Back from Willa Cather Country.

Red Cloud, NE – childhood home of Willa Cather.

After more than a year in lockdown with my out of control mind, a few days in Willa Cather’s Red Cloud, NE helped me decompress and put aside the crazy. It’s a tiny spot on the map, plopped down in a sparsely-populated, very politically Conservative state. With a population of 1,095, the town is so quiet I half expected skittering tumbleweeds. I drove so long without seeing another soul, I began to suspect the Rapture had left me the sole representative heathen in possession of all the bounty – a prospect that appeals, friends. I didn’t test the theory, but I suspect a person could stand in the middle of pretty much any highway in Nebraska for hours straight with zero danger to personal safety.

Things are a bit quieter there.

Joking aside, Nebraska is ruggedly beautiful. It’s peaceful, and the people I met were unfailingly friendly and kind. On a couple side-trips from Red Cloud, I pulled over to check my GPS was behaving because it seemed to have problems navigating with multiple destinations. Two of those times, locals pulled up to ask if I was okay, seeing I was a woman traveling alone. One Nebraska farmer didn’t just confirm I wasn’t in distress, he invited me to come back and see his house all lit up at Christmas – all 25 feet of Peace on Earth.

These are not things in the Chicago metro area. This is not the norm. I gathered that in Nebraska, it is.

Pretty Nebraska, start of the Great Plains.

My Red Cloud trip was as close to unplanned as it’s possible to be, without running the risk of finding myself without lodging. I rented a charming, tiny home via Airbnb and checked that the Willa Cather sites would be open in the middle of the week. That was it. I figured there were groceries to be had, a couple restaurants, all the basics. And there were, but I didn’t realize how early the sidewalks roll up. Arriving just after 4:00 p.m. the first day, once I’d settled in I thought dinner in town sounded appealing, seeing as I hadn’t stopped to eat on the 10-hour drive, fueled by Triscuits and cheddar cheese alone. Unfortunately, a quick Google revealed the grim truth: Red Cloud does have a handful of places to find food but all of them – except Subway and a gas station that serves pizza – were closed or would be closing in the next few minutes. The local population doesn’t support restaurants open all day every day, as is the case where I live. There is a wine bar, curiously, but as it turned out they’re open only Thursday through the weekend. And I was not there Thursday through the weekend.

Bummer.

While I said I planned nothing, I had packed a few groceries – food for a couple meals, plus granola and shelf-stable milk for breakfast. Pandemic food, basically. I learned my lesson. I wasn’t going to starve, but it was disappointing there was no charming little cafe on main street serving home-cooked food, as I’d dreamed of in my imagination. That was true of the entire trip. I availed myself of Subway once, from sheer necessity and convenience while out driving around. Otherwise, I stopped at a bar and grill for a burger my last day, hoping for some of that Nebraska corn-fed beef. You know how on TV you’ll see the stranger walk into a restaurant and people stop talking, turning to look? That. I grew up in a very small town that could smell an outsider. I get it. I’ve also travelled a lot and been the only American, even more uncomfortable than walking into a spot small-town locals hang out. There’s no malice in it. It’s not my favorite thing, but you get over it.

My Airbnb.

Willa Cather’s childhood home.

Considering I didn’t actually check the map to gauge the distance between the place I rented and the Cather sites, I serendipitously found myself a 10-minute walk from her childhood home – almost literally around the block. Before you go thinking that’s miraculous, remember – Red Cloud is SMALL. There is literally one North-South road, one East-West road. If ever there were a town with my name written all over it, it’s this. Even I cannot get and stay lost in a town of this size.

The place to start touring Cather Country is the National Willa Cather Center. It’s on Main St. You cannot miss it. It’s outsizedly huge in Red Cloud’s downtown. The museum is phenomenal. I cannot overstate how impressed I was by the holdings in the museum, the short film introducing her life, bookshop, and town tour that, at $ 20, is one of the best deals it’s possible to get anywhere. I’ve been to a lot of author’s homes, in the U.S. and abroad. This is one of the most impressive set ups I’ve seen, as far as amount and quality of information and access to resources. It says a lot that I went to Red Cloud with a vague idea Cather was important and left feeling an obsessive need to learn more.

She was a fascinating human being, in so many ways. A precocious child, Cather’s intellectual interests were indulged and encouraged by her family. Virginians who left partly because of their Union sympathies. the Cathers arrived in Red Cloud when she was nine years old. At the time, some of the major buildings hadn’t yet been built. Real estate was her father’s business, and he set up his office in the downtown area.

Young Willa loved music and was active in school productions held at the Opera House. She read extensively, and this tiny town of rural immigrants fed her imagination. The people she knew became characters in her books, not always in an entirely flattering light. But her passion for Red Cloud and support of its institutions even after she’d moved away endeared her to them. They may not have approved of everything about her, but the townspeople had great affection for Willa Cather.

Her bedroom, in the stifling hot attic.
Original wallpaper. Cather took it in payment from her job at the drugstore, putting it up herself.

I fell for her, too. Between the museum, the tour, the books I bought and have started reading, and drives around her dramatic Nebraska landscape, I developed a literary crush on this larger-than-life editor, critic, novelist and writer of short stories. She’s enthralling, as much for her adventurous, world-traveling spirit as the deceptively quiet, focused fiction she wrote about the place she grew up. Willa Cather did not write solely of Nebraska, but her most famous works are portraits of the citizens of Red Cloud.

I selected Edith Lewis’s bio of her partner from the pile of books I staggered out of the museum carrying, flying through it too quickly to fully digest. Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record is just that – a somewhat rough sketch of Cather the writer, created by the person who knew her best and lived with her for decades. Lewis writes about some of the works, not delving into literary criticism or deep study. There is nothing written of their relationship, not one personal anecdote, which disappointed me. I wasn’t looking to be titillated; I’d hoped Edith Lewis would relate everyday stories, informal portraits of what their life together was like. The book is anything but intimate. Lewis refers to her partner formally as “Willa Cather” throughout, never Willa, never Cather. It was a good introduction, if biased.

Deeper study will need to come from other sources.

Willa Cather and Edith Lewis shared their lives for more than 40 years, from 1902 to Cather’s death in 1947.

My few days in Red Cloud gave me what I needed: quiet respite, the peace of solitary wanders through the stately Great Plains, and the opportunity to become acquainted with an iconic American writer. It left me with more questions than answers, more avenues to investigate than epiphanies – which is precisely the way I like it. I never want to reach the end of all roads leading toward literary exploration.

Parlor, Cather family home. Table in left foreground is original to the house.
Young Willa, in Hiawatha costume.
Cemetery found in my wanderings.

Hold that thought, Red Cloud. I just may be back someday.

Writing from Hemingway’s birthplace: Many True Sentences

Parlor – Ernest Hemingway birthplace, Oak Park, IL

It’s dead quiet. If the spirits of the Hemingways are here, they’re gliding noiselessly.

The entire first floor of the Hemingway birthplace is all mine for the day, not a soul disturbing my peace. Closed to tours, the only other sentient being in the place is the maintenance man’s wife, working from the basement because their power is out. Just me and the ghost of young Ernest, born in a bedroom above my head. He lived here from birth through age six, not a very long time. Not a big percentage of his life. Still, a formative period.

It is so Victorian, so opulent and over-wrought. Beautiful, in its exaggerated way, reminding of starched shirts and generous skirts with bustles. No one would be slouching as I am on the velvet chaise, of that I’m sure. Hardwood trim intricately carved, heavy furniture with thick brocade fabric, flowery wallpaper awash with pink roses on a Wedgwood-blue background. Carpet is true to the period, bright red with flowers mirroring those on the wall. It smells strongly of air freshener. Oppressively so. It’s cool and dark, save for this part of the parlor, awash in sunlight. In fact, I wish I had a heavier sweater.

I’m finding it tough to settle. Could be the Hemingways aren’t as thrilled to have me as I am to be working here. Could be ADHD. Pretty sure we know the answer to that.

Visitors keep popping by, walking around the porch. I’m working on my DO YOU MIND? glare. A family with kids. I’ve dragged my children to their share of dead writers’ homes. I can probably guess what they’re thinking: when’s lunch and why should I care who this guy was?

Why, indeed.

The parlor, looking toward my workspace.

Imagine a young Ernest Hemingway barrelling down the stairs, running down to the kitchen to beg for a treat, servants either flustered or endeared, who’s to say. In my mind he was precocious. How could he not have been? The boy who’d go on to win the Nobel Prize. Backing up, think of the tender infant Ernest, cooing with milk dribbling from his wee rosebud lips. The tiny child who’d morph into the barrel-chested man bursting with toxic masculinity.

I cannot not feel self-conscious about where I am. It’s difficult to process. I’ll probably sit bold upright in bed tonight and yell out I HAD ERNEST HEMINGWAY’S HOUSE TO MYSELF. Instead of setting a goal for my first visit, I’m absorbing like a sponge. If it were Woolf’s Charleston, Austen’s Chawton, or Faulkner’s Rowan Oak I’d be a puddle on the floor.

In Hemingway’s house, I can be sensible. Maybe it’s best I’m here instead? Said the woman who hasn’t been offered the other options. And I hear you saying you’d switch with me. Sorry, no dice.

I’ll take it.

The air freshener’s starting to give me a headache. I’m starving, but I’m not leaving for lunch, not squandering a minute. I’ll eat while I’m waiting out rush hour traffic later. Or on the way home. Food’s a secondary consideration; I can enjoy that anytime. What I can’t get anywhere else is the oppressive weight of this scent I’m trying without success to ignore. It’s to the point I have to ask what on earth they’re masking. Would Victorians have gagged their visitors with scented oils?

I think not.

I can hear the maintenance man’s wife on the phone, working I suppose. Her husband left for whatever his day job is. Maintenance here can’t be that demanding. I wasn’t paying attention, if he told me. The tour he gave was cursory, leading me through the upstairs rooms as a matter of course. He stopped by the room where Hemingway was born and said some people break down there, dissolving in tears, which he couldn’t understand. I understand it but it doesn’t move me to that extent, personally. The maintenance man isn’t a docent. He said he could make things up as we go if I’d like. That may have annoyed me, in another author’s house. No offense intended to Hemingway, but it doesn’t here.

Again, I’ll be back and I’ll have read more about the house before I am.

I’ve visited the Hemingway House before, taking the tour lead by an actual docent. I’m sure they were a decent docent. Do I remember much? Why, no. Afraid I don’t.

The kitchen. I could seriously use a snack.

I don’t worship at his altar but how can this not be affecting. Of course it is. If I were of the romantic sort, I’d wax lyrical about his spirit remaining embedded here. I am not romantic. A true thing: The Old Man and the Sea bored me to tears in high school. Nick Adams grabbed me marginally more. Hemingway is just so American. Unappealingly self-important, at least until you know more of his past. The bravado hid a little boy who never quite grew up, stunted by a painful childhood.

Raised by a cold mother, the little boy who pattered through this house felt unloved. He acted out. Kids do that when they’re trying desperately to win their parents’ attention. He grew up continuing to act out. Depression grabbed hold of his ankle and it never let go. Depression would kill him. It killed others in his family. A terrible legacy. Learning more about him hurt my heart. It also brought me to more of an apprecation of Hemingway the man. I couldn’t dismiss him anymore.

The library. Books are of the period, not original. Damn.
Some Very Serious Hemingways.

Matter-of-fact words, one true sentence after another. A form of greatness I appreciate only now – before sitting in his parlor, but only just. I’ve been aware of him a very long time but I am a Hemingway newcomer. I don’t have literary criticism to offer; I haven’t gotten that far. Bits and pieces, visits here, his home in Key West, Shakespeare & Co in Paris. Impressions, supplemented by Ken Burns and his brilliant documentary. I thought that would send more people clamoring here. Sounds like not, unfortunately. There’s a sign appealing for money in the front yard, next to the birthplace sign. Surely artsy Oak Park won’t let their hometown hero’s home run to ruin.

Dining room, Hemingway birthplace.

Along with Hemingway, Cather has recently crept back into my sphere of interest. Next week I’m visiting her home in Red Cloud, NE. What hath the pandemic wrought, that I’d settle on mid-America as my first trip after the country opened back up? I love the Pacific Northwest, love New England. I love/hate the South, home to my god Faulkner. But no, none of these tried and trues. But Cather. I stopped feeling the necessity of applying logic so long ago. It’s tedious and, frankly, who has time to care.

My familiarity with Cather surpasses my knowledge of Hemingway, but only just. I’ve read Death Comes for the Archbishop and My AntoniaMy Antonia twice. Her writing’s so quiet, as I recall. Modern like Hemingway’s, yet not identical. It needs a literature lover to appreciate the meaning of such a nonsensical sentence. If you’ve read this far, I can only assume you, dear reader, are at the very least sympathetic.

Sarah Orne Jewett convinced Cather to concentrate her books on the sphere she knew, as Jewett did herself with her native New England. As with Cather, I’ve read little of Jewett, finding her work slow-moving and, dare I say, of little interest. Jewett is a minor American writer. Did I get away with saying that? She is. Cather is greater. I’ve also visited Jewett’s house, by the way. I was on a family vacation and didn’t drag the kids in but we did poke around outside. I saved the inside visits for later in the trip, for Melville, Wharton, Twain, and Hawthorne.

All about pacing when dragging kids on literary excursions.

Haven’t had much time to connect the dots between Cather and Hemingway. I mean, aside from these twinned visits. It’s nothing I strategized, no big literary study plan. As long as I’m doing things directly related to them, seems to me I’d find interest researching how and if they connect.

Lo and behold, they do! Tenuously, but considering they were contemporaries and very high profile, unsurprising. Hemingway famously despised Cather’s description of WWI in her Pulitzer-winning One of Ours, claiming it was taken, scene by scene, from Birth of a Nation. For her part, Cather disliked usage of profanity in writing, something she could not admire in Hemingway. As for any other connection, that’s yet to be determined.

I’ll keep reading, keep indulging curiosity.

 

“Wasn’t that last scene in the lines wonderful? Do you know where it came from? The battle scene in Birth of a Nation. I identified episode after episode, Catherized. Poor woman, she had to get her war experience somewhere” (Selected Letters 105). – Ernest Hemingway

Thank you to the Hemingway Foundation, thanks to Karma or whatever’s aligned the stars in order for this to all come about. I’ll be back over the course of the year, though I’m not yet sure when. In any event, it’s been an extraordinary experience.

Becoming a bookseller and other bookish news

Just as nature abhors a vaccum, it would appear when I find a hole in my schedule I race to fill it. The 40-hour a week day job (which has, of late, required loads of off-the-clock time training to boost me toward the position I’m hoping to move into) requires lots of mental agility and leaves me mentally exhausted. I wasn’t searching for another job, though more money is always a good thing, didn’t feel pinched or desperate. Serendipity threw the chance to become a bookseller in my path.

In modern parlance, that’s your classic no-brainer. I interviewed, I nervously sweated it out, I GOT THE JOB! Are there sweeter words in the language, aside from I WON THE LOTTERY!, in which case I’d buy my own bookshop, hire other people to run it, then refuse to sell anything? I think not. Then, haven’t I described a private library, not a proper bookshop?

I want the slanting rays of dusty sunlight filtering into dark interior, the rich smell of old leather, solid oak shelving, leather armchairs holding customers I’d allow to hold the books and flip pages if nothing else. All the while, I’ll sit and glower at them. I do love a good glower. When they inquire about price, I’ll growl-yell YOU CAN’T AFFORD IT! Then I’ll slam something, as one does.

My fantasy, my rules. And it’s this one (below), in particular, I want. Located in Lewes, England, I was there in 2017. It is a 15th-Century building, the interior of which has such a low ceiling you often have to stoop not to brain yourself on the original beams. No photography is allowed. I behaved only because the owner bore an impressively ferocious manner. I model myself and all my life choices after him. He is my spirit animal.

I want his shop, crammed as it is from ceiling to floor. Until then, a pretty and much more modern indie bookstore for me.

Those luxurious gleaming gems called Saturday and Sunday, in my household, stretch long and unstructured. I luxuriate in them and don’t we all. While I could and do argue gifting yourself unstructured time to follow your passions is a well-deserved oasis in the barren desert that is adulthood, I do have an awful lot of farfed-away time to spare. Structuring some of that unstructured time actually leads me to greater productivity. I will fit things around committments. During the work week, I throw in laundry before work, empty and fill the dishwasher on breaks, take out the trash and vacuum the rugs, etc. I get shit done in short bursts. I do the meal delivery thing (Hungryroot!) to keep my scheduled meals healthy and varied, partly because it frees me not to have to think about cooking. I do enjoy making the occasional recipe I find in the Sunday New York Times, but that’s not a consistent interest. I’d rather spend the time the pre-cut, easily assembled meals are cooking to scan through Paris Review interviews, read my Literary Critic feed on Twitter, open that ARC just arrived from the publisher, skim through, and read Facebook posts. Things I’m less great about are keeping track of bills that are due (not auto-paid), scheduling doctor appointments, other stuff falling outside everyday tasks. I’ll admit that. Life shouldn’t be totally about lack of structure, but I argue it should revolve around it.

Bookselling is technically a job, and does take up time, but if I’m honest it’s time I can afford. The money pays my grocery bills; that’s much-appreciated. But it’s obviously not about that, either. I’m a degreed librarian unable to find a local full-time job in my field. Grateful for my day job, it’s clear that’s necessary but utilitarian. If I can’t work in a library, guess what’s equally fulfilling?

Exactly!

I’ve been at it just a week. Already, working with the public in this stage of a pandemic brings me face to face with issues public-facing workers have dealt with this past year. Some of it charms. Most people are empathetic and kind, interesting and occasionally amusing, but a smaller and louder portion remains belligerant. The vaccine holds huge promise, but this virus isn’t in the rear-view mirror and my store isn’t dropping the mask mandate. True, it’s not a legal issue and can’t be enforced as such. But it’s very much the right of a private business to set the rules. Once a customer steps through their doorway, a customer has essentially agreed to abide by the owner’s requests. A certain sector of the public finds that intrusive, most turning away at the door. It’s the ones that don’t that present a problem.

Welcome to life in 2021. Locked down over a year, it’s not unexpected but is eye-opening. That won’t rule my experiences, though. My love of bookselling and all that accompanies it looms far larger.

Watch this space!

Speaking of bookish committments, I’ve asked for and been granted a judging role in the 2021 Chicago Writers Association Literary Awards. Offered the option of traditionally or indie-published fiction or non-fiction, I went against my normal preferences and chose indie non-fiction. It’s no bad thing getting outside my niche, giving other people the thrill of receiving books from the Big Five: Penguin Random, Hachette, Harper Collins, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster. These five powerhouses own all the rest, every other big house. I revere them but don’t always admire their practices. There are loads of smaller presses out there – university and other – which also turn out an impressive list of titles. Graywolf and Coffee House, NYRB, Europa, and British publishers Persephone and Virago are some of my particular favorites, then Oxford University and other academics. These are also a force to be reckoned with.

I’ll receive a selection of books, narrowing them to the best. My top choices I’ll read deeply, passing along my verdict for final judging. It’s nowhere near as grueling as my stint as sole literary fiction judge for the IPPY (independent press) Awards, but no less an honor to have stood out in a crowd of applicants. I may attend if there’s an in-person ceremony. I’m not sure anyone knows how that will go.

Once again, other news has crowded out a post I’d meant to also encompass thoughts on books read and acquired, of which there have been a staggering number. Didn’t I declare, not long ago, my intention of slowing my book buying? Maybe I didn’t say it out loud. I don’t particularly want to be accountable when it comes to book whoring. The silent part’s been said out loud, cat’s out of the bag. I am an abysmal failure. More scary, my intention is to shift this behemouth ship’s course and focus in on more books recommended by indie sellers, somewhat outside my normal habit of skimming off the top of heavily literary writers I unashamedly favor. It’s become a necessity to acquire books influenced by booksellers. A necessity, I tell you!

Are you believe this? Buying it? Persuaded at all?

Buggery.

I do draw the line at books with pink covers, though. Sorry. No romances, either. I’ll read the best of genre fiction but when I start reading romances take that as an emergency signal I’m being held captive. Call the police to have me rescued, because I’ll have a gun held to my head.

Current reading and books acquired will have to wait for their own post, yet again. Between the new job, the judging, and upcoming writing-in-residence at Hemingway’s house, life’s busy. I’ve hit a wall, gone on long enough about peripheral book news. Some of the books are sitting next to me but it’s not just laziness keeping me from discussing them. It needs more space. I can use the time, anyway, to form thoughts in my tired brain.

Dinner tonight’s a Hungryroot stir-fry, chicken sausage and broccoli in some sort of sauce and accompanied by rice. And no, I’m not an affiliate. But wouldn’t that be great. Maybe I’ll show you, next time. Are you squandering prescious reading time cooking needlessly? There’s a fix for that.

Off you bugger and leave the books on your way out. You can’t hear it, but I’m slamming something quite loudly.

Well, now, 2021 is taking a turn for the better – it could hardly have been worse.

Miss a little, miss a lot around here, I guess?.

Where do I start? The new job as a bookseller, the upcoming inclusion of one of my interviews in a poetry textbook, or my upcoming writing-in-residence at the library of Hemingway’s Oak Park birthplace?

It’s as if life is attempting to make up for the suck-fest that was 2020, all the anxiety and grief it brought. Doing a right good job of that, I will say. It cannot replace what I’ve lost, or instantly cure the mental strain I’m starting to realize the extent of now that things are looking up pandemic-wise (how often does one get to say that), but I won’t give any of it back.

You can try prying it from my cold, dead but odds are not in your favor.

“Booksellers are the most valuable destination for the lonely, given the numbers of books that were written because authors couldn’t find anyone to talk to. – Alain de Botton

Let’s clarify: I am not quitting my day job for a bookselling gig. I only wish life were that perfect. The salary and benefits provided by a job in the finance sector pay for rent, food, utilities, and books. These things I cannnot live without. A few hours a week working in a charming indie bookshop, in a charming town, on an actual town square, is the reality. Anything over and above that is metaphorical gravy.

I’m an idea person, one obsessed with pitching a million project ideas to an employer – stretching myself thin with great enthusiasm, because potential. How ’bout I write a bit for you? Review? Interview? Attempt to pull strings and get a few writers to visit, zoom, interview via the new podcast I just recommended you start? How ’bout we raise your shop’s visibility?

How ’bout not, how ’bout you’re tiring me out and I’ll rescind that offer. It’s a gamble.

It’s a shop selling new books, which explains why they were hiring. It’s a lot tougher in the used book business, but thanks to grants and kind souls who’ve been supporting indie bookstores during the pandemic, this store has maintained near-status quo. And thank the gods for it.

I’m thrilled, they’re thrilled, WE ARE ALL THRILLED HERE! And I start next Saturday.

I’m a degreed librarian, have a lit degree, and of course do all this reviewing silliness. Once before, I was half of a used/rare online bookshop business. And I have returned to roost.

It’s almost like I’m singular-minded. Is that a bad thing? If you say yes, I won’t care, mind. Just throwing that out there.

The Square, Woodstock, IL

The Importance of Being Ernest

Writing from Hemingway’s… Yeah. A day here and there, over at least the next year, writing from Ernest Hemingway’s actual library in his actual birthplace in Oak Park, IL. I only hope I do the opportunity justice. Will I make it past looking at the titles on his shelves? It boggles.

I have no idea what I’m going to write but the time cannot be squandered. Do I write about Hemingway and his work? Do I write blog posts randomly raving about the experience?

DO I WRITE FICTION.

*Faints*

I’ll be there from 9 – 5 the days I’m visiting, breaking for lunch. I expect 9 – 12:00 will consist of open-mouthed gawping, followed by an hour for lunch, in which I shove food into my mouth very quickly so I can get back to the house. From 1:00 to 5:00 there’ll be mad capering, incorporating hysterical giggling, all the while dodging people there for tours. At least, I imagine they’ll still be open for business? I never asked.

Yoinked from hemingway birthplace site…

Hemingway has been taking up a lot of rent-free head space in my noggin this year. Odd, considering the amount of energy I’d devoted to him previously likely amounts to just a tad over what I’ve given him this January – May. I’ve not read a whole lot of his stuff, but I’ve visited his homes in Key West and Oak Park, as well as his haunt in Paris – Shakespeare & Co.

In college I read a few of his Nick Adams stories for a course in American Lit. I’d be lying if I said I was smitten. I grew up a Brit Lit afficianado, never too keen on American writers – beyond Faulkner (genuflect). Hemingway is so masculine, so spare, his prose style deceptively simple. The Old Man and the Sea was assigned in high school.

It bored me to tears. FFS, REEL IN THE GODDAMN MARLIN AND PUT ME OUT OF MY MISERY.

But, and it’s a big but, my opinion began to shift without even reading his stuff, just from what I read about the man. Then, the Ken Burns special totally ignited my interest. I can’t say RE-ignited, because there wasn’t much there to start. But even before this heart-stopingly wonderful opportunity, my thoughts had begun to turn toward Ernest.

More on that later.

Oh, where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?

Have you not heard about my interview with Billy Collins? That happened loads of years ago. Gosh, was it 2014?

It’s a marvelous story about what can happen when you act like you belong somewhere, advance yourself forward, and approach a former-Poet Laureate’s publicist with a request for an interview. I was not commissioned. I had no business whatsoever taking up his time. I had a blog and ambition.

I just wanted to talk to Billy Collins and write about it. Which I did. His publicist set up a time for him to call me. I pulled out my laptop, sweated out a few questions onto a legal pad, and I’m still amazed I had the guts to talk to him. Me! The ultimate introvert, terrified of the world. Once initiated, there was no way I was going back on this. He called, we talked, I typed it out and posted on my blog.

Two weeks later, I came home to a message on my answering machine (it was that long ago). It was an apologetic Billy Collins, calling to apologize for having missed our interview and offering to make it up to me. Missing our interview? I called him back. I had Billy Collins’s number on my ancient answering machine. It may still be sitting in my ex’s house somewhere, though he likely tossed the thing.

Anyway, I told him we’d already spoken. He replied, “How was I? Was it any good?”

I assured him it was, indeed, very good. Good enough for a publishing company to track me down, years later, and send me a contract requesting publication rights.

Tell me it gets any better than that. All the writers I’ve interviewed through the years, the self-pubbed, the Pulitzer and Booker winners and everyone in-between, and it’s this one that gets pulled and published. So far beyond appropriate, so fitting. So redemptive.

I’m amazed, humbled, thrilled to pieces. If I never accomplish anything else in my foray into writing, this is enough. A nobody like me, a redneck from Mississippi who endured a painful childhood so brutal I developed selective mutism. My only solace was books. I dreamed of writing, dabbled, edited my high school newspaper. I earned a BA in lit, after a dozen years raising children I was hired to work at a library, doing a job that terrified me – booking programs, announcing speakers, going onto write their PR, social media, and newspaper copy. Around the time I earned a library degree, I started reviewing. Paying it forward to a new writer, interviewing her for Public Libraries, she mentioned me in The New York Times. People saw it. Friends congratulated me before I’d seen it myself. I published lots of other places.

It’s not a high-profile career, not in the first tier. But it’s a part of my story and it’s pretty remarkable.

I suppose it’s a testament to my strength of will I survived the shit I did, ultimately regaining my voice and using it to approach Billy Collins and all who came after. It’s the power of books that did it. That first fall down the rabbit hole with Alice, the first proper, solo novel I read.

To perfectly round things out, I eventually saw Billy Collins live and in person. It was at the Woodstock Opera House, when he came for a reading. I could have approached him in person but didn’t I still regret that.

The last I saw of him, he was walking through the Woodstock Square, away from me, as I sat in the window of a restaurant having lunch with friends from the writing group I’d formed at the library I was working at. We’d attended the reading together. As they talked I watched his retreating back. He walked so slowly, I could have caught up to him. No doubt it was the charm of the town delaying him. If I could have that moment back, I’d go after him and tell him the story I know he’d forgotten all about.

I think he’d find this as amazing as I do, if he’s the person I believe him to be.

I believe he is that person.

2021, thanks for the blessings.

The joy of avoidance: what I think about when I think about not writing

Excuse number 85 to avoid writing: Spring Cleaning. I have four ASAP review books in the queue; avoidance is strong with this one.

How many believe writing is exciting and invigorating, a joy like no other? You people are messed up. How quickly the adrenaline rush fades once the review copy arrives or project is given the green light. Sitting down to the computer, I question all the life choices leading up to this moment. WTF was I even thinking. It is a misery! A scourge! Ten cups of coffee and a few days (okay, weeks, shut it) later, piece submitted and turned around, it’s only then the heart of the Grinch grows three sizes.

Show me a man who declares an undying love of writing and I’ll point accusingly at James Patterson, whore of the printed page. He loves it because he doesn’t write his own shit. I could love that, too. You write it, then give me the money. Just put my name in the larger font.

Writing sucks, my friend. Two-thirds of the furrows on my brow come from the agony of forcibly pulling words out of my brain. There are rope burns on my fingers, scratches in the corners of rooms streaked with blood from my clawing, wails of despair echoing.

Save yourselves! Fly, fools!

Thus, the appeal of distraction. The pit known as my walk-in closet has been taunting and jeering, its great dark maw exhaling humid breath, uttering guttural and menacing strangling sounds. That, or I have apnea.

In another deep storage closet sit seven huge plastic bins containing my books, hundreds of them absorbing toxic plastic odors. The plan is to line one wall in my walk-in bedroom closet with bookshelves – three six-foot tall, five-shelf units. I may stick a chair in there once it’s done, roll out a carpet and imagine it’s my stately manor house. I need only a print of a roaring fire in a stone hearth that rolls down from the ceiling. I shall loftily refer to it as my Library, gesturing vaguely and gazing into the distance like an 18th-century fop. A 21st Century bluestocking squirelled away, admiring her wealth.

Fop, looking on.

Pulling out all the clothing and miscellany from the walk-in triggered overwhelming anxiety, as nearly everything does in The Time of the Pestilence. My bed positively sagging from the weight, hangers and bags spilled onto the floor. I had to have a lie down on my grievously short loveseat, bought sight-unseen and in a rush, to plot my course. I decided to approach it scientifically. Pick up one item, decide what to do with it, then do the thing.

Brilliance.

Hanging and arranging all the clothes, I realized it wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked. I’m still doubtful I have need of so many things but, in my defense, I culled two garbage bags’ worth of clothing for donation. Once I’d hauled out the laundry, I was able to measure for a dresser and aforementioned bookshelves. Three white particle board units, one cloth-drawered and metal framed dresser.

Thanks, internet!

Small-space organizing is fast becoming my forte; I thrive in these impossibly-small apartments, not that I don’t long for space. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t covet a spare room office. But if there’s an award for cramming crap I’d run away with it. Moving from my last place was a clown car gag personified. I never studied physics but I’m pretty sure I defied all its laws.

It takes ingenuity but there are ways to fit an enormous amount of unnecessary crap into the smallest of spaces. I should start my own HGTV show, a companion series to my earlier idea for a program about decorating I called ‘Good Enough’. Screw sticking out of that shelf on your cheap-ass bookcase? Bedframe duct taped to the headboard?

GOOD ENOUGH! Filmed in front of a live audience.

I never took home repair and improvement that seriously, partly because I used to think I’d eventually find some poor sod to shack up with, a man to rescue me from Herculean tasks – like putting up curtains and leveling pictures. Now I just gouge holes in the wall and slap shit up; spackle is my best friend. Post-pandemic, the idea of pursuing a relationship shifted. Not only have I become completely intolerant of other people, my life’s settling into a fixed routine I don’t want anyone else disturbing. Ironic I’ve had relationships end for exactly that reason.

The irony boggles.

Relationships just plain suck. They’re as bad as writing, just more agonizing. In theory, two people meet and join hands then run through a field of flowers together, laughing in warm-fuzzy joy. In practice, all sours and goes south, ending in a fiery ball of hatred and resentment. The same people who believe writing is a gift from the heavens probably think the same of love.

I’ve become a grumpy spinster. Does it show? I am Miss Havisham, without the rats. (Note: I’ve moved beyond High Lockdown protocol. I now shower regularly and since my hair has finally met professional scissors it’s not a knotted mess. I don’t wear the same clothing through the day, overnight, then through the next day nearly as often. And this hardly sounds redeeming, does it). I like some things a certain way and it is driving me mad not everything has its place but, as this weekend illustrates, I’m accomplishing fixes.

There are rent-a-husbands now, apps you can use to hire people to do annoying crap like hang curtains and fix walls after you’ve tunneled into the drywall, leaving gaping holes and generally making a royal of mess of things. The money you pay is justified by the satisfaction of shit getting done by someone who knows what they’re doing. Best of all, when it’s over you wave them goodbye. All the muscle, none of the irritation of stumbling over them the rest of the time.

Bitter? Me? Why yes. Yes, I am. Unashamedly and justifiably so.

I may not have actively chosen the life I have, but I do now embrace it. That’s much healthier than railing against it, trying to force fate into conforming with my idea of how things should be. Relationships don’t come naturally to me. I’m introverted, raised without benefit of an example of how healthy relationships work. Ask anyone who’s tried getting close to me – they’ll tell you gladly and with great animation. Probably swear-ily. Definitely swear-ily.

In my defense, lack of good judgement paired me with some outrageously incompatible partners. Destined for failure, each of them. I can see that, in hindsight. For better or worse, I am an introverted creative. Like a lot of introverted creatives, my early years were staggeringly dysfunctional. It’s how I came to be what I am, though I hate hearing creativity is worth the trade-off of a stable early life.

Is it? Is it really? That’s a high price.

When you’re given a set of circumstances, acceptance is the key to contentment. I don’t feel like I’m missing out. Bad relationships are toxic, far more damaging than no relationship at all. The pandemic reinforced what I already knew: I prefer the world to remain OUT THERE, to visit it when I feel like it but otherwise lock my door against it. It’s rich inside; I have all I need. Stuff gets a little crazy, often haphazard, but I built it to my own specifications.

All that matters is it has good bones.

Duty calls. I have a review that needs writing; this diversion has reached its end, like all good things.

Ah, to leave the house, now that April’s here

Welcome to April. Mid-April, by now. Blink and a month’s gone by – so different from 2020, when every day was a slow slog through molasses. Have you noticed the shift? By the time I noted it, four months had passed. I didn’t even start my 2021 journal until February, what with the move back to my previous apartment complex and nervously breaking down and all.

Always budget time for hysteria. It’s so much more efficient than winging it.

And, while I realize the pandemic is far from over, being fully-vaxxed feels hopeful. Me. Feeling hopeful. What will be next? Keep your expectations low: I’m a curmugeonly, middle-aged crab and avowed singleton, disillusioned with relationships – Newsflash: DARCY ISN’T REAL – wondering if she’ll ever settle in one place longer than a year, unpacking and re-packing books and scattering belongings all over the Chicago metro area.

Hopeful about what, you may ask. That my share of life adventures isn’t depleted, maybe? That I’ll find the courage to travel again, within the States at first, then hopefully back to the UK for a visit in a year or two. Hell, I’d be happy with crossing the parking lot minus the need to mentally brace a day or two before. If the weather’s nice, I’d like to take short-hop getaways. One-hundred percent of therapists agree recovery is all about exposure to anxiety-provoking actions in a slow, measured way.

Or maybe I made it up. Whatever. Fight me.

First haircut and color in over a year! Huzzah!

Review pile is growing by leaps and bounds; it’s gotten way out of control. Hitting that “Request” button is the most exercise I’ve gotten in months; it’s intoxicating. I went a little nuts, now the FedEx man is like a family member. A family member I peer at though the blinds on my front door. Which is the best way to deal with all family members, to be fair.

I am a hermit: same pre-pandemic Lisa, now with more hysteria. I had to open the door to UPS last week to take delivery of a book, otherwise he’d have taken it to the local drop point. Learned my lesson last week when I had to go OUT THERE to fetch a package because apparently UPS is too good to leave it at my door.

W the actual F.

Last Friday I went to stock up on groceries. I’m surprised no one called the authorities on me – animal control, specifically. A hissing opposum in social situations, when my personal space is violated I growl GET AWAY FROM ME through my mask. Fair warning: my personal space extends to a 20-foot radius. Do you live in the Chicago metro area and have you had a rabies vaccine. Ask yourself these questions, plan accordingly

One man, insistent on reaching past me multiple times for his eggs or milk or whatever the hell I was blocking, nearly had his head gnawed off. Improbable I was in his way so many times. I mean, I shot across the store like a laser show at a Coldplay concert. This was no calm, orderly shopping trip. Either he’s as messed up as I am (in which case, he ought to be locked up) or mistook my bulging eyes and panting breaths for sexual attraction.

Not bloody likely, Skippy.

Never make eye contact. Ever. This is the first rule of Pestilence Etiquette, coming on the heels of stay the fuck away. He being In direct violation of same, I’d have been well within my rights to ram him with my cart. Instead, I retreated to the corner, hyperventilating, as I contemplated leaving my shopping behind and subsisting solely on the beans and other emergency food sitting in my pantry since last March. Only my desire for fresh produce and dairy prevented me bolting.

Reader, I made it out, but not before attracting the suspicion of every other person in the store.

I’d like to take this opportunity to brag a bit about my industry. To brag, and show off my pushing past a complete lack of spatial logic to assemble this:

Isn’t she lovely?

I took six months pulling out and shelving all my books in my last place and by that time I was halfway through my lease. Though I hope to stay here longer than a year, my track record suggests otherwise. Time is clearly of the essence. Two other identical bookshelves are in my LR, destined to bookend my bed. Shelving in my walk-in closet should make a cozy niche. Throw a chair in there and a bag of snacks and it’s a weekend destination. Then, the wall adjacent to my work desk should hold two six-footers.

And Bob’s your uncle, signalling time to pack up and move to the next place if the past is any indication.

I hope it’s no indication.

Meanwhile, the FedEx man circles the parking lot as a dog barks in the distance.

Slumber, Awakening, and Sylvia Plath

I don’t know what snapped within me, but I’ve undergone a sea change over the past week or two. Approaching the one-year anniversary of this pandemic shite raising its ugly head, looking back over almost 365 of the worst days of all our lives, there’s finally light at the end of the tunnel. The vaccine is here, it appears to be working. Is that precipitating the seismic shift?

Dunno.

Could also be running out of Xanax.

The phase I’m in is decidedly hypomanic: a period of increased interest and activity following a Disney-princess slumber – the duration of which I don’t even know, truthfully. I don’t keep track of moods. Maybe I should. I don’t.

When did books last provoke a lustful response beyond “that sounds mildly interesting, perhaps one day I’ll care enough to read it,” I have no answer. When was my last big Amazon book binge? Half Price Books trip?

Before this week, no idea. I haven’t given a shit in the longest time.

American poet Sylvia Plath with that absolute dick of an English poet, Ted Hughes.

Could be Sylvia Plath what done it. I picked up a bio of her at random and started reading. Astonished by the extent of her outrageously out-sized battles with mental illness, suddenly there was a spark where there hadn’t been in so, so long. I felt for her, in her crushing depression and suicidal ideation, her dark nights of the soul leading to multiple and nearly-successful attempts at self-destruction.

Her story resonates.

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Sylvia Plath lead, if not a wild life, at least one filled with love affairs and experimentation. While pursuing her education and building her CV, she swung from man to man looking for an appropriate husband. The one thing she held sacred in her soul was writing.

Then, god help her, Ted Hughes. I’m not sure I mentioned he was a bit of a prick? Because he was a bit of a prick. A genius poet, but a bit of a prick.

Who doesn’t know Plath committed suicide by asphyxiation, sticking her head in a gas oven? Distraught over that prick Ted Hughes (fight me) and his inability to keep his pants zipped, the blatant flaunting of his affair shattered whatever sanity she had in reserve. Left back in England with two small children to care for, while Ted was off in Spain screwing German poet Assia Wevill (who, and this is supremely ironic if you don’t already know, in turn committed suicide the exact same way Sylvia had, tragically taking their four-year-old daughter with her) Sylvia cracked in half for the last time.

Of course, this is all gross simplification of Sylva Plath’s life, influence, and what shoved her off the cliff. The point is, she made me care. Her life was short and she suffered terribly. But she left behind so much beauty, didn’t she?

I’m going to finish this biography, dip into her journals and poetry, and most likely read another recently-released biography of Sylvia Plath recommended by a friend. Then, if I’m still in the mood, read The Bell Jar, her thinly-fictionalized novel about a suicidal woman gone mad.

Then, I may read something else.

Good morning.

Sylvia Plath Quotes On Death. QuotesGram