The November rain is kicking my ass; the constant grey, a dampness that chills the bones even when the temperature is reasonable, in the 40s. Blustery days have more leaves in the wind than on the trees now. At this point, I think I might prefer snow.
It doesn’t help that when it’s this cloudy out, my house, which is full of windows, is very dark during the day. It can be really depressing to come downstairs to an empty house with all the lights off. I fell weird about putting the lights on when it’s just me in the house, but I really need them.
Last year, I think I slept through most of the winter. It was an extremely stressful year on all fronts; health, work and family. This year is better, so I’m a little surprised to be getting hit with the same sluggishness. I know part of it is the medication I’m on. We’ve talked about switching medications, but I have to be in the hospital for three days to do that and that costs money.
I was not this tired in the Summer. Yes, I still took naps, but I was also able to do stuff without constantly yawning and struggling to keep my eyes open.
Last winter I actually bought a full-spectrum light, but never opened it. It sat on my desk for months and today I remembered it was there. I was never sure about whether I really had Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), because I used to really love the winter months. Today I used the light for the first time and it made a difference almost instantly. My energy levels improved quite a bit. Considering that I haven’t been able to write much in the last several days, I’m grateful to have found a seemingly simple solution.
Tomorrow is supposed to be sunny and a bit warmer, thank goodness. I need to get outside.
This is a bit of an experiment. We’ll see how well I am able to keep up with it.
One of the good things about being home these days is that I have much more time to read than I did when I was working full-time. Last year, when I was really and truly resting and trying to recover from all the health-related and teenager-induced stress, I read constantly, partly as an escape, partly to fend off boredom, and partly to explore the kinds of stories I wanted to try my hand at writing. I’ve slowed down some recently, which is not a bad thing; I am feeling better and a little more active.
But I’m still reading, and what I’d like to do is showcase some of the books I have read and enjoyed. Some will be current, and others with be old favorites of mine that might deserve a new audience. There’s nothing like hanging out on the couch on a Sunday morning reading a book or the Sunday paper with your coffee or tea.
I’m no book critic or professional reviewer, and that’s not my intention here. I’m merely sharing titles that struck me and hoping that you enjoy them as I did.
Last week I finished reading The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht . This book was a finalist for the National Book Award. It is an unusual story of grief, fantasy, and folk-tale superstition in an unnamed Balkan country after the war there. I was hooked right away. It deals with themes of war, family, and the things we do and do not say to family and friends.
Other things that caught my eye this week:
I have to make some side dishes for my neighbor’s Thanksgiving. I want to do something different. I looked up rutabagas because I’d never had them before. They look an awful lot like turnips.
P started school before Labor Day, T started last week. Since neither kid has a full driver’s license, my days are now filled with chauffeuring them to campus and to work, or at least accompanying them while they drive. This has forced me into a routine of sorts, which is not entirely a bad thing.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, T’s two classes are back to back, meaning there’s hardly enough time to make a trip back home worth the while. On those days I will probably run errands close to campus or bring my laptop to a coffee shop nearby. I tried this last week and the place I went was much noisier than I’m used to. The area around campus is very mall-centric so I think all the coffee shops will be this way. I will have to try to find something independent, off the beaten path. I enjoy working in coffee shops. Sometimes those couple of hours can be very productive in spite of the distractions.
I’m still getting used to the writer’s life. It’s a dream I’ve had for decades and understood very little. I am trying to learn the business of being a writer as well as come up with story ideas. I’m not too worried about my prose. As I tell my husband when I’m trying to convince myself I can do this. “If I knew what I was writing, I could write it very well.” For the most part, I believe that, bolstered by feedback I’ve gotten from various places where I’ve published. Of course, the competitive part of me wants not to struggle, and not to write anything that isn’t perfect and free of critique. I want that award. I want to be able to say, “this is why I never did that Ph.D. or became a middle manager; I was meant to do this instead.”
Yet, I keep half-assedly looking for, and sometimes even applying to, full time positions. Intellectually, I know that both my health and the logistics with the kids make that highly impractical, but oh, it would be so much easier than trying to slog this transition out with no guardrails. And the money would help.
In the Boston area, Wednesday, September 11 will be the last day of the year that the sun sets after 7 PM. The season is ending and autumn is on its way whether I like it or not. In a similar way, the layoff last summer, and subsequent health problems, have created a career ending situation, a change of season and a turning point of sorts, whether I like it or not. I’m choosing to see it as an opportunity, even if it doesn’t always feel like one. There are other things going into this feeling; my age, the fact that I’m almost done with my active parenting years, the way this transplant proposal feels like some kind of epic journey I have ahead of me. I don’t really want to go back to doing what I was doing. I do want the change.
On Labor Day, we had a rare opportunity, because neither of the boys were working, to go out for breakfast together. I am not a morning person, but going out for breakfast is one of my favorite things about being an adult. In spite of my hermetic ways, there is something about being greeted and settled in by the waitstaff (especially if they recognize you as a regular) that brings a comfort to the start of the day.
Whether it is an elegant petit dejeuner in Paris, or a busy diner with sturdy stone wear plates of pancakes or eggs and endless refills of cheap coffee, there’s something strangely life affirming about sharing this ritual with other people; even if they are at the next table, and not part of your group.
Though a few of our usual breakfast spots were closed for the holiday or had very long lines, on this beautiful morning, we were lucky enough to get a table on the porch of a local go-to. Along with standard breakfast fare, menus around here are sprinkled with local favorites like linguica, a Portuguese sausage, and anadama bread, thought to be brought over from Finland by the early stonecutters in the quarries here. Anadama French Toast is a popular offering.
It was nice for the four of us to have a meal together to mark the end of summer. With both boys working, time to sit down together is rare these days. Now that the kids are older and need less management, they have become pleasant companions and these meals are much more enjoyable. There much less bickering, much more storytelling and joking around.
This part of the island is an art colony, and after breakfast we strolled through the neighborhood looking at the cottages and gardens. Many of the galleries were closed for the holiday, but there was still art and creativity everywhere.
The weather here has already gotten cooler. I find myself greedily consuming the views of flowers still in bloom from the height of summer, as if the memory of them will hold me through the barren months of winter. I know it’s coming. My youngest started his classes at the high school last week, and my oldest starts his college classes on Thursday. My days are going to get busier, carting them to school and to work, or other places. Though they both have their learning permits, neither has a full license. And even if they did, we’d be short a car (or two).
I am not ready to put my sandals away. I am not ready for football, or fat socks and boots, or pumpkin spice anything. I still want to walk down to the beach or the harbor. I want to listen to the seagulls or watch the sandpipers zooming back and forth along the surf. I want to be able to breathe without the frozen air hampering me. This kills me. Ordinarily I would be eagerly awaiting the trappings of autumn every year. Chronic illness has changed that. I truly love having four seasons, but it would be easier to live in a place where it hovered around 70º all year-round.
In other news, I am writing again. I created a piece for Labor Day on how corporate culture and public policy (or lack thereof) is killing the so-called dignity of work. You can find it here on Medium. I’m trying out Medium as a potential platform, but I am also looking at other markets. If last winter was about recovering and getting through a devastating year career, health and family-wise, I hope this year will be much more about working and rebuilding.
I have worked in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston off and on throughout my career, but I had never been in this interesting building. Now called The Castle at Park Plaza, it was originally an armory dating back to the late 1800s. On Friday, I met friends from Connecticut here to see the Downton Abbey exhibit that featured replicas from the show (the kitchen and dining rooms), character and plot recaps, and several props and costumes.
One of the first things you see, once you’ve passed the welcome video of Mr. Carson, is the telegram that arrives informing Lord Grantham that his heirs have both died at sea aboard the Titanic. I was surprised that they went to such lengths with the props in that way. Then there was the famous Bell Board, and the replica kitchen with the table and the egg holders and other tools. A pot of cider or something was simmering on the stove, making it smell as if Mrs. Patmore was baking pies.
They also made up Mr. Carson’s pantry/office. Among the props were an old-time barometer, and this cabinet of keys. It reminded me of the house where I lived in Guilford; many of the doors had keys like this. Of course, once we kids got hold of them, few of them could be found, much less match to their respective doors. Such a shame. There were also servant bells set up in the house, that worked when we first got there, but were sadly disconnected at some point. The rang more like a door buzzer than the delicate bells of Downton..
There was also a replica dining room, with explanations of the various customs around hosting, entertaining, waiting upon the household and guests, and so on.
Much of the rest of the exhibit was costumes, including the various wedding dresses which I did not get pictures of, and several sets of hunting outfits including this one belonging to Mary. Of all the looks presented, this one was most my style. Over the years, I’ve had several things that looked a bit like this with different cuts and fits. Nix the tie, though.
Much of this was like wandering through a J. Peterman catalog in the early days of the company, or in the case of the hunting outfits, Banana Republic, before it was bought and sanitized by The Gap.
I was originally just going along “for the ride” and a chance to see friends of mine who live out of state and not near enough for me to see when I visit my mother. I really enjoyed this more than I expected to and now I find that I miss the show even though it often annoyed me with its predictability. As my friend said, “there’s some comfort in that predictability.”
There’s a Downton Abbey Movie coming out soon, and this whole experience has got me thinking about historical fiction and the writer’s ability to put themselves in another era through research. My resort project may do that, but I have to decide what era to put it in, since the real resort was visited by Mark Twain and didn’t close until the 1960s. There are several eras to choose from.
Okay, back to Downton. Since I already have enough clothes that are close enough to costumes that I don’t have anywhere to wear them, I avoided buying anything in the “gift shop” they set up for the exhibit. I would have loved a hat, but I already have several, and I really can’t buy any more blank books, though I love this one with a quote from the Dowager Countess, Violet Crawley.
Almost as simply as turning a calendar page, the air of summer has changed. The humidity has lessened here somewhat and a cool breeze foreshadows the coming autumn. This is as ever, a bittersweet time for me. I need the summer warmth and ease more than I used to, and I will be sorry to see it go.
This school year will be a big one. T starts classes at the local community college in a couple of weeks. He is out of our tiny high school and into a much larger, more diverse arena. I hope that it will be good for him. P will be a Junior at the high school and starting to look at colleges as well.
I will try to make the most of my unemployed status. I have to get out of the house more this winter, and I need something new to work on. Ordinarily at this time of year, I’d be pining to take classes of my own. Of course since I am not working, no one is going to pay for me to go back to school. With all the medical bills, and tuition for T, loans for me are not an option.
I also seem to be going through something. It’s hard to tell whether it’s fatigue and depression or a true evolution, but I may be finally letting go of a career dream I’ve had for 20-plus years.
How do you know when to give up on a dream? I mean, it sounds so defeatist to say it like that, but I’m not sure that I really feel defeated anymore. I certainly did when my dream job was given to a less qualified man several years ago. It broke me. But I also knew that in the three months I had the job, I proved that I could do it and was very good at it. The hiring manager’s agenda had nothing to do with my qualifications or capabilities. I knew when I left though, that I would probably never get another shot, which is what broke my heart so completely.
That was over six years ago. When I think about it though, it still feels like yesterday in spite of since having had five years with a great manager and team, and lots of wonderful, creative challenges since. What’s different now is that I’m not sure I would apply for similar jobs anymore. I can’t yet tell if it’s because I’m tired of running up against an impenetrable wall or if I have truly moved on.
My lifelong interest in education and education policy also seems to be fading. I was on my local school board for 12 years and I loved it. For years I would independently dig in to the weeds of education policy and try to understand, without ever having held a teaching job, what made for a great school, teacher, classroom. I certainly still have my opinions, but I have noticed that our public school policies have gotten farther and farther away from what I might have considered ideal, The testing regime still lingers, charter schools have arguably made things worse overall, and it’s not a battle I have energy for or much interest in any longer.
Part of it, I think, is my age. I’m going to be 53 at the end of the summer. Assuming I make it, I will have outlived my father. When I was a child, no one could have predicted I’d live this long. Here, I am, way past expectations. The unexpected hiatus due to layoff and health problems has felt like a significant chapter closing. It has me asking; assuming I make it through transplant and regain my strength, what do I want to do with my “Book 2?”
For years I have wanted a job that involved less desk sitting, solitary heads-down work, more meeting, consulting and collaborating. Writing, of course, is none of the latter, but it might provide me with a little more variety than an office job. When I’m healthier, I want to do more travel, and I’m hoping that the things that I research and choose to write about will facilitate that. I’ve been dabbling a little, trying to figure out what the business of writing looks like, training I did not get in college. I have submitted a short story to a publication, and I’m looking to do more. I still am better at non-fiction than fiction, but I’m working on it.
The smell of geraniums reminds me of my grandfather. He instilled a love of gardening in me and though I can’t match his work ethic when it comes to fertilizing and weeding, I have a reasonably successful vegetable garden and plenty of flower pots around the yard, including several geraniums.
They are available in many more colors now than they were in the 1970s. I remember the geraniums in my grandparents’ yard as solid red, and occasionally white, growing in a basket hung from the lamppost opposite a sign with the house’s number and a name, “Squaw Rock.” The name came from the large rock formation between the back yard and the beach and there is also another formation with the same name off the coast of a different part of town. Although Native/Indian names are common in the town and surrounding area, “Squaw” is now considered a slur and the name has vanished from the property as it stands today.
Geraniums and salvia were part of my summers. The salvia was a treat because you could pull the red center part from the rest of the flower and suck a tiny drop of nectar from the end. These days the salvia I see at garden centers is mostly purple, and the geraniums can be peach or even a lavender.
My mother and I are not in frequent contact, but when we do talk, I have made a point about asking clarifying questions about some of the family lore. For instance, my parents both grew up in New Jersey, but stories made it sound as if my mother’s parents had grown up in Connecticut. Which is it?
My grandparents grew up in Connecticut. I believe my grandmother’s father founded the Congregational Church in their town (that’s another thing I’ll have to clarify). My grandfather worked on a farm there and the owner of the land had connections that led to a job for my grandfather on Wall Street. After the Crash, he was laid off and came back to a job at a manufacturing plant in his home town. He was bored and he hated it. He set about trying to find work back on Wall Street – during the Depression. He did find a job with a firm that sold odd lots (small orders) of stocks, moved back to New York, and eventually did quite well.
Meanwhile, my grandmother was a teacher. One summer she was taking some sort of certification classes at Yale. On the last day of the session she offered a classmate, Martha, a ride home in her Model T. Martha’s brother, my grandfather, was home for the weekend, and when he met Anne, my grandmother, he asked her on a date right then and there.
They eventually married and moved to an apartment in New York. They quickly had two sons, but when Anne was pregnant with their third child, my mother, the two of them decided that they needed more room. The story goes that my grandfather got on a train to New Jersey after work one day and rode until the train came to a stop where there were a lot of trees. He got off the train, walked around the town and picked out a house. He bought it without my grandmother ever seeing it first. They raised five children in that house through the war and beyond. They would often rent a house in the summer back in Connecticut.
As it happened, a couple of decades later, my father opened his business several blocks away on the same street in New Jersey. My mother would eventually meet him when she applied for a secretarial position there after a few years away at college.
I only have the barest details of our family history, but I have been increasingly drawn back to the towns in Connecticut where I grew up and where my grandparents had a house on the beach that is the biggest part of my summer memories. It started last winter with my uncle’s funeral, and intensified when his daughter died this past winter. I wrote about this pull earlier this year. I really can’t explain it, but a sense of place has always been important to me. Where you grow up has a huge impact on your identity, and your perspective.
I think about the books I’ve read that are based in the South, and how the climate and the culture are almost characters unto themselves. Surely, New England has some of that, in stories like Olive Kitteridge , set in Maine. But, Connecticut? What stories are there? I’m sure there are plenty, and I need to start somewhere.
We got through January. One month of winter down; two months to go.
I maybe slowly regaining my equilibrium. Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been really tired, sleeping a lot, and somewhat worried about it because the last time I felt like this, I was much sicker than I am now. Though I’ve never been a morning person, I have gradually been getting up earlier and less frequently craving a nap for most of the day. It’s been hard to tell whether it’s the fact that I don’t have anywhere to be and am bored and depressed, or if it’s the new medication I’ve been given to steady and slow down my heart rhythm. The doctor says it could be a little bit of both.
I am starting to develop a routine for most days. Mornings are still slow, as I usually have no one but myself and the dog to attend to. L and the boys are gone for the day. I try to eat breakfast, even though I am no fan. I read. After a shower, I either run errands or make phone calls to doctors, insurance companies, and the mail order pharmacy. This is a part-time job for someone, and I wonder how people with full-time jobs manage it. I think these companies must believe their patients are all retired with nothing better to do. So frustrating! If I still have the energy in the mid-to-late afternoon, I may get to write something.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the many rabbit holes I could be winding my way through. The wonder of a writing life, I’ve often imagined, is the myriad directions that research could take me.
One of those rabbit holes is surely healthcare. Between my own frustrations, the vague idea that I might write a book about my transplant experience if it happens, the fact that it appears to have been a major factor in the mid term election and may be again in 2020, I find myself wanting to really dig deep into the policies. I want to better understand the various proposals, and how their backers think they will work.
The need for better solutions for our country is so great. Just in the last few days I’ve seen testimonials on Twitter about relatives losing their lives because meds were so expensive, fighting to get appropriate nursing care for a patient with a long term and eventually fatal disease, coordinating phone calls between insurance company and “out of network” hospital. At the root of all this is the cost of meds and care. Why are they allowed to be so expensive? Why do we pay more than twice as much, per capita, as other industrialized countries and have nowhere near the best quality? How do we bring prices down?
Another rabbit hole is for more of a fiction project I’ve been contemplating for years but never had the time to pursue. The good and the bad thing about this one is that there is research to be done in my grandmother’s town, bringing back lots of memories. There used to be a fairly famous resort hotel in that town, and that whole culture is fascinating. Imagine being able to vacation somewhere for a month, or the whole summer. We can’t really do that anymore.
With the 2020 election gearing up already, I am probably going to write more about politics. I’m also starting to read more about publishing in magazines, and though I’m not sure my one time fantasy of being a travel writer will ever come to pass, there is all sorts of other stuff that captures my interest. As always, I just have to pick a direction.
The birds are busy at the feeder this morning, perhaps in anticipation of tomorrow’s snow. Among them is a large Red-bellied Woodpecker, nearly twice the size of the other birds out there. He’s been around quite a bit this winter, but it is always a treat to see him contrasted so brightly with the myriad brown birds that we normally get in the colder months. It is for visitors like this that I insist on maintaining the feeders in the winter, even though seed isn’t cheap.
It’s midmorning and I’m having the last of the real bagels with my tea. Even stale they are better than supermarket bagels. I feel lucky to be able to get them every once in a while. I consider what I might be able to get done today after I have decided that my morning reading is complete. I’ve just started Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys. She is one of the most prolific writers I can think of, and yet this may be the first book of hers that I’ve read. I vaguely remember being assigned something of hers in college, but I don’t remember what it was (a poem, maybe? a short story?), and like most of what we read as English majors, it was dark and depressing. I’ve not tried anything of hers since.
I picked up Mulvaneys from the hospital exchange cart, and I will probably bring it back there when I’m done with it. Hospital book carts have saved my sanity more than once last year and I try to contribute to them when I can. You don’t really sleep much in hospitals, you might as well have something good to read. I’ve now taken to packing books whenever I think I’m going to be admitted, but I almost always get through the ones I bring.
So far, I like the Mulvaneys and the simple, almost religious optimism that holds their lives together. Yet, you know their happiness is tenuous, that something awful is going to happen that rips apart their carefully constructed lives; like a squirrel dashing through the dazzling but delicate web that took a spider so long to build. When Oates describes a non-central character’s effort to set his own children against each other, I stop and seriously wonder if this is common in Irish families, as it was certainly recognizable in mine.
This gives me something to think about in my own family and my own writing. Growing up I had this dollhouse that I played with well into my teens. My sister was four years younger and constantly begging me to play with her, which is part of the reason. The other reason, I didn’t realize until many years later, was that the dollhouses (there were three of them) served as a setting for the stories in my head. Those stories were almost always about the kind of family I wanted, rather than the one I had. The family in my head was always large, active and social. They enjoyed each others’ company had each others’ backs.
For decades I’ve wanted to set a story in a multigenerational family with a summer house. I have such wonderful descriptions of the place, I could make you want to go there. the place itself is a character. And yet, I can’t do it because moving the story forward would mean that one of my characters would have to do something horrible to another. I can’t bear to imagine what that thing might be although I have plenty of examples in my own family.
For a writer, there’s a lot to explore within the disintegration of a family. Society would like us to think that these are unbreakable bonds, but they fall apart all the time over money, abuse, resentment, and the smallest things can become the last straw. After those bonds have been broken, what makes them worth trying to repair? Or is it just easier not to?
This has been on my mind a lot since my cousin’s death around the holidays. I suppose there was an “event” that precipitated our all falling away when we were kids, but in truth, fault lines among the adults already existed. That my mother’s generation never thought those sibling bonds important enough to repair saddens me when I think of it. Yet, my own generation is similar. We all live in different states, we have very different lives and we would never reach out to each other for help. It’s just the way it is.
Perhaps I imagined this might change after many of my cousins started to reach out to each other, mostly on Facebook. Maybe my surprising anger at her passing is not just about her age, but about the fact that she won’t have a chance to be a part of that.
It’s 3º. The high today was 5º. It snowed and slushed for the better part of yesterday and then it all froze. Walking is treacherous. If it wasn’t already Martin Luther King Day, school would likely be cancelled. Post-holiday winter is here.
For my friends in upstate NY, the upper-Midwest and Canada, I realize this is nothing. Honestly, I thought I was going to be one of those crusty curmudgeonly types who retired in Maine, but now I am undone by single degree weather and the howling wind.
I can’t imagine commuting the way I used to right now. I worked mostly at home for so many years that it’s hard to remember what that’s like. I used to enjoy the commute. And the commuter rail used to be reasonably reliable. Now I don’t have the stamina for two hours door-to-door, a full day of work, and then another two hours for the journey home.
I can’t really do fourteen-hour days anymore, though I really do miss being in an office, being part of a team. I haven’t settled into a routine of my own as of yet. It is the hardest part of having ADD; routines don’t really stick.
Every so often, L will ask me how I’m feeling. After multiple trips to the hospital this summer and fall, he is now always on the lookout. Generally speaking, although the cold takes my breath away, I have been doing pretty well. The problem is though, I haven’t been doing very much.
I’ve been sleeping a lot. Whether that’s physical, or depression-related, or I just don’t want to get out of my warm bed, it’s hard to say. My days these past few weeks have been starting around 10 AM, unless I have a specific appointment. I have been reading a lot, which I guess is a good thing. I’ve been making a real attempt to set the phone / social media aside for most of the morning and read a real, physical, book.
I need to be writing more. I need to pick a direction and get moving. I have had the germ of a novel simmering in the back of my head for years, but it is really not going anywhere. I’ve had this eternal problem with it; the setting is more real in my head than the characters because the characters are based on real people and I’m afraid of them being too recognizable. I may just need to discard the whole thing and move on to what I thought would be my second project. Maybe I’ll come back to it when I get better at inventing people.
The rest of my days are often filled with managing medical appointments and chasing after prescriptions (which really should not be this hard to manage, how do seniors do it?).
In the meantime I took advantage of the fact that this cold weather makes me want to cook. A friend calls it procrastibaking, which, it turns out, is a real thing. I made apple-walnut bread for the first time (yum!) and chocolate pecan pie, which has become the new favorite around here. I also made a thing I’ve always called coq au vin, but is really like a chicken stew with white wine instead of red. It doesn’t reduce the way I’d like in a slow cooker, so I’m not doing it that way again. Cooking does make me feel like I’ve accomplished something anyway.