between breaks or you might get shushed!), and we would be there to read so were she inclined to try to get me to join a cult she’s in*, she’d be shushed when trying to hypnotize me. Likewise, if some stranger tried to rope me into their pyramid scheme, she would shush them and save me from having to shill Amway for the rest of my life. So we agreed to meet.

 

Our first attempt was a failure because despite arriving almost 40 minutes before it started, the place was packed. We tried again the following month, and I arrived an hour before it started and was ushered to a long, communal table in the back to wait for my bibliophile partner.

 

I was disappointed. I’d imagined us across from each other in two solitary wingbacks by the fire in a room—I will admit—that was virtually empty, save for a lone man with a newspaper and aroma-less pipe in a similar wingback on the other side of the room. Instead, the reality was that we would be sitting at a long table reading across from strangers who I imagined to be 87% smarter, cooler, and more literary than I am. What’s worse, I had no idea what the etiquette was of talking to people at the communal table before the actual reading began. Was it encouraged? Expected? Mandatory? Rude to attempt?

 

I felt like I was at some reading cafeteria on the first day of junior high. What to do?

All around me people who seemed to know each other buzzed and chittered and seemed thrilled to be there, and all I could think about was how soon I could order a cocktail and how soon after I finished it I could escape.

 

The woman across from me asked if I’d been there before, and admitted that she wasn’t even from Seattle but had read about the event and thought it was too weird not to attend. She was exactly the kind of stranger I’m happy to bump into because she was friendly without immediately assuming that I wanted to spend the rest of the evening listening to her talk. A man came up and sat at the corner of the table between us, and asked about her cocktail so he’d know what to order. He had been to the Silent Reading Party before and said that he invites friends but then tells them he won’t save a spot for them because it makes him uncomfortable and seems unfair since, at this point, people were lined up outside hoping to score a spot to perch so they could read. I decided I liked him too. He was similarly undemanding and pleasant.

 

My friend arrived and we ordered appetizers and drinks and passed time before the witching hour by talking to each other and asking our new neighbors questions. The woman was from Brazil and had been traveling for the past 18 months to see a bit of the Americas. There were only two stops left on her trip: Chicago and New York, and she wondered if we had any suggestions.

 

I have many, many opinions about what is best and least best to do in Chicago, but on the spot, I could think of nothing outside of taking the architectural boat tour on the river, which may not even run in March. She looked at me expectantly since I’d just blathered on about how it was my favorite city in the U.S. and I had nuthin’. Ride a boat in what will inevitably be a Midwestern deep freeze when you are there. Who wouldn’t want to do that?

 

The man said he loved to read but had no time to read, so once a month he came to the Sorrento for himself. He’d been reading the same Ruth Rendell novel for months. I admired his backpack. He admired the novel I was reading, Here We Lie, by my friend Paula Treick DeBoard, and took a photo of it so he could read it whenever he finally has time to finish the Rendell. I forced everyone to look at my name in the acknowledgements and congratulate me as if I had written the book myself. (It is really good. You should probably read it. And also, admire my name.) The piano started playing and the silent reading began. (Note: it is silent in that no one talks, but there is delightfully unobtrusive piano music. At one point I heard a very classical version of what I think of as Darth Vader’s theme song, The Imperial March.)

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All of Paula’s books are my favorite, but right now, this one is my most favorite.

Despite the fact that Paula’s book is riveting, I couldn’t concentrate. Instead, I was horrified because what kind of city advocate am I if I can’t even cough up five things someone should do in a place that I love? I ripped a page out of my journal and started listing things she should do in Chicago, views to admire, buildings with architecture I adore, the miniature Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago, which line of the L to ride for the best vantage, which bus would cart her up Michigan Avenue, etc. I passed the list to her. She read it and smiled. I read Paula’s book and stuffed focaccia bread in my mouth. Soon she shoved a piece of paper across the table and whispered, “We’re like school girls, passing notes.”

 

Here’s her note:

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I was already in awe of Jacqueline because of her solo traveling adventure, but I was further in awe because she clearly enjoys interacting with strangers and finding out their opinions about what is worthwhile to investigate. She wasn’t worried I was going to try to get her involved in a pyramid scheme or join a cult. She was just enjoying humanity.

 

There was a break and she packed up the journal she’d been writing in and asked the server for the bill. The Ruth Rendell man said he’d like to pay for her drink and the food she’d ordered. She thanked him, but said no, and though my superior intuition and his excellent backpack had figured him for a safe bet, I realized that if I were traveling alone, I wouldn’t want arbitrary people buying treats for me no matter what they were reading. He said, “I insist. You are our guest here.” She thanked him, thanked us for the travel advice and told us to have a good evening, and then left.

 

I don’t know what it was about that wording of his, but I could feel my eyes get full and my face flush. You are our guest. There were two things there that I liked: the notion of a visitor to the U.S. as a “guest” but also the way he used that “our.” As if he were including me, my friend, all of us at the communal table—even the people at the end so far down we couldn’t talk tot hem or even see what they were reading, everyone in the Sorrento, everyone in Seattle, everyone in the country…and saying, we’re glad you came!

 

After Jacqueline left, I leaned over and thanked him for buying her meal and drink. It certainly hadn’t crossed my mind to do it, though I had considered asking if she had a blog so I could spy on her travels. I told him that I appreciated it because of Z and how he’s feeling these days about this country he loves but doesn’t always feel welcome in anymore, and about how good it was for me to remember that this is what I love about Americans—that at our best we’re friendly instead of suspicious, generous instead of showing everyone the holsters under our jackets.

 

He waved me off. He said he’s traveled a lot and people have always been welcoming to him and he likes to welcome other people. But just the same, I thought it was such a lovely gesture that the memory of it warmed me all week, as did the memory of Jacqueline investigating the Americas and deciding that something as quirky as a silent reading party was worth her time.

 

I’m never going to prefer solo travel, though I’ve done it and would again if the only alternative was staying safely at home. I’m never not going to squawk and screech when something gives me a fright, even if it’s my own husband asking for a laundry quarter.

 

Most of us are inclined to fears of some sort, and we have to figure out how to best navigate them. I would argue—with myself, with you, with the world—that life is going to be more fulfilling if we focus on the accordion-playing cat moments, and—even if we do have to race past the rubber-headed unicorns banging drums—we shouldn’t let those moments shape our days, influence our interactions with strangers, make us isolate ourselves completely for safety’s sake. The world is too big and weird and wonderful to cut ourselves off from that. It’s kind of glorious.

 

*She is very nice and very rational and not cult inclined. This is just hyperbole.

 

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On Fonts, Style, and Albus Dumbledore

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The catalog of ways my writing gets derailed is as large as the Oxford English Dictionary though the pages with entries for “email that must be sent” and “drawers that must be organized” are the most dog eared. Currently, I have a thumb injury caused by a knife in the dish water, and I’ve bandaged that thing up so it looks like the oversized digit of hitchhiking Sissay Hankshaw/Uma Thurman in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. It has slowed my typing down considerably even though it turns out the only thing you use your thumb for when typing is the space bar.

 

But even before the thumb situation, I had a font-related writing derailment.

 

I saw a snarky T-shirt on Broadway hat said, “I bet you use Helvetica.”

 

I use Helvetica.

 

I’ve been using Helvetica since 1994 when I got my Mac Performa and determined Helvetica the best font of the six or so on offer back then. Clean lines. Easy to read. Classic. Once I settle on a “good thing” I usually don’t revisit it, but that T-shirt unnerved me.

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You have no idea how much time I can spend googling things like Why does Helvetica suck? Or what are the best fonts?

 

I find myself at a crossroads in my life wherein I must either change so I don’t seem quite as old as I’m beginning to look, or I must commit to my idiosyncrasies and admit that I no longer care to be current. Not that I’ve ever been on the cutting edge of anything, but my goal, in as much as I have one, is simple: avoid being a laughingstock if possible.

 

It may be a battle I’m destined to lose regardless of my age. I’ve always been out of step, and now is no different than any of the other decades of my life. I was a fussy, prim teenager who was incapable of being carefree or rebellious, and now that I’m middle aged, I’m behaving the way I should have when I was 17. While the style mags all indicate I should embrace re-purposed furniture from a thrift store and add some spikey plants, a see-thru chair, and a bookshelf full of globes (where the books should go), I hanker for the ambiance of some television small town judge’s family room circa 1955. Heirloom furniture and deep armchairs with actual arms. I’m no fashionista, so though my drawers are stuffed to the brim, I basically wear the same uniform every day—a cable-knit hoody sweater, Levi’s, and a pair of  UGGs with hide laces that look like something Daniel Boone might have worn. (If it is warm out, I wear as little as possible accompanied by a snarl.) There is nothing about my “look” that is cultivated. It’s comfortable and serviceable and, hopefully, non-descript. Best of all, when I’m wearing it, I feel like myself.

 

Which is how I’ve always felt about Helvetica.

 

If I were a more confident person, I probably would have rolled my eyes at the judgey anti-Helvetica T-shirt disrespecting my font and moved on, but I’m not confident. I almost always assume that there are cool kids at a lunchroom table somewhere in the universe who are deciding right now that 90% of what I have and do is all wrong. Why these imaginary brats hold sway in my head is a question I can’t answer.

 

Plus, I started thinking about the judgments I’ve made against people for their font choice or their tendency to trends. Typewriter fonts are too precious and those peek-a-boo shoulder shirts aren’t really working for anybody and make me worry about shoulder melanoma. (Also, I’ll confess that though a hundred different style guides tell me that Chuck Taylors are always a good choice, I never see them on adult, non-basketball-playing humans over 22 without thinking they should try a boat shoe instead. We all have our opinions.)

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Maybe I’m only thinking about things like “classic” and “style” because for Christmas, Mom got me this gorgeous little book, Classic Style: Hand It Down, Dress It Up, Wear It Out by Kate Schelter. I’m probably not the target reader (see above description about my fashion choices), but I love the watercolor sketches of the things Schelter and a few style icons she’s interviewed offer up as their classic go-tos. It’s got me thinking about that old William Morris adage “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” and now I’m looking at the stuff in my closet and dotted around our apartment and finding some of it dubious.

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Beyonce waiting for her Cinderella story to unfold.

For instance, I’ve been giving Beyonce, the metal chicken that sits in our living room (and  who is named after The Bloggess’s significantly larger metal rooster) the side-eye. She’s not really beautiful. We knock her off her perch regularly and she dents up the wooden hand-made Shaker nesting boxes she sits on. On the other hand, we got her as a companion to the metal rooster, Bob Johnson, who sits on the other side of the room and I do find him, if not beautiful, then at least aesthetically pleasing, and he makes me smile, thus covering the “usefulness” category as well. Somehow, it seems wrong to deprive Bob and Beyonce of their love just because she’s less attractive and I got her on markdown in the Meijer garden department. Bob was liberated from a gallery and thus was a more pricey, graduation gift from Z that we found in New Mexico. She can’t help it that she doesn’t have the breeding of Bob, and I admire him for overlooking this.

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Beyonce is still waiting for this guy to put a ring on it.

There are other things on the side-eye list too.

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Why would anybody need these? What does it all mean?

I’m not sure why I’ve been collecting these little Wade ceramic doo-dads out of Z’s tea boxes. I don’t really like the colors and it seems kind of weird to have a tiny space shuttle, old-timey scuba helmet, White House, and pine tree/arrowhead sitting in my windowsill, but each time he opens a new box of tea it reminds me of the childhood joy of getting a prize in a box of Fruit Loops. So there they are, looking down on 9th Avenue in all their tiny, muted glory as if they are prized possessions.

 

I don’t know what to do with the 28 tote bags I have. They’re useful, but will I ever have need for 28 at one time? Shouldn’t I thin the herd? Thumbs up to the Winter is Coming direwolf and Andy Warhol soup can totes and thumbs down to the free London Review of Books one I got at a conference?

 

I keep thinking I’ll come up with a system for these wooden file boxes that will make them useful, but instead, I throw things in them like the notecards of a would-be screenplay that seemed like a good idea one night at midnight and less of a good idea once the sun was up. They’ve been in one file box for ten years and I’ve never looked at them. Mostly I dust the boxes when guests come and thus they  serve as tiny coffins for story ideas that have never re-animated.

 

I could go on like this, but you get the idea. That once again, instead of doing the business of writing, I’m avoiding it by bandaging my thumb and worrying about fonts, and speculating about how classic or unclassic my “style” is. Because that’s what really matters in my life. Sure it is. (Well, wound care matters, I guess, in that if I lose my thumb to gangrene, all of my words will run together what with no digit to operate the space bar.)

 

Classic Style has sent me down a memory lane I wasn’t planning to traverse too. I think I’ve mentioned before that when I was an impressionable 13 year old, I got my hands on a copy of Lisa Birnbaum’s satirical Preppy Handbook and didn’t realize it was satire. Instead, I used it as a bible. I wanted to be preppy. I don’t mean I wanted to wear Izods with the collars up. I mean I desperately wanted my family to transform over night into one of those country-club-belonging east coast families that went sailing and attended Ivy League schools and summered on Nantucket. It wasn’t the money I cared about, but I cared about the class, the breeding, the well-readness and the well-educatedness. Since I couldn’t rearrange my Midwestern reality into that, I read the books Birnbaum said were non-negotiable for preps (Love Story, Catcher in the Rye, The World According to Garp), I fretted about whether my monogram should feature the “E” of my given name or the “B” of my everyday “Beth.” Somehow, I managed to get a pair of Tretorn tennis shoes and tried to wear away the right toe as if I dragged my toe when serving a tennis ball (instead of actually, you know, learning to play tennis and getting the Preppy Handbook required roughed-up toe legitimately), and I crammed my maturing body into little boy’s polo shirts because they were cheaper than those made for women, and they fit my nearly non-existent budget even though they didn’t really fit me.

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So as I read Classic Style, I find myself reverting to my 7th grade girlhood. I feel the envy and the inability to measure up to those satirical guidelines. And I’ll admit it, I’m kind of hating on Schelter—an honest to goodness prep—for forcing that on me. True, I now have my own set of required L.L. Bean Boat & Tote bags, but Kate Schelter, one assumes, has actually used hers for boating and toting instead of for storing half-read Poets & Writers magazines under her desk. You can’t buy preppyness (or class) it turns out.

 

But please note:  Schelter’s illustrated questionnaire of the creative director, Stephen Keefe, listed Helvetica as his favorite font, alongside his vintage Persol sunglasses and Gucci loafers!

 

As I bundled up to meet Z and Hudge for happy hour on Monday, I was thinking about Schelter and her perfect style as I wrapped my rainbow-hued scarf around my neck, tugged on my rainbow-striped gloves, and pulled my rainbow knit cap down over my ears. These items don’t match, in case it sounds like they do. The colors are all of different hues, I just like the spectrum even though I would never have dressed this way in 1981. The useless strings that dangle from the earflaps slapped against my chin as I thought about how no one with real style would leave the house dressed as I was unless it was Pride week.

 

I climbed onto the #2 bus and as I was putting my wallet into my bag, the guy across from me—an Albus Dumbledore look-alike who appeared to have fallen on hard times—complimented me on my obnoxious hat.

 

I touched the hat and thanked him. He swayed and shifted in his seat in a way that indicated to me he was probably already half-lit. Then he leaned across the aisle and presented a banged-up blue plastic lighter and said, “Want to trade it for this lighter.”

 

I did not and said so politely. It seemed rude to ignore him, so I gave him more information than he needed—that Z and I got these hats—Z’s a more “manly” forest green—right before we got married and so I have a sentimental attachment to it (and therefore, nothing against the lighter he had on offer).   I restrained myself from telling him that I secretly believe the hat to have magical properties because a few days after I bought it and a few days before our wedding, I face-planted on an icy sidewalk and instead of ending up with the bruise or concussion I should have had, the hat made my head bounce so I was able to get married without stage make-up.

 

The guy shrugged and leaned back in his seat, arm along the back as if he were driving a 1970s Cadillac. As if to say, he liked the hat, sure, but it was nothing to him if I couldn’t see the benefits of his proposed trade. He flipped his maroon and gray striped scarf over his shoulder jauntily.

 

My instinct then was to run down the checklist perpetually in my brain of “was it bad of me that I just did this selfish thing of wanting to keep my own belongings to myself?” (The curse of a self-aware only child is the need not to behave the way people expect you to.) I looked at the guy while he was looking out the window and was happy to see that his coat looked warm, gloves jutted out of his pocket, and his scarf was long enough to cover his head if the temperature dropped. He didn’t need my magic hat; he just liked it. And I didn’t need his lighter, which appeared to have no magical qualities at all, (though the ability to carry potential fire in your pocket is a kind of magic). Things were even enough between us that I didn’t have to spend the rest of the day feeling guilty for not being more generous.

 

He saw me eying his scarf and leaned forward again, rubbing the ends between his fingers, and pointing out to me that the colors are the same as those of Oxford University’s Christ Church (or Gryffindor’s, I thought). Then he mumbled some things about Oxford and it seemed to me that he said he’d studied there and maybe that’s where the scarf had actually come from, though I can’t be sure because his monologue was low and zipped from topic to topic. There were kernels of sanity and sobriety in what he said, but there were enough words I didn’t catch that I also don’t know if he was a fabulist or if he’d had some academic life that went awry.

 

He talked. I smiled and nodded and hoped I wasn’t agreeing to some other trade that wouldn’t suit me. I am known for agreeing to things I don’t want because I nod my head when I don’t understand someone and the next thing I know I’m having a meal I didn’t order or hideous fake nails glued to my own natural ones.

 

I looked at him more closely. His hair was wild. He was carrying what looked like a freshly laundered mattress pad in a see-through tote. He was picking bits of fluff of the knee of his trousers fastidiously, and he was definitely striking a pose there on the #2 as we bumped up Seneca. He flipped the scarf over his shoulder again and looked out the window as if we were on a weekend leisure drive in Oxfordshire. He might have initially looked like a homeless Dumbledore to me, but as I often discover about my fellow bus riders, there was more to him than met the eye. And the man had style.

If he has cause to use Helvetica, I bet he does it unapologetically.

 

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Just two crazy middle aged kids enjoying Puget Sound in their magical knitted hats.

On History and Mystery

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Do you see the missing piece?

 

This weekend, I should have been doing one or more of the following:

 

  • fixing up the writing studio post earthquake proofing
  • creating a syllabus for my next class
  • writing lesson plans for my next class
  • working on a website to sell my wares to the wider world
  • writing this blog
  • cleaning in general
  • cleaning specifically:
    • birthday confetti off the carpet from the first part of the month
    • cobwebs I keep discovering on the ceiling
    • a fan that is more dust than blade at this point
    • the bottom of the kitchen trashcan (Z and I keep hoping “our man” will do it, but it turns out, we haven’t hired a man and thus it’s down to us and we’re each hoping the other will cave first)
  • putting industrial strength patches on the thighs of my favorite jeans
  • figuring out where to get rid of the books I’ve weeded
  • actually getting rid of the books I’ve weeded once I’ve decided
  • preparing for a presentation at a conference in three weeks that Z talked me into and at which I must appear to be knowledgeable and quick-witted though I am feeling neither of these things
  • using the new Panda Planner that has promised to change my life

 

 

What I’ve actually been doing:

 

  • genealogy

 

Probably I should be apologetic about why I am doing this since I have no children with whom to share this ancestral knowledge, but the truth is, I don’t care. I don’t care if my niece and nephew are interested. I don’t care if my cousins are. I see Z’s eyes glaze over when I tell him about some new relative I never knew I had who was a Quaker or a Puritan or a dentist, but I don’t care if it bores him—I tell him anyway.

 

I’m doing it because I’m curious and because history fascinates me, in particular, personal histories that overlap larger, human history. There are good stories there and I like a good story. So every night I open up Ancestry.com and introduce myself to some new person who contributed to the cocktail that is me. God bless them every one.

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A set of my great-great grandparents, their brood, and one awesome tricycle.

While the men’s histories are the easiest to access—them being regularly afforded their own names and the bulk of the attention in Quaker meeting minutes and newspaper accounts—what thrills me most is imagining the women’s stories and what might have been happening between the very few official mentions they get. A long space between children often means some grief, for instance. There’s all sorts of speculation I do about the teenagers who marry older men, the women who audaciously manage to work their maiden names into a first name for one of their children. If I happen upon a photo, I try to peer into the eyes to see if there’s any evident happiness or misery, and if the photo is of a tombstone, I’m curious to see if it is simple or grand, and if she warranted any sort of adjectives: beloved wife, devoted mother, etc.

 

This weekend I discovered that my paternal grandfather’s grandmother, Ellen, emigrated from Ireland in 1849. I’m familiar enough with the stories of my great grandmother Bridget who sailed away from Ireland as a teenager near the end of the 19th century with a blackthorn walking stick in her hand that now belongs to me. I know she married a man much older than she was who had a young son of his own. I know her middle son gave up a future in the priesthood when her husband died so he could earn money to help support her and his baby brother, my grandfather. I’ve met her nieces and nephew in Ireland, skulked around the farm where she was raised and that her great nephew now farms, stayed overnight with her niece and great niece, and stood over the graves of her parents and grandparents. So Ireland was no surprise.

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The Great Grandmotherland, near Caherlistrane, County Galway

But 1849? As soon as I saw that year on the screen, I said a very non-blasphemous Jesus under my breath and my eyes filled up and threatened to spill over the dam. You didn’t come to America from Ireland in 1849 because you wanted a change of scenery or were ambitious. You came because of the Famine.

 

I checked to see if there were children older than my great grandfather and discovered there were two: one born in New York, where they must have landed and tried to earn money enough to head west, and another, before that, born in transit on the Atlantic.

 

Jesus again.

 

Can you imagine? Your first child born in the hull of an overcrowded famine ship, not entirely sure what would be waiting on you when you arrived, except of course, that it wouldn’t be family—or anyone else—with open arms?

 

There’s the added knowledge that while she was pregnant for my great grandfather in West Virginia, her husband did the unfathomable and died at a young age, so there she is, a woman in coal-mining country with two pre-schoolers and a newborn to raise on her own.

 

So she did what you did if you were a woman in those straits and she married almost immediately. No time for a lengthy mourning before looking for a new spouse. No time for a long courtship to make sure the fellow is kind or clever. No chance for pre-marital counseling to make sure you have compatible dispositions. There are mouths to feed and your whole adult life you’ve been running from the Hunger.

 

No wonder I get panicky when there’s no peanut butter or Lucky Charms in the cabinets. No wonder I’ve had a passive-aggressive relationship with food my whole life (it being passive and me being aggressive). That hunger stuff has to get written on a person’s DNA at some point.

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It’s not _really_ Irish, but it is the perfect breakfast food.

So anyhow, that’s where my head is at and may explain why none of the above items on my ticking-off list have been ticked off. It might also explain why this afternoon while I was attempting to re-assemble the writing studio from earthquake-proofing-shambles and listening to The Drovers—an old Chicago Celtic rock band—I heard the opening stanzas to “Kilkelly, Ireland” and before it was all over I was having a loud, snorty cry as I re-hung pictures and stacked books.

 

To be clear, I’ve been listening to The Drovers since I first heard them on the Blink soundtrack in 1993, I’ve seen them in concert in Grant Park on a warm Chicago evening, and I’ve never, NEVER, heard them sing this or any other piece that is so maudlin. Their music is sometimes haunting, but mostly it makes you want to spin around like a dervish, maybe stick it to The Man. So I was blindsided when I heard those opening stanzas. It’s a song I intentionally took off of my Irish playlists because uncontrollable sobbing is not an activity I enjoy.

 

Have you ever heard it? I defy you to listen to it and not have some feelings. “Danny Boy” might make the masses tear up, but those are cheap emotions compared to the ones this song elicits. Supposedly, it is based on a set of actual letters from a father in Ireland to his son who has emigrated around the time of the Famine (the years are a little off, and this bothers me, but once the music swells, I allow for a little poetic license) and it spans several decades. For me, the tears start when the father begins his letter explaining that he’s had Pat McNamara “write these words down.” (As if the longing for loved ones you’ll likely never see again isn’t enough, I’ve the added weep-material of illiteracy.) By the time it works it’s way round to the immigrant’s brother writing the final lines to his brother that the father has died with a “He called for you in the end/Oh, why don’t you think about coming to visit/We’d all love to see you again” I’m a mess. It’s like the old-timey Irish version of “Cat’s in the Cradle.”

 

Please note, a decade ago I once purposely traveled from Waterford to Kilkelly specifically so I could feel the feelz of this song, only to realize when I arrived that I was not actually in Kilkelly but in Kilkenny, which is, it turns out, a whole different place. Instead of walking around mournfully and reflecting on my (then only imagined) Famine-affected relatives, I spent part of the afternoon in a Radley of London shop trying to justify an expensive leather bag with a Scottie dog logo. (I did not win that justification and am still sans a Radley handbag, fyi.)

 

Aside from the stories and extra fierce musically induced weeping because of those stories, the thing I like about this genealogy business is how much it’s like doing a puzzle. It’s the kind of detective work I was born to do because at no point is anyone going to hold me at knifepoint and tell me to quit snooping or else. (Though things did look a little dodgy at the Seattle Public Library yesterday when I was on my way to the genealogy department, so I s’pose it could happen.) It’s amazing the things you can find with a little poking around: a break with the church, a scandalous marriage, an illegitimate child. Sometimes, I’m guilty of assuming that anyone that predated me and my immediate family were just sitting around in long dresses and wearing stovepipe hats and working the land and reading their Bibles, but it turns out they were living real lives and making some desperate (and sometimes dubious) choices.

 

I’d have made a terrible historian though because I get caught up in my flights of fancy. I’ve hit a brick wall with Ellen and can’t find where she was born, who her parents were, and she’s starting to morph into Nicole Kidman in Far and Away, a high born woman who falls in love with a poor country yoke (and Scientologist) and makes her way to America, for good or for ill. She’s become amazing in my mind. Fierce, feisty, kind and generous. But for all I know, she was none of those things. She might have been a stern, humorless mother and who could blame her? She might have always been nagging her second husband to wear his hat and scarf to keep himself well, and who could blame her?

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Great Great Grandmother Ellen

Since January, I’ve been solving a lot of little puzzles. First, I’ve done actual jigsaw puzzles as I like the satisfaction I feel in those five minutes after I’ve completed one and before I realize what a complete waste of time it is since the picture is right there on the box and I didn’t need to actually put it together to see it. But the mystery to be solved here is how is it that the last two puzzles I’ve done have been missing a single piece? They were both new. Where did the rogue piece go? Was it never put in because there’s some malcontent at the puzzle factory who gets joy out of the notion of wrecking some obsessive’s sense of self-satisfaction? Has someone (read: Z, not me) dropped a piece and it’s bounced into a crevice in our crooked apartment? Am I sleepwalking and hiding a single piece to sabotage myself?

 

Other early 2018 Mysteries of the City:

 

 

  • Who is the man who coughs until he throws up EVERY DAY right outside our apartment?
  • How is it that I felt warmer in 8 degree temperatures in Indiana than I do in 42 degree temperatures now that I’m back in Seattle? (The cold out here gets right into your bones.)
  • How is it that despite having weeded almost 100 titles, it has been an impossible feat to get my books back onto their rightful shelves. They’ve reproduced like rabbits and somehow the Irish authors that used to fit neatly into one of 36 tidy IKEA cubes have breached their confines and now require an additional two cubes. Clearly, I need to build a border wall.
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Look at those Irish books, trying to sneak onto other shelves without proper documentation!

  • On a similar note, how is it possible that our south wall was moved in a foot because of the earthquake proofing and suddenly the furniture doesn’t seem to fit now? A foot is nothing really. If you were in one of those trash-compacting rooms in spy movies (or the original Star Wars) and the wall moved in a foot, you wouldn’t really even notice yet that you were in danger of being squished. And yet, what the writing studio looks like now is an implausibility of Wildebeests in one of those “bad” zoos with too-small enclosures. It’s all chair legs and coffee tables and bookcases overlapping each other and it hurts my eyes and heart.
  • If the Parks Department has to paint permanent suggestions on the park suggestion board about what activities people like to do there because the chalk option meant a lot of rude comments and a few dubious artist’s renderings, shouldn’t you just maybe forego the suggestion board and have a mural instead?
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Note: there are no actual roses in this park.

  • Why do drivers in Seattle—a city made of hills comparable only to San Francisco’s—insist on riding other people’s bumpers?
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If my car were in Seattle, it would be sporting this.

  • Do city officials really think they are tricking us when they make real estate developers “save” historical properties and this is how they do it: a shell of old bricks encasing the lower two floors of a boxy steel and glass monstrosity? We aren’t fools.
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Historic preservation Seattle style.

  • Does the new Seattle soda tax of almost 2 cents an ounce (which doesn’t sound like much until you buy a case of Coke) mean that the city really DOES want us to move away? Z is not happy and is now considering the merits of life in Indiana where no government officials pretend to care that much about your health.
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Not pictured: Z, weeping

  • Why do I think every year that a new planning system—no matter how intuitive and inspiring—is going to make me a better person? It hasn’t yet, but hope springs eternal, I guess. When I told Z that I was getting a Panda Planner he laughed out loud. He knows that by March—despite my best laid plans—I won’t be able to find it because it will be hiding in the recesses of a bag I quit carrying in February. (The joke may be on him this year, however, because I brought the bright “cyan” for an extra $4 and it might be more difficult to lose.)
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Precious.

Periodically, Jane and I have discussions about who’s more introverted. This isn’t really a contest because being Most Introverted does not come with a crown or prize money. Despite the likelihood that Jane IS more introverted than I am, she will keep getting herself embroiled in book clubs and social groups that make me feel twitchy when I imagine signing up for something similar. All those people you don’t know, asking boring things like “what do you do for a living?” and “have you read All the Light We Cannot See yet?” (as if not reading it is not an option). But then when I do something like invite near-strangers to stay with us for a week, it’s hard not to argue that I am perhaps slightly less introverted than Jane.

 

Last week I read an article in Irish Central about an Irish woman living in America who has started an immigration awareness campaign of creating buttons for people to wear that say things like “I am an immigrant” and “I’m the daughter of an immigrant.” I liked the idea of this—a sort of political performance art that makes folks recognize that more of the people they pass on the street have connections to immigrants than they realize. So I found her on Facebook to see how I might get one of these buttons for myself since I’ve a real live immigrant sleeping in my bed, and I promptly discovered she lives in Seattle. We messaged back and forth and made tentative plans to get together for drinks because I love Ireland and she and her husband are fond of Zimbabweans.

 

I had to admit to Jane that this is a real conundrum of my life: that I supposedly love being alone and value quiet, chat-free expanses of time so I can live in my own head without interruption, but then I talk to a new person and realize my solitary life behind the walls of my imagination is not enough. Maybe I’m an introverted extrovert. Or vice versa. I need other people—people dissimilar to me sometimes—to make life richer, more intriguing, more thought provoking. It’s one of those things that makes me glad I’m in this city on the edge of a country that—despite everything—still recognizes that it’s richer because of its diversity, not in spite of it.

 

God bless us every one.

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FYI: Immigrant Awareness on Facebook can hook you up with your very own button

 

Hope Wrapped in Plastic

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At this moment, my writing studio has been overrun by men in hi-viz construction garb who are installing supports in the apartment above ours to earthquake proof the building. Or, more precisely, to fix a bad earthquake proofing that happened a few years ago. It’s frustrating when you live in 900 square feet and are told you have to move all of your earthly possessions five feet from the south wall and five feet from the west wall. And when you are booklovers, it is possibly worse.

 

I spent last weekend moving the hundreds of books I own and love and the hundreds more I own and have never read. They are now in unreachable piles, covered by a plastic tarp, while sawing and hammering make them jump.

 

When will this fresh hell be done?

 

Oh, they can’t tell us. It could be by the end of the week or it could be in two months. It just depends on how the work goes in the apartment above. And based on a conversation I overheard (while eavesdropping and peering out the peephole), there is some worrisome shaking in the apartment above or below, so it’s possible that when I get back tonight all of our belongings will be living in the apartment underneath ours.

 

Added fun: we can’t be in the apartment from 9 to 5, which would be fine if I didn’t work from home, but I do, and so it’s hard not to feel put-upon and a little homeless. And in case you are wondering, no, no we don’t get a reduction in rent for our inconvenience. We’re getting a “gift certificate” for our trouble, which we’re pretty sure will be a $10 card to Starbucks, and neither of us drinks coffee. When we complained about this injustice, we were sent a copy of the contract we signed years ago at which point we agreed easily to this arrangement because we were imagining “maintenance” as “person in your apartment for twenty minutes trying to fix leaky pipe” not “gang of workers cranking up your heat and reducing your square footage while you are cast outside.”

 

There are worse things in the world, and we both recognize that people who live in their own houses also occasionally have to put up with tarps and construction dust and strange men peeing in their toilets. A friend of mine just found out part of her house is sinking and will have to be jacked up, for instance.

 

But when you rent, it feels a little like you don’t have control over your life. You realize this space you call home isn’t really yours at all, and the owners could boot you out on a whim in order to raze the building to erect a 30-story condo on the site.

 

When I first got out of college, I had a job I loathed at a public library. I thought I’d love it, because books, but instead, every morning when I shut the door on the free world and trudged to the front desk, a little part of me died inside. Patrons yelled at me when they couldn’t get their hands on the latest John Grisham book immediately, books were returned smelling foul (and forever changed how I feel about getting books out of the public library, hence the large collection of books I had to move from my south and west walls this weekend), and it was mind-numbingly boring because we weren’t allowed to read at the front desk during slow periods. Because it wouldn’t look “professional.” In a library. Reading. In a library.

 

Also, my immediate supervisor had some mental health issues that unfortunately took their toll on us as well as her. We were sympathetic to her condition, but when her chemistry was off-kilter, we all suffered. On her best days, she was a control freak, but it was magnified a thousand fold when she was not. The worst day I remember was an early morning staff meeting she’d called to tell us about her new policy on vacation days. We could ask for them, we could be granted them, but if there was a staffing emergency, we could be called in and must immediately abandon our free-time plans. Like we were ER nurses. We could be at the airport ready to fly off to Bora Bora, and if there was a need at the circulation desk, too bad.

 

We were outraged but also felt powerless. Jobs were not easy to come by right then, most of us were at the library because we were uniquely unqualified for other types of non-bookish work. We whined and kvetched and slammed books onto the re-shelving carts, but mostly what we felt was that we had no control over our own lives. We were at the mercy of the forces of the universe and our micro-managing boss with the super tight penmanship.

 

Not long after this incident, I decided to go to graduate school. My mother was worried that I was giving up a job with a paycheck for not-a-job-and-debt, but I knew if I spent much more time in that place, bad things would happen to my head and my heart.

 

So that’s where Z and I are right now. We’d like to flounce off and announce Cartman style, “Screw you guys! We’re going home!” Except this is home and by the time we might find another one we can afford in America’s 3rd most expensive city, the flounce will have lost its dramatic effect.

 

Also, in light of world events, what we have going on here is a hangnail. So I’ll just stop whining now. At least about that.

 

Here’s something else that is concerning.

 

Though I’d vowed never to take another stupid online quiz like “What Hogwart’s House Do You Belong In?” or “What’s Your Power Animal?” (I can answer both of these with no test: Ravenclaw and Indiana Box Turtle), a former student posted a link to the “What Murderous Villain Are You?” quiz, and I was drawn to it for reasons I can’t explain. The quiz itself seemed to be a semi-legit personality test with thoughtful questions and I gave thoughtful answers, and so I was fully expecting to discover I am most like some socialist/communist folk-hero-turned-bad-by-power-and-greed. Somehow, that seemed a tolerable sort of “murderous villain” to be—one who had originally imagined a world where people were equal and working together for the greater good before the corruption and mass executions and full-time-wearing-of-fatigues commenced. I could rationalize that this would not be a bad comparison. I could imagine a world in which given the chance to be a dictator, I’d be a benevolent one.

 

But then I pressed “send” and the computer spun its little wheel for several seconds before giving me my result.

 

 

Hitler.

 

Granted, there was no way I was going to “win” this game. Even if I’d given Mother- Theresa-style answers on every question, I was still going to end up with a murderous villain dopplegänger.

 

But Hitler? You don’t really get worse than that one. It’s not a piece of party trivia you can pull out, like announcing to people you just met that you and Richard Nixon are both Capricorns or that the wife of Jim Jones—the Kool-Aid-making lunatic who killed his followers in Guyana in the 1970s—was from your home town. If you have any connections to Hitler, you keep them to yourself. (Unless, of course, you don’t, but that’s a whole other faction of humanity I don’t particularly want to identify with, thanks.)

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And look at that chart. Just look. According to the experts at Individual Differences Research Labs, I’m only slightly more warm-hearted than Hitler. I never imagined him any amount of warm-hearted, did you? And I’m more brooding. In fact, I’m off the charts with the brooding.

 

Oh dear. I’ve got to go brood about this.

 

I was so disturbed by the results of this test that I took another one at IDR Labs based on the Big 5 personality test that not only tells you your personality but also shows you which president you most align with. On this test, I got Thomas Jefferson, which I was okay with. Yes, he made some dubious moral choices, but it was a different time, I told myself (my white self). He loved books, he was a Renaissance man, I could picture myself easily living at Monticello with him and being happy while he tinkered in the other room with his inventions.

 

But according to the breakdown of this test, Thomas Jefferson was more conscientious than I am and he had slaves. Human people he actually owned (to say nothing of Sally Hemmings, who wasn’t free to say “no”). How? How was he more conscientious than I am? Me, who is not complaining to the building manager about our current living conditions because I know it isn’t her fault, she just works here.

 

You might want to take this opportunity to consider whether you want to keep reading a blog written by a woman who has similar psychological make-up to Hitler and America’s most famous presidential slave owner. (See how conscientious I am, warning you off?)

 

Speaking of dictators and people with poorly-functioning moral compasses….

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Photo credit: _The Telegraph_

 

 

If you’d asked me in 1982 what the likelihood was that I’d marry a man whose home country was in the midst of a not-a-coup coup, I’d have laughed in your face. The odds of  even meeting someone whose home country is coup-inclined in Richmond, Indiana, are not high. And yet there I was two weeks ago, watching social media with a weird mixture of hope and concern for our people in Zimbabwe (and for Z who would soon be headed to Zimbabwe for the holidays) and watching Z watching the remarkable news from Harare as it unfolded.

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That’s not just a car ride to Cincinnati.

Also, I have to tell you, until you are married to someone whose home country is on the verge of a bloodless revolution, you have no idea how truly tedious and self-absorbed the U.S. news outlets are. We were searching frantically for any information from a trusted news source, but instead they were re-hashing various sex scandals in U.S. politics over and over and completely unaware or uninterested that the world had shifted on its axis south of the equator and across the Atlantic. We finally gave up and relied exclusively on social media and texts from friends and family “on the ground.”

 

I loved the look on Z’s face while he watched fellow Zimbabweans in the streets of Harare as they draped themselves in flags and danced and sang. He was leaning forward towards the screen with a smile, clicking between different sites to see what the latest was. Shaking his head in disbelief.

 

If he could have teleported to Zim, I’d have been sitting on the sofa by myself. But the truth is, I wanted to teleport with him. I wanted to see in the flesh those people  draped in flags, dancing in the street, hugging each other regardless of race or political affiliation. It was heady.

 

It has been a weird year for me. For us. We’d never protested before in our lives, and yet for the last 12 months we’ve been more politically active than the all the other years of our lives combined—we’ve marched, spoken up, altered behavior, discussed things we never imagined needing to discuss like what we might  do if Z isn’t allowed to live in America anymore, and so on. Z does it because he says he’s not letting what happened in his home country happen in his adopted one. I do it because I believe in the idea of America, and right now, America is falling short of its own idea of itself. But also, we both do it because this is the only control we have: what we do with our own bodies, our own behavior, our own vote (or at least my vote since Z is not yet eligible).

 

What a weird sort of synchronicity that our year of protest wrapped up with a march we were too far away to participate in, so we had to just sit on the sofa and watch. Z dragged out his Zimbabwean flag and hung it in our front window, and that night we had friends over and he cooked a traditional Zimbabwean meal (Huku ne Dovi, sadza, muriwo and also garlic rosemary chicken for me because I am picky and not that adventurous), and we warmed ourselves with hope for better tomorrows everywhere.

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Little 3rd Grade Classroom on the Prairie

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Future tree-ring counters: me, Mrs. Turner, Cher-a-lyn Ford, Kevin Mathews (Photo from The Palladium-Item)

 

I was an introverted only child with high sensitivities, so everything about elementary school disagreed with me. I hated the noise, the feel of the cheap gritty brown paper we had to draw on, using the lockless bathroom at the back of the classroom where any unthinking dolt might ignore the octagonal sign that I’d flipped from “go” to “STOP” thus flinging the door open to expose me sitting there on the child-sized porcelain. I hated the near daily lectures about how badly behaved “we” were, and worse, the moment when the teacher would inevitably flip off the lights and snarl “BURY THEM!” and we were meant to not only put our heads on our desks but hide our (horrible, badly behaved) faces in our arms. (I spent those ten to twenty minutes each time it happened wondering a) if the teacher realized I was good and not one of the criminals in question b) if legal intervention could be used to right the injustice of all of us being punished because of one or two bad eggs and c) if it was possible to suffocate from having your nose buried in your own elbow crease.) I hated the smells in the cafeteria, the smell of the paste in the big jar, and the smell of the red rubber ball as it smacked into my face when we played Dodge Ball. There was much to hate.

 

In the mornings, Mom would have to work hard to cajole me out of bed. On more than one morning, she dressed me as I performed what I now recognize as the passive resistance moves people use when cops are trying to drag them away from a protest. Some mornings I would whine, “Why do I have to go?” I felt I wasn’t learning anything she hadn’t already taught me or that I wasn’t gleaning from the stack of library books on my nightstand. School seemed stupid and I didn’t mind groaning about it before 8 a.m. I probably deserved a swat on the backside or the pursed lips of disapproval, but instead, Mom would good naturedly answer my tedious query with, “Because you’re the principal.”

 

Good Lord, elementary school was boring. Aside from the things I outright hated, it was so repetitious and slow. I’d leave every day with a Little House book tucked under my arm so I could disappear into Laura’s pioneer life as soon as I finished my assignments, and if I didn’t have my nose buried in a book then I was staring out the window wishing for the sweet release from my incarceration when the final bell rang. I could draw from memory the views from each classroom because everything on the other side of the glass looked so much sweeter and alive than anything that was happening inside the four cinder block walls of my various classrooms.

 

But then third grade happened. Jessie Turner was my teacher that year at Finley Elementary, and suddenly Mom didn’t have to try to jam my uncooperative foot into a sock because I was up, washed, dressed, and ready to go before she’d had time to get ready herself. What a glorious year that was.

 

Since Mom called me to tell me a few weeks ago that Mrs. Turner had died, I’ve been thinking a lot about her and the classroom she created and what magic she wrought that made 1975-1976 the best academic year of my life and shaped the person I wanted to become. I can’t separate the individual from her classroom environment or from her lessons, but what I do know is that it was evident she was enthusiastic about her job, invested in her students, treated us like humans, allowed for zero dull moments, and required only that we be kind and curious. I can’t remember a single instance when we were barked at to bury our heads or treated like miniature convicts. On the very worst day—one of our members had decided to cut the strings on the loom where we were learning how to weave, thus ruining our joint tapestry—she sat at the front of the room, not looking up at us, fiddling with a book in front of her with tears visible in her clear, blue eyes, and said, voice cracking, how disappointed she was. Though I hadn’t been the guilty party, I wanted to throw myself at her feet and apologize, and I suspect the rest of my classmates felt the same because we were subdued for the rest of the day. Having disappointed her mattered to us because she mattered to us.

 

 

Mrs. Turner’s classroom was a study in stimulation. The walls were filled with posters, artwork, handicrafts, charts. There were a series of “stations” lining the room where we would read or weave or investigate the caterpillar that nibbled on leaves while we waited for it spin its cocoon. She rarely sat, but if she did, it was in front of us—not behind her desk to keep herself protected—but at a long, low table on which were piles of books and magazines and a mesh cage that contained a praying mantis and the egg mass we were waiting to see hatch. There wasn’t a spot in the room where our eyes would land on a blank space. I never had an urge to stare out the window and wish I were free while I was her student because we were so busy inside those walls.

 

She was never hemmed in by those walls either and saw the classroom not as a physical space. She frequently took us outside, marched us around the neighborhood—the oldest one in Richmond—and showed us living history: a side street where bricks hadn’t been covered with pavement, the star brick sidewalks that had been there for over a century, the old street names (Market & Marion) embedded on the corner of a house from a time before the streets had been boringly renamed 6th and C and those names written on ugly green signs on poles. She walked us past the old German cottages and Italianate houses and had us count out every seventh row of short bricks to help us identify buildings from a certain time period. She taught us to read and draw maps that we carried with us, and when we weren’t having history lessons, we were observing insects, wildlife, learning to count the rings of a tree trunk, and then expected to speculate about what might have been going on in the world when we got to that centermost ring where the tree had begun its life. She took the entire class to Camp Clements and there we hiked and made dioramas and had a campfire before falling into damp sleeping bags on stiff bunks. It is, perhaps, the only time in my childhood when I wasn’t homesick on an overnight, and I suspect that is because I was too busy to realize I missed my own bed. Plus, why would you want to make yourself miserable when you were so happy to be in Mrs. Turner’s presence?

 

My Little House long-dress-and-sunbonnet-wearing dreams were fulfilled because it was America’s Bicentennial. I regularly went to class decked out like Laura Ingalls Wilder (missing the irony that Laura hated her sunbonnet and would have never voluntarily worn one). In addition to our regular studies and the nature studies Mrs. Turner included in our curriculum—we did a host of activities to celebrate America’s birthday. We wove on a loom. We ground corn on a Native American grinding stone borrowed from the museum (and, sadly, returned broken because of too vigorous grinding) and then made cornbread after our hard work, which we slathered with butter we had churned. We carded wool, learned about spinning, and made nine-patch quilts. At her insistence, we memorized a poem called “Indian Children” that forced us to think about who had lived where we were now—and she told us when we were 50 we would still remember it. (It is the only poem I’ve ever memorized and she was right, I can still recite it.) She made me keep my first journal and taught me how to bend language to my will in order to create a cinquain (a sort of elementary-friendly haiku) that instilled in me a love of puzzling out the best words to use and where to use them.

 

She was a whirlwind in the classroom, moving from one space to the next in a cloud of the eucalyptus cough drops she sucked, and we were sucked into her vortex. We followed her where she went and had little opportunity to let our minds wander.

 

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Mrs. Turner as I knew her and in her youth, looking all Sundance-y!

At her memorial service, I was looking at old photographs of her and realized my fascination with the women of the Sundance Catalog likely stems from her influence 40 years ago. Though she wasn’t inclined to prairie skirts and cowboy boots, she dressed like a woman who, if she hadn’t been teaching 3rd graders the importance of ecology in east central Indiana, would have been hiking in the mountains or investigating cacti on some mesa somewhere. She was often in pants and shoes that wouldn’t hinder trekking, maybe a vest, and she regularly had on turquoise jewelry, which looked exactly right on her.

 

I was particularly entranced by the synchronicity that surrounded a silver ring she wore on her finger because it bore her initials; she explained one day that it had belonged to a good friend who had had the same initials until she got married, and then the ring made it’s way to Mrs. Turner. (I was so entranced by the meaning of that ring—the initials, the connection to another—that the following year I wore a ring with an “M” on it that I’d found in a bag of junk jewelry that someone else was casting off. I was, apparently, a weirdo even as a child as there was no “M”, lowercase or uppercase, in my name, but I wore the ring happily, and determined that I’d marry a man with an “M.” While I don’t think I chose Z because his surname begins with an M, it does make me feel a little 10-year-old-girl giddy that a ring I haven’t seen in years was prophetic. That’s nearly as good as having a friend with your initials share her ring with you.)

 

Mrs. Turner shared herself with us. She told us about the year she and her husband and children had lived in Alaska, how they’d have to bring the car battery into the house at night if they had any hope of the car starting in the morning, how beautiful and cold and empty it was. She spoke of the Eskimo people there and brought in a pair of goggles made from caribou hooves or antlers with tiny slits used to prevent snow blindness. She told us about the children’s novel her husband had written, The King Bear, about a boy growing up on a homestead in Alaska, and she lent me a copy so I could read it myself. I was in awe: an actual human person I knew married to a real live author. She talked about her children, talked about her childhood, told us about the wider world. One day she told us about the years when she and her family had lived in the mountains of Colorado, how beautiful it was, how much it meant to her, but how she wasn’t sure—again, her eyes damp, her voice cracking—that she would ever want to see it again because so many people were moving there and ruining that natural world she loved so much.

 

I’m not sure if before 3rd grade I’d ever been allowed to see my teachers as humans with loves and frailties, but it made a tremendous impact on me, and affected the way I saw the world. Made me notice when some of my less exotic bits of Indiana were bulldozed for parking lots, made me long to see distant places like Alaska and know more about people past and present from all walks of life.

 

She was the most compassionate teacher I had in elementary school. She saw us all as individuals and tried to meet our needs. In the spring, we wove baskets and she encouraged us to give them to our parents for Easter, but my parents were divorced, so she let me weave a second so I didn’t have to choose. One day she had gotten to the chapter in By the Shores of Silver Lake in which Laura’s bulldog Jack dies, and she asked me if I would read it to the class for her because the dog’s death upset her. I sat at her place at the long, low table, read solemnly and considered for the first time the possibility that though I was an introvert, it actually felt good to be at the front of a classroom. She recognized that a few of us needed more stimulation, and so she gave us tasks to perform: backdrops for the Christmas pageant that needed painting, seasonal decorating for the showcase window by the door, a play based on one of the Little House books (written, directed, and starring yours truly). There were other activities custom crafted for students with other likes and talents too, and I don’t think a single one of us felt ignored or left out. We trusted her because we knew she had our best interests at heart.

 

She was inspiring and we were inspired. Because she treated us with respect and expected us to be interested in the world around us, we (mostly) were respectful and interested. I left her classroom wanting to be a teacher, wanting to write, wanting to study history, and wanting to be as curious about the world as she was daily.

 

I was lucky in that my mother worked for the school system and so Mrs. Turner wasn’t lost to me completely the day I left her classroom. Though I didn’t see her with any regularity afterward, there were occasions when I’d be lucky enough to re-enter her orbit. In particular, I remember a visit to the beautiful brick Federal where she lived and as soon as I walked into it I was inspired because it was filled with bits and pieces of things that were of interest to her and her family. There were items I recognized as things she’d brought in to share with the class (those Alaskan snow goggles!) but also books, antiques, old family photos, an abandoned hornet’s nest. Her house was like her classroom with the added bonus of a ghost named Lydia who occasionally wreaked havoc. I closed my eyes and tried to soak up Lydia’s vibes, but couldn’t keep them closed because there was so much to see, so much I wanted to remember. Like her classroom, I felt charged by her living space. It was electric with ideas, with history, with feeling.

 

Though I hadn’t seen her for ages, when I got engaged eight years ago, I knew I wanted her at the wedding so I sent off an invitation. It was a cold December evening, she was now walking with a cane, and I can only imagine there were other ways she would have preferred spending a Saturday night, but she had her daughter bring her and the night was all the happier for her presence. I was glad, too, that she got to meet Z.

 

That’s the kind of teacher she was: one who would come to your wedding 33 years after you were her student and make you feel like your life event—your happiness—mattered deeply to her. Still.

 

My senior year of high school after friends and I had gone to see The Breakfast Club we suggested to a teacher there who was in charge of the National Honor Society that she should see the movie because it explained so well what it felt like to be a teenager in the 1980s. She shook her head, visibly cowered, and said, “Oh, no. I wouldn’t want to have to see that. I don’t want to know.” My public school education was adequate. I had other excellent teachers who shaped my worldview and inspired me, a couple of whom I stay in touch with and consider friends. But during the thirteen years I was in school, I had more teachers like the one who visibly shrank at the idea of having to understand her students better. They wore armor to protect themselves from us. They coasted through class sessions so they could get to the after-school coaching gigs that had drawn them to teaching in the first place. They saw us as would-be criminals who had to be contained, herded, de-toothed. We were a generation that was not delighted in. Many of them just wanted us to bury our heads so they wouldn’t have to look at us, see our faces, recognize us as individuals.

 

But not Jessie Turner.

 

She changed my life. I’m sure she changed more than mine. While I wouldn’t want to paint my little elementary school as bad or rough, we were—most all of us—poor. Of the elementary schools in Richmond, mine would have been one with more kids on free lunch, more kids that experts would predict would end up incarcerated because of “statistics,” more kids who weren’t going to be on track for college, more kids who no one expected to amount to much. If she saw us that way, she didn’t let on. For that single, glorious year, we were important and we were treated as if we were the same as everyone else.

 

Though I wouldn’t like to call it luck because the lucky thing would have been if she’d lived another 86 years, I was relieved that her memorial service happened to fall at a time when I was back home in Indiana so I was able to go, able to say goodbye, to introduce myself to her family and tell them what they already knew: how special she was, how much she mattered, what a difference she made to all of us. I loved looking at the photos from her life, reading a snippet from a journal that her children had put out, seeing a quilt students had made with messages written on it about how she’d changed their lives too. There was even a letter I’d written her twenty years ago out on a table for the world to read. It was a thank you that I’d written after an exercise in The Artist’s Way had forced me to name the person—outside of family—who had shaped me most. In the funeral home, the Bee Gees were playing in the background. There were flowers, balloons, bubbles. It felt like she was there and I could see her in her children. Certainly, she should have been there, celebrating and being celebrated.

 

A few days before the memorial service, I had lunch with C, a favorite former student of mine, whom I hadn’t seen for ten years. I recognized on the first day of her first class with me that C was different. Her energy and enthusiasm were catching. The world and the people in it fascinated her and she was hungry to gobble up all the knowledge she could. Now, she’s ten years deep into being a public school teacher. She’s done some inspiring things with students to get them to give back to the community, to the world at large, to respect people who are just like them but different.

 

Our lunch was a sort of lovefest. We both have great appreciation for each other, so we sat there laughing, eyes getting damp as we tried to express gratitude, faces red with embarrassment and heads shaking off praise heaped on by the other. The truth is, I am in awe of C. She is the kind of teacher I dreamed of being but don’t have quite enough energy or complete lack of cynicism to be. Even so, she insisted that she was inspired in my class, that she learned a lot, that she tortures her students with things I taught her or nuggets of information I passed on to her. It was humbling, and I don’t record it here to toot my own horn. I’m a good teacher. I can own that. But I’m not great. I’m not the teacher I planned to be back in third grade when I was learning at the feet of the master. I am plagued with demons of self-doubt, procrastination, discombobulated thinking on any given day. My lesson plans are as likely to be written on the back of an envelope as in a notebook and there will never be PowerPoint slides to accompany a lecture. It is unlikely that I’ll ever dedicate my free time to ushering students around on field trips or to conferences or to perform public service. I would never take them camping. I’ve got limitations.

 

Before meeting her end on the Space Shuttle Challenger, the teacher Christa McAuliffe said, “I touch the future. I teach.” Because she was so publicly and heroically dead, I didn’t roll my eyes like I wanted to the first time I read that line. It seems like something that is so full of itself that it should be too embarrassing to think let alone cross-stitch on and hang above your desk. I would certainly never say it about myself. In retrospect though, I suspect I was applying it to the average teachers I’d had. The ones who inspired me only to be good and get my homework in on time because I didn’t want to be hollered at. When I read McAuliffe’s quote, I wasn’t thinking about the few stellar teachers I’d had.

 

I sure wasn’t thinking about Jessie Turner.

 

Here’s the thing: anything C was praising me for while we had lunch? That was some quality, some nugget of wisdom, some way of teaching that I learned from Mrs. Turner (or a teacher who came later who had her qualities and thus I flitted around like a moth). I didn’t become Mrs. Turner. I couldn’t. No one could. But whatever magic it is she worked back at Finley Elementary certainly helped me be a conduit so a few of my students could carry the best bits of her towards infinity.

 

How lucky are we?

 

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A Horse with No Name

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Ponygirl

Today, I came into my writing studio, cracked open my laptop and flexed my fingers, ready to roll. Yesterday, in my notebook, I’d jotted down a genius idea at the bottom of a list of things I’m thankful for and I was sure that genius idea was going to make the words flow at record speed. I scrolled down the list anxious to be reminded of what had inspired me and made me feel so confident. Those words:

 

Horses aren’t arbitrary.

 

Well, that was disappointing. I thought it was something better than that. Something that maybe actually made sense.

 

I am not a horsey person. I read one horse book when my adolescent friends were six books deep in that series about the wild horses of Chincoteague. I inherited a ceramic horse collection from someone who had outgrown it, but I never went through a horse phase like a lot of girls do, unless you count my beloved rocking horse, Charger, who betrayed me by getting too small to ride.

 

I’ve ridden exactly one non-plastic horse, a pony really, and I did not feel like we were of one mind. I did not feel whatever it is that horse people feel. The view was nice and I wished I had one, but that was largely about transportation because I was six and a horse could take me anywhere I wanted to go.

 

What a horse could not do, however, was make itself comfortable in a one-bedroom upstairs apartment.

 

I’m in awe of people who ride horses regularly the way I’m in awe of people who ski. It looks like fun at some level, but skis and horses have always struck me as situations you only think you have control over, and so I’ve given both a miss. Life is precarious enough in my mind without me putting my body on something that could gallop me over a cliff or skid me into a pine tree.

 

For these reasons, I don’t think of horses as metaphors when I’m writing because they mostly just aren’t in my consciousness. They’re lovely and powerful and I like the way they smell when I have occasion to smell them once every five years when I find myself in the horse barn at the Great Darke County Fair. But I’m more of a dog and cow person. Maybe a monkey person if I’ve had caffeine.

Not a horse. (Also, not my dog.)

Not a horse. (Also, not my dog.)

My first cousin once removed would ride her horse from her parents’ farmhouse down to my great-grandmother’s when I was a kid, and it seemed to me, the equivalent of Glinda the Good Witch of the North arriving in her giant Oz bubble. It was the stuff of fairy tales—much more magical than my boy cousins driving up the gravel road in a motorized child-sized car (also amazing, but incomparable). We played hide and seek once and none of us could find Carol because she was hiding in the barn with her horse. Perhaps it was shadowy enough to keep her hidden in that old barn that leaned so far to the south that it had to be propped up with a pole (we were warned repeatedly not to go into it and repeatedly we went in anyway), but I think it was something else. Carol and her horse were like one entity. We could not find Carol because there was just one creature in that barn and it was “horse.”

 

Around the same time, a friend of a friend told me the sad story of having to say goodbye to her horse. (She was moving or the horse had to move, the specifics I have forgotten, though—because she was a rare creature like I was in the early 1970s, which is to say a child of divorce—I blamed her loss of horse on her parents’ failed marriage). Her horse was long gone when I met her, yet she spoke of how on the last day with it, she sat in the saddle wearing some special riding hat, maybe covered in flowers, and her friends stood around her and sang. Her longing for the horse was still palpable. It’s been decades since this vicarious heartbreak, but still, I imagine her there, sitting on a horse I never met, weeping because her other half was taken from her.

 

Leibovitz recently did a photo shoot with her beautiful 16-year-old daughter in a beautiful, ethereal dress on a beautiful chestnut horse. Though it pained me to see Baby Leibovitz looking all grown up, it pleased me more to see her—at this age, as she’s just figuring herself out—on one of the horses she’s loved since she was a  tiny girl and she was looking very much herself.

 

Also, I just watched a Martin Clunes documentary on heavy horses (watched largely because I like Martin Clunes and not because of the horses), so I can only assume this “genius” phrase of mine was inspired by these two recent equine-related occurrences—a photo of a favorite kid and a documentary narrated by “Doc Martin”—but goodness knows what I thought I’d do with Horses aren’t arbitrary when I wrote it down. It doesn’t really inspire the Great American Novel. And clearly “blog about horses” isn’t even possible since right now I’ve said all I have to say about horses and we haven’t moseyed down the trail towards anything close to a point.

 

Okay. Here’s a point.

 

I’m stuck. My non blog-writing has been refusing to shape itself into anything resembling coherence. I sit (sometimes) at my gorgeous desk with my city view surrounded by all of my helpful books about writing and other books full of writing that inspires me, and yet I am stuck.

 

Also, there is a perpetual reel of conversation in my head (maybe you’ve noticed) of how I miss home and the city makes me nuts, but then when I consider leaving the Pacific Northwest, I feel unhappy too. Leave this weather and Puget Sound and the mostly snow capped mountains? Why would someone want to do that? I’m zinging between wildly happy (Z inspired, largely, though I’ve read some good books, written chunks of things that please me, and just discovered that Mom has the doctor’s thumbs-up for a visit to us) and angry and/or weepy. (Last week I yelled at a total stranger who was walking like a sloth while reading her phone, serpentining along the sidewalk in such a way that no one could get around her. Her obliviousness enraged me and made me feel trapped, so I growled as I finally stormed past her, “Either walk or read your damn phone!” Z just laughed at me. The woman passed us further up the street, still seemingly oblivious, but her phone had been tucked away. I am not a yeller at strangers unless I’m in my car with the windows rolled up tightly. Yelling is not the Midwestern way! The city is turning me into an animal!)

 

I spend too much time looking backward instead of forward even though if you asked me (you’re asking, right?) I would tell you that this moment right now and the moments surrounding it are absolutely the happiest period of my life.

 

Also, fall is approaching. I’m three years out of teaching. While I don’t miss lecturing, obsessive faculty meetings, or some administrators who will remain perpetually in my Little Book of Hate, I miss my students. God I miss them. I miss talking to them about their writing and how to make it sing. I miss watching them take some truly deplorable crap and sculpt it into something beautiful. I miss them popping into my office to talk about their ideas or ask for advice. I miss hearing their thoughts about some piece of literature, telling them mine, and all of us seeing the text in a new way. I miss recognizing people in some other major during  first year comp and knowing they were meant to be in my classes, and then later having the satisfaction of them stopping by my office to say they’re thinking of switching majors to English. And later still, seeing them in their last semester, finishing up a creative writing portfolio or an Honors Thesis that exceeds both of our expectations. I even miss having those dreaded conversations during advising sessions about the uselessness/utility of an English degree.

 

My first and favorite office.

My first and favorite office.

In short, I don’t really know who or what I am these days. It might be a midlife crisis. Or it could just be something I ate.I’ve always been better at knowing what I’m not than I have been at knowing what I am.

 

Things I know I am not:

  • inclined to work with numbers, in sales, or with bodily fluids
  • an extrovert, an athlete, or a savant
  • a lover of noise, reptiles, or clowns
  • likely to eat vegetables, follow trends, or brush my hair on the regular

 

So that’s where I’m starting.

 

It occurs to me that the reason I’ve remembered these horsey stories for forty years is not because I particularly wanted a horse myself, nor is it because I wanted to be like my idol mystery-solver/horseback riding heroine, Trixie Belden. I don’t even want to climb upon a horse for a photo op (largely because I’m unsure that horses really want to be climbed upon in the first place).

 

No. The reason I can still see my cousin on her horse or imagine the friend of a friend weeping on a horse I never met is because I quite liked the idea of being a horse girl.

 

Horse girls always know exactly what and who they are. Their heads are full of horses and there is no dissuading them or convincing them that an Irish Wolfhound is nearly as big and just as good. They love their horses so much they don’t mind mucking out a barn, swatting horse flies, or doing those 800 things you have to do to keep a horse happy and healthy (things I used to know when I was reading Trixie Belden). There’s no question there. They want to be on the back of a horse, or standing next to a horse with curry comb, or in a house that is adjacent to a barn in which a horse resides.

 

Even now, when I run into my cousin at Meijer or see a Facebook post from that friend of my friend, the first thing I think: horse girl. And the second thing I think: I wish I knew myself as well as you always have.

 

Horses aren’t arbitrary.

Connemara Ponies, Renvyle, Ireland

Connemara Ponies, Renvyle, Ireland

 

Hoosier Ecclesiastes

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For the last ten weeks, I’ve been in Indiana, sleeping in the bedroom of my girlhood home while my mother recuperated from a stem cell transplant. It’s a pretty scary and significant medical ordeal if you are unfamiliar with it, but she was in good hands at IU Health in Indianapolis. The day my stepfather and I brought her home with her brand new immune system I felt like I got a teensy inkling of how nerve-wracking it must be to bring a baby home from the hospital for the first time. Everything seemed like a danger. I got on Facebook and threatened to taze anyone who stopped  to see her or even thought about breathing their germy breaths on her. I fielded all calls because she didn’t have the energy to answer. (A bath would require a two-hour nap afterward, so there was no bonus energy for entertaining even her favorite people.) I stayed away from everyone myself—even perfectly healthy friends—because I was afraid I’d catch some bug  and give it to Mom.

 

I did my best to assure her that she’d feel like herself again eventually—as the doctors had promised—even though I had absolutely no idea what I was talking about and Mom clearly knew it. Also, the Domestic Arts are not really in my skill set. I rubbed all knobs and switches with antibacterial wipes as if I were sprinkling the house with holy water. I had to try to figure out what food would taste good to her, and then felt like a failure (but also slightly relieved because it required no cooking) that the main thing that she could tolerate was Cherry Garcia. There was the ER trip after she broke out in hives for no good reason and the ensuing fear that she was rejecting a platelet transfusion. There was the frustration of her not acting quite like herself—no interest in TV, in conversation, in reading—and worrying that my “real” mother would never come back. There was the night my step-dad ended up in the ER and then the hospital for a few days and I felt torn between which parental unit I should be with—there’s the true curse of the Only Child…there’s only the one of you to go around.

 

Then there was the date of my return ticket to Seattle at the end of three weeks and my sense of impending failure: what sort of daughter leaves her mother to answer her own phone, fend off visitors, and go to a germy grocery to buy her own Cherry Garcia? I’ve never completely come to terms with the normal guilt I feel from moving to the other side of the country, but now? Ugh. At night when when I was alone in the bedroom of my teens, I’d feel cranky with myself that when Z and I got engaged eight years ago I didn’t at any point think that I could say, “Yes, of course, I’ll marry you, but I’m not leaving Indiana. We’ll buy a house with more square footage than any apartment we could ever afford in Seattle and we’ll learn about things like caulking and lawn mowers together and I’ll teach you to hate Daylight Savings Time, appreciate Mellencamp lyrically,  and to be more tolerant of the 14-haired mustaches so popular here on  Hoosier youth.” But I didn’t say any of those things then, hence the post-transplant-impending-flight-back-to-Seattle frustration.

 

Fortunately, Z is always clever, thoughtful, and clairvoyant about my feelings. He called one night to say he thought I should stay in Indiana awhile longer and since his sabbatical would be starting soon, he’d join me for a few weeks in Indiana. (Right now we will not discuss the state of my feminism—weak, apparently—and how I needed him to make this decision instead of me making it for myself. I’ll save that for some later blog post when I’m feeling more self-fulfilled and we can all just laugh at silly, silly Beth and her inability to name the thing she wants. Ha ha ha. But let me tell you, there were tears.)

 

Z arrived and went with me on my regular trips to restock ice cream and we all watched reruns of “King of Queens” every night. Mom started to laugh more and to want to eat things not made by Ben and Jerry’s. After she got the okay from her oncologist, we’d go out for dinner and I quit looking at her as if she were a toddler about to put a bobby pin in a light socket. Z and I took a road trip to Minnesota to see a friend get married. I texted Mom photos of every state line we crossed, interesting roadside attractions, a church where Laura Ingalls Wilder attended, landscape photos so she and I could try to scientifically determine if the flatness of Iowa was equal-to-or-greater-than the flatness of northern Indiana. She seemed interested in the world. When we got back a week later, there was a massive stack of books next to the sofa; she’d read every one of them while Z and I were away. Suddenly, when we’d enter the room, she’d be peering into a book through the $1 bright green reading glasses we stuck, as a lark, in her Easter basket.

 

I don’t know how you parents do it—not crowing about every achievement your child has made—because I was telling complete strangers, “Mom is reading again!” while they looked at me with confusion. Seeing her stack of recently read books is one of the sweetest sights ever. She was back. I won’t say it made it easy to leave her a week later, but it definitely made it easier.

 

It was a weird trip home. One of those strange moments in time where great joys (a mother on the road to recovery, the announcement of a cousin’s new baby, good health news from Zimbabwe about Z-ma who had been living under a potentially very dark medical cloud, another family friend whose post-cancer surgery scan was all clear, young people counting down the days until their driver’s licenses/ graduations/weddings) bump up against terrible sadness. There was a lot of drama and loss in the local community while I was home, and it was not lost on me that while I got to leave on the happy note of a mother who was nearly herself again , some of my cousins were called in to be with their own mother who is critically ill.

 

It was two-and-a-half months full of all the things that make being human glorious and terrible.

 

So now I’m three days back in Seattle, and I’m suffering my usual culture shock. Monday morning I was lying in my old Indiana bed, looking out the window at the long shadows of the trees in the backyard that were stretching west towards a cornfield, listening to birdsong, and feeling amused by a cheeky cardinal who desperately wants in my parents’ house and hangs on the screen, peering in, flapping his wings. This morning in Seattle, I woke to the bus out front that idles there during rush hour, waiting to dump off a host of workers at the neighboring hospitals. Outside my screen, there’s been one domestic altercation, one woman weeping because something unfortunate happened to her backpack, and at least five sirens. And let me not forget the early morning leaf blowers because at some point cleaning the street and sidewalk with a near noiseless broom became passé and you apparently aren’t really cleaning anything if you don’t have a leafblower strapped to your back causing a racket before the more artistic types among the citizenry are ready to get out of bed (ahem). Since I’ve moved here, there’s never not the sound of traffic, dogs, humans. There’s never not something unfortunate in the street to step over: trash, dog crap, or someone passed out in a doorway. If a bird were tweeting here or pecking at the window, I’d never hear it.

 

This is not to say I hate the city. In a week or two, I might like it again. No doubt the next time I leave it, I’ll feel a little blue about being parted from its company.

 

But today is not that day, and the news that Prince just died—thus sealing the door on the vault of my youth forever—isn’t helping. Other people who knew the intricacies of His Purple Majesty’s guitar licks and the nuances of his lyrics will be writing about him for the next weeks with passion, but I was never more than a middling-level fan who knew his major hits, his full name, can quote a line or two from Purple Rain, believed his Super Bowl halftime show to be the best in memory, and who still feels happy if one of his songs comes on the radio. But I don’t deserve to say much about him because I haven’t put the time in. I never went to a concert. Never read an unofficial biography. Never really “got” his movies. Didn’t follow his Princetograms. I’m glad that his music was playing as part of the soundtrack of my life, and I’m glad that when I hear one of his less-played, more raunchy songs, I still get the devilish thrill I did when I was a teenager as I sing along, that I’m still waiting for my mother to say, “Beth Lynn!”

 

And I’m glad that I never go to a wedding without mentally finishing the officiant’s “Dearly beloved…” with Prince’s “we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”

An electric word, life.

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The Ill-Planned Grand Tour Part IX: The Final Chapter

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Renvyle sunrise

One of the advantages of being married to a Communication professor is that Z is a great communicator himself and an excellent interpreter and facilitator of other people’s communication. He’s not exactly psychic, but it’s close. I’ve never figured out exactly what he sees in my face or hears in my tone when I say, “Sure, we can have lunch at Jimmy Johns” but he seems to know by some bat of an eye or lower decibel to my voice that I’d rather eat almost anything than to eat one more Turkey Slim #4. We don’t argue. We never have to worry about going to bed mad because we aren’t ever mad at each other. (Hopefully, by writing this, I’m not jinxing us.) Our biggest sin against each other is the occasional loud sigh or growl when, say, I have to push in drawers he’s left open, or, say, when I insist I’m ready to go and then he has to wait another ten minutes while I look for my phone, my billfold, my shoes, my hat, my gloves, no-not-these-gloves-the-other-gloves before I’ll walk out the door. Home for us is peaceful and supportive (if not messy, with all the open drawers and cast-off gloves), and I feel lucky that we work like this.

 

Plus, it turns out if you aren’t hollering at each other all the time, it frees us up to talk about other things, like books or politics or current events or, a subject we spend a lot of time on that we like to call “what do you want for dinner? I don’t care. what do you want for dinner?”

 

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Grotto, Kylemore Abbey

When we started planning our Grand Tour last spring, it was fun and easy. One of us would toss up an idea and the other would say, “Sure! Why not!” And then it was time to plan Ireland. Suddenly he was looking at photos of cottages on HomeAway and getting figures for twelve-day stays, though he’d never been in Ireland and I had been there seven times. He wasn’t picking up on my “non-verbals” or maybe he was ignoring them. For weeks, he kept looking at one cottage in particular that was too close to Galway for my liking. (If I’m going to be close to Galway then I want to be IN Galway, not Galway adjacent, even if the cottage itself was adorable.) I felt frustrated that he wasn’t just handing the Irish reigns over to me since I was the expert and simultaneously like a spoiled only-child for wanting it exactly how I wanted it. As I remember it, there was no actual growling at each other, but I’d feel my eye twitch whenever he’d start poking around online looking for lodging and I knew he was about to turn my idea of our magical trip to Ireland into a lengthy stay in a holiday home that we could just as easily have had in the Pacific Northwest.

 

Finally, because he’s clever with the communicating, we talked about it, and because he’s reasonable, I didn’t have to purse my lips or go silent, as is my inclination. He compromised on the length we would stay in a cottage and where we would stay, and I struck the Dingle Peninsula, County Clare, and the Aran Islands off of my “must do” list. There was a certain reasonable-ness to his request that we spend more time in one place and not be constantly on the go that I had to agree with. Plus, if the cottage was a dud, I’d be out nothing myself having been to all of the places before and he wouldn’t know what he was missing anyhow.

 

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Ashleigh Falls, Connemara

As we leave Inishbofin for the last leg of this grand tour, I’m indifferent. Sea for Miles, the house we’ve rented in Renvyle, looks lovely in the photos and I’m sure we’ll have a nice time there, but it is Z’s dream of what he wants to do, not my dream of what I want him to do. Instead of the cottage, I have my sights set on the last Irish hurrah, our two nights with my cousin Mary and family, and a party across the road at my cousin Gerry’s. Sea for Miles will be fine, but I’m not getting my hopes up: HomeAway photos can be taken at deceptive angles with beauty-enhancing filters, and sometimes you find yourself in a cracker box that smells of someone else’s life.

 

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Kylemore Abbey

We load up the Galway Hooker, which was unmolested by man or donkey in our absence, and head north. Because I have a very Midwestern sense of space, I once again imagine we’ll be in the car for hours, but in about twenty minutes we’ve arrived at Tully Cross, which is our turn-off for the cottage. It’s too early to check in, so I suggest we drive further down the road to see Kylemore Abbey, a beautiful Benedictine Abbey that was originally a private stately home, built in the 1870s at the foot of Dúchruach Mountain, a spot where legend has it that the folk hero giants Fionn mac Cumhaill and Cú Chulainn once fought, tossing stones at each other.

 

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Kylemore Abbey church

I’ve been to Kylemore Abbey multiple times and though I love the way it looks from afar, the throngs of tourists lumbering out of tour busses always puts me off. Plus I go into full-on Irish Republican mode and get indignant about the Big Houses of Ireland oppressing the people yadda yadda yadda, as if it is still the early 1900s and I’m a scullery maid whose boyfriend is about to die fighting the long arm of colonialism. On this visit with Z though, it is so early in the morning that the tour buses haven’t rolled in yet. A mist hangs down from the mountains, and it feels as if we have the whole place to ourselves.

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Kylemore Abbey church interior

Since my last visit, the house is no longer a girls’ school and is in a bit of a transitional phase, but it has never looked lovelier. Because we aren’t being pushed and rushed by tourists on a schedule, I get to read all of the signs in the big house, admire the treasures therein, meander around the Victorian garden that is being restored to its original splendor, and saunter up the path to the miniature Gothic cathedral that the original owner had built when his wife died suddenly from malaria.

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Shamrock stonework inside the church

From the literature we’re handed with our tickets, I learn how much Mitchell Henry loved his wife, how much they loved their tenants, how much their guests loved visiting this splendid house, and later in its history after the Benedictine nuns turned it into a school, how much the girls who were students loved their time there. For the first time in 15 years’ worth of visits, the Abbey seems like a warm, happy place instead of a Brontë-esque misery.

 

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Kylemore Abbey Victorian Garden and Head Gardener’s House

After lunch and a gift shop stop, we wend our way back towards Tully Cross, through Tully itself, and along the coast as we look for Sea for Miles. The mountain range, called the Twelve Bens and Connemara National Park are in the background, and though we don’t see it, I know that Inishbofin is just around the bend in the road. When we spy the two-story castle ruin—again said to have been one of the pirate queen Grace O’Malley’s–we know we’re near our destination. Sea for Miles is not so much a cottage as a house, and it is fabulous. The owner built it as her own home but is currently teaching in Abu Dhabi while family members and a tenant in a small space where the garage would be watch after the property. It’s clear that the house is well-loved and cared for, as are the guests who stay there.

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Our home away from home

 

As soon as we walk in and see the three bedrooms, the gorgeous views, and the fresh hydrangeas that have been cut just for us, we feel disappointed that we didn’t invite someone to come along with us and share the bounty. Big picture windows in the living room and dining room look out at the Atlantic as it crashes against the coast. We can see neighboring Connemara ponies, the mountains in the distance, and later, when the sun starts to set, it hits the chapel at the top of Croagh Patrick, the mountain in County Mayo where pilgrims climb—sometimes barefoot—if they can work their way around the throngs of health nuts who race up and down the dangerous mountain using it as their personal training ground.

 

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A kitchen big enough for us to live in.

The owner’s mother comes over to greet us and we stand in the kitchen chatting, less about the workings of the house and more about the family and the weather and the beauty. She seems so nice and the view is so lovely that I feel badly that her daughter, Debbie, is living in Abu Dhabi instead of in her own house, though lucky for us that she is. Her mother gives me the sad news that Mrs. Murray on Inishbofin has died and reports that she saw the helicopter hovering over the island to either pick her up or to return her body, she’s not sure which. Though I’m sad for Mrs. Murray’s passing, I’m glad I am hearing the news when it is fresh and while I am in Ireland instead of reading about it three years from now online.

 

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Our neighbors, the Connemara ponies

Even though the house is lovely, I’m still not quite ready to concede that Z’s plan is a winner. I wonder if we’ll get bored over the next few days, sitting out here in the back of beyond. I gather up a stack of books from Debbie’s shelves and scan them. I jot some notes down for a blog. Z (ever hopeful that I’ll turn into the productive writer I sold myself as when he married me) sets up the ironing born at desk height in front of the living room window so I’ll have a place to write with a view. I like the idea of writing there daily and maybe doing a watercolor sketch, but I also feel as if I should be soaking in the views for later instead of sticking my nose into my computer. It’s a regular struggle with me. I write a blog, I paint a picture, I read half a book about Nell McCafferty, but mostly, when we are in the house, I stare out the window and think about what a lucky place this would be to live.

 

We unpack our bags and then walk down to the beach, hop on rocks and listen to the waves. We walk around Grace O’Malley’s tower and wonder at the 16th century engineering. The thickness of the walls is considerable, and we can just make out where the stairs would have been. I try to imagine the landscape Grace would have been seeing from her tower before there was the smattering of houses and barns, though it’s likely her eye was always trained on the sea.

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Living room view and neighbor.

 

While we’re in Renvyle, we drive through Connemara, visit Killary Harbor—a fjord where there is some controversial salmon farming taking place, we have picnics on the beach, and go on little errands into Tully Cross to buy groceries and stamps. On one of these trips, the post mistress asks where we’re staying and because I can’t remember Debbie’s name or the name of the house, I tell her I can’t remember but the owner is teaching in Abu Dhabi. “Oh, that’ll be Debbie’s place. Isn’t the view there lovely!” I’ve no idea why my heart quickens at this level of familiarity—that at home would no doubt make be feel completely spied upon and invaded, someone knowing my whereabouts or that my house is sitting empty while I’m on the other side of the world—but here it feels charming, and I love the connection, love that for these few days I have a (tenuous) connection to this place.

 

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Killary Harbor

In the evenings, Z cooks dinner and I clean up, realizing how much less cranky I am about my job when there is a dishwasher, a view, and the kitchen in question isn’t the size of half a postage stamp. We watch the sun until it sets and then turn on the TV, watch the news, some non-American TV, talk about the day.

On this trip, the Syrian refugee crisis that is on both the UK and Irish news every night is often a topic of discussion. While we’d been in London, the situation seemed particularly dire to me because the city already felt too crowded, yet the numbers of people pressing themselves against the safer borders of Western Europe had grown to critical mass. Over the course of the trip, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing the crisis, the impact it might have on Europe, and as I watch the disproportionate number of males to females headed west, I also worry about the women, when so many of the refugees appear to be mail. Plus, because Z and I have been dealing legally with the extensive hoops one must leap through to become a permanent resident in the U.S., my feelings about those who arrive in the country without following regular channels are complex and conflicted. When we turn the news off to watch Stephen Frye host the celebrity quiz show QI every night, it is a relief, but the day’s footage of refugees angry or terrified about their plight, still plays in my mind. It seems ludicrous that we can be enjoying our holiday when other people are so miserable.

 

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Near Killary Harbor

While Z and I are in this part of the world, I determine that he needs to see Doolough Pass. As we drive there, Z has to keep his eye firmly on the twisty road that hugs the water and is more likely to produce oncoming traffic in the form of sheep than car.

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Rush hour on the open road.

Though it is a sunny day as we make our way through the valley, there is something ominous about the way the rocky hills around us hug the water. It is a picturesque piece of the country but it feels desolate even as the sunlight plays off the mountains and water. Doolough, which means “black lake,” feels haunted. The first time I visited in 2001, I felt the sadness even before I knew about one of the more tragic Famine stories that happened here in 1849. Aside from the haunting, it is also magnetic. I have yet to make a trip to Connemara wherein I don’t feel an urge to make a pilgrimage to this spot.

 

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Doolough

The Famine itself—caused by both a blight on the potato crop (the staple meal of 90% of the Irish in this region) and by bad, colonial politics—left an estimated million Irish people dead and another million as emigrants. Because the powers that be didn’t want to hand out food relief to the undeserving, they required those who had less than a quarter acre of land on which to feed themselves, to come to Louisburgh for “inspection” to determine their suitability for assistance. However, when the already starving and tattered group got to Louisburgh, the men who were supposed to evaluate their need, had gone to Delphi Lodge, 12 miles to the south. The miserable crowd was instructed to get themselves to Delphi by the next morning. On the grueling walk there, people died along the road. It was cold, rainy, and the river was at flood level. When they did arrive in Delphi, they had to wait outside while those in charge finished their lunch before the relief would be distributed. Only the relief was not distributed and the group of people—in some estimates, over 400 men, women, and children—were sent back to Louisburgh with no promise of food, clothing, or aid of any kind. On the walk back, the storm kicked up and many of these people died—blown from cliffs, drowned in the lake, or they simply dropped from starvation. The number who died on this pointless journey varies wildly from 20 to 400, but regardless of the number, it had to have been a harrowing sight. Those who died were buried without ceremony in unmarked graves where they fell.

 

There are two markers here now to commemorate this tragedy, one of which has a quote from Gandhi: “How can men feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings?” Z and I stand at the other, plainer marker and take in the view, which is beautiful, but too horrible to enjoy. He says he feels a melancholy sensation here, but admits he isn’t sure if it’s because I’ve told him the story or if it’s something in the air. I wish I’d kept my mouth shut and just brought him here to see if he picked up on it, my own Zimbabwean ghost detector. I stand looking at the water and think about those huddled masses of people, making their way not once but twice through this valley, and I feel some shame that I can so easily churn up emotion for people whose suffering ended over a century and a half ago, but when we turn on the TV and I see the refugees, I allow myself to think pragmatically instead of compassionately. Though I want to say, “Yes, but these people who were so badly treated all those years ago were my people” I can’t come up with a good argument as to why they seem any more “mine” than people who are on the planet at this same moment as me, pushed out of their homeland by politics and hatred.

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It’s a relief to leave Doolough and its sadness, as we head back towards our temporary home in Renvyle. We stop at the grocery and fill the cart with more food than we have days left in Ireland to eat it. I’m mad for the Tayto crisps.

 

The next morning, I wake early and watch the sun come up, casting the mountains in silhouette for a time. I wonder what it would be like to wake every morning with a view like this instead of 9th Avenue and the sirens and yapping neighbor dogs and people hollering on the uneven sidewalk in front of our building. I’m overcome with a sense of friendly envy of the poets Ted and Annie Deppe, who taught my MFA summer residency in Ireland six years earlier and who have arranged their lives so they are able to live in Ireland full-time. I don’t know them well or where they are living in Ireland, but I’m compelled to send Annie a message on Facebook telling her that I’m looking out at the Atlantic in Connemara and feeling jealous of her life. Within minutes, I get a message back saying that she’s just looked at the photos I posted the day before and she’s sure that Z and I are staying not far from where she and Ted have been living. We agree to meet that evening for a drink. Ireland delivers more of it’s magic.

 

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View from Sea for Miles

Z and I spend our last full day in Renvyle hiking the least vigorous of the trails at the nearby Connemara National Park. On the way, we meet a cow that is rare and one of the oldest Celtic breeds in Ireland. It looks surprising like. . . a cow.

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Irish Moiled Cow and friend

We look at wildflowers and heather. I complain about steep inclines while Z waits patiently for me to catch my breath. I huff and puff and glower at the younger, fitter folks who are zipping past us to trek the steeper incline. When we reach the summit of our particular trail, it feels like all of Ireland is stretched out in front of us. I’m reminded of the cover of my old copy of The Fellowship of the Ring, as we look down on the patchwork quilt of fields and hills and sea. It is beautiful and hard to imagine there is any strife here or anywhere else.

 

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View from Connemara National Park

That evening, we sip pints with the Deppes at Paddy Coyne’s pub in Tully, and talk about their life in Ireland, my alma mater, writing, and Hugo Hamilton’s novel about Nuala O’Faolain (which I become obsessed with getting in the remaining few days in Ireland, sure I’ll never find a copy in the U.S.). Ted is a fellow Hoosier and both he and Annie went to Earlham, so we also talk of “home.” It’s a delightful evening. I love being in this pub with people I actually know instead of as an outside observer whose soul purpose is to watch the locals in action. It feels as if we nearly belong right where we are.

 

Later, while Z and I start packing up at Sea for Miles, it’s hard to remember that  I  thought our time in Renvyle would be a waste, that I was just humoring Z. I love Kerry, the Dingle Peninsula, the lunar-landscape of the Burren, and rocky isolation of the Aran Islands, but now I’m glad I didn’t try to force my own itinerary in lieu of this respite. We both agree that Renvyle—and if available, Sea for Miles—will be on our “must do” list on future trips to Ireland.

(I can’t tell you what it does to me to hear Z refer to our future trips to Ireland!)

 

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Rainy road to Westport

The next morning we leave Renvyle and make the long, soggy drive to my cousins in Caherlistrane by way of a lunch stop in Westport. I remember Westport as a picturesque little town built around a meandering creek with a be-flowered stone bridge that I’ve always wanted to return to, but when we get there, it is raining so hard that even Seattleites are put off. We spend a leisurely lunch in a pub writing postcards, that later, I will leave on a shelf in a bookstore, so excited am I to see the Hugo Hamilton novel. (The postcards have, as yet, not been sent by a well-meaning passerby who finds them. But we’re still holding out hope. If you didn’t get a postcard from us, this is why!) We try walking around Westport, but it is a miserable day and I just want to be home, though I’m not sure what I mean by that word: with my cousins? back in Renvyle? on Inishbofin? at Petra House with Frank and Joan? Across the Irish Seat at July’s cozy digs? At the hotel in Kensington? We’ve been gone nearly a month, so the likeliest answer is Seattle, but as on all of my other trips to Ireland, the thought of leaving makes me sad. I will never be a person who travels exotically (I don’t think Zimbabwe counts if you are married to a Zimbabwean), but when I do travel, I’m always focused on the “what’s next” instead of the “how soon can we head back?”

 

The remaining two days zip by in a flash. The family entertains us, feeds us, plies us with drink, and makes us feel like royalty. It is good to see everyone again, including my grandfather’s first cousin, Kathleen, and her husband, Tom, who first hosted me all those years ago when their grandchildren—now adults—were introducing me to cows and the delights of Crunchie candy bars. The last baby, born not long before my arrival on that first solo trip all those years ago, has her 16th birthday party our last night here, and I am amazed at how quickly time has passed.

 

More drink is taken.

 

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Ashford Castle–I’m _sure_ I can prove this is the family estate.

The day before we leave, Mary drives us to Ashford Castle—a gorgeous Anglo-Norman turreted creation—and we walk the grounds, see the falcons  from the falconry school, walk the various gardens, look out across Lough Corrib, and speculate as to whether the Burkes in my family tree (and Mary’s) are related to the de Burgos (which over time become Burke) who built and lived in the caste for a few hundred years beginning in the 13th century.

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Lough Corrib, Ashford Castle wall

My brain begins building a case that relies on this key piece of evidence as to why I’ve always felt a tiara is my God-given right. Now Ashford is considered the premiere castle in Ireland and has hosted various Hollywood royalty as well as Prince Edward and Princess Grace. The majority of its guests now are Americans (rich ones) and the majority of those are from California. We are not rich and therefore are not allowed inside—stone dogs guard the door. We pay for the privilege of walking on the grounds–where parts of John Wayne’s The Quiet Man were filmed– and it truly is a beautiful piece of real estate.

 

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Beware of dog

I’m more interested, however, in the real estate where my cousins both live because their grandfather was my great-grandmother’s older brother who farmed that land, and Grandma Bridget and her brother grew up there, as did their father. I love looking out across the fields, at the old stone walls, at the flowers and imagining that this is what Grandma Bridget saw, speculating about how difficult it must have been to leave when she knew it would be nearly impossible to come back from America with any regularity. I always wonder at her decision to emigrate: did she feel like it was a choice or a necessity? Was she afraid, with only a black-thorn walking stick to protect her on that trip across the Atlantic? She wasn’t a refugee—most of her siblings and the aunt with whom she would live were waiting on the other side—but for me, making that sort of choice to put that much distance between myself and home before there were trans-Atlantic flights would have been a misery.

 

Kathleen hands me a stack of letters that her sister Patricia—whom I met once before she died and who was the family historian—saved. They are from the American cousins and their children. Some of the letters are written by cousins I know, others are those I’ve only heard of who died before I was born. One is from my grandfather and I get tears in my eyes when I see his elegant, familiar penmanship. (In the letter, he offers information about his children and grandchildren, and I smile wryly as I see the only description next to my name: “single.”) Most of the letters from America spend an inordinate amount of time talking about the weather, which seems a shame, until it dawns on me that what the writer is really trying to do is keep open that line of communication “back home.” Kathleen once told me—when speaking of her husband whose numerous siblings all emigrated—“You lived and died by the post. It was a lifeline to family.”

 

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The Great Grandmotherland, near Caherlistrane

And then it’s time for us to leave. Z’s first trip to Ireland is winding down. Mary and John drive us to Shannon where we say our goodbyes and then spend the night in a personality-free airport hotel before our early morning flight back to London, and from there, we’ll fly back to Seattle. Our whole grand tour is about to unwind itself and soon we’ll be lugging our ever-multiplying baggage up First Hill. I’m like a mad woman in the airport gift shop, trying to stuff the last little bits of Ireland into my already bulging carry-on and coat pockets, greedy to hang on to what has been, with no question, the best trip of my life.

 

My favorite of the letters that Kathleen shared with me the day before is from Sister Mary Baptiste, my grandpa’s first cousin, whose name was always spoken with reverence because of her vocation. In her careful penmanship, she describes in detail the changes that have come with Vatican II and how now she and her fellow nuns can drive cars because they no longer have the big, vision-shielding wings on their habits. There is joy in her description of the freedom that has been afforded her, and I imagine, joy at the promise of the open road.

 

 

 

The Ill-Planned Grand Tour, Part VII: Galway, a Girl in a Cape, and a Dream

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When I was newly out of college and driving into town to work at the public library—a job I thought I’d love but didn’t—I’d often find myself giving tours to imaginary people riding in my Dodge Omni. I don’t know who the people were or why I thought they’d care about the historic train depot or the various beautiful but poorly attended Victorian churches in my little Midwestern town, but I’d sometimes arrive at work completely uncertain of how I got there because the intensity of my gig as an imaginary tour-guide had made time disappear.

 

It never occurred to me that this was odd behavior for a 23-year-old woman to indulge in. Certainly, it makes one wonder why I was in hot pursuit of a fiction degree if my imagination couldn’t cook up better fantasies than driving figments around my hometown and pointing out the Tiffany windows at Reid Presbyterian Church. When my college friends (real humans, not imaginary) would visit from out of town, I’d often figure out routes to drive them from one of our two historic neighborhoods to the other, explaining about Richmond’s Quaker heritage, telling them about how at some magical point in its history there were supposedly more millionaires per capita in Richmond than anywhere else in the U.S. I’d point to the old mansions that more recently had been turned into mortuaries and B&Bs as evidence. My friends always indulged me even if they were bored out of their minds.

 

This wasn’t Richmond-exclusive behavior. I did the same when showing people around my college and grad school campuses, around Chicago after I’d spent years there with some regularity, and eventually around Ireland. Not only did I offer tours to family and friends, but on two occasions I invited people I’d met in other parts of Ireland to come with me to Galway so I could show it off. As an introvert, this behavior was out of character for me: inviting people who were very nearly strangers to come with me on a sacrosanct trip to Galway? But it felt like a venial sin if not a mortal one not to introduce them to this city I love and then point them into Connemara.

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I’ve dreamed of giving Z the Grand Tour of Galway since before we were even a couple, so the minute we get off the train I’m hurrying him towards the luggage storage at the station so we can maximize the few hours we have before checking into our B&B. He is heavy laden with suitcases, but even so, I am an oversized border collie nipping at his heels to hurry him along. It is frustrating that we need lunch before my formal tour can begin because there is so much to show him and so little time: in three days we’ll be heading into Connemara and the next leg of our adventure. Already, I’m regretting that I didn’t schedule an entire week here in the City of Tribes.

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Free of our luggage, we go across from the station to a pub that looks like it’s been there for two centuries even though I know a decade ago it was a nightclub with sleek, modern decor. It’s deserted, except for the barman who is friendly and fills us in on the upcoming sporting events that have Dublin, Galway, and neighboring Mayo full of excitement for rugby, Gaelic football, and hurling.

 

Galway is not, perhaps, the most Irish of Irish towns. Historically speaking, it was more English than Irish with a helping of Spanish influence. The course of Irish history was never changed significantly because of anything that happened here, and other than Claddagh rings (those rings with the heart and hands and crown that Irish Americans love), not much is exported out of Galway to make it noteworthy. Yet the twisty old Shop Street, the rapidly flowing River Corrib, the churches, the area by the bay called the Claddagh? It all calls to me. If I don’t get there every few years, I start to twitch.

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My plans are thrown into a tailspin when we leave the bar and find ourselves standing in Eyre Square in the midst of a heavy downpour. Because I had all those years of imaginary tour-guiding in the 1990s, I know that the hallmark of a good guide is one who can adapt to circumstances. I hurry Z into the shopping center across from the open park square. He hates shopping centers and is no doubt disappointed with my choice, but I nudge him towards the back where the medieval wall that used to surround the city still stands, incorporated into the heart of the mall. On the one hand, it’s an historian’s nightmare to have something so noteworthy jutting out of a Pennys. On the other, were this wall in America, it would have been ripped down with little thought of preservation. We admire the quirk of it and then head towards the Vodaphone store to see if it’s possible to make our English cell phone magically Irish. It isn’t. The woman who delivers the sad news is so charming that we don’t really even mind forking out the money for another phone. She tells us that the store across the way might be able to help by cracking into our English phone (they can’t) and refers to them as “the likes of them over there” with a dismissive head nod. Though it’s not a phrase unique to Ireland, with her lilt, it sticks with me for the rest of the trip and I try to figure out ways to work it into my own conversation. Phone in hand, we venture back out where the rain has disappeared as quickly as it arrived.

 

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Medieval wall-in-the-mall as decorated for Christmas, 2005.

Petra House is my favorite B&B ever, and that includes some posher places I’ve stayed in Ireland and America over the years. It really does feel like a home away from home.  Over a decade ago I randomly picked it out of a Rick Steves’ tour book when my mother and I were in Ireland, and now it is the gold standard to me of what an excellent B&B should be like: tasteful accommodations, a spotless room, a delicious breakfast, and friendly hosts who make you feel you’re being looked after. Mom and I both had crushes on the owners, Frank and Joan, a couple who embody the “thousand welcomes” that Ireland is famous for. At one point, Joan and my mother were talking so animatedly that they could have been mistaken for girlhood friends, and Frank endeared himself to me on my second visit two years later, when he saw me at the breakfast table and said, “Ah, last time you were here, you were with your mother and were leaving us for Inishbofin. You know, the new dock they were building burned down right after you were there.” This visit is no different, and when Z and I leave in three days time, Frank will walk us out to the car, hand us road maps, tell us to be careful on the narrower, rougher roads of Connemara, and generally make us feel like we’re forlornly saying goodbye to a family member. Other than all meals with my cousins at the end of our trip, we won’t have another meal as delicious as Joan’s either.

 

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Galway Hooker venturing towards Galway Bay

The three days we are in Galway, I walk the legs off of Z. I want him to see it all immediately. Admittedly, I tell some fibs so he readily agrees to walks that are three times as long as he is led to believe. I walk him along the River Corrib, the canal, to the cathedral, the Claddagh where we see postcard-perfect Galway Hookers (red-sailed boats that were used to haul turf to the Aran Islands but now seem to be used to sail tourists around in circles). There is an extra long walk along the Salthill Prom overlooking Galway Bay and the rocky moonscape of the Burren across the water in County Clare. I force Z to sing a chorus of Steve Earle’s “Galway Girl.” When we reach the end of the promenade, I insist that he “kick the wall” like a true Galwegian. Here, I am disappointed that where there was once just a wall and where you could imagine decades of citizens kicking it instinctively, now there is a donation box sloppily cemented into the wall for some charity wherein I’m meant to deposit euros for the privilege of the kick. In protest, I do not deposit coins ( also because I think we might need to take the bus back to the town center because we’re knackered from the walk) but I do spend the rest of the day feeling guilty and uncharitable.

 

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View from our damp dock picnic perch

Perhaps my worst sin against Z is the day I lead him on a long walk past the university to the area where I lived for a summer so we can have a picnic by the river. The walk takes longer than planned, Z is hungry, and when we arrive, the picnic table that had been there over a decade ago has been removed in an attempt to make the youth of Galway behave themselves. The view across the river is still lovely—with the city behind us, we look out across fields, at some oldish stone ruin and larger house. A boat tour glides past us and we wave, happy to be less touristy than the people on the boat. I feel momentarily victorious that I’ve brought us to such a lovely spot, but then, as we lower our middle-aged bones to the dock so we can eat our sandwiches along the river, it starts pouring with rain. Z has a look of annoyed resignation on his face. He’s a trooper though and never says a word about the inconvenience of our lunch, or even the annoying walk to and from our destination during which I have lamented at every turn all the changes that have befallen the UCG campus since I was there last. The biggest sin, as far as I am concerned, is that the pub where the writer Dermot Healy once bought me a pint is no more (much like Dermot Healy himself). But I also lament the trees in the wooded area through which I’d walked to class every day like a modern, thirtysomething Red Riding Hood; they’ve been chopped down and an athletic center built there. It all feels like a travesty of justice. The place should have been laminated after I left. Buoyed from his lunch and a lessening of rain, Z happily sits with me in the inner courtyard of NUI Galway that is modeled on Christ Church at Oxford and lets me reminisce about the summer before I met him when I was here.

 

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In the UCG courtyard, recounting past glories

 

Z has some research to do on this leg of the trip as well, and the half hour he turns me loose to interview someone, I make a beeline to a shop I like. Within two minutes, the clerk has dropped this rich green cape thing (don’t even think about calling it a poncho) over my head and clearly it is meant for me. Another clerk comes up and says it matches my eyes and when I tell the likes of them that we’ll soon be spending a night in a castle, they both nod their heads and say, “Sure, you’ll be wanting this to wear while you sit by the fire with a glass of wine.” This trip has not been about the buying of mementos, but even so, I’m an easy mark. I hand over my money and the clerk hands me the bag. I’m only half way out the store before I’ve tugged it on—all of this within five minutes of having said goodbye to Z. To my credit, it’s lovely and I do not look as ridiculous in it as I did on the first trip when I bought a thick Aran sweater and insisted on wearing it daily even though it was summer and the sweater was heavy enough to be a winter coat. (Mom wears it as a coat now actually.) I have no doubt any Irish person passing me on the street must have thought then, “Americans are ridiculous.” On this day though, I can only imagine they are all admiring my new purchase and assuming I’m a native Galwegian. When we are reunited, Z grins at me and shakes his head when he sees me sashaying up shop street in it. Because he likes to name things, he dubs it “Capey” and it becomes a sort of family pet for the rest of the journey. Did you pack Capey? Don’t spill Ribena on Capey! Don’t leave Capey behind?

 

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Z with spendthrift wife, elderly passerby, and the beloved Capey

 

We do the things I always do when I am in Galway too. We poke our noses into the restaurants in the Latin Quarter trying to select the best one. We go into my favorite sweater shops and fondle sweaters we aren’t going to buy. We look in the windows of jewelry stores at Claddagh rings we’ve no use for since I seem to already own three and Z refuses to wear one. We go into St. Nicholas Collegiate Church, a 14th century church said to have been visited by Cromwell. We look at the Spanish Arch and I tell Z about how Columbus popped by Galway when he was off on his exploring adventures. I point out Lynch’s castle, now a bank, where the mayor of Galway hung his own son, who had killed another young man, and the mayor became a recluse afterward. Sometimes serving justice is a heart breaker.

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Galway’s Latin Quarter, geared up for the big match

We go to Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop and buy books we’d have to work hard to find in America, including the latest Jack Taylor mystery by Ken Bruen that is set in Galway. Z and I are both big fans of this brutal series, and I know now that he’s seen the city, the books will be even more (horrifying) fun—I’ve spent these three days reminding him of plot points and where I think Jack Taylor lives, where various crimes unfolded, etc. As we’re checking out with our purchases, I spy a Charlie Byrne’s tote and Z gallantly tells the clerk I’d like one; the clerk even more gallantly says, “No charge.” In no time, I’ve filled it with books and postcards and pieces of detritus and added it to the increasing pile of luggage hogging our room at Petra House.

 

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Oh, Charlie Byrne’s–you never disappoint!

On our second night in the city, Z is presented to my cousin Mary and her husband John, who have driven into town to meet us at the hotel where their son Eoin is working for the summer. I see Eoin first, and am shocked that he has grown approximately 12 feet since last I saw him. On my first meeting, he was in “junior infants” (kindergarten) and finagling sweets out of his mother when we stopped to get petrol. It is a real joy to reconnect with all of them since I haven’t seen them for six years, and a greater joy that at the conclusion of the evening when Z and I are snuggled in at Petra House, he tells me how much he enjoyed Mary and John, and I shortly receive a text from Mary telling me that they approve heartily of Z and are happy to see me so happy and healthy. The next night, we have dinner with Mary’s niece Catherine—my “little” second-cousin-once-removed–who introduced me to nearly every cow on her grandfather’s farm when she was about six and now she is a grown-up college student who loves to read and has a wicked sense of humor. Another delightful evening with family, and I feel so happy that all those years ago I was uncharacteristically nervy enough to demand that my grandfather give me the address of his cousins in Ireland so I could claim kin and be the first member of our little American branch of the tree to meet them. What a lucky day for me.

 

This day is also a lucky one for Z and me because John and Mary take half of our ridiculous amount of luggage back to their house since we’ll be seeing them again, thus relieving us of the Samsonite albatrosses that have been weighing us down. There’s a ferry ride to an island in our near future and I don’t want to be seen as the ridiculous Americans with the steamer trunks for a two-night stay in the Inishbofin House Hotel.

 

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Galway Cathedral window

On our last morning in Galway, Z and I walk down the hill to pick up a rental car—a little red one that we dub the Galway Hooker—and head back to Petra House to settle our bill and collect our luggage. Because I have trouble with The Leaving, I want to insist to Frank and Joan that they tell their next guests they have to find other accommodations because we’re staying another eight nights and just forego the next leg of our adventure. They’ve made us feel so well taken care of, that I even feel a little nervous leaving. Who will be looking after us once we pull out of their driveway? Surely, we need looking after.

 

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Galway Cathedral

 

Though I’m looking forward to the next leg of our trip—some of it familiar to me, some of it brand new territory—I am loathe to leave Galway. We’ve hit the highlights, but you can’t really settle into a place in three days. I’m lucky to have had those days, but I am greedy and want more. No matter how much time I get here, I always want more. A week. A month. A year. I’m not sure how long it would take me to tire of Galway, but I’d really like to push those outer limits.

 

After Frank has kicked the tires of the Galway Hooker and waved us off, we head west into Connemara. We’re out of Galway in a matter of minutes, and I distract myself from the sadness with self-congratulations that I was clever enough to have married a man who is used to driving on the “wrong” side of the road as I now have a built-in chauffeur. We wind around the bends and I feel giddy to be doing this with Z, pointing out favorite places of mine from past trips and oohing and aahing over sights I’ve never seen or have forgotten. Though I haven’t hung up my tour guide cap entirely, from this point on, there will be a lot less of me giving Z mini history lessons and a lot more of us discovering places together. Abbeyglen Castle, here we come.

 

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Galway’s iconic swans