Search This Blog

Thursday, December 29, 2022

How I Spent My Christmas Vacation

I'll explain this further down.

Here I am (since November) in what is at present my winter home, far from Michigan, a little rented cabin in an Arizona ghost town in the Sulphur Springs Valley, mountains looming all around, where a beautiful sunrise occurs just about every morning and a breathtaking sunset at the end of each day. Southeast Arizona’s landscape is austere and can seem unforgiving, forbidding, even foreboding, but in fact, the land is characterized by indifference rather than hostility, and I find comfort in Nature’s absence of malice. I also enjoy, here in the ghost town, sufficient distance between human habitations that we don’t often rub up against each other the wrong way.


My own small living space, large enough to share with my canine companion, in previous years accommodated me, our dog, and my dear husband, the love of my life. Now, there’s just me and the dog, and I miss David every minute! Make no mistake about that! Although in many ways he is still here, all around me -- in his paintings, his hats and boots, his books on the shelves with mine, unlimited memories, and constant thoughts. Every day I wear his watch and one of his favorite belts, and often I’ll reach for one of his caps or pull on a pair of his socks.

Me and my girl

On the morning of Christmas Eve, my neighbor and I took our usual long morning dog walk with Sunny Juliet. We hiked high enough in the foothills to reach ocotillo territory, and then quickly turned downhill again so Sunny would not disturb cows that had climbed high on the slope for the first sunlight of the day. Due to Midwest weather, my friend’s December 22nd flight to Detroit was cancelled, and I’d been reading books featuring travels in Mexico and Spain, re-igniting what had been until recently fairly dormant wanderlust. And so it was, as we compared notes on travels planned and desired, we decided on the spur of the moment to drive down to Whitewater Draw that very day to see the wintering sandhill cranes. 

Cranes by the thousand are very noisy, but I have always found their clattering, purling calls joyful and comforting. There were many other birds to see, as well. American shovelers, both male and female, have coloring reminiscent of mallards back in Michigan, though with much longer bills. Sweet little black coots scoot along with bobbing heads and then dive. My friend’s sudden excited cry of “Red bird!” drew my attention to a vermilion flycatcher. One waterside tree held a woodpecker (Ladderback? We didn’t have binoculars with us!), and if you look closely at the sign in the photograph below you’ll see what I think is a black phoebe.

Need telephoto for good photo of black phoebe, if that's what this is!

Long trail to largest flocks....

At the very far end of the longest path, even without the binoculars we had forgotten (along with field guides we’d also forgotten, so eager were we to get on the road), we were able to see a long line of about 100-150 snow geese, hunkered down near another even larger crowd of more sandhill cranes. I don’t ever remember seeing snow geese before, here or anywhere else, so that was exciting. 

That white line in the distance is a flock of snow geese.


Whitewater Draw was one of the Artist’s favorite places in Cochise County, its water scenes so reminiscent of the watery landscapes he loved to paint, that whenever we were there together he would ask me repeatedly to photograph certain scenes. He never painted directly from photographs, but he liked looking at them for inspiration, so on that sunny Christmas Eve afternoon I kept stopping to photograph scenes for him, a habit I’ll probably never break. 


That night I made the oyster stew (just for myself) that I’d planned for Christmas Eve supper. Lots of cubed potatoes, sliced celery, onions, mushrooms, evaporated milk, a little coarse kosher salt, and a small can of oysters. It was good. I had a second bowl. Then on my way to bed, rather than turning off my Christmas tree lights, I picked up the big platter that holds the tiny potted Norfolk pine with its battery-powered tiny lights and moved it over to the bedroom corner of the cabin where I could look up from my nighttime reading and see it from pillowland. In the morning I brought my 5 a.m. coffee and a cold blueberry pancake back to bed and shared the pancake with Sunny. “I’m glad you’re here,” I told her. “What would I do without you?”


My Christmas morning reading was the second chapter of The Mays of Ventadorn, by W. S. Merwin, a journey and exploration into a particular strain of troubadour poetry but, for me, also the story of Merwin’s finding a home away from home in a part of France that I too fell in love with.


…My vocation as a tourist has always been dubious. Reading a guidebook and then glancing up to identify what the resume has been summarizing is likely to seem to me, quite soon, like an exercise in alienation. I am more given to imagining what it might be like to spend time in a given spot, to get to know the sounds and the light, the people and the faces of the buildings, and how some of it had come to look the way it did.  


-      W. S. Merwin. The Mays of Ventadorn


This is the way I have always loved to travel and the way the Artist and I traveled together, “imagining what it might be like to spend time” here and there, which is why having a vacation “home base” – a hotel in Paris or in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the ghost town cabin here in Cochise County, Arizona – and making daily explorations out from that base was our perfect idea of travel, enriched and expanded always by armchair travel with our beloved books, often read aloud to each other, in whole or in part.


On the afternoon of Christmas Day, my regular hiking partner and I walked over across the highway for dinner with other neighbors and later walked home under a new moon in a lavender sky.

Then only two days later, again without planning ahead to do so, we took one of our longer, more ambitious hikes here in the ghost town environs, gaining about 400 feet in elevation and reaching an entirely different life zone, where green-leafed oak trees flourished. It was so exciting! Sunny proved herself an able rock dog, too -- explanation for my first photograph on this post.

And the day after that I accompanied my friend on a long, rainy, stressful expressway drive – to pick up her new puppy! All in all, quite a week! 


Now as 2022 draws to a close I look around this little cabin at my modest belongings and feel comfortably at home, lucky to be here, safe and warm, lucky to have little Sunny Juliet, to have good neighbors and blue skies, enough to eat, more than enough to read (no such thing as “too many books” in my lexicon!), and family and friends who keep in touch across the miles. It would be easy -- and sometimes, I admit, the temptation is more than I can resist -- for me to look at 2022 as a catalog of loss, but I guess if I have a single resolution for 2023, it is to continue to count my blessings daily and to recount them whenever I start feeling blue. But here's the tricky thing. Although people say, “Count your blessings,” they generally say it when a person is feeling more blue than blessed -- because why would you need reminding otherwise? – and yet it’s when I’m already feeling blessed and contented that I am more likely to enumerate positive reasons for good feelings. Does that sound familiar to anyone else? It’s those blue hours and moods that are difficult, although heaven knows -- and I am certainly aware -- that in this life I have been a very lucky woman.


Last Books (Almost!) Read in the Year 2022


129. Steinbeck, John. A Log From the Sea of Cortez (nonfiction)

The pattern of a book, or a day, or a trip, becomes a characteristic design. The factors in a trip by boat, the many-formed personality phases all shuffled together, changing a little to fit into the box and yet bringing their own lumps and corners, make the trip. And from all these factors your expedition has a character of its own, so that one may say of it, “That was a good, kind trip.” Or, “That was a mean one.” The character of the whole becomes defined and definite. 


Steinbeck’s chartered boat expedition with Ed Ricketts and crew to collect marine specimens in the Sea of Cortez between Baja California and the Mexican mainland in 1941 is as full of portraits of nature and philosophical topics as it is observations of the land and people encountered. Did you know that Steinbeck studied marine biology in college? Any fan of Cannery Row will find this book fascinating!



130. Lee, Laurie. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (nonfiction) 

Ever since childhood I’d imagined myself walking down a white dusty road through groves of orange trees to a city called Seville. The fantasy may have been induced by the Cotswold damp, or by something my mother had told me, but it was one of several such clichés which had brought me to Spain….


Laurie Lee’s writing is magical. He walks from his home village to London, travels by boat to Spain, walks across Spain – like a mad dog Englishman, without a hat, courting sunstroke! But who else has ever written like this? 

I was awakened next morning by the high clear voice of a young boy singing in the street below. The sound lifted me gradually with a swaying motion as though I was being cradled on silken cords. It was cool crisp singing, full-throated and pure, and surely the most painless way to be awakened – and as I lay listening, with the sun filtering over me, I thought this was how it should always be. To be charmed from sleep by a voice like this, eased softly back into life, rather than by the customary brutalities of shouts, knocking, and alarm-bells like blows on the head. The borders of consciousness are anxious enough, raw and desperate places; we shouldn’t be dragged across them like struggling thieves as if sleep was a felony.


131. Merwin, W.S. The Mays of Ventadorn (nonfiction)

…I was twenty-six, with no money at all and a house in the depths of the country in France. In all the years that followed, the house, the remains of the farm, the village, became a constant, insistent part of my life, invaluable, cherished, demanding, inescapable. 


(from late in Chapter 2)


…One attractive element in the farming life that had evolved by then in the Quercy was an unobtrusive independence of spirit, a quality rooted in the practice of polyculture – the growing of more or less everything. It was an immemorial system encouraged by the variations of the crumpled landscape with its small irregular fields fitted into the stony contours, but deplored by theorists as inefficient…. Most families possessed a few hectares of upland woods, a few hectares of open pasture in different places, a few hectares of arable land, which they farmed on a careful four-year system of rotation, a sizable number of ritually tended walnut trees, at least one vineyard, and at least one vegetable garden…. They grew much of what they ate, and all that they fed to their animals. They sold walnuts, plums, milk, wool, calves, lambs, cheese, and they raised tobacco some years as a cash crop. They thought that was the way it had always been….


(from early in Chapter 3)


You can see how for me, this was another book with subject matter and language to work magic on my soul.


All three of the books I’ve quoted from above are books I could quote from endlessly, so I have restrained myself and leave you only with these scanty passages to illustrate, I hope, the wonders provided in these priceless works by John Steinbeck, Laurie Lee, and W.S. Merwin.


132. Smith, Betty. Maggie-Now (fiction). I have read Maggie-Now almost as many times as I have read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the author’s most famous novel, and I love them equally. Highly recommended, both!


133. Robertson, Thomas A. A Southwestern Utopia (nonfiction). An excessive accumulation of facts that nevertheless failed to cohere into any kind of convincing atmosphere. Disappointing but no doubt important reading for researchers into experimental utopian communities. 

December disappointment: holiday lights and decorations in Willcox taken down way too soon!


Unexpected thrill this last week of the year: Western bluebirds at my feeders here in Dos Cabezas!

Life -- it is a mixed bag, my friends!


Happy new year


happy reading in 2023!!!

Thursday, December 22, 2022

“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like…”

Early morning, and I sit happily here under my Christmas tree! It’s only a foot and a half tall, but it perches atop one of my bookcases, so when I sit in the closest chair to that bookcase, as I am doing this morning, I look up at the lighted tree above. Yes, lighted! Our grandson’s family sent a string of tiny battery-operated lights just the right size for an 18” tree, so after sunset last night and early this morning I turned on the tree lights and am absurdly pleased. Adding to the effect and my happiness is the shape of the lights: each one is a miniature Eiffel Tower!

Next to the tree, what started out as a neat stack of holiday cards (actually, in the beginning I was standing them up until there were too many for the space) is now a sweet, slippy, messy pile, telling me every time I look that way that faraway friends have remembered me. There are also little presents that arrived early, and rather than put them away I arranged them on top of the bookcase where they make me smile, reminding me of family who love me.


On the table are pots of poinsettias that a neighbor bought for a dinner party and then passed along to me. So bright and beautiful! 

As is true for so many of you, I was happy to have the winter solstice arrive and to know that our hours of daylight will now grow longer and longer, but at the same time, with lights on my little tree I look forward to the dark of evening and don’t mind the dark of early morning, either. 


Funny how much difference a few tiny lights can make, isn’t it? 

Happy Holidays –

Let your little lights shine!

Monday, December 19, 2022

Smörgåsbord Grazing of the Bookish Variety

Happy holidays with (a few) jingle bells!


…There is an “idea” boat that is an emotion, and because the emotion is so strong it is probable that no other tool is made with so much honesty as a boat. Bad boats are built, surely, but not many of them. It can be argued that a bad boat cannot survive tide and wave and hence is not worth building, but the same might be said of a bad automobile on a rough road. Apparently the builder of a boat acts under a compulsion greater than himself. Ribs are strong by definition and feeling. Keels are sound, planking truly chosen and set. A man builds the best of himself into a boat – builds many of the unconscious memories of his ancestors….

- John Steinbeck, The Log From the ‘Sea of Cortez’


I wanted to title this post “Smörgåsbord of Books” and have that title in Swedish. Alas! Search as I might for a Swedish translation of the phrase, all I could come up with was books of recipes for a smörgåsbord, and it isn’t tasty food tidbits that is my subject today but a mode of reading that some of us get into from time to time, which consists of dipping into one book for a few greedy pages and then moving on to something entirely different, until one has bookmarks in half a dozen or so books.


This happened recently (once again, I should say, because it is no rare occurrence with me) because – I went to a book sale! Oh, more than that! I went twice, on the first day and again on the third and last day. I took my camera, thinking I might photograph the sale, but what was I thinking? Do I forget who I am? Of course I could do nothing but look at books, pick up books, make piles of books, until I had filled – well, never mind how many boxes! 


(How will I get all these books back to Michigan? The Artist and I had already accumulated so many books here in Arizona that the question was hardly a new one, and so, by my logic, it mattered not at all how many I added to an already-problematic collection. I’ll worry about transporting my treasures when the time comes.)

Winnowed through and rearranged #1

Before attending the sale, I was halfway through A Southwestern Utopia, by Thomas A. Robertson, the story of an experimental colony established in Mexico in the latter 1800s, based on Albert K. Owen’s principles of “Integral Co-operation,” but from my Thursday morning haul, I couldn’t resist slipping into the first few pages of Washington Irving’s A Tour on the Prairies. Irving made his expedition from the East Coast of the United States to Buffalo, New York, and from there to St. Louis and eventually into what is now Oklahoma, land that had been designated as “Indian country” but was already then, in 1832, being subjected to President Andrew Jackson’s infamous Indian Removal Act of 1830.

Winnowed through and reorganized #2

Thus I was deep in the nineteenth century of North America, with two different books competing for my attention; however, my Saturday’s repeat foray into the gigantic book sale overloaded my table of bookish temptations, and one little paperback in particular, the one quoted from at the head of this post, stole –and broke! – my heart from the very first page. 


The Artist and I were both, we had discovered early in our acquaintance, fans of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and found the character of Doc especially enchanting. So imagine my mingled delight and heartbreak to find the first 70 pages of the little volume in my hands devoted to Steinbeck’s reminiscences of Ed Ricketts, the friend on whom he modeled the character of Doc! And then – he and Ed, a.k.a. “Doc,” are going on off together on a boat! The Artist, a self-described “stone Pisces,” although never a sailor, loved boats! Houseboats and rowing boats, mostly, though he didn’t turn up his nose at a quiet trolling motor. 

River Rat's summer abode

But he would read about any kind of adventure on any kind of boat, from Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat to Melville’s Moby Dick, and I am finding it almost unbearable that he never had a chance to read this book that would undoubtedly have had a prominent place on his shelf of favorites. So when I wake up at 2 a.m. and reach for the little volume, I am reading it for him as much as for myself. 

An Arizona friend had a request, though, and I turned my mind to that on Sunday afternoon. She wanted “something light” for her holiday flight back east to visit family in Michigan. When I found two different Laurie Lee titles at the sale, Cider with Rosie and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, my first thought was, Perfect! But then I wondered. Maybe that wouldn’t exactly be my friend’s cup of tea. I know that when she reads novels, she focuses more on action and dialogue than description – in fact, she confesses that she sometimes skips over long passages of description. So with that in mind, I went back to my shelves, and when a little paperback edition of The Borrowers, by Mary Norton, whispered, “Take me!” I thought, yes, that’s a good choice. Still playing it safe, however, I went to my Southwest corner, where Lisa G. Sharp’s memoir, A Slow Trot Home, seemed another likely winner. There! Three books – and all together, in volume and weight, less than many a hardcover novel. This way, whichever book she tries first, if it doesn’t suit her mood, she will have backup. But then, naturally, I had to read the first few pages of both the Laurie Lee books! 


It was 1934. I was nineteen years old, still soft at the edges, but with a confident belief in good fortune. I carried a small rolled-up tent, a violin in a blanket, a change of clothes, a tin of treacle biscuits, and some cheese. I was excited, vain-glorious, knowing I had far to go; but not, as yet, how far. As I left home that morning and walked away from the sleeping village, it never occurred to me that others had done this before me. 

    -  Laurie Lee, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning

Also, since I had a lot of work to do, what with de-acquisitioning and rearranging books to make room for those recently acquired, naturally I was looking into several of those “new” books and couldn’t help reading a couple of chapters in Edmund Wilson’s Red, Black, Blond and Olive: Studies in Four Civilizations, which reads more like a detailed travel narrative than a sociological tract, I’m happy to say. 

Minimally rearranged; cannot eliminate much from this corner.

Tucked away -- but not completely out of sight like the 17 books in a box in the closet!


Well, Sunday was a grey day. Overcast. Chilly. I’d thought I might drive to Willcox for fresh-roasted coffee beans but decided to stay put with puppy and private library instead. Sunny Juliet and I did some more “work” on identifying her various toys (rabbit, skunk, kong, ball, bear), although she would have been just as happy or happier to have me throw the tennis ball from one end of the house to the other, over and over, if we were going to stay indoors. 

Not a reader, but I love her!

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

A Time to Be Cozy

Late afternoon, Tuesday, Dec. 13


Sunshine burst forth again after yesterday’s rain and snow and an absolutely magical Tuesday morning here in the mountains, and we had a few more sprinklings of rain in Willcox and flurries of snow in Dos Cabezas in the afternoon. The first graders with whom I worked again at school today (as a helper to the regular volunteer who is my friend and neighbor) were excited about snow, but there were no holds barred when it came to paint colors on their snowflake ornaments. 

At home in Dos Cabezas, my little Norfolk Island pine was hardly an excess of holiday decoration, but it was calling for a little more than the few small ornaments I’d dressed it in, so I was happy to find a little packet of “jingle bells” at the thrift shop in Willcox. Strung on red thread, they were just the right size for my tiny tree. 


Painting with the children, having a little tree, writing a few cards to distant friends all help me feel a little holiday spirit, but this morning’s snow really helped. It was truly a morning of magic here in the mountains. 


What I’ve Read Lately


125. Cantu, Francisco. The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches From the Border (nonfiction). I wrote a little about this book (see in this post) when I was halfway through it, so I’ll just say again now that if you have any opinion about our southern border and haven’t read this book, you need to do it right away. 


Then I switched gears big-time, retreating to an earlier century and life in a small English cathedral town, followed by a sojourn in a small village in Quebec: 


126. Trollope, Anthony. The Warden (fiction) and 127. Trollope, Anthony. Barchester Towers (fiction) took me far from my personal cares and the political world strife of the year 2022. Poor, dear Mr. Harding playing his air cello when distressed – I love him so! 


128. Penny, Louise. The Madness of Crowds (fiction). Penny’s plot twists and turns make me dizzy, but I’ve never been one to figure out who-done-it, even with Agatha Christie. No, I read murder mysteries more for the sense of place (Cochise County with J.A. Jance’s Sheriff Brady books; Quebec for Louise Penny) and for the main, recurring characters and their lives. The Madness of Crowds was interesting for another reason, as it addressed the question of why great numbers of people are drawn to distasteful causes and then devote themselves to those causes with their very lives. 


And now I’m going back and forth between Peter Matthiessen’sThe Snow Leopard (a perfect read-in-front-of-the-fire nonfiction book for this time of year) and A Southwestern Utopia: An American Colony in Mexico, by Thomas A. Robertson, originally published in 1947, with a revised and enlarged edition appearing in 1964.  

Snow, children, jingle bells, books – and of course, always, my dear little Sunny Juliet! If only she could read, too, and be content with a book instead of wanting to go out again and again and again to play in the snow!

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.