Monday, August 31, 2015

Building Community, One Pony Clubber At a Time

This past weekend was the Old Dominion Pony Club Region's eventing rally. I'm proud to say that the pony club I run, Holston, sent two full teams. I'm even prouder to say that all ten competitors did very well.

I don't just mean in the riding part, though we had some fine success there. I don't even mean in Horse Management, an important component of all pony club competitions, even though the two Holston teams finished first and second, with only one point separating them.

I mean in the teamwork. I mean in community.

Ten years from now it will not matter what color ribbon any of these children won. It will not matter what their dressage score was. It will not matter whether or not they forgot their required body sponge or didn't label their hay, or remembered to wear their pony club pin at all times.

It will matter if they've grown into competent, responsible adults. It will matter if they've learned courage, resilience, empathy, compassion. It will matter if they've learned to treat their horses as partners, not machines; it will matter if they stand up for themselves and for each other.

And so my proudest moments were the quietest ones. Seeing oldest competitor on our team walking the youngest, on her pony, up to the dressage arena. Watching the youngest carefully sweep the aisle. The last minute flurry over each member headed to formal inspections. The attention every horse received.

When one of our members got bucked off her horse and had to take a trip to the emergency room (thankfully, she's fine): a club member grabbed her horse and got it out of the ring while paramedics attended the rider. Another member took the horse back to its stall, untacked and cared for it. Another took charge of the rider's helmet, safety vest, and boots. Different team members cleaned her tack and boots, not because those items had to be cleaned--they didn't--but just so she would know their concern.

Horses are a passion. Pony Club is a community I'm very grateful for.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Worshiping Jim Bob Duggar

For weeks now I've been keeping an eye on the Josh Duggar story. I wanted to know what would happen next. This sort of thing is important to me--he molested children, and got away with it; his parents and authorities who should have taken the allegations seriously didn't. So five girls--a minimum--are wounded, and, what's worse, are told their scars are unimportant and possibly their own fault. Five girls were hurt and yet left vulnerable, so it could happen again. Which it did. Josh molested them over a series of years.

If you've ever faced this sort of thing, you want there to be a reckoning. An acknowledgement of the seriousness of the crime. Some payback.

I wasn't expecting Josh to face criminal charges, since he and his family had cleverly evaded the statute of limitations. And, honestly, I thought of him as a victim too. A lot of people wanted to downplay his offenses as "experimentation." No. Experimentation is two four-year-olds comparing body parts. Experimentation is two non-related teenagers making out. Josh's behavior indicated real trouble, for which he needed real help. That he didn't get it is a tragedy I'm just beginning to understand.

Some people still love the Duggar family's "Christian values." Others have noted the cult-like deference to male authority, the multitude of sex offenders in the family's inner circle, the weird isolation of all those children from any semblance of the real world. The more I read about them the sadder I became. Because while everyone in the Duggar family is bending their knees to the same god, they aren't worshiping the creator of the universe, or Jesus Christ.

At age 17, after repeatedly being caught molesting children, Josh was sent away to do construction work and be lectured on Biblical principles (by a man who was recently accused of sexually harassing and molesting dozens of female employees). At age 20 Josh married a woman his father chose for him. Now he's been outed by Ashley Madison, OKCupid, and, eventually, himself, as a porn addict who cheated on his wife with strippers. Awful, but hardly surprising. He's a troubled man who never got help.

Nor is he getting it now. Josh has been sent to rehab at Reformers Unanimous, a "Christian" recovery center that purports to treat all sorts of problems--alcohol and drug addiction, porn and sexual addiction, but also eating disorders and, horrifyingly, something called "post-rape depression," by, once again, manual labor and prayer. According to the application for RU, clients will spend 8 hours a day doing volunteer work and several hours a day reading their Bibles and attending prayer groups and Bible study. No one is allowed to speak of their pasts, including why they are at the center. (So much for therapy!) No one receives actual counseling or medical therapy. Clients are not allowed any reading material or music. If they toe the line they can eventually make a limited number of monitored phone calls to pre-approved family members. Oh, and "negative remarks about the food will not be tolerated."

In other words, Josh has been put in a cult jail. If he'd been sent to an actual prison, he'd be able to read newspapers and magazines. He'd be allowed to complain about the food. He'd be permitted to think for himself. 

That's the rub. God gives us free will, but Jim Bob Duggar does not. His children have to act, speak, think and feel precisely as he permits--and, until recently, present perfect faces on national tv. When Josh Duggar disobeyed his parents before, his parents buried the evidence, and here's why:

Getting him real help would have exposed him to other points-of-view. He might have started to question the family's beliefs. He might have come into contact with non-fundamentalists and realized they weren't necessarily evil.

We don't know if Josh molested anyone else, or harmed any other woman besides his wife. Clearly, though, his sexual problems have not been resolved. So his father sent him off again, to another place where he won't be helped, but might be broken. To another place where his actions and thoughts will be precisely controlled.

The Duggars don't worship God. They worship Jim Bob Duggar.

Updated: Apparently, the church behind Reformers Unanimous has ties to convicted sex offenders. 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Of Course You Can't Have It All

I had a good reality check this morning. I woke up happy, made my daughter and I breakfast (husband left early to go perform surgery), wandered over to my office and got overwhelmed. It's time to start Draft Three of my novel. I had a book review due. I'm taking a crew of pony clubbers to event rally this weekend, and our club needs a second set of kits, much of the contents of which I need to purchase at Wal-Mart this afternoon. My office is a screaming mess. My laundry is clean but not folded.

Then I read the latest Rage Against The Minivan blogpost, in which the author wondered, at the tail end of her summer in which she's working full-time from home while taking care of four elementary-school children, whether it was really possibly to have it all. And I thought, of course not. You can have lots and lots--but never everything, and never all at the same time.

I've always been grateful that my husband earns enough to take the pressure off me. I've been able to be happily fulfilled as a writer, and pleased about the books I create, without needing to wonder how the bills will be paid or make artistic choices based on money. I've been able to set my own hours, and skip writing for a week if that's what needed to happen. (It makes me cranky. The family's usually glad when I go back to work.) I know how lucky I am: it's one of the reasons I take the time to work at Faith in Action every week.

But certainly "having it all" is a middle-class female problem. The woman working two fast-food jobs and trying to juggle day care without reliable transportation is not concerned with having it all. She doesn't have time to be. Also, I've yet to meet the man who's concerned about "having it all." Men make choices and live with them, as far as I can tell.

So I think we need to cut some of the angst. It's okay if everything isn't okay. To that end, this morning I wrote my book review (deadline), went to yoga, and reminded myself that I could buy milk at Walmart, thus cutting out a trip to the grocery store. Which might, if I'm lucky, give me time to fold my laundry before I head to the barn to get ready for event rally. Or not. Either way is really okay.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A Summer of Zipping my Lip

I've always thought it was important that I let my children live their own lives and make their own mistakes even though sometimes I am just dying to help them. Really help them. I can't help my son much right now as he's off to college, where, he tells me pointedly, he wears shorts and flip-flops to Mass. (I hear, "I still go to Mass.") I still want to give him All The Advice, but since he's 500 miles away I can't make him follow it, and, therefore, might as well spend my time on the phone with him talking about something more interesting, like whether or not Notre Dame has a chance at a title this year.

For my daughter this has been a summer of sitting on my hands. Zipping my lip. Trying not to make her the beneficiary of my wisdom, learning, and awesome scheduling skills. Late last spring, just as her tennis season let up, my daughter decided to attempt her pony club HB and C3 certifications.

I'm not going to throw all the jargon at you. All I'll say is that pony club has seven levels of horsemanship achievement and eight levels of riding achievement. The HB and the C3 are the sixth levels of both areas, and are the first nationally-tested levels. The national tests last two days each.

Let me explain a bit. At the HB, the candidate will be assigned a horse by blind draw. He or she will be asked to assess the horse's conformation in detail, describe any blemishes or unsoundnesses it has or might be predisposed to, discuss anatomy, blemishes and unsoundnesses in general, describe the horse's age based on its teeth, discuss equine teeth in general, make an educated guess as to the breeding of the horse, and, based on its overall age and conformation, suggest various riding disciplines it might be suited for. That would cover two or three sections of the test--there are more than 30.

Now, when club members that I'm not related to are preparing for these exams, I've found it pretty easy to stay out of their business. Sure, I try to help by scheduling prep classes, hauling kids and ponies to clinics, and getting them the resources they ask me for. But I don't ask them if their horse management handbook is up to date--at least, not every day. With my daughter it was more difficult. I could see that she should be studying intestinal parasites instead of playing computer games. I thought she should be working ahead on her conditioning plan. I wanted to tell her to do all the things, my way, on my time, and mostly I kept my mouth shut, but when I didn't she would say, "Mom. My test. Mine."

And I would back off, because she was right.

Our club has a really good reputation right now. Five of our members have attempted national exams; all five have passed. But pony club is really good at letting children fail, which, as I've said before, is something I love about it. Pony club doesn't hand any child anything; the child earns it all. My daughter took her HB exam in late July down in South Carolina, alongside 9 other candidates. There were about 30 sections to the exam, and if she failed five or fewer she could retest just those sections--fail six and she'd have to redo the entire thing. Of the ten candidates at my daughter's test, we know that at least four failed entirely. At least two passed, and at least two had sections to retest.

My daughter passed. She was even the only candidate who wasn't asked to quickly revise some of her paperwork--all hers was correct and complete on the first go. Even that danged horse management handbook.

She's a week out, now, from her riding exam. We'll be hauling her horse six hours to get there. I plan to spend the entire trip with my mouth zipped shut, sitting on my hands--well, metaphorically, since I'll have to drive.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Short Trip to the Big City

We had to make one of our periodic trips to Nashville last Friday. My daughter was out of school anyway, for Bristol's fall NASCAR race. (This is not as stupid as it sounds. When 120,000 people descend on a town of 40,000 people, traffic gets a little crazy, and some of the schools are near the track.) Also my son was leaving to go back to college--at the latest, on Saturday, but if the rest of us were going to Nashville on Friday anyhow, he'd leave Friday and spend a night in Knoxville visiting friends.

We miss him when he's not with us.

Nashville is about a five-hour drive from Bristol. It's possible for us to drive there, conduct our business, and drive back in one day, but it's dreadful. So my husband and I originally thought we'd fly to Nashville, then fly to Philadelphia where my daughter wants to look at some colleges, then fly home Sunday. That would have been a neat and useful plan except that none of the colleges' admissions offices were open Saturday, and none of the students would be back on campus. Wandering around empty locked buildings was not going to be very useful.

"Well," my husband said, "let's go to New York."

This seemed absolutely nuts. For starters, my daughter has been completely enmeshed in preparations for her first national pony club riding exam. She's been concentrating on her horse non-stop since mid-June. Ok, early June. But now we're very close to crunch time--shouldn't she put the entire weekend to use in the barn?

I've also lost control of several of the less meaningful aspects of my life, such as housework, the garden, pretty much the house and farm in general. I need to clean out my closet and the pantry and weed everything, and I have a list of people I need to call and some pony club stuff I need to do--and, oh yes, my editor just set a due date for draft #3 of the current novel. My husband is in a similar state: Sunday night he waved his hand at our bedroom, where we plan to get some furniture for a sort of empty nook, and also get curtains, and some new bedding now that the incontinent dog is dead--dead for a year now--and my husband said, "We are going to get our shit together, right?"

"Absolutely," I said.

But first we went to New York, and it was awesome. We got in late, late, and set an alarm pretty early so we could get up and shop at our favorite NYC store, Filene's Basement. Turns out Filene's closed in January 2012 (you can tell we don't shop in NY often). So instead we went to a place called Century 21, which was similiar--lots of medium to high-end clothes on discount. My daughter found a good dress and some jeans. I bought a pair of very classy yoga pants (trust me) and some shirts. I also had a field day with the real designer clothes. I love textiles. Most of the very-high-end stuff doesn't fit me, as apparently if you're a fancy designer you only want skinny people dropping big bucks on your clothing, but what the hey. I found a white silk taffeta skirt stiff with embroidery and beading on sale for only $1000 (no, of course not. Also it didn't fit. Also where would I ever wear something like that?). I tried on a really cool windbreaker--hard to describe, but honestly a windbreaker--that was discounted to $500. My husband agreed it was super cool. Then we laughed hysterically at the idea of my wearing a $500 windbreaker out to the barn, and put it back on the rack.

Lunch, more shopping. The fabulous farmer's market in Union Square. I love NYC farmer's markets. If I'd had more time I would have pumped for visiting Dean & DeLuca's or Books of Wonder, but instead we cleaned ourselves up, had a lovely dinner--an Italian restaurant just off Broadway, caprese salad, gnocchi and tiramisu--and went to see The Book of Mormon.

It wasn't my favorite musical ever--as my daughter said, they got to funny and kept going into not-as-funny--but it was so well done. I love tap dancing. I love listening to talented people sing.

Afterwards we had a drink at the revolving lounge on top of our hotel, and fell into bed, where we slept so late there wasn't much time on Sunday to do anything but eat a lovely brunch, take a small walk, and head for home. The funny part was how much good it did us all--particularly my daughter. Giving her something to think about besides her horse and her rating seems to have dropped her stress level a lot. It didn't do a thing to improve the mess about the house, the bedroom, the weeds--but hey, it also  didn't make those worse.

Win-win, I call it. Win-win

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Josh Duggar, Ashley Madison, and Christian Persecution

Sometimes I fall down internet rabbit holes. I did last night, when I saw on a Facebook sidebar that Josh Duggar apparently had an account at Ashley Madison.

I was vaguely aware of Ashley Madison. I've heard of it before, but if, out of the blue, you'd asked me, "Who is Ashley Madison?" I would have thought perhaps one of my daughter's classmates, or my son's.

Ashley Madison is actually an internet sleazeball site whose slogan is, "Life is short. Have an affair."

Awesome. Life is short. Damage all the relationships you have. Or only have fake relationships. Whatev.

Anyhow, I keep holding out faint, ridiculous hope that Josh Duggar will suddenly understand why molesting his sisters was an actual crime. I keep hoping he'll go to jail, or at least get the hell off tv. But there's been a big 'ol data hack at Ashley Madison and Josh was the first leak. While fathering four children in five years, he's also been advertising, and paying for, a chance at some sex on the side.

So this is completely scurrilous, and I'm reading all about it, and I get to the comments on the webpage and here come the claims of Christian Persecution. The new American Christian Persecution Complex. It was extraordinary. According to the new ACPC, the only reason anyone would ever say nasty things about a good Christian boy like Josh Duggar is that they are persecuting Christians.


Christian persecution is completely real. It's happening in much of the world, primarily Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. According to Open Door, a website with a pretty good handle on what persecution actually means, the most difficult countries for Christians right now are North Korea, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. These are places where Christians are being killed because of their religion. These are places where churches are being burnt down.

Open Door has a world map colored to show the degree of persecution Christians are experiencing in each country. The United States of America is white. As in, none.

Because when people dislike your favorite reality tv show, that's not persecution. When people disagree with your opinions or even your particular Christian sect's beliefs on anything--gays, lesbians, transgender people, global warming, evolution, the age of the earth, transubstantiation, women priests, eating pork, getting tattoos--that is not persecution.

Unless you are suffering actual physical harm, unless your church is being physically destroyed, unless you are being prevented from worshiping as you chose, you are not being persecuted.

If Josh Duggar is your particular Christian poster child, I hope you'll change your mind. I disagree with you. Strongly. But, in doing so, I am not persecuting you. If you still doubt me, I suggest you spend some time in North Korea, Somalia, or Iran. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Three Spoons of Sugar

Once, when I was in college, I went over to a friend's family's place for dinner (they lived near the school). After dinner, my friend brought me a mug of tea, which I back then I liked to drink after every meal. I took a sip, and it was sweet: she'd added sugar. I always sugar my tea. I remember, at that moment, feeling so loved, that I was in the company of people who fixed my tea the way I liked it without even asking.

I recount the story not because it's particularly interesting or relevatory, but because I'm aware that I've got back to it in my own fiction, twice: both times the addition of sugar to tea is a small symbol of the relationships between my characters.

In The War That Saves My Life, Susan, an adult who's taken in my two evacuees, Ada and her brother Jamie, stays in bed for an entire day quite soon after the children come to her. Susan's grieving and this is a bad anniversary for her. The children don't mind being left to their own devices--Ada prefers it, in fact--but midafternoon Ada makes Susan a cup of tea and they take it into Susan's bedroom:

"[Susan] took a sip, and fresh tears sprang to her eyes. 'You've sugared it,' she said.

That was how she took it. One sugar, no milk. I'd watched. 'Yes, miss,' I said, ducking a little in case she tried to smack me. 'Not much, though. There's plenty of sugar left. I didn't take any.'"

You can see several things in this small exchange. One, that Ada is very, very watchful. Two, that she still expects to be smacked for everything she does. Three, that she wouldn't dare take sugar for herself. You can see she expects to do the caretaking for the adults around her, and that she's fully capable of making tea, even on a coal-fired range she doesn't fully understand. You can also see that Susan is moved by Ada's care. Susan realizes that she should be taking care of the children, not the other way around, but this is the first hint that their relationship might be mutually healing.

I've just now realized, because I read the manuscript over yesterday, that sugaring tea shows up in my sequel, too. It's now 1941: in England, rationing has hit hard, especially on sugar and tea. Ada and Jamie are still in Susan's care. It's Christmas day, the first Christmas after the death of someone they loved, and they're all trying to make the best of a very hard situation.

'At one point I took Susan a second cup of tea, and watched carefully when she sipped it. "Oh, Ada!" she said, breaking into a smile. "You sugared it!"
I had. I'd saved some back from my own ration. Susan loved sugar in her tea. I'd grown up drinking it without.'

Now there's no feeling of appeasement, no fear. Ada has her own ration of sugar which she uses as a gift. It's clear now that they love each other.

You've got to be careful around us writers. We're going to use everything you say and everything you do. You probably won't recognize it, though. We're alchemists: we turn sugar into gold.

Monday, August 17, 2015

God as a Vending Machine

This morning I read Glennon Melton's most current blog post, about not trying to pray away mental illness any more than you might try to pray away physical illness. Her exact quote was, "If you wouldn't go to your minister for a mammogram, don't go to her for depression."

Now, before you get all outraged, neither Glennon nor I are suggesting that people not pray, or that God can't sending healing, or that ministers don't have a place in society. What we're saying is that mental illnesses-not transient feelings of sadness or worry, but crippling conditions like depression and anxiety--need to be seen for physical illnesses that they are. You can pray to God to cure your cancer, but you also need to see an oncologist. Sometimes God is healing you with a big whopping dose of chemo, or with an operation, or--dare I say it?--by gifting you with antidepressant medicine for the rest of your life.

I see more than one big, big, big problem with people relying on faith and prayer alone to cure for mental illness. The first is that prayer by itself isn't nearly as effective as medicine and real, non-faith-based therapy (there are some really cool therapies coming out of the latest findings in neuroscience--Google brainspotting for a start). The second is that people with untreated depression sometimes kill themselves, or abuse their children, or fail to thrive in many different ways that have permanent negative effects. The third is that when prayer alone doesn't work, mentally ill people can feel neglected by God--they can in fact be driven away from God.

The biggest problem, though, stems from the root thought behind this approach, which is the same as that behind the Prosperity Gospel (you know, where you pray to get lots of money, and ponies, and a Cadillac): it turns God, the divine incomprehensible Creator of all things seen and unseen, into a common vending machine. A vending machine in the service of humans.

Here's how it works: we deposit prayers, like coins. We chuck some prayers, some faith, some Bible verses, into our God vending machine, and we push the little button to select the result we want: health, wealth, children, a Cadillac. We push the button, and whoosh! a miracle cure, or a pony, falls into our hands. Or doesn't. If it doesn't, we throw in some more coins, and try again. The argument is that if we just put in coins enough, the machine will automatically cough up the prize.

This is not faith. This is the absence of faith. Faith is the sort of trust that says, Here's what I want, and I'm doing all I can as a human to get it, but God, I know everything isn't up to me, and in all cases Your will be done.

That's a hard sentence, because it doesn't guarantee you a prize. Ok, God, I'm doing everything I can do--using every gift you've given me, including medicine, including therapy--and I want to be well, but if it doesn't happen I trust that your understanding exceeds mine. I'm okay with whatever comes next. 

It's a hard sentence, but a hopeful one. It means that you don't have to worry about running out of coins. It means that you're allowed to use all the science at your disposal, and--this is important--it removes the shame from mental illness. Because while people aren't ashamed of having cancer, they're often still ashamed of becoming depressed.

When I fell to pieces, a decade ago, I said to my therapist, "Wait. You're saying that depression is caused by chemical irregularities in my brain. You're also saying that in my case my depression is caused by or made worse by my history of childhood abuse. In order for both of those things to be true, the abuse would have had to cause physical changes in my developing brain."

And she said, "Absolutely."

I felt this shimmering relief.

That was ten years ago; more recent neuroscience--a fascinating field, if it had existed when I was in college I very well might have majored in it--confirms and expands upon it.

And so, I went to weekly therapy for several years. I still have occasional sessions--a recent brainspotting one was absolutely amazing, and I'll certainly blog about it at some point. I take antidepressant medication every single day. I tried coming off it once; that was bad for everyone, my husband, my children, and me. I won't try it again.

I also take asthma medicine every single day. For years I struggled to keep my symptoms under control, but now with this new stuff, Advair, I'm doing great. I've had three separate physicians tell me that I was very lucky not to have died from asthma as a child. They weren't kidding. But now I'm able to exercise without a flare. I used to take four separate medications for several days in advance every time I competed cross-country. I haven't had to do that the last three years.

It's awesome, this healing. I thank God every day for it. But also, I take my medication. I'm pretty sure my faith in God requires that I do.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Sarah Time

"When I'm talking to my friends," my daughter said, "And I say, 'Sarah,' they say, 'Which Sarah--Sarah the horse or Sarah the priestess?'"

I love several things about that sentence:

1. That I named my horse after my friend. Because, let's face it, the likelihood of naming a daughter after her was getting extremely small,  and yet, what a pleasure to say her name every day.

2. Also, the horse named Sarah is fabulous.

3. That Sarah-my-friend is, in fact, a priestess--an ordained Episcopalian priest, no less, not one of those odd wiccan types. She doesn't usually go by priestess, but, you know, I think she should. It sounds badass.

4. Especially this: that when my daughter says 'Sarah,' her friends know that one of the options is Sarah-the-priestess, despite the fact that my daughter hasn't seen Sarah-the-priestess since her ordination, in January 2010.

Sarah-the-priestess is one of my childhood best friends. She's trilingual, with degrees from Yale and Vanderbilt as well as her seminary. She's a nun living in an semi-enclosed community with a monastic devotion to daily prayer. She's also my daughter's godmother. In Haiti, where Sarah lived for several years, the position of godmother is so important that the word for it is "co-mere," as in "co-mother." Sarah has mothered my daughter very well from afar, with lots of letters and postcards, emails, Facebook postings, and love.

For the past three days Sarah and I have been taking a watercolor class together, in Linville where our mountain house is. It's been tremendously fun--more on that later--but, since my daughter already started high school and my husband and son were out of town, we ended up commuting back and forth. We'd get home late, and I'd cook dinner. I felt exhausted by the end of all three days--a combination of intense concentration during the class, three hours of driving, and no yoga--but then we'd hang out in the kitchen, Sarah, my daughter, and me. Sarah and I would sip some wine. Sarah would take photo essays of my recipes, for her blog. My daughter would tell us all about her school day, and about the horses, which she took care of in my absence, and other things, and then we'd eat dinner at the table by candlelight.

Twice when I went up to bed my daughter and her godmother stayed up talking, cozily. Whenever I can swipe a bit of Sarah's summer vacation, I take it. But she was ordained and then she was in Haiti, and then spent all last summer seeing her mother through a terrible accident--I went to see Sarah then--at any rate, I don't get this opportunity as often as I'd like, or as often as my daughter would like. We're reveling in it, in every precious moment.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Visiting Jane Eyre

My daughter just now left the house for the start of her senior year of high school. I didn't take a photo, though I should have: her standing on the steps holding a sign saying, "Twelfth grade." She wouldn't have let me but it's a nice idea.

Last night we were both sprawled on couches, reading. I finished Kate Atkinson's new novel, A God in Ruins, which was brilliant. My daughter was reading Jane Eyre, her assigned summer reading. At one point she let out a sad sigh.

"Helen Burns?" I asked.

"Yes," she said. "Not like you couldn't see that coming, but still."

My daughter told me she'd skipped most of her volume's introduction: "lonely Yorkshire, children dying, all the survivors writing, Branwell crazy, blah, blah...been there."

She wasn't merely being sarcastic: she has been there. We spent two nights in Leeds, England, on vacation this year, and one of the places we visited was the Bronte parsonage in Haworth.

Now, I don't know what images you retain from reading about the Brontes in high school, but when I read about the desolate, windswept, Yorkshire moors I mostly pictured the family struggling on a barren crag, miles from the nearest neighbor. Also, given the rate at which the Brontes died off (mother before her youngest child was two, then the eldest two daughters at ages 11 and 9, then Anne on the living room couch and Emily by the sea, Branwell drinking himself to death, and Charlotte, the survivor, making it all the way to age 38) and the wretched tubercular school the girls were sent to, I pictured a fairly poverty-stricken existence, small fires unable to adequately heat draughty comfortless rooms.

Well. Not exactly. The Bronte parsonage is, like Jane Austen's cottage in Chawton, remarkably unchanged (or restored) from the time when that wildly talented family lived there. It sits like on crown atop Haworth, a village resembling an Italian hill town, all small cobbled lanes winding upwards, and, for the time, it was pretty lush. Carpets, wallpaper, good furniture. Pretty writing desks, books. You can see the actual sofa on which Anne died, as well as her still-bloody linen handkerchief (not making that up), one of Charlotte's dresses, and many samples of writing in the sisters' hands. Haworth has a bustling, intimate feel--of course, it's a prosperous little tourist town now, with open-air seating at Branwell's favorite pub. From what I read and the photos I saw at the little Bronte museum, Haworth used to be fairly unpleasant, with open sewers running alongside the streets and a water supply tainted by the fact that the cemetery was at the very top of the hill. Charlotte's father, in fact, petitioned for a new water supply, and got one. Life expectancy in Haworth during the Bronte's time was not good--but not as bad as in the parsonage itself.

I didn't feel the awe at Haworth that I felt at Chawton, but that's probably because I don't love the Brontes as much as I love Jane Austen. I do like them pretty well, however, and I retain a strong affection for Jane Eyre.

"Is there something wrong with Jane?" my daughter asked, at the start of her reading.

"No," I said, "she's just sad and lonely. Why?"

"Everyone's so mean to her."

"That's because they're hateful," I said. (Is there a tiny bit of Jane Eyre in my character Ada? Maybe. Never thought of that before.) "It gets better," I said.

Reader, she marries him.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Lunch With My Girlfriends

Yesterday I had lunch with some of my girlfriends, for the first time all summer. We've been trying to get together, really trying to coordinate our schedules, since school let out at the end of May.

I'd say that's unfortunate except that I don't believe it. We've all been running around with our arms full of such good things. Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years ago we could meet more regularly for lunch. We went to kid-friendly places and commandeered all the highchairs and stuffed our babies and toddlers inside them. We talked while dumping Cheerios onto trays and spooning baby food and wiping noses.

It seems like yesterday. S-- ran out to the car to grab something, and her small son swiveled in his high chair, stared at me in horror, and said, "Hey! Where's my mom?" T-- took a photo at one of these lunches of my daughter, perhaps two years old, playing with a small toy on the table. That photo is framed and sitting on my bookshelf.

We grabbed coffee before preschool pickup. We chaperoned kindergarten trips to the Nutcracker. We met at endless, endless t-ball games, endured grade-school "talent" shows, talked about discipline and spelling bees and what age our children should get cell phones.

Now we've got one child graduated from college, recovering from surgery, looking for a job. Another serving in the military. Several applying to college. One getting his first apartment. One planning to study abroad. All our children are starting to figure out what they want from life, what they love, who they want to be.

Yesterday we couldn't wait until these kids got out of diapers. Today we're amazed how this summer has flown. Tomorrow we'll get together for lunch again. Only somewhere with a wine list, please.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

First Review

My husband does not love to read. He reads for information more than pleasure, and though the occasional novel catches his eye, he mostly sticks to nonfiction. However, because he loves me and because he knows that it's important to me, he reads all of my books as soon as I tell him I'm ready for him to do so.

For the sequel to The War That Saved My Life--very, very tentatively titled The War I Finally Won--that came last week, when I finished the first full draft. I printed out all 270 pages, and my husband sat down and read a chapter or two a day.

I appreciated this very much. He knows I do.

He didn't make a lot of comments, since this was still a rough draft. I did get, "Hey, you mis-typed Maggie as Maddie," (Whoops! I once had a horse named Maddie) and "This sentence says, 'A half hour ago, when Lady Thorton got home half an hour ago...'" (Whoops again) and "What's isinglass?"

"Isinglass is a powdered natural form of gelatin made from the air bladders of certain fish," I said, from my office two rooms away.





Muttering from the living room.

[Please note: Susan stored the eggs in isinglass for winter because they didn't have a refrigerator. Refrigerators caught on very quickly in the 1920s in the United States, but in Great Britain, which has a more temperate climate and much cooler summers, they really weren't popular until after WWII. I once wrote an article about the history of refrigerators. I can talk refrigerator for a long time.]

Anyhow, at the start of yesterday evening, my husband had about 110 pages to go. After awhile I noticed that he wasn't stopping. He'd quit commenting, too, though I doubt my typos had disappeared. He just read. He kept reading.

I started feeling very happy. Now, I know the opinion of someone who loves me is necessarily invalid. Of course my husband is going to like my book. He loves me. But still, I had a fairly reluctant reader who Kept. Reading. Until the end. When he blinked hard several times.

It was awesome. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

What I Think About Cecil The Lion

Lately the news has been full of the death of Cecil the lion, who lived on a protected reserve in Zimbabwe, was illegally led off the reserve, shot by a rich American dentist, tracked injured for 40 hours and finally killed.

National public outrage has been immense.

I've been to South Africa, twice, and also Botswana. I go on photo safaris. I've seen Africa's Big Five, live. I love South Africa. I can't wait to return. And ever since I've first visited the open Velda I've been unable to stomach going to zoos.

It's not that I think zoos are wrong. I recognize the role they play in global conservation. I understand why my young nephews love to visit the zoo; I did once, too. Most people aren't lucky enough to go on safari.

I hate that Cecil was baited and illegally killed. I find all trophy hunting repugnant. There are all sorts of places in Africa where you can, for a very high price, shoot big game in fenced fields. I don't understand this at all. I don't mind hunting for food--it would be hard to be against that while I remain willing to eat meat.

But. The American outrage over one lion is chafing my nether regions. One lion, folks. One lion.

How many African children die from preventable causes in one day? From malaria, HIV, malnutrition?

How many children are worth one lion?
How many lions would you trade for the life of your child?

The outrage is in the wrong place.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Uprooted, my Babcia, and me

It seems like the deadline part of my summer is behind me now. I'm left with the piles and piles of stuff I ignored in deference to stuff that had to be done by a certain time. Yesterday my son and I finally started sorting through my children's playroom--a cozy slanted room above our garage that when we designed the house was intended as an attic space, but that when framed in proved too cute not to use. My children have outgrown the playroom, however, and eventually I'm going to move my floor loom up there, though I'm certainly keeping the best of our toys.

After that I read Naomi Novik's new novel, Uprooted. I'd been saving it for when I could read it in one or two long goes, because it was the sort of novel that needed real attention. Naomi Novik is primarily the author of the Temeraire series--intelligent dragons helping to fight the Napoleonic wars. I don't read a lot of fantasy or science fiction, because I absolutely hate it when it's done poorly. If I can poke holes in the world-building or the science, I lose my mind. (I'm also not a fan of endless world-building. I used to love Robin McKinley but her recent stuff bores me senseless.)

Anyway, I read the reviews of Uprooted and figured I'd like it, and I trust Naomi's writing ability. What I didn't expect was the memories her book brought back to me.

Some of the reviewers on Amazon call Uprooted a Russian fairy tale. It's not--it's Polish. It's not a traditional Polish story--I believe the whole plot is Naomi Novik's creation (and I looked her up--she's a first-generation Polish immigrant)--but it's completely Polish in the place names, and the character names, and, somehow, in the language itself. It brought to mind a flood of very early childhood memories, visiting my babcia and dziadek (I just looked those spellings up in Google translate; I pronounced them "bushy" and "jah-jee.") in their little house in Gary, Indiana. Babcia, my mother's mother's mother, would pour me a little glass of 7-up and then, with a smile, dribble a bit of cooking sherry into it, so that it turned pink. Dziadek was blind from an accident in a steel mill. He'd come to America as an adult and never spoke English well. According to the rest of my family he'd been a stern parent and a somewhat disinterested grandparent, but when I sat on his lap in the front room he would run his fingers gently over my face. Then he would smile and say the only English word I ever heard him use: pretty.

Everyone spoke Polish, words floated around my head, all those comforting phrases. Babcia had a little garden out back, with tomatoes, I think. She also brewed her own beer. They came down the front steps very slowly, blind Dziadek leaning heavily on Babcia's arm, when we picked them up to go to Mass. Their parish priest spoke Polish, too.

I remember them as being the oldest people I ever knew, and was shocked to learn, years later, that they were both in their early 70s when they died. Dziadek's funeral postponed my seventh birthday party. After that Babcia came to live with my grandmother. After a few months she decided to visit her younger son, my Uncle Johnny, in California, and we all drove to O'Hare to see her off. We waved and waved as her big jet pulled away. A few weeks later she had a heart attack while Uncle Johnny was at work, and died.

My family stopped speaking Polish as there was no longer any need. I still use a few phrases, most of them rude. But I remember more than I realized; Uprooted brought it all back.