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Monday, December 5, 2022

What Counts as a Gift?


Last year on Christmas morning I told the Artist that I wasn’t able to wrap the present I wanted to give him. He had bought an old cello that was missing a bridge, and I told him the next time we went to Tucson we would go to a music shop and I’d have a new bridge put on the instrument for him, along with new strings, and that would be his gift. But we never had a chance to make the trip, and today the cello leans against the wall, untouched, in its case.


His 2022 birthday gift from me was supposed to be the first volume of Proust’s epic work, which he had finally been convinced (by another writer, not by me) that he wanted to read. I ordered it early and wrapped it and hid it away. When I took the package to the hospital the day after his last surgery, he said he would wait for his birthday, a week in the future, to open it. By then, however, he was in a coma, and when he woke four days later neither of us thought of birthday presents, so I still have that book, still wrapped, never opened.

(Anyone whose life is as yet untouched by grief will no doubt have bailed out by now, and that’s okay. The rest of us, my continuing readers and I, are not having a “pity party” here: we’re only facing the facts of our lives and doing the best we can to keep living, day by day.)

I’ve been listening lately to Anderson Cooper’s podcasts on grief


…a series of emotional and moving conversations about the people we lose, the things they leave behind, and how to live on - with loss, with laughter, and with love.


-      CNN’s “All There Is,” with Anderson Cooper


Not listening in the order originally recorded but choosing titles one by one. Four so far. 


Anderson Cooper’s father died when Anderson was only 10 years old. His older brother committed suicide by jumping from their mother’s apartment balcony as the mother watched, helpless, afraid that moving toward him might precipitate the jump and hoping she could bring him back from the edge with words. That mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, lived on to the age of 95 but always kept her bedside calendar open to the date her older son died. In conversations with others who have known loss and grief of various kinds – deaths of parents, partners, siblings, their own children, some deaths sudden, others agonizingly slow – Anderson Cooper talks of his father's and brother’s and his mother’s deaths and the aftereffects on him as a survivor, both immediately afterward and continuing, as time goes by. His guests do the same with their losses. The conversations (each one different) are deep and moving as experiences and feelings are shared. 

It can be really hard to open ourselves to grief, because -- who wants to deal with pain?  But over and over in the podcast conversations comes a truth I had to learn by experience (and in retrospect wish I could apologize to friends whose grief I failed to acknowledge adequately in the past), which is that – okay, two truths: first, that pain is unavoidable either way, whether we open to grief or try to keep our hearts closed tightly against it; and second, that acknowledgement of loss, along with opportunities to revisit the departed in conversation with others and, for many of us, in writing, while it may bring tears, also brings a degree of solace

A much harder lesson – at least, for me, and Anderson Cooper says for him, as well – is to feel gratitude for one’s grief. Wow. Really! Gratitude in grief, along with grief – that I have felt all along, grateful for the support of family and friends and for the beautiful life the Artist and I had together for so long. But gratitude for the grief? (The idea came to Cooper from guest Stephen Colbert.) That’s harder. I’m not there yet. Not even close.


Or maybe I’m not thinking about it the right way? 


I can’t feel gratitude for the loss, certainly, cannot feel grateful that my husband died, but – for the feelings and insights that loss brought and continues to bring? Maybe? One of Cooper’s listeners mentioned vulnerability as grief’s gift, about being open to the world, open to other human beings, connecting on deeper levels. That grief and love are inseparable: if we love, sooner or later we will grieve; if we grieve, we have loved and continue to love. 

Still I ask the question: Can grief be a gift? No one who has not experienced profound grief can begin to have an answer, but if you have lost someone close to you, no matter how long ago, what do you think? Can grief be a gift?

Next question: How does grief, for you, fit into the holidays? I’m working on that one, too.

I would not raise these questions on my blog if I thought they were mine alone, but I know others struggle with the same questions, and maybe we can help each other -- if only by acknowledging together the questions we face. Because maybe none of us has answers. Or maybe what is an answer for one person is not an answer for someone else. I don't know!

Anyway, as always, thanks for reading.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Here and Now, Our Time in the Sun

Can you see the dog?

In a recent post with my annotated list of books read in previous weeks, included was Jane Barry’s A Time in the Sun, set right here (i.e., where I am at present) in Cochise County, Arizona. When I finished the novel, I passed it along to a neighbor (who is now captivated as I was by all the familiar locales in Barry’s historical novel), so I can’t look this morning to see where the title appears in the story, but I remember it was near the end. The idea is that all of us alive have our time in the sun, limited by mortality. 


As the end of the year (with more holidays) approaches, I’ve been reading old journal entries from a year and two years ago and am struck, despite all the COVID and political horrors, by the happiness the Artist and I found in our most ordinary days, and I think what a blessing it was that we could not then see into the future. The love of my life is gone now, along with our last two beloved dogs -- a long-established pack and a pack with only a brief history -- but we did all have time together in the sun. And now it’s Sunny’s turn.


Sunny Juliet and I go out for a ramble on the range most mornings, joining a neighbor and her dog. The year-round resident canine is Boss Dog, Sunny the teasing youngster who sometimes needs to be reminded of her place, but in general they get along well, so while SJ and I also take walks on our own, we enjoy most of all being part of a ghost town foursome. 

Although I’ve only finished reading three more books since publishing the last list, I’ll add them in here, so as not to fall so far behind until the next time. 


122. Caputo, Philip. The Voyage (fiction). Honestly, I probably would not have chosen this book to read except that it was urged on me by a friend – and because both of us had met the author, separately, through another mutual friend who was also a well-known author. That said, this is a must-read novel for sailors, fresh- or saltwater! I am not a sailor, and so the detail of every move the captain and crew made went far, far over my head, but for those who understand it all, the picture would be riveting. The story, anyway, is riveting even for a non-sailor. Three teenage brothers and the friend of the oldest set off from Maine to sail to the Caribbean in the year 1901. The brothers have been seen off, unceremoniously, by their father, who tells them he doesn’t care where they go, except they are not to come home until the end of the summer. The reason for the patriarch’s abrupt dismissal and other family secrets are revealed only gradually in the course of a story of adventure on the high seas. Highly recommended for those who love adventure, mystery, and exotic locales in their reading, and especially for sailors.


123. Willard, Nancy. Telling Time: Angels, Ancestors, and Stories – Essays on Writing (nonfiction). Serendipity brought this book to my notice. I was browsing in Readers’ Cove, Deming, New Mexico, and bookseller Margaret had just happened to leave Willard’s book on the shelf facing out. “Nancy Willard!” I exclaimed. “She’s a Michigan writer!” Willard was a poet and a storyteller, and these essays are saturated with her gifts, as she writes about teaching, about her mother’s last days, about the couple who illustrated her children’s books, and about storytelling in general. Highly recommended for poets, storytellers, essayists, and anyone who loves and appreciates these literary forms.


124. Smith, Alexander McCall. Heavenly Date and Other Flirtations (fiction). Stopping in at the Friendly Bookstore in Willcox the other day, I was in the mood for something comforting, and since I am always comforted by reading McCall’s stories featuring Mma Ramotswe, the name “Bulawayo” in the table of contents of short stories in the collection led me to believe that this book would comforting, too. It was not. Publishers Weekly (on the back cover) cited the collection’s “light humor,” but I found it, for the most part, downright bleak. Not that the stories weren’t well written. They simply were not what I expected or wanted them to be. Make up your own mind on this one.


The book I’m reading now is Francisco CantĂș’s The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches From the Border, a nonfiction book that anyone with questions and/or an opinion about the border with Mexico should read. His mother is distressed and worried when her son, a recent college graduate, takes a job with the Border Patrol. He explains that in his classes, everything was theory, and he feels he needs to be “on the ground” to understand what’s really going on. You grew up on the border, she tells him, but he says it’s different and that he feels he needs to do this, at least for a while. About halfway through the book now, I am not looking at the last page to see where it ends. (People really do that???). I can tell you, though, that this true story does not loosen its grip on a reader as it moves along….


And so goes our life, Sunny Juliet’s and mine, here in the high desert as November 2022 draws to a close. The nights are cold, the days bright and clear. Down toward town, the wind stirs up dust on the playa. The puppy makes me laugh. The sun rises, the sun sets.


This morning's glorious sunrise!

Friday, November 25, 2022

Time: The Environment of Life -- Change: The Only Constant

Time looms large over our lives!


It’s a generational divide, that between the digital generation and “those of us who were brought up among clocks with old fashioned dials,” writes Nancy Willard, in an essay entitled (from a poem by e.e. cummings) “When By Now and Tree By Leaf.” She goes on: 


For us, time is space. An hour is as round and friendly as the full moon, which often peeps through a tiny window on the dials of grandfather clocks. A quarter of an hour is a quarter of a pie, wherein the minutes nestle as closely knit as cells in a comb, and if they are joyful, every cell is filled with honey, and if they are dull, they stand empty and flavorless as wax. To the digital generation, I suppose time is linear. The minutes fall away, never to be heard from again. There is no record of the past and no promise of the future, only the swiftly vanishing present. 


-      From her collection Telling Time: Angels, Ancestors and Stories (Essays on Writing)


Two pages later, Willard tells of her childhood living room, with three electric appliances – toaster, radio, clock -- and only one electric outlet. (I pause, bemused, at the idea of a toaster in the living room.) “You could have news or you could have time or you could have toast,” she tells us, but not all at once, and then she recounts how a gift of homemade elderberry jam from a neighbor had the family choosing toast over news and time until their bread supply ran out, whereupon they started out for town, ostensibly to buy bread, but with bread really only the excuse for a day-long adventure --  over a lake, across a pasture, along the highway until sidewalks were reached. Time (without the electric clock plugged in) was expansive and stretched to make room for ice cream and for browsing dime store toy counters. It was, she says (time, that is), “not so much measured as observed.” Those six words seem worth lingering over. Maybe you want to look away from your screen for a while now, get up and walk to the door, look out at the world and see what there is to see, even go for a walk….


…Since childhood I have been obsessed with time, and that all-consuming subject for thought and reflection has only grown as my decades have accumulated. I am fascinated by material traces of the past that survive into my own present, whether back in historically youthful Michigan or here in the arid and older SouthwestHere in Dos Cabezas, Arizona, crumbling adobe and rusted metal attest to the passing of time. The mountains, by contrast, feel permanent. And yet, we know even they are not, that violent, prehistoric earth forces brought them into being, and that there is no reason whatsoever to believe them eternal. As my high school earth science teacher told us on the first day of class, the only constant in the universe is change. 

The Artist, my love, at Chiricahua National Monument


Ah, but when iconic placeholders in our personal landscapes are swept away by sudden change, something of our own, oh-so-brief individual life history erased, the shock is akin to a death in the family. In fact, it adds to the losses death has already visited upon us, because now we can no longer take our leisure in a place that feels so much like home that we still feel the presence of departed friends and loved ones there. After Leland’s Bluebird is razed to the ground, sometime soon, a new Bird will arise, phoenix-like, the old name (along with the family owners) providing some kind of continuity, but the old bar, the old tables, everything familiar where so many now gone once gathered will also be gone, as are they, the atmosphere of past years forever banished. When this news was followed by an announcement that Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern will close permanently at the end of the current year, my northern Michigan neighborhood reeled in disbelief. Far from home, I felt the tremors as if on-site. How could it be true?  

We were always happy there.

"Someone left the cake out in the rain...."

What, I wondered, would a Cochise County, Arizona, equivalent be? In Railroad Park I saw, with a shock, that the old, giant Arizona ash tree had died and been felled, and where once it offered shade, now it lies on the ground and serves as playground equipment. -- A friend questioned the safety of the arrangement, but after all, local toddlers ride horseback almost before they are old enough to talk….

How it was, only last year --


How it is now.

It is time, however, to change my tune, or at least to modulate into another, brighter key, because not all change involves loss. Whatever did we do in Northport before the advent of the New Bohemian CafĂ©? 

Back in northern Michigan, New Bo welcomes.

Saxon House, home of Source of Coffee in Willcox, AZ

And how did the Artist and I get along in Willcox until Source of Coffee opened two years ago in the beautiful old historic bungalow, Saxon House, on Haskell Avenue? I was at the coffee house the other day and saw the tribute to my love in his old, favorite corner, but although I took time to photograph his hat, the sight affected me too much just then to linger, and only on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (the day Source of Coffee was celebrating its second anniversary, by the way) did I look more closely and see that there was more to the tribute than the hat. A photomontage of the Artist at work was overlaid with a quotation from him, and in front of that and his hat was a statement by the custom hatmakers who had done so much to memorialize him, without ever having made his acquaintance. 

A young woman at a nearby table, working on her laptop, looked up as I moved away from the display, so I said, to explain photographing the corner, “That was my husband.” She, it turned out, was the very Teresa who with her husband, Josh, had been responsible for turning David’s hat into a memorial to him! How lovely to meet her in person! 

Teresa of Dusty Desert Hat Co.

She and Josh will be opening a hat shop and art studio (Teresa is a painter) on Railroad Avenue in the spring. Meanwhile, they are in the Air B&B business, and Josh gave me a tour of the lovely short-term rental in the remodeled casita behind the coffee house: three large, beautifully appointed rooms.

The coffee shop made a huge positive change in the Artist’s and my winter life in Arizona, and I know that his friendship was a positive change in the lives of Bear, Dana, Deb, Ben, and others. David Grath, the Artist, is part of the history of Source of Coffee in Willcox, Arizona! 

Life is a continual gaining of experiences, even experiences of loss, and an accumulation of memories. Although in the great cosmic sweep of All Time, memories and history will no doubt someday all be lost, for now, at least, while I am here (mantra: I am here now), I am happy to see my love so well remembered in Cochise County, Arizona.

Making friends wherever he went -

Monday, November 21, 2022

Books, Grief, Hope, and Holidays

How I live now....

Desert nights are cold, already down in the 20-degree range, and for the last two nights high winds have been battering the cabin. Saturday morning was sunny, calm, still. A good morning for a walk. Sunday was a different story, with the wind continuing relentless throughout the bright daytime hours.


No one sleeps well here on windy nights, and in what my mother always called the “wee hours,” when I would turn on the light and pick up a book, Sunny would bring me a toy and nudge me to engage in play. She can be as relentless as the wind! So I would indulge her with a little gentle wrestling on the bed and tell her she’s a good girl before picking up my book again (though often I added to myself, “Not really,” if she had trouble settling down again so I could read myself back to sleep).


And now for that long-neglected topic, books. Since I haven’t given a list of the recent books I’ve read for a while, I’ll annotate today’s to help you decide whether or not you might want to read any given title.


112. Hill, Grace Livingston. The Enchanted Barn (fiction). One of my early bookstore customers, back in 1994, was a big fan of Grace Livingston Hill and told me that Hill was a Michigan writer. I have been unable to find a Michigan connection, however, and in my bookstore no longer shelve Hill in the Michigan section. While her books are generally categorized as Christian fiction or Christian romance, religion is presented gently, as are the characters’ struggles, and The Enchanted Barn is a good example. Much as did the author herself, the main character is working to support her mother and siblings (in Hill’s own life, she had children to support from two failed marriages, in addition to her mother) and struggles to keep from becoming discouraged by poverty, to find a way to a better life. Where the story will end is obvious early on, but the details of the family’s move to the country, planting gardens, and making their home in an old barn make for a charming fictional escape from modern life. The Enchanted Barn was published in 1917. 


113. Gibbon, Lewis Grassic. Cloud Howe (fiction)

and 114. Ibid. Grey Granite (fiction).

These are the second and third titles in the author’s trilogy, A Scots Quair, which I have written about previously, novels that can only be considered “escape” in the sense that one is immersed in intriguing and sometimes lovely language because, other than that, they share with most of classic literature a clear-eyed confrontation with the hardest aspects of life. Here we see poverty not simply as one family’s temporary situation but the grinding poverty of workers in general, generation after generation, as they are caught up in the social and economic forces of history, and the author provides no deus ex machina to bring about a happy ending. But these are books (along with the first of the trilogy, Sunset Song, its story beginning in 1911) that deserve to be much more widely read and known, definitely worth a reader’s time, and I would add worth reading more than once.


115. Bythell, Shaun. Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops (nonfiction). If I’m being honest – and what’s the point of being otherwise? – I have to say I was disappointed with this one. A very slim volume, it comes off more like a lengthy magazine assignment than like a continuation of the author’s delightful Diary of a Bookseller and Confessions of a Bookseller. Perhaps it was a case of a publisher pushing a writer to take advantage of previous success by getting a new title out too soon. I don’t like to say that -- and wish my impressions of Seven Kinds had been different -- but there you are. Bob’s your uncle.


116. Deutsch, Jeff. In Praise of Good Bookstores (nonfiction). Obviously not a book rushed into print, this one is worth reading carefully and lovingly, as any lover of books and bookstores will. The bookseller-writer makes a case for bookstores as something distinct from retail business. His primary example, the unabashedly scholarly Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago, went from a cooperative model to a nonprofit model in 2019 (after many years of having paid no dividends), and Deutsch says the nonprofit model acknowledges the store’s “financial realities” and its privileging of “cultural value over financial dividends.” Browsing here is raised to a new level. 


While I would love to browse this store, I am not convinced that nonprofit status is the only way forward for bookstores. Seeing socks for sale in a bookstore bothers Deutsch. It doesn’t bother me. I don’t sell socks myself but have no problem with other booksellers who use such items to enhance their slim profit margin, as long as they are also stocking good, important books. Most of us in the used book trade realized early on in our eccentric “careers” that following our calling (because I agree with Deutsch that it is a calling) would demand certain financial sacrifices, and for us no price can be put on our independence, so I even wonder if a nonprofit model, with all the record-keeping and particular laws governing that model, might not put a crimp in my independence. But the book – yes, I do recommend it. 


117. Leiris, Antoine. You Will Not Have My Hate (nonfiction). The Eiffel tower on this book’s cover made me reach for it. It is broadly classifiable in the category of books on grief, a category in which I have read more extensively this past year than ever before – but with a difference. The author’s wife not only died suddenly but was murdered, gunned down in the terrible scene of mass violence at the Bataclan Theatre in Paris in 2015. The title of the book comes from something Leiris posted on the Internet, refusing victory to the killers. His book is a behind-the-scenes account of that night and days and nights following, as he had to go on with life for the sake of his very young, now-motherless son. 


118. Hill, Jemele. Uphill: A Memoir (nonfiction). An interview with Jemele Hill on NPR prompted me to buy this book. Careers in journalism are very different from life as a bookseller but also focus on words and writing. Hill is from Detroit, therefore a Michigan author. Perhaps the fact that she is a sportswriter made my choosing this book surprising because, in general, I could not care much less about sports, but Hill has always gone beyond sports in her career as a journalist, and her social insights and opinions fascinate me. (When asked to write an opinion column, she wondered why anyone would care about her opinions and was astonished by how deeply her readers cared.) Also, along the way, I picked up a couple of wonderful uses of contemporary Black English, one I’d seen before on a friend’s Facebook posts, the other a new word to me: “Ride or die” was the phrase; caucasity the new word I learned. Brilliant word!


119. Barry, Jane. A Time in the Sun (fiction). This one, like the nonfiction Empire of the Summer Moon, was a book that I both wanted and didn’t want to read. Western frontier history, whether fictionalized or not, is brutal – and often, to make it worse, it is inappropriately romanticized or has a political axe to grind, so wariness is my byword. Barry’s book, as it turned out, was of particular interest to me, as the story was set in southeast Arizona, from Apache Pass (between the Chiricahua and Dos Cabezas mountain ranges) up to Fort Grant and over to Tucson. It is hauntingly well written. Of course, it ends in tragedy, for the Apaches and for more than one of the white characters, but what else could you expect? It is worth reading, both for the historical perspective, diversity of characters, and for the lyrical writing.


120. Solnit, Rebecca. Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (nonfiction). This book of essays is a re-issue, and re-issuing it was a good idea. Solnit’s message is that those “in love with despair” or so given over to pessimism and cynicism that they answer any bit of good news with “Yes, but –” is that there is good news, along with the bad and that it’s important to keep hope alive and celebrate victories even while continuing to fight for a better world. Hope in the Dark is a tonic, good for what ails many of us from time to time. 


And finally --

121. Penny, Louise. A Better Man (fiction). Many of my friends and bookstore customers are devoted fans of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache mysteries, and yet somehow I had never gotten around to reading any of them. There it was, though, on Margaret’s counter at Readers’ Cove in Deming, New Mexico, and the time seemed right. (Note: I seldom begin to read a mystery series with the first book. Instead, whatever title comes my way is where I dive in.) And now, count me as a fan of Inspector Gamache, especially of his three questions to ask oneself before speaking: Is it true? Is it kind? Does it need to be said?


So there are the books that kept me company from Michigan to Arizona. For me, the company of books has always been essential and never more so now that my only daily companion is a very vocal but not at all verbal 11-month-old puppy. 

The Artist remembered at Source of Coffee in Willcox, AZ

This morning, doing errands in Willcox, I was struck by all the places the Artist and I used to go together. In fact, nowhere did I go that we had not gone together, and every mile of the road between the cabin and town is a mile we traveled together countless times. It was – difficult. But everywhere I went, when paying for a purchase I made a point of saying, “Happy Thanksgiving” to the cashier, because while holidays can be particularly challenging for those of us who have lost a beloved partner, whenever I think (as I so often do), There are ghosts everywhere, in Arizona as well as in Michigan, I have to stop and remind myself that there are friends in both places, too, and that I have much for which to give thanks. 


Happy Thanksgiving, friends! A what have you read lately that you want to recommend?

Also how I live -- and always will.