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Saturday, March 28, 2020

Can This Be Real?

Spring comes to southeast Arizona
I had a sudden insight upon awakening this morning, because, you see, we went for a drive yesterday, our first pleasure trip since we started hunkering down. Sky, clouds, grasses, cattle, wildflowers, mountains! They are all still there! In fifty miles we encountered only a single other vehicle, when the Artist had stopped so I could jump out with my camera, and the driver of a pickup truck loaded with hay bales stopped to see if we needed help. 



“Everything okay?” “Yes,” I told him, “it’s just so beautiful!” 

We went on, past the road to the Chiricahua National Monument, continuing south. Prickly poppies all along the road will be blooming by next week. We always appreciate places where water flows across the road. The day was golden, and we stopped again and again.

Turkey Creek






I walked a while along Turkey Creek Road, in  surroundings so heartbreakingly lovely I was holding back tears when I returned to the car and could not speak for several minutes. Finally I said softly, “It doesn’t seem possible, does it?” And the Artist answered, also in a low, reverent tone, without losing a beat, “No, it really doesn’t.”

These days we all, especially people our age, consider the possibility of dying. Even without coronavirus, the future grows shorter the longer we live. 

“We might never have seen this,” I begin haltingly.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, for instance, it’s unlikely I’ll ever see Ireland.” 

My mother and father made that trip before they died, and both my sisters have visited the land of our maternal grandfather. One of my old boyfriends, who lives in Ireland with his wife, invited us to visit! But travel by plane to a foreign country may not be on our agenda any longer. 

“Why not?”

“Well, we can’t drive there, and if we were there we couldn’t rent a car.” 

Friends told of the cut-off age for car rentals, and the Artist had been appalled. 

“But,” I go on, getting to my real point, “we’re here. We’ve seen this. I’ve seen this.” 

We continued along the way, leaving private land for national forest, climbing into an entirely different life zone and following the beautiful creek that rushed along beside and below us, loving every inch of our road.




The Coronado National Forest isn’t the Grand Canyon, and I don’t mind a bit. It’s enough for me. More than enough. The various pieces of the Forest in the Chiricahua, Dragoon, and Pinaleño Mountains fill my heart with joy, lift it with silent song. I can hardly believe I have been so fortunate as to be here, sometimes can hardly believe this land exists at all.

So my insight was about Americans who still think the coronavirus danger is a “hoax,” “fake news,” even while their Great Leader has changed his tune and admitted it’s real and is acting to mitigate the danger in various ways. It’s so peaceful here, so normal, and we don’t know anyone who has the virus. It doesn’t seem real at all from here. 

And yet the virus is real. The danger is real. But unbelievable beauty is real, too. Love is real. The danger of the virus, the beauty of the mountains and high desert, the gifts of love — at times all these realities seem equally hard for the human mind to encompass. This world of ours is amazingly complex, and both what we love and what we fear can be overwhelming at times.

So I do all I can to protect myself and others from the virus and take every opportunity to drink in and feel gratitude for beauty and love, and I hope you are doing the same. Today is the day we have. We're here now.

Spring comes even in dark times.







Thursday, March 26, 2020

Everyday Heroes: Which Books Help in Our Times of Need?

You'll find out why in a minute.

We saw a show on television yesterday (it was a rerun) based on the “Great American Read,” in which different Americans appeared, one after another, to pitch their favorite books to viewers, with the idea that each of the books depicted a character styled as an “everyday hero.” Nominations for heroic stature ranged from Don Quixote to Katniss Everdene, and viewers were urged to vote — by phone or online, I forget which, but it didn’t matter, because a line of text at the bottom of the screen informed us that voting was already closed. Books by James Patterson and Tom Clancy were nominated, their main characters put forward as “ordinary” men who rose (repeatedly) to the occasion, whatever it was, when necessary. But the Artist and I both felt that the most convincing pitch was made by the man whose favorite book was Charlotte’s Web, a book that also won the #1 spot for children’s books. Yes, we nodded, with tears in our eyes over that man’s urging, we would have voted for Charlotte! 

When I was a young girl and a voracious reader, I was also genuinely and completely, through and through, horse-crazy. So while I read Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass, of course, and Little Women and Swiss Family Robinson, my favorite books featured horses at the heart of the stories, and the fictional characters I found heroic grew to be great-hearted in meeting challenges with horses. Sometimes the heroes were the horses! There was Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet, in which a girl dressed as a boy so she could ride her horse in the Grand National … The Black Stallion, by Walter Farley, with a boy shipwrecked on an island with a magnificent and untamed horse … and there was the heroic horse in Black Gold, by Marguerite Henry, a horse that finished his race on “three legs and a heart” when his trainer insisted on racing him despite injury.

I still love a good horse story and always will. But as we watched that program on television, I kept waiting for a fictional hero in everyday situations. That’s what was missing for me in the books and characters put forward to inspire us. Not that they failed on that count. And yet, dystopic novels, action thrillers, and children’s stories were not what came to my mind when I heard “everyday heroes” in connection with fictional characters.

The novel I thought of almost instantly stars as the main character a young woman without parents. She never knew her father, and her mother may not have known who her father was, either. The mother abandons her little girl on the streets of Chicago. Her only living relative, as far as anyone knows, a grandfather back in Michigan, refuses to give the child a home. 

Told that way, the story sounds almost like Dickens, doesn’t it? But South of Superior, by Ellen Airgood, is an American novel of our own times, and everything Madeline Stone goes through is common enough. Madeline is young, in some ways naive. She has a good heart but can’t help bearing grudges against the dead who failed her, and she can’t help the many mistakes she makes along the path to greater understanding, either. 

Madeline had the great good fortune to be adopted by a woman in Chicago who raised her with love, so when her adopted mother was dying, of course Madeline cared for her. The blow, however, was severe. When first we meet her, she is working as a waitress and engaged to be married. Then she gets a letter, inviting her to come work in the home of the woman who was her grandfather’s romantic partner until he died, a woman who now lives with her sister. They could use some help, the letter says. For reasons even she does not completely understand, Madeline Stone decides to drive her old beater car north to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to share a house with two old women who are complete strangers to her. 

War does not intrude on Madeline Stone’s U.P. life. There are no shoot-‘em-up sequences in the story. The situations and challenges and even the tragedies are definitely the stuff of ordinary, everyday life. 

When household finances look bleak, Madeline takes a job in a pizza restaurant, a job she loses when she borrows and wrecks the owner’s car and, almost worse, doesn’t show up for her shift. Bright spots and dark color her life. She discovers a retarded uncle, her mother’s brother, living in a group home and resents having his existence kept secret from her, but little by little she finds comfort in visits to him. She finds a place to hide away, a secret refuge, a place where she can paint undisturbed — and then almost burns the place down after a foolish night in the local bar. Most movingly, she comes to love dearly a little boy who is, as was she, the child of an irresponsible young single mother, and what nearly breaks her heart is that she knows she can never take his mother’s place in his heart — but she struggles against the urge to try and does everything possible to keep mother and son connected. That was heroic!

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is not an easy place to live. “Nine months of winter and three months of bad sledding” is one way it’s described. Another saying has “three months of company” as the finish. Keeping warm through the winter is difficult and expensive, let alone keeping a business alive, and life there is not for the faint of heart. But Madeline Stone is not faint of heart, and she finds her place in the world in a small, struggling community on the south shore of Lake Superior. 

I have read South of Superior many times, first in manuscript form, as the Artist and I had come to know the author and her husband on our annual September getaway trips to the U.P. I don’t know if I’ve told you enough of the story so that you can see why I find the book such a comfort or why I have always found Madeline Stone such an inspiring character, but South of Superior has been both comfort and inspiration to me over and over. When I’ve been discouraged by troubles in my own life, I have turned to Ellen Airgood’s novel and put myself vicariously into the life of her fictional protagonist, and by the time I reached the last page, I would always feel stronger and more able to face my own challenges with strength, courage, and hope.

South of Superior is back home on my bookshelf in Michigan right now. Just thinking about it, though, and thinking about the main character, someone I see as a very ordinary, everyday heroine, calms my morning-nervous heart. And I'll bet I'm not the only one who feels that way!

I think about Ellen and Rick, too, how impossibly hard they work at their place of business, the West Bay Diner in Grand Marais. You can look online and see their beautiful, delicious food and the happy customers. None of that happens by accident. Ellen and Rick are some of the hardest-working people I know. You’ll see online also that the diner is “temporarily closed.” Had they not opened yet after the winter? Are they closed because of coronavirus? Are there enough groceries and supplies in that little town, and are Ellen and Rick all right? I trust they will be, because they have Madeline Stone’s sisu — but I sent them love across the continent, and I want them to know that as I think of them with love, and think once again of Ellen’s fictional character, Madeline Stone, I find comfort and inspiration to help me deal with these strange times we find ourselves living. 




Tuesday, March 24, 2020

What Are YOU Doing These Strange Days?

Some of my indoor activities

And no, I do not generally have my books and journals on the kitchen counter. They were only gathered together there briefly (next to chocolate chip cookies on a rack and fresh fruits and vegetables in bowls and my cell phone on the charger) so I could economize on the number of images for this post, because the only way I have wifi “in place” (the library in Willcox, along with the schools, is closed due to the coronavirus pandemic) is by using my phone to create a hotspot, and while I have unlimited calling and texting on the phone, I do not have unlimited data, and I’ve been burning through my available data so far this month, posting to my various blogs and keeping up with friends on Facebook.

So the cell phone makes possible the online part of my life at present. It also makes possible the all-important calling and texting with family and friends — family as far away as Michigan, friends as near as right across the road, because we are all practicing social distancing, in order to stay safe and keep others safe, as well. 

My journals have taken on new importance for me as the days go by. Begun in December, they were only some kind of scrapbook-in-words, recording what I wanted to hold as memories of another winter in my beloved southeast Arizona. Gradually larger issues crept in and now absorb many pages, but even so, I continue to record the small and near at hand. My journal entries are free-ranging, like the cattle here in Dos Cabezas: there’s no saying where they may wander.

This morning I noticed a phenomenon connected to handwriting — the way my mind runs out ahead of my hand and shapes and reshapes sentences as they are being written. Once in a while I go back to scratch out a word or insert a phrase, but most of the time my insertions and deletions have been done mentally before my pen has gotten farther along. The rhythm of writing by hand, on paper, is very different from what I’m doing now, tapping at a keyboard, fingers flying, and seeing my words appear on a screen in front of me. The screen is more distant than the page, the page much more intimate. But some of what I write on my journal pages I later translate to the screen, and even when what you find here was composed on a screen rather than a page, I hope some of the intimacy of my thoughts comes through for you, my readers. 



You already know I do a lot of reading. That’s been evident from the very beginning posts of this blog in 2007. The comfort of books is not limited to reading them, however. There is looking at them and touching them, admiring them on the shelves. And now, beginning yesterday, in a more librarian-type undertaking, I began the task of making a catalog of my Western collection. So far the catalog is only author, title, category (broadly conceived), but I may go back and add publication dates. Already the nascent catalog been helpful to me in seeing where there are gaps in my personal library. For example, I’ve read books on Cochise, but those were library books. I have books of my own on Victorio and Geronimo but none on Cochise. 

We’ve all been cooking and baking more, haven’t we?  What delicious meals and treats are coming out of your kitchen these days? Food is such a comfort! Even the aromas of food add to our quality of life, don't they?



The Artist and I consider ourselves very fortunate, in that we are not sequestered in a city apartment (snowbound or otherwise) but can get out in the sunshine every day. The Artist has set up a little studio space in an outbuilding, Sarah and I have adventures with our neighbors, and for all of us there are daily explorations very close to home. So much to discover in a a ghost town, where traces of the past linger to the present day!

Often when I am on the phone with my son (our conversations daily since the unexpected decline and death of his father mere weeks ago), I am outdoors, and part of what I’m seeing I describe to my son and sometimes photograph, either while we’re talking or after we’ve ended our chat for the day. He also tells me what's happening in his world, where yesterday it was snowing in Kalamazoo and where he often sees deer in the backyard. We picture each other's worlds across the miles that way. 

I don’t often look straight up into the sky and might have missed this unique cloud formation, had I not been on the phone. The tiny, tiny flowers (most people would call them weeds) I would no doubt have noticed sooner or later, but because I was sitting in one place, I saw them sooner. 




The Artist and I have not been taking long drives to other areas of Cochise County for a while now, but there is plenty to notice and wonder and learn about right here in our own backyard. Next time I post here, I think it will be about adobe. But we’ll see. The “situation,” local, national, global, is changing daily. While I see right now a cardinal in the mesquite in front of the cabin, tomorrow it will undoubtedly appear somewhere else, and it could be that what I anticipate sharing with you the next time I write here will be superseded by another story. 

And you have stories of your own, too. What are they? This was Michigan when we left in December. So much has happened since then, it seems like a lifetime ago. Does it seem that way to you, too?





Saturday, March 21, 2020

Adventures Close to Home: Cactus Hill

Adventure? Sarah is ready!

Sheltering in place in a ghost town allows for a great deal of fresh air and exercise. “We’re so lucky to live where we live!” my friend, neighbor, and hiking partner Therese says often of our lives here in Dos Cabezas. She was saying it before the coronavirus came along and says it now in heartfelt tones. I agree wholeheartedly! We are indeed lucky to be able to get outdoors to explore the mountains with our dogs!

Comforting neighbors
Therese and I also agree (and the Artist does, as well) that having cows for neighbors is very comforting. Calm bovine demeanor is contagious in the very best way. Cattle are not oblivious to our presence — and their alert looks hold a certain wariness when they see our dogs — but our little high desert pack is under control, and we pass by without the slightest molestation of livestock taking place. Not a single teasing bark! Good dogs!

See the little one?

Once again we followed the old mine road back, back where it becomes hidden from view from our cabin, making it difficult to explain to the Artist where we've been. Here (below) I’ll make the picture clearer by borrowing a photograph from our last adventure. That day we looked from our hillside ramble across the mine road to what would be our destination today, the place my friend calls Cactus Hill. In the following cropped image, I have zeroed in on the rocky hilltop.

Remember this view?

Our destination today
Here is the pack again, too: Mollie, Sarah, Buddy. The fourth dark object is not an additional dog but the jacket I removed and left down by the road as not needed for our sunny climb.


Being right up close, within touching distance, of rocky outcrops so like the highest peaks is exciting!


And I loved the raking morning light across the opposite slope, the one we’d explored earlier in the week.



Cactus Hill holds far more and larger prickly pear plants than we have down in the ghost town itself, and the higher we climbed, the thicker together the prickly pear, and the more challenging to duck around or squeeze between cacti.

Mollie was intrepid! She was like a mountain goat!



Sarah kept up pretty well, though, for a girl so old I’d almost left her home, knowing we would be climbing Cactus Hill. Then, no — I just couldn’t leave her behind, when she knew I was going out with the pack! And what a wise old girl she is: she was better than usual about drinking water when I offered it to her, and a couple of times she took advantage of large rocks to rest in the shade for a few minutes. 

Ferns! Astonishing!
For me, the hardest part was not climbing the slope or getting down on the ground to photograph plants but standing up again. No matter. It was worth it. I certainly had not expected to find ferns up there among the prickly pear, ocotillo, sotol, and agave. And then to see ferns and cactus right next to each other — that was even more astonishing! 

Ferns & cactus

Here is the view, looking down to the east, with the road continuing toward the old mine site.


Therese took my picture as we started down. The breeze was picking up by then and felt delicious.


Therese and dogs paused in their descent so I could catch up. I kind of hated to “return to earth” so soon but looked back long enough to take this shot illustrating where we had been. See those rocks on the right? Yes!!!

We were up there on the right!

Sarah and I were pretty tired by the time we said good-by to our friends and covered the last quarter-mile to our own winter home. Somehow, though, I have no feeling of “anticlimax” in the wake of one of these mountain adventures. Happy, satisfied, ready for an early lunch — but still open enough to the small and beautiful sights along the way, such as this one, lone, lovely little Mexican poppy blooming right in the middle of the road. What a lovely morning! Something cheery to write in my journal!


Friday, March 20, 2020

What Do You Think You Will Remember?

My desk in December
When we arrived at our ghost town hideaway for the winter, I made notes on the route we’d taken west and the places we had stayed: Kalamazoo, MI; Springfield, IL; Sedalia, MO; Wellington, KS; Dalhart, TX; Alamagordo, NM; and finally here, Dos Cabezas, AZ, 15 miles southeast of Willcox, AZ, and about 25 beautiful, winding miles west of the Chiricahua National Monument. The first page of the same composition book was already taken up with lists of things to pack (one list for the humans, another for the dog), and it was only on our second morning in the ghost town that I began keeping a sketchy narrative history of our season here. Back then, happy to be settling in for a few months under a sunny sky filled with wintering sandhill cranes, I had no idea that my notebook would become, in time a plague journal!

I always read a lot of books during our Arizona winters … write letters … blog about my reading and about our Cochise County adventures and explorations. It just happened that this year, for the first time, I also began keeping a journal. I certainly didn’t anticipate that I would be recording historic events; I merely wanted to fix everyday small details on paper. Because those little everyday details, the stuff of short-term memory, are easily lost as days slip into the past, and my time here is precious to me. I want to be able to hold the days in my hand as it were, and look at them again and again when I am far from these mountains and this desert. 

Winter morning
So most of my mornings began, starting in December, with a session of journal-writing. The weather (no, it isn’t boring), social engagements, personal happenings (getting keys to the mailbox is a big deal to me), daily errands, and descriptions of surroundings flowed from my pen, along with re-emerging childhood memories and a few observations of the current national political scene. Quite a lot about hearing coyotes, through the night and in early, still-dark morning. A few notes on books read.

In short, nothing particularly earth-shaking. And that’s how it went, week after week.

… Sandhill crane count … first visit to the Smile4Jesus Thrift Shop … tales of my husband’s new friend in Willcox, the one I call the Born-Again Bear … brief accounts of dreams (very few remembered long enough to write down) … walks and hikes with neighbors.… 

There were only a few words on the impeachment, although I thought it would never end … and very little on presidential campaigns, debates, caucuses, as I tried to keep attention on politics to a minimum … much more on my volunteer mornings at the library bookstore and the elementary school in Willcox. Of course, the political issues bled in from time to time, from impeachment to debates to caucuses to the State of the Union, because that was the news, nonstop, on the radio and television, but I tried to keep my attention locally focussed, as much as possible, escaping from the news to the outdoors.

People I love found their way onto the pages. One of my sisters was in Mexico for two weeks. The other went through the pain of losing an old dog. We spent February 15-17 in Tucson and anticipated a return in March. The Artist had a birthday. Then in late February, my former husband, the father of my only child, was moved (after only three days) from hospital to hospice, where he died a week later, and my son and I began spending daily time together on the phone. 

In the larger world, a few of the Democratic hopefuls began to drop out of the race for candidacy, but too many yet remained, and far from business and home responsibilities in Michigan as I was, I found the world crowding in, events racing along, piling on top of each other without time to catch a breath. In many ways, the world seemed all present, minute by minute. 

Yet only on March 10 did coronavirus come into my journal, when I noted that the Tucson Festival of Books, scheduled for March 14-15, had been cancelled the day before, adding at the bottom of that page: “Politics and coronavirus — our world today.” Two days later, March 12, I recorded that the president had announced, the evening previous, a ban on travelers from Europe, Ireland and the U.K. excluded. We began hearing daily about the terrible situation in Italy. COVID-19, the virus was now called. Less than two weeks ago. And yet now, March 20 as I am composing these thoughts, just past the spring equinox — such a short time since we were first told to stock our pantries for a possible two-week emergency quarantine — almost all universities and public schools are closed, churches have stopped holding services, restaurants all over the United States are open for take-out only, grocery store shelves are near-empty in key aisles (paper products, soaps and cleaning products, the dairy case), and more and more Americans, even those not yet on “lockdown,” are “sheltering in place,” even if they have not put themselves under “self-quarantine.” That is our national language now. 

Still, though all of us are affected, each of us is experiencing these days of isolation differently. We are spread out across a very large country, and while some friends find themselves alone, far from family and close friends, others see their households expanding with schoolchildren and college-age sons and daughters home all day. I lost my volunteer jobs, but many other people have lost paying jobs, jobs they needed for basic food and shelter. “Lucky” ones see their savings “evaporating before our very eyes,” while the homeless appear at intersections, holding up cardboard signs. No one can hope to remain unaffected, from the most expendable part-time hourly wage worker to the most pampered trust fund baby whose investment portfolios has plummeting in value.

Here’s another personal note, this one I know shared by many — the strange realization that, simply because of our ages, the Artist and I are in a “vulnerable” group, members of an “at-risk” category. It was already strange enough just trying to get it through our heads that we are no longer young — hell, no longer middle-aged! — we still can’t fully believe that! — and now we are also particularly “at risk”?

For me, personally, there is the added strange feeling of being disconnected, physically, from the world that has been mine for almost 27 years, i.e., the world of books. I am not, after all, in my Northport bookstore, weighing the question of whether to entirely for the duration of the crisis or stay open to process phone and mail orders, make sales through the front door (or deliver books to local customers), and gratefully accept whatever help my little community might offer, along with doing what I might do to help the community. I’m not there. Instead of being “on the front lines,” as it were, I only read each day in Shelf Awareness what is happening with other bookstores around the country. So peculiar and unsettling! My feeling must be something like what my sister felt when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans just after she had moved away, that feeling of I should be there! Then added to that the uncertainty of not knowing if we will even be back in early May as planned — if that will be possible at all. 

That’s part of my story. Everyone else has a story, too, quite different from mine. The general point I’m making is that each of us is having a unique subjective experience of these times, which means that together we will have a staggering number of stories, coming from myriad different vantage points, looking through lenses offering a kaleidoscope of perspectives. 

So, are you keeping a “plague” journal? Years from now, what will you remember? What is strangely ordinary about this time for you? In what ways does the crisis seem real or unreal? What other times of crisis does it call to your mind? How is it unlike anything else you’ve ever experienced? 



What books are you reading, and what kinds of meals do you find yourself putting together? Are you able to get outdoors for fresh air and exercise? Do you listen or watch or in some way follow news compulsively, every waking minute, or do you ration what you let into your consciousness each day? Do you sleep through the night or lie awake? If you sleep, what do you dream? If awake, what are your thoughts? How do you seek out comfort, and what gives you comfort?

With how many other people are you “sheltering in place,” and how is that going? Are you spending more time on the phone, calling and texting, or on your computer, e-mailing and following friends’ posts on social media? Do you feel more or less connected to those you love? Differently connected?

What is the best and worst aspect of this time for you? I should add so far to that previous question, shouldn’t I? Because we don’t know yet what will be the best and worst in the days and weeks ahead.

When I look at my own handwritten journal and see that I only used the word ‘coronavirus’ there for the first time ten days ago, I can hardly believe my eyes, but there it is on the page, although subjectively, right now, it feels like at least a full month that we have been obsessed with this news, every waking minute, to the exclusion of almost all else. I know I heard the news from China before March 10, but at that point, as the absence of it in my journal illustrates, the danger must have seemed very remote, a foreign problem only. That’s how fast everything has been happening.

Friends, I see some of your posts on Facebook, but those “news feeds” will be superseded overnight, you know, by whatever comes next, and even a year from now we will have a hard time remembering exactly when and now the pandemic (another frequently occurring word these days) first touched us personally. And besides, as long as you are “sheltering in place,” wouldn’t you like to use some of your time to make a lasting record for yourself and those who come after you? In all human lives, there are watershed events, some personal, others part of a national or world-historic fabric, and this is one of those times that will stand out whenever, in future, we look back on our lives. If you don’t see yourself as a writer, maybe you can keep a scrapbook or a photo album or make a quilt of “plague times.” We don’t have to be greedy opportunists to find opportunity in crisis

What stories will you have to tell years from now?

We each see the world from our own little corner....